By Ben Kuzma September 12, 2016
There was a time when the Vancouver Canucks weren’t sure Brendan Gaunce was going to be a player. And there was a time when the versatile forward was in awe of the National Hockey League.
Not anymore. No more wide eyes. More like a steely-eyed resolve.
Not only is Gaunce physically and mentally prepared for a serious roster shot after being one of the final camp cuts last year, his ability to play centre or either wing and bring a better compete level caught the eye of Canucks coach Willie Desjardins.
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound 2012 first-round draft pick has always had the size, but not the edge to project as a consistent bottom-six performer at the NHL level. It’s what brought about the switch from centre to the wing in the minors and made a major improvement in his game because his frame and feistiness are perfectly suited for the Pacific Division.
And while you could pencil the 22-year-old Gaunce into the opening-night lineup — or bring out the eraser and see him as the 13th forward or back with the Utica Comets — one thing is clear: Gaunce finally gets it on and off the ice.
It wasn’t just making his NHL debut in October at Dallas and scoring his first career goal the next night in Arizona. It wasn’t amassing five shots in a March game at Winnipeg or even playing 20 games at this level. It was about the calm resolve that developed in knowing he can perform properly in a demanding market. It’s a stark departure from hoping to play and giving the opposition too much respect.
“It’s not ‘I think I can do it’ anymore, it’s ‘I know I can do it.’”
“Last year was a big mindset change for me,” Gaunce said Monday following an informal skate at Rogers Arena. “It’s not ‘I think I can do it’ anymore, it’s ‘I know I can do it.’ That was a big thing to get over and I’m ready for it.
“I’m a lot more confident in myself and that’s going to help. That time at the end of the season made me feel like I’m a part of the NHL now and not just watching form the outskirts.”
Gaunce endured injury problems from November to January, playing with a cast on his thumb for four weeks after falling. Playing defence-first comes naturally to him and it will make him more valuable in the NHL. As for the goal scoring, it’s an ongoing process and Gaunce isn’t the first 30-goal junior sniper who has had to tailor his game for the pros.
Bring a 200-foot game and an attitude and Desjardins will punch your ticket to the NHL. Anything less and it’s Utica again.
What also helps Gaunce is knowing the Canucks must trend younger and that the tough tutelage he got with the Comets under coach Travis Green was worth the grind. His 17 goals in 46 AHL games with the Comets and his plus-12 rating both ranked third on the club, which speaks to productivity and responsibility. It’s also why Green was interviewed for NHL coaching vacancies in Anaheim and Colorado.
“He (Green) really pushes you to be a complete player and help your team win in different ways,” added Gaunce. “He was good for me for that and he also respects you when you do things well. If you work hard, you get ice.”
In the final year of his entry-level deal, you would expect Gaunce to be feeling some level of pressure. Even though his age, size and versatility suggest a no-brainer extension, you never know how it could play out. The fact Gaunce hasn’t even thought about it, speaks to growing maturity.
“It’s not pressure, it’s more excitement,” he stressed. “It’s having a chance to prove yourself and that can pay off at the end of the year and something you can build on. It’s going to be a fun year.”
You can picture Gaunce being a third- or fourth-line left-winger. You can also picture a lot of scenarios depending on camp performances, priorities and injuries. Gaunce doesn’t picture anything, even though there are so many floppable wingers. How the left side plays out could be intriguing.
“I’m just worrying about myself,” he said. “Every guy just needs a chance and that’s how you break into the league. I’m trying to work for my chance and not just get one for free out of the blue. I think I’ve done that and I can help the team win in a lot of different ways. That’s how I’ve played my whole life.”
NOTE: The YoungStars tournament starts Friday at Penticton’s South Okanagan Events Centre. Jason Botchford will be there through the weekend. The Canucks play Edmonton on Friday at 7:30, the Jets Sunday at 2 p.m., and the Flames Monday at 3 p.m.