It is truly the end of an era. In the closest thing to a blockbuster trade as we get in Vancouver, the Canucks finally ended the Erik Gudbranson experiment by trading him to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In exchange, they received Tanner Pearson, a once-highly-respected winger whose value completely eroded after an absolutely horrific start to his season with the Los Angeles Kings and an underwhelming stint in Pittsburgh.
When analyzing what this means for the Canucks, it seems only fair to start at the beginning with the player going out.
There’s just no nice way to say it. By just about every analytical tool available, Erik Gudbranson was one of, if not the worst defenseman in the National Hockey League. You’d have a tough time finding a defender who was more keen to take the glass-and-out approach, and it cost his team in the long run. This season, Gudbranson ranks in the bottom-ten among defenders with at least 300 minutes played in even-strength shot-share, shots conceded per hour, and goal-differential. Setting aside all the fancy stuff, over the course of Gudbranson’s time in Vancouver, no regular defenseman in the league carried a worse even-strength on-ice goals-for percentage than he did. There’s a lot of talk about all the things that analytics or statistics can’t measure, but how much your team scores versus how much they get scored on when you’re on the ice would seem to be the ballgame for me. For the better part of three seasons, the Canucks couldn’t generate offense or keep the puck out of the net when he was on the ice.
Everyone with close ties to the organization, from players to execs to the media that covers the team seemed to agree that Erik Gudbranson was a great teammate and person. Unfortunately, his on-ice contributions just never lined up with the off-ice ones during his time in Vancouver.
In return for Gudbranson, the Canucks received Tanner Pearson, another player who’s struggled this season and has fallen out of favour with two straight clubs. In Pearson, it would appear as though the Canucks have acquired a player with as wide a spectrum of possible outcomes as you’re likely to find on the trade market.
Since entering the league, Pearson’s been a solid middle-six contributor, usually as complementary piece on what was at one time a dominant second line for the LA Kings with Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli. While it should be pretty obvious that Pearson wasn’t the one driving the bus on that line, he held his own just fine, putting up 36+ points in three straight seasons while also boasting an impressive profile in terms of the underlying shot-based metrics.
Unfortunately, things went a little off the rails this season. Pearson was held to just one point over 17 games in LA before being flipped to Pittsburgh for Carl Hagelin. Things got slightly better from then on, but Pearson never really found a comfortable spot in Pittsburgh and improved to just 14 points in the 44 games he played for the Penguins.
It would be easy to dismiss it as bad luck, but Pearson’s underlying numbers have taken a significant dip, too.
It’s very possible this is a sign that Pearson is already in decline and his best days may be behind him. Having said that, it seems unlikely to me that a player with Pearson’s track record would completely fall off the map at the age of 26. At the very least, he’s another third-line winger who gives the Canucks the luxury of trading or moving on from one of their wingers who hasn’t worked out. He should also help the Canucks on the breakout, where Pearson ranked in the 89th percentile of players in terms of percentage of zone exits with control of the puck.
Overall, it’s hard to see this as anything but a massive win for the Canucks. In a vacuum, the Canucks getting rid of Gudbranson without retaining salary is a win in and of itself, and adding a semi-useful player in Tanner Pearson is just gravy. When you zoom out, there’s some room for criticism, though. Making the trade to acquire Gudbranson in the first place was a bad call, and you can say the same for extending him and reportedly turning down offers at last year’s deadline that would have yielded Miles Wood from the Devils or a 2nd and 4th-round pick from a mystery team.
There’s really something to be said for the fact that the Canucks can’t make a proactive trade. In this instance, though, they got out while they could and avoided having to make move that would have been purely reactive. Erik Gudbranson was only going to get harder to move with time, so kudos to Jim Benning and co. for pulling the trigger now instead of waiting for offers to improve. Who knows, maybe Tanner Pearson will recapture his old glory on a line with Bo Horvat and make the Canucks’ front office look like geniuses for holding out. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one, but it’s not like there’s anyone on the team who has really run away with that opportunity. It’s Pearson’s job to lose.