It’s February 26, which means we’re one day past the 2018-19 trade deadline and have all survived the aftermath of GM Jim Rutherford trading for defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Everyone deserves a pat on the back for that.
Now that it’s a new day and we have a fresh start, our focus turns to the Penguins and their extremely important game tonight vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets — a game that carries a ton of divisional standings and playoff implications.
Because of the craziness of deadline day, we never really got a chance to let the dust settle (and the claws retract) from the Gudbranson trade and break down the pros and cons of the acquisition.
Gudbranson is on a new team now. He deserves a clean slate and a fair shot. But that doesn’t wipe away the negative reputation that comes with him. To strike a fair balance, I’ll first start with the cons, as they’ve been on full display from just about every statistician, analyst, and beat reporter under the sun — including us. And then I’ll ease into the pros and highlight the part(s) of his game the Penguins can actually utilize.
In an attempt to get this massive dagger to the heart out of the way as quickly as possible, I’ll first preface it with the fact that plus-minus is pretty much irrelevant in this era of hockey due to its misleading nature and many levels of inaccuracy. However, when a player exhibits extremes at either end of the spectrum, it’s still worth mentioning. Gudbranson’s plus-minus numbers are quite shocking and have consistently been tipped on the negative side in his stints in both Florida and Vancouver.
I’ll give you two numbers: minus-49 and minus-48.
The first is Gudbranson’s accumulated plus-minus with the Panthers over five seasons, in which he played in 309 games. The second, his numbers in just under three years with the Canucks, in which he played in 139 games, coming one year after a three-year (!) contract extension.
As our friends at Nucks Misconduct put it in their farewell post to him:
“This is very much a great day for the Canucks moving forward and improving their defense by ridding themselves of the guy who, by pretty much every measurable stat, was the worst defender in the NHL.”
Another big negative is the amount of penalties Gudbranson takes. While it’s important to have a physical element to your game, playing defense should come first for, shockingly, an NHL defenseman. He lead the Canucks in penalty minutes with 46 PIM on 15 penalties taken and one game misconduct, beating out the second-ranked guy by a margin of 11 total penalties. He’ll take penalties mostly because he often gets caught flat-footed playing spectator defense, rather than engaging in post-whistle scrums. Hopefully the latter point carries over to Pittsburgh and we see him play more controlled hockey here. Gudbranson hits, he’s rumored to fight, and the fans will cheer for that, but his extensive stat lines and raw data accumulated over many years suggest he’ll also play very poorly in the defensive zone and spend a lot of time sitting in the box, or worse, racking up more game misconducts.
Combing through the Nucks Misconduct game recaps, any mention of Gudbranson was met with typical PIM outrage and puck-watching criticisms while the opposition scored. If you’re a masochist, skim through their Twitter feed featuring him and try not to flinch.
For the 2018-19 season, and in 57 games played, his advanced metrics (especially when it comes to on-ice performance) are abysmal. He’s sporting a lowly 43.45 Corsi For percentage (ranked sixth only because he has played in upwards of 20 more games than the players who have worse numbers in 300 minutes of TOI), a team-leading 28 High-Danger Goals Against, a second place ranking in Scoring Chances Against with 496, and a team-leading 59 Goals Against. Basically, he doesn’t suppress the opposing teams’ offense in an effective way at all and he bleeds scoring chances and goals against in exuberant fashion — not a good look for a d-man on a team trying to make the postseason cut.
Jack Johnson has been better this season from a defensive standpoint than Gudbranson has. pic.twitter.com/MXSwp8kcsW— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) February 25, 2019
Not to slight Chad Ruhwedel, who’s been pretty solid for the Penguins since re-entering the lineup, but Gudbranson actually ranks worse than him, and Ruhwedel is a replacement-level player and a career No. 7 defenseman. Gudbranson is only contributing in the 45th percentile in forced breakups per 60, the 25th percentile in possession entries allowed per 60, and the 59th percentile in possession entries allowed — a full 10 percent clip lower than Ruhwedel.
Conversely, what he lacks in defense also bogs down his on-ice performance in the offensive end. In fact, he doesn’t contribute to the offense at all. While this isn’t surprising given his M.O. as a defensive-minded defenseman (a dying breed in the modern day NHL), it surely doesn’t make sense to deploy him in the Penguins’ system run by Mike Sullivan. In 109 total games with the Canucks, he only has 13 points (four goals, nine assists). Gudbranson possesses the second-worse Goals For percentage with 34.44 and Scoring Chances For percentage with 38.61, beaten out only by Brandon Sutter, who has played in 38 fewer games than him.
As for his less than ideal contract terms... our own Adam Gretz sounded off about that Monday night.
To gauge Gudbranson from a viewer’s perspective rather than just grinding his advanced metrics into you, I also bent the ear of Interim Editor Kent Basky from Nucks Misconduct to provide some more context:
“I think the best way to describe Guddy is that he would have been a star in the 80s. He’s slow. He makes poor choices (most notably chasing hits and icing the puck when taking time to think out better options that are available), he’s not as physical as we were led to believe, and he really doesn’t seem to have a grasp on the way the game is changing. He plays like a player five or six years older than he actually is.”
Basky mentioned that Gudbranson isn’t as physical as everyone is lead to believe, which stuck out to me immediately, and that one of the things the Vancouver fanbase was told whenever Gudbranson first arrived was his willingness to fight and defend his teammates (sound familiar?) But in reality, he only had a handful of scraps while he was there and they were rarely memorable, save for the one with Matt Martin last season, where he screamed out a death threat in the dressing room that was overheard by Vancouver reporters.
As for some context to go along with his poor on-ice metrics, Gudbranson rings a similar bell to the criticisms surrounding Jack Johnson:
“It had gotten to the point this season where it was a genuine surprise if someone scored on the Canucks and he wasn’t on the ice, and even more so if the Canucks scored and he was.”
I’ll conclude the bad with the fact that the Canucks pitched their first shutout in almost a full calendar year the first game they played after the trade. To be fair, they still got out-shot and were playing the Ducks, but Vancouver’s defense played a lot tighter in front of Jacob Markstrom.
Before I scratch the bottom of the barrel for any positive attributes, I want to formally thank the Vancouver Canucks, not for Gudbranson, but for Jared McCann. Oddly enough, trading away McCann as a then-18-year-old prospect and future asset in 2016 is what brought Gudbranson to Vancouver in the first place. It all came full-circle, in a backwards sort of way.
Again from Nucks Misconduct:
“Even if Jared McCann hasn’t panned out as expected, you have to imagine that he’d still have a roster spot on this current Canucks squad. Gudbranson… he couldn’t even move up into the Canucks’ top-four with Chris Tanev and Alex Edler on injured reserve. In other words: he’s bad. The Gudbranson acquisition represented Benning and Linden’s obsession with culture and character. He was a player that was counted on to provide toughness, grit, and accountability. You can argue that he provided those things... but you can also argue that he didn’t provide much else.”
As far as positives on Gudbranson, he’s 6-foot-5, right-handed, and a tough customer, and fans never doubted he was a good presence in the locker room. He was well-liked by his teammates, and the media in Vancouver always spoke very highly of him. His rumored physicality will definitely be welcomed if it yields good, effective defense and doesn’t affect his on-ice decisions.
Gudbranson is also a real force in the community (this is a huge thing, as the Sedins really set a high bar when it came to community involvement), and that’s something that’s going to be a real bonus for the Penguins and their charitable outlooks. But none of these things win hockey games, and he’s going to have to play sheltered minutes if he’s going to be at all effective.
Rutherford spouting off about wanting a player of Gudbranson’s type was met with fair criticism. The league just isn’t trending in that grit-determined direction anymore. However, he did rank second on Vancouver with 121 hits and sixth in blocked shots with 45. I don’t know how confident I am putting him on the penalty kill if his defense is holier than Swiss cheese (the Canucks didn’t seem to do so), but there’s some merit there.
I’ll leave you all with a staggering, brutally candid quote from Basky:
“I think whenever the Jim Benning era comes to an end here, he will be known more for acquiring Gudbranson and Loui Eriksson (who both came to the Canucks at the same time) than for Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. I think that if they had cut their losses on Guddy after last season Benning comes out looking a lot better, but the fact that he put together seasons where he got progressively worse, and then re-signed him is a pretty bad look.”
Let’s all hope Rutherford doesn’t go out with the same perception, despite winning back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins, if he continues to die on this hill built on grit and character.
(All stats and data are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick)