This offseason could possibly be the most important one in the history of the Florida Panthers. They have a wealth of developing talent that looks to finally be ready to push the team to make the jump from underachieving to legitimate playoff contender. One key development this summer will be signing free agents, both unrestricted free agents that can fill holes in the depth chart, and restricted free agents, the Panthers' very own drafted talent that will hopefully make up the core of the lineup as they push for playoff contention. With that in mind, we'll take a look at all of the restricted free agents the Panthers have this year, and whether or not their play has earned a contract renewal, and if so, how lucrative of a contract they should receive.
The first RFA we look at in this series has been coined by general manager Dale Tallon as a future club captain, Erik Gudbranson. One of Tallon's first draft picks with the Cats, Gudbranson was taken 3rd overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. He signed an entry-level 3-year deal in 2011, playing with the team through 2013-14. The qualifying offer to ensure that Gudbranson's rights remained solely with the Panthers is approximately $850,000. Obviously, this will be submitted, but does management want to lock the mean, gritty defenseman up for multiple years, on a well-paying contract that clearly shows Gudbranson that he is wanted and needed in Florida? Based on solely on Tallon's statement regarding the potential for a future captaincy, the answer would be yes. More important for Florida's hockey ops to sort out is whether or not Gudbranson is worth that type of contract. To answer the question, we look into both what the scouting reports, and what the stats say about his play.
Looking at the overall play of Erik Gudbranson, he definitely had some troubles earlier in the year. After a strong preseason, Gudbranson looked ready to step up more offensively with the Panthers, something that he wouldn't necessarily to be able to do throughout the course of the season. After having troubles with penalty minutes early in the year, he seemed able to level his head and play stronger defensive hockey. A big part of Gudbranson's game always is going to be that intimidation factor, and willingness to drop the gloves, though a big lesson he seems to have learned this year is that the majority of the time, he is more valuable to the Cats on the ice than he is in the penalty box. About halfway through the season, Gudbranson started to run into injury trouble, as he suffered both a lower body injury and an orbital bone injury. The injury to his orbital bone left him in a cage, which appeared to affect his play during that stretch of the season. Due to the subsequent decline in play, he would be scratched for a period of time until he was healed enough to switch back to using a clear visor on his helmet instead of the cage. Injury troubles for Gudbranson ran from December until late February, and unfortunately, picked back up in early March. Gudbranson was able to return for the end of the season and finished strong enough to be selected to represent Canada at the IIHF World Championship.
His play improved steadily throughout the season, with the exception of the stretch of time lost due to the assorted injuries he suffered. He was a big, intimidating force on the blue line who wasn't afraid to clear traffic in front of the net or along the boards. He seemed to be better at picking and choosing the right times to step up and make a big hit, and though he pinched a little too much for my liking, this seemed to be more of an issue with all Panthers defenseman than just a problem in Gudbranson's development. As for offense, his first passes out of the zone seemed to be more intelligent, and more crisp. He also saw power play time sparingly throughout the year, especially near the end of the season, where he saw significant time on the man-advantage. He still hasn't developed his offensive game to be much of a high level threat, but the tools are there to become a defenseman that gets the puck up to his forwards efficiently.
Even more significant than the development of his play, however, may be the development of his leadership skills. Near the end of the season, several key quotes reveal how much Gudbranson meant to the team in terms of finding a way to generate an atmosphere of winners. When asked how the Panthers needed to finish out the season: "Play the best hockey we have all year… it’s no secret this hasn’t been our year, we haven’t played well. We still got these games left, we got to play hard, got to play right." "We really got to change our mentality. I don’t think we pushed ourselves as hard as we needed to this year… we weren’t as accountable in the dressing room as we needed to be." He continued, "We really got to become a team that way, we need to become a tight knit group, we need to be that group that pushes each other for everything." Gudbranson's comments on team accountability and playing good hockey even in the face of adversity show that Tallon is most likely right. Gudbranson is developing into a leader, both in his words and by example. Not once did Gudbranson back down during the season; he continued to play his patented brand of nasty, punishing defensive hockey that soon will become commonplace from the Panthers back end.
Analysis - Just looking at the scouting report, Gudbranson has earned a lengthy contract that pays very well. He took leaps and bounds this year, not only in his defensive play, but also in his decision making on the ice, his offensive abilities, and his leadership skills. There's no reason Gudbranson isn't offered a long term deal, one that keeps him invested in Florida and success of the franchise for a long time.
Looking at the overall play of Erik Gudbranson from a statistical view point, we see a slightly different story. Gudbranson had a very low producing year in terms of point totals, with only 9 points (3-6-9) in 65 games, a -7 rating, and 114 PIM. Gudbranson's plus/minus total isn't at all glaring, as the Panthers were a bad team that finished -74 on the season. 114 PIM is impressive, considering he only played in 65 games, and shows his nastiness and intimidation. That touch of nasty in Gudbranson's game is important; it keeps opponents intimidated and afraid, so to say. The offensive production is slightly concerning, as only 9 points in 65 games isn't exactly the type of production that can help a team make the jump from mediocre to elite. It becomes less concerning, however, when one looks at his usage. Gudbranson averaged 17:58 TOI on the year, which isn't necessarily enough to generate high levels of offensive play. During his final nine games of the year, after returning from injury, he averaged 20:33, showing the increased trust placed in him by the coaching staff. Oddly though, Gudbranson's zone starts seemed to be more inclined to the offensive zone, as his offensive zone start to defensive zone start was 50.3%. (In total, he started 32.0% of his shifts in the offensive zone, 36.3% in the neutral zone, and 31.7% in the defensive.) This stat seems unusual for a known physical defender, who isn't necessarily offensively gifted, until we look at his playing time again. Gudbranson was on the ice for 30.6% of the Panthers' even-strength time, a mere 14.7% of power play time, and 37.0% of the team's shorthanded time. Conclusion? He played shorthanded a lot more than he did on the power play or even-strength. Zone starts only measure starts that come on face-offs; the changes made on the fly shorthanded (ex. after a zone clear) will go missed in zone start calculations. Gudbranson, therefore, was most likely used more defensively vs. offensively, partially explaining the lowered point totals.
He began started receiving more power play time near the end of the season, and if that trend continues - as expected, his point total should increase further, as he only had one power-play point on the year in his limited time (Rate of 1.06 points/60 min, meaning that every 60 min of ice time he receives on the power play, he produced about 1.06 points.) Further casting off concern about Gudbranson's point totals are the quality of competition and quality of teammate numbers: 28.2% QoC, and 26.0% QoT. As for teammates, he played the majority of his time with forwards Jonathan Huberdeau (27.0% shared ice time), Brad Boyes (26.5% shared ice time), and Tomas Fleischmann (26.4% shared ice time). Huberdeau suffered from the infamous sophomore slump this season, and Fleischmann just hasn't quite been the same player that he was in the past. Both had scoring issues this season, and it's hard for a defenseman to get points if the forwards he's out with aren't scoring. Boyes did good for the Panthers, but compared to the rest of the league, he wasn't necessarily a high end scorer. Also, Gudbranson never had a consistent defensive partner, as his two highest shared ice time teammates (Olsen, Jovanoski) both had shared TOI below 30% (26.7% and 18.9%, respectively). This makes it hard to establish puck moving chemistry with teammates, especially a defenseman, as breakout passes and resets need to be especially clear coming out of the zone.
If his low offensive production this year isn't a concern, due to Gudbranson's advanced stats and role on the team (he isn't necessarily expected to put up tons of points) the only other area of concern could be his defensive play. Looking at his defensive stats, however, shows this isn't the case. Looking at his 5 on 5 close Corsi and Fenwick stats, (Permit me a digression; normally I use all situation Corsi and Fenwick stats, as players who are used in all situations, such as Brian Campbell, should be measured in terms of how well they do playing in all situations. Gudbranson, however, plays much more shorthanded than he does on the power play. His stats would be horribly skewed toward the negative end, as he doesn't have that balance present. Therefore, we look at his 5 on 5 close stats [close meaning when the score of the game is within one, to eliminate confounding variables due to teams sitting back/not attacking/point padding] to eliminate the bias of Gudbranson not having balanced special team usage) we see that his defensive play was sound. His goals-for percentage was 40.9%, which is measly, but when it's compared to the team without him in the lineup, his relative GF% is +7.2%. The team's GF with Gudbranson is better than it is without. When we look at his Corsi, we see that he has a Corsi for percentage of 51.0%, with a relative CF% of only 0.8%. Regardless, the team is better without Gudbranson, though only minutely, according to Corsi. This changes when we look at the fact that Gudbranson had 158 hits and 91 blocked shots on the season. His Fenwick for percentage (Corsi measures all shot attempts, Fenwick excludes blocked shots, as blocking shots can be considered a skill in the NHL.) is 52.0%, and his relative FF% is +3.2%. The team is better at possessing the puck and directing more shots towards the opposing team's net when Gudbranson is on the ice, a sign of a solid defenseman. Conclusion? There is no concern about his defensive play at this early stage.
Analysis - Gudbranson's stats show no area of concern. He played well this season, and seeing as he is young, will most likely play even better next year.
The scouting report and the advanced statistics agree when it comes to Erik Gudbranson, he's been solid, and he looks to only improve on his play in coming seasons. There truly is no reason Tallon doesn't make true on his word, and offer Gudbranson a lengthy, well-paying contract.