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When Erik Gudbranson went third overall in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft, it was a clear indication of just how far his stock had risen.  Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin had been the two players clearly above the pack, both potential first overall selections, but after them the field widened a bit.  The Florida Panthers believed Gudbranson to be the best of the rest, and drafted accordingly.

Things have not gone all that well since, as Scott Lewis pointed out in his piece yesterday:

Instead of dominating the Ontario junior ranks and developing that offensive upside we’d all been hearing about, Gudbranson stumbled… at least in terms of the expectations bestowed upon him. Although the 6′4″ and 200 lb hulk would eclipse his career high in goals and set a pace to break his previous high point total, there would appear to be holes in his game. He wasn’t using his big shot to its full potential, he made questionable defensive decisions, got caught out of position, and more recently – lost his temper and reportedly clashed with Kingston’s coaching staff. Coupled with an average performance with Canada at the World Junior tournament, which would end infamously with Gudbranson’s sloppy play late in the third period, and there’s sufficient reason for disappointment in the third overall pick’s development.

Did Florida mishandle Gudbranson by sending him back down to junior?  Is he a prospect in free-fall?

In a word: no.  At least, he shouldn’t be.

Let’s start with Gudbranson’s performance for Canada at the World Juniors.  The following table compares him to Canada’s other six defencemen in basic statistics and draft year:

Player GP G A PTS +/- Age
Ryan Ellis 7 3 7 10 +2 2009
Calvin de Haan 6 0 5 5 +2 2009
Erik Gudbransson 7 3 2 5 +8 2010
Tyson Barrie 7 1 2 3 +6 2009
Simon Despres 7 0 3 3 +7 2009
Dylan Olsen 7 0 2 2 -2 2009
Jared Cowen 7 1 0 1 +4 2009

Gudbranson, despite being the youngest defenceman on the team by a mile, finished tied for second in overall scoring, tied for first in goal scoring, and led the team in plus/minus.  Prior to his blunder in the final game, nobody was talking about Gudbranson as a failure or even merely average; he was regarded as one of the key players on the Canadian blue-line.  Mistakes happen, but over the entirety of the tournament I see no reason to be anything but pleased with Gudbranson’s play.

His play in Kingston is where things get interesting.  The criticism of Gudbranson’s offensive game doesn’t seem to fit with what the Gudbranson’s point totals over his Frontenacs career tell us.  The following chart shows the usual measures (GP, G, A, PTS) and I’ve added in points per game

Season GP G A PTS PTS/GM
2008-09 63 3 19 22 0.349
2009-10 41 2 21 23 0.561
2010-11 29 7 11 18 0.621

We aren’t seeing regression here.  Granted, we aren’t seeing massive progress either, although Gudbranson’s goal-scoring has increased more than three-fold.  The fact is, however, that Gudbranson wasn’t drafted for offence; despite the talk about his big shot he’s never been an especially impressive offensive defenceman at the OHL level.  Capable, sure, but nothing special.

Gudbranson was drafted for two things: his character and his defensive game.  We’ll get to the former in a moment.  It’s very difficult to measure Gudbranson’s defensive game from this vantage point, as plus/minus is an imperfect tool and there isn’t much else to go on statistically.  One thing that I do find interesting is Kingston’s win/loss record with and without Gudbranson:

  • With: 18-8-3
  • Without: 4-10-2

Again, this isn’t a perfect statistic, but the gap is eye-opening: it’s the difference between 4th in the OHL and 19th.  It’s hard to believe that Gudbranson isn’t having a massive impact on the team’s results, and because of that I wonder if the knocks on his defensive play this season are justified.

Let’s deal with the final point: character.  Gudbranson’s has been called into question thanks to a) an altercation with coaches that led to the removal of his ‘A’ and b) an eight-game suspension following an elbow to the head of an opponent.

First off, Gudbranson’s been regarded as a character player all down the line.  an Ottawa Citizen story entitled “Erik Gudbranson: Beyond his years, on and off the ice” is typical of the coverage leading up to his draft.  Leadership has always been regarded as a strong point for the defenceman.

Then there’s this altercation with his coaches.  I’ll quote what Frontenacs head coach Doug Gilmour told the Kingston Whig-Standard :

“That was an internal thing that was overblown and should never have got out (to the media) in the first place,” remarked Gilmour. “As far as I’m concerned, he and (captain Taylor) Doherty are co-captains on this team. Both are leaders.

“The incident is over and done with,” Gilmour added. “Erik handled it in a professional manner and we’ve all moved on. All he did in Oshawa was have an unbelievable game and he was even better (on Sunday).”

Finally, let’s look at the run Gudbranson took at J.P. Labardo:

It’s an ugly play, and not an excusable one.  That said, Gudbranson was reacting to a questionable collision between Labardo and his goaltender, and had been called out the day before by a member of the coaching staff (which led to the removal of his letter).  The fact that Gudbranson got his letter back the day after this hit shows the coaching staff’s opinion of his actions.

Personally, I don’t think Gudbranson’s in free-fall; he’s still a blue-chip prospect and an impact player at the OHL level.  He isn’t dominant offensively but nothing in his past results ever suggested he would be.  Questions about his character seem misguided, given what we know about the player, and given Gilmour’s comments.

I’m also not of a mind to criticize Florida for sending him back to junior.  As I understand it, this was a contract issue rather than a development issue, but from a development standpoint keeping an 18-year old defenceman in the NHL is a rare thing indeed: among 2010 draftees, only Cam Fowler was kept in the big leagues.  If there is criticism to be levied against Florida here, it stems from the idea that Kingston’s coaching staff is incompetent and they knew it, something I don’t think we can claim based on the available information.