SUNRISE, Fla. - In some ways, Matt Kiersted was always destined to be a Panther.
As a kid growing up in Elk River, Minnesota, Kiersted said it was former Panther Mark Parrish - a fellow native of the North Star State and friend of the family - that first convinced his parents to let him and his two brothers, Mitch and Drew, lace up their skates and pick up a hockey stick.
And shortly after putting pen to paper on a two-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers on Thursday, Kiersted posted an old baby photo of himself sporting a Parrish jersey on Twitter.
"My mom actually kind of dug that up from when I was little," Kiersted said of the picture during a Zoom teleconference on Friday afternoon. "That's a Mark Parrish jersey I was wearing. He was a Minnesota guy, and my dad was buddies with him. He was the one that kind of talked my parents into letting my older brother play hockey, and then we kind of followed from there."
With his career in hockey serendipitously leading him back to the Panthers, Kiersted now hopes to eventually skate on the same ice as Parrish - who played in Florida from 1998-00 - once did.
"I think I'm ready to make that jump to the NHL," Kiersted said. "I went through the process last year and kind of had some doubts that maybe I'm not ready and decided to go back to school for my senior year, but having an extra year to develop in college now I think I'm ready to jump."
One of the most coveted free agents coming out of the NCAA ranks, Kiersted led the University of North Dakota's defensemen in scoring with 22 points (three goals, 19 assists) in 29 games as a senior this season and finished as runner-up for NCHC Defensive Defenseman of the Year.
A 2020-21 NCHC First Team All-Star, Kiersted appeared in 127 career games over the course of his four seasons with UND, producing 77 points (20 goals, 57 assists) in that span. In 2019-20, he was named as finalist for NCHC Offensive Defenseman of the Year after finishing third among the nation's defensemen with 29 points (six goals, 23 assists) over 33 games played.
If it wasn't already pretty obvious given the fact that he was contention for both offensive and defensive accolades during his collegiate career, Kiersted is strong on both sides of the puck.
"I see myself as a two-way defenseman," Kiersted said. "I like to play on both ends of the puck, but I like to play from the defensive zone on out, staying under the puck and jumping up in the play and joining in on offense when I can. That's one of the things with Florida and why I decided it was the best fit for me, it's kind of the system they play. They ask a lot out of their D-men. Just watching the game, you see D-men producing, joining the rush and adding offense."
Known for his exceptional skating ability and stickwork in the defensive zone, Kiersted, who stands 6-foot and 175 pounds, was passed over during his first year of eligibility for the NHL Draft in 2016. Then, the following season, a lower-body injury ended that dream altogether.
Despite not hearing his name called, Kiersted said he took that disappointment and molded it into a giant chip on his shoulder. Sure, he was denied one path to the NHL, but that didn't mean he couldn't go on and forge his own a different way. If he wanted to get there, it was left up to him.
"It doesn't really sit well," Kiersted said of going undrafted. "You see your buddies and guys you play against going in the draft, and you get passed up, it's tough. But the support around me was great at the time. Just keep playing, keep pressing through. At North Dakota, the coaches there helped me a lot and helped me develop during my four years there. Now to have the opportunity to be where I'm at now, it's a pretty special feeling."
Courted by multiple teams after his career at UND came to an end with a thrilling 3-2 loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA Tournament - a game that started on Saturday, but ended on Sunday after lasting five overtimes - Kiersted said he took some time to weigh all of his options.
After being passed over in the draft multiple times, he was now a hot commodity.
"It's been a lot of phone calls," Kiersted said. "It was a good amount of teams that we had to narrow down, and it wasn't easy. It was a tough process. It's a good problem to have, I guess."
Of course, he ultimately ended up choosing the Panthers.
"It's been pretty crazy, but I'm happy with my decision [to join] Florida," said Kiersted, who was sold on the organization both due to the opportunity he'd receive and the 'personality' of the staff. "I don't think I could be any more happy or excited to be here and joining the group."
Already in South Florida and going through COVID-19 protocols, Kiersted, who is "just kind of cooped up" in his hotel room, hopes to join the Panthers soon. And even though he's not sure exactly when he'll step on the ice, he's been told he'll spend the rest of the season in Sunrise.
Hoping to work his way into the lineup before the season ends, Kiersted, who is set to turn 23 on April 14, is looking to make a very strong first impression the moment he arrives at the rink.
"I'm going to have to approach it my own way and work my own way into the lineup," Kiersted said. "I don't think they're going to give me anything right away. I'm just hoping to show what I got when I finally practice with the guys and hopefully catch some attention and work my way into that roster spot."