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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
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.

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EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 x - MTL 76 47 21 8 200 169 102
2 x - NYR 75 47 21 7 228 177 101
3 TBL 76 46 23 7 244 198 99
4 PIT 76 42 23 11 210 190 95
5 NYI 77 45 27 5 235 215 95
6 DET 75 40 23 12 220 206 92
7 WSH 76 41 25 10 223 188 92
8 BOS 76 38 25 13 201 196 89
9 OTT 75 37 26 12 218 203 86
10 FLA 76 35 26 15 190 207 85
11 PHI 76 30 29 17 198 219 77
12 CBJ 75 36 35 4 207 232 76
13 NJD 76 31 33 12 168 194 74
14 CAR 75 28 36 11 174 204 67
15 TOR 76 28 42 6 198 244 62
16 BUF 75 20 47 8 144 254 48

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
J. Huberdeau 73 13 36 9 49
N. Bjugstad 72 24 19 -7 43
J. Jagr 71 15 26 -2 41
J. Jokinen 75 8 33 -2 41
B. Boyes 73 12 23 10 35
A. Ekblad 75 11 24 11 35
J. Hayes 66 18 13 -5 31
A. Barkov 65 14 17 -1 31
B. Campbell 76 3 22 2 25
B. Pirri 43 20 2 5 22
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 26 17 12 .921 2.33
A. Montoya 5 7 2 .888 3.08
 
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