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Florida Panthers Send Jonathan Huberdeau Back to Saint John ... Erik Gudbranson Set to Make NHL Debut on Saturday v Islanders

Huberdraft The Panthers decided Jonathan Huberdeau's future worth is much more than his current on Monday, sending the talented 18-year-old forward back to his junior team in Quebec.

Huberdeau, the third overall pick of the 2011 draft, is not eligible to play for the Panthers this season save for an emergency call-up or until his junior team's season is complete.

Last year, Huberdeau helped the Saint John Sea Dogs to the Canadian junior championship by winning the Memorial Cup.

The Panthers needed to sign Huberdeau to an entry level contract by Tuesday, although now, there's no hurry to get a deal done. Huberdeau, by scoring a team-high three goals during the preseason, did make it tough on Florida's decision makers.

“Was it tempting? It was real tempting,'' Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said not long after breaking the news to Huberdeau alongside coach Kevin Dineen.

“You have to make a decision that’s best for long term. For the benefit of the kid and for the franchise. He's 173 pounds. I think in his heart, he knows he needs to get stronger. .-.-.

"There’s a vulnerability there as far his size. But we know we didn’t mess up in the draft. That’s for sure. You have 220 pound, 30-year-old guys leaning on him. Not 170 pound kids. We're here for the long haul. We know he can play. .-.-.

"It's exciting for our franchise to have that. When he comes back, he'll be ready to go.’’

By going back to his junior team, Huberdeau has a chance to dominate play at that level and build on the 59 goals and 76 assists he recorded in 86 games last season. He'll also have a chance to play at the World Juniors for Team Canada this winter.

Huberdeau had a strong showing at the Canada summer camp before reporting to the Panthers and seems excited about the future – especially after the experiences of spending most of the past month in Florida.

“It was a great experience here and I learned a lot with all the veterans,'' Huberdeau said. “I can't be disappointed by going down. I'm going to go have a great year in junior and I'm excited to see the boys.''

Huber11 A little while after meeting with the front office, Huberdeau sent out a tweet thanking the Panthers. “Thanks for all the support !! Enjoyed my time in south Florida !! I'll be back next year #goodlucktoalltheboys''

Panthers forward Scottie Upshall then replied: “U had a great camp for us and you will be a AllStar in this league soon. Good luck and bring that MemCup back to SaintJohn.''

Said Dineen: “He made it an extremely tough decision because of his maturity and his play. We feel at this time he has some physical development to do and that's best to happen at the junior level. I have no doubt Jonathan could contribute to this team, his skill set says he could. He'll be part of this organization for a very long time.''

Huberdeau learned first-hand what it takes to play in the physical world of the NHL. Although the Panthers know what they have in Huberdeau as a playmaker, the worry was that he just isn't built for the rigors of an 82 game schedule just yet. “I'm not that big,'' he said. “I would rather be here next year when I'm bigger. I don't have anything to protect me. I don't have big muscles like the other guys.''

Tallon said at the draft that Huberdeau needed to mature and get stronger, although the rigors of this offseason didn't lend itself to much work. Next summer should be a big step in Huberdeau's development – although Tallon doesn't want him to bulk up too much.

“He's going to be a big kid. He's 6-1, so he's got the frame,'' Tallon said. “Nature just has to take its course.''

Both Tallon and Huberdeau downplayed the contract needed for him to play for the Panthers this season. Tallon said if Florida was set on Huberdeau staying with Florida, “we would have gotten something done.''

Florida was in a similar predicament with defenseman Erik Gudbranson last year. Also a third-overall pick, Gudbranson had a strong camp and appeared to at least garner the nine game junior Guds tryout with the Panthers. The two sides couldn't agree to a contract, however, and Gudbranson was sent back down.

Gudbranson ended up signing his entry level deal with the Panthers earlier this summer. On Monday, coach Kevin Dineen said Gudbranson will start the season with the team. Gudbranson could be returned to his junior team after nine games, although the general consensus is he will remain with the Panthers throughout the season.

“He's ready to contribute to our lineup,'' Dineen said. “I'm excited about him and excited to get him in his first NHL game. And that will be on Saturday night.''

-- Tallon said that even though the roster doesn't need to be set until Wednesday afternoon, the Panthers will likely make final cuts on Tuesday.

Defenseman Mike Kostka and forward Steven Reinprecht (who has already cleared waivers) are expected to be the final players to go with Shawn Matthias and Evgeny Dadonov making the squad.

-- Florida will start the season with 22 players (seven defensemen, 13 forwards and two goalies) with Scott Clemmensen and Mike Santorelli starting the season on the injured list.

-- Aside from Clemmensen and Santorelli, the Panthers were at full strength on Monday with Stephen Weiss, Sean Bergenheim and Upshall all going through a rigorous practice.