Erik Gudbranson shrugged his shoulders and smiled when PHN asked him about his ability to affect hockey games by throwing a few fists into the grill of overly rambunctious opponents. The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Gudbranson from Vancouver for light scoring and too often irrelevant forward Tanner Pearson at the 2019 NHL trade deadline. Gudbranson shined in his brief time with the Penguins after a several-year unsuccessful tenure in Vancouver.
After the 6-foot-5, 217-pound defenseman smiled, Gudbranson downplayed the effects and his willingness to rap his knuckles off a deserving opponent’s head. When Penguins fans finished panning the move because Gudbranson had been roundly criticized in Vancouver, the HockeyFights video of Gudbranson dominating Washington Capitals villain Tom Wilson in a fight made the social media rounds.
Criticism of the move softened. If further diminished after Gudbranson and Marcus Pettersson surprisingly formed a competent third pairing in the final five weeks of the season. The Penguins stated Gudbranson had more skills than he was able to show in Vancouver. The Penguins hopes proved to be more accurate than the immediate criticisms and fear.
It’s not entirely a fair comparison, but in 57 games with Vancouver, Gudbranson had just a 43% Corsi rating, his team had just a 38% of the scoring chances when he was on the ice and only 34% of the goals. Those numbers bring about one word: Yikes.
In 19 games with the Penguins, Gudbranson earned a 54% Corsi, his team had 53% of the scoring chances and 53% of the goals when he was on the ice. He was also a +7 after being a minus-27 in Vancouver.
Gudbranson, 27, was similarly a steady defenseman against the New York Islanders onslaught (or slaughter) in Round One; he was one of the best defenders if not the best Penguins defenseman. The defenseman has a $4 million cap hit for the next two seasons, so there may perennially exist a disparity between his salary and value.
Then again, what is the value of neutralizing the worst effects of Metro Division rough housers such as Tom Wilson, Cal Clutterbuck, Brandon Dubinsky and the city of Philadelphia?
Pittsburgh Penguins Pairings
The 2019-20 season could feature changes to the Pittsburgh Penguins defensive lineup. Pettersson is an unsigned RFA, and the consensus is the Penguins will be forced to make a trade to sign Pettersson. Who may be on the block is guesswork right now. Little to nothing has leaked about any potential Penguins moves which may be in the queue, but most assume it is coming.
Left side defender Jack Johnson could be in the deal. So too could right-side defenseman Justin Schultz. And so Gudbranson may have to play without Pettersson with whom he formed the successful pairing. Pettersson’s steady, predictable play and smooth puck movement helped raise Johnson’s game from December to February, just as it helped Gudbranson through the end of the season.
So, the pairings with or without Pettersson, who may or may not be on the opening night roster, could affect Gudbranson.
Regardless of his partner, Gudbranson is not with the Penguins for offensive production. Despite the praise-worthy play, he registered just two assists. In his eight-year career, Gudbranson has scored 10 or more points only twice. Why Gudbranson is with the Penguins is support, not assists.
Gudbranson well supported the Penguins efforts because of his solid play and his solid knuckles. When the Penguins faced the arch-nemesis Washington Capitals later in the season, Tom Wilson strictly played hockey rather than adding some of the extra-legal and illegal physical plays for which he has an infamous reputation. Wilson has especially tortured the Penguins with hard, physical plays which push the boundaries.
Prediction: If you measure Gudbranson’s season by points, you’ll be disappointed. Gudbranson provides cover for star players and is capable of regular shifts. He cleans the dirty zones including the front of the net, and with the Penguins he participated in the puck movement.
The continued ability to move the puck will be the deciding factor for Gudbranson’s season. That was the skill which the Penguins felt they could unearth from his game. The initial results were promising.
Two goals. Nine assists. 85 PIM. Three fighting majors. And enough success keeping things quiet that some will question the need for someone to keep things quiet.