The same week Anthony Stewart accepted his qualifying offer to spend another year as a Panther, the 6-2 right winger said, “It’s a make or break year for me.”
“And if it doesn’t happen,” he added, “it will all be on my shoulders.”
Stewart, a first-round pick (25th overall) in 2003, has been a bit of an enigma. In the words of GM Jacques Martin, Stewart has “great skating ability and he’s a big, strong man.” He also scored 30 goals three times in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). But Stewart hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup here in South Florida the past three years. In fact, he was recalled from the Panthers’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., seven times last season.
“A lot of guys have been traded after a year of disappointments,” Stewart said. “I’m going into my fourth year and I’m not where I want to be, so it motivates me to be that much better and be that much more successful.”
And, Stewart admits, he’s “definitely happy to get one more crack at it.”
In an effort to make the team out of training camp, Stewart is spending his summer working out in South Florida, something he hasn’t done before in his short career.
“I’m down here committed to making the team,” said Stewart, who had an assist in 26 games with the Panthers last season. “It’s July and I got two months to get ready.”
Last season, Stewart recalled, he didn’t get to South Florida until two weeks before training camp. Some questioned his training and fitness, including Martin. That won’t happen this year.
“You know, they can tell me what to do, but if they’re not supervising me it’s hard to know what to do,” he said. “They’ve told me to do certain things. It didn’t work out last year so we’ll try something else. Now I’ll come down here. They said, ‘We’ll keep tabs on you,’ and that way I’m close and they can see where I’m at.
“I’m putting my faith in the organization. I’m going to work hard and we’ll go from there. I’m still excited about putting on the jersey and I’m eager to work and show I’m committed.”
Martin believes Stewart has matured and has a better understanding that he controls his destiny.
“He realizes this is a key season for him,” Martin said. “He’s got to be in the best condition he’s ever been and it’s kind of a new beginning. He can take the lessons he’s learned the past three years and be prepared to earn a spot in camp.”
When asked why he qualified Stewart, Martin replied; “As an organization, we’ve invested money and time with Anthony and it’s to our benefit that he succeeds.”
“We want him to achieve his goal, and his goal is to play in the NHL,” he added. “I think he just has to understand what it takes to play at the next level, and that’s what the AHL is for. You work on skill and it gives you time to mature. Every night you’re going to be in a battle and every night you have to be committed to yourself and your teammates. It’s not easy, but if you want to be successful you have to pay the price. You hope in the last three years Anthony has leaned and he comes to camp and shows us that he’s ready to play in the NHL.”
In the words of Stewart, “It’s gut check time.”
“I’ve got to be the guy who’s first in the forecheck and uses my size as much as possible and try to be intimidating,” he said. “I’m happy I took my qualifying offer. It wasn’t about money or where I should be or where I’m not.
“I want to play, and whatever it takes to be on the team I’m willing to do.”