Last week we talked about Nikita Zadorov’s season, this week we are going to talk about his blueline partner, Erik Gudbranson. Gudbranson was another target of Brad Treliving’s last season, another big, physical, nasty defenceman who could walk the blueline with poise. In the fall of 2021, he signed a one-year, $1.95 million contract and was slotted in as a third-pairing defenceman. Gudbranson also found a lot of success on the penalty-kill, his style of play is actually quite suited for a penalty-killing role, being 6-foot-5 Gudbranson is able to use his reach to poke pucks away but, he’s also a complete gamer in the sense he will do whatever it takes, including sacrificing his body to block a shot and get the puck out of the Flames zone.
Overall, the Flames got what they paid for in Gudbranson, and his season was impressive, to say the least.
Gudbranson was a man amongst boys in the Ontario Hockey League playing for the Kingston Frontenacs. In 2009-10, he registered 23 points in 41 games and after much debate, he was taken third overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The debate? well, it was whether who would get taken off the board first between him, and current Anaheim Ducks defencemen Cam Fowler. Gudbranson was seen as a project but was your prototypical big, and nasty defenceman who even in some aspects was compared to a modern-day Chris Pronger. Ultimately the Florida Panthers loved what they saw in him and selected him with their third-overall pick.
The late E.J. McGuire, then the director of the NHL’s Central Scouting had this to say about Gudbranson’s game:
Gudbranson to me is a guaranteed long-term NHLer. In my opinion, Gudbranson is another Chris Pronger-type, what he brings that (Pronger) really didn’t do much of, though, is he’ll fight. He is some kind of tough. Chris Pronger is mean and will hit you; Gudbranson will hit you and fight you. Pronger is three inches taller than Gudbranson, so maybe Dion Phaneuf would be an even better comparison.
Gudbranson would go on to play three seasons for the Panthers before being traded to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Jared McCann, but that wasn’t where the trade business would end. Three years later, the Canucks moved him out to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Tanner Pearson. I think you are starting to understand the trend here, Gudbranson’s NHL tour has also seen stops in Anaheim, Ottawa, Nashville and of course, Calgary. While it has been difficult for him to find a permanent home, he plays his role well and can be an extremely serviceable defender.
— NHL Slovenčina (@NHLsvk) January 8, 2022
When Gudbranson joined the Flames, it was evident he would be a third-pairing defender as he fit that identity Sutter waned, but nobody expected him to have the success he did. After all, analytics don’t normally go in favour of these types of players. Throughout 78 games this season – the most Gudbranson has played in a single season – he registered 17 points, also a career-high. He had 145 hits, and 92 shot blocks, he sacrifices it all. From an analytics standpoint, NaturalStatTrick shows that throughout 1161:40 of ice time, he possessed a Corsi For (CF) of 57.56%, his expected-goals-for (xGF%) was 52.1% and his goals for (GF%) were 56.18%. Gudbranson exceeded expectations, and quite frankly had one of his best seasons in terms of his defensive impact. When it comes to the penalty kill, he and Christopher Tanev played a critical role and became the backbone of the Flames’ penalty-kill unit. The Flames finished fifth in the league for PK% registering 83.20%, an impressive stat line.
Flames assistant coach Ryan Huska had this to say about the pairing back in February in an interview with The Athletic:
For a big man, he (Gudbranson) takes up a lot of space. I mean, that’s an easy comment for me to make, but how he closes the space for a big man, as quickly as he can, is so important for our penalty kill. So if there’s a loose puck, he’s able to get there very quickly and with his size and strength, there’s not many guys that are able to out-muscle him, so when he gets there, he usually wins that puck and then Chris and Erik have such good chemistry together, where sometimes they’ll make a pass to each other to get a clear or Erik just uses his strength and size to get it down himself.
The duo finished second league-wide when it came to the penalty kill ice time percentage for defensive pairs. Overall, they finished with 194:45 of ice time altogether and only managed to let up 20 goals in that time frame. They were next level together. During this past season’s playoff run, Gudbranson had one assist in 12 games, he also threw 17 hits and blocked 13 shots, playing his role well.
Erik Gudbranson gets a big hit on Jamie Benn. Tkachuk gets a piece of it and then springs for a breakaway from a great pass by Johnny Gaudreau. pic.twitter.com/NURVpVAj9F
— Hailey Salvian (@hailey_salvian) May 12, 2022
If the Flames want to bring Gudbranson back on another cheap contract, it might not be a bad idea at all, especially with Tanev likely missing the start of the season as he recovers from surgery, there will be a defiant need for a right-shot defender. Gudbranson mentioned he enjoyed Calgary, so with that, maybe he takes a bit of a discount to stay here. He fits the bill perfectly and after his performance, this last season, bringing him back, as well as Zadorov would be very beneficial. However, there are other contracts on the books that the Flames will need to tackle first. At the end of the day, Gudbranson made an impact on the Flames this past year and helped solidify himself as a shutdown defender.
2021-22 Flames player evaluations
Johnny Gaudreau | Calle Jarnkrok | Matthew Tkachuk | Trevor Lewis | Jacob Markstrom | Dillon Dube | Elias Lindholm | Chris Tanev | Adam Ruzicka | Milan Lucic | Andrew Mangiapane | Tyler Toffoli | Dan Vladar | Rasmus Andersson | Brett Ritchie | Oliver Kylington | Noah Hanifin | Nikita Zadorov | Michael Stone | Blake Coleman | Sean Monahan | Mikael Backlund | Ryan Carpenter
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