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Analyzing Erik Gudbranson’s play for the Penguins

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Digging into how the Penguins’ defenseman has been pretty good since being acquired from Vancouver last month.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

When the Penguins traded for Erik Gudbranson right before the trade deadline last month, it appeared to be a doomsday situation, with the results expected to be less than stellar given his track record in Florida in Vancouver.

A funny thing has happened, as more data of Gudbranson’s stint with Pittsburgh — which is admittedly still brief — pours in. One month in, to the shock of many, the results have been outstanding. The data (aggregated by Sean Tierney) shows it as such.

In the month since Gudbranson has joined the Penguins, his on-ice shot rates are not only among the best defensemen on the team, they rank among the best defensemen in the NHL. Again, with all these rate based stats, the glaring asterisk has to be noted about a small sample, but it’s a sample nonetheless at this point with 11 games behind it.

Just like with on-ice shot rates, the same trends exist in terms of expected goal rates. Gudbranson has been one of the NHL’s best both in terms of on-ice expected goals for and limiting expected goals against. This is such a vast difference in comparison to where he ranked in Vancouver, serving as one of the worst defenders in the NHL.

For all the cliche talk about “a change of scenery,” so far it’s been very supported that leaving the Canucks and joining the Penguins has made for a complete change in results for Gudbranson.

This may be a small sample size, but Gudbranson’s early results are excellent. He leads the Pens’ defense group in expected goals differential rate, managing a plus-1.25 xG share so far.

In their small sample together, Marcus Pettersson and Gudbranson have shown some nice chemistry. As a pair, they’ve been Pittsburgh’s best pairing and one of the better duos league-wide. Their xGF is very similar to the Brian Dumoulin-Kris Letang pair, with an added benefit of being higher up on the x-axis (meaning a lower xGA).

Pettersson sticks out in a positive way with his brief pairs with Letang and Chad Ruhwedel as well. For a rookie, Pettersson’s outlook here is fairly impressive and encouraging moving forward as a steady defenseman who has excelled with several different pairings.

It’s obvious that Gudbranson isn’t an offensive wizard, but he’s been good defensively. He’s only thrown 21 shots towards the net since joining the Pens and has restricted himself to low-risk wristers from his blue line spot along the right side of the ice.

He’s not expected to be an offensive spark plug on a team with other offensive-minded blueliners, so this conservative approach on offense isn’t necessarily an issue. With only 16 career goals in 459 NHL games, no one should have expected a ton of offense to suddenly pop up, and it hasn’t.

However, if these shot-based trends can continue through the rest of the regular season and into the postseason, Gudbranson will have achieved an impressive feat that most thought beyond his capability — he’ll be a decent depth player on a playoff team.