VANCOUVER — Erik Gudbranson went to Africa and wound up in Vancouver.
The bruising defenceman was on a trip in the spring that included stops in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe after his Florida Panthers were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Cell service was spotty at the best of times, and when Gudbranson reconnected one day in late May, he was stunned to learn he had been traded to the Canucks.
“It came as a shock,” said the 24-year-old. “It really came out of nowhere. It took a week or so (to sink in).
“I came around to it once I got back home and spoke to everyone. I got really excited.”
Going from a non-traditional hockey market to a Canadian city is a major adjustment for any player. Gudbranson got his first real taste of what life will be like when he met the media at Rogers Arena before heading up to Whistler, B.C., for training camp.
“I’ve never done that, I’ve never had a podium,” he said with a grin in the hallway Thursday after his formal press conference. “I might go as far as saying I was a little nervous, but it’s gone well.”
With that new-found attention will also come an increased pressure to perform for a team that finished with a paltry 75 points last season and has missed the playoffs in two of the last three years.
The Canucks gave up a lot to get the six-foot-five, 216-pound Ottawa native, parting with promising 20-year-old centre Jared McCann, as well as second- and fourth-round picks at the 2016 NHL draft. Vancouver also received a fifth rounder.
The analytics crowd lampooned the swap as soon as it was announced, pointing to Gudbranson’s poor shot differential at even strength and McCann’s upside.
But general manager Jim Benning said the acquisition of the third overall selection back in 2010 was a must in the grind-it-out Pacific Division.
“He’s a player that, in the analytics, maybe things don’t always measure out like you’d want them to,” said Benning. “But as far as the intangibles, I really think he’s going to help our back end and our whole team.”
Gudbranson, who signed a one-year contract extension worth US$3.5 million two weeks before the trade, is the first to admit that he has more to give offensively after collecting just 11 goals and 32 assists in 309 games over five seasons with the Panthers.
“One hundred per cent,” said Gudbranson, pointing to his shot and skating ability. “I was identified as kind of a shutdown guy, which I needed to do in Florida. I made a lot of good strides.”
Interestingly, Gudbranson is aware of the criticism with regards to his numbers, which included two goals and seven assists in 64 games in 2015-16. And while he doesn’t argue there’s room to get better, he also pointed to a role with the Panthers that saw him start 5-on-5 shifts in the defensive zone more than 57 per cent of the time compared to just 43 per cent in the offensive zone.
“This is nothing against Florida, but I never really felt they gave me a good opportunity to flourish on that side,” said Gudbranson, who was an alternate captain with the Panthers last season and will be looked to for leadership in Vancouver. “I did need to learn how to play in my own end first.”
While it’s still early, Gudbranson looks like a good bet to be partnered with slick second-year defenceman Ben Hutton, one of the few bright spots to come out of last season for the Canucks.
“I’ve watched him play and any Vancouver game that I saw I was really pleasantly surprised,” said Gudbranson.
The pair have some history — both are from the Ottawa area — and even suited up together for a training camp scrimmage or two with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs before Hutton decided to go the college route.
“I was just a quiet young guy and he was showing me the ropes,” said the 23-year-old Hutton, who is just 15 months younger than Gudbranson. “That was something that stuck in the back of my mind.”
Opponents started to key in on Hutton, an unknown at this time last year, as his rookie season wore on, but Gudbranson’s presence could be a deterrent in 2016-17.
“I do think (forecheckers) are going to be a little bit more timid,” said Hutton. “He’s a big, tough lad. That’ll definitely help me out.
“I think we can compliment each other well.”
Added Gudbranson: “He’s pretty creative offensively. I’d like to get him the puck and let him do his thing.”
He also wouldn’t mind seeing the puck on his stick in scoring areas a little more often.
“It’s time for me to step up offensively and see what I can do,” said Gudbranson. “I’m pretty raw when it comes to it. I used to score in junior, but so did everybody.
“If I’m placed in the right spot, I can definitely produce.”