Florida Panthers

Fresh start excites rising Panthers defensemen

Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson have a lot in common this year. Not only are they young defensemen for the Panthers, but they also find themselves on the ice together quite a bit be it as a regular pairing or on the power play.

And both players wouldn’t mind forgetting last season ever happened.

As the Panthers prepare for Thursday’s season opener in Dallas, a lot of their potential success seems to depend on how well Kulikov and Gudbranson play.

Last year both seemed to rush themselves into the lineup, just one of a few things that are different this season. Both players have been able to take part in the entire offseason conditioning program and full training camp because they were healthy.

“It’s been great. My shoulder is 100 percent. I’ve been able to give some hits and take some hits,” said Kulikov, who had offseason shoulder surgery. “Everything seems to be working properly. There hasn’t been any discomfort.”

Kulikov had an OK season last year, one in which he jumped into the lineup after spending the lockout playing in Russia. Kulikov missed Florida’s brief training camp as he didn’t have a contract, and once that was settled, he didn’t play in the opener against Carolina after a long flight back from Russia.

This year, Kulikov has spent all but two weeks in South Florida as he rehabilitated his shoulder before joining his teammates for workouts.

“I have a big responsibility this season,” said Kulikov, who begins his fifth full NHL season and doesn’t turn 23 until Oct. 29.

“I spent the entire summer here, and I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve been in. Having a normal season with normal preparation is something that’s in the back of my mind. Last season, we didn’t know if we would have a season. It was a mess. This season is definitely a different story.”

Gudbranson was back at practice Monday after leaving Saturday’s preseason game from being boarded in a game against Tampa Bay.

Things never seemed to fall in place for Gudbranson last season as he had a rough sophomore slump after showing so much promise — especially during his showing in the playoffs against the Devils.

Gudbranson injured his shoulder wakeboarding in Canada just before the lockout started and spent most of the lockout time rehabilitating. After a brief stint in the minors, Gudbranson joined the team in February and never got into rhythm.

This preseason, Gudbranson has been one of Florida’s better defensemen and scored three goals.

“Last season was tough,” Gudbranson said. “Everyone else went through the lockout, so there’s no excuse. But it’s definitely nice to have the full camp, the full preparation for the season, get into the game physically. This has been a regular progress, and I’ve been excited about it.”

Whitney signs

Defenseman Ryan Whitney officially signed a one-year deal worth $900,000 with the Panthers on Monday and is expected to join the team Tuesday.

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