Panthers loaded with young defensive talent, but seek veteran mentors

The Florida Panthers must fix a defense that allowed an average of 3.20 goals per game. They have Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski under contract but must decide what young prospects can help shore up the defense in 2014-15.

The future hinges on young players like Erik Gudbranson to contribute to the success of the Panthers.

Marc DesRosiers / USA TODAY Sports

If defense wins championships, the Florida Panthers are a long way from contending.

Heading into this offseason, Panthers GM Dale Tallon -- a former NHL defenseman -- has the opportunity to reshape a blueline that struggled in just about every area last season.

Coupled with goaltending, Florida had one of the more porous defenses in the NHL. The Panthers allowed an average of 3.20 goals, the second-worst mark in the league.

Aside from protecting its own net, there were lapses on special teams as well, as the Panthers finished last in both penalty kill and power play. Florida allowed opponents to score with the man advantage 24 percent of the time, while only converting 10 percent of its chances when playing with the advantage.

When looking at individual efforts on special teams, the numbers are glaring. Brian Campbell, Tom Gilbert and Dmitry Kulikov combined for just six of Florida's 17 power play goals, with each one getting two tallies apiece.

But the future hinges on Florida's younger players -- Erik Gudbranson, Dylan Olsen and Alex Petrovic -- to develop into the team's core. Finding at least two veterans to mold these players is high on the Panthers' offseason to-do list.

Tallon has said Florida lacks a gun from the point to create scoring chances. And after shipping  defensive defenseman Mike Weaver to the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline, finding a penalty-killing, shot blocking blueliner will be a top priority this offseason as well.

UNDER CONTRACT

Brian Campbell, 34: Florida's top defenseman saw his offensive numbers dip for the second straight season since finishing among the league leaders in 2011-12. He remains a cornerstone of the Panthers defense, though, in terms of workload, offense and leadership. Campbell logged an average of 26:57 of ice time and played at least 30 minutes in 14 of his 82 games. Paired with the well-rounded Tom Gilbert, Campbell only finished with a minus-6 rating, his best mark since joining Florida.

To really get the most out of Campbell, and improve the team's power play, Tallon will need to find a gun to play alongside him. Campbell finished with just 10 power play assists. Compare that with the 30 he registered two seasons ago when he would tee up pucks for former Cats defenseman Jason Garrison, who recorded a career-best 16 goals.

Ed Jovanovski, 37: The veteran returned from major hip surgery and went on to appear in 37 games, recording a goal and five assists. During Jovanovski's absence, players often talked about what it would mean to have Florida's captain back in the lineup. Though his leadership is unquestioned, results from his presence suggest otherwise as Florida went 14-25-2 with Jovanovski back on the roster. On the ice, he played effectively for the average 16:10 minutes he logged.

But the reality is, with one year left on his deal, Jovanovski eats up $4.125 million in salary and cap space. The veteran intends to play out his contract, but it was obvious during Florida's post-season meetings his future is uncertain. Based on his age, numbers, health and the Panthers' up-and-coming talent, Jovanovski could find himself being the team's (costly) seventh defenseman. Florida may opt to buy out that final year, especially if it benefits the team long-term. But it would not be surprising either if Tallon respects the captain's wishes and lets him finish his career in Florida.

IN THE SYSTEM

Colby Robak, 24: Although he's seen brief action at the NHL level, Robak seems to have developed into a good, all-around depth defenseman for Florida. A former 60-point scorer with the Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL), Robak has played a consistent game in the minors, hovering around the 5-10 goal and 20-30 assist marks. Robak could compete in training camp for the role of the team's seventh defenseman. But even that may be a stretch if Florida brings in veteran free agents and younger talent keeps developing. Next season marks the final year of Robak's contract, and possibly the last chance to prove he still has a place in Florida's future plans.

Alex Petrovic, 22: Petrovic has seen action at the NHL level in each of his past two seasons. He boasts a physical edge, solid defensive mentality and has the tools to produce points as well. Next season should be the first real opportunity for Petrovic to compete for a spot out of training camp.

Jonathan Racine, 20: Racine could be Florida's next Weaver, although it is difficult to project as he only finished his first pro season with the San Antonio Rampage (AHL). Florida's third-round pick in 2011, Racine is physical and consistent in his own end and can play the role of a shutdown defender. At best, he is at least one year away from being part of the NHL conversation.

FREE AGENTS

Erik Gudbranson, 22 (RFA): Tallon often talks about how defensemen take about 300 games to find a comfort level and style of play in the NHL. Gudbranson is a little more than halfway there, although for the downs he experienced over the past calendar year, his play started to turn around toward the end of the season. Gudbranson finished with career highs in goals (3), assists (6) and points (9). Although not great, his minus-7 rating was significantly lower than his first two years. The flashes of brilliance Gudbranson showed during the 2012 postseason -- his rookie year -- started to emerge again. Off the ice, he's already a leader among Florida's younger players. Without a doubt, Florida will qualify Gudbranson as a free agent, but expect the Panthers to sign the player they consider a future captain to a lucrative, long-term deal this offseason.

Dmitry Kulikov, 23 (RFA): On the other hand, Kulikov has reached the 300-game plateau and received a less-than enthusiastic review from Tallon. Although the defenseman set a career-high in goals (8) and logged a little less than 22 minutes of ice time per game, Kulikov lacked consistency. He finished with a whopping minus-26 rating and led Florida with 47 giveaways. The Russian's name often came up in trade rumors during the season, but with no movement, one has to think it might have been means of motivation. Kulikov has the booming shot Florida needs -- and he honed it a bit more this season -- but at what cost defensively? Expect to hear Kulikov's name linked with draft day trade talks -- especially if the defensive-starved Edmonton Oilers are involved. If Kulikov is still with the Panthers on July 1, he will receive a qualifying offer. But long term, his future in Florida remains tenuous at best.

Dylan Olsen, 23 (RFA): Unable to crack the lineup with the Chicago Blackhawks, Olsen ended up finding a home and role in Florida. Paired with Gudbranson for a good chunk of the season, the blueliner finished with three goals and six assists for 12 points -- all career highs. For a player who has 72 NHL games to his credit, the outlook on Olsen right now is positive. And being a former Tallon draft pick in Chicago along with plenty of fine-tuning in the minors bodes well for the defender. Depending on Kulikov's fate, it would not be surprising to see Olsen given more of an opportunity to emerge as a top four defenseman in the coming year. Florida will most certainly qualify Olsen, and it is possible a two- to three-year deal could be offered as well.

Tom Gilbert, 31 (UFA): One of Florida's last-minute free agent signings, Gilbert ended up being one of the team's more effective all-around defensemen. Joined with Campbell on Florida's top pairing, he registered three goals and 25 assists, while logging an average of 21:20 in ice time in 73 games. Now the Panthers have to decide whether he's one of the free agents they want to keep, or pursue other options on the market. The upside is that he clicked with Campbell defensively. But on the downside, he's not the big gun Florida' needs on the power play, nor is he one to log significant minutes on the penalty kill.

Mike Mottau, 36 (UFA): Although Mottau only appeared in eight games with the Panthers, he ended up spending a lot of in Florida as the team's seventh defenseman. Regarded as a consummate pro by players and coaches, Mottau's strength was off the ice, providing leadership and guidance for the team's younger players. Depending on how the Panthers' free agency period pans out, it is possible to see Mottau brought back for a similar role in either San Antonio or Florida.

Ryan Whitney, 31 (UFA): Signed as a free agent a week before the season started, Whitney appeared in just seven games with Florida, posting a minus-7 rating. The Panthers buried him in San Antonio for the remainder of the season. He finished as the Rampage's top-scoring defenseman with seven goals and 16 assists. It is unlikely he will return, although he could be re-signed in a minor-league capacity.

Matt Gilroy, 29 (UFA): Another free agent signed to bring in depth, Gilroy appeared in 16 games with Florida before being sent down to San Antonio. His 10 goals were tops among Rampage defensemen. Like Whitney, if he is brought back, it would be solely for depth in the minors.

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside or email her at erinbrownfla@gmail.com.