SUNRISE, Fla. — It did not take the Florida Panthers long to know they liked their new teammate.
While Noel Acciari may have rubbed the Panthers the wrong way a few times as an opponent — most notably MacKenzie Weegar — they quickly figured having him as a teammate was going to work out just fine.
Acciari fit right in with the Panthers from the get, even getting a new nickname when he went a little crazed when his favorite pregame snack (cookies) were not on the training table before an exhibition game.
If you thought Acciari fit in off the ice, well, on the ice he could not have been a better addition.
General manager Dale Tallon brought Acciari in to stabilize and center Florida’s fourth line.
Acciari made quite a name for himself in Boston as a fourth-line grinder, a player who as he said himself, would “do anything and everything you can for your team whether it is blocking a shot, throwing a hit or scoring a goal.”
On Tuesday, Acciari was announced as the Panthers’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy which goes to a “player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.’’
The award is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association and he was nominated by the members of the Florida chapter.
When it comes to “dedication’’ to the game of hockey, few exemplify that as much as Acciari does.
“Anything you can do to put your team in position to win, I take pride in doing that,” Acciari said on Tuesday afternoon. “I try and do that every game, do it every day.”
Making it to the Bigs
Acciari’s road to the NHL was not a typical one but one which he says he would not change.
A native of Rhode Island, Acciari played prep hockey at the Kent School in Connecticut. When it came time for the draft, no NHL team deemed him worth enough to select.
Undaunted, Acciari went to Providence College where he had a terrific career. Acciari did not play as a freshman, but he appeared in 113 games the next three seasons and captained the Friars to the 2015 national championship as a senior.
Not long after graduating from Providence, Accairi signed a free agent contract with the Bruins, the team he grew up rooting for.
Acciari made his pro debut with the Providence Bruins in the AHL before making his NHL debut against the Flames on March 1, 2016. A few games later, he got his first NHL point on an assist in an overtime win against the Panthers.
“If I had to do it all again, I would,” he said Tuesday. “I had to battle through injuries. I had a broken jaw my first year, broke a finger. You do it for the team because your job is your dream. It is something special and I don’t want to take it for granted. I would have done anything to make it to the league and now, looking back, I look at the road I took and I would do it all over again. I have been very fortunate.
“The thing is, you can never get too down on yourself. If you work as hard as you can, leave everything out on the ice, you can’t ask anything more of yourself. I act like this is going to be the last game I ever play every time I step out onto the ice. I went in with that mentality and was able to sign with my hometown team. It has gone on from there.”
Acciari spent parts of four seasons with Boston, playing in 180 games plus 35 more in the playoffs. Last summer, he fractured his sternum in a second-round game against Carolina yet returned to help the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Finals.
On July 1, he was one of four to sign a free agent deal with the Panthers.
As is usually the case with Acciari, he was overlooked that day as the news was the $70 million deal Sergei Bobrovsky got while secondary conversation focused on either the additions of Brett Connolly or Anton Stralman.
Yet as the season stands now, Acciari may have had the biggest impact of all of Florida’s free agent signees.
Not only did he score a career-high 20 goals (his previous high was 14 two seasons ago) and he led the Panthers with 121 hits.
“That’s a pretty impressive stat,” goalie Chris Driedger said last month. “That’s pretty indicative to what kind of a player, what kind of teammate he is.
Acciari’s biggest moments this season came in December when, in an effort to shake things up, coach Joel Quenneville moved Acciari up from the fourth line and put him on wing of the second.
Playing with Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdea, Acciari became a scoring machine. In his first game up, he recorded his first-ever NHL hat trick. A few days later, he got his second.
“He knows where the net is,” Quenneville said then. “He has a nose for it.”
In the month of December, Acciari scored a total of eight goals. He had six all of last season with the Bruins.
Acciari scored 31 goals as a senior with Kent. His 20 goals this season with the Panthers are the most he has scored in a single season — at any level — since.
“It was a very exciting time, it felt like everything I threw on net went in,” Acciari said. “Being able to play with all those different guys, having the confidence of Coach Q to be up with those guys like Huby, Troch, Barky, Conns … they are very skilled and talented guys. Being able to capitalize when with them was an awesome feeling.
“Every guy in the NHL was the top scorer on his team growing up but to make it, a lot of times, you have to find your niche. Mine was as a fourth-line grinder, a banger who played defensive hockey. In Florida, I got to play with some offensive guys and the scoring touch came out. I just ran with it.”
The ‘next’ season
Acciari said Tuesday he is looking forward to being on the ice — and that opportunity comes Wednesday morning as he plans to be one of a handful of players participating in a workout at the IceDen in Coral Springs.
According to Acciari, he has not had skates on nor been on ice since the team’s final practice on March 10 in Dallas. The NHL season was postponed two days later before Florida’s scheduled game against the Stars.
Having this extended time off, while not all that welcomed, has benefited Acciari. Remember, his season with the Bruins did not end until June and he was back in training camp with the Panthers a few months later.
These past few months have allowed Acciari’s body to heal up a little — hhis all-out style of play certainly takes its toll — and he is ready to jump into the next phase of the 2019-20 season.
“It’ll be nice just to get the feel of a stick in my hand, take some shots,” he said. “The off has been good for my body, it has allowed me to heal a little bit. The skating and all that will come back. But I am itching to come back for sure. This is the longest anyone has gone without skating and not dealing with an injury. Taking all this time off without the skating has been tough.”
The Panthers are scheduled to play the Islanders in a best-of-5 series sometime later this summer with the winner moving on to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Acciari likes the way the Panthers were playing before the league suspended the season and says he thinks Florida can get back to where it was.
Although, with so much time gone since teams have played, this may feel like a brand new season instead of a continuation of one on pause.
“We bought into the system and were playing for one another in those final games against Boston, Montreal and St. Louis,” Acciari said. “We only gave up a couple of goals in those games.
“That was playoff hockey at that point and were doing all the little things, playing a team game. It was our best hockey of the season. We would have made a push for a playoff spot had things continued and would have been a tough team to beat.”