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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 54 40 10 4 178 124 84
2 FLA 56 32 18 6 153 132 70
3 NYR 55 31 18 6 157 140 68
4 BOS 55 30 19 6 163 150 66
5 DET 55 28 18 9 138 134 65
6 TBL 54 30 20 4 144 130 64
7 NYI 54 29 19 6 153 137 64
8 PIT 54 28 19 7 139 136 63
9 NJD 56 28 21 7 124 124 63
10 CAR 56 25 21 10 137 146 60
11 PHI 54 24 20 10 128 140 58
12 MTL 56 27 25 4 151 151 58
13 OTT 57 25 26 6 159 177 56
14 CBJ 57 23 28 6 144 175 52
15 BUF 56 22 28 6 131 155 50
16 TOR 54 20 25 9 127 151 49

STATS

2015-2016 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
J. Jagr 53 17 23 13 40
J. Huberdeau 56 11 29 10 40
J. Jokinen 56 11 27 12 38
V. Trocheck 56 17 18 2 35
A. Barkov 43 16 19 13 35
R. Smith 56 18 16 11 34
B. Pirri 52 11 13 -4 24
A. Ekblad 52 11 13 17 24
B. Campbell 56 5 18 20 23
N. Bjugstad 41 9 10 -5 19
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 24 14 5 .924 2.29
A. Montoya 8 4 1 .926 2.06

 
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