Rocco Grimaldi is in a good place right now.
After bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL earlier this season, the Florida Panthers forward prospect is just now beginning to hit his stride as he works to improve his game while playing an important role for the team’s minor-league affiliate in Portland.
A second-round pick (33rd overall) of the Panthers in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Grimaldi currently ranks second on the Pirates in points (29) while notching a career-high 15 goals in 42 games this season.
“I think it’s just confidence,” Grimaldi recently told FloridaPanthers.com when asked about his stellar play as of late. “I’ve been feeling good the last 5-10 games here. It’s nice to produce and it’s nice that the goals are starting to fall in. Once you start scoring like that, I guess you build a little more confidence and start shooting the puck a little more. Hopefully they’re going to keep going in for me.”
In the midst of his second professional season, Grimaldi was initially projected to make the Panthers opening-night roster before sustaining a minor injury in the preseason. Once healthy, the 23-year-old quickly grew accustomed to a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, bouncing between Portland and Sunrise a total of five times before finally settling down for an extended stay with the Pirates.
This newfound consistency, Grimaldi says, has played a major role in stoking the flames of his current hot streak.
“I think it’s good to be in one place for a long time,” said Grimaldi, whose current stint with the Pirates began on Dec. 21. “It’s tough going up and down and having different roles and different linemates and things like that. It’s nice to be in one place for a long time.”
That being said, Grimaldi also knows that the next NHL opportunity is only a phone call away for a player in his position. He’s already competed in 21 games over parts for two seasons for the Panthers, registering two goals and an assist, and is one of the organization’s more-seasoned prospects.
Having already gone head-to-head with some of the best hockey players in the world, Grimaldi, who stands 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds, believes that although he still has some work to do, he’s already shown the ability to play beyond his size and compete at the game’s highest level.
“I learned that I should produce a little more,” Grimaldi said of his time in the NHL. “I obviously didn’t have the stats that I wanted to have when I was there. I had some chances and things like that. I was working hard and doing good things, but, obviously, sometimes stats tell the story to a lot of people. They don’t see the little things, so I’ve just got to go out, produce and bury [the puck] when I get chances.”
As he continues to walk the line between AHL prospect and NHL regular, there are few players on the Panthers who better understand Grimaldi’s current situation than his longtime friend, Vincent Trocheck, who followed a similar up-and-down path to the NHL before earning a full-time roster spot with the Panthers this season.
“Mentally, it’s kind of tough,” said Trocheck, who has known Grimaldi since the two played pee wee hockey together for the famed Little Caesars amateur hockey program in Detroit. “The goal is to be [in the NHL]. If you’re not, and kind of on that bubble, there are somethings that go into it and it’s not always your play. It’s tough to deal with, but it’s just something you can’t really focus on. You’ve got to play as hard as you can when you’re [in the AHL].
“If you play well, if you’re good enough, if you’re doing all the right things, you’re going to get noticed. If he continues to play hard, I’m sure he’ll be here.”
As for Grimaldi, he’s no longer concerning himself with thoughts of when his next call-up will come, choosing instead to focus on how he is playing rather than where he is playing.
“I’m happy being successful wherever I’m at,” Grimaldi said. “I’ve just got to focus on me right now and to help our team win in whatever I can because if I’m playing my best, I can obviously help our team. I’m just working on getting better each day.”