The Canucks were extremely happy that two-way center Brendan Gaunce slipped all the way to pick 26 at the NHL Draft back in late June. Gaunce has spent the last two seasons in the OHL with the Belleville Bulls, developing into one of the best playmakers in the league.
The 18-year-old forward has been training over the past few years with Gary Roberts in the summers, learning from the likes of Steven Stamkos, Jeff Skinner, Cody Hodgson (hopefully they don’t talk about off-ice issues), and Cameron Gaunce, his older brother and a member of the Colorado Avalanche organization.
Gaunce scored 28 goals and added 40 assists in 2011-12 for the Bulls, nearly doubling the 36 points he put up as a rookie in 2010-11.
He had a standout tournament for Canada’s U-18 squad back in April, helping them win a Bronze, the first medal for Canada at the tournament in four years. Belleville GM-coach George Burnett was impressed with Gaunce’s performance in the Bronze Medal game.
He finished the tournament on a very strong note. His goal (Sunday) was a typical, hard, power-type goal, which is what a lot of people like about his game. He was dominant in the faceoff circle and defensively strong, and that’s what a lot of people are evaluating right now.
His summer training with Roberts has paid off, as Gaunce also stood out in testing at the NHL combine and at the 2012 Top Prospects Game, as well.
At the February showcase game in beautiful Kelowna, Gaunce finished first in nine categories of testing while scouts witness him rack up twelve top 10 finishes at the recent 2012 NHL Combine. His commitment to all aspects of hockey has paid off as Bulls’ Head Coach Burnett leaned heavily on his star forward using him in all situations. Additionally, the second year center was named an assistant captain adopting a leadership role that Gaunce was born to fill.
Dave Burstyn, McKeen’s Hockey Director of Scouting, is a big fan of Gaunce’s game, and likes his upside as a solid two-way forward at the NHL level.
Teams will gravitate towards Gaunce’s character, as he plays a 200-foot game and shows consistent efforts both with and without the puck. His hand skills and passing skills are above average and he has an underrated shot. Gaunce can make plays on either his strong side or weak side and provides the requisite size and smarts to play up the middle. Gaunce brings many intangibles to the table including his size, character, hockey sense and ability to do the little things well, which should make him a very effective two-way player at the NHL level.
Canucks GM Mike Gillis agrees with Burstyn’s analysis of Gaunce’s character.
Everything about him is good. Good parents, good potential, good leadership. Captain material. Lots of character and a hard worker. There’s a really good foundation, and if we can do something with it, we think we’ll have a player.
While that does sound similar to things that were written and said about Hodgson back in 2008, it isn’t fair to Gaunce to compare the two players.
To find out even more about Gaunce, I spoke with journalist John Matisz. If you aren’t familiar with John, he has spent the past year following Gaunce’s hockey career, and he recently published a book on Gaunce and his efforts on and off of the ice leading up to the 2012 Draft. The book is available for purchase on Amazon here.
CA: Brendan has been called a "safe" pick because he is a well-rounded player and he brings a lot off the ice to a team. Do you think that statement sells his offensive upside short?
I think it does, to an extent. There’s no question Brendan is first and foremost a two-way presence. He’s actually been criticized in the past for caring too much about his own end (if that’s possible) when he should be thinking about putting one by the opposing goalie. But, at the core, statistics don’t lie. Brendan averaged a point per game on a lower tier squad last year whose main problem was scoring goals. His offensive upside is underestimated, in my opinion. He can distribute the puck better than most in the CHL.
CA: How far away is he from NHL action? How do you see the next few years playing out for him?
I don’t know the inner workings of the Canucks organization, and plenty can happen in the near future, but I’d say he’ll get nine games next season (2013-14). I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up playing a regular NHL shift to start the 2014-15 season. Vancouver has little depth down the middle in their system at this point in time, which can only help Gaunce move up the ranks.
CA: What are his strengths? How about strengths people may not know about.
Lots of people ask me this and my answer is always the same: Brendan is a prototypical coaches’ player. He’ll win a face off in the final minute, kill penalties as a three or four-man unit, battle on the sideboards and in the corner night in and night out, and generally just be your dependable number one or two centreman (in the OHL). Overall, he brings the full package to a hockey team. He’s an intelligent kid, plays an honest game, and is an imposing force on the ice. He will likely get the ‘C’ in Belleville this year as an 18-year-old, which is an answer to this question in itself.
CA: Conversely, what kind of stuff does he need to work on and improve if he wants to take the next step?
Skating and finishing. Like his brother Cameron, a second round pick by the Avs in 2008, Brendan has an awkward skating stride. It tends to slow him down a bit. Over the past three summers, Gary Roberts has been working with him to correct that. He’s not slow by any means, but in today’s NHL you need to be up to be, at the very least, on par with your peers. I don’t think it’s irreversible, so Brendan is fine. The finishing touch comes in when debating if he’s worth of a top six forward spot with the big club. The Canucks need someone who can make the most of his chances if they’re going to give him 15 minutes a night. Brendan could work on finding corners and picking his spots better in certain offensive situations. Too many posts last year.
It is easy to see why the Canucks were happy to see Gaunce fall into their laps back in June. He has some work to do, but all of the pieces appear to be in place for his development into a very dependable NHL center in the near future. And Matisz makes a great point regarding the lack of depth up the middle in the Vancouver organization. If Gaunce puts together another solid OHL campaign in 2012-13, he could find himself fighting for a roster spot with the Canucks in a little over a year.
I spoke with Brock Otten last month regarding Gaunce, and he shared his thoughts on the young center. I asked Otten if Gaunce compared at all to another lanky center to come out of the OHL recently – Jordan Staal. Otten didn’t feel the comparison was apt, and offered up one of his own.
Skating wise, they’re similar. Everything else, I don’t see it.. Staal (despite what the OHL numbers would suggest), is more of a goal-scoring center. In the OHL, he was a real solid crease crasher and got a lot of his goals in close. In the NHL, his shot has developed a lot, but he still remains primarily a goal scoring center. Gaunce, on the other hand, is more of a big playmaking center. He’s got among the best vision and playmaking ability in the OHL. His play away from the puck is outstanding too and it really helps to create time and space for his linemates. He’s also way more physical than Jordan ever was. Brendan is someone who thrives on the physical aspects of the game.
He throws big hits and is very active in the corners and on the forecheck. While I don’t expect him to put up the gaudy offensive numbers that he did in the OHL, or NHL, Gaunce is much more of a Keith Primeau type of center. In regards to Gaunce’s skating, his brother Cameron (Avs prospect) had the same problem when he was in the OHL. But he really improved it over the course of his OHL career. I’d expect the same out of Brendan. Once his skating improves, it’ll help his game in transition and make him a much more effective puck carrier.