“They are the future of the franchise,’’ Gord Murphy said soon after taking the job in July.
That future is on display in Coral Springs this week, with one of those top young d-men front and center.
Erik Gudbranson, the Panthers top pick at the June Draft, has looked good in his three days of rookie camp practice and knows Murphy – the Panthers defensive assistant – isn’t the only one paying attention.
Gudbranson says his goal in the coming weeks is to play so well the Panthers have no choice but to sign him and put him on the opening day roster.
“I expected this to be difficult and I can’t sell it short. It’s been a grind,’’ said Gudbranson, 18, the third overall pick of the 2010 Draft behind ‘can’t miss’ prospects Taylor Hall (Edmonton) and Tyler Seguin (Boston).
“The Panthers wouldn’t have drafted me if I wasn’t in their plans. I came here on par with everyone else, just trying to make the team. My time will come. Hopefully I make it this year. I’m going to work hard to impress my coaches and our GM.’’
When the Panthers took Gudbranson, the talk was how he was expected to challenge for a roster spot. At the time, the Panthers blue line wasn’t very deep and with Dmitry Kulikov making such an impact after being taken 14th overall in 2009, things looked good for the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Gudbranson.
General manager Dale Tallon threw a curve at Gudbranson’s chances to make the team this year as the summer went along. When Panthers camp officially opens Saturday, there will be seven NHL defensemen – not counting Keaton Ellerby, who played in 22 games last year -- vying for playing time.
The Panthers will likely carry seven into the season, playing six each night.
Murphy, an original member of the Panthers who played in Florida from 1993-99, says Gudbranson shouldn’t worry about “trying to hit a home run” on each shift and play within himself. The Panthers are excited to have him in the fold; if he deserves a chance to play, he will.
“I see a big, strong, athletic, competitive, mean defenseman in him,’’ said Murphy, who spent the past seven seasons as an assistant in Columbus. “He has a lot of qualities that would lead you to believe he’ll be a good defenseman in the league. He shouldn’t look too far down the road, just stay in the moment. It’s going to come. He has the ability. We’re going to be smart with him and develop him the right way.’’
Gudbranson is expected to see plenty of playing time in the two rookie games held Wednesday and Thursday against visiting Nashville in Coral Springs as well as preseason games which begin Tuesday in Carolina. Gudbranson is scheduled to start Wednesday’s game alongside Colby Robak.
“I think he’s looked good. He’s getting better and better,’’ said coach Pete DeBoer, who begins his third season. “Him and Robak were outstanding today. They’re like men even though they’re really just teenagers. I’m excited to see what they do against the big guys in the big camp.’’
Gudbranson could start the season with the Panthers and be sent back to his junior team in Kingston, Ontario. Florida can play him in nine games and then send him back without burning his first contract year.
For now, however, Gudbranson says he’s focusing on getting better. The Panthers have a solid core of veterans who will help him along as he goes through his first big league camp. That can be daunting for a young player, although Gudbranson’s maturity has impressed.
“He’s from my hometown and I’ve heard nothing but good things about him,’’ said assistant captain Bryan Allen. “There’s pressure on him and that’s not a bad thing. But you don’t want it to seem like it’s now-or-never. I think you give him the opportunity. The door isn’t closed to anyone, but you can’t force anything.’’
Heralded rookie Jacob Markstrom was not on the ice Tuesday morning and didn’t participate in the rookie scrimmage due to an undisclosed injury DeBoer described as minor.
Markstrom is not on the initial lineup for Wednesday’s game against the Predators. Marc Cheverie, who played at the University of Denver last season, will start in net for Florida.
Here are the lines for the Panthers in the opening game against the Preds:
The rookies will be back on the ice at 9 a.m. at the IcePlex, scheduled to go until 11. Then the veterans take over, with -- if they do it like today -- two sessions. The first group today went for about an hour and consisted of most of the regulars. The second group had a few regulars (David Booth, Rostislav Olesz, Michael Frolik) but I don't know how they decide who goes when.
THE ROOKIE GAMES
-- When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.; Thursday, noon.-- Where: Coral Springs IcePlex, 3299 Sportsplex Drive, Coral Springs (1 mile east of Sawgrass Expressway on Sample Road)
-- Admission: $5 donation to Panthers Community Foundation.