Why Gudbranson's time with the Canucks went so horribly wrong

Feb 25 2019, 10:24 pm

In many ways, Erik Gudbranson never stood a chance in this market.

An old school defenceman playing in an evolving NHL that was moving to a quicker, smarter game. Coming to Vancouver in a trade heavy with expectations, involving former first round draft pick Jared McCann going the other way, along with a pick that if you really want to write up some worst-case-scenario depressing fan fiction, could have ended up being Alex Debrincat. A defenceman joining a team that was struggling to get out of the bottom of the league, and being asked to slot into a top-four role no less.

Playing in a Canadian market can be tough at the best of times, but this was a high pressure situation even an Instant Pot would struggle with.

So it’s not exactly surprising that Gudbranson’s tenure in Vancouver ended with such a whimper. It was a lot to ask of the 6-foot-5 blueliner to come in and not only survive, but thrive here. So you still couldn’t help feel for the guy when after news of the trade hit social media, people began openly celebrating, rushing to be the first one to post the champagne gif from The Office, to showcase their enthusiasm for the deal.

That isn’t to say the people were wrong to be excited. People didn’t celebrate because Gudbranson was a bad person. By all accounts, he was a well liked teammate and he was always doing charity work in true Canucks fashion.

The 27-year-old had one of those personalities that made him feel like the kind of guy you’d love to grab a beer with after a game.

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The problem was he just never seemed to find his footing on the team, to the point where near the end of his time in Vancouver, he had a constant target on his back every game from the fans and media. There were only so many games you could watch before you began asking yourself “wouldn’t it be better for both parties if we just all moved on?”

That’s where the Canucks found themselves when they traded Gudbranson to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Tanner Pearson at the trade deadline.

But how did Vancouver go from acquiring Gudbranson and lauding him as a solution for their defensive woes, to shipping him out a couple of seasons later? Let’s break it down in depth, shall we?

High expectations

You have to understand, the first half of Benning’s reign in Vancouver, he resisted a rebuild as long as possible.

When your first moves are to sign aging players like Ryan Miller and Radim Vrbata, it doesn’t exactly scream “we must rebuild”. Sadly Marie Kondo wasn’t around back then to ask Benning if the roster sparked joy in him, so the Canucks attempted to squeeze whatever lifeblood was left of that 2011 core into one more playoff run.

And like a scene straight out of The Binding of Issac, that run consisted of a horrifying first round loss to the Calgary Flames in 2014. A series where they somehow managed to waste the last great year of the Sedins by not playing them enough, while also somehow making Micheal Ferland look like the next coming of 2003 Todd Bertuzzi (shout out to 18-year-old Sam Bennett, too). Kevin Bieksa is still trying to figure out what happened in that series.

So it became somewhat of a long running joke in this town that Canucks management was allergic to the word “rebuild,” that they would refuse to say it, even when pressed on the matter. The closest we ever came to hearing them to admit such a thing in those days was when they begrudgingly claimed to be working on a “retool,” and even then, they’d kind of glare at you for making them say that much.

Why do I tell you this, you ask? Because it gives you the context of the fan reaction when they heard the Canucks had just traded Jared McCann plus a second and a fourth-round pick for Gudbranson and a fifth-rounder on May 25, 2016. It was the Canucks trading away a younger player and higher draft picks, in return for a defenceman that analytics had already warned people was a potential risk, a defenceman with attributes seemingly better suited for an older era.

It felt like, if not a step backwards, a step sideways at best, which frustrated a fanbase yearning for a youth movement and more draft picks, aiming for a more up-tempo style of hockey.

See, the thing with Gudbranson is his resume reads straight out of a 1980’s hockey romance novel. First rounder pedigree, dashing good looks, big, strong rugged physique, a guy who would throw down and defend his teammates in the blink of an eye, someone who was good in the room and could protect the young skilled players.

It’s practically torn from the pages of Don Cherry’s dream diary.

And it’s easy  to get swept away with that ideal, of the big, tough defenceman who comes in to protect the children from the monsters from the other team. That’s why despite the reservations analytics had about him, many people hoped Gudbranson would be able to replicate some of the success he had during his first few years with the Panthers.

The problem was his play on the ice in Vancouver never matched the hype.

I don’t doubt sticking up for your teammates or being physical counts in hockey, but if you can’t get the puck out of your zone, or your gap control resembles Ryan Getzlaf’s receding hairline, the toughness intangibles you bring to the table kind of get lost in the horrifying tire fire you constantly leave in your defensive zone.

It’s like an employee being well liked because they always try to chase down people who rob the store; except it would probably be better if they just stopped leaving the safe in the back wide open in the first place.

Adding to this was the fact the fans had just witnessed a similar player in Luca Sbisa come through town, a guy Jim Benning went to bat for by saying he was good in scrums, and brought a much needed physical element to the team, despite objections about the underlying numbers showing that this wasn’t a guy you should put in your top two pairings. Yet here we sit four years later, turnovers now forever nicknamed “pizzas” in his honour in this city, and Sbisa is struggling to keep an NHL job. This left many people feeling vindicated about their initial concerns about him.

So you can excuse people for feeling a bit like Groundhog Day when it came to Gudbranson. It’s another defenceman who Benning stated would bring a physical element, keep people honest, etc, etc, but also had concerning underlying numbers.

The optics of it painted Benning as a man who struggled to figure out what made a good defenceman in today’s NHL.

Skillset suited for another era

If there is one thing you’ll hear about Gudbranson, it’s critics lamenting how he was born a couple of decades too late. And it’s true, you could easily picture Gudbranson anchoring a second pairing in the late 80s/early 90s, hooking people to death, or cross checking them in the kidneys until they were peeing blood the next day, all while rocking an amazing moustache.

But in today’s NHL, the stick work, unchecked physicality and interference that allowed guys like Gudbranson to keep faster players in check, is no longer allowed.

Instead of seeing Gudbranson pound a guy into submission, you were more often met with him chasing a player and getting burned by a quick turn or cutback. When he did finally get the puck on his stick, he’d more often than not try and fling the puck off the glass and out, instead of making an outlet pass for a controlled exit. It was a clumsy sort of game that was only made worse by being on a team that consistently finished in the bottom of the standings.

Maybe if the Canucks were a powerhouse team, they could laugh off the struggles of Guddy by sheltering him in a bottom pairing role. But on this squad? Gudbranson’s deficiencies stuck out like a sore thumb.

The problem is he plays in an NHL where being labelled a “defensive defenceman” is more and more likely to mean your career is going to be limited, because puck control and puck movement are at a premium in this league. Size will always be desired, but if you don’t have the ability to move the puck out of your zone under control, chances are a lot of teams are going to expose you.

And expose Gudbranson they did, as not many players bled shots or goals quite like the Ottawa native.

Use advanced stats, use your eye test, or use whatever basis you want to go on, and on many nights Gudbranson looked lost on the ice for the Canucks. And whether you want to chalk it up to injuries, or loss of confidence, or any other factors you want to apply, the end result is his play was only getting worse in Vancouver.

It felt like every time Gudbranson played with a partner, that d-man would end up producing some of their worst hockey of the season. It was common place to see Gudbranson and his partner of the day struggling to read off each other, leading to sloppy play in their own zone.

It got to the point where even with the Canucks’ injuries at their worst in 2019, they still couldn’t trust Gudbranson to play for more than 13-15 minutes a game in a limited bottom pairing role. This from a guy they had just recently decided to pay $4 million a year.

His contract

Fair or not, the salary cap is another measuring stick for players. Yes, everyone deserves to try and get paid, and I don’t behoove Gudbranson for signing his contract with the Canucks. It’s hard to imagine any NHL player telling a team “Hey thanks for the offer, but I’d rather only take $2 million, you’d absolutely hate me at $4 mill.”

But with that money came the expectations that he could perform in a top four role on the team, and he quite simply could not do it. When you looked ahead and pictured a Canucks paying its Petterssons, Boesers and Hughes, it was hard to imagine a lineup where you’d want to be paying $4 million for a guy that the coach seemingly lost trust in to play top four minutes.

So when the team added Luke Schenn, a player who has a skillset eerily similar to Gudbranson, but at a much better price, the writing was almost on the wall that the Canucks were going to try to go in a different route. And admittedly it was just one game against a weak Anaheim team Monday night, but Schenn looked more calm and collected than Guddy had in most of his time here.

And again, you have to feel somewhat for Gudbranson. I imagine it was quite a shock to go from a market in Florida which loved him and touted him as a future captain, a fanbase in which some people still pine for him to this day, to what he ran into in Vancouver.

Gudbranson is probably just as happy as anyone else that he gets a fresh start in a new city.

The question now is whether Gudbranson’s time in Vancouver was an anomaly, or if his career path follows that of Sbisa, who has appeared in just nine games this season after signing a pro tryout contract in training camp.

Will Gudbranson be Seattle expansion draft bait? Will he be playing in the league three or four years from now? Or was his confidence merely shot, making him primed for a reclamation project? There are plenty of stories of players “run out of town” that have gone on to prove their old team wrong, just as there are plenty of stories of players being traded away and having their careers fade away like Marty McFly in a photograph after punching out Biff Tannen in a parking lot.

Whatever the case may be, it’s Pittsburgh’s problem now.

But never forget the power of hockey romance, because the Penguins are already saying the same things that were said when the Canucks acquired Gudbranson in 2016…

And all the more power to Gudbranson if he goes over to Pittsburgh and turns his career around and proves everyone wrong. We just know in Vancouver it was no longer working, and the trade was something both sides clearly needed.