|Belleville Bulls centre Brendan Gaunce has impressed scouts with his competitiveness and effort at both ends of the ice (Aaron Bell/OHL Images).
(Editor's note: This is one in a series of features about prospects who might possibly be available when the Ottawa Senators make the No. 15 selection of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, set for June 22-23 in Pittsburgh. Choices are based on rankings by several services, including NHL Central Scouting, but are not a reflection of Senators' internal scouting rankings).
Brendan Gaunce learned early on about one of the biggest keys to big-time hockey success.
"That's one thing I learned from a young age from a couple of coaches," the 18-year-old native of Markham, Ont., told NHL.com. "If you can't play defence, you're not going to play in the NHL."
Ask scouts around the National Hockey League and there is little doubt about the latter fact. The 6-2, 215-centre, who toils for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, is ticketed for first-round status in the 2012 NHL Draft. The question is just how high.
"He was the second overall pick (in the 2010 OHL draft) for a reason," Bulls coach George Burnett told NHL.com. "He's going to be a high pick this year and it wouldn't surprise me to see him go early in the first round. And even higher than his draft rating might suggest. I know he's amongst the elite forwards in North America.
"I think he's also a young man that is able to play at both ends. He's difficult to play against and he competes hard at both ends of the rink."
Indeed, Gaunce, who produced 68 points (including 28 goals) in 68 games for the Bulls last season, describes himself as a two-way talent. Scouts who watched him play — and there were many along the way — noticed him whether the puck was on his stick or not.
"Brendan is a real high-energy guy," said Chris Edwards of NHL Central Scouting. "When he is playing high-energy (hockey), when he's battling, when he's getting involved, he's forcing turnovers in the offensive zone. He's got such a good skill set that, after he wins a puck battle, he can make a good pass and set up a play. He creates scoring chances every shift when he's at his best. Every shift, he's out there creating things.
"He's a solid two-way guy. His play doesn't drop off in his own end, that's for sure."
Burnett, for one, believes it's his play without the puck that will be Gaunce's ticket to the bigs.
"People are questioning his ability to play without the puck and, in my opinion, that's what's going to make him an NHL player before any other part of his game," said Burnett. "He's responsible, competes hard, great stick, tenacious, great hockey sense. He understands the game at both ends of the rink. He's a guy that, even from his first year (in the OHL), was often out there against the other team's best players."
Gaunce heads into the 2012 draft ranked 13th among North American skaters in Central Scouting's final ratings. International Scouting Services has him 11th overall — four spots ahead of the 15th pick the Ottawa Senators hold in the first round of the draft, set for June 22-23 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
His resume also includes plenty of international success already. Gaunce struck gold with Canada at the 2011 Under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tourney in the Czech Republic, and had a goal and assist in the championship game as Ontario took top honours at the 2011 World Under-17 Challenge.
As for the draft, Gaunce didn't have to look far for advice on handling the extra scrutiny from scouts — his older brother, Cameron, was the 50th overall pick by Colorado in 2008 and played 11 games with the Avalanche a year ago (he's currently a defenceman with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League).
"There were two big things I saw that really helped him over the (draft) year," said Gaunce. "One was be yourself, because people are going to find out sooner or later how you actually act. So be yourself in every situation. And be humble. And if you use those two things, it'll work for you if you're a good player. Hopefully, that's working out for me right now. I'm just trying to take everything in and not taking everything for granted."