Analytics have changed the way we look at hockey players, and for the better.
Those number-crunching stats nerds that were laughed out of the room 10 years ago are now members of hockey operations departments for NHL teams. Most members of the mainstream media have adapted the way they view the game to some degree, as have most hockey executives in positions of power.
If you don’t adapt, you’ll be left behind.
To what degree they have (and should) adapt is open for debate though. And that debate gets louder when it comes to players like Erik Gudbranson.
Gudbranson, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, ticks a lot of boxes that teams – yes, even good ones – look for.
He’s big. He’s tough. He can fight. He’s a leader.
And those attributes are important, full stop.
The Canucks reportedly want to re-sign him.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is paying too much for ‘nice to haves’ rather than essential qualities that are needed to build a championship team.
Size and toughness are still attributes that are important for teams trying to win the Stanley Cup. But so is skating. So is moving the puck quickly and efficiently up the ice.
One of the best things stats like Corsi have brought to the game of hockey is to help in the evaluation of ‘stay-at-home’ defencemen. Players like Chris Tanev typically flourish in the stat, while guys like Gudbranson don’t.
Gudbranson is last among Canucks defencemen this season in Corsi-For percentage, meaning the team gives up more shot attempts than they produce with him on the ice, and do so at a worse rate than with any other blueliner.
And while some people may still roll their eyes at advanced statistics, consider that Gudbranson doesn’t really wow you in any statistic – even the traditional ones that shouldn’t matter as much.
He doesn’t provide offence, as evidenced by just nine points in 62 games with the Canucks over the last two seasons.
Playing just 17:44 per game, Gudbranson is sixth in average ice time this season – an indication of the coach’s trust in a player.
Gudbranson has just two fights in 32 games this season, which is two fewer than Kevin Bieksa in Anaheim who is 10 years older. Two fights for Gudbranson has him tied with the likes of defencemen Aaron Ekblad, Nathan Beaulieu, Zach Bogosian, and Travis Hamonic. Heck, even Tomas Tatar has two fights this season.
In terms of hits per game, Gudbranson ranks third among Canucks d-men with 2.4 – behind Alex Biega and Michael Del Zotto. He has 1.5 blocks per game, which also has him ranked third.
He’s middle of the pack in giveaways per game by Canucks defencemen, but dead last in takeaways.
The current Canucks management group has been guilty of overvaluing physical stay-at-home defencemen before. Luca Sbisa was included as one of the key parts of the Ryan Kesler trade. Two years later, the Canucks gave up a 20-year-old former first rounder plus a high second round pick to get Gudbranson.
While the team doubled down on the Sbisa blunder, re-signing him to a ridiculous three-year contract worth $3.6 million per season, they’ve been a little more cautious with Gudbranson to this point.
After an injury-plagued first season in Vancouver, the 6-foot-5 blueliner was re-signed to a one-year deal at the same money ($3.5 million) he made on his previous contract.
But now, with the February 26 trade deadline looming, the Canucks have a decision to make.
“We certainly value what Erik brings to our group and given some of our young players we hope will join our team next year possibly, and the ones that we (already) have, the environment that they work in is important,” said team president Trevor Linden in an interview with TSN 1040’s Matt Sekeres and Blake Price on Tuesday. “We’re definitely going to explore [re-signing him]. I think it’s keeping our options open as we march toward the deadline.”
While young players do require a little extra protection, and the Canucks are missing some snarl without Derek Dorsett, you have to find the right price. Consider that Brian Boyle provides size, leadership, and toughness – and he signed a two-year deal for just $2.75 million per season as an unrestricted free agent last summer.
Linden and GM Jim Benning like what Gudbranson brings, and at 26 years old, he’s at the right age for this team.
The problem is he’s overrated.
Overrated players typically fetch a better-than-expected return in a trade. They also usually command more money than they are worth on the open market.
That’s why a report from TSN’s Bob McKenzie on Tuesday had some Canucks fans seemingly ready to storm the offices at Rogers Arena.
“The first priority at this point is to try to negotiate an extension with Gudbranson,” McKenzie said on SportsCentre’s Insider Trading segment. “While there haven’t been any specific contract talks, there is expected to be over the next week or two some conversation with his representatives aimed at trying to get a multi-year extension done. Only if they can’t get that extension done does he become a likely move at the deadline as a rental and they’re getting lots of calls on him at this time.”
Every player has a price, both in terms of contract negotiation and trade talks. We’ll soon find that out with Gudbranson.
In Vancouver, he hasn’t proven to be a top-four defenceman despite being paid like one. Getting him back at the same price would be overspending, but most observers feel like he’ll get a raise.
Logic dictates that if teams are willing to overspend in free agency, they’d be willing to overspend in a trade. That’s why it’s likely time to cut bait with Gudbranson, and get what you can for him at the trade deadline.