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.