Just over a week ago, the Vancouver Canucks and Brendan Gaunce agreed to a two-year, one-way contract extension valued at $750,000 against the cap annually.
Canucks re-sign Brendan Gaunce to Two Year Contract https://t.co/jK4cfRBoVJ
— CanucksArmy (@CanucksArmy) August 9, 2017
As far as low-risk investments in the future go, the 22-year-old Gaunce seems a reasonable bet. Gaunce’s two-way pedigree and track record of productivity at lower levels of hockey suggest he’s a solid bet to blossom into a productive bottom-six forward. At the moment, though, he’s still in the process of getting to that point.
— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) November 22, 2016
With Gaunce on the ice, Vancouver controlled the highest ratio of shot attempts at even strength compared to any other qualifying Canuck. He created an environment for sustained offence, and yet, couldn’t convert any of his 51 shots into a single goal over his 57 game season.
Gaunce’s isn’t the first goalless campaign of its kind. There are 234 unique player seasons in which skaters went goalless in 57 or more games with 51 or more shots. Of those 234 skaters, only 48 were forwards.
It’s a veritable who’s who of face-punchers and retreads. For most of them, it was either their last season or the death throes of their fledgeling career. It’s ominous company for Gaunce to keep.
When you cull the herd only to include 22-year-olds, as Gaunce was last season, there are 13 skaters and only two of them are forwards. The other forward, Roman Vopat, played another 54 games and added three assists to his NHL career totals before vanishing from the league entirely.
So, does Gaunce have more to offer the Canucks offensively? Is he the exception? When I spoke to Canucks general manager Jim Benning in Chicago after Gaunce escaped the Expansion Draft unscathed, he seemed to think so. The Canucks are expecting him to find himself in his second full season with the club.
There’s a reasonable case for why they should, too. Gaunce’s anticipation is already at an elite level. If his skating could ever catch up, he’d be a force from the bottom six. I don’t think it unrealistic to suggest a Gaunce that skates at an average level and shoots an average shot can get to 15-plus goals annually.
It’s incredibly difficult for some skaters to improve their stride, though. People point to the likes of Bo Horvat as an example of how easy it is for one to improve their skating, but often forget that he’s the exception and not the rule.
Perhaps ironically, Gaunce separated his shoulder on a play right before the puck landed on his stick with a wide open net in a March 9th game against the New York Islanders — there was his goal, in theory. That injury required off-season surgery to repair, so banking on a better shot seems unreasonable, at least in the short term.
Even with a better shot, Gaunce is going to need to be more selective about where he’s firing from if we’re to expect consistently better results. To call the Canucks toothless when he was on the ice is something of an understatement and his personal shot selection didn’t necessarily help. Among qualifying Canucks’ skaters, only Reid Boucher has fewer individual scoring chances to his credit. It sounds obvious, but he could really benefit from getting to the net.
If the Canucks have designs on getting more from Gaunce, there are things new head coach Travis Green can do to help the situation, too. Last season, only Brandon Sutter started a lower ratio of his shifts in the offensive zone. It wouldn’t hurt to see Gaunce play with more offensively inclined linemates in this season than last, either.
Alternatively, the Canucks might have to accept that Gaunce doesn’t have that much more to offer on the scoresheet. Perhaps holding the team to a draw each shift is enough for Gaunce to earn his keep. I’d like to think there’s room for players of that ilk on every team’s fourth line. That’s more or less what the Canucks did with theirs last year, and that line was the least of their worries.
I’m not ready to bet against Gaunce, so I can hardly blame the Canucks for doubling-down on the utility piece ahead of next season. He can play every forward position and keep his head above water at the very least. There are reasons to expect he might one day thrive in a bottom-six scoring role, too. Then again, maybe not. There’s a precedent here, and it’s not a necessarily good one.