« Miami Marlins Logo Leaked? NOW! With OnFrozenPoll | Main | Florida Panthers Lineup: At Tampa Bay Lightning, Friday 7:30 p.m. »

Florida Panthers Defense: From Jovanovski to Gudbranson and Everything In Between

Jovthn The Panthers blue line is as deep as it has ever been, with eight defensemen currently in camp with NHL experience.

When things settle down and the season gets underway, Florida is expected to hold onto seven of them.

Of those seven, barring injury, the Panthers have a solid mix of experience, youth and those coming into their own.

Ed Jovanovski is the elder statesmen of the group, logging 1,019 NHL games since coming up with the Panthers way back in 1994. On the other side of that spectrum is 19-year-old Erik Gudbranson, Florida's first round pick in 2010 who is still awaiting his NHL debut.

“These are big guys who can skate well and move the puck well. That's a combination that can be lethal,'' Jovanovski said. “We all know that defensemen have to develop and some of these guys are coming right into their prime. We're going to be relying on them heavily.''

Gudbransondraft Between the Jovanovski and Gudbranson time line among Florida defensemen are varying degrees of experience.

At the draft, general manager Dale Tallon traded Rostislav Olesz to Chicago for Brian Campbell, a 10-year veteran with 626 games on the odometer. Then there is Mike Weaver, who played in all 82 games for the Panthers last season and enters his 10th season.

After Weaver, there's quite a drop experience-wise. The Panthers are counting on their elder statesmen to lead the way and help mold the younger defensemen.

“They help in many different ways,'' said assistant coach Gord Murphy, himself a 14-year veteran who played six seasons with the Panthers from their expansion season through 1999. “Just in leadership on the ice, the young guys get to watch how they carry themselves. They learn just watching, through osmosis there. But these are quality people first and they interact. These guys really talk all the time. It can help them come along much more quickly.''

Dmitry Kulikov isn't a kid anymore as Stephen Weiss joked on Wednesday, but Kulikov is just 20 and still finding his way as he enters his third full season. The 14th overall pick in 2009, Kulikov jumped  into the fray as an 18-year-old and is one of the young players the Panthers are counting on to be around for the long term. 

Kulikov went through some of the sophomore struggles many young defensemen go through after a strong rookie season. Last year, Kulikov seemed to press at times to build on what he did in his first season but overall had a good season. The Panthers figure Kulikov has more offense in him than the six goals and 26 points he put up last year. There are few complaints on how he handles himself on the defensive side of the ice. 

“Every camp is different and there aren't many spots here. You have to earn them,'' Kulikov said. “I feel like I have become more of a professional since my rookie year. A lot has changed. I'm doing more of the little things than I did before. I'm working on things that I need to improve on, maybe things I didn't pay attention to before.''

One Florida defenseman who doesn't get much publicity is Jason Garrison. An undrafted free agent signed by then-general manager Jacques Martin in 2008, Garrison has been quite a find. It took Garrison a little while to crack the Panthers lineup, but once he got a real chance, he's been part of the regular rotation.

Perhaps one of the most physically strong players on the Panthers, Garrison is tough along the boards and has a good first pass. With five goals last season, Garrison has shown he can get the puck to the net as well. 

Those five players – Jovanovski, Campbell, Weaver, Kulikov and Garrison – are expected to be in the lineup each night. Keaton Ellerby, 22, was Florida's first round selection in 2007 and now has a one-way contract that all but seals his spot on the opening night roster. He'll be competing for playing time with Gudbranson as only six defensemen play each night. 

Gudbranson is expected to make the jump to the NHL this season after spending last year in the Canadian juniors.

Other defensemen in camp with NHL experience such as Nolan Yonkman and Tyson Strachan could make the team if injuries come up between now and Oct. 8. If not, those two are expected to start the season in San Antonio at the American Hockey League level.

Ellerby has shown a commitment to becoming a stronger player and was much improved last season – especially once paired with Kulikov. Ellerby's development continues as he played in 54 games in 2010-11 after appearing in just 22 the season before. 

“I think it's huge having the veteran guys around here like we do,'' Garrison said. “These guys have been around, they know the ropes. They give us everything we need to get better. It's been great. It's a real good mix. If we can all gel, go in the same direction, we're going to do good things.''

-- The Panthers held a full scrimmage on Wednesday with one of the more intriguing lines consisting of Stephen Weiss at center with 18-year-old rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and veteran Kris Versteeg on the wings. 

Quinton Howden (neck) and Anthony Luciani (shoulder) still haven't practiced but remain in camp. Scottie Upshall (hip flexor) also didn't participate on Wednesday but said his injury was minor and his exclusion was just precautionary.


At Saveology.com Iceplex, Coral Springs

Thursday's practice: 9 a.m.-noon