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Window Of Opportunity

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Dmitry Kulikov skates with the puck against the Atlanta Thrashers on March 2, 2010 (AP Photo/Gregory Smith)
By Glenn Odebralski for

A window closes. And another one opens.

Or in the Florida Panthers’ case, two windows close and two more open.

The Panthers made three trades ahead of this year’s trade deadline and two of them had an immediate affect on the blue line.

Gone are defensemen Jordan Leopold, traded to Pittsburgh on Monday for a 2010 second round pick, and Dennis Seidenberg, traded along with prospect Matthew Bartkowski for forwards Byron Bitz and Craig Weller along with Tampa Bay’s second round pick in the 2010 draft on Wednesday.

And with that, two huge holes in the Panthers blue line.

Both Seidenberg and Leopold ate up a lot of minutes for the Panthers. Seidenberg was first in ice time at 22:54 while Leopold was closely behind with 22:25. The duo also were near the top of the team in blocked shots (Seidenberg had 179 and Leopold had 107).

Now it’s a good bet that the three remaining veterans on the team, Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard and Bryan Allen will see there workloads increased. But so too will 2009 first-round pick Dmitry Kulikov and fellow youngster Jason Garrison.

And that presents a fantastic opportunity for the two rookies.

“It's a great opportunity (for them),” said head coach Peter DeBoer. “At the same time. This isn't training camp. We're not just handing out jobs and ice time. We're here to win games and they'll continue to get those types of minutes if they deserve it. And if they don't, we'll have to find other ways to fill those ice time holes.

“Whether it's more ice time for veterans or it's different guys in the organization getting a chance. This isn't by any means a 'here's a job and you're going to play 20 minutes a night for the next 20 games and we're going to see what you can do and get ready for next season'. That's not the message here. There's a window of opportunity and they have to grab it.”

For Kulikov, the 19-year old Russian hasn’t disappointed so far in his first year. DeBoer has raved about his play throughout the season and felt that the Panthers really missed him when he was out for 14 games in January with an MCL injury. He averaged 16:33 of ice time the first 48 games of the season.

And in the first game after the trade deadline, Kulikov saw 23:59 of ice time (7:26 more than his season average), third most on the team behind McCabe and Ballard. He was on the ice for 7:04 of the Panthers power play (most on the team) and had several beautiful passes out of the zone to start odd-man rushes against Philadelphia.

“I'm expecting to play like I did before,” said Kulikov of the rest of the season. “I'll just have more ice time, more responsibilities.”

Jason Garrison celebrates his first NHL goal with Shawn Matthias on March 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Garrison has had a different season to date for the Panthers. The 25-year old has been called up several times to spell Bryan Allen and then played when Kulikov was out with an injury. But this time, he really has a chance to stick and contribute.

“This is a good opportunity for me,” said Garrison. “Come up here and kind of prove myself, especially at the end of the season when we're trying to get points and trying to get in a playoff spot.”

He had his best game to date against Philadelphia. He constantly jumped up in the rush and even scored his first NHL goal and added an assist in the victory. He finished with two points on five shots and was a plus-2 with 19:18 of ice time (8:03 more than his average).

“It was obviously something special,” said Garrison of his first NHL goal. “I still really can't believe it. It happened so quick but you want it to last forever. It was definitely one of the greatest moments of my life.”

“We had some big games out of different guys. I thought Garry (Garrison) had one of the best games since he's been up here,” said McCabe. “With jumping in the rush, coming from behind and getting his first goal, I thought he really played well for us.”

For Garrison, he’s taken the experience he gained in previous call-ups and has grown his game to get to this point of the season.

“Honestly throughout the season, just being able to come up here and being back and forth, you learn a lot here and you get confidence playing with Florida,” said Garrison. “When I go back to Rochester, I have that confidence and I'm able to develop more and when I come up here, I just am able to add something more to my game. So that's kind of what's going on through this year and now I'm just hoping to continue that here and keep helping out.”

The opportunity and how much Kulikov and Garrison will play will depend on them and their play in all facets of the game.

For DeBoer, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“(Kulikov’s) going to have to show that he can handle (the extra ice time),” said DeBoer. “We had some individual meetings after the Olympic break and he's a guy that I really want to see take a step up here the last 19 games. He's going to get more responsibility. He's going to get more ice time and he needs to rise to that challenge.”

“I don't know if I'm reluctant to give anybody 20 games,” continued DeBoer about Garrison. “If he has five or six bad games, we're not going to live through that. I don't think that's going to happen. I think he's proving that he's a NHL player.”

The two rookies know that the ball is in their court to help the team, and themselves.

“It's up to me. There's no guarantees,” said Garrison. “I just have to continue to do my thing and just continue to work hard and improve myself every day.”

“Every game is a championship game for me,” said Kulikov. “I just have to go out there and play to the best of my abilities and the last 20 games is just another 20 games. We have a chance to make the playoffs and I would be happy to help the team to make them.

“I'll do whatever it takes.”
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