For those of you familiar with the way major junior hockey works, Brendan Gaunce’s trade to a contending team shouldn’t surprise you. Gaunce, selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round in June of 2012, was the first domino to fall ahead of the Ontario Hockey League trade deadline on January 10th.
Gaunce got moved from the Belleville Bulls, last place in the 20-team junior league, to the Erie Otters, who are tied for first with a game in hand in the powerful Western Conference. Gaunce is brought in as both a centreman-slash-left wing option for the Otters, who boast a powerful offence with OHL’s top scorer Connor Brown and young phenom Connor McDavid, expected to go 1st overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. For those asking off the top, no, this doesn’t affect the prospect’s status with the Canucks.
The OHL is a tough landscape right now. Erie fights out of the Midwest Divsion, which includes the high-powered Guelph (at 137 goals, have scored 24 more than any other team) and two-time defending champion London. The Otters have lost both meetings this season to the Knights, and former Canucks Army editor-slash-Ontario resident and OHL observer Thomas Drance noted that on Friday, that Canucks first rounder from this past June, Bo Horvat, knocked McDavid out of the faceoff circle with a dominant performance:
Bo Horvat won 16/23 faceoffs tonight, started 8 times in the dzone (0 times in Erie’s end) + had two points while shadowing McDavid, Brown.
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) November 23, 2013
Who knows if that’s the impetus behind the Otters chasing after a guy like Gaunce, but it gives Erie some significant forward depth, although it is worth noting that Stephen Harper (no relation to the Canadian Prime Minister), the roster player given up for Gaunce, played the 2nd line left wing spot that Gaunce may occupy as coach Kris Knoblauch looks to set his roster in the coming days.
To know Gaunce is to come away with a sense of a young athlete who has an above-average amount of self-awareness. That could make him a good fit for the Otters, who need to maintain a balance among their forward corps. There is little doubting the scoring punch of a lineup that boasts 16-year-old wunderkind Connor McDavid, OHL scoring leader Connor Brown (signed last week by the Toronto Maple Leafs) and potent overage and import strikers in André Burakovsky and Dane Fox, respectively.
Erie GM Sherry Bassin didn’t specify how Gaunce will be used, so it’s fun to speculate. Bassin, who ran the league’s bottom-feeding team just two years ago, made a series of bold moves that has turned his team into a contender. He stayed strong on import goaltender Oscar Dansk and forward Andre Burakovsky, as both players suggested they wouldn’t commit to the Otters if they had been selected by the middling franchise in the import draft. Erie finished last in 2012 and 2013, but replaced coach Robbie Ftorek about a year ago today and brought in Knoblauch, who previously coached the Kootenay Ice to a WHL Championship, but was axed when it became known he was looking for other employment opportunities.
It’s going to be pretty fun to see what happens in the OHL Western Conference. London are already through to the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup as hosts this season, which means a team like Erie, or Guelph, or Sault Ste. Marie, leaders of the West Division, would have to go through the Knights to reach the Memorial Cup. London earned a major midseason pickup with the return of Buffalo Sabres’ draft pick Nikita Zadorov, and add him to a stacked lineup which includes Horvat, Max Domi and top goaltender Anthony Stolarz.
Gaunce is just the first domino to fall, and seeing how he’ll be used by the Otters in the coming days should be interesting. His first game should come Thursday, as the Otters host Guelph, of all teams. The big test should come December 14, when the Otters host the Knights for the third time this season.
Worth noting of course, Gaunce is 37th in the OHL in scoring, with 26 points in 22 games. The Canucks other Bulls prospect, Jordan Subban, is 9th among defencemen in scoring, but as an 18-year-old, should probably expect to ride out the storm with the Bulls this season as they build for next year.