Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson’s game took a step forward in 2015-16 and Florida has rewarded the 24-year-old blueliner with a one-year, $3.5-million contract for next season.
In his fifth full season with the Panthers, Gudbranson’s game started to finally round into the form Florida had been hoping to see from the 2010 third-overall pick. After spending the first four seasons of his career as a second- or third-pairing blueliner, Gudbranson carried a heavier load throughout the regular season, averaging more than 20 minutes per game for the first time in his career and contributing two goals and nine points along the way.
Not relied upon for offense, though, Gudbranson’s biggest contributions came defensively. He was drafted to be a big, tough, shutdown defender, and that’s exactly how the Panthers tried to utilize him this past season. On the penalty kill, he logged more than 200 minutes of ice time in 64 games and no Panthers defender who saw the same amount of ice time as Gudbranson had a higher percentage of defensive zone starts.
“We are very pleased to have signed Erik,” Panthers GM Dale Tallon said in a release. “He is an important part of our young core who has continued to develop into a reliable, physical presence on our blue line and a strong leader in our locker room.”
With Willie Mitchell’s career likely over, Gudbranson will almost assuredly take on a bigger role on the second pairing. That role could be even greater, however, should the Panthers fail to re-sign veteran top-pairing defenseman Brian Campbell, who is an unrestricted free agent this off-season. Campbell led all Panthers defensemen in ice time, and if he’s not back, that could leave a big void for Gudbranson and the rest of the Panthers defense to fill. If Gudbranson makes a difference with his increased minutes, it likely means he will have solidified his future with the Panthers if he so chooses to remain in Florida. If he falters, though, the Panthers could be ready to move on, especially as the one-year deal signifies Florida is likely still looking for more from the Ottawa native.
If Gudbranson can’t answer the challenge and be a solid third option on the blueline by the end of next season, the Panthers may have to consider looking outside the organization to strengthen the defense. And regardless of how Gudbranson fares, the Panthers’ blueline will need some attention paid to it by next off-season.
At present, Florida have six of their eight regular defensemen from the past season under contract for 2016-17, but of those, each of Gudbranson, Alex Petrovic and Aaron Ekblad will become restricted free agents following next season. The other three, Dmitry Kulikov, Jakub Kindl and Steven Kampfer, will all be up for unrestricted free agency. Not a single defenseman who saw more than 10 games of action is inked beyond 2016-17, and the only blueliner who saw any time with Florida in 2015-16 that’s currently signed beyond next season is 22-year-old Michael Matheson.