NEWARK, N.J. -- The Panthers haven't had much to celebrate since captain Bryan McCabe broke his jaw during a game against the Devils on Jan. 15. Florida won that night, but haven't done much since, winning just once in the eight games since McCabe has been on the sidelines.
One bright spot during that time has been the play of defensemen Keaton Ellerby and Dmitry Kulikov. Ellerby came up from the minors to fill in for McCabe with assistant coach Gord Murphy pairing the two youngsters up.
Yes, it's early. But the Panthers may be getting a look at what will be their top defensive pairing of the future.
“We really like these two together. Look at their age. What these kids are doing is really a silver lining for us right now,'' coach Pete DeBoer said Thursday. “We're throwing them into a lot of situations and giving them a lot of responsibility on the power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5, in key moments in overtime. And they're handling it. That's a good sign.''
With McCabe out for another few weeks, Ellerby – the tenth overall pick of the 2007 draft -- is playing with the confidence of a veteran and knowing he's not going back to the minors any time soon may be a reason. Ellerby looked tentative and shaky when he came up from Rochester last year, with DeBoer giving him almost no playing time.
DeBoer had a heart-to-heart with Ellerby when the season ended, a talk Ellerby took to heart. Days after the season was over, Ellerby was working out like never before. He added 20 pounds to his lean frame and came to camp with a chip on his shoulder.
On Wednesday, Ellerby crushed Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn along the boards, drawing chirping from the Canadiens bench as well as a loud response from the sold out crowd and numerous replays on Canadian sports programs.
“The coaches want us to play more physical and Kostitsyn was in a perfect spot for one of us to get a big hit on him,'' Ellerby said. “I think we've been playing good together and hopefully that continues so the coaches keep us together for a long time.''
And Ellerby, more of a physical defensive presence than Kulikov, is rubbing off on his new running mate. Kulikov, who broke into the league as an 18-year-old last year after being taken 14th overall in the 2009 draft, is playing with more and more confidence and is hitting more.
“He's a good player and I think there is good chemistry there,'' Kulikov said. “I seem to know where he is at all times. We had some bad goals against us in Montreal, but other than that, I think we've done a good job. Experience is a big part of playing well. He didn't do so well last year and I was a rookie. We both have a little more experience now and that leads to confidence.''
Added Murphy: “They are young guys who are energetic and share a lot of the same interests. They seem to be very comfortable together and relate well to each other on and off the ice. We have a bright future in Florida on defense and they are part of this. They have great guys to learn from with Bryan Allen and Bryan McCabe showing them the way. They have been pushed into bigger roles because of injuries and are doing a good job with it.''
-- Goalie Tomas Vokoun said Thursday that he hasn't heard of any new offers from the Panthers regarding a contract extension. Vokoun, who signed a four-year deal with Nashville prior to be traded to Florida in 2007, can be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career on July 1.
Vokoun said he hopes to speak to general manager Dale Tallon when the team returns to South Florida. The NHL's trade deadline is Feb. 28, and the general thought is Florida will try to deal Vokoun if a deal is not reached. Vokoun can decline any trade as he has a non-movement clause.
Center Stephen Weiss (signed through the 2012-13 season) and defenseman Bryan McCabe (unrestricted free agent) also have no-trade clauses in their contracts.
Weiss said he didn't realize his no-trade had kicked in until he called his agent a few weeks ago. “I asked him if I was being traded,'' Weiss said with a laugh. “He said no. But if they wanted to trade me, they have to talk to him first.''
-- With winger Evgeny Dadonov out for at least a month with a broken finger suffered Wednesday in Montreal, the Panthers could recall a forward from their AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y. For now, however, it looks like the Panthers will go with a fourth line consisting of rookie center Scott Timmins with wingers Steve Bernier and Darcy Hordichuk.
FRIDAY: PANTHERS AT DEVILS
When, Where: 7 p.m.; Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
TV/Radio: FSNF; WQAM 560
The series: Devils lead 42-22-7
The game: The Panthers end this strange six-game road trip in the same place it started. Florida lost to the Devils on Jan. 23, then split games in New York and Boston before going into the All-Star break. The Panthers then met up in Toronto. The Panthers are just 1-2-1 on this trip. Tomas Vokoun will be in net against the Devils. New Jersey had won seven of nine going into Thursday's game at the Rangers. Future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur is 37-15 with seven ties against Florida (with six shutouts), but backup Johan Hedberg (8-7-0 vs. Florida) could face the Panthers on Friday.
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Keaton and Kulikov: Florida Panthers Top D-Pairing of the Future? Tomas Vokoun Hopes to Talk Contract with Dale Tallon Soon ... No Rochester Callup -- For Now