Yesterday we took a look at the Florida Panther’s goalie situation heading into the season. Today we will continue our preview of the 2013 Florida Panthers by looking at this years crop of defenders. This years top six defenders should look pretty similar to the top six last year. The gang is all back except for Jason Garrison who signed a free agent deal with the Vancouver Canucks. He should be ably replaced by Filip Kuba previously of the Ottawa Senators. Brian Campbell, Mike Weaver, Ed Jovanovski, Dimitri Kulikov, and Erik Gudbranson should all be returning to round out the Panthers defensive lineup. Injury fill-ins Keaton Ellerby and Tyson Strachan should also be in the picture as well as Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic, a pair of youngsters who could compete for a starting spot this year.
Here is my take on what the starting six could look like in 2013:
Now let’s take a closer look at the Panther’s defense along with my 2013 projections:
Brian Campbell (Age 33)
Last Season: 82 GP, 4 G, 49 A, 53 Pts
Brian Campbell was the key piece to the Florida Panthers in the 2011-12 season. Coming over from Chicago, Campbell exceeded all expectations and his play was a huge reason why the Panthers made the playoffs. Playing in every game last year, Campbell anchored the defense as well as quarter-backed the offense. His guiding hand on the power-play was a large reason why the Panther’s power play ranked 7th in the NHL. Campbell had the second most assists for an NHL defenseman last season and his 53 points were enough to tie him with Dustin Byfuglien for second in the league trailing only Erik Karlsson who tallied an astounding 78 points. (Source) In addition to all that, Campbell was named to the All-Star team and won the Lady Byng Trophy which is given to the most sportsmanlike player (Campbell only had 6 penalty minutes last season!) (Source)
What can we expect from Campbell in 2013? More of the same. Brian Campbell is about as steady as they come. Playing every game last year and leading the league in time on ice per game (26:53 per game) it was clear that Campbell was the most important Panther. His contributions should be key to the Panthers success in 2013 and it is a safe bet to assume Campbell will play with the first defensive pairing for even strength and power play situations.
2013 Projection: 48 GP, 3 G, 27 A, 30 Pts
Mike Weaver (age 34)
Last Season: 82 GP, 0 G, 16 A, 16 Pts
Mike Weaver, like Campbell, was an iron-man last season playing in every single game. His contributions on offense do not compare with a player like Campbell’s but he made up for his lake of offensive output with outstanding defensive play. Weaver is a fun player to watch due to his scrappy nature and his willingness to go up against forwards that tower over him. His hard work payed off in the playoffs as he scored a key goal against the Devils in round one. Weaver will be a top four defender for the Panthers this season and he will likely pair with Campbell.
2013 Projection: 48 GP, 1 G, 7 A, 8 Pts
Dimitri Kulikov (age 22)
Last Season: 58 GP, 4 G, 24 A, 28 Pts
Kulikov made some important strides in his third season with the Panthers. He missed 23 games with a knee injury but still managed career highs in assists and points. Kulikov’s defense has steadily improved and while he may not have developed into the offensive player Panthers fans have hoped he would, it is important to remember that he is only 22 years old.
Kulikov has been playing in the KHL during the lockout and has still not signed at deal with the Panthers. As a restricted free agent, the Panthers hold his exclusive rights and a deal is expected to get done. GM Dale Tallon recently talked about the process of signing Kulikov saying, “we’re still talking, obviously we want him in our line up and we’ll do everything in our power to get him here” (source). Fans are hoping that a deal gets done soon so Kulikov can be with the team on opening night. I think its reasonable to expect more improvement form Kulikov this year as he become more experienced in the NHL. Last year he was slowed by his knee injury and even when he came back it was clear he was not 100%. If Kulikov remains healthy than he could put up strong numbers for the Panthers in 2013.
2013 Projection: 40 GP, 4 G, 15 A 19 Pts
Filip Kuba (age 35)
Last Season (with Ottawa): 73 GP, 6 G 26 A, 32 Pts
Kuba was brought in to replace the roster spot vacated by Jason Garrison. Garrison has moved on to greener pastures signing a huge deal with the Vancouver Canucks worth $4.6 million per year for six years. While Kuba is not expected to replicate Garrison’s scoring output (16 goals), he should contribute on the power play and be a top four defender. I would be interested in seeing a Kuba-Kulikov pairing. Kuba played opposite Erik Karlsson last season and it is possible that part of Karlsson’s offensive success last season was due in part to having Kuba as a line mate. Kuba is a veteran who plays solid defense so pairing him with an offensive minded defenseman may allow them to do more things on the offensive end knowing they have Kuba as a defensive safety net. This may just be wishful thinking but a Kuba-Kulikov pairing could end up being mutually beneficial for both players.
2013 Projection: 43 GP, 2 G, 15 A, 17 Pts
Erik Gudbranson (age 21)
Last Season: 72 GP, 2 G, 6 A, 8 Pts
Erik Gudbranson established himself with the team last season after being given an extended tryout during the first couple games of the year to show what he could do. Gudbranson finished the season with a +/- of -19 which indicates that there is room for improvement. Watching him last season, I saw flashes of the ability that convinced the Panthers to take him third in the 2010 Entry Draft, but those flashes of brilliance came along with numerous defensive miscues.
Gudbranson hurt his shoulder wake boarding during the lockout. The injury and the nature of the injury caused Gudbranson to be suspended indefinitely by the Panthers. There is no ill will between Gudbranson and the organization and as soon as Gudbranson is medically cleared to play, his suspension will be lifted. GM Dale Tallon mentioned Gudbranson in a recent press conference saying “we still have high expectations for him. He’s a great kid and he’s going to be a great leader in our franchise” (source). Tallon went on to say that if Gudbranson did not get injured, he would have played for the Panther’s AHL affiliate the San Antonio Rampage, getting “a lot of ice time”. (source)
The injury is an unfortunate setback for Gudbranson because playing a lot in the AHL during the lockout would have been great for his development. It is still not clear whether Gudbranson will be healthy in time for the start of the season and even if he is, there is the possibility he may play a few games with the Rampage to get his legs back. (Source) When he does get back on the ice, Gudbranson should show the improvements that come with more and more NHL experience. Hopefully he can eliminate some of his past defensive blunders and begin to contribute more consistently on the offensive end.
2013 Prediction: 38 GP, 5 G, 10 A, 15 Pts
Ed Jovanovski (age 36)
Last Season: 66 GP, 3 G, 10 A, 13 Pts
Ed Jovanovski made his return last season to the team that drafted him all the way back in 1994. Jovanovski is no longer the spry youngster he was back in his first stint with the Panthers as he looked to have lost a few steps but still remained a steady defensive option. A hand injury caused him to miss fourteen games last season. (Source)
We can expect more of the same from Jovo and it is likely he will be paired up with Gudbranson as he was last season. I for one would be okay with Jovanovski playing a smaller role this year allowing for some of the Panther youngsters to get shots playing with the big club.
2013 Prediction: 30 GP, 1 G, 4 A, 5 Pts
The rest of the bunch:
With four out of the six projected defensive starters in their 30’s, it is a safe bet that the team will be dealing with some injuries this year. The Panthers have strong defensive depth with players with NHL experience ready to step in should anyone get hurt. Keaton Ellerby is only 24 years old and played in 40 games for the Panthers last year. He filled in for injuries and even played in Gudbranson’s place whenever Coach Dineen thought Gudbranson could use a day out of the lineup. Ellerby has potential to see a lot of playing time this year either because of injuries or simply players underperforming.
The 28 year old Tyson Strachan played in 15 games last season and has proved that he can handle playing at the NHL level. He should also be called up here and there to give players a rest or to fill in for injured players.
The Panthers have two prospects currently playing for the San Antonio Rampage in Colby Robak (22) and Alex Petrovic (20). Both have bright futures with the team but face a logjam of players ahead of them. They should at least be given a shot to make the team in this years brief training camp. It is unlikely either makes the team out of the gate but I would not be surprised to see either player this season.