SUNRISE, Fla. — Erik Gudbranson will be playing his third game at the BankAtlantic Center Saturday night when the Florida Panthers take on the New York Islanders. The third pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft is hoping it won't be his last this season.
The Panthers will have to decide after their ninth game whether to return Gudbranson to his Ontario Hockey League team in Kingston or keep him in the NHL, which would move him a year closer toward free agency.
Tonight will be Florida's seventh game, and its next two will be the road — Monday at Montreal and Thursday at Ottawa, which happens to be Gudbranson's hometown.
"I think you just go back to keeping it simple and looking at it as a team game," Gudbranson said after Saturday's morning skate. "For the next three games, this is my team and hopefully I get the 10th game in. That's obviously in the back of my mind, but never when I'm playing and never when I'm with the guys."
In his first six NHL games, Gudbranson has yet to record a point. He's averaging 12:39 of ice time and is tied for the worst plus-minus ratio among Panthers defensemen with Brian Campbell at minus-4.
Gudbranson has had 24 penalty minutes, which includes fights against Steve Downie and Ryan Malone in games against Tampa Bay Saturday and Monday, respectively.
Along with the physical aspect, Gudbranson has shown crisp passing from the back end as well as an impressive slap shot.
"I like his game, I like what he's brought," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "He still shows his youth at times. I think that doesn't surprise anybody that he can go out there and just bring so much enthusiasm that sometimes that youth gets him in positions he doesn't want to be in. But the overall picture is he's off to a good start to his NHL career."
After failing to reach agreement on an entry-level contract last summer, Gudbranson spent all of the 2010-11 season in the OHL. If he does go back to Kingston, Gudbranson again will get to play with his younger brother Alex, who is also a defenseman.
The Frontenacs sure could use Erik Gudbranson, considering a 4-0 loss to Brampton Friday night dropped them to 1-11 on the season.
But Gudbranson clearly wants to stay in the NHL, and he feels he belongs there.
"In my mind, I do, and that's not only just for the 10th-game mark," Gudbranson said. "You have to think that when you're playing on the ice. You have to believe that you're in the right place and that you're making a difference on the ice.
"I've been happy (with my performance). I've been trying to get better every single game. I think that's the biggest thing, working on your gaps, on your stick, really adjusting to the speed. I'm trying to pick up as much as I can, game in, game out, and be a better player the next day."