PHILADELPHIA -- The last time anyone saw Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson, he was capping a solid rookie season with a strong run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
However, as Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said, "That is an extremely distant memory."
Gudbranson will play his first game more than nine months after the Panthers' first-round playoff series against the New Jersey Devils ended when Florida plays the Philadelphia Flyers.
The third pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, Gudbranson had eight points in 72 games, but began to establish himself as a solid, physical presence late in the season, leading the team with 154 hits. He carried that play right into the playoffs, when he was third on the team with 22 hits, and also saw time paired with Brian Campbell.
"I'd love to see him start right where he finished," Dineen said. "He was extremely solid as the year went on last year and that's what you're always looking for, a guy to keep moving in a positive direction. I think there's always plateaus for young players, but that was the encouraging thing about Erik -- his season kept slowly moving in the right direction. When we got into the money time in the playoffs he was an extremely effective player for us, so hopefully we'll keep going that way."
Gudbranson's development was stalled this summer, when he injured his shoulder wakeboarding with friends. He finally was cleared for game action at the end of January, and played two games recently for the San Antonio Rampage, the Panthers' American Hockey League team.
"That was absolutely necessary for me to go down there and get some games in and get some time in," Gudbranson. "So it was very worth it. I got some extended minutes, I got to play some power play, some penalty kill -- just work on things that I needed to work on to be ready."
Gudbranson said after the team's morning skate he was excited to finally be back in the lineup, where he'll likely start paired with Campbell.
It's been so long, Gudbranson said it's not too far removed from playing his first NHL game again.
"I'm definitely going to feel the nerves a little bit," he said. "But that gets overrun by excitement and adrenaline. Getting most of the stuff out of the way my first shift is going to be huge. I'm really looking forward to it."
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