Canucks need to find a partner for Gudbranson
Gudbranson has a role to play but physical defenceman can use some help
In the horror season that was Erik Gudbranson’s Canucks debut, there was actually something that went well.
Yes, you can take a moment to set yourself.
Between his wrist never working properly and a slew of negative numbers — both of the traditional and fancy varieties — very little went well in 2016-17. The one thing that did go well was his ability to make things difficult at the blue-line. More on that in a moment. When he was inked to a one-year extension, Vancouver made it clear the club still expects big things from the former top draft pick.
Team general manager Jim Benning laid it all out: “Erik is a big, strong physical defender who I know feels he has a lot to prove and has worked diligently in his injury rehab. He has leadership qualities that will be important for our young team and we’re excited to see him healthy and back on the blue-line next season.”
Gudbranson has never been a big point producer, he’s just been known for being big. And while he racked up a pittance of penalty minutes last season, he’s played rough and tumble in the past.
He admitted to Postmedia News reporter Ben Kuzma in March that he was conscious of a shift in how he played.
“The NHL is such a chess match with systems, you have to be aware of everything. And if you’re running around like I was my first two years (in the NHL), you get lit up pretty quick,” he said.
When he was paired with Canucks defenceman Ben Hutton last season, many thought the two would be a good fit. Gudbranson had done all right when paired with super-skater Brian Campbell in Florida and Hutton shared some of Campbell’s puck-moving abilities.
But it didn’t work out. Some of that may have been former coach Willie Desjardins’ system that saw players like Hutton held back from pushing the play up the ice. Instead of risk, Desjardins figured his team’s best chance of success was to keep the game at a slow pace, with as few shots against as possible. That also showed itself in the team proving to be very averse to taking penalties.
All that said, during Gudbranson’s limited time in the lineup — he played 30 games before needing season-ending wrist surgery in December — he did display an underrated skill: It turns out he’s good at preventing teams from carrying the puck from the neutral zone into the Canucks’ end.
In a game that has hundreds of puck possessions during a match, being able to force a foe to dump the puck in and give away possession is a very useful thing.
Up to a third of changes in possession come as a result of dump-ins. The challenge, is then, getting the puck back out of your own end. On his own, Gudbranson proved not to be terribly adept at that.
This season, Hutton should be seeing top-four minutes, along with defencemen Alex Edler, Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher. The Canucks also signed Michael Del Zotto and Patrick Wiercioch this summer. Both are experienced defencemen who could push for a top-four spot.
What’s clear, though, is that Gudbranson will be pushed down to a third-pairing role. That’s a safe spot for him to play, up against the opposition’s lesser forwards, who could really struggle against a defenceman who clearly loves to stand things up at the blue-line. And that could lead to less pressure on his defence partner to get the puck back up the ice.
The Canucks remain a team in flux. But if they can find the right puck-moving partner for Gudbranson, at least one part of their game could surprise.
Erik Gudbranson, left, has proved adept at standing up opposing forwards at the blue-line and forcing them to dump the puck into the Canucks’ zone.
Canucks’ Erik Gudbranson warms up against St. Louis before a game in Vancouver last year. The hurt D-man only played 30 games wi t h t h ec l ub last season.