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Photo Credit: Bob DeChiara - USA TODAY Sports

Erik Gudbranson: Using the “eye test” to settle the debate once and for all

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Erik Gudbranson has always been a polarising figure between traditional hockey fans and the so-called stats community. The reason is that Gudbranson is said to combine everything stats can’t quantify – like grit, intimidation, and leadership –, making him a valuable piece of the Canucks’ roster. On the stat sheet, however, he appears to be one of the worst not only in Vancouver but the entire league.

Most recently, Canucks Army’s Jeremy Davis analyzed everything wrong with Gudbranson and explored Vancouver’s options to move on with or without him. Judging by the comments his piece received, many of you disagree with his assessment.

Does he even watch the games?!

Aside from writing, I am a scout with Future Considerations. If stats were able to tell the whole story and more, that job would not exist. Instead, my tool is the “eye test,” and only the eye test. And to follow up on Jeremy’s work, I rewatched some footage from past games this season with a focus on Gudbranson.

Does he pass the eye test?

Since this seems to be an important note: I am not here to find examples of bad things Gudbranson does to support Jeremy’s piece. Instead, I want to objectively look at Gudbranson from a scouting point of view. I obviously can’t collect every single play he’s made this season, but the ones I’ve collected below are a summary with examples of what I have seen in many, many viewings of Gudbranson.

Let’s dive right in.

Defending the rush

Stats show that the Canucks spend a tonne of time in the defensive zone with Gudbranson on the ice. Surprisingly (or not), this matches what we can observe on the ice as well. While there are several reasons why this is the case, there is one that stands out in particular: Gudbranson’s terrible foot speed and mobility.

In the clip below, Gudbranson is roughly at the defensive blue line and already skating backwards, when a Dallas Stars forward breaks out of the defensive zone with speed. There is almost half the neutral zone between the two, giving Gudbranson more than enough time to get up to speed. Yet, the Stars forward is clearly much too fast for him to catch up.

But, Gudbranson gets lucky. With a backchecker closing down the middle, the Stars forward simply dumps the puck in and tries to chase it. The routine play would be for Gudbranson to block off the oncoming attacker, allowing Michael Del Zotto to retrieve the puck. This only works if Gudbranson is fast and mobile enough to stay in front of the forechecker without getting called for interference.

Unfortunately, Gudbranson is not fast enough, and the attacker has absolutely no issues getting past him. This is something we can observe with alarming regularity.

And it’s not just backward skating that hurts Gudbranson’s game. He’s not much faster going forward either.

Unlike the play above, Gudbranson often does turn around in time to chase the puck before a forechecker could reach it. This is certainly a positive –- Gudbranson makes some solid reads on the backcheck in the neutral and defensive zones. What happens next, however, frequently results in dangerous scoring chances against.

Below is a Pittsburgh Penguins power-play breakout. The Canucks defend it well in the neutral zone and force the Penguins’ puck-carrier to chip the puck in deep. Gudbranson, after pressuring the puck-carrier, turns around quickly and chases back to reach the puck. At that point, he is at least 10 feet ahead of the Penguins’ first forechecker.

And yet…

Gudbranson has absolutely no time to make a play with the puck and is forced to play it up the boards, which leads to a turnover. This is undoubtedly a difficult play to make, especially with Bryan Rust being the forechecker. But Gudbranson’s lack of speed in this play is deeply concerning.

Now, even defencemen with slow feet can be relatively successful if they know how to control the gap and –- with Gudbranson’s height –- use their reach to their advantage. As you might have guessed, Gudbranson struggles mightily with this.

In the clip below, a Detroit Red Wings forward blasts down the left wing, defended by Gudbranson. What you should be able to see here is Gudbranson’s outside shoulder lined up with the attacker’s inside shoulder. At the blue line, the gap between the two players should be roughly two stick-lengths.

However, Gudbranson does not possess the footspeed or mobility to keep up with the attacker, who takes a couple of crossovers to the outside before blasting past Gudbranson with speed.

One may argue that Gudbranson did a good job keeping the attacker to the outside. But if you look closely, there was enough room to drive to the net, but the attacker opted to shoot instead of risking a scenario where Gudbranson does get his stick in the way.

Lastly, Gudbranson makes some questionable defensive reads when players come at him with speed –- even when their name is Evgeni Malkin.

In the sequence below, Malkin gets the puck in the offensive zone, has Markus Granlund beat, and Del Zotto is out of position. Gudbranson takes a look over his shoulder and should see that nobody is there to help Malkin or get open in the slot area. With that, it is his job to close in on Malkin and prevent him from shooting.

Instead, Gudbranson stays in front of the net, covering nobody, and giving a free shot from a prime scoring area to an elite goal-scorer.

D-zone play

It’s time to get to something Gudbranson is known for: hitting and intimidating opponents, and it goes hand in hand with his footspeed.

On many occasions, Gudbranson’s hits are follow-ups on lost races to the puck. He gets beat, chases the attacker, and finishes with a hit. If you casually watch the game, this may make you think “nice hit, Erik.” But it never should get to that point.

The clip below is another example of Gudbranson being unable to block off the attacker and allow Del Zotto to pick up the puck behind the net.

Another thing Gudbranson earns frequent praise for is the ability to “clean up” in front of the net. Here’s a comment Jeremy received on his piece:

Often (defencemen) allow the players to stand in front of the net uncontested so as not to add another player screening the goalie. I have on multiple occasions this year watched Gudbranson remove the player from the front of the net.

“On multiple occasions” is great, but he can’t do it all that much overall, because I found nearly no instances where this actually happened. Most times, Gudbranson behaves like all the other defenders, doing nothing more than tying up their stick. Or worse, he often doesn’t pay attention to net-front players at all.

And when he does move players away from the net, it often looks something like this:

Now, I am in no way showing these clips to bash Gudbranson. The opposite is the case: The reason why defenders tend to leave players somewhat alone in front of the net is that a constant battle for power between two players actually distracts the goalie more than a single player. Instead, defencemen focus on closing down potential passing lanes to the slot, and tie up their opponent’s stick if a pass comes in.

So, the fact that Gudbranson does relatively little of something he is known and liked for is actually to his credit.

Moving on.

Breakouts

While the consensus among Gudbranson fans is that he is a strong, physical stay-at-home defender who doesn’t need offensive skill, the ability to transition from defence to offence is essential for a modern NHL blue-liner. It is also another area where Gudbranson has a lot of room for improvement.

Before heading on the breakout, the first step is to realise it’s coming. And Gudbranson struggles with this quite a bit.

In the clip below, for example, Gudbranson gets drawn out of position against the Calgary Flames and gets back to where he’s supposed to be in a timely fashion. The Canucks then get the puck back behind the goal line, and Gudbranson –- with his eyes on the play –- chooses to drop back to the net-front to protect, well, nothing really.

The idea isn’t all terrible; if his D-partner turns the puck over, Gudbranson needs to be there to support him. But in the play above, there was absolutely no reason to drop back all the way to the crease and stay there until the puck was out of the D-zone.

When Gudbranson has the puck in the defensive zone himself, he generally prefers to hand it off to his partner and move on with his life. That is probably for the best, as his breakout attempts often do not end well.

In the sequence below, Gudbranson plays a stretch pass, which looks like a solid idea, as his team is changing on the fly. When the camera swings over, however, you can see his intended target is covered by three opponents, one of which intercepts the puck and heads on the attack.

This pass was never a good idea.

Offensive-zone play

Gudbranson, the third-overall pick of the 2010 draft, was once said to have strong two-way upside. Those times may be over, but we should still look at what he can do in the offensive zone. Spoiler alert: not much.

In the clip below, a missed shot ricochets off the boards and flies back toward the blue line. At this moment, Gudbranson is still outside of the offensive zone, and he should see that Sam Gagner is there to pick up the puck. But he doesn’t.

Gudbranson decides to pinch, which not only takes him out as a passing option, but it also adds more pressure on Sam Gagner than he’s already experiencing.

Gagner plays the puck deep again, and the Canucks stayed in possession, but it’s one of those small plays that make me question his offensive awareness and hockey sense. While coaches want the strong-side defender to pinch and close down the boards relatively deep in the zone, it is up to the player to see whether or not it is the right play in a given situation.

This time, it was simply a bad read.

This can also be observed when Gudbranson attempts to contribute to the attack by getting open for scoring chances. He occasionally finds open space in the offensive zone, and the idea to pinch and contribute offensively is excellent. The execution, however, leaves lots to be desired.

In the clip below, Brock Boeser gets possession at the left boards, and Gudbranson jumps in on the attack to get open for a pass on the weak side. There’s just one problem: Gudbranson skates straight into coverage and stays there until the end.

And when he does get set up for a shot?

Gudbranson does a lot of things right in this play, like moving into open space, circling back when there’s no passing lane, and moving back in again. His puck skills just aren’t enough to provide offence, though. This can not only be observed in this sequence, but many others as well.

Finally, Gudbranson does not provide much in terms of dangerous passes. He mostly settles for D-to-D passes or ones that go straight down the boards, but there isn’t much that helps set up scoring chances.

He tries, he really does. It’s just that he’s almost never successful.

Conclusion

What really stands out is that almost everything Gudbranson does is either bad or acceptable. There are virtually no scenes that should make a scout say “wow, we need this guy on our team.”

Next time you watch Gudbranson play, and he does something that makes you think he’s a valuable player, ask yourself: was this really the best possible play or did it just not lead to something bad? Most often, you should come to the conclusion that what he did was fine, but there was a better option available.

Furthermore, I rewatched every one of Gudbranson’s shifts from five recent games as research for this piece. In an entirely objective and unbiased approach, I was unable to find a clip of a strong, valuable hit or anything else Gudbranson is commonly liked for.

So, why do many people, including NHL coaches, like Gudbranson-type players then?

Here, Calgary Flames writer Kent Wilson of The Athletic made a reasonable assumption:

Because of competitive pressures that are unique to the bottom end of the roster, NHL coaches and GMs will be attracted to tough guys who are “memorable” or “stand out” during their limited ice time. (…)

Especially if you are heavily influenced by the eye test — most fourth line players simply won’t stand out on a nightly basis if you’re judging them by the usual standards.

But guys who crash and bang? Who get into a fight? Who throw themselves in front of harm’s way with abandon? They are memorable. So at the bottom end of the roster the way to survive isn’t necessarily to be useful, it’s be noticeable.

When Erik Gudbranson hits and fights and cleans up the net-front, those are things everyone can see even when they just casually watch the game. You don’t even have to pay attention -– these things will be shown over and over in replays.

So, while Gudbranson neither stands out stat-wise nor passes the eye test particularly well, coaches still notice him and remember him. That’s all.

I won’t deny the fact that leadership can play a role in a team’s success. But if leadership and a little bit of random grit are the only things Gudbranson provides, is he really worth the price of admission?

  • jaybird43

    Janik is right. Unfortunately, Gudbranson is a bad defenceman.

    That’s very clear from the analytics, and watching him play. Once in a while, he’s real growly with a team, and you think “Great! No more getting pushed around!” … Unfortunately that feeling soon leaves the next time he’s turnstiled, or has ONE MORE uncontrolled zone exit (to be followed by an opposing team’s clean entry, momentarily … 🙁 Anyway, the trade is lost. Hopefully JB can salvage something out of this near trade deadline. Sunk cost. Like Erikkson. These are his two largest mistakes, in my view. Does it mean he’s a bad GM? Not in my books, and not by a long shot. His drafting is starting to look genius … finally learned to add “value-priced” bolt-on free agents this summer, and got rid of Willie for somebody who looks pretty smart, based on the way he’s handling a middling roster. The JB haters, and childish name callers (really [really!?], “Dim Jim”, are we still in elementary school?) don’t seem able to look over his total tenure to date. Which is appearing more and more solid as time begins showing the results … has he made mistakes? Abso freaking lootly … anyone in a new job is going to make more mistakes as he learns the job over the first year or two and then there will always be some ongoing when judging young talent is a major component of the job. To the JB haters, I say take a deep dive on what he inherited (a “stale” team as Torts accurately called it) with limited prospect pool. This is not going to be an ever-ending rebuilding saga like Toronto, Buffalo, Arizona, or Edmonton … and all without the benefit of a top 1, 2, 3 or even 4th pick. Look around JB haters – one trade does not make the man. And now this commercial break from JB channeling his inner Frank Sinatra … “Regrets, I’ve had a few, But then again, too few to mention …”

  • DJ_44

    Finally, this brings us to Jannik’s finally follies of fantasy and misunderstanding: the offensive zone examples.

    In the clip below, a missed shot ricochets off the boards and flies back toward the blue line. At this moment, Gudbranson is still outside of the offensive zone, and he should see that Sam Gagner is there to pick up the puck. But he doesn’t.

    Gudbranson decides to pinch, which not only takes him out as a passing option, but it also adds more pressure on Sam Gagner than he’s already experiencing. Gagner plays the puck deep again, and the Canucks stayed in possession, but it’s one of those small plays that make me question his offensive awareness and hockey sense. Simply a bad read.

    Jannik claims this is a bad read. It is anything but. EG does not know whether Gagner will get to the puck first, or even make a play for it. EG, however can do both. The fact Gagner did get to the puck was a bonus. EG was neither out of position or making a poor decision. This, like many other instances, is a critique from someone who does not understand the game.

    Jannik, obviously on a roll and buoyed by his previous incorrect analyses, continues on this tract. The penultimate example EG is providing viable options to Boeser, and also forcing the defenders to guard against him as an offensive option. Watch the defenceman in front of the net. He moves away from his check in front of the net and a half stride towards EG. This opens up more opportunity for players in front of the net when Boeser makes the high percentage play and puts the puck on net. This is a subtlety of the game. You have to understand it to pick up on it.

    In the final, EG tries a lower percentage pass if the O-zone. These are attempted all the time, yet you use it as a final example in Gudbranson’s failure to the “eye-test”.

    Jannik — I get it. You want something to be there so bad, you work hard at proving it, but it ain’t there. To be honest, I could have watched those five games again and picked out better examples of EG’s weaknesses, or poorer reads. This happens with every player (although with some it is easier — Hutton; and some it is much more difficult — Tanev). But we can see one thing, your grasp of how the game is played, why players do certain things, and their strengths and weaknesses, is incomplete (to be polite). This may also explain why you and many of your fellow college buddies provide such poor analysis and content on the CanucksWay blog.

    • Janik Beichler

      1. It’s fairly obvious that Gagner can reach the puck. Even if Gudbranson thinks he won’t (bad read), he shouldn’t pinch that far up.

      2. Gudbranson never presents an option to Boeser during this play. The idea is good, execution is bad. He could have circled back and moved in again like in the other example.

      3. I wish there was nothing there and this article could’ve been “this is how Gudbranson provides value” with examples of how good he is. But he isn’t. So I didn’t.

      Finally, my name’s Janik. 🙂

      • DJ_44

        First, spelling is not a strong suit, and no disrespect was meant through fat fingers.

        With respect to Gagner, and equally valid argument could be made that it was Gagner poor read, not see that Gudbranson was in fact in a better position to get the puck and do something with it. Gagner could easier move to a scoring position and allow Gudbranson to deal with it. Regarding how far he should pinch, the defense will pinch down to the goal line if appropriate (under Green’s system); if you are going to get to the puck first, you are easily able to pinch to the top of the circle.

        Boeser: he gave him options, and a passing lane was available to Boeser. The play was immediate, no need to circle.

        With respect to value; this is your opinion. Your examples, however, made you look bad, not Gudbranson.