CORAL GABLES, Fla.
-- The outlook couldn't be brighter, nor the expectations higher, than for Florida Panthers
defenseman Erik Gudbranson
, the team's first-round selection (No. 3) at the 2010 Entry Draft.
Beyond his physical attributes, which at 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds are NHL-caliber, and his obvious skill on the ice, the most recurring comment echoed among scouts concern his maturity and leadership. As an example, they cite his ability to block out all the hype surrounding his potential to go high in the draft during the 2009-10 season.
"I made a mental note not to check anything, not to listen to anything that was said and not to read anything," Gudbranson said. "Doing that kept me really humble as well, and really focused. That was a good thing and I ended up getting selected as the first defenseman taken."
That sort of self-control translates to the ice, where Gudbranson, 19, is a vocal leader, calling for the puck and shouting instructions. At Tuesday's game against the Nashville Predators
here at the 2011 Florida Rookie Tournament, he assisted on the Panthers' only goal in a 3-1 loss.
This will be Gudbranson's second training camp with the Panthers. He never could agree on contract terms with the Panthers after last season's camp and was returned to the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. All that is history now, however, as Gudbranson signed his three-year, entry-level deal with the Panthers in July.
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He traces his emotional growth to a family crisis when his brother Dennis was diagnosed with leukemia at age 9. Erik, then 13, watched and learned as his family pulled together to help his brother battle the disease.
"What happened with my brother made me look at things from a different standpoint and put things in perspective," Gudbranson said. "Not that I didn't enjoy hockey before, but hockey became my oasis now. I get out on the ice and I think about skating or I think about making the next pass and I don't think about anything else."
After battling the disease two separate times, Dennis is now fully cured.
With that obstacle now thankfully in rear-view mirror, Gudbranson can continue to focus solely on hockey. Just as he blocked out all the talk about his draft status, he's ignoring all the talk about him being counted on as a key piece for the Panthers this season.
"I think hockey is hockey and when I get on the ice, that's all I think about," Gudbranson said. "When you stress, that's when you make mistakes, so I just go out there to have fun. Besides, nothing is an expectation. I think I have a good chance to make the team this season. I know the Panther organization will give me every opportunity."
That they will, but according to Florida assistant GM Mike Santos, nothing is for sure.
"We don't label him a 'can't-miss prospect,'" Santos said. "He has to compete for a job like anyone else. Alexander Petrovic (the Panthers' 2010 second-round pick) has just as good a chance of making the team as Erik does."
But even while Santos works at lowering expectations, there is a lot he likes about Gudbranson.
"Obviously his size is the first thing that stands out about him," Santos said. "You can't teach 6-foot-4. He's mature and a natural leader and that's one of the things that attracted us to him. I don't know where he gets it, but I know you either have it or you don't, and he does. He exudes confidence and leadership."
Careful, those expectations are rising again.