For some rookies, it’s that time of year. The time where most NHL teams reach the nine games played mark and have to make that tough decision if its rookies should be sent back to their respective junior team (and thus, delaying the onset of free agency by a year), or get a full year on the big squad. The guys have had rookie camp, a veteran training camp, and a nice sample size of pre and regular season games with which to impress the GM and coaching staff. The Florida Panthers took all of the drama out of the status of 2011 first round pick Jonathan Huberdeau when he was returned to the Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) on October 3rd.
But there is another rookie wearing a new red sweater that, at least theoretically, is on the nine-game hotseat, and that’s defenseman Erik Gudbranson. With a young defenseman in Keaton Ellerby signed to a one-way deal who is currently being scratched most nights, the question has to be asked: Does Erik Gudbranson stay with the team the whole year or does he pack his bags for the Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) for the second straight year?
If you follow this blog even a little bit, you can probably already guess the answer. Gudbranson ABSOLUTELY should stay in Sunrise for the season and it’s not even close. If you were simply going by stats (0 points, 24 PIM, -4), you might be tempted to make the case against, but games aren’t played on stat sheets. Gudbranson, while not without a couple of mistakes, has shown what many already knew, that he’s an NHL defenseman now and sending him to juniors serves no purpose. Last season, I was pretty critical of the team for sending him back after it had already been declared by then-coach Pete DeBoer that he had made the team. In hindsight, it was probably the best move as he had a full year to get his body NHL-ready. And even though his year in Kingston wasn’t without problems, going through some of those situations may have given him some lessons that he wouldn’t have learned anywhere else.
One of the things he did bring with him from last year is the willingness to stick up for his teammates. During a preseason game at the Bank Atlantic Center against the Dallas Stars, it was Gudbranson who was the first to come to the aid of Tim Kennedy after he was boarded in the third period. He showed the same willingness during the Cats home opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning when he thought Steve Downie had taken a few too many liberties with his teammates during the course of the game. Having the high draft pick rookie fighting for his team like that has to be contagious in a dressing room. It also sends a clear message of “If he’s going to stick his neck out for us, then I better be willing to do the same.” It’s also that kind of leadership that has led me to believe since last preseason that he’ll have a C on his sweater in the future.
But for all of his physicality, this is what has impressed me the most about him. Going into this past Monday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, Panther fans were eager to see what would happen between Gudbranson and Habs winger Travis Moen based upon what happened last preseason. There was a sense of anticipation as the two were on the ice at the same time many times during the night that fireworks were a shove away. But, rather than put the team in a bad predicament by taking a fighting major in a close game (or worse, like he received with the Downie fight), he put his own revenge aside for the good of the team and left it alone. The result, as we know, was a 2-1 win.
As a matter of fact, Big G has shown a great deal of composure through his first eight games by not taking penalties. All 24 of his penalty minutes that he has amassed have come from his two fights with Downie (19 minutes from the first fight, the standard 5 minute major in the return bout). If you had told me a rookie physical defenseman like him had played eight games (against fast teams like Tampa and Washington) without a hook or a hold, I wouldn’t believe it. And in watching him play in his own end of the ice, he’s made no more mistakes than any other Panthers defensemen,
So after the Panthers play game number nine Thursday night in Ottawa, I (along with just about anyone else reading this story), will be beyond surprised if it’s announced that it will be the last we see of Erik Gudbranson as a Panther this season. He’s earned the right to stay not just with the quality of his play, but with the maturity and leadership he’s shown and the willingness to sacrifice for the good of his team. You can never have too many of those guys, regardless of age or contract.
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