On his way to becoming the third pick -- and first defenseman taken -- at the 2010 Entry Draft, Erik Gudbranson also was excelling off the ice, winning the Canadian Hockey League academic player of the year award last year.
That knowledge helped Gudbranson understand that as nice as it was to sign his entry-level contract with the Florida Panthers on Friday, it's just one step in reaching his ultimate goal -- playing in the National Hockey League.
"The way I'm looking at it now is it's a big achievement but a little step," Gudbranson said. "It's a big team to make. It's the National Hockey League, the toughest League in the world. I'm going to work my tail off to be here next year and make a difference on the team."
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While some believed Gudbranson could have played in the NHL last season, he never came to terms on a deal with the Panthers and instead went back to his junior team, the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. There he had a stellar season, with 12 goals, 22 assists and 105 penalty minutes, all numbers better than the previous season, when he had 2 goals, 23 points and 68 penalty minutes in a season that was limited to 41 games due to injury and illness.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pounder also had 5 points in seven games in helping Canada win a silver medal at the 2011 World Junior Championship.
"He's a better player," Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon said when asked about Gudbranson's growth since last year. "He's more mature … We're delighted. We're excited. He's the real deal. He's a big part of the puzzle.
"He's a world-class kid. You know he's going to do everything in his power to get to the next level. I've seen more maturity, I've seen him stronger. I've seen him carrying a leadership role moving forward. He just has that presence."
Gudbranson was one of three picks the Panthers had in the first round of last year's draft, Tallon's first with the franchise. After Gudbranson, the team picked center Nick Bjugstad at No. 19 and center Quinton Howden at No. 25. All three were in attendance at the team's prospect development camp, which ended Friday.
"They are ready to make the next step," Panthers Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Luce told the Miami Herald. "I think there is no question that you look at those three selections as a turning point in our organization. In five years from now, I hope we're all looking back saying that was the first piece of the puzzle that Dale Tallon was able to get."
Gudbranson may be the biggest piece of that puzzle, but it doesn't mean he has a guaranteed spot with the Panthers this season. During Tallon's massive offseason roster overhaul, he added veterans Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski to the blue line. They join a group that includes talented 20-year-old Dmitry Kulikov, 2007 first-round pick Keaton Ellerby and solid veterans Mike Weaver and Jason Garrison.
"I'm going to try to be the best defenseman out there and show everyone I can make the team, that I can play in this League. And not only play, but make a difference. That's what I want to do this year. I want to be here full-time and be a difference maker on the ice."
-- Erik Gudbranson
"Everybody's got to earn the right to play for the Florida Panthers," said Tallon. "Now the competitive level is raised. He's going to have to earn that spot. It's probably harder to make it this year than last year because we have more depth at all positions. I'm confident he will give it his best shot. If not … this is a growing process, a learning process. I'm hopeful he makes the team, but it won't be devastating if he doesn't, because we have lots of assets. We have to patient. We can't jump into forcing young people into the lineup just because they were the third pick in the draft. We have to make sure they're ready to perform at the NHL level."
Gudbranson said he's ready to raise the curtain on his NHL career. And while making the team is his first goal, he said he has loftier aspirations.
"I'm just going to come (to training camp) and be as confident as possible," he said. "I'm going to be respectful to all the veterans, but at the same time I'm going to try to be the best defenseman out there and show everyone I can make the team, that I can play in this League. And not only play, but make a difference. That's what I want to do this year. I want to be here full-time and be a difference maker on the ice."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK