VANCOUVER – The game has never been played on paper. If it were, Erik Gudbranson would not have been re-signed by the Vancouver Canucks.
But general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green work on ice, and the six-foot-five defenceman who can skate and physically punish opponents, who will stand up for teammates, was simply too big a fish to throw back to the rest of the National Hockey League.
The Canucks are gambling on Gudbranson, but so is he after agreeing to a three-year, $12-million contract extension that’s probably less than what the 26-year-old could have leveraged as one of the top unrestricted free agents on July 1.
Gudbranson is ground zero for the ideological war between hockey analytics and instincts. Few of his numbers are flattering, and a $4 million annual salary-cap hit represents overpayment for a guy who has been prone to both injuries and mistakes and, seven seasons since he was the third player chosen in the 2010 draft, hasn’t yet established that he is better than a third-pairing defenceman.
But Benning looked at his team, which is light on defencemen and toughness, then looked into the future at all the skilled, offensive Canucks prospects scoring their way towards the NHL and asked himself this fundamental question: Would he rather have Gudbranson playing with them or against them?
The answer came Tuesday.
“In our division, we play big, heavy teams with strong wingers,” Benning explained. “We have some defencemen who can move the puck and we have [fifth-overall draft pick] Olli Juolevi coming, but we don’t have anyone in our system who plays like Erik.
“He’s physical and a good skater. He can play against the other team’s best players and make them uncomfortable. He sticks up for teammates and he’s one of the guys in our room that the younger guys gravitate to. It just made sense to do this.”
The analytics community will disagree, but then again it usually does.
There is no way for Gudbranson to hide from numbers that show the Canucks control only 43.2 per cent of even-strength shot attempts when the blue-liner from Ottawa is on the ice.
Another key number is 70 – the games out of 141 that Gudbranson has missed with wrist and shoulder injuries since Benning traded the equivalent of first- and second-round draft picks to acquire him from the Florida Panthers nearly two years ago.
And Gudbranson is actually playing less this season for Green (17:56) than he did last year for former Canucks coach Willie Desjardins (20:20).
But he has played his best hockey as a Canuck the last three weeks since getting paired with Alex Edler on a shutdown unit, which seems to have given Gudbranson purpose and focus. And Green, Benning and Gudbranson all believe he’s still young enough to grow into a top-four role.
And if he doesn’t, the Canucks have the cap-space the next three years to overpay Gudbranson for his specialities, and the contractual freedom to trade him.
Gudbranson’s actual salary drops to $3 million in the final year of his deal.
“He’s only 26 years old. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Guddy yet,” Green said after an optional skate ahead of the Canucks’ game Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche. “I think he’s a guy that’s still improving, and we need to continue to push him to be better.
“He’s big, physical and hard to play against. I don’t think skilled players enjoy playing against him. There’s not a lot of guys that want to match head-to-head against Guddy in the corner. He’s a big guy and he can be mean when he has to be. That’s all part of it.”
And that part of it is going to get more important, not less, to the Canucks as the team evolves and becomes more competitive. To beat the Canucks, opponents really haven’t had to physically target Vancouver’s most skilled players. But they will.
Gudbranson always made it clear he wanted to stay in Vancouver and attain at least a little contract certainty after playing this season and the last two on expiring deals.
But he said it was a recent meeting with Green, when they talked about Gudbranson’s role and importance to the Canucks during their rebuild, that strengthened the defenceman’s conviction to stay and sign now rather than wait for July 1.
Benning would have dealt Gudbranson ahead of the NHL trade deadline on Monday had he not re-signed this week.
“We just had a good conversation about the direction the team is going and what his views are,” Gudbranson said. “And they fit like a glove when it came to what I thought this team is going to be like in the next couple of years. It’s an exciting task to be in a young group like this and be able to grow with it.
“I think rebuilding is not nuking the whole system and just bringing 24, 25 new guys in. There’s got to be a transitionary period. These kids that are coming in nowadays are extremely talented. They’re fast and they’ve got a lot of skill, but they still need guidance.”
Asked if he’s betting on himself with this contract, Gudbranson said: “You’ve got to believe in yourself in this league or you’ll be out of it really quickly. I’m betting on this organization, betting on this team. I like what I see this year with the young guys coming in. I like how this team is shaping up in the future. I’m putting my money on it.”