During the dog days of summer, NHL news can be scarce but hockey fans are an insatiable breed so to fill up some of those empty summer spaces, we will be doing individual profiles of the Florida Panthers players. In these profiles, we will dish on the players’ previous season, what we can expect next year and also take a look back at their careers. We hope these little pieces help all you Panther fans retain your sanity while we hold on in anticipation of the new season this fall.
The word that comes to mind when reflecting on Erik Gudbranson‘s first two seasons in the NHL is: underwhelming. Gudbranson, the third player picked in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, has shown flashes at times but other times he has looked, like a polar bear in death valley, completely out of his element.
When he is at his best, the 21 year old blends the ability to physically dominate a game with intelligent defense and a knack for beautiful forward thinking rink-stretching passes. That was the Erik Gudbranson we saw in the Panthers’ playoff series against the Devils in 2012. Watching those seven games, you got the distinctive feeling the Gudbranson had finally arrived. He was a force. He physically dominated play in the corners, he landed crushing blow after crushing blow and he pissed the hell out of the entire Devils roster.
The best part about that series was, at the beginning it was clear that the Devils had Gudbranson singled out as a player they could take advantage of. A rookie 20 year old defenseman in his first ever playoff series? You can bet your opponent is going to be gunning for you. Gudbranson was faced with a challenge, he could either elevate his game and stand his ground like Gandalf on the bridge of Kazad Dum or he could shrink in the face of the Devils’ incessant barrage. Gudbranson chose the former and not only did he stand his ground but he pushed back and that moment, that series, is all we really need to know about his potential.
The plan for Gudbranson going into his sophomore season was to build off his excellent play in the Devils series. Unfortunately, whatever momentum he created against New Jersey was dampened to a point where the series might as well have never happened. The lockout hurt, but what hurt more was the shoulder injury he sustained in September that forced him to undergo surgery and kept him out until February. That he injured his shoulderwhile wakeboarding with his friends on Lake Ontario opened the door for many to ask questions about his maturity which was more than a little bit unwarranted. Is there an argument to be made that a professional athlete should probably avoid risky activities like wake boarding, especially when they are ostensibly about to start training in a matter of weeks? Yes but are you really going to be able to tell a 20 year old kid that he cannot go wake boarding with his friends? There is an inherent risk that comes with being young and Gudbranson just got unlucky.
All that aside, the shoulder injury sucked for Gudbranson because it cost him the invaluable opportunity to play for the Panthers’ AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, during the lockout. Instead he was stuck rehabbing in Ontario and when he rejoined the Panthers in February he was tentative and rusty and it showed in his play.
It would be wrong to say Gudbranson regressed in his second season in the league, but he certainly did not make any huge improvements. His sophomore season was equivalent to treading water or running in place and his 2012-13 numbers indicate that there is a lot of room for growth. While plus/minus is not a stat that should be heavily relied upon, it has to say something when you finish -22, last in the entire league. Well actually tied for last, with fellow Panther Brian Campbell. The Panthers were, on the whole, a terrible defensive team with goalies that set the standard for consistency with their awful play, so Gudbranson’s -22 should not be completely damning but still it is not the kind of number a young defender is going to highlight on his resume.
Gudbranson’s other stats do not present him in a favorable light either. Of Panthers who played in 30 or more games last season, Gudbranson ranked 12th of 14 with a -6.9 Corsi Relative (props to Behind the Net for the numbers) which means, when he was on the ice, the Panthers allowed 6.9 more attempted shots per 60 minutes. It should also be said that he was not playing against the cream of the crop, he had a -.647 Corsi Quality of Competetion (CorsiQoC), again 12th out of 14 Panthers (at least 30 games played). To put that into perspective, Brian Campbell faced the toughest competition .519 Corsi QoC while George Parros faced the weakest -1.280. So Campbell’s -22 can be explained by alluding to the fact that he played for a bad team with bad goalies and he played against the best players his opponent had to offer but Gudbranson cannot fall back on that same argument.
The last number I will talk about (I promise!) is penalties taken per 60 minutes. Last season Gudbranson took .9 penalties per 60 minutes, third most on the Panthers behind George Parros (1.4) and Dmitry Kulikov (1.2). For a defenseman, taking a lot of penalties usually means you are getting beat a lot and you have to revert to illegal plays to stop your opponent.
You do not need a calculator to conclude that Erik Gudbranson played some shaky defense at times last season but these numbers strengthen the argument that going into his third season, the Panther d-man has a lot of room to grow.
A key to remember in all of this is the fact that Erik Gudbranson is a 21 year old with only 111 NHL games under his belt. Defensemen take time to develop and find their games and that is precisely what Gudbranson will try to do this season. Both the Panther organization and Gudbranson acknowledge the fact that he had a rough season last year and his third year has to be better.
Talking to the Miami Herald about last year, Gudbranson had this to say, “It was difficult, the season didn’t start very well on a personal front for me after hurting my shoulder. It was a tough season, but we tried to make it better and it just didn’t happen.” Head coach Kevin Dineen echoed that statement with his own, “He needs to get off to a better start, I think we had real constructive conversations with him on what he has to work on this summer. He’s already taking steps to make sure that his preparation will be exactly what we’re looking for.”
Coming into training camp at full strength will be a huge boon for Gudbranson as he prepares for his third NHL season. He demonstrated in the Devils series that he is not the type of player to shrink in the face of a challenge and the gauntlet has been laid out again. Going into year three, the Panthers need to see improvement from their former first round pick. Youth and inexperience are sufficient excuses only to a point. This season will be paramount for Erik Gudbranson’s future. Will he again rise to the occasion? I think so, but we will have to wait to find out.