When the Florida Panthers took Erik Gudbranson of the Kingston Frontenacs third overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft there was nary an ounce of criticism directed at the team for their decision. In fact, most pegged Gudbranson as a cornerstone on which the Florida Panthers could be built upon in their quest for respectability. In Gudbranson, it appeared they had landed a defenceman with a package of hockey sense and physical gifts that rarely come together. After an impressive training camp with the Panthers and subsequent contract negotiation squabbles, Gudbranson was on his way back to the OHL for a third year of junior hockey.

Instead of dominating the Ontario junior ranks and developing that offensive upside we’d all been hearing about, Gudbranson stumbled… at least in terms of the expectations bestowed upon him. Although the 6’4″ and 200 lb hulk would eclipse his career high in goals and set a pace to break his previous high point total, there would appear to be holes in his game. He wasn’t using his big shot to its full potential, he made questionable defensive decisions, got caught out of position, and more recently – lost his temper and reportedly clashed with Kingston’s coaching staff. Coupled with an average performance with Canada at the World Junior tournament, which would end infamously with Gudbranson’s sloppy play late in the third period, and there’s sufficient reason for disappointment in the third overall pick’s development.

Gudbranson’s season is in question now after he was suspended indefinitely for a vicious hit on Oshawa’s J.P. Labardo. Kingston Frontenacs’ head coach Doug Gilmour stripped Gudbranson of his ‘A’ and the team suspended the defenceman for one game prior to the January 22nd contest with the Oshawa Generals for what some would refer to as an “apathetic” approach to the game. Gudbranson’s actions against Labardo (a flying elbow and ensuing one-sided fight), although inexcusable, were carried out in a fit of revenge for an apparent run at Frontenacs’ goalie Philipp Grubauer.

The big defender racked up 12 minutes in penalties on the play and was ejected. A day later, he returned to practice and was once again an alternate captain on Doug Gilmour’s hockey team. The Frontenacs coaching staff hasn’t exactly inspired glowing reviews from those who follow the team closely, but they’re still sitting in third place in the OHL’s East Division with a record of 23-18-5. Still, the reports of conflicts between the coaching staff and the club’s star player raise a lot of questions.

Should the Panthers have ponied up to meet Gudbranson’s contract demands and given him some NHL reps like the majority of his lottery peers? Should the Panthers have given him a shot following the World Junior tournament? Why has he been left to stagnate with Kingston when it’s been apparent that there’s problem’s there? We could go on…

What we’re getting at is that there’s more than enough blame to be spread around to all parties for Gudbranson’s supposed regression.

As Jesse Michael points out in an excellent piece titled Gudbranson’s Season Of Disarray Continues, stunted development on the part of Kingston products is nothing out of the ordinary:

In the previous 12 drafts dating back to 1998, the Frontenacs have drafted three players in the first round; Gudbranson as mentioned in 2010 (3rd overall), Chris Stewart in 2006 (18th overall) to the Colorado Avalanche, and Anthony Stewart in 2003 (25th overall) to the Panthers.

The former Stewart enjoyed a solid season in his draft year of 2005-06, scoring 37 goals and 87 points in 62 games. Returning for his third season however, Stewart saw a small drop off in his production, even with increased ice-time, recording 36 goals and 82 points in only one fewer game. His playoff performance wasn’t much better, with four goals and six points in five games.

Anthony’s fate was similar to his brother’s. After a 70 point 2002-03 campaign in which he scored 32 times for a team who missed the playoffs, his post-draft season saw a decline in numbers. Struck by the injury bug during the season, Stewart completed only 53 games, and while he notched a career high 35 goals, he managed only 58 points come season’s end.

Part semi-dysfunctional system in Kingston, part mishandling on behalf of the Panthers, and part prosaic effort by Gudbranson himself and we’ve got an equation for disappointing post-draft season. Still, there’s ample reason for optimism. In speaking with Litter Box Cats, Scott Campbell of The Scouting Report it’s about managing realistic expectations versus the arbitrary expectations that come along with being a top pick:

I like his game a lot and I’ve always been a big proponent of his, but I’m not sure he’s going to live up to hype that most fans associate with the third overall billing. I think it’s difficult for defensive defenseman or two way defenseman to prove their worth to the fans when you could have guys like Hall, Seguin, Skinner etc. putting up 80 point seasons. With that being said, if Gudbranson develops into a guy that can pot 30-35 points a year, play on the top pairing and wear the ‘C’, I think that certainly warrants the third overall pick, especially in the mind of the general manager and coaching staff that loves to have guys like that in the lineup.

With that, it’s pretty much back to square one for Gudbranson in 2011-12 and there’s enough blame for everyone. There’s little doubt that Dale Tallon and company will take a more learned approach to their prized prospect next season. Gudbranson, for his part, will face a new set of expectations that are bound to include a “don’t be a bust” refrain. If there’s any underlying moral to this story it’s that all stakeholders in this Panther’s future should take a different approach the second time around.