With the 2011-12 season sadly in the rear-view window, it’s once again time for The Rat Trick to take a look back at those who had the biggest impact on the the Florida Panthers. Over the coming days, we’ll look at review everyone who had key roles in the past season and give them the dreaded letter grade.
Who did you think was going to review Erik Gudbranson? Obviously the best choice was me, and I thank Dave Lasseter for pulling my name out of the hat to cover the Florida Panther rookie defenceman.
Games played: 72
Erik Gudbranson was the third overall pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, and was the first choice by newly appointed general manager Dale Tallon. Gudbranson who is known around these parts as BigG, had an outstanding rookie camp, and an even better training camp last season, however was sent back the juniors to play for the Kingston Frontenacs for ultimately more seasoning. While money played a role in the decision at the time, Gudbranson played well enough to make the team, used the year to sharpen his skills, put on some muscle and develop a nasty snarl that would surface this season.
Gudbranson is a player that is mature way beyond his years. When you hear him speak he talks as though he’s been in the NHL for years. He chooses his words carefully, and has the makings to eventually be the next captain of the Florida Panthers. Gudbranson had another solid camp this summer making the team and opening night roster, which was no surprise to this writer. As a 19 year old rookie, you could see that Erik has all the tools to become one of the premier defencemen in the NHL over time. He has good size at 6′ 4″, is listed at 195 lbs. however I’ll predict he adds some muscle during the offseason. He’s quick on his feet and has good speed. A decent wrist shot and a rocket for a slap shot which needs just a touch of accuracy, Erik also has some good hands which he shows here:
Initially Erik was brought along slowly. He was paired for most of the season with veteran Ed Jovanovski whom coach Kevin Dineen felt would be a great mentor both on and off the ice, proved to be an excellent move. Erik played in the first 11 games of the season, and during those games was brought along slowly. His statistics weren’t impressive at that point as he hadn’t scored, or assisted on any goals, and was a minus six. His ice time was being managed carefully as Dineen made sure not to put him into situations that could have ruined his confidence. Feeling that things might be coming too fast for him, Dineen sat Erik for four games, put him back in the lineup for three, then sat him for another two.
On December 23rd against Boston, Erik was put into the lineup for good. Watching the games from the press box gave the youngster some time to see things differently, and see the pace of the game from a different perspective. He watched, and learned and then applied what he saw to his game. Defence is not an easy position and many times young defencemen are rushed and while some see early success, you run the risk of them failing and losing confidence. The Panthers weren’t going to make that same mistake with Erik as other teams may have made with their young blue liners.
As the season wore on Erik’s ice time increased, and the situations that he was allowed to play in were increased as well. As the new year approached with 30 games under his belt, he became more comfortable, and began to grow into the position. He started to show a physical presence and increasing his “hits”. He began to use his shot more, and was learing the nuances of playing defence. While it seemed as though most of the season he was on a short leash, he was figuring out when the time was right for certain parts of his game. One thing that Erik was very good at was keeping wingers to the outside as they came down with the puck into the Panthers zone. He didn’t panic when he was in trouble, and was adept at getting passes out of the zone to start the rush. He also was learning when to be slightly more aggressive on offence and when the time was right to “pinch in”.
It’s not easy for a player that’s this young to step in a be a star immediately, and Dineen and his staff handled Erik perfectly. He gained confidence the more he played, and the more he was used in crucial situations his decisions were getting better. His physical play however is something that is going to make him a force to be dealt with. In a fight later in the season with the Flyers Zach Rinaldo, Big G showed that with one punch it could all be over:
The best part of Gudbranson’s season came during the playoffs against the New Jersey Devils. In all honesty he played like a seasoned veteran. His positioning was improved, his skating was solid, and his physical presence was felt. Erik was even given special teams ice time and often found himself either on the power play or penalty killing units. He had shown that the confidence that the coaching staff had placed in him was beginning to pay dividends. During those seven games, there was no question that Erik had “arrived”.
He promises to come back next season bigger, stronger and in even better shape than he was this season. He had a taste of the playoffs in his first year as a professional, and obviously wants more. His plus/minus is about the only weakness of his game, but in his first season that can be excused as many times the goals that were scored against him while he was on the ice may not have been his fault.
Getting an opportunity to work and learn from players like Jovo, and Brian Campbell will give Erik the perfect balance of toughness, offensive skill, and decision making. At 20 years old, he has all the tools and all the makings to become a star defenceman for a very long time. You can also look for him become a captain in the very near future.
Final grade: B. When you consider where he was at the beginning of the season, to how he finished the season, and went into the playoffs, his improvement was dramatic. Surely he has much more to learn, and many more nights to develop, but he’s only going to get better. A young Chris Pronger or a young Shea Weber? Those are two defenceman that if Erik can come close to being like, will make us one bunch of happy humans.
Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and opinions.
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