Brendan Gaunce checks in at sixth in our prospect rankings. The former centre turned winger has parlayed his success at a new position into one of his highest rankings yet.
Gaunce, 22, just had his single most productive season in the AHL, reaching new heights offensively. Though Gaunce tallied a respectable 29 points in 74 games as a rookie, that production pales in comparison to last year’s 38 points in 46 games — especially when one considers the difficult circumstances, including a revolving door of linemates and intermittent trips to the NHL.
Those 46 points were good for third on the Comets, tied with Alexandre Grenier and Carter Bancks. If Gaunce were to play more games with the Comets, it’s entirely likely that he leads the team in scoring last season. Perhaps more impressive though is Gaunce’s gaudy 60% Goals For rate with the Comets; that mark would be impressive at any level.
Gaunce, a versatile forward, is best known for his defensive play, which could be a deciding factor in his team-leading estimated time on ice, at just over 20 minutes per game. Strong defensive play is nothing new for Gaunce, though. His newfound ability to hit the scoresheet regularly at the professional level is surely what caught the Canucks eye and earned him an extended look at the end of last season.
That wasn’t Gaunce’s first cup of coffee with the Canucks, though. He appeared in two games with the big club in October, when he recorded his first career goal. It wasn’t until March 18th that Gaunce got his next call-up, though he remained with the club for the remainder of the season. Playing primarily in a fourth line role, Gaunce fared well maintaining respectable scoring chance and shot attempt rates.
The challenge for Gaunce this upcoming season will be finding a way to build upon the offensive progress he made last year in Utica. He’s entering the stage of his career where he needs to prove he can contribute at the NHL level. Heading into training camp, the 2012 first round pick is going to be battling Jake Virtanen, Alexandre Grenier and other forwards for a roster spot.
Based on Gaunce’s play last season with Utica and his cup of coffee with the Canucks, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gaunce start the year with the Canucks as their 13th forward. Should he find himself with the big club, Gaunce is going to need to make the most of his minutes, as he’ll likely be rotating in and out of the Canucks’ bottom six.
If Gaunce does find himself in the AHL, he will likely be one of their most relied upon forwards in all situations. This would allow him to tune up both his offensive and defensive game, as well as continue to show that he can sustain his scoring rates from last year. He will also likely be at the top of the recall list because he is waiver exempt still and has experience in Willie Desjardins’ systems.
When looking at Gaunce’s statistically comparable players through pGPS, 57 of 124 players went on to have successful NHL careers. Of his successful comparables, the average result was that of a third line forward which is really good for Gaunce. His likeliness of succeeding in the NHL will come down to his ability to translate his recent AHL scoring success to the next level. If Gaunce can do that, him becoming a third liner is a reasonable expectation. If he struggles to score at the NHL level, Gaunce could still make it as a fourth-line forward due to his defensive abilities. He also has the benefit of being a former centre, which can provide some backup depth for the Canucks should one of their centres get hurt.
Gaunce is on the cusp of being an everyday NHL forward. In his limited time at the NHL level, it looked like he could hold his own. Based on his stint in the NHL and his success at the AHL level, there is enough evidence to believe that Gaunce can handle an increased role at the NHL level and that he will hit the scoresheet more as a result. Regardless of where Gaunce starts the season, it is very likely that he will be in a Canucks uniform at some point in the 2016/17 season.
While he will have to prove that last year’s AHL success was not just a one-off, there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful for Gaunce’s ability to become an NHLer moving forward.