In the midst of his first full season with the Florida Panthers, defenseman Alex Petrovic has quickly become an important physical presence for a talented defensive corps that is currently allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL.
A second-round pick, 36th overall, of the Panthers in the 2010 NHL Draft, Petrovic has registered five points, 81 hits, 22 blocked shots and 16 penalty minutes in 28 games this season.
Unlike many of his teammates, however, Petrovic’s journey to the NHL wasn’t a quick one. The 23-year-old blueliner had to first compete in 144 games over four seasons in the American Hockey League before finally being recalled permanently by the Panthers on Jan. 28, 2015.
Recently, FloridaPanthers.com’s Jameson Olive sat down with Petrovic to discuss everything from his improved defensive play to whether or not the first-place Panthers have what it takes to make a deep playoff run this season.
OLIVE: At this time last year you were still down in the AHL waiting for another shot with the Panthers. Now that you’ve finally established yourself as a full-time NHL player, how do you look back on what has certainly been a wild year for yourself?
PETROVIC: It’s been great. I think as a group we’ve been playing unreal lately and that’s been good enough to get us into first place. It’s a dream come true. I was already was up here a few times before last season and had some games under my belt, so it’s just been about just being a steady 5-6 guy this season. I think I’ve been doing that and playing pretty solid lately by contributing with all the little things that I do like being physical and playing good defense. Overall, I think I’m right where I want to be.
OLIVE: Going into this season it looked like it was going to be a battle between you and Steven Kampfer for that sixth spot on defense. When the organization decided to give you that spot to start the season, how much added pressure did you put on yourself not to relinquish it?
PETROVIC: I think everyone on the backend pushes each other. You want to keep getting better. I think it helps to watch different guys in order to push yourself. It doesn’t matter whoever is in the lineup on any given night, we’re all pretty solid and we all do a pretty good job. It’s good to push each other.
OLIVE: I know you’d never describe yourself as an offensive-minded defenseman, but after competing in 74 games in the NHL without a goal, how much are you itching to find the back of the net?
PETROVIC: I’ve been itching here for the last… Well, the whole season [laughs]. I’ve been trying to jump up in plays and get some pucks on net. If it goes in, it goes in. If not, well, I mean it’s more Ek and Soup’s job to score goals. I’d love to get more goals, but I like to do the little things well and focus on shutting down other team’s top lines.
OLIVE: In recent weeks, you’ve been sharing the blue line with veteran defenseman and team captain Willie Mitchell. What have you been able to learn from him in just that short period of time?
PETROVIC: Mitchey is just so structured. After almost every shift we’ll get off the ice and start going over what we did well to what we did bad positionally. In the offensive zone you can get away with cheating or being a little more creative, but in the defensive zone you have to have a lot of structure, and Mitchey really harps on that stuff. He teaches you a lot of little things like where you want to be on the ice and how to position your stick. It’s a lot stuff of that maybe fans don’t always see. It can sometimes look like you’re not doing much out there, but if you’re in the right spot the puck will eventually come to you.
OLIVE: It was also recently announced that general manager Dale Tallon has signed a three-year extension to remain with the Panthers and continue a rebuild that he started in 2010. As a member of Tallon’s inaugural draft class, how have you seen this organization change since his arrival?
PETROVIC: He’s been outstanding. In the past he’s built championship teams and everyone in the room has complete confidence in him. He’s really smart and knows what he’s doing. He had a little bit of patience with me during my years in the AHL, but I think those years helped me a lot. That’s where he really comes out. He’s smart that way. He doesn’t bring up guys and put them in bad positions. He can tell whether to keep a guy up or put him down for a season or two. He holds you accountable for everything. He’s a really good general manager and it’s showing with how well we’re doing right now.
OLIVE: Off the ice, you’ve been living in an apartment complex near the arena with several other players such as Logan Shaw and Quinton Howden. What has it been like living in what could essentially be called the Panthers dormitory?
PETROVIC: It’s been great for the last couple years. All of the guys that get called up hang out around there. It’s good team bonding, but I’d rather all of us be in Fort Lauderdale with the rest of the team.
OLIVE: While we’re talking about life off the ice, how do you like to spend your free time in South Florida?
PETROVIC: I like to shop and walk around a lot.
OLIVE: Are there any places in particular that you like to go?
PETROVIC: The Galleria is a pretty good place to hang out. We also like to go to the Boca Mall a lot. Honestly, you just never want to get stuck in your apartment just sitting around. It’s too nice out. I know there are guys up North that are stuck inside and miserable.
OLIVE: So you haven’t picked up any South Florida hobbies like surfing or fishing?
PETROVIC: Not yet. I want to try surfing, but I don’t think it’s smart during the season. Your muscles are little tight and you don’t want to pull anything [laughs]. Mitchey likes to fish a lot, but I haven’t been out with him yet. I’m still waiting for the invite on that.
OLIVE: You may have to wait a while to get up on a surfboard if the Panthers keep playing as well as they have been in recent weeks. In your opinion, does this team have what it takes to make a deep run in the playoffs this season?
PETROVIC: Oh yeah. I said at the beginning of the year that I thought we could be first in the division and look where we are now. We’re right there and everyone in this locker room has that confidence. We’re going to keep it rolling and everyone is feeling good about themselves. We’re not just sitting there, you know? We’re always improving and trying to do those little things. You always see Jagr and Barky out there doing different little drills to get better. I think everyone is following the same suit. Everyone wants to keep getting better and not get complacent.