That’s how Cory Stillman described last season for the Panthers. He could have chosen the same words to describe his first year with the team.
The veteran forward, who arrived in South Florida as a two-time Stanley Cup winner, started off his 14th season of NHL hockey on a tear, scoring nine points (five goals) in the first 10 games. Stillman was cruising until a concussion knocked him off his skates in November for nearly six weeks.
But the 35-year-old, who will help the Panthers open the season this weekend in Helsinki in consecutive games against the Blackhawks, is rested, healthy and looking forward to helping a promising Panthers team to the playoffs.
“We’re definitely looking for bigger and better things this year,” Stillman said. “We made strides last year. Obviously, anytime you miss the playoffs you can’t say it’s a great year. But I think we learned a lot last year with the new players and new system and we’re ahead of where we were last season.”
Stillman, who won consecutive Stanley Cup in 2004-06 with Tampa and Carolina, signed as a free agent last summer with the Panthers to provide offense and veteran leadership. He didn’t disappoint. He finished the season third in scoring (49 points), second in assists (32) and tied for third in power-play goals (8). Stillman accomplished those numbers despite playing only 63 games after suffering a concussion Nov. 2 in Atlanta.
While Stillman did miss time in previous seasons after undergoing two shoulder surgeries, it was his first time having to sit out do to a concussion. He admits it was frustrating.
“There were a lot of things about (the concussion),” Stillman recalled. “That’s my first major concussion. You forget things. Things irritate you. You come to the rink every day and you’re a little better but they ask, ‘Do you have a headache?’ And if you do, that’s it. You can’t ride the bike, you can’t work out. Usually, with injuries, if you have a lower body injury the strength coach has you working your upper body and still staying ahead of the game. If you have a shoulder injury you’re still running and riding the bike. When you have a concussion, you shut the body right down.
“It was a hard thing to go through. People think you miss six weeks and come back and play. But it takes longer than those six weeks when you haven’t been allowed to do anything. But I’m not making excuses. That’s just the way it is when you’ve been sitting.”
Stillman, who could be playing alongside winger Michael Frolik and center Steven Reinprecht at the start of the season, returned to South Florida this summer and organized unofficial practices beginning in August at incredible ICE. The Peterborough, Ontario native said his excitement to play hasn’t changed as he prepares to enter his 15th season.
“Once I got to (28 years of age) I got a different (off-season) program,” he said. “I have a strength coach and I go back and see him every year. I think the biggest thing is you don’t take as much time off now as you did when you were 18 or 19. You don’t jump back so quickly. But the training program stays the same and the good side is I still have the excitement. I want to get back to the rink. I want to play. I want to have fun doing it and I think that’s the biggest key.”
The key for the Panthers this season, Stillman believes, is to prevent any of the ups-and-downs they suffered through last season, including a six-game losing streak in October and November and a four-game skid in March.
“I think for a team that misses the playoffs, it’s learning to do the right things night in and night out. And you know what? If you can do that, if you don’t have the peaks and valleys of losing seven or eight, if you can shorten those down to not having more than two game losing streaks, you’ll see a bigger climb in the standings and then you’re a playoff team.”