The last time Radek Dvorak was wearing a Panther jersey he was a quiet 22-year-old kid with a perpetual grin on his face still trying to find himself.
Seven years later, Dvorak returns to the Panthers a 12-year veteran ready to help lead the team back to the playoffs.
“The team in Florida is a good team,” said Dvorak, 30, after signing a two-year deal July 1 with the Panthers. “We have a very good chance to go far this year. I know how it feels to go to the finals, and I think we have a great team to do that.”
Ironically, Dvorak, speaking while vacationing in Spain, got his first taste of the Stanley Cup as a member of the Panthers. In his first year in the NHL after being drafted 10th overall by the Panthers, Dvorak was a wide-eyed, 18-year-old treated to the frenzy of being a member of the ’96 Panthers and their celebrated ‘Year of the Rat.’
“Nobody can forget that,” said the speedy forward. “It was something special. I remember the first time Scott Mellanby hit the rat in the locker room because it was me, him, and some other guys who saw the thing. At that moment the season was great. It was my first year in the league. Our fans were great all of the time.”
On Dec. 30 of 1999, while in his fifth season with the Panthers, Dvorak was traded to San Jose for goalie Mike Vernon. That same day, San Jose dealt Dvorak to the Rangers for Todd Harvey and draft choices.
Dvorak, who scored 18 goals with the Panthers in 1996-97 and 19 in 1998-99, found his scoring touch with the Rangers during the 2000-01 season when he scored 31 goals and had 67 points. But Dvorak hasn’t put up those kinds of numbers in the past six seasons while playing in Edmonton and, last season, in St. Louis.
Dvorak, who played all 82 games last season, said his one year in St. Louis was rewarding in the sense the team rebounded from a 9-19-6 start to finish the season 34-35-0-13. “In December things seemed bleak,” he said. “We made good progress.” And despite missing 18 games in 2005-06 with Edmonton due to groin and hip problems, he was part of an Oilers team that made it to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to Carolina.
But Dvorak, who’s twice come close to hoisting the Stanley Cup, wants to make it back to the playoffs and believes he can once again score 20 or more goals.
“The last two, three years, it’s been hard for me scoring,” Dvorak said. “(I’m) trying to figure out what’s holding me back. I know I can score because I’ve had 20 goals a few times. It’s just a matter of scoring a few goals in the beginning (of the season) and then I’ll be OK. First thing for me is to play good hockey, to help Florida be better, and to go from there. Team comes first and individual performance is always on the second line so I just try to play good hockey.”
General Manager and coach Jacques Martin believes Dvorak will bring speed and depth to the forward position. Dvorak can also bring experience to the penalty kill.
Dvorak is willing to do whatever it takes to help the Panthers make it to the playoffs come his return trip. “It’s great to be back,” Dvorak said. “I know the place. I know the team. It’s an honor to be playing here and I’m excited about this team.”