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FNS Photo by David Samson University of North Dakota’s Rocco Grimaldi tangles with University of Minnesota’s Taylor Cammara during the NCAA Frozen Four on Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Grimaldi signs with Panthers

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GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota will have to replace its most dynamic forward for next season.

Sophomore Rocco Grimaldi signed a three-year contract with the Florida Panthers on Wednesday, giving up his final two years of college eligibility.

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The Panthers drafted Grimaldi in the second round in 2011 and risked losing him next summer in free agency if they did not sign him this offseason.

“I felt I was ready for a new challenge in life,” Grimaldi said. “I loved my three years here. I played with a lot of great players, the coaches were awesome and the city is incredible. It’s definitely a place that I’ll come back to often. I can’t thank the coaches and my teammates enough for helping me. I feel like I’m ready for a new challenge.”

Grimaldi led UND in scoring last season with 39 points in 42 games and was named the Midwest Regional’s Most Valuable Player in helping UND beat Wisconsin and Ferris State en route to the NCAA Frozen Four.

Although he was listed as a sophomore, Grimaldi spent three years at UND. His first was cut short due to a knee injury that he sustained before the start of the season. Grimaldi was issued a medical redshirt for that year.

The 5-foot-6 speedy center was best known for his ability to create offense at the drop of a dime. His high-end skating and his stick-handling could turn any opponent mistake into a UND goal.

Last season, he led the team in goals, assists and points. He finished his career with 31 goals and 77 points in 86 games.

“I came in as a boy,” Grimaldi said. “I’m walking out as a man.”

The Rossmoor, Calif., product expects to attend the Panthers’ development camp in July and the training camp before the start of the season.

Grimaldi said he will stick around Grand Forks for a few weeks after school ends. He also said he will be returning in future years.

“When I leave, it won’t be the last time I’m here, that’s for sure,” Grimaldi said. “I’m in the Fighting Sioux family now. I know the people here will always support me and I will support this team forever.”

Losing players early is nothing new for coach Dave Hakstol, who has watched 17 players sign in his decade at the helm.

UND will have to look at how to fill Grimaldi’s void.

Three forwards are locks to come in next season — Grand Forks native John Simonson, Trevor Olson and potential first-round draft pick Nick Schmaltz. With Grimaldi’s signing, UND also may bring one more forward. Tri-City Storm forwards Chris Wilkie or Austin Poganski are the most likely options.

The Panthers were happy to sign Grimaldi, who could have had the option of becoming a free agent next summer had he not signed.

“We are very pleased to have reached a contract agreement with Rocco,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said in a statement. “He is a hard-working forward who possesses speed along with great vision on the ice. We look forward to his continued growth and development within our organization.”

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