As Florida Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison continues to make a name for himself around the league as an offensive provider from the back, he'll never be able to get away from the "late-bloomer" tag that's been attached to him since his first full season in the NHL in 2010-11 saw him net five goals and 18 points in 73 games.
"It's true, you can't really go around it," said Garrison during a phone interview on Wednesday as the Panthers were in St. Louis for Thursday night's game against the Blues.
Not only is the 27-year old Garrison a late-bloomer, but he was also a late starter. He didn't play his first year of junior hockey until he was 18, spending two years with the Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Hockey League. Switching from forward to defense, Garrison learned quickly and soon found himself playing regularly at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for three years before signing a professional contract with the Panthers in 2008 after going undrafted.
These days, Garrison's dedication is still paying off for him.
It took him 58 less games this season to surpass his goal total of five from a year ago. All seven of his goals this year have been one-timers from the point, proving that Garrison is one of the NHL's up-and-coming boomers from the back.
"I definitely had the shot for a while now," he said. "Growing up, I was complimented about my slap shot and really developed it in junior. It took a little bit of time to get the timing down for a one-timer and the accuracy, but for the most part, the strength of it has always been there."
When you're succeeding far more than failing, your confidence grows. For Garrison, his confidence has been on a steady climb since July 2010 when after spending his first two years as a professional being shipped back and forth between Florida and Rochester of the AHL, the Panthers signed him to a two-year, one-way deal. The worry about keeping a suitcase ready at all times diminished, and that security helped his game grow.
"It was probably the biggest thing," said Garrison. "You sign that one-way contract and you know that management has confidence in you that you're able to stay. So for me I just wanted to make sure I showed them that they made the right decision and work hard on and off the ice and try to learn as much as I could [and] limit my mistakes and just progress and develop as a player."
Helping in not only Garrison's development but the development of Florida's other young defensemen like Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Keaton Ellerby has been the off-season addition of Ed Jovanovski. The 16-year veteran has become almost like another coach for the Panthers' blue liners.
"All of us have watched him growing up," said Garrison. "He's everything you could ask for as one of the leaders for the team. On the back end, he's always communicating with the young guys and developing them as much as the coaches are. For him to be here during this whole rebuilding process has been huge."
The inclusion of Jovanovski and the slew of players that GM Dale Tallon brought in during the summer not only infused plenty of buzz around the team within the fan base and the local and national media, but also for the players themselves. Saying goodbye to friends that were a part of the team last season was tough, but the changes the Panthers' roster underwent sparked plenty of anticipation within Garrison and his teammates to get back to Florida and start practicing.
Tallon brought in Stanley Cup winners in Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg, and players who have produced in the NHL. With the amount of turnover that happened to the roster, the question became how long it would take for new head coach Kevin Dineen to find chemistry within the lineup. As of Wednesday, the Panthers were 9-5-3, were tied with the Washington Capitals atop the Southeast Division with 21 points and had seen their power play go from dead-last (13.1 percent) a season ago to sixth (20.3 percent) currently.
Dineen has found the right places to put players and bring out their strengths, while assistant coach Craig Ramsay, who runs the power play, has found the magic formula to turnaround a power play unit that was dreadful last season.
The team's "We See Red" marketing campaign piggy-backed the roster overhaul and helped further the buzz in South Florida. Having not made the playoffs since the 1999-00 season, Panthers fans grew tired of their season ending early, but the early results this season have had a rejuvenating effect in the community.
Aside from the advertisements all over South Florida pushing the "We See Red" theme and the renovations to the BankAtlantic Center, the atmosphere in the crowd has been different and according to Garrison, the players have noticed.
"I think they're really trying to turn things around and create a winning atmosphere. I think it's working.
"You can definitely feel the difference."
Photo credits: Getty Images