August 29 2014 12:01PM
Just one summer removed from being controversially named CanucksArmy's top Vancouver Canucks prospect, 2012 first round pick Brendan Gaunce has seen his stock plummet and is ranked at #7 this time around.
In my view, Gaunce's stock isn't down as much as his slide down our rankings might suggest. Bear in mind though, I say that because his stock shouldn't have been high enough to place him at number one in the first place. I had Gaunce at number three last year, and I had him at number six this time around - which isn't a huge fall considering that the Canucks have drafted twice in the top-10 at the past two NHL Entry Drafts.
Meta-commentary that quibbles about Gaunce's place in our prospects list is so last August though. While Gaunce's slide down our list probably overstates the extent to which his development has flat-lined, It's probably fair to say that the sturdy two-way forward's development and production have not come along as hoped since his draft year. Still, it's not all doom and gloom here, Gaunce has scored 30 goals in each of his previous two OHL seasons, he's still just 20-years-old, and he's only just about to turn professional.
Gaunce's 2013-14 season saw him traded from the rebuilding Belleville Bulls club that he captained in 2012-13, to Connor McDavid's Erie Otters. Playing in a second-line role in the more competitive Western Conference, mostly alongside Washington Capitals first-rounder Andre Burakovsky (though he also took a good deal of shifts with Dane Fox and Connor Brown) and on the first power-play unit, Gaunce managed 46 points in 43 games in Erie. On the season, he finished with a career high 72 points last season - which is fine, but a bit disappointing for a first-rounder who scored 68 points in his first draft eligible campaign.
The big pivot's even-strength goal scoring rate - a major reason I've been so high on Gaunce over the years - also cratered this past season, as he managed just 16 even-strength goals in 72 games between the Otters and the Bulls.
It's not all doom and gloom though, after all we're still talking about a 6-foot-2, 220 pound, 20-year-old forward who is on the eve of his first season in professional hockey. Gaunce remains a trusted two-way piece and still has time to get his offensive game back on track. While his offensive upside has always been a question mark, I still think he's got above average offensive skills.
Not only is Gaunce a plus playmaker with above average vision, a hard, accurate wrist shot and good hands at the net-front, but he's got that intangible nose for dirty goals. Whether that garbage goal gene will translate against professional goaltenders is anyone's guess, but his solid on-ice awareness and NHL-ready size suggests to me that it could.
One of the biggest challenges for Gaunce going into his rookie season in the American Hockey League is whether or not he'll be able to stick at center in the professional ranks. In my estimation, he's better on the wing (where he often played during the 2012-13 season), and may not have the foot-speed to cover the middle of the ice at the AHL and NHL levels.
In terms of true natural centerman, the Utica Comets will go into next season with Cal O'Reilly, Dustin Jeffrey, Kellan Lain and Alex Friesen down the middle. That's a group that probably doesn't rate all that strongly in comparison with the Comets' potential depth along the wall (Nicklas Jensen, Darren Archibald, Hunter Shinkaruk, Brandon DeFazio, Ronalds Kenins, Alex Grenier etc.).
Considering the roster composition of Vancouver's AHL affiliate, it's probably worth allowing at least one of Gaunce or his Otters teammate Dane Fox to fail at center before moving them to wing, and I'd think that Gaunce - based on his size and what the club has invested in him as a first-round pick - would be first in line. This is a minor league training camp story that could be worth watching this fall.
One other note on Gaunce, he's extremely smart and well spoken, and he's also ludicrously competitive. A noted gym rat, Gaunce has also started the season slowly repeatedly over the years and I've begun to wonder if he's been in the habit of reporting to camp with too much weight on his big frame. The Canucks have reportedly asked top-heavy Bo Horvat to lean out this summer, and I wouldn't be surprised if Gaunce was given similar instructions. It could do him some good and hopefully allow him to show better at the Penticton Young Stars tournament than he did last September.
A full-fledged professional now, Gaunce will be at Canucks training camp this September and it'll be interesting to see how difficult he can make it for Willie Desjardins to cut him. No one expects Gaunce to break camp with Vancouver's NHL club, but the opportunity is there for a surprise player or two to bust into the top-13 forwards. I'd have Gaunce (along with Horvat, Jensen, and Jeffrey) on my short-list of players who could realistically surprise this fall.
More likely, Gaunce will have an extended opportunity to cut his teeth at the AHL level this upcoming season. There's going to be a lot of internal competition among Comets players to be the first injury call up, and I'll be very curious to see how Gaunce's production and abilities stack up against the likes of Jensen, Shinkaruk and Fox. One thing working in Gaunce's favor is that his skill set and size project into a bottom-six role (put it this way: the Canucks aren't calling up Shinkaruk in the event of a Brad Richardson injury), so it wouldn't be a mind-blowing shock to see Gaunce get a cup of coffee in Vancouver next season.
In summary: don't let Gaunce's depressed spot in our rankings confuse you, there's still significant reasons to be optimistic about his development and his NHL future. His offensive game hasn't come along as hoped since his draft eligible season, but it's way too soon to write off a 20-year-old forward with the on- and off-ice intelligence that Gaunce has consistently displayed throughout his major junior career.
Here's the obligatory highlight video of Gaunce's 2013-14 season: