When Gary Roberts gazed out of the Florida Panthers' airplane yesterday during its descent into Pearson International Airport, he felt a little knot in his stomach.
"It was strange flying in, a weird feeling coming into town for sure," Roberts said. "At the time (he signed with the Panthers in the summer), it did not sink in right away (that he no longer was a Maple Leaf). It has sunk in now."
So too has the fact Roberts has been struggling with his new club. The Whitby native was slowed by a groin problem early on, and if he registers a point tonight, it will be his first as a Panther. In six games, Roberts has averaged 10:20 of ice time.
However, Roberts, who has been reunited with one of his old junior coaches, Jacques Martin, in Florida, has been providing a solid intangible. Leafs sophomore Matt Stajan talked yesterday of how important it was for him to have Roberts as a teammate during his rookie year in 2003-04. But now the 39-year-old appears to be having a similar influence on his young Panthers mates, playing left wing on a line with centre Stephen Weiss, 22, and right winger Nathan Horton, who is 20.
"He's just a good guy to have with all the young guys here," Weiss said. "I just dump it in his corner, let him go in and bang some people. That's what he wants."
Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Martin Gelinas and Sean Hill were added in the off-season by general manager Mike Keenan to provide leadership.
"They have brought a lot of stability to the organization," Martin said.
MIGHT HAVE STAYED
Roberts and Nieuwendyk likely would have remained in Toronto had GM John Ferguson been offering more than one-year deals. Instead, each got two-year, $4.5-million US pacts from Keenan.
"It was not really a package deal," Roberts said. "Financially, it made more sense for us, and not that money is the only thing, but after not playing all of last year, they were not prepared to (offer us) two-year deals in Toronto. We knew that once the CBA was (done), some older players were going to have to move on. It was a move I was not crazy about making at the time, but now that I have, I am happy."