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Erik Gudbranson and Florida Panthers: It's All Good

Guds Erik Gudbranson had what it took to be on the Florida Panthers last season. After a strong training camp, one in which he appeared in all six exhibition games, then-coach Pete DeBoer said the 18-year-old rookie defenseman played good enough to be a part of the Panthers. General manager Dale Tallon said the same thing.

And then he wasn't.

Gudbranson, now 19, didn't play for the Panthers last season save for the preseason schedule, the third overall pick of the 2010 draft being sent back to his junior team in Kingston, Ontario, after he and the team couldn't come to a contractual agreement. After being returned to the Frontenacs, Gudbranson said DeBoer told him he was at least going to start the season in Florida.

Tuesday, Gudbranson was back on the ice at the Panthers training facility in Coral Springs for the first time since last summer. It's been a long year for Gudbranson, one he hopes only made him stronger. And at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he sure doesn't look weak.

“It was a very up-and-down year. I started on such an absolute high here in Florida with the Panthers,'' Gudbranson said to a large gathering of media following the opening day of the Panthers developmental camp. “Then there was a low when I was sent back. .-.-. I think I played my best hockey in the second half of the season and toward the playoffs. I say this with all due respect, but I wanted to be here. It was a little frustrating. But I think I made the best of it, made some positive energy.''

Since leaving town last October, much has been made of the Panthers dealings with Gudbranson and his representation. Gudbranson's agent is reportedly seeking the top dollar bonuses other players selected third overall – such as Colorado's Matt Duchane and Atlanta's Zach Bogosian – have received recently.

The Panthers didn't want to pay that last season and Gudbranson, despite attending this camp, is still without a contract. If Gudbranson doesn't sign by next year, he could re-enter the draft.

Mike Santos, Florida's assistant general manager, says that will not happen. Santos has repeatedly said a deal will be struck “soon” and Gudbranson will have a shot to make the Panthers out of camp this season.

“It's good to see him here,'' Santos said. “He has terrific potential, as big as he is, you can't teach that. He's going to be a terrific NHL player. Since the day we drafted him, we said we're not going to rush him. He'll determine when he's ready [by his play] and this camp is another step in the learning process for him. I don't think he was disappointed in last season. We sure weren't. He's doing fine. He's on track. We have the luxury now of not having to rush these kids. We didn't have that before.''

Reports out of Canada suggested the Panthers and Gudbranson have been at odds because of the contract. Gudbranson didn't seem to be upset with the Panthers in any way on Tuesday.

“I have nothing but respect for this organization,'' he said. “I'm extremely proud to be a Florida Panther. It's going to stay like that forever. I've been nothing but happy with my experience here.''

Statistically, Gudbranson had the best season of his career last year. In 44 games for the Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League, Gudbranson scored 12 goals (his previous high was two) and 22 assists.

Yet it was a rough year. Gudbranson was suspended for a game and temporarily stripped of alternate captaincy after getting into an argument with a coach. In his next game out, Gudbranson was suspended for eight games after a monster hit on Oshawa center J.P. Labardo. Gudbranson was lauded by the Panthers for the hit because he was coming to the aid of goalie Philipp Grubauer after he was run by Labardo.

Gudbranson admits he “at 18, was a little underdeveloped” last summer and says he has put on 20 pounds of muscle since the Panthers last saw him. Tallon has said there's a spot open for Gudbranson if he takes it during training camp. As was the case last year, Gudbranson could play in nine games – with a contract, of course – and still be returned to his junior team. 

Florida is deep on defense, something he doesn't seem to mind.

“More competition is better,'' Gudbranson said. “This is a better team. I'm sure you could look at it that because we picked up some new guys it will make it tougher on me. But at the end of the day, we're a better team. That's all that matters. I'm really excited about what's going on here.''

-- The Panthers added a defenseman on Tuesday, signing 26-year-old Tyson Strachan to a one-year deal. Strachan, who played at Ohio State, played in 29 games for St. Louis last year. Most of his professional career has been played in the minors.