Jason Garrison is the surprise early leader in defensemen goals league-wide. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jason Garrison isn’t a well-known name around the NHL. In fact, when he was asked for an interview in the dressing room after a game a voice from the next stall over cracked at the request.
“Must be a slow day at The Hockey News,” said veteran Ed Jovanovski.
But despite Garrison’s low profile, he’s an intriguing talent. With nine goals through 29 games, Garrison leads all defensemen in the category and is on pace for a 25-goal season. Known more for defense than offense prior to this season, Garrison’s success can partially be pinned on the fact he plays alongside Brian Campbell, who sits second behind Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson in points from the blueline. The former Hawk knew little about his new teammate before he arrived in Florida, but the two have quickly become comfortable with each other.
“He’s got a big shot and we’re both lefties so I’m trying to find him as much as I can,” Campbell said. “He’s easy to play with. He’s solid in all areas, good skater, makes really good decisions and we feed off each other a lot so it’s been a good pair for us. He’s got a lot of upside and he’s still learning the game, too.”
And what better way for a defensively stout blueliner to learn how to round out his game than to play with the offense-minded Campbell? To anyone who has followed the Panthers in recent times, it won’t come as a surprise Garrison is again logging major minutes for the team. During his first full NHL season last year, Garrison pulled down 22:17 of ice time per game and hovered around level ground in plus-minus, even though Florida was the worst team in the East and allowed 34 more goals than it scored. He wasn’t a point producer and is already approaching his total for 2010-11, so the maturation of that side of his game has allowed new coach Kevin Dineen to trust Garrison with big minutes once again, even after the team added a couple of experienced players.
“Bringing Campbell in, obviously he logs a lot of minutes, so I definitely don’t expect to play more than he does,” Garrison said. “(The coaches) just told me I have to build off the year I had and they’ll put me in the same position and obviously partner me up with ‘Soup’ and be in a supportive role.”
When you play your first NHL season at 26 and have a breakout like this at 27, you get labelled a late bloomer. In fact, everything about Garrison’s game has been late developing. He was 18 when he played his first year in the British Columbia League with the Nanaimo Clippers and moved from forward back to defense. At 21, he was an undrafted college freshman and played three years for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, where he didn’t take over on the offensive side of the puck, totalling just nine goals. He spent 2008-09 in Rochester of the American League and split the following season between the Americans and Panthers before staying in Florida full time last season.
Aside from the veterans he plays with, Garrison also credits assistant coach and Panthers expansion draft pick Gord Murphy with helping him refine his game at the NHL level.
“‘Murph’ played a long time and has shown me the way,” Garrison said. “There’s always something you can work on, be better offensively, better defensively. This year has been the year for me where I’ve tried to get my shot through as much as possible – focusing on finding the lane.”
So far it’s been working, even if it didn’t earn him a slot on the all-star ballot. But with the attention opponents have to pay to Florida’s hot top forward line and Garrison’s flashy defense partner, the Panthers would be happy to see their newfound blueline bomber continue to evade enemy radar – if only so the veterans can keeping taking pot shots at him.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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