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FUEL UP: Panthers D Alex Petrovic Plays With 'An Edge' ... Versteeg Files for Arbitration ... Cats have a New Jacques

PetroBY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards 

It's understandable if Alex Petrovic was a little distracted toward the end of last season.

One of the Panthers top prospects, Petrovic knew he was in the final weeks of his junior season with the Red Deer Rebels in Alberta.

The Rebels were out of the playoff chase and playing out the string. Petrovic was as well – knowing when their season ended, his would continue.

Petrovic, a second round draft pick by Florida in 2010, was off to San Antonio as soon as Red Deer's season came to a close. His professional hockey career was going to begin as soon as he could get to Texas.

“It was kind of tough to focus because you know the reality of what's going to happen,'' Petrovic said. “Our team has tons of injuries and had we had them, we would have done well in the playoffs.

"It was unfortunate our season ended early so you have to try and end the season right, play with pride. I took a lot of pride in wearing that jersey. We tried to win them all. But when it was over, I knew I wasn't going to be around.''

A few days after Red Deer played its final game of the season, Petrovic was in the lineup for the Panthers' AHL affiliate in San Antonio. Soon, he'll be battling for a spot on the Panthers roster.

“Just playing at the end of the year was great for me, I was able to get my feet under me,'' said Petrovic, named the top defenseman in the Rebels' division in the Western Hockey League last year.

“Being able to play in the playoffs was a great experience for me. I learned guys are harder to knock around, that's for sure.''

Petro2The Panthers had been keeping an eye on Petrovic in his final two seasons of junior hockey and were ready to bring him into the organization once his team was through playing.

Petrovic was eased into the San Antonio lineup and played in five regular season games – notching a goal with an assist. In the playoffs, however, Petrovic played in nine games and got two goals and four assists as the Rampage were knocked out in the second round.

At this week's prospect camp, Petrovic as looked on as one of the veterans, one of the few players to have played in a professional game.

That won't be the case in September when the Panthers' training camp is scheduled to open. Petrovic will be battling for a roster spot with players much older and more seasoned than he is.

Only Petrovic looks at that as an opportunity to learn. Florida has a stable of veteran blueliners such as Ed Jovanovski, Mike Weaver, Filip Kuba and Brian Campbell. Bryan McCabe, the Panthers former captain, will also be around as he now works in player development.

“Whenever camp comes, I'm going to lay it all on the line and do everything I can,'' Petrovic said. “I want to grab a spot on that roster as soon as I can. There is no time to waste.''

McCabe said he liked what he saw in Petrovic last season in San Antonio – especially during the playoffs. A stay at home defenseman, Petrovic is good at breaking opponents away from the puck and kicking it out.

Petrovic can also play a physical game – something that's going to get noticed by the Panthers.

“He's a big kid who has skills and really plays with an edge,'' McCabe said. “He has a huge upside and I'm looking forward to see him move up in this organization. He's still a young guy who is going to grow and learn. Us older guys can help him move up through the ranks. He has all the potential in the world. I'm looking forward to working with him.''

() Panthers winger Kris Versteeg has elected to take the team to arbitration as the two sides work on a new contract.

Versteeg is a restricted free agent who has been qualified by the club. The hearing would be canceled if an agreement is worked out ahead of time.

Hearings will be held in Toronto from July 20 to August 4. A total of 16 players from around the league have elected to go to arbitration so far.

() The Panthers signed potential fourth line winger Jean-Francois Jacques to a one-year deal on Thursday. Jacques signed a two-way contract so he will likely start the season in the minors.

“He is a hard working and tough to play against forward that adds further depth to our club,” general manager Dale Tallon said in a statement.

The 27-year-old Jacques has played in 166 NHL games, mostly with Edmonton from 2005-11. Jacques played in six games for Anaheim last season while scoring 21 goals at the AHL level.

() Friday is the final day of the Panthers prospect camp. The team is scheduled for a 9 a.m. scrimmage at the Coral Springs Iceplex. Admission is free.