For my first and what could be my only attempt at this for the Florida Panthers, I decided to take a look at the number 44. Obviously that number currently belongs to our young and promising defenceman Erik Gudbranson. Before I give my viewpoints on that, let’s take a walk down memory lane to remember the former players who wore number 44 for the Panthers.
Rob Niedermayer was the first Florida Panther to “don” this number. Robbie as he was affectionately known here when he first started, was drafted as the fifth overall pick by the Panthers in 1993 after a successful career in juniors with the Medicine Hat Tigers. Making the team in his rookie season Niedermayer played in 65 games and scored nine goals and added 17 assists for 26 points. His next season he split time with Medicine Hat and the Panthers playing 48 games with Florida, but only put up 10 points. He had some work to do,and needed to develop his game and grow his body into the bigger and faster pace of the NHL. In the 95-96 campaign Rob would have the most productive season of his 17 year career. A 61 point season, with 25 goals, 11 of which came on the power play, Niedermayer was instrumental in the Panthers run for the Stanley Cup, and quickly became a fan favourite and set the expectations of him higher. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that as Robbie struggled mightily over the next five seasons before he was traded to the Calgary Flames on June 23rd for Valeri Bure and Jason Weimer. After his performance in 95-96, and a decent year in 98-99 when he accumulated 51 points, he never transformed into the offensive force that many felt he could be. A perfect example of a player with potential, but one that just never quite achieved it. He was viewed as a top line forward, but really was a second line player. Due to the make up of the roster he was thrust into top line minutes that he really wasn’t ready or meant for. Sound familiar? Rob then became a checking forward/defensive specialist for the balance of his career, and did quite well with that. His change of address however was needed for the advancement of his career.
Sandis Ozolinsh wore 44 in 2002 and 2003. In parts of two seasons the offensively skilled defenseman played 88 games for Florida, and in those games he played a ton of minutes. The problem with that however, was that late in the game when things were on the line, his fatigue caused him to make mistakes. The Panthers were an awful team during those years, and Mike Keenan lost most of his hair behind the bench because of it. Keenan was forced to use Ozolinsh as much as possible in every situation possible because of the roster that management stuck him with. Keenan needed his offensive abilities in the game, but ultimately his defence suffered. Ozolinsh was traded during the All-Star break to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for Matt Cullen, Pavel Trnka and a fourth round pick that turned out to be James Pemberton (who?). A horrific trade, but one that had to be made because of money, which is what drove the Panthers decisions back then.
Todd Bertuzzi wore the number 44 for all of seven games in the 2006-2007 season. Big Bert came to Florida in the Roberto Luongo deal, and ended up with a serious back injury after training camp which is what held him to the limited action. Like him or not, Bertuzzi could have been the tough power forward that Florida was lacking, but he never had a chance. Besides his injury, he will always be remembered as part of the Luongo deal, and Jacques Martin wanted nothing to do with him. Bertuzzi was traded to the Detroit Red Wings for Shawn Matthias and two draft choices. I will always wonder how things would have been for him had he stayed.
Gregory Campbell wore 44 in the 2004 and 2005-2006 season before switching to 11. Campbell had to work very hard for everything he got, and was a product of a team that wasn’t talented enough to help him elevate his game. A grinding fourth liner for most of his time here in Florida, Campbell earned his ice time by banging bodies, killing penalties, and dropping the mitts when he really shouldn’t have. Give him credit though, as he was a solid teammate. He became part of the Nathan Horton deal to Boston in the summer of 2010. Gregory has his name on the Stanley Cup so there’s that to make you feel better. Or not.
Nick Boynton a former first round pick of the Boston Bruins in 1999 came to the Panthers in 2008 as part of the Olli Jokinen trade. A tough, hard nosed, and sometimes slow footed defenceman, Boynton’s claim to fame was a shouting match with rookie head coach Peter DeBoer. Boynton wasn’t happy with his ice time and between periods of a crucial game down the stretch let the coach know about it. DeBoer and his inexperience decided to show the veteran player who was boss, and cut Nick’s ice time as well as benched him for some future games. That coincided with the Panthers falling out of the playoff race and being “run over” by teams since he was responsible for most of the toughness at the time. Boynton became a free agent after the season was over, was signed by the Anaheim Ducks for the 2009-2010 season before going to Chicago in the spring of 2010. Boynton was on the ice when Patrick Kane scored the series winning goal in the Stanley Cup final against the Philadelphia Flyers that year.
Jordan Leopold came to Florida in 2009 when the Panthers acquired his rights in the Jay Bouwmeester trade with the Calgary Flames. At the time I was livid with the deal feeling that the Panthers had held on to Jay for way too long, and that they could have received significantly more in return had he been dealt sooner. After seeing how Jay’s played, it has become apparent that he was worth every penny of a middle of the road defenceman and a third round draft pick. Leopold was actually a pretty decent defenceman for the Panthers who signed him to a one year deal right after the trade. He played in 61 games before he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a second round pick in 2010. That pick became Connor Brickley. In the end you could say that Jay Bouwmeester was traded for two draft picks, Brickley and Josh Birkholz (the pick from the Calgary trade).
Finally we are brought to present times where the number 44 is worn by Big G himself, Erik Gudbranson. Erik had a fine rookie season, as described here, and grew more and more as the season progressed. IHis toughness and hockey sense will improve as time goes on. The Panthers did the right thing by bringing him along slowly, and paring him up with veteran Ed Jovanovski. The young defender who has quickly become a fan favorite is expected to eventually become the teams captain.
It’s basically a mixed bag of players who’ve worn this double digit, with most of them performing with little fanfare. Erik will change that. His potential combined with his maturity will make this become a number that Panther fans will be proud of. Proud of enough to put it on the back of the sweater that they buy for everyone to see for years to come.
Fun fact: Players who have worn the number 44 were either drafted or traded for on draft day in the year of their acquisition. Here’s hoping that trend is over for the next 20 years.
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