Gudbranson keen on remaining a Canuck, though deal seems unlikely

Erik Gudbranson took down Frank Vatrano with a hit against the boards and immediately went toe-to-toe with Tim Schaller.

VANCOUVER – The decision by the Vancouver Canucks to make re-signing defencemen Erik Gudbranson a priority is not so much the solution to a problem but the identification of one.

As an unrestricted free agent on July 1, Gudbranson should be able to command more – in term and maybe dollars, too – than what the Canucks are likely willing to pay him as an important role player. Their eagerness to retain him will be tested by money. But so, too, will Gudbranson’s stated desire to stay with the National Hockey League team.

For now, general manager Jim Benning wants to keep Gudbranson and the 26-year-old wants to stay. But negotiations haven’t begun between the Canucks and Gudbranson’s agent, Mark Guy, and with the Feb. 26 trade deadline ticking closer, there’s a lot of work and compromising to be done for both sides to get their wish.

All they have so far are good intentions. That and five dollars will get you a half-hour of parking in Vancouver.

“I want to be here; that’s the honest truth,” Gudbranson said Wednesday after practising at Rogers Arena. “Free agency isn’t always what it seems. You’ve seen horror stories of guys who shouldn’t have gone in the first hour of July 1 and didn’t get a deal until the day before training camp. If I can avoid it, I think I will.

“I still really haven’t had that conversation with my agents. I saw the tweet, what Jim said about me. That’s what I wanted. But we haven’t started working quite yet. Once we have those conversations, I think everything will be considered.”

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Benning told Sportsnet on Tuesday: “He’s a physical, stay-at-home defenceman who helps us. We have other defencemen who are more puck-moving guys, but we don’t have anyone else with Gudbranson’s style of play. As long as a player can play in today’s game, you’re always going to need a defenceman who can play physical, especially in our division.

“There’s always going to be room for a guy like that in your top six.”

Benning also said that with so many young, skilled prospects working their way towards the Canucks and the NHL, he wants players who will stand up for them once they arrive. This is why Gudbranson, six-foot-five and 225 pounds, is important to the Canucks and became even more so when winger Derek Dorsett was forced by back injuries to retire two months ago.

With Gudbranson out of the lineup due to back spasms – he hopes to play Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks – Canucks rookie-of-the-year candidate Brock Boeser was cross-checked head-first into the boards last week by Los Angeles King Trevor Lewis.

Boeser scored on the power play in the 6-2 win, but the Canucks offered no physical response towards Lewis or any of the Kings’ skilled players.

“I think there should have been a pushback, for sure,” Gudbranson said, contradicting coach Travis Green’s earlier assertion that the Canucks’ power-play response was sufficient. “I was watching that and I was frustrated in the locker room that there wasn’t much going on after that. Had I been on the ice, there would have been something done a little differently.

“There’s something to having someone else stand up for you. But there’s also standing up for yourself, too, that gains you a lot of respect in the National Hockey League. And I’m not saying Brock has to do that; he doesn’t. But you have to stand up for yourself or people know they can take liberties on you. It’s a tough game; it still is and it always will be.”

Here is where the Gudbranson conundrum becomes apparent.

The third-overall pick in 2010 has so far failed to fulfill NHL projections for him, but has helped the Canucks with his physicality while playing a third-pairing role. Gudbranson is averaging 17:44 of ice time this season for Green, down from the 20:20 he logged last year under former coach Willie Desjardins.

Gudbranson has also missed, due to various injuries, 70 of the Canucks’ 132 games since his 2016 trade from the Florida Panthers. Gudbranson, himself, admits this lack of durability probably hurts his market value.

He is playing this season on a one-year, $3.5-million contract, essentially a “show me” contract designed to get player and team to this point.

Given Gudbranson’s role and playing record, are the Canucks likely to commit more than, say, three years and $12 million to him? Probably not.

And is Gudbranson, who might fetch as a UFA five or six years at $4-5 million annually likely to settle for significantly less in Vancouver?

Probably not.

This is still why the most likely scenario before Feb. 26 is that the Canucks will trade him. It’s believed the Toronto Maple Leafs are among the handful of teams interested in bidding on the towering defenceman from Ottawa. But Benning is going to talk first to Gudbranson and Guy.

“There’s a lot of conversations to be had,” Gudbranson said. “I’ve always done my due diligence when it comes to any situation. We’ve got some time to work and I really hope we can figure something out.”

But why? Why is Gudbranson so keen to stay with a rebuilding team that finished in the NHL’s bottom three the last two seasons and will miss the playoffs again this spring?

“I think this team is headed in the right direction,” he explained. “I saw pretty much the exact same thing in Florida. It took time. But that feeling when we made the playoffs my last year in Florida … it was special to me because we’d gone through the hard times. We really felt we were connected as a group because we’d gone through those tough times. That’s something that can be created here for sure.

“And for me, strangely, that’s an exciting prospect.”

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