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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 ET / News
By Alain Poupart  - NHL.com Correspondent
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Panthers need Kulikov, Gudbranson to take next step

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.

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STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 WSH 53 40 9 4 175 120 84
2 FLA 54 32 16 6 150 122 70
3 NYR 54 31 18 5 153 135 67
4 NYI 53 29 18 6 150 131 64
5 DET 54 28 18 8 136 132 64
6 BOS 54 29 19 6 159 148 64
7 TBL 53 29 20 4 140 127 62
8 PIT 53 27 19 7 138 135 61
9 NJD 55 27 21 7 122 123 61
10 MTL 55 27 24 4 147 145 58
11 PHI 53 24 20 9 127 138 57
12 CAR 54 24 21 9 130 142 57
13 OTT 56 25 25 6 157 173 56
14 CBJ 56 22 28 6 140 173 50
15 BUF 55 21 28 6 125 151 48
16 TOR 53 19 25 9 122 149 47

STATS

2015-2016 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
J. Jagr 51 17 21 14 38
J. Jokinen 54 11 27 12 38
J. Huberdeau 54 10 28 12 38
V. Trocheck 54 17 18 3 35
A. Barkov 43 16 19 13 35
R. Smith 54 18 16 12 34
B. Pirri 50 11 13 -4 24
A. Ekblad 50 10 13 20 23
B. Campbell 54 5 17 20 22
N. Bjugstad 39 9 10 -1 19
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 24 13 5 .928 2.17
A. Montoya 8 3 1 .929 2.01

 
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