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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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EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 p - WSH 82 56 18 8 252 193 120
2 x - PIT 82 48 26 8 245 203 104
3 y - FLA 82 47 26 9 239 203 103
4 x - NYR 82 46 27 9 236 217 101
5 x - NYI 82 45 27 10 232 216 100
6 x - TBL 82 46 31 5 227 201 97
7 x - PHI 82 41 27 14 214 218 96
8 x - DET 82 41 30 11 211 224 93
9 BOS 82 42 31 9 240 230 93
10 CAR 82 35 31 16 198 226 86
11 OTT 82 38 35 9 236 247 85
12 NJD 82 38 36 8 184 208 84
13 MTL 82 38 38 6 221 236 82
14 BUF 82 35 36 11 201 222 81
15 CBJ 82 34 40 8 219 252 76
16 TOR 82 29 42 11 198 246 69

STATS

2015-2016 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
J. Jagr 79 27 39 23 66
J. Jokinen 81 18 42 25 60
A. Barkov 66 28 31 18 59
J. Huberdeau 76 20 39 17 59
V. Trocheck 76 25 28 15 53
R. Smith 82 25 25 19 50
A. Ekblad 78 15 21 18 36
N. Bjugstad 67 15 19 -8 34
B. Campbell 82 6 25 31 31
B. Pirri 52 11 13 -4 24
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 35 19 6 .922 2.35
A. Montoya 12 7 3 .919 2.18

 
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