The Florida Panthers will have a much different looking defensive unit next season with three who started in their opening round playoff series against the Islanders elsewhere.
Two of them, however, are still in town.
Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson remain in South Florida, spending their mornings at the Glacier Ice and Snow Arena in Lighthouse Point. It is here where former Florida captain Olli Jokinen holds his South Florida Hockey Academy and helps get NHL players get ready for their upcoming season with intense on and off-ice workouts.
By the looks of things, both Kulikov and Gudbranson are ready to roll.
“It has been a good summer,’’ said Gudbranson, the third overall pick of the 2010 draft by the Panthers who was traded to Vancouver in June.
“I just started skating two weeks ago so there’s work to be done with a month to go before camp. I’m going to amp things up here, get on the ice a few more times a week and start feeling good about my game.’’
Both Gudbranson and Kulikov say they were taken aback by the trades especially following the seasons both they and the Panthers enjoyed last year.
The two players had perhaps their best seasons and were integral parts of a Florida team which set franchise records for victories (47) and points (103) all while winning the Atlantic Division.
With Brian Campbell leaving to return to Chicago as a free agent and Willie Mitchell building a hotel and marina out west and expected to retire, four of Florida’s starting six from Opening Night’s win over Philadelphia won’t be back for the 2016 opener.
Kulikov is also getting ready for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey as a member of Team Russia.
“I had heard some rumors but was really surprised because I hadn’t heard that Buffalo was one of the teams that wanted me,’’ said Kulikov, who was sent to Buffalo for fellow defenseman Mark Pysyk and a swap of draft picks on the second day of the NHL draft in June.
“I’m excited to change the scenery a little bit, go on to a new team. It felt right for some reason. After being here so many years … There were times I wanted Florida to trade me, then we drafted some good players and the team started to turn around and it was fun, so, at that point, I wanted to stay. But when the trade came, it felt like a good opportunity for me to step up my game.”
Although both players were surprised to be moved, they both seem genuinely excited for their next step.
Kulikov, who can be an unrestricted free agent following this upcoming season, is going on a quick trip to Buffalo before returning to continue his workouts with Jokinen, former Panthers Tomas Vokoun and Radek Dvorak as well as Joni Ahmavuo and Petr Sykora in northeast Broward County.
The Sabres, despite finishing near the bottom of the standings again last year, have a lot of young, exciting players and are could be a playoff challenger in Florida’s division this season.
“Buffalo has a good team and although they didn’t make the playoffs, you saw how solid they were,’’ Kulikov said. “This is a great challenge, a great opportunity. I am excited and I know the fans are excited for this season. We’re going to compete.’’
As for Gudbranson, he took his baseball cap off before doing an interview on video, saying “Dale [Tallon] would kill me if I wore a backward cap on camera.”
Decked out in new Canucks workout and on-ice gear, Gudbranson said he’s excited to play in a hockey-mad market such as Vancouver although he makes sure it’s known how much he loved playing in Florida and being part of the group which made hockey – and the Panthers – relevant in South Florida once again.
“There’s a buzz around hockey here now and I’d like to think that, as part of the Panthers the past few years, we created it,’’ he said. “It’s sort of sad to leave, but hopefully this thing continues to grow and hockey becomes the prominent sport down here.”
Gudbranson signed a one-year deal with the Panthers earlier this offseason before being traded, his price tag only going up in his next round of negotiations. Although the Panthers didn’t seem willing to pay that price tag, perhaps Vancouver will.
“I was surprised about the trade, but Vancouver is a huge hockey market and I’m excited to be going there,” said Gudbranson, sent west for forward Jared McCann.
“This is a team held in pretty high regard. On an individual level you have to be ready to make a difference. I’m excited to keep going this summer, step right in there. It was a shock to be traded, I didn’t see it coming. But it’s a business. I’ll keep going.”
One of Florida’s returning defensive pieces is Steven Kampfer and he has joined his former teammates at Glacier.
Kampfer played in pain throughout last season and is coming back from knee surgery he said relieved the problem “immediately.”
“From December on, I had been playing in pain,’’ said Kampfer, who enters his third season with the Panthers. “When I had the surgery, I got out of bed and wasn’t in pain anymore. That was a breath of fresh air. Now I know everything is good. I have no lingering affects.’’
For Kampfer, knowing he will be fighting for time on Florida’s revamped blueline helps fuel his offseason workouts.
It appears Florida will go into camp with nine defenseman – including rookie Ian McCoshen and trade-deadline acquisition Jakub Kindle – battling for playing time.
“We have a lot of d-men,” Kamfer said. “You have to make sure you play your game. I know what the coaches want from me. I just have to be ready for camp. It’s going to be a battle. I want to play every night. I have to show that.”
Kampfer will also be wearing a new number as Yandle negotiated a deal – Kampfer refuses to give details – for the No. 3.
Kampfer, like Kulikov, will wear No. 77 this season.
The number holds special meaning to owner Vinnie Viola and his family as he graduated from West Point in 1977.
Kampfer said he’ll wear it proudly.
“I had a feeling when Keith signed he would want the number since he wore it all those years in Arizona,’’ he said. “I hadn’t heard from him, so I assumed he would take No. 93. But that’s retired [for Bill Torrey]. … To wear No. 77 with the history and tradition it means to the Viola family is special. I’m looking forward to wearing it.
“I really had no ties to No. 3. When I got here, they asked if I wanted to wear it. I said sure. That was it.”