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Florida Panthers stock up on goaltending candidates

Most of the talk revolving around the Panthers’ goaltending situation for this coming season has been whether or not the team would bring back Roberto Luongo.

Although that potential trade with Vancouver hasn’t gone anywhere — though it still could as training camp isn’t scheduled to start until September — the Panthers have made some moves to strengthen that position.

On July 1, not long before the free agency period opened, backup Scott Clemmensen was re-signed to a two-year deal. The Panthers then signed 30-year-old Dov Grumet-Morris to a two-way contract and also signed 19-year-old Michael Houser.

Grumet-Morris spent last season with Florida’s AHL team in San Antonio, helping the Rampage to the playoffs and earning a new contract. The Panthers might have brought Grumet-Morris up to the big leagues last season when injuries struck, but his AHL-only contract prohibited that.

“The past couple of years, had I been on an NHL contract, I may have been called up,” Grumet-Morris said. “If you don’t have the proper contract, no matter how good you play, it’s not a meritocracy. There are only so many contracts, and once they are given out, they are gone.”

Although Grumet-Morris (San Antonio) and Houser (ECHL Cincinnati) will likely start the upcoming season in the minors, Florida believes it has enhanced its depth. Both will be at training camp once — or if — the league’s labor issues are settled.

For Grumet-Morris, competing at an NHL training camp is something he likely hadn’t considered a few years ago.

A former draft pick of the Flyers, Grumet-Morris floated from one minor-league team to the next before deciding to play in Europe. After two seasons in Austria, Grumet-Morris turned down a lucrative deal to stay in Europe for another shot at making the big leagues. If Grumet-Morris somehow makes it into a game with the Panthers this season, it will be the culmination of a long journey.

Grumet-Morris has appeared in more than 260 minor-league games for 14 different teams in five different countries in four different leagues. A Harvard graduate who majored in international relations and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Grumet-Morris knows there’s more for him after hockey. So when the big offer came from Europe, Grumet-Morris sat down with his wife, Rachel — who is a surgeon in Houston and recently gave birth to their first child — to discuss their options.

“Usually, when you leave and go to Europe, it means you gave it a try and it just didn’t work out,” said Grumet-Morris, who turned pro in 2005. “When you go to Europe, it usually means you are going to stay. I did get a lot of experience because I needed the starts there. If you said I would come back and be going to an NHL training camp, no, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Grumet-Morris split the 2010-11 season in Greenville, S.C. (ECHL) and Hartford, Conn. (AHL), catching the attention of an old friend. Mike Santos, the assistant general manager of the Panthers, knew Grumet-Morris from their days in the Nashville organization and signed him to an AHL deal last season.

Santos told Grumet-Morris that a strong showing would bring a better contract, one that comes with the possibility of playing in the NHL some day. Grumet-Morris has that contract now.

“I have taken a circuitous route, but my goal since last season was to be in training camp. It’s the next step,” Grumet-Morris said. “I do have a passion for the game. I started playing when I was 3, and here I am 27 years later. I still wake up every day ready to go to the rink. I’m not saying there aren’t difficult days. But my passion is to get better. I strive for excellence in everything I do.”

The Panthers currently have four goalies who will likely see time in Florida this season in Jose Theodore, Clemmensen, Grumet-Morris and Jacob Markstrom. Grumet-Morris got a lot of playing time in San Antonio last season when Markstrom came up to the big club because of injuries, and at one point started 19 consecutive games.

Goalie coach Robb Tallas said the Panthers have plenty of confidence in Grumet-Morris because he isn’t much of an unknown. Aside from working with Santos and Tallas in the past, he also played for Panthers coach Kevin Dineen in Portland, Maine, five seasons ago.

“He’s a highly educated guy who is very smart and loves the game of hockey. He just wants to play,” Tallas said. “His goal is to make the NHL, and he hasn’t given up on that. He works very hard and puts more work into it than anyone. He’s the first guy on the ice every single day. He spends all his time working on his game.

“Our organization has given guys chances, and here’s a guy who is mature, hasn’t had it easy and is putting up the numbers. There’s a trust there. If we need someone to come up, he can do it. We wouldn’t worry about that.”