Erik Gudbranson was looking for a big sophomore season with the Panthers after finishing his rookie year with a flourish in the opening round of last season’s playoffs.
Gudbranson was a defensive force in Florida’s seven-game series against the Devils last spring, yet his second season got off to a rocky start, and the 21-year-old defenseman never really recovered.
When the Panthers open training camp in a few months, Gudbranson said he will be strong after a full summer of workouts and skating as he tries to “figure out my game.”
Gudbranson, as well as the Panthers, expect his third NHL season to be a big one.
“He’s no longer a rookie,” coach Kevin Dineen said.
A shoulder injury sustained last September required surgery and all but wiped out the offseason work Gudbranson did as he didn’t play his first game until February.
“It was difficult,” Gudbranson said. “The season didn’t start very well on a personal front for me after hurting my shoulder. It was a tough season, but we tried to make it better and it just didn’t happen.”
When the Panthers selected Gudbranson with the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, general manager Dale Tallon spoke not only of Gudbranson’s size and skill, but also his maturity as well.
Although the Panthers weren’t pleased with how Gudbranson injured his shoulder — he was injured wakeboarding in Canada — they have praised him publicly for how he handled it.
With the NHL’s lockout not yet under way, Gudbranson called his coaches and teammates to apologize for getting hurt so close to the start of training camp. Of course, there was no training camp because of the lockout.
Gudbranson did lose playing time — and money — during his injury, as he was to be assigned to Florida’s minor-league team in San Antonio during the work stoppage.
“A few months in the AHL would have helped big-time,” Gudbranson said.
Instead of playing for the Rampage and getting quality ice time, Gudbranson was suspended by the team for being injured outside of hockey. Gudbranson spent the lockout rehabbing near his hometown of Ottawa.
When the lockout finally ended, Gudbranson returned to the Panthers, although he still was under suspension. When he was cleared to play a few weeks into the season, he briefly went to San Antonio before making his 2013 debut Feb. 7.
Statistically, Gudbranson’s season was an improvement over his rookie season, however slight.
Although he didn’t score any goals while playing in 32 of Florida’s 48 games, he did end up with four assists. Gudbranson’s hits-per-game went up from 2.13 to 2.5.
“He needs to get off to a better start,” Dineen said. “... I think we had real constructive conversations with him on what he has to work on this summer. He’s already taking steps to make sure that his preparation will be exactly what we’re looking for.”
Gudbranson is considered a key part of the Panthers organization and is part of a solid defensive core that likely will be bolstered by offseason additions.
Florida lost Jason Garrison as a free agent last year, and the hope is Gudbranson takes over that role as a shutdown defenseman with a good shot in the coming years.
Brian Campbell, Florida’s All-Star defenseman in 2012, said Gudbranson can take a lot away from this past season and use it as motivation moving forward.
“I remember when I was a healthy scratch and remember being in Buffalo being ticked off,” Campbell said. “I worked on my game, worked hard and wanted to get better. I worked hard in the offseason, studied and tried to be a complete player. I’m not saying he needs to do that, but it worked for me. Hopefully, he will do what it takes to get to the next level.”
The Panthers’ blue line was a mess when last season ended, with Gudbranson on the sideline with an injured wrist and Dmitry Kulikov needing knee surgery.
Florida was also without captain Ed Jovanovski — Gudbranson’s defensive partner for much of his rookie season — because of a degenerative hip condition. Jovanovski’s return is uncertain.
Youngsters Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak are expected to get a long look to make the Panthers out of training camp.
Gudbranson said if there is one positive for Florida to take out of last season’s disappointment was the opportunity young players had to play at the NHL level.
“Guys got to play some games and get some experience,” Gudbranson said. “They played well. Look at Petrovic playing in the last few games, and it looks like he’s been in the league for seven years. It’s exciting to see those guys come in. It’s good for the future.”