The Florida Panthers open the season on Sunday in Edmonton, and we finally have a clear picture of who is and isn’t making the trip. Over the weekend, the Panthers placed Michael Grabner on waivers, and he was claimed, as expected by the New York Islanders. Then on Monday, 3rd overall pick Erik Gudbranson failed to come to terms with the Panthers on an entry level contract, so he will be sent back to his OHL team in Kingston. Players who were also sent to AHL Rochester include Swedish Goalie of the Future Jakob Markstrom along with forwards Michael Repik and Evgeny Dadonov. Quinton Howden, the Panthers’ third 1st rounder and 25th overall, was sent back to his junior team.
Michael Grabner, along with Steve Bernier, was acquired by the Panthers during this summer’s draft in exchange for defenseman Keith Ballard and AHL talented winger Victor Oreskovich. Grabner was picked by NHL.com as one of the seven players who could be a breakout player this season. The Florida Panthers still have Grabner in a poll on their website, asking which new Panther will have the biggest impact. From all accounts, he is a player rife with potential and talent, but for whatever reason, he had a rough training camp, and Dale Tallon didn’t want to spend anymore time waiting to see if he would ever come around. “I was disappointed with his play. He has a lot of potential but you have to earn your playing time here,” Tallon told George Richards of the Miami Herald. “We liked his speed and his skill. He didn’t show any skill in camp. He can skate and has skill but didn’t show any of it.” Looking back, it’s easy to say that what was supposed to be a big piece of the draft day trade turned into a giant disappointment. And he did. The Panthers gave up a minute eating, veteran defenseman along with a solid prospect who spent 50 solid games with the big club last season and in return picked up a lone forward, albeit a young and talented forward, Steve Bernier. But Tallon is making a point. Everyone has to earn their spot on the roster, regardless of hype or potential or reputation. And glancing over the roster, there is a surprising amount of hidden talent, and more importantly players that worked for their spot, that simply did not leave room for Grabner. Shawn Matthias played some big time minutes last season and looks like he could be a productive member of the team this season. Another summer acquisition, Mike Santorelli, excelled in the preseason and simply outplayed Grabner for a roster spot. Along with Bernier, the Panthers picked up forward Chris Higgins, who is only a few seasons removed from back-to-back-to-back 20+ goal seasons. And with prospects Evgeny Dadonov and Michael Repik already pressing for playing time, there just wasn’t room for Grabner on the NHL roster. Thanks to his entry level contract having expired, he had to clear waivers in order to be sent down to AHL Rochester, and that simply was not going to happen.
A scoring deficient team like Florida cutting a potential scorer like Grabner might upset more fans than Erik Gudbranson not being able to
reach an agreement. But if Grabner was a disappointment, Gudbranson is the complete opposite. The 3rd overall choice had an incredibly impressive rookie preseason, and registered a goal and an assist while being the only Panther to play in all six preseason games. He looked good in practice, confident in games, and by all accounts GM Dale Tallon and Co. were hoping for Gudbranson to start the season in Florida, if only for a 9 game NHL tryout before a final decision had to be made. But no deal could be agreed upon before the 5:00 pm deadline on Tuesday, so Gudbranson will be shipped back to his OHL team (the issue was reportedly over performance bonuses). There is no question that Gudbranson will be a Panther in the future, and could still join the team this season if an agreement is reached. He will be a major piece of what is turning into a very potential (there’s that word again) filled blueline. 2009 1st round draft pick Dmitry Kulikov made the team out of preseason camp last year and had an impressive rookie year. 25 year old Jason Garrison should be on the starting roster this year after having earned his way up. Keaton Ellerby, 21, is in line to be the first defenseman called up. With Gudrbanson, this core four could become the building blocks for Dale Tallon to construct his next Chicago.
The Panthers open the season with a three game road trip through Western Canada before their home opener October 16th against cross state rival Tampa Bay. Look for a full Panther Preview coming later this week. Real live hockey is just around the corner!