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Panthers Excited About World Juniors

Hope everyone had a great Christmas. Now onto Mike Tyson's favorite holiday -- Boxing Day!

Will have more tomorrow as the Panthers return to practice. Here's tomorrow's story on Florida's young guys at the world juniors...

-- The Panthers may not have a game until Monday, but some of the organization's top young talent will be on display starting Sunday as one of the top international junior hockey tournaments kicks off in Buffalo.

Five members of the Panthers organization will be taking part in the International Ice Hockey Federation's Under-20 Championships – a tournament better known as the world juniors.

Of those five players, three were recent first round picks by the Panthers – and the team's front office is excited about watching these players perform in a high-pressure situation such as this.

“This definitely shows that we're building depth within the organization,'' assistant general manager Mike Santos said. “We're trying to bring in young guys and give them an opportunity.''

One of Dale Tallon's first orders of business when he took over the franchise last May was upgrading the talent within the organization.

Florida's first three picks of the 2010 Draft are playing here: Defenseman Erik Gudbranson (third overall) and winger Quinton Howden (25th) will play for Team Canada; center Nick Bjugstad (19th) is representing the defending tournament champion United States. Drew Shore (USA) was a second round pick in 2009 and Joonas Donskoi (Finland) was a fourth-rounder in 2010.

The Panthers held the third overall pick last June based on their poor record. The team acquired the other two first round picks through trades with Boston and Vancouver.

“We have some talented players, but Dale is going to put them in the lineup only when they earn it and are ready for it,'' said Scott Luce, the Panthers amateur scouting director. “They have to match our need and have to earn it. There are no more freebies as far as young guys getting spots in the lineup. Dale has set the bar high. He's told them this is just the start.''

Many in the United States don't know much about the world juniors based on the lack of coverage over the years. That has been changing recently, and the NHL Network will show 15 games starting Sunday. The tournament's big games are being played at the Sabres' arena near downtown Buffalo.

Twelve current Panthers have played in this tournament, with Bryan McCabe (Canada), David Booth (USA) and Shawn Matthias (Canada) winning gold.

In Canada, coverage of the tournament borders on that on the Stanley Cup Final and most Canadian hockey fans – well, those who aren't coming across the border to attend games in Buffalo -- are glued to their television sets for the duration of the tournament.

Last year's championship game between Canada and the United States was watched by over 5 million in Canada – making it the highest-rated event ever on sports channel TSN. Team USA won 6-5 in an overtime thriller. Canada had won the tournament five straight years before last year's loss in Saskatoon.

“Being from Canada, you're expected to win,'' Matthias said. “If you don't come home with the gold medal, it's a failure. Everyone from Canada expects Canada to win a gold medal and they should be the favorites.''

The Panthers will be looking at Erik Gudbranson to have a big tournament after he seemingly made the team out of training camp. The team and Gudbranson's agent couldn't come to a deal and Gudbranson was sent back to his junior team.

“A lot of people talked about Gudbranson being with us this year, but that wasn't the best thing for his development,'' Santos said. “The right thing for him is to play as an 18-year-old boy with the top players at his level and play at the world juniors. When his time is right, he'll be an NHL player for us.''

Florida is also very interested in seeing how center Nick Bjugstad will handle this type of environment. Bjugstad, 18, is a freshman at the University of Minnesota who should be a senior in high school. He accelerated his studies so he could graduate early and play for the Gophers. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound center was Minnesota's Mr. high school Hockey last season.

Bjugstad's season got off to a slow start after he came down with mono, but he's been playing better as he has been able to put a little weight back on. Bjugstad's play during Team USA selection camp has been praised by coach Keith Allain.

“I’m learning fast, I think, and I’m enjoying it as much as I can,'' Bjugstad said last week. “The coaches thought I was ready at the University of Minnesota, and I thought I was pretty well prepared. Obviously, my big frame helps a little bit on the ice. This has been awesome. I love the competition. There are a lot of bigger guys, a lot of faster guys. You’ve got to play to that level. Obviously, the mono slowed me down a little, but I’m regaining confidence here.''

IIHF UNDER-20 HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIPS
--When, Where: Sunday-Jan. 5; HSBC Arena, Buffalo
--Televised Games (On NHL Network) – Sunday: Russia vs. Canada, 4; USA vs. Finland, 8. Tuesday: Canada vs. Czech Republic, 4; USA vs. Slovakia, 8. Dec. 29: Norway vs. Canada, 7:30. Dec. 30: Sweden vs. Czech Republic, 3; USA vs. Germany, 7. Dec. 31: Canada vs. Sweden, 4; USA vs. Switzerland, 8. Jan. 2: Quarterfinals, 3:30/7:30. Jan. 3: Semifinals, 3:30/7:30. Jan. 5: Bronze Medal, 3:30; Gold Medal game, 7:30.
--The games: Commonly known as the 'world juniors,' this tournament showcases some of the top junior hockey players in the world. Defending champion Team USA is again considered a top challenger with eight players back from last year's team. Canada is also loaded, but has a tough draw and will have to compete with the likes of Russia, Czech Republic and Sweden to move to the medal round. Canada had won five straight world junior titles before Team USA won last year. The two could meet up in the finals again this year.

Panthers Excited About World Juniors

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