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Canucks Trade Bait: Erik Gudbranson

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Coming or going? What’s in store for the rugged defenceman come the NHL trade deadline?

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

As the NHL’s February 26th trade deadline draws closer and with the Vancouver Canucks once again outside of the Stanley Cup Playoffs picture, the team finds itself in the deadline sellers market for a third consecutive season. In the remaining three and a half weeks between now and the deadline we’ll analyze the team’s most likely trade chips and evaluate the player, their situation, the team’s asking price, the potential suitors and, ultimately, some predictions on their NHL future.

Up first, we’ll begin with the player who has generated the most trade rumour headlines this season: rugged defender Erik Gudbranson.

The Player

Where do we begin? Gudbranson is such a mixed bag and opinions on his on-ice value range more wildly than perhaps any other player in the NHL. Ask an analytically inclined fan or analyst for his opinion on Gudbranson and you’re in for a diatribe on all that’s wrong with hockey these days. NHL executives and talent evaluators are stuck in the past, they’ll say. Unable to look past things like size, toughness and grit, Gudbranson is exactly the type of player that old-school hockey types love to fawn over, while the analytical crowd deems Gudbranson and his style of play obsolete in 2018. So, who’s right? The stats guys or the hockey guys? As with most things, the true answer lies somewhere in the middle.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Gudbranson will never live up to the lofty expectations of being a former 3rd overall pick, but he’s also a very serviceable NHL defenceman with real skills that can’t exactly be measured analytically. He’s not the core piece that many projected him to be, but he’s also not a complete bust. Too often fans and analysts make the mistake of conflating a disappointing player for a bad player. There’s no denying that Gudbranson is a disappointing player, but he’s not a bad player… not by a long shot.

To compare him with another player in the same situation, Gudbranson is essentially the blue line version of Canucks forward Sam Gagner. The former 6th overall draft pick frustrated the Edmonton Oilers for years with his inconsistency before they finally cut bait with him at just 24-years of age. Since then Gagner bounced around the NHL a bit, with varying levels of production over the past four seasons. Bad player? No, that’s unfair. Disappointing player? Most definitely. Ditto for Gudbranson.

Data courtesy of HockeyViz.com

By the numbers Gudbranson’s 2017-18 season does not look good. According to advanced statistics resource Corsica.Hockey, Gudbranson ranks 7th amongst Canucks defencemen in Corsi For at 5 on 5 play, just ahead of the rarely used Alex Biega. His Corsi For % relative to his teammates is a team worse -7.95. To put that into perspective, Michael Del Zotto is the next worse at -3.72. Ouch.

But, while the numbers and analytics don’t exactly paint Gudbranson in the best light, he remains a favourite of old school hockey types for a reason. Gudbranson delivers value on the ice in ways that can’t really be measured with any degree of precision. As much as the analytic crowd may argue this notion, intimidation and toughness do play a factor in the NHL.

There’s no denying that the 6’5”, 220 lb Gudbranson cuts an imposing figure to the opposition. Even more important is the fact that he’s not afraid to use his size to his advantage. The big man has a bit of a nasty streak and that’s something that analytics will never be able to measure. When an opposing player like Johnny Gaudreau sees a player like Gudbranson between himself and the Canucks net, it makes him pause, if only for half a second, to consider his options. Drive the net, dish or regroup? It’s human nature to want to avoid punishment and when he’s playing at his best, Gudbranson can act as somewhat of a policeman for the Canucks in the high-scoring areas of the team’s defensive zone.

NHL coaches also love a player with a “high compete level”, particularly when it comes to one-on-one puck battles. Due to his size and his willingness to use it, Gudbranson excels at pinning the opposition to the end boards while his teammates dig at loose pucks. When you consider that most of a 60 minute game is spent engaging in these one-on-one battles for possession, it’s clear to see why a player like Gudbranson would hold so much value in the eyes of coaches and talent evaluators.

The Situation

The 26-year old Gudbranson is slated to hit restricted free-agency this upcoming offseason, with his one-year, $3.5 million deal expiring on July 1st, 2018. You’ll recall that Canucks GM Jim Benning gave Gudbranson his current one-year “show me” type deal last June after the defenceman’s awful debut season with the Canucks. The intent, at least in the eyes of fans, was for Gudbranson to solidify his place amongst the Canucks defence corps in 2017-18 and secure a more long-term deal for himself the following offseason. What has happened instead is Gudbranson has put together a second consecutive uneven campaign full of injuries and questionable play.

Gudbranson has managed to suit up for just 33 of the Canucks’ 51 games this season and has produced just one goal and three points. Yikes.

Now, defenders of Gudbranson will argue that he’s not in the Canucks lineup to produce points. Gudbranson’s role is to shut down the opposition in the defensive zone and provide the team’s back end with some physicality and toughness. On a team that’s now lacking a definitive tough guy after Derek Dorsett’s departure, Gudbranson is the most likely to fill that role. Whether or not that role is warranted however, is another question altogether.

At this point you have to figure that the Canucks management and coaching staff have seen enough of Gudbranson to know what they have in him, both in the now and for the future. The question is, do they hold ‘em or do they fold ‘em?

The Price

Legendary CBC broadcaster Don Cherry had both Canucks fans and Toronto Maple Leafs fans in a bit of a frenzy earlier this season when he gave a hypothetical Gudbranson for Mitch Marner swap his official “thumbs up” on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner segment.

Understandably, the prospect of landing a 20-year-old, 60+ point player for a 26-year-old defensive defenceman, and one with suspect defensive ability at that, sent Canucks fans into a state of catatonic bliss. If only Cherry were running things in Toronto…

Of course, no NHL GM in their right mind is trading Marner for Gudbranson, but that doesn’t mean that Gudbranson doesn’t hold real value on the trade market. Several teams, including the Leafs, put a lot of value in players like Gudbranson because of the defensive depth, toughness and physicality they can provide. But, what’s his ultimate price tag?

French-language TVA Sports reporter and NHL insider Renaud Lavoie reported in late December that the asking price for Gudbranson is relatively low.

Keep in mind this report is over a month old and the NHL’s trade landscape is subject to ebbs and flows, but it’s unlikely that Gudbranson’s play over the past five weeks has boosted his trade value. Let’s be honest, if another GM is willing to part with an NHL ready prospect of the Nikolay Goldobin variety, or a pick anywhere in the upcoming Draft’s top 62 selections, the Canucks should take the offer and run.

The Suitors

As mentioned, it’s believed that the Leafs and GM Lou Lamoriello have expressed interest in Gudbranson. The emergence of rookie Travis Dermott may have cooled the hot stove in Toronto, but you cannot deny that Gudbranson fits the mould of a “Mike Babcock-type” player perfectly. It’s a move that seemingly makes sense for both sides.

The Leafs are overripe with young players ready to make a splash in the NHL and the Canucks would give them a perfect opportunity. Players like Josh Leivo, Nikita Soshnikov and Kasperi Kapanen are just itching for a legitimate NHL shot, could they get it in Vancouver?

TSN 1040’s Mike Halford expanded on some potential trade destinations for Gudbranson in an article for The Athletic in January, highlighting the Leafs, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins.

Gudbranson clone Braydon Coburn has been a healthy scratch at times in Tampa this season and Halford’s colleague Pierre LeBrun has reported that Lightning are seeking a “right-handed, top-four blue liner” in advance of the trade deadline. Can Benning convince Lightning GM Steve Yzerman that Gudbranson fits the bill?

The Lightning have little in the way of NHL ready prospects to move, but they are in possession of each of their picks in the next three entry drafts. If the Canucks are willing to be patient, they could move Gudbranson to Tampa for picks or a prospect like Brett Howden, Taylor Raddysh or Libor Hajek. The problem here is that Yzerman has been hesitant to trade young assets in the past. But with his team currently at the top of the league and poised for a strong Stanley Cup push, will he make an exception to his plan to acquire a sure-thing in Gudbranson?

As for the Bruins, team president Cam Neely has made it clear that his team is looking for another minute muncher on the back end.

“We’ve talked about if we could ever find a guy that could eat up some minutes,” Neely said, in an article published by Fluto Shinizawa of the Boston Globe. “Move the puck well, skate well, but not necessarily have to be that offensive defenceman.”

Zdeno Chara continues to carry the mail on the blue line in Beantown, while Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy also contribute to a strong B’s defence corps. But injuries to Krug, Adam McQuaid and a scary heart condition diagnosis for McAvoy this season have raised questions about the team’s blue line depth. Can Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy really send the likes of Matt Grzelcyk and Rob O’Gara over the boards with any real confidence in a tight playoff game? The acquisition of a player like Gudbranson would go a long way in improving the Bruins’ defensive depth.

Like the Lightning, the Bruins have a plethora of picks to deal at the deadline. GM Don Sweeney has been stingy about trading away future assets during his tenure, but like his counterpart Yzerman with the Lightning, Sweeney and the Bruins are poised for a healthy Stanley Cup run. If a 2nd round pick or a prospect like Zach Senyshyn or Jakub Zboril can provide the team with some blue line insurance, why not make a deal? Better yet? How about Langley, BC native Danton Heinen who has impressed during his rookie season with 11 goals and 33 points in 45 games? The Canucks would surely jump at the chance to acquire such a player in exchange for Gudbranson.

The Verdict

So far, Benning has kept quiet on any potential trade involving Gudbranson. In fact, if anything Benning has made it clear just how badly he’d prefer NOT to trade Gudbranson.

“He’s a physical, stay-at-home defenseman who helps us,” Benning said in discussion with Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre. “We have other defensemen who are more puck-moving guys, but we don’t have anyone else with Gudbranson’s style of play.”

Does that sound like a man ready to make a trade? Not particularly, but keep in mind that Benning spouted much of the same rhetoric last season when it came to veterans like Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows. Benning heaped nothing but praise of Hansen and Burrows, along with goaltender Ryan Miller, in the weeks leading up to the deadline, which ultimately served to grease the skids for two very lopsided trades in the Canucks’ favour. Could Benning be planning a similar strategy with Gudbranson?

Let’s get real here… he’s going to the Leafs, isn’t he? In the hockey world all roads lead to the Center of the Universe, or at least Toronto based media would have you believe so. Gudbranson has been the source of much spilled ink the Toronto this season and for good reason. He’s a near perfect fit given the team’s current needs and the Leafs are perhaps the best team positioned to meet the Canucks’ trade needs.

Would anyone really be surprised if the Canucks and Leafs hooked up on a deadline swap that sees Gudbranson get a fresh start in Toronto and Soshnikov get a fresh start in Vancouver? Let’s make it happen, Trader Jim.