Over the past two seasons, Brendan Gaunce has played just nine AHL games. For all intents and purposes, he was an NHL forward. He’d made it.
And then free agency opened. The Canucks signed three veteran bottom-six forwards on July 1st.
Put yourself, for a moment, in Gaunce’s shoes. He’s spent pretty much his entire life working towards his dream of playing in the NHL and had finally carved out a niche role with the Canucks, playing a shutdown defensive game on the fourth line. Then in come three established veterans to take that role away.
“This could be a career-changing year, whether I play in the NHL for the rest of my life or I don’t,” said Gaunce heading into his first preseason game on Wednesday.
To go along with the pressures of veteran free agents and hot-shot prospects pushing him to the edges of the roster, this is also a contract year for Gaunce. And, at 24, time is running out for him to establish himself as an NHL player.
Head coach Travis Green knows that Gaunce is in a tough spot.
“He’s one of those guys that’s in competition mode,” said Green. “He knows that, he’s a smart guy. He’s taken the first step: he’s come into camp in phenomenal shape. He looked good in Whistler. Now it’s just like everyone else, he’s gotta play.”
The numbers are not in Gaunce’s favour. It’s simple math.
The Canucks like to carry eight defencemen and 13 forwards on their roster. They currently have 16 forwards on their roster that require waivers to be sent down. Add in the waiver-exempt Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson and you get to 18. That means five players need to be put on waivers.
You can expect Tanner Kero, Reid Boucher, and Darren Archibald to hit the waiver wire. Who are the other two? Gaunce, Markus Granlund, Nikolay Goldobin, Brendan Leipsic, maybe even a veteran like Sam Gagner?
“I think it’s pretty obvious that a lot of guys are going for the same spots,” said Gaunce. “Not many guys on each team every year are gifted spots before the season and I haven’t got to that point in my career.
“You just come into camp with the mentality that you have to make a team.”
That mentality includes a reality TV staple: Gaunce isn’t here to make friends.
“As you go through more training camps you try not to talk to as many people, not be friends with everyone,” he said, before adding, “You are friends but you’re battling for jobs and you’re here for a reason.”
Working in Gaunce’s favour is what Green said: he’s in “phenomenal” shape. Around this time of year, you hear a lot of reports of a player coming to camp in “the best shape of his life,” but for Gaunce it’s not a cliche. For the first time in a long time, he didn’t spend the summer rehabbing an injury.
“Not having an injury is huge because you put all your focus on getting that injury back to 100%,” he said. “You don’t take away from other things but it’s not your main focus. I knew this was a pivotal year for me.”
“For me there’s not as much pressure,” he added. “Just be confident in yourself, because I know I can do it.”
Gaunce knows there’s another number working against him: five. That’s the number of goals he’s scored in his 114 career games in the NHL. That’s simply not enough to nail down a roster spot in the NHL, though it’s understandable he hasn’t scored more: he never starts his shifts in the offensive zone.
“It was actually the least in the league, I saw that stat. Someone tweeted it at me!” said Gaunce with a smile, and he’s right. No player started less often in the offensive zone than Gaunce. Of his non-neutral zone starts, 94.5% were in the defensive zone.
“I mean, you take whatever role you’re given,” he said. “You try and not have an ego when you’re on a team, especially in the NHL. Whatever role you’re given, you play, and you try to play to the best of your ability.”
Gaunce played that role well. Only Brandon Sutter was on the ice for a lower rate of goals against, and only the Sedins allowed a lower rate of shots on goal against among Canucks forwards. As a shutdown winger in tough matchups, Gaunce was legitimately great defensively. The issue is at the other end of the ice.
“Even if I’m starting in my own zone, I want to be a player that can create chances,” he said. “I think I always have been. The biggest thing for me has been confidence, trusting yourself and trusting your abilities. I think this year has been the clearest mindset I’ve had coming into camp.”
Asked about what led to that clear mindset, Gaunce opens up about how his early struggles breaking into the NHL affected him.
“I think it’s tough coming into the NHL when you’re not successful right away,” he said, “and you’re a high pick and you’re playing in a Canadian market with a lot of eyes on you. You’re not going about your business anymore, it’s more open to the public.
“Whether or not you have Twitter or have Instagram… you see stuff, or hear stuff. I think it took a little bit for me to get accustomed to that. I wasn’t necessarily always shellshocked by it, but for me, you’re just not used to that stuff.
“I took it to heart, because I want to be a good hockey player and I want to be a good player for the city I’m playing in.”
Heading into this season, Gaunce feels he has grown as a person and is able to push criticisms out of his mind.
“You just take it with a grain of salt,” he said. “You’re in the best league in the world, so obviously there’s going to be some criticism. People pay to come watch you play, so you can take the good and the bad, but I think sometimes players let the bad get to them a bit too much.”
Now Gaunce takes a philosophical approach. If and when he receives criticism, that means just one thing: “If that happens, you’re obviously good enough to be in the NHL, so you’re a good enough player to play.”