Size not enough for blue-liner Gud­bran­son

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - PA­TRICK JOHN­STON pjohn­[email protected]­media.com twiter.com/risin­gac­tion

In many ways, the hel­la­cious show­ing over the last two games for Erik Gud­bran­son best il­lus­trates how the game has changed for NHL de­fence­men.

The num­bers don’t lie: Gud­bran­son has been on the ice for seven of the last nine goals con­ceded by the Van­cou­ver Canucks. His de­fen­sive part­ner, Ben Hut­ton, has been on for five.

This isn’t how it’s sup­posed to be for the big blue-liner. When he was drafted third over­all in 2010 by the Florida Pan­thers, the plan was he would be­come a stop­per, the kind of de­fence­man whose de­fen­sive game was his calling card, who didn’t need to be a big of­fen­sive con­trib­u­tor.

But that hasn’t been the case for Gud­bran­son, who the Canucks picked up from the Florida Pan­thers in 2016 for young cen­tre Jared McCann.

There’s just no get­ting away from the big picture: since Gud­bran­son’s ar­rival in Van­cou­ver, of ev­ery three goals scored while he’s on the ice, two have gone into his own team’s net.

There may be goals against you can quib­ble with here and there, but the scor­ing trend that cov­ers 123 games is dif­fi­cult to ig­nore. You can’t do just one or two things any­more.

“Adapt or die,” Oak­land A’s gen­eral man­ager Billy Beane was quoted as say­ing by Michael Lewis in Money­ball.

The guy who would con­struct a force field around his own team’s goal, mak­ing life dif­fi­cult for at­tack­ers, has faded into mem­ory, just like the photo-neg­a­tive style of de­fence­man, the guy who had ex­cep­tional puck skills but who was a night­mare in his own end.

The em­pha­sis on high-tempo hockey that has emerged over the past decade means the suc­cess­ful teams dress de­fence­men who can skate, move the puck well and be adept at keep­ing the puck away from the opposition. De­fence­men who don’t meet all three cri­te­ria are now li­a­bil­i­ties. In other words, the best de­fence is to not let the other team have the puck.

“It’s all about body po­si­tion,” Ari­zona Coy­otes head coach Rick Toc­chet said Thurs­day be­fore his team’s 4-3 over­time vic­tory at Rogers Arena about the most es­sen­tial tal­ent de­fend­ers must master.

Toc­chet was a power for­ward in a dif­fer­ent era, one where the type of de­fence­men that Gud­bran­son was hoped to be thrived.

“When you get body po­si­tion on a player ... you can dic­tate, be­cause you can’t hook, you can’t hold, you can’t cross-check,” Toc­chet said.

When he played, de­fence­men did all of those things to hin­der at­tack­ers from get­ting to the net.

And then you have to be able to move the puck, he added.

Canucks Army ’s Dar­ryl Keep­ing tracks data on Canucks de­fence­men, with a strong fo­cus on how much suc­cess blue-lin­ers have in prevent­ing op­po­nents from en­ter­ing the Canucks’ zone, as well as how much suc­cess they have in ex­it­ing the zone with puck pos­ses­sion.

Keep­ing says while Gud­bran­son has had his mo­ments this sea­son on the for­mer met­ric, he’s done poorly over­all. Against Ari­zona, for in­stance, a third of his at­tempts at get­ting the puck out were “fail­ures”; in other words turnovers, ic­ings, or penal­ties in the de­fen­sive zone.

It’s a gap in his game that surely mo­ti­vated the part­ner­ship with Hut­ton, who is adept at mov­ing the puck up the ice with con­trol.

(As a side note, given his ob­vi­ous phys­i­cal tal­ents, one won­ders why coaches didn’t spent more time work­ing with him on his puck skills when he was younger.)

Gud­bran­son has had one part­ner who he’s had some suc­cess with when we look at the shot-at­tempts bat­tle over the past two sea­sons.

In 162 min­utes with Der­rick Pouliot over the past two sea­sons, the two blue-lin­ers are in the pos­i­tive when it comes to count­ing sim­ple shots for and against.

They still yield too many scor­ing chances, but given the lesser shoot­ers third-pair­ing de­fence­men face, that’s man­age­able.

Asked after Thurs­day’s game if the rough week for Gud­bran­son meant a change of part­ners was in the plans, Canucks coach Travis Green ac­knowl­edged that Hut­ton and Gud­bran­son need to be bet­ter.

“I know they’re wor­ried about it. They don’t like it,” the bench boss said.

He then said a change might be in the off­ing.

“We’ll see where we go from there as far as the pair­ings go.”

DAR­RYL DYCK/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Canucks de­fence­man Erik Gud­bran­son, mid­dle, takes out Ari­zona’s Brad Richard­son to spring Brock Boeser dur­ing Thurs­day’s game at Rogers Arena.

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