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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?

  • Missing Juice n Kes

    The fact that Dim Jim tried to ship Slugbranson back to FLA and was rebuffed by Jason Demers proves beyond any doubt that this is another massive Benning bust and he knows it.

    The whole league wants high octane offensive D who jump into the rush and put up points now. This fact makes Erik as redundant as an old school enforcer. His trade value is next to nothing and this kind of ineptitude should cost trader Jim his job… The End.

    • Killer Marmot

      There isn’t an experienced manager in the league who hasn’t made a bad trade. Mistakes are part of the job.

      To determine if a manager is good at trading, you have to look at his entire record, not just one trade. For Benning, my count is that he’s made five good deals and two or three poor one. The rest either didn’t make much difference or you could argue either way.

      I say he’s done more good than harm with his trades. Especially important, his recent trades have been sound.

        • Killer Marmot

          The trades for Baertschi and Granlund are of marginal advantage to the Canucks? Those two were second and third in goal scoring for the team last year.

      • Freud

        Here you are making excuses yet again. The issue is larger than was the trade won or not or that all GMs make mistakes.

        The big picture was clear. This team was supposed to be rebuilding. Benning traded away youth, potential and cost control for a bad defensive defence man who was close to RFA.

        When the successful teams were stocking up on mobile pick movers, Benning was trading for Gudbransen.

        Benning has made some good moves. But collosal errors like this one that was clearly a mistake from the start and wrong on multiple layers will never allow a team to win a cup.

        Yay! Benning took a step forward is nice for the cheerleaders but the ongoing steps backward that the cheerleaders make excuses for will never allow this team to go forward.

        • Dirk22

          A year ago it was “we didn’t lose the trade.” Now it’s “every GM makes mistakes.” Just like “we’ll be competitive this year” to “we meant to tank to 29th…part of the plan”

        • Killer Marmot

          I’m not “making excuses”. I’m claiming that, on the whole, Benning’s trades have benefited the Canucks more than it has hurt them.

          If you want to rebut that, you’re going to have to look at more than the Gudbranson trade.

          And no more personal remarks.

          • Missing Juice n Kes

            Get off your high horse Marmutt, stop whining like a girl and take your bi(t)chslaps, they are fully deserved… Benning hasn’t hit a home run in FOUR YEARS and has totally blown the rebuild after inheriting a 101 point elite team… what part of NO PLAYOFFS don’t you get.

            Even Joe Sakic has embarrassed Benning now with his incredible Duchene haul for a fellow re-building bottomfeeder.

            In fact, apart from blowing so many trades (McCann, Forsling, Bonino, Hansen, Kassian, plus numerous picks), how about that draft record from the ‘guru’… Nylander, Larkin, Sergachev, Keller, Tkachuk, Pastrnak, Ehlers and McAvoy ALL passed on. Every one of those kids is on fire in the NHL and are heading for superstardom… wake up from your lame excuses and delusion homers.

      • tyhee

        I get that this post, about Benning, is answering another post trashing Benning. Accordingly, I don’t blame Marmot, other than to suggest that we not feed the trolls.

        The effect has been to derail the comments from being about the article. The article wasn’t about Benning. It wasn’t about his trading ability. It is about the disagreement about whether Gudbranson is or isn’t a good defenceman. That’s relevant to the discussion of what the Canucks are best to do in the future.

        The past is over. They aren’t going to get McCann + back for Gudbranson at this stage.

        What the Canucks should do in future with Gudbranson depends on a few things-not all of which have been fully canvassed in the CA articles.

        -what is Gudbranson worth as a defenceman on the ice? (The articles have mostly been about this.)
        -what if any addition to his value does his character in the dressing room bring?
        -what addition to his value does his pushback against intimidation bring

        The first comment to this article (wasn’t Marmot’s) seems to have successfully gotten the discussion away from what value Guddy has in the future and made the discussion about whether Benning is a good or bad trader.

        I know that there is a debate about Benning being extended, but I’m hopeful that not every article on CA leads to that discussion in the comments.

      • Whatthe...

        I’ll add that I consider it a bonus that Benning is more than willing to admit his “mistakes” and move on if it means making the team better. Prefer that to a GM who digs in and has such a big ego (Burke) that he continues down the same path forever.

    • Silverback

      You again? Thought we were rid of you. Must have given you your computer privileges back. By the way it is still inappropriate to call people names, even at your age.

    • Doodly Doot

      Very dramatic. And reactionary. Like your user name. This trade is ‘one’ move in a large portfolio of moves. JB made a reasonable trade that hasn’t ‘yet’ borne it’s conceived value. Guddy missed most of last season, and when he played he was utilized under the Willie-style which also factors in. Also consider that the JB has responded to Guddy’s performance thus far by giving him a reasonable one year ‘show me’ deal. Here’s some news for you: Not all deals work out as planned. It’s easy to criticize JB for his missteps, but with regards to Gudbranson, the story is not yet over. He hasn’t even played a single whole season of hockey with the club. JB has done some excellent work. Check your feelings and thoughts for some context. No doubt it’s plausible that in the future JB takes the blame for team issues that manifest outside his area of influence and this becomes that same old story when in a few years a different Canucks GM goes deep into the playoffs to great acclaim, with the team JB has built. A team that anyone can see could become one of the best the Canucks have every iced. Your whining is boring… The End.

      • Zemtac

        I fully agree, this sounds like a Hen party corus!!! Why would you pass judgement on a player that missed most of last season. I’ll grant you he is not the best in the lateral movement department, however, that is not why he is on the team! Guddy does exactly what Benning got him for, letting everyone on the ice know that he’ll tune them if they so much as step out of line! He has beat Kassian, he has pushed around Lucic. The night the Canucks played Calgary and he punch Tkachuk in the face in front of the net and he left the ice, when Tkachuk came back, did he challenge Guddy? Did anyone else on the Flames chanllenge Guddy? Hmmmm? What about the other night when Guddy crunched that Bruin who turned his back behind the net into the boards! (If that was a leaf giving that check there would have been no suspension) Another Bruin came in and challenged Guddy, Guddy tuned him!!! Guddy will not be able to be deployed in all situations, he should not be on for speed if all can be helped! He is not a good matchup against McDavid, or should I say not our best! He does however bring team toughness up quit a few notches and he can play the game quit well. Well enough to stay in our 4/5 slot and add team toughness and skill set that we have never had. He is not Tanev, Oli, Jovo, he is what we need at the moment with a bunch of young kids in the lineup who could be taken advantage of! One last thing, do you think the little weasel would have gotten his third shot off on Daniel if Guddy had been on the ice, not a chance, let alone 5 or 6? Why people can’t see what he brings and we they keep looking for him to be something he is not. Talon want Guddy back, keep that in mind as well! He was the architect of the Black Hawks and before the debacle in Florida, that was a team on the rise, that is why he is back at the helm! Loui, and Willie both praised Guddy and they play? Hmmm!lol

      • Doodly Doot

        A couple more things. He recently traded Pedan for Pouliot. It’s early, but that might look like genius down the road. And Baertchi and Granlund have met or exceeded perceived value. Virtanen is coming along. Stecher too. MDZ is working out ok. Got Goldobin and Dahlen for swiftly declining vets. Hmmm… some pretty decent prospects… Petersson, Juolevi, Boeser, Dempko, Gaudette, Lockwood, Lind…. His non-trade of Tanev is of great credit. It would be the easiest thing to flip him for shiny new toys, but JB understand his value. Oh yeah, fixed coaching mistake with pretty decent upgrade. That’s the context I’m talking about MJK .Nope. Not firing JB.

        • Freud

          I would contend Linden has begun to assume control of these types of moves. He gave Benning the final say to start and it resulted in Sbisa, Bartkowski and Gudbransen. The recent change in philosophy, such as looking to get rid of Gudbransen instead of overpaying him has to be Linden saying enough and taking over.

          • defenceman factory

            If what you have speculated is true it’s pretty clear Benning will not be resigned.

            Just as plausible and perhaps more likely Aqualini and Linden played a large role in many of the poor moves management has made. Benning was a rookie GM and unlikely to be given carte blanch to do what he wanted. Benning has now been given more control to make decisions and is making better ones. I don’t know if that is true but if he gets a new contract you have to know many of the poor decisions were not his.

            To get back to Gudbranson, regardless whether you believe stats don’t reflect Guddy’s value and the eye test article is a hatchet job Guddy fails the price test miserably. No team can afford to pay $4+ million for what Guddy brings. Get him traded and take your losses.

    • Whatthe...

      Just be glad this poster is not running the team – simplified version of real life and a complete misunderstanding of the underlining processes required to successfully develop players/humans. That is what this is all about, developing good humans or solid NHLers who know how to succeed in the league. A plethora of draft picks means nothing if you don’t develop a solid foundation from the ground up…that is unless a team is able to draft Sydney Crosby (or in other words win the lottery which seems to happen about once every 20 years).

  • Apousians

    Wow, another article on Gudbranson. Maybe, just a thought, you can write about the other 22 members on the Canucks roster before delighting us with yet ANOTHER article about Guds? How many have we seen in the past week?

    • Jim "Dumpster Fire" Benning

      Question: How many Canucks of the remaining 22 have expiring contracts at year’s end? Maybe you should be putting 2 and 2 together in figuring out what the authors are doing here.

      • Jim "Dumpster Fire" Benning

        The answer is 6. How would you like another article on whether or not to resign the Sedins? How about a thorough investigation into resigning Thomas Vanek after 15 games played? Or maybe you would like an article on Patrick Weircioch or Alex Biega (cause articles on those guys really move the needle!).

    • InternetRookie

      Even though I agree that we’ve seen far too many Guddy articles recently, this one is OK in my books. There really is no outright bashing nor any sarcastic tone taking place. I am quickly becoming a fan of Janik’s. All of his CA pieces have been insightful and well thought out.

  • If Gudbranson was being paid and deployed like Andrew Alberts, no one would be talking about him. Alberts was a big, strong, well-liked guy and a legitimate NHL defenceman, but he had significant flaws to his game, was used as a bottom pairing guy and was paid like it. Fine.

    The problem with Gudbranson isn’t that he’s “Bad”, it’s that people want him to be a top-4 defenceman and he’s getting paid like a top-4 defenceman, when he should be the team’s 6th or 7th defenceman and should be on a ~$1.5 million.

    It’s the same issue with Brandon Sutter – he’s a legitimate NHLer and a fine depth centre with some very useful skills, but he’s not a “foundational” player and he shouldn’t be being paid 2nd line centre money. If Benning had never made that “foundational” comment and signed him to a $3 million / year contract, no one would take issue. If Benning hadn’t given up significant assets for Gudbranson, paid him like a 3/4 D, and hadn’t talked about him like he’s a key part of the Canucks defence going forward, we wouldn’t be talking so much about him.

    • Killer Marmot

      I think Sutter is overpaid. He gets $4.375 million a year, and is probably worth $3.5 million.

      Being overpaid by less than a million a year is no big deal, and does not explain the enormous fuss that Canucks Army makes over him.

    • Doodly Doot

      I agree with you Goon. Well said. It’s on JB for the hype and the contract for both absolutely. That said, Sutter is out there in the role he’s given and doesn’t seem to take shifts off. He may have been overvalued, but all things considered, it’s hardly a disaster. It’s definitely looking worse with Guddy, although anyone can see a correction on that coming. Fun times!

    • truthseeker

      I guess you don’t realize GM’s are also managing their players. That’s why their called managers and not “fan expectation providers”.

      Only complete idiots believe literally what comes out of the mouths of hockey people to the media. So I guess that makes you………yeah….