Gaunce, the Canucks first round pick at the 2012 NHL entry draft, captains the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League. In the first three games of his club’s first round playoff series against the Mississauga Steelheads this month, he’s done nothing but reinforce that perception.
The numbers are sparkling - three games, two goals, four assists and a plus-5 on-ice goal differential - and so is his two-way play. In fact, in Belleville’s three playoff games so far, the Steelheads are yet to score an even-strength goal while Gaunce is on the ice.
None of this comes as much of a surprise to those who’ve followed Gaunce’s Major Junior career closely. Certainly the coaches responsible for matching up against him recognize it, recently naming him the best defensive forward in the OHL’s Eastern Conference.
“[Brendan’s] ability to play the game without the puck is among the best in our league,” Belleville coach George Burnett said following his team’s loss on Sunday. “It’s one of the main reasons we've been a tough defensive team all year long.”
But Gaunce isn’t your prototypical defensive specialist. You’ll rarely find him buried in his own end of the rink. On Sunday he started three times as many shifts in Mississauga’s zone as he did in his own team’s, a testament to his two-way value.
“When I was younger I learned to play defense first and that offense comes from defense,” said Gaunce, about his well-rounded game. “I think that's kind of translating right now.”
“Kind of translating” might be a bit of an understatement.
In the first period of Sunday’s game, Gaunce was cycling the puck in the corner with Belleville’s first-line right-winger Scott Simmonds. Gaunce received a return pass from his linemate just below the goal line, and without hesitation sent Belleville centreman Tyler Graovac a pitch perfect slot feed against the grain.
The puck saucered through the skates of Steelheads defender Alex Cord and found the adhesive edging on Graovac’s stick. The pinpoint pass also did the hard work of getting Mississauga goaltender Tyson Teichmann moving side to side, and he couldn’t recover in time to stop Graovac’s blocker side backhander.
Belleville 1, Mississauga 0.
Gaunce may have authored a lovely bang bang play and in doing so set up a gimme backhander for his linemate, but he wasn’t taking any credit for it after the game. Not after his team lost on a goal scored by Mississauga’s Josh Burnside in the final minute.
“If you're going to play with a scorer you have to find him,” said Gaunce, describing the sequence. “Luckily it went right on the tape and didn't hit the d-man's skate, and then [Groavac] put it away pretty easy.”
That wasn’t even Gaunce’s only gasp-worthy setup of the period, even if it was his only dime. Three minutes of game play later, Gaunce entered the Mississauga zone on his off-wing and put on the breaks. Taking advantage of some weak Mississauga gap control, Gaunce took a half step back towards the blue-line before rifling off a backhand pass cross seam through two Steelheads defenders. This puck had eyes and again found the blade of Tyler Graovac, who got all of it and forced Teichmann to make a supremely difficult stop.
"You have to have trust for your teammates, that they're going to be in the space you think they're going to be in,” said Gaunce, explaining how he experiences the opening of these sorts of improbable passing lanes. “If the defenseman's feet are pretty wide, and you have a guy like Graovic who can score from anywhere, you try and get it to him.”
Unfortunately for Gaunce and the Belleville Bulls, the contest got away from them from there. With just a couple of ticks remaining on the clock in the first period, Gaunce won a puck battle against Steelheads defender Stuart Percy, but in his eagerness to hit a buzzer beater took a holding penalty on the play. It was the first of two undisciplined penalties for Gaunce in the game, the second of which earned him a short benching from George Burnett, and the first of four straight minor penalties that went against the Bulls.
“I took a penalty, and if you're going to take a penalty that hurts the team you have to pay the price for that,” said Gaunce.
Learning to channel the raw emotions of a tough fought playoff series in a productive way is one of those things that comes with maturity. When speaking with Gaunce, who comes across as polished and well spoken (even immediately following a tough playoff loss), or watching him read the play in his own end - it’s easy to forget that he’s still a teenager.
In addition to his short stint riding the pine on Sunday, Gaunce has dealt with a significant helping of adversity this season. There was his percentage driven rough start to the campaign, there was a separated shoulder that cost him a month worth of games, and he’s also spent the latter half of the season adjusting to playing on the wing for the first time in his junior career. Each time he’s bounced back, made the necessary adjustments and elevated his game.
Burnett, while elaborating on his decision to bench his captain for a couple of shifts in the midst of a tight playoff game, expressed confidence that Gaunce would respond to this latest challenge in much the same way.
“We had a few questionable penalties today and that's not something that's part of our regular makeup,” Burnett explained. “[Gaunce is] a big part of our team, and I'm sure we'll get a great response from him on Tuesday night."
To be an elite two-way player at the Major Junior level - and Gaunce certainly is that, he led all draft eligible OHL forwards in even-strength points per game a season ago - you need perseverance. You need perseverance to work out with noted hard-ass taskmaster Gary Roberts all summer long too. It’s a helpful attribute that Gaunce and his teammates will have to draw on now as they look to recover from Sunday’s momentary postseason stumble this week.