At this point, most people know about the Florida Panthers offseason and their wild spending spree to fill their roster. Twenty-something-year-old forwards like Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc, and Scottie Upshall were all brought in to infuse life into the organization. But just as important to the long-term success as the young forwards as they brought into the fold is the veteran defender they brought back: Ed Jovanovski.
It’s been twelve years since the blueliner has pulled on a Panthers jersey. Since then he’s applied his trade as one of the cornerstone defensemen on some good Canucks teams and has spent the last five seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes. Obviously, the player who is returning to South Beach may have the same face and name—but the game is brings has certainly evolved since he packed his bags.
Back then, he was the hulking defenseman who was trying to grow into his expected role as “elite NHL defenseman.” He may never have fully grown into the role, but he’s now the guy who young players can look up to in the locker room. At least that’s GM Dale Tallon’s plan. You see, in addition to all of the young forwards the Panthers brought in, the Panthers management is relying on their young, homegrown defenseman to take the next step. Brian Campbell will obviously eat minutes on a nightly basis and help with the power play, but behind him are a handful of first round picks who will need to fill NHL roles this season.
Keaton Ellerby, Dmitri Kulikov, and Erik Gudbranson are all expected to make the team out of training camp to play in top-six roles this season. All are former first round picks—all are still trying to prove they are long-term solutions on the blueline. Aside from his play on the ice, one of Jovanovski’s central responsibilities will be to help mentor the young defensemen fill their potential. He’ll have four-years to figure it out after signing his monster $16.5 million contract this offseason.
First and foremost, it’ll be important that he helps Gudbranson make the transition from the OHL to the NHL. The third overall pick in the 2010 Draft spent an extra year in juniors last season, but after signing an entry-level deal in the summer, the time is now for the stay-at-home defenseman to make the jump. Jovanovski likes what he sees so far:
“The kid’s right on the cusp of playing here this year. If I can help him out any, which I can, that’s what I hope to do.”
Relating to a high draft pick with enormous expectations shouldn’t be all that difficult for JovoCop. After all, this is the same guy who was the #1 overall pick for the Panthers way back in 1994. Still, it’s not the first time he’s been around young defenseman who are looking to make a name for themselves in the league. He watched as Zbynek Michalek, Keith Yandle, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson tried to break into the league and solidify themselves as strong NHL defenseman. Once again, he’ll fill the same role in Florida.
He may not be the same player that he was the first time around in Florida and he may be overpaid for what he brings to the ice nowadays, but the Panthers aren’t expecting the 25-year-old version of Jovanovski this time around. They’re expected a veteran presence that can help the young prospects grow into dependable defenseman while holding his own on a nightly basis.
In a year that could be another rebuilding season in Florida, the maturation of the young defenseman will be almost as important as the points in the standings.