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The new guy

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks
Although a Stanley Cup champion has yet to be crowned this season, we can now declare the off-season unofficially underway after the Canucks and Panthers completed what has become an annual tradition between the two franchises – a trade.

By now, you have likely read, heard, and seen everything there is to know about Erik Gudbranson. So goes hockey in Canadian markets, especially in a year with no postseason hockey north of the border. Yes, he is very good at hitting people (see here, here, or here, for evidence). Yes, he is 6-foot-5, close to 220 pounds, and skates really well for his size. Yes, he is a former 3rd overall selection in the NHL Draft and was touted as many in the Panthers organization as the organization’s future captain. However, he is also a player with just 11 goals in 309 regular season games. You can make the argument that goals aren’t an important stat for a defensive defenseman, but they are what wins games in this league. Yes, Gudbranson also raises a few alarms when you look at some advanced metrics and analytics. And yes, somebody in Sunrise, Florida, deemed him expendable.

So how does the Gudbranson acquisition shake out for Vancouver? Did GM Jim Benning overpay by sending away soon-to-be-sophomore center Jared McCann and the 33rd overall selection in the upcoming draft? Trades like this can’t – and shouldn’t – be evaluated for at least two or three years, considering the age of the players and soon-to-be drafted players involved. That being said, we can make some preliminary evaluations based on everything mentioned above – a mixture of stats, the eye-test, and player pedigree – a holistic approach, if you will.

The Short Term

On a short term basis, this trade makes Vancouver a better team. Nobody can argue that. Gudbranson is a top four defenseman in this league, and McCann may have been in a dogfight to make the Canucks out of training camp this year. And even if he did make the club, it would have likely been in a depth scoring role. Unless Florida strikes gold with the pick(s) given up by Vancouver, those players won’t be suiting up for NHL action any time soon.

But even if the trade does make Vancouver better… does it matter? Should it? Are the Canucks going to be contending for a Stanley Cup next season?

Would the Canucks have been better off to head down a longer, deeper, and darker road to rebuilding? The scorched earth rebuilding tactic didn’t work over in Alberta. It usually doesn’t work. Players don’t learn how to win. They don’t learn how to play in important games. But is there a happy medium between building a roster for two or three years away while remaining competitive? This trade is another signal in a long line of signals from Vancouver’s management regime – they certainly think so.

The Big Four

When evaluating transactions, it also makes sense to look at the bigger picture. Vancouver has quite a few centers on the roster right now – although it would be a stretch to say the team is deep up the middle. In theory, the top three is set for the foreseeable future with Henrik Sedin, Bo Horvat, and Brandon Sutter. McCann may project out better on the wing anyway, and it certainly looks like that is where his best chance of playing in Florida will come. But on the back end, Vancouver had a gaping void in the top four. Slotting in Gudbranson alongside Ben Hutton gives the coaching staff a balanced pairing to hop over the boards and spell Alex Edler and Chris Tanev.

There are still a lot of moving parts on the back end – the Canucks could certainly make another move via trade, or bring back Dan Hamhuis as a free agent – but this trade solidifies the top four on defense. At least on paper. And while we know hockey isn’t played on paper, it gives the organization some clarity for this season and the next few. And don’t discount the potential impact that this deal could have on Hutton. As we saw last season, he has the skill level and confidence to be a difference-maker in this league on a nightly basis.

The Long Term

Trying to project out this trade in the long run is where things get cloudier. Gudbranson is likely much closer to his peak than McCann is (and of course the draft picks, as well). Does he have more to give offensively? Probably not – over 300 regular season games, he has shown that his game does have limitations. He makes a decent first pass, but he isn’t going to set assist records any time soon. What kind of player will McCann develop into? A 30+ goal scorer? A 20-25-goal secondary support player? That remains to be seen.

A few other factors that need to be taken into consideration – the salary cap ramifications and the potential for an expansion draft. Florida may have made this trade in part to mitigate any future risks with an expansion draft – as it is very likely they would have had to leave a very good young defenseman unprotected. And with regards to the salary cap, this trade could also be viewed as another example of a big market team (Vancouver) being able to pay a player what he is asking for (Gudbranson) more easily than a small market team (Florida). Rumor has it that Gudbranson recently turned down a long-term, big-money extension from Florida a few weeks ago, before signing a one-year deal. McCann gives the Panthers two more years of cost control, while the Canucks will likely want – and need – to lock up their new defenseman to a lengthy – and expensive – new deal in the coming weeks and months.

Supply and Demand

Looking at this trade from a league-wide level, it becomes clearer that the Canucks gave up similar in value to what other teams have given up for defensemen. Especially defensemen who learned to play hockey with their right hands on the bottom part of the stick. Right-shooting defensemen who can play a regular shift have become arguably the most important commodity in hockey. Boston recently signed Kevan Miller, a solid - and right-shooting – depth defenseman to a $10 million contract. There isn’t much available on the open market this summer.

When there isn’t much supply, and the demand is strong (as it always is for defensemen in the NHL), you get a seller’s market. If Vancouver didn’t step up to meet Florida’s demands, there likely would have been another half-dozen teams prepared to put together comparable packages for Gudbranson.

The Outcome

As mentioned above, trying to evaluate this trade right now is a fool’s errand. Gudbranson isn’t a favorite of many in the analytics world. Benning has made it quite clear that he makes his decisions with his eyes first and with the numbers second. It remains to be seen if that will be a winning approach, but he hasn’t wavered from it.

So much development is left for every player in this trade. What happens if Gudbranson becomes Vancouver’s next captain, and endears himself to the organization and fan base with tough, honest play, and the ability to log heavy minutes in the sumo wrestler-heavy Pacific Division? What happens if and when McCann figures out his confidence and consistency and uses his laser wrist shot to terrorize opposing goalies 30 or 40 times per season? What if neither happen?

This trade will also serve as another great example to evaluate the merits of a balanced approach and an analytics approach. Florida has made several front office changes this off-season to bring about a stronger focus on data and statistics, while the Canucks and their current regime are moving in the other direction. Benning reminded people a few days ago that Boston didn’t utilize analytics in 2011 when they won the Stanley Cup, while many other successful teams in recent years – Chicago in particular – lean heavily on data and advanced metrics to evaluate player performance.

One thing with this deal is for certain – the Canucks are a better team today than they were yesterday, and they added a valuable commodity to their roster. Any other analysis will just have to wait.

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