Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jason Garrison Leads Successful Group of UMD Alumni in NHL

One of the prices you pay for success in college hockey is the risk of losing star players early to professional hockey. Sometimes, even losing teams can have players coveted by the pros.

Defenseman Jason Garrison played at UMD from 2005-2008, flashing his big slapshot at times and developing his game enough that he got noticed by pro scouts. Garrison signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers after the 2007-2008 season, forgoing his final year of college eligibility.

The move has paid off for Garrison, who is enjoying his best season -- by far -- in the NHL this year. As the league gets into the All-Star break, Garrison leads all NHL defensemen with a career-high 13 goals. He also has set a new career high with 21 points. The Panthers, under first-year coach Kevin Dineen, went into the break with 55 points, good for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and a tie for first place in the Southeast Division with Washington.

So what took the Panthers so long to figure out that Garrison could shoot?

"I guess it was just passed along from one of the assistant coaches who stayed after last season, and he let the new staff know about it," Garrison said this week. "They've used it to their advantage, and put me on the power play in a position to shoot the puck."

Garrison has 107 shots on goal this season in 48 games, compared to 113 last season. It's pretty clear that teams are adjusting their defensive zone coverages to account for Garrison, which doesn't mean the Panthers can't continue to utilize his offensive ability.

"You're gonna be a bit more of a focus," he said. "It will create more space somewhere else, so you can use that to your advantage."

Garrison spoke highly of Florida general manager Dale Tallon and the moves he made last summer to strengthen the team. Included in that were the acquisitions of former Blackhawks (Tallon was the GM in Chicago until 2009) like forwards Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky and defenseman Brian Campbell, all players who were part of the 2010 team that won the Stanley Cup in Chicago.

"Dale's brought in the right guys," Garrison said, "guys that want to win and guys that have won. That's the biggest thing. These guys have won Stanley Cups, and know what it takes, and they pass it along."

Garrison is one of a growing group of UMD alumni playing in the NHL. Getting regular ice time are forwards Mason Raymond (Vancouver) and Tim Stapleton (Winnipeg), along with defensemen Justin Faulk (Carolina) and Matt Niskanen (Pittsburgh). Former Bulldog defensemen Dylan Olsen (Chicago) and Evan Oberg (Tampa Bay) have also seen time in the NHL this season, and forward Jay Rosehill is one of the tough guys employed by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Stapleton has set a career high with seven goals going into the break, Niskanen is enjoying a nice season in Pittsburgh after a rough go in Dallas for a couple years, Raymond came back from a scary back injury suffered during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, and Faulk is one of the top rookie defensemen in the league.

What's interesting about Garrison's situation is that he's doing this in a contract year. Garrison signed a two-year, one-way deal in 2010 (meaning he would have to pass through waivers to go the minors and be brought back to the NHL roster, and he would make his NHL salary no matter where he played), and he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. While teammate Mike Weaver recently signed an extension with the club, Garrison doesn't sound like a guy in a hurry.

"It's something I'm just going to have to deal with at the end of the year," he told me. "We want to make the playoffs and put ourselves in a position to go far. It's a team game, and I don't want to do anything other than focus on the game."

I'm not an expert on NHL salaries, but I have to figure a 27-year-old defenseman with a huge shot and a great attitude could probably net himself a chunk of change on the open market, whether he chooses to re-sign in Florida or go elsewhere.

For now, though, the focus is on helping the Panthers secure their first playoff berth since 2000. The ten-season drought is the longest in the NHL.

Conventional wisdom is that sophomore forward JT Brown will join this alumni-turned-pro list after the season, but we have a ways to go before we get there. The Bulldogs have 12 games left in the regular season, and hopefully a bunch more in the playoffs.

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