It might be too soon to say that Florida Panthers defenseman Alex Petrovic has arrived, but if last season is any indication, he is certainly well on his way to becoming a full-time NHL player.
After toiling in the minors for several months, the 23-year-old rookie was recalled on Jan. 28 and showed enough promise early on to merit an extended stay in South Florida.
A physical, in-your-face type of player, Petrovic recorded three assists and 34 penalty minutes while competing in a career-high 33 games with the Panthers after his call up.
"I felt really confident throughout the whole year," Petrovic told FOXSportsFlorida.com in April. "I got better and better as the year went on. I’ve been establishing myself up here, just being more consistent each game.
"The coaching staff has been pretty confident in me and knowing that they’re happy with me has helped a lot as well."
A second-round pick, 36th overall, of the Panthers in the 2010 draft, Petrovic can hardly be considered an overnight sensation. He was never pegged as the next big thing and was rarely considered to be on the fast track to the NHL.
No, Petrovic’s success was never guaranteed. Instead, the Edmonton, Alberta, native was forced to earn his place on the Panthers through his own hard work and determination, often sacrificing much of his summer in favor of various hockey clinics and training.
"Last year, in the offseason, I had some really good training in Cape Cod with Paul Vincent," said Petrovic, who plans to attend Vincent’s six-week camp again this summer. "I did a lot of little things over the summer and I think that helped a lot coming into this year."
So what does Petrovic think he needs to work on in order to turn his 33-game NHL cameo into a full 82-game season?
"Everything," he said with a smile. "Getting more powerful, more flexible and working on little skills. If you’re on the ice more during the summer and not just waiting until August or September to get on the ice, I think that just helps you stay more into it and keeps your skills right where you left off at the end of the year so you can come into next year feeling the same way and pick up where you left off."
WHAT HE DID RIGHT
Throughout the second half of the season, Petrovic became progressively more consistent and reliable on defense. His inexperience was rarely exposed and, although his offensive numbers leave much to be desired, he proved to be a more-than-competent NHL player. When he wasn’t shutting down opposing forwards, he was often coming to the aid of his teammates by either delivering a big hit or dropping his gloves in favor of a fight.
WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE
As I already alluded to, Petrovic’s offense could use some work. He has a cannon of a slap shot, but rarely unleashes it during games. He took only 29 shots in 33 games this past season and has yet to score a goal in 46-career NHL contests.
March 26 at Toronto. Petrovic recorded an assist while playing a pivotal role on defense to help lead the Panthers to a 4-1 victory over the Maple Leafs. His 20:59 of ice time led all Panthers skaters and his 3:45 on the penalty kill were matched by only captain Willie Mitchell. Petrovic had slowly been gaining the trust of his coaches since his call up and this was the game where they finally took the training wheels off.
Like most young defensemen, Petrovic’s puck possession numbers aren’t quite where they need to be yet. At even strength, he ranked last among Panthers regular defensemen in Corsi For (48.09 percent) and Fenwick For (46.05).
FIGHT OF THE YEAR
With his three-year, entry-level contract coming to an end, Petrovic will become a restricted free agent this offseason. He will likely sign a bridge contract with at least one of year of that being a two-way deal. If all goes well, he’ll be competing with Steven Kampfer for playing time on the Panthers blue line next season.
"It helps everyone get better," Petrovic said of competing with Kampfer. "We help each other."