Canucks’ polarizing Erik Gudbranson hoping healthy season can win over fans

canucks-erik-gudbranson-lines-up-for-faceoff

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Erik Gudbranson. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

WHISTLER, B.C. – When he returned last month to the neighbourhood in Ottawa where he grew up, Erik Gudbranson could roughly gauge his mom’s popularity by the election signs planted in front yards.

Donna Leith-Gudbranson is a candidate in Ottawa’s civic election on Oct. 22, running for councillor in the second ward of Innes, part of the eastern suburb of Orleans. Her campaign is a family initiative. Erik Gudbranson, the 26-year-old defenceman for the Vancouver Canucks, helped launch his mom’s bid for council in July and campaigned for her around his hometown.

“I had a T-shirt on and I had the pamphlets and I was knocking on people’s doors,” Gudbranson said during Day 2 of the Canucks’ National Hockey League training camp here. “I had a little notebook and was writing down their questions and concerns.

“Then I went back in the end of August and it was kind of an incredible experience, driving back into the subdivision where I grew up and seeing my mom’s signs on people’s lawns. But then you start looking around, and there’s other signs on other lawns. And you know (those people).”

At least there is some clarity, although there will be much more on Oct. 22.

If only hockey players could be so sure of where they stood – about who was with them and who against.

Gudbranson is one of the most polarizing players in Canucks Nation. It’s not that he’s a bad guy. Far from it. He’s one of the most amiable and likable players on the Canucks, an accountable, conscientious teammate.

But he is also a six-foot-five, stay-at-home defenceman in a league trending away from hulking blueliners with low offensive ceilings. And in two seasons since a contentious trade with the Florida Panthers that cost the Canucks 2014 first-round pick Jared McCann and a high second-round selection, Gudbranson has struggled for health and consistency.

Shoulder surgery ended his 2017-18 season after 52 games – 22 more than Gudbranson logged the previous year when his campaign was halted by wrist surgery.

In the 82 games he played for the Canucks the last two years, Gudbranson registered 11 points and his team generated only 45.36 per cent of shots when he was on the ice.

Valuing Gubranson’s size and toughness, as well as his mobility at a position where the Canucks are thin, Vancouver still re-signed the former third-overall draft pick to a three-year, $12-million contract in February that fairly enraged the analytics community.

Gudbranson would not win any popular votes on the West Coast.

But due to Gudbranson’s injuries, the Canucks haven’t seen the player’s best game and it may yet be worth the money.

“I don’t know about the game going away from bigger bodies,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “The game still has a lot of big bodies in it. If you can skate and play fast and have skill and size ….  At the end of the day, if two guys are even and one guy’s bigger and one guy’s smaller, most people pick the bigger guy.”

“I think it all comes down to skating,” Gudbranson said. “The game is so fast nowadays. If you can skate, you can still play. Obviously, the big bodies are not as prevalent as they used to be. It’s almost viewed as a downfall nowadays, but I don’t think that should be the case.

“My feet aren’t going to look as quick as (2018 first-round pick) Quinn Hughes’ feet moving around, but I’ve always believed that skating is my strength and using my length to take away angles. If you can skate, it doesn’t matter how big you are.”

Gudbranson said his injuries have made his time in Vancouver difficult, while also testing his confidence and mental strength.

“I’d be lying if I told you it was a breeze,” he said. “It’s disappointing just constantly rehabbing and being sore. There are months when you’re in pain. That wore on me a little bit. But it was an opportunity, I think, to challenge yourself mentally and see what you’re capable of. That was my challenge for myself: to come back stronger mentally and a better person. A better teammate. I’m still trying to get there, for sure, but it was a good opportunity.”

Gudbranson said he is fully fit and especially excited about this season. He became engaged last winter and has added a visor to his helmet – he was the last Canuck without one – because “I’m getting married next summer and want to see it with both eyes.”

There is lots of talk about the Canucks’ obvious need for more scoring from their defence. But the team also allowed 264 goals last season and was 26th in goals against. It has little chance to be successful this season if it doesn’t defend better, and this is where Gudbranson could help most.

“I love this game of hockey; that’s the honest truth,” he said. “I just love coming to the rink, just love being on the ice. But my body didn’t hold up and I missed it.

“I think everybody’s game needs to be better this season. Defensively, we have to be better. When you give up four or five goals, it’s so hard to win. Keeping the puck out of our net is going to be huge.”

Everyone agrees on that.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.