Erik Gudbranson stands out in just about any room.
After all, at 6-foot-5, he stands above just about anyone else.
But beyond his dimensions, his genial, chatty demeanor stands out in a sport full of cliches.
Gudbranson doesn’t offer “we need to execute better” or “we’ve got to get pucks deep” too often.
If nothing else, he’ll hang back in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ dressing room in Cranberry and chat with reporters while his teammates scurry to the various corners of their training facility to watch a Pittsburgh Steelers game.
“We really liked what he’s brought to our team since he’s been here,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s a high-character kid. He’s a fun guy to be around. He brings a certain swagger to our dressing room that we really like.”
Gudbranson really has liked life in Pittsburgh after arriving at last season’s trade deadline in a deal with the Canucks.
In 19 games with the Penguins, he recorded only two points while primarily being used on a third pairing, but he saw his playing time increase to an average of 18 minutes, 58 seconds per game, nearly a full minute more than what he got in 57 games with the Canucks (17:59).
“I think it was almost a benefit that I didn’t have to think too much when I came in last year and just kind of got thrown into the fire,” said Gudbranson, 27. “Hey, we need points now so you better play well.”
Not that there was much company for this designation, but Gudbranson was also one of the team’s steadiest players during their humiliating sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders in last season’s playoffs. He scored one of the six goals the Penguins scored against New York goaltender Robin Lehner.
It was a far cry from his three underwhelming seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. After being traded to the Penguins on Feb. 25, Gudbranson was blunt in assessing his existence in Vancouver.
“Honestly, I’m not too proud of it,” he told a TSN radio affiliate. “I don’t think I played very well.”
So what clicked for him in Pittsburgh better than in Vancouver?
“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s really hard to pinpoint. I left what happened in Vancouver in the past and just moved on and tried to be as positive as I could and gain that little bit of confidence every single day, and I ended up feeling really good all season last year, for the last part of it.”
One asset Gudbranson has available to him with the Penguins that he didn’t have in his stops with the Canucks and Panthers is assistant coach Sergei Gonchar, who works on the finer points of the game with the team’s defensemen. Gonchar has helped Gudbranson refine his lengthy reach, a skill coaches in Vancouver did not stress as much.
“(Gonchar is) really, really good,” Gudbranson said. “He takes a very good approach to working with us, any tidbit of information. He was so good (as a player) for so many years. He was never an overly physical guy when it comes to hits and all that kind of stuff. The way he used physicality was very intricate, and I learned quite a few tricks from him. I’m very excited to get a full year with him.”
At his height and weight (217 pounds), it’s easy to assume Gudbranson isn’t quick enough for today’s streamlined NHL. He rejects that contention.
“I think I can skate,” he said. “I think I can move pretty well. It might not look like I’m going too fast because my stride is a bit longer than most guys. But I can definitely get up the ice. It’s a skating man’s game. Every single day here it’s, you’ve got to be able to skate, you’ve got to be able to turn quick and (do a 180-degree turn) and get up the ice and keep up with the play.
“I feel like I can do that. On my end, I’m a little bit more defensive-minded in the sense that I really need to find my space and time to do it. But it’s demanded from us here.”
The demands on Gudbranson, who carries a cap hit of $4 million, might be greater with the benefit of a training camp.
“He’s more familiar with our team. He’s more familiar with his teammates, the coaching staff, with how we’re trying to play,” Sullivan said. “Having spent some time here now and coming to training camp and starting the season with this group will only help.”