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Florida Panthers Top 25 under 25: #7 Erik Gudbranson

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Guds has played 245 NHL games, and is still only 23-years-old. This should be the season he serves notice that he is someone other team's players should stay away from.

Allow me to introduce you to glass.
Allow me to introduce you to glass.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Gudbranson

Position: Defense

Birthdate: 01/07/92 (23)

Acquired: Drafted 1st round (#3 Overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft

2014-15 Team/League: Florida Panthers (NHL)

Stats:

GP G A PTS PIM +/-
76 4 9 13 58 -4

Nationality: Canadian

Size: 6'5", 216 pounds

Contract Status: Signed through conclusion of this season for $2.5 million

It is easy to forget that Eric Gudbranson will not turn 24 years of age until January, 2016. He has played 245 NHL games over 4 seasons. That's a lot of hockey for this young blue liner. Chew on this fact: Gudbranson is the same age as Alex Petrovic, only a year older than Jonathan Racine, two years older than Michael Matheson, and a year younger than Dmitry Kulikov. If you find that surprising, consider this: Gudbranson plays such a mature style of hockey, and possesses such leadership qualities that it is easy to forget that he is so young and still has yet to hit the 300-game promised land for NHL defensemen.

Further complicating any review of this bruiser is that he is a very different style of defenseman than teammate and fellow lottery pick Aaron Ekblad. Too often people look at Guds as a #3 overall pick who they figure should (based on draft position) be offensively gifted. Yet that has never been this particular player's game. Looking back at the evaluations in and around his draft year makes that abundantly clear:

From Hockeysfuture.com:

Gudbranson is a skilled, punishing defender who worked diligently on his offensive skills during his 2010-11 season in Kingston. He is a natural, vocal leader both on and off the ice. He has a booming shot, and has built up his offensive effectiveness through intelligent decision-making with the puck, improved up-ice passing and a better sense of when to pinch up into the offensive zone. His play in his own end is top-level, and his physical presence means that opposing forwards must always be on their toes. He is a complete defensive package, with improving offensive abilities.

Hockeyprospect.com had this to say about him leading up to the draft:

Gudbranson’s character is unquestionable. He possesses all the traits one likes in a player: He is a leader, very composed and poised on the ice, mature, smart, and has future captain written all over him. In terms of his ability, he has a rocket shot, which has helped increase his offensive production. He makes crisp, smart first passes, and can contribute in all three zones. For a guy of his size, Gudbranson is a smooth skater. Finally, he has innate hockey sense that rivals many of the top picks in the draft. Although there is still room for improvement in his physical game, Gudbranson has shown huge strides in this regard this season. He is also not opposed to dropping the gloves when necessary.

What was predicted is what you get. Maturity, toughness, smarts, composure, all the attributes that made Guds a lottery pick are now on full display in the NHL. This is not to say that the road has been without bumps though.

Certainly we have watched this young man go through the growing pains of being a physical, defensive defenseman on poor Panther teams.  There is no doubt that this blue-liner struggled in his early seasons despite somewhat protected zone starts. Gudbranson was (during those seasons) given some protection, but nothing extreme. Here is a chart of his offensive and defensive zone starts for his 4 seasons:

Year OZS% DZS%
2011-12 51.3 48.7
2012-13 54.1 45.9
2013-14 49.9 50.1
2014-15 42.6 57.4

By comparison, Aaron Ekblad had a 61.2% offensive zone start rate, and 38.8% defensive zone start rate last season (his first in the NHL). Starting almost 60% of his shifts in the defensive zone, you cannot expect Gudbranson to contribute more offensively. This is a question of usage. He got 65 minutes of power play time last season. If that sounds like a lot to you, consider that Brian Campbell got 235:36 minutes of PP time last season, and Aaron Ekblad got 217:31 minutes of power play time. Now flip that around: Gudbranson got 156:22 minutes of penalty kill 5-on-4 time, while Campbell only got 77:53 minutes, and Ekblad 31:19. Usage folks. Lets state what we all are beginning to realize about EG, and that is this: he is being used in an almost purely defensive role. This type of usage can make it difficult to evaluate how good he truly is. As writer Cam Charron wrote at theleafsnation.com back in 2012:

Grading offence isn't too hard to do. Usually, you can look at a player's goal totals and determine how good they are in the offensive zone. Defence is a little more suspect, however. How can you grade how good a player is defensively? You could use many things, to how many minutes a player is used on defence, or in what role a player is used by who his coach matches him up against.

Ultimately, Charron determined that one thing that could give some insight into strong defensive play was to adjust Corsi with the relative quality of competition the defensemen played against as well as their zone start locations. Looking at these numbers we can see that Guds, Kulikov and Mitchell faced by far the strongest offensive opposition and that Campbell and Ekblad were sheltered in the extreme (and based on the roles they play, there is nothing wrong with that). For those who want to see a player by player breakdown, here are the five steady Panther defensemen from last season:

Name Relative Corsi/Qual of Comp.
Willie Mitchell 1.125
Dmitry Kulikov .955
Erik Gudbranson .882
Brian Campbell 0.000
Aaron Ekblad -0.080

Gudbranson had a zone start adjusted icorsi/60 of 9.92 last season, meaning that despite his defensively skewed usage, he was still having a positive impact on possession play. To give you an idea of where EG is on this scale, lets take a look at the zone-start adjusted icorsi/60 for all five Panther full-time defensemen from last season alongside the five full-time Nashville defensemen (since Nashville is renowned for playing outstanding defense):

Name Zone start Adjusted Icorsi/60
Shea Weber 11.91
Roman Josi 10.02
Erik Gudbranson 9.92
Willie Mitchell 9.77
Aaron Ekblad 9.59
Seth Jones 8.85
Ryan Ellis 8.64
Mattias Ekholm 7.82
Dmitry Kulikov 6.83
Brian Campbell 5.54

For the ultra-curious out there, Duncan Keith had a 10.42 and Brent Seabrook an 11.62. What you see is obvious: Gudbranson did very well possession metric-wise despite heavily tilted defensive zone play, and is in fact nipping at the heels of Roman Josi in this department. Sticking with the numbers that reflect pure defensive play, it's simply all good: Erik averaged 18:36 minutes of ice time per game last season, blocked 75 shots and also dished out 212 hits. As viewers of Panther games know, many of those hits were spectacular in fashion. To give you an idea of how much hitting Guds was doing, consider this: Brooks Orpik led all NHL defensemen with 306 hits last season. Gudbranson's 212 hits were good for a tie for 7th amongst NHL d-men. There is no doubt he is a punishing blue-liner that opponents must stay aware of on the ice.

Where this big hurt stands at this point in his career was analyzed by our own Shane O'Donnell this summer:

For starters, his expected USAT% calculated by dCorsi/dFenwick was 48.9%. That means that based on his usage, teammates, and competition, it was expected that Gudbranson would have poor possession metrics. His actual USAT% of 49.2% indicates that he did better than expected in what can be considered a shutdown role, which is good news for the Cats heading into next season.

Gudbranson's WOWY's are also interesting, as his defensive partners generally play better with him than they do without him, and he generally plays better with them then he does without them. Here are the WOWY numbers from his two most common defensive partners in 2014-2015.

Player SAT% w/Gudbranson SAT% w/o Gudbranson Gudbranson's SAT% w/o Teammate
Dylan Olsen 50.4% 37.5% 48.8%
Willie Mitchell 51.7% 49.8% 48.5%

If he helps drive possession by helping his teammates be better, then so be it. It's an interesting way of influencing puck possession, but his teammate's relative statistics do look better when they play with Gudbranson. In fact, over the past three seasons, the former Kingston Frontenac has been a top-four NHL defenseman in this regard.


Hockey's Future checked back in on Gudbranson this past June, and had this to say about what he has become:

The 2010 NHL Draft featured a dearth of quality forwards, but on defense, it wasn’t regarded as a deep group. At the top of the heap sat Erik Gudbranson, whom the Panthers made their third overall selection. Heading into the draft, Gudbranson was known as a rough and tumble customer, not afraid to drop the gloves and protect his teammates.

He was so much more than that, however, as the 6’5", 215 pound rearguard had a projectable skating stride and solid work ethic. It’s those skills that helped him translate to the NHL, as Gudbranson played just one more year in Kingston before making it to Florida. Starting with the 2011-12 season, he was thrust right into the rigors of the NHL, and performed adequately, if not a little more timid.

Gudbranson has taken a step forward offensively, now willing to make an extra pass or get involved trailing a play. He won’t be confused with the elite puck-moving defensemen of the world, but he is a trusted and solid option, and a quality selection—one that can be defended.

Perhaps the best (and more interesting) way to look at Guds is to view him through another team's glasses, and here CSNPhilly.com took a look at him as a free agent target for the Flyers in June 2014:


I don't think there's a single team in the league that wouldn't want Gudbranson in its lineup. He is a true defensive defenseman. He clears the front with authority, battles hard in the corners and his hockey IQ is off the charts. The Flyers could use a defensively-responsible guy like Gudbranson on their back end. Problem is the Panthers will likely match an offer sheet sent Gudbranson's way. In fact, I think they'll lock him up before any team gets the chance to try to steal him away from the Sunshine State. Panthers GM Dave Tallon is very high on Gudbranson and envisions the 22-year-old as the team's future captain. Sorry, Flyers fans. Gudbranson is staying put.

Erik Gudbranson has played tough minutes, nearly always being assigned to pure defensive zone responsibilities, and often against the opposition's best offensive players. The fact that he has continued to get better and better while taking on a more and more difficult role with the team bodes well for the coming season. You could see his confidence growing on the ice as the season went along. Consider that back in May, 2014, with contract talks pending, Shane's statistical analysis of Gudbranson's work concluded with this:

The team is better at possessing the puck and directing more shots towards the opposing team's net when Gudbranson is on the ice, a sign of a solid defenseman. Conclusion? There is no concern about his defensive play at this early stage.

Analysis - Gudbranson's stats show no area of concern. He played well this season, and seeing as he is young, will most likely play even better next year.

FINAL CONCLUSION

The scouting report and the advanced statistics agree when it comes to Erik Gudbranson, he's been solid, and he looks to only improve on his play in coming seasons. There truly is no reason Tallon doesn't make true on his word, and offer Gudbranson a lengthy, well-paying contract.

Chalk up his most effective season yet after Shane wrote that piece. Erik is poised to provide the Panthers with an intimidating shut-down defenseman (with possibly unexploited offensive ability). Until the coaching staff decides to change how they use him, do not expect to see much of his shot or rushes up ice. The question on that particular front is whether the team will again use Campbell and Ekblad almost exclusively on the offensive side of the ice--thereby limiting chances for the big bombs of Guds and Petrovic. Nonetheless, with the steady Willie Mitchell and the intimidating defensive prowess of big Guds and Alex Petrovic, (who we spoke of in similar terms here), the Panthers look to have a nasty defense capable of taking on the league's top offensive firepower.

Where We Voted for Gudbranson:

Shane Todd JC Kevin Donny
10 7 8 6 9

Who We Voted 7th

Shane Todd JC Kevin Donny
Dmitry Kulikov Erik Gudbranson

Michael Matheson

Dmitry Kulikov Lawson Crouse