Canucks need to find a part­ner for Gud­bran­son

Gud­bran­son has a role to play but phys­i­cal de­fence­man can use some help

The Province - - FRONT PAGE - PA­TRICK JOHN­STON pjohn­ston@post­media.com twit­ter.com/risin­gac­tion

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.

— CP FILES

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.

GERRY KAHRMANN/PNG FILES

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.

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