VANCOUVER – Nineteen months after his blockbuster trade from the Florida Panthers, Erik Gudbranson admits he’s still trying to be the player he was before major surgery scuttled his first season with the Vancouver Canucks.
But now in his second — and possibly last — season with the Canucks and just back from another injury, the defenceman has grown in other ways. He says he is stronger mentally, has learned to block out all the extraneous noise that comes with playing hockey in Canada.
The 25-year-old former third-overall draft pick deals publicly and privately with constant trade speculation, a product of looming unrestricted free agency and Gudbranson’s failure so far to play well enough in Vancouver to command from the Canucks a long-term contract for significantly more than this season’s $3.5 million salary.
At least, Gudbranson had the NHL Christmas break to escape the trade questions and just hang out home in Ottawa for a few days with family and friends.
“No, I was hearing it from them, too,” Gudbranson said Wednesday after the Canucks practised for Thursday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks. “Everybody else is more concerned about it than I am. I’d be lying to you if I told you it hasn’t crossed my mind. Everybody thinks about their future. Everybody does. To a certain extent in our business, it’s out of your hands (so) I try not to think about it. This is a great room to be part of.
“That’s the best part of what we get to do; we’re with a bunch of buddies every single day and play a game for a living. There’s a business side to it. But once you get inside the dressing room, that’s what it comes down to.”
The only thaw occurring in Canada on Thursday is the NHL’s holiday roster freeze.
Top-pairing defenceman Chris Tanev practised Wednesday and appears ready to return from a groin injury, which gives the Canucks eight healthy defencemen.
Scratching young defencemen still developing at the NHL level, generally, helps neither them nor the team if it continues for long. So if the Vancouver blue line remains healthy, someone’s probably getting traded and Gudbranson is the logical choice.
But it’s not a certainty. Canuck general manager Jim Benning, who spent 2014 first-rounder Jared McCann and a 33rd pick in the 2016 draft to acquire Gudbranson from the Panthers, can’t afford to give away his asset.
Will the trade market get stronger nearer the Feb. 26 trade deadline? And, for all the analytics skewering of Gudbranson (Corsi-for of 43.4 per cent), might he still find a home with the Canucks who are rather short of six-foot-five defencemen who don’t apologize for body contact?
This is a huge decision for Benning, who also is without a contract beyond this season but would like another.
“I’m comfortable having two guys sit out,” Green said. “The guys who are sitting out aren’t going to be happy; that’s the way it is. We’ve got depth. Certain guys have played themselves into a position to play more. We’ve talked about internal competition from the beginning, and I think we have that on the back end.”
Green dressed seven defencemen in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues, which was enough for extra forward Alex Burmistrov to “retire” from the NHL over the Christmas break and head home to Russia to play for Kazan Ak-Bars.
Given the chance to save his NHL career in Vancouver, where Canuck assistant coach Newell Brown believed in the 26-year-old and thought the former Atlanta Thrashers’ first-rounder might help the power play, Burmistrov had two goals and six points in 24 games this season and played himself out of Green’s lineup six times.
Thankfully, the Canucks sent out a press release to let us know Burmistrov had left. But we digress.
Gudbranson returned to the lineup last week after missing 12 games with a separated shoulder. He missed the final 52 games last season due to wrist surgery.
What bothers him more than trade speculation is knowing that he has yet to play his best for the Canucks.
“Injuries don’t help, but that has nothing to do with it,” he said. “I’m just trying to find it still. My last year in Florida, I had such a good year. At the end of the day. . . I compare myself (to that). I don’t think I’ve gotten back to that level yet. I think I’m playing better but, like a lot of things, it’s just finding that extra little bit.”
Just before he hurt his shoulder in Pittsburgh on Nov. 22, Gudbranson told Sportsnet he felt pressure to live up to being the third player drafted in 2010 – after Tyler Seguin, before Ryan Johansen.
“I don’t think I feel it from the outside. . . but I put that pressure on myself,” Gudbranson said. “You’re playing in the National Hockey League; if you’re not comfortable with pressure, you’re probably not going to stay in this league. I had that same high standard when I was in Florida. I view myself a certain way and I’d like to live up to those expectations.”
He may not get to do that a Canuck.