Jason Garrison played three seasons at UMD, scoring nine goals and amassing 29 points over 87 games. He has a big shot, but also grew as a defensive player during his time with the Bulldogs. By the time his injury-shortened third season was over, Garrison was one of the most trusted -- and eminently likable -- players on the UMD roster.
He signed a free-agent deal with the Florida Panthers, a smart move because Garrison knew he'd have a chance to climb the ladder in that organization, which at the time was low on defensemen in the system.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Garrison is coming off his best season as a professional. He played 73 games for the Panthers, scoring five goals -- three game-winners -- and 18 points. Among players who actually finished the season with Florida (Dennis Wideman was traded to Washington at the deadline), Garrison led the way in ice time, averaging over 22 minutes per game. Only Marty Reasoner and Mike Weaver fared better in plus/minus than Garrison.
It was a frustrating season for the Panthers in general, as the team wasted a pretty rock-solid season from goalie Tomas Vokoun, now with the Capitals, by not scoring nearly enough goals. But Garrison had a lot to hold his head up high about. It was a breakthrough for him, after spending most of his previous two pro seasons with the Panthers' AHL team in Rochester (113 games, 11 goals, 54 points).
Now, Garrison has something to be excited about. Florida general manager Dale Tallon went crazy as free agency started Friday, one week after adding former Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell in a trade. Tallon traded for forward Kris Versteeg and signed forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall, Marcel Goc, and Sean Bergenheim, defenseman Ed Jovanovski, and goalie Jose Theodore.
Yeah, nothing really jumps off the page, but these are some solid moves for a franchise that needed some.
"Seems like he has made some key additions which the team is in need (of)," Garrison said over the weekend. "Power play help in Campbell, Versteeg, scoring depth in lines."
Stephen Weiss, Mike Santorelli, and David Booth are the Panthers' top returning scorers, and none of them hit even 50 points last season. While Versteeg and Fleischmann aren't prolific scorers, they add some real depth to Florida's top six. Fleischmann appeared to be on his way to a great season after being traded by Washington to Colorado, before a diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism ended his season.
Tallon also helped Florida's back line immensely by adding Campbell and Jovanovski.
"Playoff and Stanley Cup experience and leadership in Jovo," Garrison also noted, "as well as a top D man. I'm really excited about the moves."
Did Tallon overpay for the one-time Panther Jovo? Probably, but it's the kind of contract that someone would have given him had Tallon passed.
While Garrison might not lead the team in ice time again, he doesn't sound too worried about his role.
"So much time between now and camp," he said. "I'm proud of the job I did in my role last year, but if they have something else planned, I'll adjust."
Tallon has Jovanovski, Campbell, Garrison, Weaver, and promising youngsters Dmitri Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby available, along with 2010 first-round pick Erik Gudbranson, who could be ready to challenge for ice time in the NHL.
Garrison fits very well in this group as a player new coach Kevin Dineen can trust in all situations. You can't put a pricetag on that kind of player. He's a class act who understands his role and does what is asked of him. He's also only 26, while new faces Jovanovski and Campbell aren't exactly spring chickens.
The Panthers might not be a flashy team, but in a wide-open Eastern Conference, they could have become a contender for the top eight with Tallon's maneuvering.
Now, they need to work on getting people on South Beach excited about hockey.