Youth is served: Panthers sign 2010 first round pick Erik Gudbranson to three-year entry-level deal

While the Florida Panthers went spend-crazy this summer to catch up to the salary floor, GM Dale Tallon’s real work is in developing a farm system and a crew of young players that will help carry the team into the future. Tallon’s first guy to get in those efforts was last year’s first round pick defenseman Erik Gudbranson.

Tallon wanted to get Gudbranson signed last year and get him in the mix to potentially join the likes of Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner, and Cam Fowler as first year NHL studs right out of junior hockey.Those contract negotiations didn’t go so well and Gudbranson went back to playing in the OHL for the Kingston Frontenacs. This summer brought about a different story as Gudbranson signed his three-year entry-level deal with Florida to officially throw his hat into the mix to make the Panthers opening night lineup.

Last year’s draft coupled with this year’s selections shows what Tallon is trying to do with the Panthers. Top prospects forwards Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden were also first round picks for Florida last year and when you throw them in the mix with 2011’s first round pick forward Jonathan Huberdeau and second round choice forward Rocco Grimaldi, all of a sudden the Panthers future looks good. Add those guys with future prospects like goalie Jacob Markstrom and you’ve got a future to be proud of and Gudbranson figures to be their cornerstone defenseman.

Can he crack the Panthers roster this year? It’d be impressive if he did. Gudbranson had his share of struggles in Kingston last year but had his best statistical season with career highs in scoring 12 goals and adding 22 assists as well as 105 penalty minutes. Gudbranson also sat out an eight game suspension for a play in which he left his feet to hit an unsuspecting player. That sort of thing isn’t usual in his game, but the Panthers will appreciate the added physicality from the 6’3″ 195 pound defenseman.

On a team that just added Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski to be their top pair on defense and already dipping into their youth with Dmitry Kulikov, Jason Garrison, and Keaton Ellerby mixed with veteran savvy like Mike Weaver Gudbranson could carve himself out a top six spot with relative ease. In Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen’s minds having Kulikov and Gudbranson evolve together as a pair would be ideal. Assistant coach Craig Ramsay will make sure they can do that as he works with the defensemen.

It’s not likely to be an overnight success story in Florida, but getting Gudbranson in will make a difference for them and while there’s going to be growing pains to go along with it, the Panthers just have to look to their rivals in Tampa who were able to make it work with youngster Victor Hedman. If the Panthers can see a similar breakout, Florida could be a playoff destination for a long time for both teams.

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.