Signed last summer to a four year, $16 million dollar contract, defenseman Erik Gudbranson brought a tough veteran presence to the back end for the Blue Jackets this season. While he’ll almost certainly never live up to the value of his contract, his addition became important for a team that became incredibly young on the blue line this season.
Everyone wants to see the team improve quickly in a rebuild, but it’s important to remember that when you’re talking about free agents, you have to outbid everyone else – especially when you’re trying to attract players in Columbus. And doubly especially, in the midst of a rebuild. In the case of Gudbranson, that’s exactly what GM Jarmo Kekalainen did.
The Jackets, often pushed around the season before, needed to get bigger and tougher. They also needed a veteran to solidify their defense. So, they added both of these attributes in Gudbranson; a veteran of 11 NHL seasons, known for his physicality and no-nonsense attitude on the blue line. In his first season in Columbus, he was pushed into heavier minutes because of the injuries throughout the CBJ lineup, with mixed results.
At 6’5″ and over 220 pounds, Gudbranson is a throwback to defensemen of yesteryear. He’s at his best when he’s bullish in front of the net and along the boards, using his size and strength to take away time and space from the opposition. He’s not the kind of player that will step up and throw a big hit; instead he’s more of a net-front enforcer, there to protect his goaltender and take on the tough physical assignments.
His foot speed is what you would expect from a player of his age and caliber, but when paired with a smoother skating player in Tim Berni, things actually worked for the Jackets – the two provided the team with a solid bottom defense pairing. The only problem here is, they were playing top pairing minutes on a lot of nights, which is easily reflected by the team’s record and goals against total this season.
Ideally, Gudbranson is the kind of player the team will look to play sheltered minutes on the third defense pair. Then he’ll face secondary competition at 5-on-5, where he won’t be as easily beaten with speed and skill; and he’ll kill some penalties. The physical nature here is the biggest key – while I don’t want to see him taking dumb penalties, this team really does need a protector for its younger players. Regardless what you think of his overall play, he brought that this year, and was mostly disciplined with it.
Final season stats: 70 games played, 1 goal, 12 assists, 13 points, 57 PIMs, -24, 102 shots on goal. Overall grade: C
Basically, he was about as I expected. He was exposed a lot against skilled competition, but he played the game with a veteran swagger and stepped up with his fists when he needed to. Like I said in the beginning, he’s not going to live up to that contract – so, with our expectations in check, he was fine this year. Hopefully the team can surround him with some solid support this summer.