Erik Gudbranson and Jared McCann’s names were always going to be linked. The pair just didn’t expect to eventually find themselves on the same team.
Traded for one another when the Vancouver Canucks dealt McCann to the Florida Panthers in the spring of 2016, there they were sharing a locker room as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins less than three years later.
“It’s just the way of the business,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a small world.”
“It was a weird situation,” McCann added with a smile.
Pittsburgh acquired McCann in early February before Gudbranson’s time on the West Coast came to an end later that month when he was dealt from Vancouver to Pittsburgh.
The Initial Trade
Canucks general manager Jim Banning swung the initial deal, which also included three draft picks, with Florida hoping that Gudbranson’s physical style would help his defence corps compete in the rough-and-tumble Pacific Division.
But it was also a curious move in that Vancouver was giving up on a talented forward — McCann was selected 24th overall in the 2014 draft — they felt was good enough to play in the NHL the previous season.
“It’s a business,” McCann said of how he saw that trade. “Playing in the NHL at 19, it’s a huge honour.”
Both players hope they’ve found a home in Pittsburgh, but look back on Vancouver with mixed feelings.
“I didn’t stay as healthy as I wanted to,” said Gudbranson, the third pick in the 2010 draft. “I never really found that confidence that can make you better and make you feel at ease.
“It’s just one of those situations that didn’t work out as it was originally planned.”
Gudbranson, who signed a three-year, US$12-million contract extension with Vancouver in February 2018 only to be dealt 12 months later, didn’t want to get into why his confidence took such a hit with the Canucks.
The 27-year-old from Ottawa wound up playing just 139 games for the club, with five goals and 19 points.
“It was a number of things,” he said. “A lot of it’s on me.”
McCann, meanwhile, made the NHL at a time when Vancouver was stuck in the mud of concurrently trying to stay competitive with an aging core and retooling on the fly.
He believed in his ability to play at 19 even if his nine goals and 18 points in 69 games might have suggested otherwise.
“There’s not really anything I could have done about it,” said the 23-year-old from Stratford, Ont. “Things just didn’t work out for whatever reason and they wanted to move on.”
McCann said it was difficult being pitted against fellow rookie forward Jake Virtanen in Vancouver. If one was in the lineup, the likelihood was the other would be watching from the press box.
“We were battling for a job,” he said. “Before that, Jake and I were really good friends. I feel like we kind of still are, but we were put against each other. As a kid, you take that as, ‘OK I’ve got to beat this guy.’ Unfortunately that’s the way the NHL is.”
McCann added it took time to adjust to the attention in a big-time Canadian market.
“You say the wrong things every once in a while and guys would tell you, and you’re like: ‘Oh what did I do?'” said McCann, who has 38 goals and 88 points in 244 NHL games. You just put your foot in your mouth and take it. It’s a learning experience.
“You get over-excited … you say things sometimes.”
Now Penguins Teammates
Gudbranson and McCann worked out with BioSteel founder Matt Nichol this summer in Toronto in preparation for training camp in Pittsburgh, where they hope to see the likes of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up close from start to finish this season.
“They’ve been some of the best hockey players in the NHL for a long time,” Gudbranson said. “Staying at the top for that amount of time is incredibly impressive.”
“They’re so calm in every situation,” McCann added. “Whether we’re down two or three goals, they have the belief that we’re going to come.”
But that didn’t happen in last spring’s playoffs, where the Penguins were swept in the first round by the New York Islanders.
Pittsburgh finished just three points back of its Metropolitan Division rival in the regular season, but was no match come April.
“We just played into the Islanders’ hands,” Gudbranson said. “But you really lose if you don’t take a lesson from that series and improve.”
The Penguins traded mercurial sniper Phil Kessel to Arizona for forward Alex Galchenyuk this summer after also shipping defenceman Olli Maatta to Chicago for forward Dominik Kahun and a fifth-round pick.
Add to that the signing of winger Brandon Tanev from Winnipeg in free agency, and McCann said the Penguins’ championship window — which included Stanley Cups in 2009, 2016 and 2017 — remains open.
“We’re going to come back harder,” he said. “We’re going to be ready to go.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press