Odd Man Out: The Panthers Defense Conundrum

After signing top prospect Erik Gudbranson to an Entry-Level Contract yesterday, the Florida Panthers have found themselves in a bit of a dilemma; the team has too much talent on the blueline. One of few bright spots last season, the Panthers defensive unit played an integral role in the team's limited success despite losing big guns Bryan McCabe, Dennis Wideman and Bryan Allen at the trade deadline. Yes, the main concern for Dale Tallon at the entry draft and during free agency was to bring in talented forwards, but what was already a strong group of defenders has become galvanized by the addition of veterans Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski along with the signing of Gudbranson. With 7 D-men jousting for 6 spots, it seems something must give and someone might be joining Goldie and Lindsay in the press box. More after the jump...

This possible dilemma hinges on one factor: that Gudbranson is truly NHL-ready. After a gargantuan performance at the Panthers developmental camp, it seems that the improvement of every aspect of Erik's game points to his ability to make a smooth transition into the NHL. Granted, his developmental camp performance will mean nothing to realizing this goal unless Gudbranson brings the same intensity to training camp, but for the sake of argument; let's just assume Erik makes it on the roster.

With Gudbranson on the roster, a do-or-die decision will have to be made at the nine game mark of Gudbranson's season with the Panthers. Either Erik remains with the team to avoid wasting a year of his contract (perhaps meaning limited minutes or a waived player/trade to make room) or he'll be sent back to juniors where he is not likely to be called up. This decision could be very easy to make if Gudbranson has trouble in his first nine games, or very difficult if he simply makes it impossible to send him back to juniors. One thing seems certain, Dale Tallon and Gord Murphy will not slow Erik's development and have him doubt himself by being awarded Tyler Seguin minutes behind 3 solid defense pairings when he could be in the OHL for one last season (he can play in the AHL after this season). Gudbranson either gets a full-time spot with the Panthers by outworking another defenseman or sent back to Kingston. It may not be pretty, but that's what happens when you have too much talent competing for too few spots.

As it stands, Gudbranson probably isn't heading back to juniors--if developmental camp serves as any indication, Erik is ready for a spot on the team. Because of this, one defenseman may find themselves the odd man out and watch his team from the pressbox. Sending a player through waivers is a risky move especially since all of the Panthers defensemen could generate interest from Isles GM Garth Snow around the league, and trading a player away could expose a weak spot if a long-term injury occurs (remember, go-to-guy Clay Wilson signed with the Flames). So the actions have been narrowed down, all that's left is to determine who'll be sitting.

New additions Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski are probably the safest players from the pressbox, but only because Dale Tallon made a huge commitment in bringing those two in, plus that; Campbell is poised to take the offensive defenseman role the Panthers lost in the Dennis Wideman trade, and Jovo is a fan favorite (though he could see time with Goldie if his injuries persist). Dmitry Kulikov has found his place in the lineup quite well and is mostly free of speculation provided that he continues to play well in his own end.

The iron pairing of Jason Garrison and Mike Weaver aside, the best option for sitting out seems to be Keaton Ellerby, but do not be surprised if someone else gets that duty. Remember back in April when Ellerby was awarded a 1 year one way contact? I read that as Tallon trying to give Ellerby confidence and stability after a pretty good year with the Panthers. Putting Ellerby in the pressbox could mean a major chip off Keaton's confidence and make the one way deal a pointless gesture. Ellerby is shaping up to be a Panther for a long time, long after Jovanovski and Weaver are gone, so for now Ellerby might be off the hook.

That leaves Jason Garrison and Mike Weaver, a dynamic pairing that carried the Panthers after the trade deadline despite making what amounts to pennies with the new 64.3 million dollar cap ceiling. Mike Weaver is one of the leagues most underrated stay-at-home defensemen, a penalty killing warrior and alternate captain. Garrison has a more physical shut-down style of play and showed a good deal of offensive ability (5G/13A/3GWG) last season. Its hard to break up this pairing, but if anyone has to sit, it could very well be Garrison. Both players will be UFAs at the end of next season, so both are probably looking to play their best for an extension.

With no clear cut odd man out, perhaps the best thing to do is to give the defensemen lots of opportunities to rest up by splitting pressbox time between all 7 defensemen. No, Brian Campbell might not need to sit as many games as Ellerby, but since the Panthers have some scoring support this year some pressure has been lifted from Gord Murphy to ice his six best defenders every night. Sometimes everyone needs a night off, and since injuries do happen it would simply be best to have one guy ready to go instead of trading them away permanently or risking waivers. If Gudbranson remains with the team for the year but has his ups and downs, at least someone can take his place as needed. The Panthers defensive situation is a problem, but it's a very good problem to have, and a lot of teams would kill to have the depth Florida has on the back end. But until a long term solution is found through trades or electing to not resign a UFA, someone will have to sit.