The annual Young Stars prospect tournament may bear only the vaguest similarity to actual NHL hockey, but even that slight resemblance is a balm after a long, hockey-less summer. Those familiar jerseys, despite the unfamiliar names on the back, are a sight for sore eyes.
Inevitably, the tournament leads to wild speculation over the future of the Canucks, particularly the near future. Which of these strapping young men will fill a Canucks jersey this season? Who among them will have a real impact on the team in the coming months? Could it be Jake Virtanen, whose physical game is clearly NHL-ready, even if the rest of his game isn't quite there? Cole Cassels, who dazzled in the OHL playoffs and Memorial Cup? Jared McCann, whose offensive game erupted last season?
While all three have an outside chance, it's Brendan Gaunce who has set himself apart.
This is odd, as Gaunce has never been the type of player who looks good in this setting. He's not a flashy player: he doesn't have the pure speed, slick hands, or crushing physicality that is typically needed to stand out in the chaotic environment of a prospect showcase.
In past Young Stars tournaments, Gaunce sometimes looked like he was playing a different game from all the other prospects: he cheated defensively, of all things, shading towards the blue line in the offensive zone, wary of giving his opponents an odd-man rush the other way.
While other players dashed through the neutral zone, attempted toe-drags around defenders, and threw their bodies with reckless abandon along the boards, Gaunce’s steady, two-way game looked plodding by comparison. Combine that with his solid, but unspectacular OHL numbers and Gaunce became the forgotten first round pick.
Other, more exciting, prospects supplanted him in the minds of fans. Bo Horvat is a smart, two-way centre with far more offensive upside. Hunter Shinkaruk is flashy in all the ways Gaunce is not. Cassels and McCann exploded offensively in junior, while Virtanen explodes opponents.
To top it off, when Gaunce began his professional career in the AHL last season, he was moved from centre to the wing, which seemed to be a bad sign. The Canucks needed more depth at centre in their prospect pool and suddenly Gaunce was just another winger on the overly-crowded left side.
Here’s the thing, though: with added structure, Gaunce looks better. You could see it even in past pre-seasons; once the veterans show up and some structure enters the equation, Gaunce immediately settles in and looks comfortable. He would skate to an area of the ice, anticipating where the puck would go and, miracle of miracles, the puck would actually go there.
With even more structure in the AHL regular season, Gaunce earned accolades as the most improved player by the end of the season. While his 29 points with the Comets weren’t eye-catching, his improved play earned the attention of Canucks management; he wasn’t forgotten anymore.
Then something surprising happened at this year’s Young Stars tournament: Gaunce stood out. His formerly slow skating looked vastly improved. He scored the Canucks’ first goal of the tournament by creating a turnover at his own blue line, busting through the neutral zone to pick up the puck, then smoothly whipping the puck past the goaltender.
Later in the game, he created another goal with a strong power move to the net, creating a rebound for Ben Hutton. In both games he played, he was passing the puck with such confidence that the scorekeepers in Penticton awarded him a phantom assist on Jared McCann’s goal against the Jets, an assist that actually belonged to Mike Zalewski. When you're getting points just for existing, you're playing well. Gaunce played so well that Jim Benning decided he didn’t need to see any more and gave him a rest for the third game on Monday.
Jim Benning just told the media that Brendan Gaunce got the night off as "a reward" for his play in the 1st 2 games of the tournament.— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) September 15, 2015
If Gaunce looks this good now, how much better will he look in a more structured game that plays more to his strengths?
Now, Gaunce’s experience as a left winger seems like a boon. With his newfound versatility, it might be easier to justify keeping him around as a utility forward. Gaunce could start on the fourth line, either at centre or on the wing, then attempt to earn more ice time the same way Horvat did last year.