It was a quiet day for the Canucks all the way up to the trade deadline. No buying, no selling, no “hockey trades.”
After the deadline passed, however, it came out that the Canucks did submit a couple trades in time. One involved a player that seemed untradeable: Erik Gudbranson, who the Canucks traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for winger Tanner Pearson.
Both Gudbranson and Pearson are signed through 2021 to a similar cap hit: Pearson makes $3.75 million per year compared to Gudbranson’s $4 million. Since no salary was retained, the Canucks will save $250,000 per season off the salary cap over the next couple years.
The only reason this trade happened is that both the Canucks and Penguins wanted to move on from the two players and their contracts. For each of them, the grass evidently looked greener on the other side.
The Penguins had a dire need for defencemen after Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang got injured on the eve of the trade deadline. With Olli Maatta already out for over a month, you can understand them looking for help on the trade market. Unfortunately for them, the market was low on defenceman rentals.
So, they turned to the Canucks and Gudbranson.
Gudbranson’s trade value has cratered since the Florida Panthers traded him to the Canucks. Back in 2016, the Canucks sent former first-round pick Jared McCann, a second-round pick, and a fourth-round pick to the Panthers for Gudbranson and a fifth-round pick.
In his three season with the Canucks, no NHL defenceman has been on the ice for a higher rate of goals against at 5-on-5 than Gudbranson. On top of that, thanks in part to his inability to move the puck up ice with possession, only two defencemen have been on the ice for a lower rate of goals for at 5-on-5 than Gudbranson: Luke Schenn and Mark Borowiecki.
Erik Gudbranson (to Penguins, ahahaha) is a terrible, truly, truly terrible defender. Just, like, so bad. pic.twitter.com/iy0AIesLxc— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) February 25, 2019
This season, it’s been more of the same. Gudbranson has been on the ice for 4.04 goals against per 60 5-on-5 minutes. Only Brandon Manning and Chris Wideman have been worse than Gudbranson. Even Gudbranson’s most die-hard fans have mostly accepted that the game has passed him by: he’s simply not mobile enough and doesn’t move the puck well enough to handle the speed of the modern NHL.
So, instead of a package of futures, the Canucks got Pearson, a 26-year-old left wing that has struggled in Pittsburgh this season.
Canucks fans will be familiar with Pearson from his years with the Los Angeles Kings, where he put together a couple 40+ point seasons. The hope, then, would be that Pearson can bounce back from his struggles in Pittsburgh and become a productive winger for the Canucks.
Tanner Pearson (in return to Vancouver) is an average 5v5 forward with a great penalty differential who shouldn't be given power-play minutes. pic.twitter.com/4YSvzpn0Y2— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) February 25, 2019
There are reasons to be concerned about Pearson. His underlying numbers have cratered this season after strong career numbers with the Kings. His lack of scoring this season is another concern, particularly since Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin has been his most frequent linemates this season.
Here’s the thing: it’s a lot easier to shelter a struggling winger than it is to shelter a struggling defenceman.
You can’t bench a defenceman when they’re having a bad game, as teams typically dress just six defencemen per game. As Travis Green has made eminently clear, you can bench a forward. Or scratch them.
For the Canucks, this has to be seen as a big win. They get a player with some offensive upside that is significantly less damaging to the team if he doesn’t work out. They also move on from a player that, by his own admission, struggled mightily in Vancouver.
“Honestly, I'm not too proud of it,” he said to TSN 1040. “I don't think I played very well. I worked hard every single day, came to the rink and tried to get it together.”
That’s some refreshing self-awareness. Perhaps Gudbranson will thrive in Pittsburgh on a more playoff-ready team. That said, he’ll be on a blue line decimated by injuries and will potentially play with Jack Johnson, who has struggled about as much as Gudbranson.
This trade seems like a loss for the Penguins, who now have Gudbranson signed through 2021 and Johnson signed through 2023. That’s a full third of their defence corps that struggle to defend their own zone and can’t move the puck up ice. They think they're getting someone that can "protect our players," but that's not only an outdated way of looking at the game, Gudbranson hasn't done a whole lot of protecting in Vancouver this season.