Erik Gudbranson was stranded Tuesday in Toronto’s airport for nearly five hours, plenty of time to contemplate the 11th-hour trade that sent him from the Vancouver Canucks to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While following the box score of their game at the Columbus Blue Jackets on his phone, Gudbranson saw that the Penguins lost two more players to injury in Bryan Rust and Chad Ruhwedel.
So his early arrival for practice was perfect timing as the Penguins’ defensive depth has been depleted. Ruhwedel (upper body) joined fellow defensemen Brian Dumoulin (concussion), Kris Letang (upper body) and Olli Maatta (shoulder) on the injury report, forcing the Penguins to recall Zach Trotman from their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate.
Turns out, Gudbranson is just what the doctor ordered.
“I hope so, and I welcome that challenge, for sure,” Gudbranson said. “This team certainly has an aura about it. You know that there’s an expectation here to make the playoffs and go deep every year.
“When it started to sink in a few hours after it happened, your mind starts racing a little bit, and you start refocusing. That day spent alone in the airport was a good day to get those thoughts through my mind and those feelings running through your veins. I’m excited to be here.”
The Penguins are excited to have Gudbranson, as much for the deterrent the presence of a 6-foot-5, 217-pound defenseman provides as his promise to play with physicality in front of the net and along the boards.
Simply put, the Penguins are counting on Gudbranson to be the antidote to their players getting pummeled by opponents. They are tired of teams taking — and getting away with — shots on key players and having no one to answer the call when it comes to throwing a counter-punch.
“He’s hard to play against. I think that’s how I’d describe him,” said Penguins center Nick Bjugstad, who played with Gudbranson on the Florida Panthers. “Definitely when you’re going into his corner, you know it. It’s good to have that on your back end. He’s a tough son of a gun and a good teammate to have. You know he’s coming at you with a heavy stick. … No forwards like to go into a corner with a D-man like that. That’s a guy you want on your side.”
Bjugstad didn’t stop there. He talked about how Gudbranson is a strong skater and a good passer who does the little things well. Those words were echoed by defenseman Marcus Pettersson, who was paired with Gudbranson in practice Wednesday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.
“We need him,” Pettersson said. “He can move the puck. He skates really well. I had the fortune to practice with him. He reads the ice very well. I think he’ll fit in, quite similar to a guy like Jack Johnson. It’s easy to read off him and play with him. He thinks the game very well. You know he’s always going to be in the right position.”
Which makes you wonder how in the world Gudbranson, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, had a miserable minus-27 rating in Vancouver this season. The Penguins have to hope that the best explanation is that he was just a bad fit with the Canucks. Gudbranson admitted as much after his first practice with the Penguins, even though he knows that statistics don’t always tell the whole story.
“I didn’t feel like I played all that well there, to be honest,” Gudbranson said. “I just never got anything going, never got my confidence to where it was, to where it needed to be. I’m excited to come here. This is a team that can help guys out in situations like that. Even out there in practice, I felt a lot better than I had in Vancouver — that’s nothing against them; we worked hard there, and I learned a lot there — but that style we were playing in the D-zone worked well for me.”
The Penguins don’t necessarily need Gudbranson to perform to his pedigree as much as they require his size and strength in what coach Mike Sullivan called “the battle areas.” Sullivan talked about how Gudbranson will bring a physical element to the blue line, be a strong net-front presence and provide an edge to a corps that is crumbling.
“We think he complements some of the defensemen that we have,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got a lot of mobile guys, we’ve got puck-moving guys. This is a guy that brings a different dimension. He’s going to be hard defending down low. He can lean on people. He’s strong, so we think that skill set is complementary to the other guys that we have.”
If Gudbranson can deliver what Hal Gill, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey did as valuable veteran defensemen for their Stanley Cup championship teams, this trade will be an absolute steal. Gudbranson has stood toe-to-toe and traded blows with Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson, and if Gudbranson can stop Wilson from taking — and getting away with — cheap shots, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford might be willing to throw in another draft pick.
That’s not to suggest that Gudbranson is some sort of savior. If he’s better than Pearson, and the Penguins make the playoffs, the trade is still a win. The Penguins just need him to be a defenseman who plays with physicality around the net, hoping for more pluses than minuses but most of all the ability to stay healthy and keep his teammates that way.
Gudbranson had four hours in an airport to think about all of this, four hours to absorb a trade both brought about by injury and as a means to prevent the Penguins from suffering more.
“I think it’s unfortunate but fortunate that I kind of get thrown into it really quickly here,” Gudbranson said. “I’m not necessarily getting my feet wet. I’m diving right in.”
The shock of being traded soon turned to awe, both for Gudbranson and the aura of his new team and for the Penguins and their new-found physical presence. The sight of Gudbranson’s sheer size and skating had those thoughts running through their minds and those feelings running through their veins.
When it comes to the corner, they got a guy you want on your side.