The depth within the Florida Panthers organization has been tested early and often this season as injuries to key players has resulted in several of the team’s top prospects being recalled from the Portland Pirates (AHL) in recent weeks.
“We talk about our depth all the time and I think there’s five or six guys we can call up on a regular basis and shouldn’t miss a beat,” head coach Gerard Gallant said before the team embarked on its current three-game road trip to the West Coast. “That’s what you need. That’s what every team needs during the season sometimes. It’s part of hockey and part of the organization growing and getting better.”
Under Gallant’s watch, the Panthers have adopted a next-man-up mentality as the team turns to recently recalled forwards Rocco Grimaldi and Garrett Wilson to reinforce their depleted lineup.
“Getting called up is definitely a dream of mine,” said Wilson, who was recalled on Nov. 2. “This is where I want to be so I have to play my game, hopefully make an impact and chip in offensively. It’s nice to get the opportunity, I just have to take full advantage of it.”
A fourth-round pick (107th overall) in the 2009 NHL Draft, Wilson has competed in five games over parts of two seasons for the Panthers, recording no points while averaging 9:39 of ice time.
“I learned that I can play here,” Wilson said of his two previous stints in the NHL. “That was always a knock on me. In the last couple stints, seeing that I can keep up and can play in this league is definitely a confidence booster. Now, I’m starting to get more comfortable and feeling a lot more confident being up here.”
A standout player during training camp, the 24-year-old believes that he “just fell short” of landing a spot on the Panthers’ opening-night roster, but never got discouraged as he patiently waited in the minors for his number to be called.
“When you see other guys going up it motivates you,” said Wilson, who notched four assists in seven games for Portland this season. “I didn’t get discouraged or anything like that. I just stuck with it and stayed positive and knew that my chance was coming.”
A second-round pick (33rd overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft, Grimaldi, who appeared in seven regular-season games for the Panthers last season, also had NHL aspirations during training camp before suffering an injury during a pre-season victory over the Dallas Stars on Sept. 22.
Down but not out, a now-healthy Grimaldi is ready to hit the restart button on his rookie season as he attempts to turn his current stint with the Panthers into a full-time job.
“I’m using this as an opportunity and not looking it as anything but that,” said Grimaldi, who was recalled on Oct. 31. “There’s a lot of guys coming up from Portland, which speaks to the depth of the organization and how many good players that we have and how many guys that can be here full time. That makes it more fun. It makes it more of a competition. I know it pushes me to work harder to beat somebody out for a spot.”
For Grimaldi, his recall couldn’t have come at a better time as it gives the Rossmoor, Calif., native a chance to play in front of a sizeable amount of family and friends during Florida’s three-game tilt in the Golden State.
And although several members of his immediate family might be called to Oklahoma to be with his sister, Nicole, as she gives birth, it doesn’t sound as though Grimaldi will have too many left over tickets.
“I’ve got one set of grandparents coming to Anaheim and the other set coming to Los Angeles,” said Grimaldi, who netted his first goal of the season against the Ducks on Wednesday. “I’ll have some friends and family in addition to the guys that have trained me my whole life in hockey. It’s great to play in front of them. It’s there moment as well because they helped get me here.”