Last night, buried amidst the jubilation of the San Jose Sharks making the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history, Vancouver Canucks General Manager Jim Benning quietly went about the business of rebuilding his club’s blueline, adding 24-year-old defenseman Erik Gudbranson and a 5th round pick from the Florida Panthers in exchange for 19-year old center Jared McCann, a 2nd round pick, and a 4th round pick.
Blueline Rebuild Continues as Canucks Add Erik Gudbranson
This trade was a classic example of two teams dealing from positions of strength to address weaknesses. In the Canucks case, their depth chart at center was deep, and McCann’s position on it was tenuous.
Vancouver’s assumed top three center positions going into next season will be occupied by Henrik Sedin, Brandon Sutter and Bo Horvat, leaving McCann to fight with Linden Vey and Markus Grandlund, as well as possibly Brendan Gaunce (who the team seems to like more on the wing but could also play up the middle) or a free agency pick up, for the fourth line center role.
McCann showed flashes of brilliance last season and is a former 1st-rounder who has drawn comparisons to Joe Sakic, but it was also clear he needed more time to adjust to the pro game and was likely to spend the majority of next season in the AHL. With the other young talent coming up the Canucks pipeline, McCann suddenly became the Canucks best trade chip, and one that Benning couldn’t afford to waste if he finally wanted to make a major upgrade to the club’s backend, something sorely needed for the last two years.
It’s easy to forget just how different (and how much older) the Canucks defense corps looked at the beginning of Benning’s tenure at the helm. Vancouver finished the 2013-14 season with Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard and Andrew Alberts all 30+, Jason Garrison nearing 30, and a bevy of mid-20s blueliners of whom only Alexander Edler and Chris Tanev looked to be a part of the team’s plans moving forward.
Fast forward two seasons later, and the blueline group has suddenly become much more youthful. Hamhuis is 33 years old and set to hit unrestricted free agency, with few expecting he will return to the club unless he takes another hometown discount. That would leave 30-year-old Edler as the elder statesmen of the group, with Tanev, Gudbranson, Nikita Tryamkin, Ben Hutton, Luca Sbisa, Andrey Pedan and Alex Biega all 26 years old or younger.
Gudbranson brings not only youth to the Canucks blueline, but also size, as Vancouver’s backend has suddenly become quite intimidating. Tryamkin is of course the monster at 6’8″, while both Gudbranson and Pedan stand 6’5″ and Edler is 6’3″ (a fact easily forgotten as he shows only flashes of his physical potential). Even Tanev and Hutton are no slouches at 6’2″. In a tough Western Conference full of big centermen and crafty yet undersized wingers, a stout blueline group is essential, and the Canucks appear to have addressed this need.
Where Gudbranson fits into the pairings is at this point unknown, though being a right-hand shot gives the Canucks some options. One thing that Gudbranson will certainly not bring to the club is offense, as he has never put up huge points at any level (his career high being four goals and 13 points in 2014-15). That could make him a perfect partner for the left-shooting Hutton, who plays a strong transition game and moves the puck up the ice with aplomb, in addition to owning great offensive instincts, as evidenced by his 24 assists last season, tied for second (behind Shayne Gostisbehere) among rookie defensemen.
That would keep the excellent on both sides of the puck first pairing of Edler and Tanev together, while some combination of Tryamkin, Sbisa and Pedan would be relied upon to eat up the rest of the minutes. Suddenly what was once an aging and underwhelming blueline group has become much more youthful and shows much more promise.
While offense from the back end may still be a problem, Gudbranson’s impact will be huge in preventing goaltenders Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom from getting hung out to dry on as many occasions as they did last year. Since the decline of Hamhuis and the loss of Willie Mitchell, the Canucks have been in search of a top shut-down d-man, and though the price was a bit too steep for some (particularly that high 2nd round pick), the club has finally found one in Gudbranson.
Simply put, Gudbranson is a defensive beast, a tough workhorse with great character, and a clear upgrade for the Canucks ever-evolving blueline as the team looks to take the next step back towards contention.