Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin – USA TODAY Sports
It’s easy to take Brendan Gaunce for granted. He’s not the most imposing player physically and doesn’t often impress himself upon the scoresheet either. But make no mistake about it, he’s making his mark.
In a year where development has become something of a taboo talking point around Pat Quinn Way, Gaunce finds himself a staple in the Canucks bottom-six at 22-years-old. He’s had different linemates, played in different roles and at different positions too.
The one constant? He’s helped the Canucks’ suppress opposition offence in each scenario. He’s among the team’s best players in that regard, and the coach is taking notice.
Speaking after practice on Monday, Canucks head Coach Wilie Desjardins let everyone know just how much faith he has in his rookie centre. “[Gaunce] has done it consistently, where he’s been able to keep in [the lineup]. We’ve had guys in and out. Somebody mentioned ‘do we want to bring different guys from Utica’ and right now?’ no, I think Gaunce is doing a good job.”
Gaunce has the fourth best impact on his teammates ability to limit unblocked shot attempts (-3.24 FA60 Rel. Tm) and shot attempts (-6.48 CA60 Rel. Tm) alike. You’d like to see that attention to detail bear itself in Gaunce’s underlying goal metrics, but that hasn’t been the case. The Canucks have yet to score a single goal at even strength with Gaunce on the ice. That goes a long way towards explaining why Gaunce is towing a 0% Goals For.
What we know about the kind of underlying metrics Gaunce is excelling in, though, is that they’re a better indicator of future goal differential than goals themselves. Luckily for Gaunce, he’s not paying too much attention to these numbers anyway. “It’s a thing in today’s game, yeah. For me, though, just to kind of gain momentum for the team, and whether that’s playing ten minutes or six minutes, it’s having the puck in their end.”
Gaunce continued “Whether it’s getting a draw for the Sedins or drawing a penalty, it’s just things like that that change games for teams. Good teams have four lines they can play and trust, and I think that’s where we’re getting as a line.”
Probably one of the main challenges for Gaunce has been finding his role. The Canucks have shifted Gaunce from centre (where they drafted him) to left wing, before making the switch back to centre in advance of this season. To Gaunce’s credit, he doesn’t seem to mind the shuffle in the slightest. All the same, he sounds content to stick in the middle of the Canucks’ lineup.
“If I’m playing the minutes I’m playing now, I think [I prefer to play] as a centreman. I can win draws, [and] do things that can change the game in limited minutes. As a winger, I feel like I could contribute in a different role. Right now, the way I’m playing, centre is [where] I can contribute [the] most. I feel like it’s where I can change the game the most, because of defensive positioning and winning draws for our team.”
And winning draws is something that’s come naturally to Gaunce. Among Canucks regulars, only Brandon Sutter’s 53% success rate in the circle bests Gaunce’s 51%. Pundits often overstate the importance of face-offs to an extreme. Even the most skeptical among us would gladly concede that you’d rather win more of them than you lose, though. To that exact end, Gaunce has faired admirably.
That kind of proficiency matches the professionalism and confidence Gaunce brings on a day-to-day basis. He’s not short of belief — not in himself. “I knew I could do it. For me, it was just coming in with that same mentality I had at the end of [last] year — that it was my spot to take.” Gaunce told Canucks Army. “I still feel that mentality now, just because it’s early in the year and I haven’t established myself.”
That’s something Desjardins alluded to in his press conference. That complacency can set in, and that it’s his responsibility to help ward it off. Desjardins understands that development is a series of peaks and valleys — not a straight line.
“I think the thing sometimes with young guys — you always have to push them to be better. Sometimes they relax a little bit, and sometimes they may have to come out. It doesn’t mean they’re not doing they’re job. That just sometimes has to happen.”
Desjardins’ comments, public and private alike, seem to be striking a chord with Gaunce. Gaunce remarked “It’s a league [where] if you have an off night, it’s going to show. So I think consistency is a big thing. For me, it was just coming every day and trying to help the team win, in [whatever] way I can. It’s not trying to get out of my element and do things I’m not supposed to do.”
Gaunce’s seen a notable decrease in ice time of late. He played just 5:31 against Arizona last Thursday, then 6:42 against Chicago. Both games went to overtime. Finding ways to help the team in such limited minutes can prove difficult, but Gaunce has been up to the task to date.
If he can keep his footing and continue to limit opposition offence, don’t be surprised if the coach starts sending those numbers skyward. Hell, I’d expect it.