By Anthony Murphy
Heading into the Florida Panthers training camp, fans will be awaiting the fate of 18-year-old defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Taken third overall in this year’s draft by a rebuilding team, he’s in a position to make the jump straight from junior to the NHL. Yet the same question lingers as does with all top prospects: Will bringing him up too early hurt his long-term development?
There is no question Gudbranson looks the part of an NHLer. While attending Team Canada’s World Junior Development Camp, the first thing an observer noticed was the size difference between Gudbranson and his teammates.
“I was always a pretty tall kid,” said Gudbranson, now 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds. “I was lanky and kind of awkward, never really a top defenseman. In my minor midget year something clicked and I started playing well and got my coordination together.”
Gudbranson’s game relies on smart plays, hard work and making the most of his size.
“I like to play defense first,” he explained. “The big thing for me is playing physical, being intimidating on the back end. I like throwing the body and being tough in front of the net and a little chippy if I need to.”
Making opponents think twice about entering his zone has earned Gudbranson comparisons to Dion Phaneuf and Chris Pronger. While some may consider this a stretch, the youngster is showing signs of developing into a complete player.
“I think I can jump up and play offensively,” he said.
Gudbranson brings a heavy, low shot that is a rare gift amongst blueliners and can man the point on the power play. His skating lacks quickness, but he stays in the play with his length of stride and wingspan.
“Ever since I was picked by Florida, they’ve been talking about working on my hands and my skating,” he said.
Overall, Gudbranson excels at a no-frills brand of hockey.
“Erik, he does everything simple,” said Canadian assistant coach Andre Tourigny. “He’s physical, good 1-on-1, quick puck movement. He doesn’t make many mistakes.”
The intangibles Gudbranson brings to the ice continue to impress his coaches.
“He is very intense as a player, he’s on the job,” Tourigny said. “The guy catches on quick and is focused on what we ask.”
Gudbranson’s leadership skills, which earned him the captaincy at the 2010 World Men’s Under-18 Championship for Canada, could help him earn a spot on this year’s world junior squad.
“He’s got a good presence,” Tourigny said. “He’s a good guy who speaks with everybody, so it’s not surprising he’s been a captain. We like the leadership we’ve seen from him.”
The under-18’s tested the resolve of Gudbranson and his teammates, as they finished seventh and had to compete in the relegation round.
“As Canadians, we were just embarrassed,” he recalled. “We’re used to being at the top and in the final games. We just said, ‘Hey, let’s cut the crap here. Let’s start working and come together as a team and get this going.’ ”
In the end, they left the relegation round with a perfect record.
Clearly, Gudbranson made the right impression on Panthers GM Dale Tallon and his staff when they met prior to the draft.
“They were actually my first interview at the combine,” he noted. “I was a little nervous, but Mr. Tallon made it pretty easy for me, he’s a funny guy. I cracked some jokes, just simply acted like myself and I think that’s what they wanted to see.”
It came as a surprise to many – Gudbranson included – that he was taken so early in the draft, considering he battled mono and an injured knee during his draft year.
“Until that season I was never injured and missed a substantial amount of time,” he said. “It sucked, I hate being away from the rink, but I learned from it. I came back a little lighter on my feet, but over the summer I put my weight back on and got back up to top form.”
In the end, Tallon viewed Gudbranson as the best of a defense crop that featured blue-chip prospects Brandon Gormley, Cam Fowler and Derek Forbort.
“That was an absolute honor,” Gudbranson said. “They’re three great defensemen, so to be recognized that high in the NHL draft, it’s a dream come true, but then again, it’s just a starting point.”
Next for Gudbranson is the Panthers training camp and although he thinks he has a shot at making the big club, he’s trying to stay humble.
“It’s going to be competitive – I’m probably going to get banged up,” he said. “I think there’s some very good players out there. It’ll be tough to make the team. It’s going to be a year-long tryout for me.”
Not making the NHL immediately could actually benefit Gudbranson’s game in the long run. TSN analyst Pierre McGuire believes the big kid is still one year away from cracking the Cats lineup.
“Going to the world junior tournament will be really good for him,” McGuire said.
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