BY WAYNE SCANLAN, THE OTTAWA CITIZEN NOVEMBER 11, 2011
Scanlan: Gudbranson forced to bide time in press box
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen
Just two weeks ago, Erik Gudbranson returned home to the most wonderful news.
It was late morning and the Ottawa native was on the Scotiabank Place ice with his Florida Panthers teammates when head coach Kevin Dineen told the defenceman he would be staying with the NHL club for the full season. That night’s game versus the Ottawa Senators was Game 9 for Gudbranson, meaning it was the last chance for him to play an NHL game and still be sent back to the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs without triggering a year of his entry-level contract.
As Dineen broke the news to the six-foot-four, 206-pounder, Erik’s father, Wayne, broke down in tears as he came to realize his son had reached a lifelong dream making the NHL. Veteran Panthers players swarmed around Gudbranson, patted him on the shoulders and head, and in a joyful, playful salute, the rookie glided across the ice while sitting perched on the shaft of his hockey stick, a la Tiger Williams.
That was then.
Today, Gudbranson is learning the hard way just how difficult the transition from junior hockey to the NHL can be, even for a third-overall pick (behind Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin in 2010). Gudbranson has been a healthy scratch for four consecutive games, and at least one NHL source says he is sitting because Panthers ownership doesn’t want him to hit Schedule A and B bonuses, for performance targets and player awards, potentially worth a total of $2.3 million US.
No small chunk of change, that, especially considering Gudbranson’s salary is much smaller by comparison, capped by the rookie limit of $900,000. His total salary cap hit for 2011-12 is $3.2 million, because bonuses have to be included, but the Panthers can save a lot of money if Gudbranson doesn’t play a lot of games and doesn’t factor into the voting for NHL rookie of the year.
It becomes even easier to grow suspicious about the motives behind the benching by recalling the two sides could not agree on the bonus structure a year ago and Gudbranson was sent back to the OHL as an 18-year-old.
To his credit, Gudbranson is taking the high road about his high seat in the proverbial press box.
“Guys need to play and that’s understandable,” Gudbranson told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel after sitting out his third straight game. “I’m 19 years old. If I said I didn’t expect it coming into this year I’d be lying to you, but it’s a great opportunity for me to watch from the stands and really appreciate being on the ice. It is a learning experience watching the game from up top and seeing what’s going on out there.
“You’re watching plays develop and for me the biggest thing is I noticed I have a lot more time out there than I’ve been showing on the ice. I think learning that and seeing you could have that extra second to make a good play instead of chipping the puck, it’s good to watch.’’
Gudbranson does have things to learn, as do all NHL rookies, and particularly defencemen, who tackle far greater in-game responsibilities than forwards. In 11 games played, Gudbranson has not yet registered a point and is minus-6 while averaging 12:01 minutes per game.
While the points will come — he produced 34 points, including 12 goals, in just 44 OHL games last season — Florida can make a case that this is a hockey decision. In Gudbranson’s spot at the moment is 23-year-old Keaton Ellerby, a Florida 10th-overall pick in 2007.
With a two-game winning streak heading into a Sunday game versus the Philadelphia Flyers, the Panthers aren’t likely to change things. Dineen, a rookie NHL head coach, has his team off to a great start (8-4-3), so it’s hard to question any of his decisions at the moment. He hinted to the Florida newspaper that Gudbranson won’t have to sit long.
“I do want to get him back in the lineup, but seven guys — the story can be told around the NHL — there’s always an extra body and I made the decision to keep Erik out one more night.”
The Panthers have done a lot of things right lately. General manager Dale Tallon’s Chicago leanings have paid off with the brilliant play of newly acquired wingers Kris Versteeg (via Philadelphia) and Tomas Kopecky and defenceman Brian Campbell. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom was a revelation before he was sent down to the American Hockey League (and we can also wonder if that was a developmental or financial decision. Markstrom makes $65,000 in San Antonio, but would have earned $875,000 with a cap hit of $1.3 million had he stayed in Florida).
A little more than one month into the season, the Panthers are getting credit for being one of hockey’s pleasant surprises.
But Gudbranson has to play soon. It just doesn’t make sense to have a 19-year-old sitting around when he needs ice time to develop. Because of his age, the AHL is not an option for Gudbranson.
While in Ottawa, the Panthers said they would keep him at the NHL level. All he needs is a green light to rejoin the learning curve.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
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