When it comes to high-profile draft picks such as Taylor Hall, deciding whether or not to send him to the minors is more complex than choosing between development and preserving entry-level contract years vs. immediate team needs. When it comes to someone like the Florida Panthers’ No. 3 pick Erik Gudbranson, it might be a little simpler, but it’s still a tough call.
The big 18-year-old defenseman’s training camp and preseason is drawing rave reviews from the occasionally salty coach of the Florida Panthers, Peter DeBoer. Yet if you ask me, the Panthers are a couple years away from being an interesting contender in the Eastern Conference/Southeast Division (more on that later, actually) and should let Gudbranson mature against players his age a little longer. The Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Harvey Filakov thinks that the team might keep him at the NHL level thanks to his impressive play this summer, though.
Gudbranson has played in every exhibition game and will play this weekend. He has displayed toughness and solid defense with crisp passing as well as scoring on his first shot in a Panthers’ uniform.
There seems to be two jobs among four young defenseman – Gudbranson, Keaton Ellerby, Nathan Paetsch and Joe Callahan. Even with Ellerby ailing (shoulder) I’m betting on him and Gudbranson.
The Panthers would have to sign Gudbranson by Wednesday before he’d be able to play the first nine games of the season like Kulikov did last year.
If the Panthers feel he’s ready then he stays. If not, they sent him back to juniors without losing a year towards free agency. Kulikov, who was also 18 last year, earned the right to stay and is now considered one of the most promising young defenseman in the league.
There’s no “experience” like playing at the highest level of competition and some young defensemen have adapted to the pro-level game with very little trouble. Drew Doughty, in particular, barely missed a beat as a rookie and sophomore. Still, Doughty has more of a “skill-based” game while Gudbranson is more of a “banger” (as Filakov points out in that article).
Most sub-Doughty defensemen (read: almost all of them) need time to get used to the increased speed and physicality of the pro game. Perhaps the Panthers would be wise to give Gudbranson the Jordan Staal test: the Penguins let the lanky center stay at the pro level beyond the nine game cut-off point and the team lost one of his entry-level years even though he was still quite raw. Staal rewarded them with a 29-goal season and helped them make the playoffs for the first time in the Sidney Crosby Era, though I’ll always wonder if Staal would have benefited from beating up on inferior competition for a year or two.
So, long story short, the Florida Panthers have an important decision to make regarding Gudbranson.
GM Dale Tallon is building something interesting in Sunrise, but I say take a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel approach to team building and send Gudbranson to the minors.