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Youngsters will play big roles in Panthers' future

by Dave Lozo /
If Dale Tallon transforms the Florida Panthers from an also-ran into a championship team the same way he did with the Chicago Blackhawks, it's going to start by laying a foundation of good, young talent on which to build.

The quick-drying cement in that metaphor will be defenseman Erik Gudbranson, the third pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, and goaltender Jacob Markstrom, the first pick in the second round of the 2008 Draft whom Tallon signed to an entry-level deal June 1.

Gudbranson has a chance to break camp with the Panthers, while Markstrom could step into the breach once Tomas Vokoun's contract expires after this season. The bulk of any NHL success Gudbranson, 18, and Markstrom, 20, will experience probably remains a few years down the road.

It's one thing for experts and talking heads to sing the praises of Tallon for his work in Chicago and talk about how it can happen again now that he's the GM in Florida. It's another to hear it from the players themselves, who genuinely are excited about the future in the Sunshine State with Tallon at the helm.

"It's always a good thing," Markstrom said of Tallon running the show. "You see the Chicago Blackhawks, he did a great job over there picking up young kids, making great draft picks and they won the (Stanley) Cup this year. So hopefully he can do the same with the Florida Panthers."

"It absolutely does," said Gudbranson when asked if catching Tallon's eye gave him a boost of confidence. "When I went to the draft I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to potentially go to the Florida Panthers. That's where I wanted to go. I had an interview with them the day before the draft and told them you're my team. I want to go there and I want to play for you guys.

"You see what he did in Chicago, and why can't he do it in Florida? I really do believe in the next 5-6 years, maybe even earlier, that Florida can make a name for themselves."

Tallon and the Blackhawks parted ways before the start of last season, but Chicago's championship roster could be used by police to identify Tallon because his fingerprints were all over it.

Offensive stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were selected by Tallon. Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg were acquired in trades and played big roles during last year's Cup run. While overseeing drafts as the director of player personnel and later the team's assistant GM from 1998-2004, Tallon was responsible for taking defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and forwards Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland.

Throw in the fact that Tallon believes the Panthers are in better shape now than when he took over as Blackhawks GM in 2005, and it's not hard to see why Gudbranson is so enthusiastic about playing in Florida.

"To be where I got drafted, it's exactly where I wanted to go," Gudbranson said. "It's where I want to play. (Tallon) said this is the start of the rebuilding process. He said I'm going to be a big part of the team, which is a huge honor to be told that as a kid going into the National Hockey League.

"I think it's a team where we can do some damage in the future."

The future could be now for Gudbranson, while Markstrom might have to wait a season to make his presence felt in South Florida.

Gudbranson was the first defenseman taken at the 2010 Entry Draft. The Ottawa native had his 2009-10 season with the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs cut short due to a bout of mononucleosis and a knee injury. At 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, he has the potential to develop into a physical force with enough skill (2 goals, 21 assists in 41 games with Kingston last season) to contribute offensively.

But with six NHL defensemen already on the roster, it won't be easy for Gudbranson to earn a roster spot. However, he doesn't think it will be the end of the world if he has to return to his junior team for another season.
"You see the Chicago Blackhawks, he did a great job over there picking up young kids, making great draft picks and they won the (Stanley) Cup this year. So hopefully he can do the same with the Florida Panthers." -- Jacob Markstrom on Dale Tallon

"I think that I'm in a position where I have an opportunity to make the National Hockey League," Gudbranson said. "That's what I want to do, but I also understand that's a big jump from junior. If I did go back, that's not necessarily the worst thing ever. Another year of development in junior isn't bad. Nonetheless, my goal is to make the National Hockey League. If I go there and have a good camp, I think that can happen."

Markstrom, on the other hand, likely will have to blow away the Panthers' coaches to earn a spot on this season's team and avoid starting the season with AHL Rochester. Besides Vokoun, who is one of the best goaltenders in the League, Scott Clemmensen has proven to be a capable backup over the last two seasons and is under contract for this season.

None of that is a concern to Markstrom, who led the Swedish Elite League last season in goals-against average (2.01) and save percentage (.927). He said he's ready to play in the NHL right now and will do everything he can to unseat Vokoun as the Panthers' No. 1 goaltender.

"I think I can play in this League," Markstrom said. "Every day I want to go there and I want to practice hard and I want to be between the pipes instead of Vokoun. That's the goal. That's why I'm here. I want to play in the NHL. If that means I have to go down to Rochester for one year or play 10 games there, you just have to prove you deserve the chance. When you get the chance, you have to take them."

If Tallon's past success in Chicago is any indication, it's just a matter of time before Gudbranson and Markstrom make the most of their opportunities.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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