Prospect Profile: #1 Brendan Gaunce

Image via Matthew Henderson

Brendan Gaunce clocks in as our number one overall Canucks prospect! That probably comes as a bit of a surprise considering Frank Corrado’s emergence over the past twenty-four months and Vancouver’s selection of Hunter Shinkaruk and Bo Horvat at the 2013 NHL entry draft. I’d add that my personal list didn’t peg Brendan Gaunce as Vancouver’s top prospect (I had him ranked third).

There are some legitimate concerns about Gaunce’s overall upside, but I have no trouble standing behind this consensus pick from an editorial perspective. Gaunce is a powerful hockey player, and an extraordinary defensive player with NHL size. His skating is a concern for some scouts in the industry, but I generally think he has the tools and hockey smarts to develop into a play-driving forward at the NHL level. Certainly he wins puck-battles with machine-like regularity at the major junior level.

More on the other side of the jump.

Gaunce is probably the safest bet among Canucks prospects to emerge as an NHL regular. He’s also probably the third most likely player on this list to see NHL action this upcoming season (behind only Corrado and perhaps Eddie Lack). The harder question to answer when it comes to Gaunce’s development, in my view, is whether or not he has the offensive upside to project as a top-six forward at the NHL level.

At the OHL level Brendan Gaunce is an elite two-way forward who has consistently produced even-strength offense at a very impressive rate. In fact, among Ontario Hockey League players in Gaunce’s draft class, only one skater scored more even-strength goals per game last season and that was Alex Galchenyuk (who played thirty-three games with the Sarnia Sting during the lockout). In his draft year, Gaunce produced even-strength goals at a higher per game rate than every draft eligible skater, which speaks volumes.

The big centreman had a tough, percentage driven start to the 2012-13 OHL season and missed time due to a shoulder injury. Upon his return to the lineup, Gaunce played mostly on the left-wing, moving over from his natural position down the middle to accommodate Belleville’s acquisition of hotshot scoring centre Tyler Graovac.

Groavac and Gaunce had instant chemistry, with Gaunce playing setup man from the wing and Groavac pulling the trigger. The combination of the two (along with Jets prospect Austen Brassard) gave the Belleville Bulls one of the most dangerous lines in the OHL over the latter half of the season and into the Ontario Hockey League playoffs.

Gaunce in particular went off in the postseason, posting 22 points in 17 games. He scored an awful lot of garbage goals in the OHL playoffs, including two greasy ones in game six of the OHL’s Eastern to force game 7 against the Barrie Colts in the OHL’s Eastern Conference final. You can call that luck if you want, but I tend to give him full credit because Belleville dominated the puck whenever he was on the ice.

He has solid hands in tight and a professional quality shot, but he doesn’t have a flashy finishing game generally speaking. I have, however, seen him show off high-end playmaking ability in past viewings. His vision and ability to pass out of traffic and find teammates with an assortment to saucer passes is a big reason why I’d rate Gaunce as a guy with top-six upside.

In terms of Gaunce’s statistical profile, it’s pretty impressive, especially at five-on-five. Gaunce was a point-per-game player last season despite the fact that Belleville’s power-play was kind of woeful. In fact 70% of Gaunce’s points came at even-strength, which is a pretty ridiculous number. The Bulls outscored opponents by fourteen last season with Gaunce on the ice, controlling 57% of goal events. That’s a figure made even more impressive when one remembers that Gaunce was -8 through four games to begin the year.

In terms of Gaunce’s skating, it’s certainly not a strong suit of his game but it might not be the issue some have made it out to be. ESPN’s Corey Pronman gave me a preview of his Canucks top-10 prospect list, which includes this note on Gaunce’s skating: "Gaunce’s skating still isn’t the best. His top speed is ok but he isn’t a blazer or a very elusive player."

Gaunce’s skating is a weakness, or at least a perceived weakness, that he’s obviously aware of. In addressing that supposed limitation Gaunce got pretty fired up in a conversation with Jim Jamieson this past spring.

Finally let’s address a couple of intangible things about Gaunce, as much as that makes me shudder. Beyond Gaunce’s statistical profile and on-ice performance, he is by all accounts a dedicated gym rat. He’s worked out with Gary Roberts for the past three years (though he wasn’t at the 2013 BioSteel camp this summer).

In speaking with him, he comes across as eloquent, mature and extremely competitive. That competitiveness can get the best of him on the ice and lead to undisciplined penalties occasionally from what I’ve seen, but that’s to be expected of a nineteen year old who rather clearly hates losing.

What I mean to say here is that Gaunce plays the game with commendable intensity, and his work ethic, polished defensive game and maturity are major reasons why, I’d think, he’ll get a long look at Canucks training camp this fall.

Needless to say, the Canucks have a gaping hole in the middle of their third-line. Gaunce may not be ready to play a top-nine role at the NHL level, but the Canucks have made noise all summer about wanting to go younger.

As such, Gaunce goes into this season with a major opportunity. If he can impress at the prospects tournament, at training camp, and in the preseason, I’d certainly think he could earn a nine-game cup of coffee in the show (the maximum number of games a 19 year old prospect can play without burning a year of their entry-level contract). And maybe more depending on how he performs.

Those are lofty goals for Gaunce, and it’s more likely that he’ll return to Belleville. In that case he’ll also probably be considered for Team Canada’s U20 team, as he impressed in a mostly fourth line role at the World Junior Development camp this past August.

With only the likes of Brad Richardson, Jordan Schroeder and Mike Santorelli to beat out for roster spots, it’s conceivable that Brendan Gaunce could make his NHL debut sooner rather than later. Though of course it remains a stretch to imagine Gaunce being ready to help a good team win games in a top-nine role at only 19 years old.

This series seems to get more and more traction as each year passes, and that’s because of you, the reader. Thanks for following along and keeping the comments section lively. Also, a big thank you to Mrs. Gaunce, whose first job as a member of the Nations Network – ranking every prospect in Vancouver’s system, and then setting up a Top 20 for us to work with and profile – was a difficult one. Look for her next series which will be coming sometime in September, titled "Reasons Why Brendan Gaunce is the Next Big Thing".

Other Prospect Profiles in This Series: