Say this for new Penguins defender Erik Gudbranson: he has certainly made a better than expected first impression.
His arrival on trade deadline from the Vancouver Canucks produced a tidal wave of criticism, the likes of which we have not seen around here since ... well ... Jack Johnson day over the summer.
From a big picture outlook, I still think there are reasons to side-eye the whole thing. The contract is sketchy for a player that may not really be a fit when everyone is healthy on a team that does not really have a lot of wiggle room under the salary cap, and is already paying a third-pairing defender on a long-term deal.
There is reason to question the motivation behind the trade (did you get him because you think he can play? Or did you get him because Tom Wilson is still on your mind all the time?) and what that does to your identity and the way you want to play as a team. You are a skill, skating team in a league that is increasingly going in that direction. You do not want to get too far away from that.
Those concerns would have still existed no matter what he did in his first handful of games with the team, but do you know what? His first seven games with the team have been ... pretty good.
I don’t really care that he gave Tom Wilson a mean look on Tuesday night and wrestled with him on the ice during a scrum, but there is something he did during the game that is worthy of some attention.
What he did was play a team-high 20 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time, finished with a team-high 51.2 percent Corsi rating, and did all of that while getting the bulk of his playing time against the Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
That is not what I would have expected going into that game, and it certainly isn’t what I would have expected a couple of weeks ago when the Penguins acquired him.
Here’s something else I wouldn’t have expected: In his first seven games with the Penguins Gudbranson has the highest Corsi percentage on the team (56.1 percent), the second-highest scoring chance differential (60.7 percent), and the third-highest high-danger scoring chance differential (73.9 percent). If you would have told me that was going to happen when he was acquired I would have assumed one of two things. The first being that it must mean the Penguins went on some brutal seven-game losing streak, and the second being that you would have been absolutely out of your mind.
Obviously seven games is far too soon to jump to any sort of a conclusion on the trade itself or what sort of player he is going to be. After all, he has a pretty extensive resume in the NHL telling us what sort of player he is. But you have to give credit where credit is due, and so far Gudbranson has come to the Penguins at a time where they needed somebody to step up make an impact on the blue line and he has done exactly that. With Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, and heck, even Chad Ruhwedel out of the lineup for an extended period of time it would have been really easy for the defense to completely crumble in their absence. The players still remaining in the lineup, however, have mostly held things together.
They are still giving up a lot of shots and shot attempts, but the scoring chance numbers against are not terrible. Considering who is remaining in the lineup, they are actually pretty decent probably better than expected.
Nobody has really looked consistently out of place, nobody seems to be in over their heads, and nobody, not even the most maligned members of the defense, have been terribly exposed. They have seemingly simplified their approach a bit and, to apologetically use a tired hockey cliche, are playing with a sense of urgency. Maybe not total desperation, but they seem to know what they have to do, what they can’t do, and are playing within their means. The result have been as good as anyone could have possibly expected.
Seven games is not going to define this trade, but right now the Penguins do not need to worry about next season, two seasons from now, or five seasons from now. They need to worry about the next game and the next two points, and right now Erik Gudbranson, despite all of the criticism upon his arrival (including from yours truly) is helping them collect those points.