Imagine. It’s Monday afternoon. NHL trade deadline day, a day of nerves for a lot of league players. You’re Erik Gudbranson, and you’ve been traded once in your career. With your current team, the Vancouver Canucks, you haven’t played your best.
The clock is seemingly striking peace of mind. Then, at what you later will term “the 11th hour,” chaos.
“I was walking into my place with congratulations from my girlfriend that I had made it through another trade deadline (without getting traded), but right as she said that, my phone buzzed,” Gudbranson recalled Wednesday.
Peace of mind got shattered by a sinking feeling. He had been traded again.
But in another quick hairpin emotional turn, Gudbranson learned where he was headed.
“It was certainly a shock, but it turned to excitement very quickly,” the 6-foot-5, physical defenseman said Wednesday after practicing for the first time with his new team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
“The minute I found out I was coming here, this team certainly has an aura about it and you know that there’s an expectation here to make the playoffs and go deep every year, When it started to sink in a little bit after it happened, your mind starts racing a little bit, you start refocusing.”
Gudbranson couldn’t join the Penguins for their 5-2 win Tuesday at Columbus. A Canadian switching from a Canadian to an American employer, he had to wait for immigration and visa issues to be settled.
For pro athletes, that’s normally an expedited process, and Gudbranson is clear to play Friday in Buffalo.
“We’re excited to have him,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s going to bring a physical element to our blue line. He’s got good size. He’s strong in the battle areas, and he’s strong in the net-front. He brings an edginess to his game that we know is going to help our whole, overall group.”
The Timing is good
The Penguins already were without their top defensive pairing, Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, who got hurt Saturday, and defenseman Olli Maatta, who is out longer term. Tuesday, lightly-used but competent defenseman Chad Ruhwedel was one of two Penguins who got hurt and are expected to be out longer term. The other is winger Bryan Rust.
With just six healthy defensemen given the addition of Gudbranson, the Penguins might use the pairings they used in practice Wednesday. Gudbranson worked with Marcus Pettersson.
“We think he complements some of the defensemen we have,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got a lot of mobile guys. We’ve got puck-moving guys. This is a guy that brings a different dimension. He’s going to be hard to defend. He’s going to be hard defending down low. He can lean on people. He’s strong. We think that skill set is complimentary to the other guys that we have.”
Before he got to Pittsburgh, Gudbranson seemed to infringe some on Jack Johnson’s territory as a fan whipping boy, judging from social media.
Yeah, yeah. Everyone wanted to know how far on the minus side his plus-minus was in his first practice with the Penguins. Har-dee-har-har.
Hold on, Gudbranson argued. Aren’t the Penguins the club that has built a reputation for resurrecting players’ careers?
Just among defensemen in recent years, the Penguins have gotten great mileage from defensemen Matt Niskanen, Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak after picking them up from teams where they were falling short of expectations.
Gudbranson, in 139 games over two-plus seasons with Vancouver, was minus-48, including minus-27 in 57 games this season.
“I didn’t feel like I played that well there, to be honest,” Gudbranson said of Vancouver. “I just never got anything going, never got my confidence to where it was, where it needed to be.
“I’m excited to be here. This is a team that can help guys out in situations like that. Even out there in practice I felt a lot better than I had in Vancouver. That’s nothing against (the Canucks). We worked hard there and I learned a lot there, but that style, the way we were playing in the (defensive) zone (Wednesday at Penguins practice), it worked well for me.”
“They support the puck well here,” he said. “You’ve always got a lot of options. There’s a lot of talk out there, a lot of communication. So before you even get to the puck you already have an idea as to where you’re going with it. This is a team that’s got a lot of experience in very difficult situations, and they’re able to manage an NHL season very well. It was a treat being out there (Wednesday).
“I’m not necessarily getting my feet wet; I’m really diving in.”
‘My Game’s Pretty Simple’
Gudbranson’s description of what he hopes to bring to the Penguins held no surprises.
“Some physicality, for sure,” he said. “I just want to come here and solidify the back end as much as possible. My game’s pretty simple – keep stuff in front of me, be tough in front of the net and be physical on guys. That’s my plan.”
Even it’s a plan that changed at the 11th-hour Monday.
That buzz from his phone was hardly a buzz-kill.
Gudbranson had the rest of Monday to pack and prepare. He set out for Pittsburgh Tuesday, a trip that included an hours-long layover in Toronto.
“That day kind of spent alone in the airport was a good day to just get those thoughts through my mind and start feeling it running through your veins,” he said. “I’m pretty excited to be here.”