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Late Bloomer No More

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Jason Garrison (Getty Images)
By Dave Joseph for

CORAL SPRINGS – The term ‘late bloomer’ was used at one time to describe Panthers rookie defenseman Jason Garrison. But the term being used more and more these days to describe the 24-year-old is ‘prospect.’

Garrison, signed as an undrafted free agent in April of 2008, was impressive during the Panthers rookie training camp here at incredible ICE which concluded Thursday. Now, the native of White Rock, British Columbia, is hoping his strong performance here at rookie camp will spill over to the Panthers official training camp, which kicks off Saturday with physicals and Sunday on the ice in Nova Scotia.

“I think I’m ready, absolutely,” said the 6-1, 220-pound Garrison when asked if he was ready to play regularly in the NHL. “I just have to come out here and prove myself. I want to keep learning to get to the NHL level.”

Born in a small seaside community approximately 30 miles from Vancouver, Garrison earned a spot on the University of Minnesota-Duluth squad after posting 62 points in 57 games in 2004-05 playing for the Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Hockey League. But it took some time for Garrison’s career to take flight.

“I was a late bloomer,” he admitted earlier this week after practice. “I didn’t play juniors until my 19-year-old year. I just tried working hard and developing my game. I was able to make the jump when I had the opportunity to go to college, but my second year I had a couple injuries and surgeries and that didn’t go over too well.”

After undergoing hernia surgery some 20 games into his second season in Duluth – and after having missed most of training camp after having his tonsils removed – Garrison was having a breakout year his junior season at Duluth before injuring his right leg Feb. 1 against Wisconsin. Prior to the injury, Garrison was tied for first on the team in scoring and was leading the team in assists. He also shared the WCHA goal-scoring lead among defensemen. Despite the late-season injury, Garrison was still recipient of the team’s Fan Favorite Award for 2007-08 and closed out the year with 14 points and a plus-seven rating.

No wonder Garrison gained the attention of scouts, including those of the Panthers.

“When we started to watch him play it was clear this guy had a real shot of playing in the NHL,” said Panthers assistant GM Randy Sexton. “He’s a hard worker, has a great attitude, clearly skates well and shoots the puck like a pro. We’d like to see him be more aggressive physically, and we think that will come as he gets more comfortable and builds his confidence.

“Off the ice he’s very smart, articulate. He’s one of those guys who, sometimes you don’t know, if he fully understands how good he can be." 

Although Garrison played one game with the Panthers last season – he played 11:57 Oct. 25 in St. Louis – he spent his first season in professional hockey at the Panthers American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., where he finished fourth in scoring with 35 points (eight goals) in 75 games. Garrison said the season was “learning what professional hockey is all about.”

“There’s highs and lows and they come and go either real quick or slow, and as a player the game is definitely different at each level,” he said. “You just try and get your game where it needs to be at each level and keep developing so you can get to the next level.

“I know it’s been said about me that I have to get more aggressive, and that’s what I need to do. I have to take that part of the game and mold it into the other things I do well and just become more of a complete player.”

And Garrison appears to be on the cusp of making that happen.
Rookie camp ended Thursday and coach Peter DeBoer and assistant GM Randy Sexton were happy with the organization’s depth of quality and quantity. DeBoer reiterated Thursday there’ll be plenty of competition when training camp opens, especially on the blue line.
The Panthers will go to camp with more than a dozen defensemen, including Bryan Allen, Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard, Jordan Leopold, Ville Koistinen, Clay Wilson, rookies Dmitry Kulikov, Garrison, Keaton Ellerby, and training camp invitees Martin Skoula and Christian Backman.
DeBoer said of the rookies: “(Ellerby) looks bigger and stronger than he did a year ago, and Jason actually looks leaner. He came in at least 10 pounds lighter than he finished the season last year. Both those guys look more confident.”
“I think when you come in here as a first, second year player there’s always a learning curve and you tend to sit and watch instead of being proactive,” he added. “You can see those guys now, along with (forwards) Shawn Matthias and (Michal) Repik, feel more comfortable. I think they’re going to come in and push for jobs.”
DeBoer said he liked what he saw from Kulikov, the Panthers first-round pick (14th overall) this summer, but wouldn’t say if he was ready to make the NHL roster.
“You can see he’s a confident player,” he said. “He has a little bit of a swagger to his game. He’s strong, makes good decisions with the puck, shoots the puck hard. There’s a lot to like, but it’s too premature. We have to get him on the ice with the NHL players and through some games before we make those decisions.”
The rookies get a day off before the team leaves Saturday for Nova Scotia and training camp. Some of the team’s veterans plan to skate Friday at incredible ICE one more time before hitting the road…DeBoer reiterated he expects to name a captain sometime after training camp…
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