First Look: What the Hell are the Vancouver Canucks Doing?

The Vancouver Canucks likely made the worst trade of the off-season a full month before it officially started, dealing Jared McCann and a pair of draft picks (their second and fourth round selections in 2016) to the Florida Panthers for Erik Gudbranson and a fifth round selection in the 2016 draft. 

What the Canucks Lost

Though it likely wasn’t in his best interests, McCann was thrust into the NHL this season as an undersized 19-year-old centre, playing in a prescribed, sheltered role mostly within the Canucks bottom-six. McCann possessed NHL height but is still in the process of adding to his frame — a noticeable omission from his physical tool-kit, made noticeable in the faceoff circle and defensive zone particularly.

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That shouldn’t take away from what McCann accomplished in spite of the physical limitations that were present in his game, though. He made excellent strides from his draft season, developing an NHL calibre shot that took defenders and goaltenders alike by surprise on more than one occasion. McCann’s 18 points in 69 games were good for second among Canucks rookies (a surprisingly populous group) behind just Ben Hutton’s 25 points.

It’s not unimaginable based on what McCann produced last season and the net positive possession impact he had on the Canucks lineup, that he could have provided scoring and two-way impact commensurate with what one might expect from a third-to-fourth line tweener. Getting that kind of value from a player in the third year of their draft development with the 24th overall selection is exactly the kind of added value that comes with having a master scout at the top of the pecking order.

Which brings us to the matter of the draft picks the Canucks parted with in this deal — specifically, the 33rd and 93rd overall selections in the upcoming draft. These aren’t high percentage picks and they don’t have a particularly good chance of landing the Canucks top of the lineup talent. Based on the work we’ve done with our prospect profile series, I can tell you that the vast majority of forwards and defenceman in that range span from middle to bottom of the lineup players. There will be exceptions to the rule in either direction, but that’s what one should expect.

Put in more concrete terms, the 33rd overall selection the Canucks relinquished carries a 34% chance of developing into an NHL player. The 93rd overall selection, a 24% chance. I’ve drawn those numbers from Scott Cullen’s research on the value of individual draft selections, which uses the 100 game threshold to determine success.

What the Canucks “Gained”

The Panthers have likely failed to secure what most might suggest is a fair return on the third overall selection they invested in Gudbranson at the 2010 draft, but they developed a bona fide NHL defenceman all the same. Gudbranson is 24, turns 25 next season and has 43 points to show for his 309 games of NHL action. As a player that’s just entering his prime years, this is more or less the player Gudbranson is and will be for the foreseeable future. A stay-at-home defenceman, with good size and physicality at 6’5″.

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Usually, I think of the term “stay-at-home” defenceman as code for bad. If you’re staying at home, it means that your team struggles to push play into the opposition’s end with you on the ice. That’s not necessarily a good thing. There are exceptions to the rule, though. Look at Chris Tanev. He has a strongly positive contribution to the Canucks ability to suppress shots and is a net positive possession player when shots for are accounted for.

Gudbranson isn’t there yet and it’s fair to wonder at this stage if he ever will be. The Panthers have haemorrhaged shot attempts with Gudbranson on the ice, as he’s only been in the black by Corsi For percentage once in his entire career — even then, he had a negative relative impact. And while one might suggest that the time he spent attached to Willie Mitchell’s hip at even strength didn’t help his cause this season, Gudbranson’s 5.6 FA60RelTm (good for tenth worst in the league last season) indicates that the aggregate of his impact on his teammates ability to suppress shots was hugely detrimental.

At the right price, Gudbranson might be intriguing as a resurrection candidate. Defencemen with his size are desirable, particularly in the Western Conference where durability is an especially important quality. Gudbranson can skate, hit and brings just the right amount of snarl each shift. If the Canucks liked Luca Sbisa in scrums, they’re going to love Gudbranson.

The problem is, this isn’t the right price and they likely can’t foster an environment in which they can hone on these innate physical skills. The Canucks, in all likelihood, have designs on playing Gudbranson in their top-four. If his career to this point is indicative of what he’ll bring to the Canucks lineup, that’s a horrifying thought.

Conclusion

I don’t have a fucking clue what the Canucks are trying to accomplish. Gudbranson is 24, has one year remaining on his contract and is due for restricted free agency not long after. His career to this point suggests he might be fit for a third pairing role, but even that’s a dodgy proposition. Consider for a moment that he was passed by nearly every single Panthers defenceman on the depth chart this season and it’s all the more puzzling that they expect him to “insulate” younger, less prepared defenders.

Gudbranson for McCann straight up is a lost trade. Gudbranson for McCann and the fourth-round selection is a bad, bordering on indefensible trade. Gudbranson for McCann along with the 33rd and 93rd overall selections in the upcoming draft is absurd, bordering on laughable. 

The Canucks might have improved their second pairing. That’s entirely possible. Hell, considering the fact that McCann was likely to start next season with the Utica Comets, they’ve secured the better of the two players… for next season. It’s worth noting, though, that improvement is a relative term and the product they’re improving upon couldn’t get any worse. And oh, what a cost they paid for that marginal improvement. 

  • J_R

    Just remember: The writers on this site who are critical of Canucks management for trading McCann for Gudbranson, are the same guys who were critical of Canucks management for drafting McCann ahead of Ivan Barbashev in the first place. Fact is, most self-proclaimed analytics gurus know more about punching numbers into a spreadsheet than they do about hockey!

    David Booth was great at shot generation metrics, just not very good at winning hockey games. Flying through the neutral zone and firing shots in the general direction of the opponents net is not how you win hockey games.

    Am I thrilled that we gave up McCann and a 2nd and 4th round pick? NO! Am I thrilled to have Gudbranson as a Canuck? YES! He is still just 24 years old and improving, and a right shot D-Man who is difficult to play against. You won’t see Michael Ferland running Canucks the way he used to.

  • Cageyvet

    Saw the title of this article and thought, “Great, someone is going to try and put this trade into the overall context of what JB is trying to do with the team.” But no, all I got was another detailed analysis of the trade in isolation, determining that our assets (that we gave away) were purest gold and what we got in return is hot garbage. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    >> WHAT THE CANUCKS “GAINED”

    But props for the use of the scare quotes in the header. That definitely helps support your argument.

  • Cageyvet

    >> Usually, I think of the term “stay-at-home” defenceman as code for bad.

    As someone who played defense for his entire life, I strenuously object to this characterization. A goal prevented has the same value as a goal scored. Just because you can’t quantify an event that didn’t happen doesn’t mean that its prevention has no value.

  • Curmudgeon

    When the analytics community first began gaining attention, it was with reasoned arguments backed up by statistical analysis, but it always seemed to acknowledge that analytics was but one tool to be used in evaluating a player’s relative worth.

    The tide has turned. Now the analytics crowd is openly disdainful of any kind of player analysis that isn’t statistically based. Anyone who doesn’t wholly subscribe to analytics is a dinosaur, an old-fashioned hack who is doomed to failure in the modern world that operates on tables and tables of numbers with esoteric metrics that, while of interest, reveal only a sliver of what a player can do.

    Statistical analysts believe that if it can’t be measured, it can’t be improved, or even understood fully. To a degree, this is true, but where statistical analysis is less useful (read: totally useless) is in assessing things that are subjective and, therefore, impossible to quantify.

    No tables of numbers can tell me if a player is looked upon as a leader by his teammates, or if he strikes fear into the hearts of opponents, or if he is the guy you want on the ice in the last minute of a one-goal lead, or if he is a calming influence on his linemates or defensive partner, or if his metrics are disappointing because he always plays against the most skilled opponents (okay, so may be there is a table for that), or if his presence in the lineup allows other players to step up because they feel more confident with him in the lineup.

    Please understand that this is not a slam against analytics. This is a slam against any system that dismisses other ways of thinking, perceiving, analyizing and decision-making. To embark on a path of exclusive dependence on analytics is a fool’s errand, just as it is similarly foolish to ignore them.

    So, to the analytics crowd I say, you have become awfully full of yourselves and if you continue to rely on one way of thinking, you will eventually fail. Not because you are wrong, but because you fail to acknowledge that there are other ways of achieving success. The rhetoric around the Gudbranson-McCann trade has really exacerbated the split between the analytic and the old guard, and that can’t be good for hockey.

  • Curmudgeon

    This is the first article I’ve ever read on this site. This will probably be the last article I’ll ever read on this site.

    Seriously. What is this? Analytics by someone who doesn’t understand analytics and wants to sound smart? If you’re going to use analytics, then use them objectively while watching the games and not by themselves.

    Even your pretty blue picture describing Gudbranson as a “bottom pairing dman”, when he logged in 27 MINUTES PER GAME last playoffs,proves you know nothing of what you’re talking about. That alone is glaring enough to give you absolutely zero creditability.

    I hate to say it but even TSN’s better than this. At least they watch the games while looking at random numbers… lol