Every time I look at statistics from last season for the Canucks, Brendan Gaunce shows up. Unless I remember to filter by games played or time on ice, there’s Gaunce at the top of the list in points-per-game and goals-per-60-minutes. The forward that was constantly criticized for never producing points did exactly that in his limited opportunities this past season.
It wasn’t much — three points in three games — but it was a far cry from the player that once went 94 games without scoring a goal. Alas, it wasn’t enough to get him any more games with the Canucks last season and it looks like he won’t get any more in the future either.
According to a report from Sportsnet 650’s Rick Dhaliwal, Gaunce won’t be getting a qualifying offer from the Canucks. That means he’ll be heading to unrestricted free agency, just like Derrick Pouliot. There’s still a chance that the Canucks will negotiate a contract with Gaunce — by not giving Gaunce a qualifying offer, they avoid his arbitration rights — but it seems more likely that Gaunce will move on and look for another NHL team to give him a chance.
The writing was on the wall for Gaunce right from the start of free agency last year. When the Canucks signed three veteran bottom-six forwards in Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, and Tim Schaller, that left little room for a younger player like Gaunce to battle for a spot.
Gaunce certainly wasn’t harbouring any illusions of beating the odds, even as he worked his tail off and, according to Travis Green, came into camp in “phenomenal shape.”
“This could be a career-changing year, whether I play in the NHL for the rest of my life or I don’t,” said Gaunce heading into the preseason. At 25, Gaunce is on the edge of a transition between “prospect” and “journeyman,” and will have to prove himself all over again to get another NHL shot.
It’s a tough break for Gaunce, who has done everything the Canucks have asked of him without complaint. In 2017-18, Gaunce was given some of the toughest deployment of any forward in the NHL.
At 5-on-5, Gaunce started just 25 of his shifts in the offensive zone, compared to 115 starts in the defensive zone. That was the lowest ratio of offensive to defensive zone starts of any NHL forward. The two closest have familiar names: Jay Beagle and Brandon Sutter.
That skewed usage casts his offensive struggles in a different light. He was never really put in a position to put up points. Instead, he played primarily in a shutdown defensive role, and the truth is that he was very good at it.
The only Canucks forwards that were on the ice for a lower rate of shots against in 2017-18 than Gaunce were Daniel and Henrik Sedin, whose zone starts were the polar opposite of Gaunce’s. The only forward with a lower rate of goals against when he was on the ice was Sutter. Gaunce was legitimately great defensively; he just struggled to contribute at the other end of the ice.
We can see that using heat maps from Hockey Viz. These particular “Isolated Impact” charts taken into account context like a player’s teammates, opposition, and zone starts over the last three seasons.
Gaunce’s heat maps show how much of an impact he has defensively, with shots 8% less threatening than the league average when he’s on the ice. That’s remarkably good. Offensively, he’s not as much of a drain as you might expect: when the Canucks have gotten shots with him on the ice, they’ve come from dangerous areas.
All that is to say, Gaunce could have pretty easily filled the same role as Schaller, for a fraction of the cost. He’d probably have been an upgrade on Tyler Motte and arguably even Jay Beagle, at least at even strength.
It’s understandable why Gaunce didn’t get the opportunity to prove himself — he had just 12 points in 114 games heading into this season — but it’s still frustrating to see a potentially useful player spend pretty much the entire season in the AHL then get cut loose to go into free agency.
At least we'll always have this great goal against the Chicago Blackhawks from one of his three games last season.
For whatever reason, Gaunce loves playing against the Blackhawks: three of his six career goals have come against Chicago. Maybe the Blackhawks will take interest in him in free agency.