There was little mystery involved in the 3rd overall pick at the 2010 NHL Draft. After the Tyler Seguin/Taylor Hall duo, the consensus was nearly unanimous that big defenseman Erik Gudbranson would go next. He was big and described like this at the time:
A large defenseman with good leadership skills. Has a great shot. Gives a good opening pass and works hard in all three zones. A good skater considering his size. Could improve his physicality.
How far he has come. Improve his physicality? It makes you laugh now. Leadership and character were always his "thing." Yes, there was the ill-advised wake-boarding shoulder injury, but that aside, this is a young man who watched his brother battle cancer, and he is nothing if not mature beyond his years.
To truly appreciate Gudbranson, you have to remember the era he came from. The Panthers were a league-wide laughingstock with zero respectability. Players did not want to come to Florida. A particular low point came when Jay Bouwmeester had famously spurned the Cats and left town, and was miserable seemingly the entire time he was in Florida. Roberto Luongo had been nothing short of cold dissed by the franchise. And into the smoldering remnants of that mess, stepped Gudbranson. And what was most striking, after that history, was that he genuinely seemed like he wanted to be here, and that he believed what Tallon was selling, and that he jumped in with both feet, and his entire family, to join in the effort. He was the "anti-Bouwmeester."
It was not easy. Defensemen take a longer time to develop than forwards, and Erik was no different in that respect. He was brought up in 2011-12, and played 72 games for a Panther team that was a collection of free agents assembled to buy time for the draft to work. He played alongside his childhood idol in Ed Jovanovski, who (it quickly becamse apparent) was on his last legs. Gudbranson went -19, with 8 points. He averaged 14 minutes per game of ice time that season, and dished out 154 hits to go with 73 blocked shots. Coach Kevin Dineen did not shelter him, that much is apparent. Erik started only 51% of his shifts that season in the offensive zone, and 48.7% in the D-zone. He also got his first taste of the NHL playoffs that year, where he seemed to get better with each of the 7 games played. He averaged 17 minutes of ice time in the playoff series and doled out 22 hits and 5 blocked shots in the series loss to New Jersey.
The lockout followed, and the Panthers limped out of it, returning to absolute mediocrity as the free agents returned unfit for play. Gudbranson played only 32 games that season and went -22, with 80 hits and 32 blocks, while averaging 18 minutes per game of ice time, The Cats tried sheltering him more as well, with 54% offensive zone starts. He admitted to the boneheaded wake boarding incident and moved forward, even more mature and responsible than ever.
In 2013-14, the Panthers again stayed in the NHL cellar, but Gudbranson saw some improvement, going -7 in 65 games, while playing 18 minutes per night and throwing the body again: with 158 hits and a whopping 91 shot blocks. His zone starts returned to almost 50-50 between offense and defense, but he was very much focused on the defensive side of the equation.
In 2014-15, the Panthers made an actual run at respectability, but missed the playoffs again. He improved once again, to -4, with 13 points, 212 hits and 75 blocked shots. He was used heavily on the defensive side of the rink by coach Gerard Gallant, starting 57% of his shifts in the D-zone, and only 42% in the offensive zone. That season it was Aaron Ekblad and Brian Campbell who got the sheltered minutes, and the usage benefitted all.
This season, Gudbranson appeared to truly turn the corner, but he has never been liked, or perhaps understood, by the advanced statistics community. Simply put, his point totals are not worth discussing, and his possession numbers have always been negative. But to those watching for the little things this season, some points did become readily apparent.
Gudbranson only started 41% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and averaged 20 minutes of ice time per game. He dished out 150 hits and 73 blocked shots this season, and was only able to get off 73 shots. By contrast, Ekblad took 182 shots while averaging 21 minutes in ice time per night, but with a 55% offensive zone start rate. Its hard to put up possession numbers when every time you move a puck up in transition to offense you are swapped out. It was rare to see Gudbranson in the offensive zone. Instead, it was always him duking it out with the opponents top line and once transition began, he changed for a more offensive D-man.
But the trust was there. Gallant paired Gudbranson and Campbell roughly midway through last season, and Campbell flourished with the rough defender as a partner. They covered each other's weaknesses well. In this year's playoffs, Erik led all Panthers D-men in time on ice, at almost 27 minutes per night, and he started 71% of his shifts in the D-zone. By midway through the 1st round series, Gudbranson and Kulikov were the go-to D-pair for crucial moments against the Islanders.
If the left tackle is the key to a football offense, the right D is the key to the Panthers defensive success. The Islanders exploited Luongo's statistically weak blocker side for great success in the playoffs. It was noted by us at LBC all season that the Panthers were forcing opponents to shoot glove side, away from the right side D. It was the right defenseman's job to close that weakness, and as the team succeeded throughout the regular season, it was often Gudbranson protecting that side with a violence that encouraged opposition forwards to go elsewhere.
Erik will not be remembered by Panther fans for goals and assists, it is not what he was positioned to do in the gameplan. He will likely be recalled fondly as a player always first to defend a teammate, to make Sunrise a difficult and intimidating place to play, and for quiet leadership. He learned much from his partner Willie Mitchell, one of the finest leaders the Panthers have had in a decade. Erik was loved for his willingness to brawl. His now famous fight with Matt Hendricks, pay back for Hendricks' hit on Ekblad, saw Hendricks skate to the penalty box and mouth "whoa." (yes, I was sitting right there). Luongo noted on Twitter that he will miss the emerging defenseman. But Erik deserves to be remembered best by Panther fans for a few other things:
He was quietly committed to the Panthers- whether they were Florida hockey or not- from a time period where not many players had that attitude, into this new era of respectability. In that fashion, he is the bridge player from there to this new group. He spent much of his time here playing with inferior players, and he rotated partners constantly. He found particular success playing with Mitchell, Campbell, and Dylan Olsen, but he never complained when paired with other partners.
Finally, he should be recognized for a commitment to a "quiet position." Regardless of analytics, there is an extremely important job that must be done in the game of hockey, and that is to shut down opposition, especially great opponents, and do what they always teach defensemen to do as kids: give the puck to the forwards and let them work. Those players don't get the glory. They don't get the power play. But boy do you find out how much you miss them when they are gone.
There is a league-wide lack of good right-handed defensemen, and because of that they are at a premium. The Panthers got a lot in return for Gudbranson, which, I suppose, is testament to his value. The pieces the Cats got will, by all accounts, make good impacts in the future, but it will not be easy to replace his contributions in the short term. Ultimately, the money he was looking for became an issue, but because of the premium on right-handed D-men, he will likely get that somewhere. Nonetheless, even his trade inured to the team's benefit, as they were able to garner a large return.
I finish with this, my own story of coming into contact with Gudbranson. Erik appeared on behalf of the Panthers at the draft in Sunrise, just to give the franchise a face I suppose. But when he saw my young son in a jersey with his name on it, he called him over and asked for a marker because he "had to sign this one." It was one of several times where he showed maturity, a natural friendliness, and a connection to the South Florida hockey community that I got to see first hand.
So, on behalf of LBC, we wish Erik good fortune, and thank him for helping us through the years of change that has brought us back to respectability. You will always have a fan here in South Florida.