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Panthers need Kulikov, Gudbranson to take next step

NHL.com's 30 in 30:Florida Panthers

Sunday, 08.17.2014 / 9:41 AM / News
By Alain Poupart  - NHL.com Correspondent
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Panthers need Kulikov, Gudbranson to take next step
NHL.com\'s 30 in 30 takes a look at the Florida Panthers\' Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson.

Because of their great promise and their unique abilities, forwards Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau have become focal points for the Florida Panthers. They're also among the biggest reasons for optimism for a fan base that has had to constantly re-learn the meaning of patience.

But there are a couple of other first-round picks from past years upon whom the Panthers will rely heavily in the upcoming season, two players at the core of Florida's youth movement on defense.

Dmitry Kulikov was the last Panthers first-round pick before Dale Tallon became the team's general manager, while Erik Gudbranson was Tallon's first No. 1 pick. Each was a restricted free agent this summer before being re-signed, Kulikov to a three-year contract and Gudbranson to a two-year contract.

As of mid-August, six of the eight defensemen on the Panthers roster were 24 or younger, including Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. The two exceptions were Willie Mitchell, 37, and Brian Campbell, 35.

Though Ekblad very well might make the Panthers' opening-night roster, Kulikov and Gudbranson have the most NHL experience of the young defensemen and therefore face the biggest expectations.

That's especially true for Kulikov, who despite being only 23 already has played in 313 career games, above the 300-game threshold Tallon always mentions as the mark when NHL defensemen fully develop their game.

"He's got so much ability," Tallon said after Kulikov was re-signed. "It's time for him now to make a statement and be a leader on our team. He's got all the ability in the world. It's now just a matter of channeling it in the right direction and doing it consistently. He's still a young guy and he's got tremendous ability. They're hard to find, those guys."

Kulikov averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time each of the past three seasons, although his 2013-14 campaign was marked by the first healthy scratch of his career after a series of bad turnovers over a stretch of a few games.

Gudbranson, the third pick in 2010, averaged 17:59 in his third season but also was inconsistent. He now has played 169 NHL games, meaning that going by Tallon's benchmark he won't reach his full potential until the 2015-16 season.

Either way, Tallon has high hopes for him and thinks Gudbranson, like the rest of his defensemen, will benefit from the presence of Roberto Luongo in net from the start of the season.

"Now he's going to have a little more support," Tallon said during the Panthers development camp. "Obviously, goaltending is a big plus. Having good goaltending allows a young defenseman to make a mistake or two without really worrying about it because they can cover up for that. It's all positive, it's all good. [Gudbranson has] got great leadership qualities, his intangibles, the toughness, mean and skilled and all those things. Plus, he has the passion."

Gudbranson is excited about the future of the Panthers' defensive corps.

"It's shaping up to be a real force," Gudbranson said after signing his new contract. "I think a great part is we're all good skaters. We're all going to be fast, we're going to be able to move the puck well and we bring some size as well. Having Willie come in this year, from what I've heard about him, he's helped many guys around the League that he's played with become better defensive players. He's really simplified the D-zone for them. He's a huge addition to our team and certainly a huge addition to the way we're going to play this year."

For all 30 in 30 stories go to NHL.com/30in30stories.

UPCOMING EVENTS

SCHEDULE

HOME
AWAY
PROMOTIONAL

STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 PIT 30 20 6 4 98 71 44
2 TBL 33 20 10 3 110 87 43
3 NYI 31 21 10 0 99 89 42
4 MTL 32 20 10 2 87 80 42
5 DET 32 17 7 8 92 80 42
6 TOR 31 19 9 3 109 87 41
7 NYR 29 15 10 4 89 79 34
8 FLA 29 13 8 8 66 75 34
9 WSH 30 14 10 6 86 81 34
10 BOS 31 15 13 3 78 81 33
11 OTT 30 12 12 6 80 86 30
12 CBJ 30 13 15 2 72 95 28
13 NJD 32 11 15 6 74 94 28
14 BUF 32 13 17 2 62 100 28
15 PHI 30 11 14 5 80 90 27
16 CAR 30 8 19 3 62 87 19

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
N. Bjugstad 29 12 7 3 19
A. Ekblad 29 5 13 6 18
J. Jokinen 28 3 13 -1 16
B. Boyes 29 5 9 0 14
J. Hayes 22 7 6 2 13
J. Huberdeau 26 3 9 3 12
V. Trocheck 19 2 9 4 11
S. Bergenheim 19 5 4 2 9
T. Fleischmann 27 3 5 8 8
S. Upshall 18 3 5 0 8
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
A. Montoya 2 2 2 .915 2.27
R. Luongo 11 6 6 .925 2.30
 
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