A few days after being fired as coach of the Panthers, Pete DeBoer was asked about the franchise's core players. Instead of talking about established players such as David Booth or Stephen Weiss, DeBoer said the future success of the Panthers would be in the hands of the three teenagers drafted in the first round last summer.
Erik Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden give the Panthers a good shot of hope for the near future as well as down the road. All three players have yet to celebrate their 20th birthday, with two of the players – Gudbranson and Howden – potentially being on the team this year. Bjugstad will be a sophomore at the University of Minnesota this coming season.
“We've bonded a little, created some relationships,'' Bjugstad said of his fellow 2010 first round teammates. “I think we're going to be good friends over the next couple of years.''
The Panthers hope the three have plenty of success and are forever linked together. The Panthers had to do some serious maneuvering to get three picks in last year's first round. Florida owned the third overall pick (Gudbranson) before acquiring the 19th overall selection (Bjugstad) in the Nathan Horton/Gregory Campbell deal with the Bruins. Florida also scored the 25th pick (Howden) from the Canucks.
“They are ready to make the next step,'' said Scott Luce, the Panthers director of amateur scouting. “I think there is no question that you look at those three selections as a turning point in our organization. In five years from now, I hope we're all looking back saying that was the first piece of the puzzle that [GM] Dale Tallon was able to get.''
All three players have looked strong at the Panthers prospect camp currently held at the team's training facility in Coral Springs. Friday is the final session of the camp with the first group on the ice at 9 a.m. Admission is free and open to the public.
Howden had such a strong junior season last year that the Panthers quickly offered him his entry level contract, the first draftee from Florida's Class of 2010 to be signed. Howden, who scored 40 goals with 79 points in 60 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League, is expected to make a strong push for a spot on the Panthers out of training camp.
The Panthers, as well as the rest of the hockey world, have taken notice. Not only did Howden light up the WHL last season, but he was strong at the World Juniors in Buffalo, with his highlight goal in the semifinals helping knock off Team USA.
“I was there for a couple of games where he scored goals where had there been better camera work in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, he would have had the goal of the year,'' said Brian Skrudland, the former Panthers captain who is now the team's director of player development.
“They're building a new rink there with better lighting, but hopefully we'll never see him back in Moose Jaw. The guy is just full of highlight goals. And lets face it, the Panthers need some highlight type players.''
Howden says this camp has been good for him as he gets acclimated to the Panthers organization and South Florida in general. When he comes to town in September for rookie camp with training camp to follow, it's all business.
“I'm just trying to enjoy it all. It's been a whirlwind,'' Howden said. “I'm trying to soak things in right now, enjoy the atmosphere. There's always a chance for someone ready for camp. I'm going to do what I do and hope for the best.''
Bjugstad will not be attending Florida's rookie camp nor training camp this summer as he'll be back in school. Minnesota's Mr. Hockey in 2010, Bjugstad took a fast track in high school and entered Minnesota a year early. After a slow start, Bjugstad – who turns 19 on July 17 -- finished his season with eight goals.
Minnesota had a disappointing season but have high hopes for 2011-12. The Panthers seem fine watching the 6-foot-4 center develop with one of the top collegiate programs in the nation. They do, however, expect to see Bjugstad compete for a job with the big club sooner than later.
“I thought things ended pretty well so I'm looking forward to this coming year,'' said Bjugstad, who battled a case of mononucleosis early in the season. “It was a big adjustment coming from high school and mono didn't help. But no excuse. I knew it would be a big jump and by the year I think I finished up strong.''
SOUTH FLORIDA FUN
The Panthers prospects have enjoyed the local sights and sounds of South Florida during this camp. After Tuesday's workouts, the players went out into the Everglades where they watched an alligator wrestling display before heading out on an airboat.
Wednesday's workout was on Deerfield Beach where the players also took in some beach volleyball.
Former championship boxer Micky Ward spoke to the team on Wednesday night. Ward and Santos are both from Lowell, Mass., and have been friends for some time.
“I just told them that coming into the league was going to be different than what they know,'' said Ward, whose life was portrayed in the movie 'The Fighter' by Mark Wahlberg.
“They need to work hard, play hard and don't be intimidated because you haven't been there. Just play hockey and give it your all. Have fun. Enjoy it.''
-- Center Cody Payne from Weston was selected to play for Team USA Under-18 Select Team at the upcoming Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament being held in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Payne, who played for the Oshawa Generals of the OHL last season, started playing hockey for the Junior Wolves out of Pines Ice Arena. Payne will be eligible for the 2012 NHL draft.