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Panthers need Kulikov, Gudbranson to take next step

by Alain Poupart

Because of their great promise and their unique abilities, forwards Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau have become focal points for the Florida Panthers. They're also among the biggest reasons for optimism for a fan base that has had to constantly re-learn the meaning of patience.

But there are a couple of other first-round picks from past years upon whom the Panthers will rely heavily in the upcoming season, two players at the core of Florida's youth movement on defense.

Dmitry Kulikov was the last Panthers first-round pick before Dale Tallon became the team's general manager, while Erik Gudbranson was Tallon's first No. 1 pick. Each was a restricted free agent this summer before being re-signed, Kulikov to a three-year contract and Gudbranson to a two-year contract.

As of mid-August, six of the eight defensemen on the Panthers roster were 24 or younger, including Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL???Draft. The two exceptions were Willie Mitchell, 37, and Brian Campbell, 35.

Though Ekblad very well might make the Panthers' opening-night roster, Kulikov and Gudbranson have the most NHL???experience of the young defensemen and therefore face the biggest expectations.

That's especially true for Kulikov, who despite being only 23 already has played in 313 career games, above the 300-game threshold Tallon always mentions as the mark when NHL defensemen fully develop their game.

"He's got so much ability,"???Tallon said after Kulikov was re-signed. "It's time for him now to make a statement and be a leader on our team. He's got all the ability in the world. It's now just a matter of channeling it in the right direction and doing it consistently. He's still a young guy and he's got tremendous ability. They're hard to find, those guys."

Kulikov averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time each of the past three seasons, although his 2013-14 campaign was marked by the first healthy scratch of his career after a series of bad turnovers over a stretch of a few games.

Gudbranson, the third pick in 2010, averaged 17:59 in his third season but also was inconsistent. He now has played 169 NHL???games, meaning that going by Tallon's benchmark he won't reach his full potential until the 2015-16 season.

Erik Gudbranson
Defense - FLA
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 9
SOG: 92 | +/-: -7
Either way, Tallon has high hopes for him and thinks Gudbranson, like the rest of his defensemen, will benefit from the presence of Roberto Luongo in net from the start of the season.

"Now he's going to have a little more support,"?????????Tallon said during the Panthers development camp. "Obviously, goaltending is a big plus. Having good goaltending allows a young defenseman to make a mistake or two without really worrying about it because they can cover up for that. It's all positive, it's all good. [Gudbranson has]?????????got great leadership qualities, his intangibles, the toughness, mean and skilled and all those things. Plus, he has the passion."

Gudbranson is excited about the future of the Panthers' defensive corps.

"It's shaping up to be a real force," Gudbranson said after signing his new contract. "I?????????think a great part is we're all good skaters. We're all going to be fast, we're going to be able to move the puck well and we bring some size as well. Having Willie come in this year, from what I've heard about him, he's helped many guys around the League that he's played with become better defensive players. He's really simplified the D-zone for them. He's a huge addition to our team and certainly a huge addition to the way we're going to play this year."

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