As Peter Mueller drove from Vancouver to South Florida with his new wife last summer to begin a new chapter in his hockey life, he was greeted by Tropical Storm Isaac. It was quite the eye-opening experience for Mueller, a Minnesota native whose previous hockey stops had included Michigan, Phoenix and Colorado.
But the storm eventually passed without leaving too much damage in its wake, and South Florida was none the worse for wear.
Mueller’s own personal storm came in the form of a couple of concussions that put his career in jeopardy. But, like the place he now calls home, it’s pretty much nothing but sunshine these days for the former National Team Development Program star.
The Florida Panthers took a chance on Mueller last summer after the Colorado Avalanche declined to make a qualifying offer to their restricted free agent, and the move has paid off in a big way
— for both the Panthers and Mueller.
“My No. 1 goal coming into the season was just to play every game,” Mueller said. “Points and stats will take care of themselves, but at the end of the day I just wanted to show and to prove to everyone that I can play each and every game, night in and night out, and show that I can stay healthy.”
Playing most of the season alongside rookies Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore on what became known as the “Kid Line,” Mueller has been one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for the 2011-12 Southeast Division champions.
From the start, Mueller impressed with his offensive talents, most notably his ability to spot an open teammate and get him the puck.
Then again, it’s not as though anyone should be surprised by what Mueller does on the ice. His talent never really was in question.
But there clearly was some doubt about Mueller’s ability to bounce back after a second concussion caused him to miss the entire 2010-11 season and post-concussion symptoms (along with a groin injury) sidelined him for the last 50 games in 2011-12.
As he watched from the sidelines last year, Mueller said the thought never crossed his mind that his career might be in jeopardy.
Actually, there was only one thing on his mind.
“Getting back to playing,” he said. “I had a lot of support from my family. I was just taking one day at a time. The biggest thing was just do what works and do what obviously you can cope with, but obviously the biggest thing was getting back to a healthy state and getting back to playing hockey.”
Mueller wasted little time showing the Panthers and their fans what he could do. In their season opener against the Carolina Hurricanes, on a night when the team’s division championship banner was unveiled in pregame ceremonies, Mueller fed Huberdeau a perfect pass from behind the net to set up the prized rookie’s first NHL goal less than four minutes into his first NHL game.
As the season progressed, Huberdeau emerged as a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy — with a lot of help from Mueller, who had the first assist on half of Huberdeau’s first 10 goals.
“He’s a very good player,” Huberdeau said. “We saw in that Carolina game, he made two great passes, all I had to do was put my stick there and it was going to go in. He’s got great vision. He sees plays that other guys don’t see.”
Mueller achieved his goal of not missing a game because of injury. He did miss five games due to the birth of his son Charlie.
Despite the down season, the future still looks bright for the Panthers, thanks to their vast array of top-flight prospects, such as Huberdeau and Shore. Given what he has shown this season, Mueller is likely to have a prominent role as well.
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen has been impressed with the chemistry he’s seen between Huberdeau and Mueller.
“That’s something that your players always like and appreciate is chemistry,” Dineen said. “When you’re playing together with somebody, you get to know their tendencies and those two do a good job of reading off each other, they enjoy playing together.”
Mueller, who turned only 25 on April 14, is the old man on his line — and not strictly because he’s the oldest.
While Huberdeau and Shore are getting their first taste of the NHL, Mueller already has had a lot of experiences — some good, some forgettable.
“Points and stats will take care of themselves, but I just wanted to show to everyone that I can play each and
The highs start off with a tremendous rookie season during which he tallied 22 goals and 54 points in 81 games when his coach was the legendary Wayne Gretzky.
The lows include a deteriorating situation in Phoenix after defensive-minded Dave Tippett took over as head coach, a situation that led to Mueller requesting a trade. And then, of course, there were the injuries.
But things are on the upswing again for Mueller, who is healthy, playing good hockey and enjoying his new surroundings.
“I love this place,” said Mueller, who was chosen by the South Florida chapter of the Pro Hockey Writers Association as the Panthers’ nominee for the Masterton Trophy.
“Everyone in this organization is top-notch, from the president all the way down to the people that help out at the rink. It’s truly a great organization, and it’s nice that me, Huby and Shoresy have sparked some chemistry here.”
Practice over, his interview finished, Mueller was ready to leave the Panthers’ training facility.
Appropriately, the sun was shining outside.