I’m a big enough person to admit when I’m wrong and so far, I’ve been dead wrong about the Calgary Flames’ offseason acquisition Eric Gudbranson. After the Flames’ number one defenceman and former captain Mark Giordano was selected in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, the team had a massive hole to fill on the back end. When general manager Brad Treliving signed veteran blueliner Gudbranson to be part of the solution, I was more than a little skeptical. I also balked at the hefty price tag of $1.95 million for a player destined to play on the third pairing.
I wasn’t the only one with misgivings, as Gudbranson took a beating online after a particularly poor showing in his preseason debut against the Edmonton Oilers. One prominent Flames hockey blog even called for the 6-foot-5 defender to be cut from the team before the regular season even started. It’s time for full disclosure – I was also guilty of piling on the highly-criticized UFA signing after his weak performance.
In my post-game recap, I specifically pointed out Gudbranson’s terrible giveaway that led to the Oiler’s fourth goal of the night and expressed concerns that Calgary’s offseason defensive signings weren’t nearly good enough to stabilize the D-core. However, after a terrific start to the 2021-22 campaign, it turns out my doubts about the newcomer were completely unfounded, while the defense as a whole has been much better than I expected.
Gudbranson Has Been a Rock on the Flames’ Third Pairing
After a season-opening loss to the Oilers where no one played particularly well, Gudbranson has been a rock-steady presence on the Flames’ third pairing. After starting the 2021-22 campaign with youngster Juuso Välimäki at his side, the last five games have featured 6-foot-6 Nikita Zadorov as his partner. These “twin towers” have been making life difficult for opposing forwards entering the Flames’ zone and they probably had their best game of the season last Thursday against the Dallas Stars when they controlled 70% of the shot attempts and combined for three points on the night.
After 12 games with the flaming C on his chest, the veteran D-man has four points, a plus-three rating, 21 shots on goal and is a 54.4% possession player. With the added ice time playing on the penalty-killing unit, Gudbranson has been averaging over 17:30 minutes a night, which shows just how much confidence the coaching staff has in him. The 222-pound defender even dropped the gloves for the first time this season on Saturday night, tussling with the New York Rangers’ Jarred Tinordi, proving he can also step up and provide a very physical game when needed. All in all, not too shabby for a guy a lot of fans thought would drag down the third pairing or spend most of his time watching the action from the press box.
Gudbranson Has Found a Good Fit in Calgary
Gudbranson first became familiar with head coach Darryl Sutter’s philosophy when the veteran coach was a consultant with the Anaheim Ducks in 2019-20, and he’s now the epitome of “Sutter style”, defense-first hockey since arriving in Calgary. He knows that a truly effective team wins games by committee and goes the extra mile to make the Scotiabank Saddledome a really tough place to play in. So far, the big blueliner has been a great fit on the ice and inside the locker room and when speaking with CalgaryFlames.com, he mentioned that he had a “Gud” feeling he made the right call when he signed with the Flames.
“I felt really good about (signing in Calgary) and that’s why I’m here,” Gudbranson said. “It was a big reason was the way this team was being built, the coaching staff, goaltender, the city. I was super excited when I had the opportunity to come here. We’re playing really well. We’ve challenged ourselves every single day.Erik Gudbranson
The Flames are Gudbranson’s sixth team in the last seven seasons, so he’s no stranger to bouncing around the NHL. However, the journeyman is hoping that he’s found something special in Calgary and admits that even the team’s practices have been terrific. “I don’t know how many practices you guys have watched, but our practices are effective and when they’re not, we’re told that they’re not,” he added. “So, this group tries to squeeze as much as we possibly can out of every day and it’s fun to be a part of.”
And speaking of fun, I don’t think it’s even a contest as to who has the best Movember ‘stache on the Flames’ roster. Gudbranson has been rocking an extremely solid “Magnum P.I.” soup strainer, and as bad as the preseason reviews of his on-ice performance were, the reaction to his magnificent mustachio has been the exact opposite: 10/10 across the board. While I know that excellent facial hair shouldn’t factor into my assessment of his short tenure as a Flame, but I’m here to tell you that it certainly doesn’t hurt his case.
In my most recent Flames Weekly column, I asked the question: “Is Gudbranson actually… good?” It’s never easy to admit that you’ve been wrong about a player, but I must give credit where credit is due. Right now, the answer is a resounding YES and if the 29-year-old rearguard can keep that third defensive unit thriving, I think it will go a long way in keeping the Flames’ promising season on track.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.