Call him Ryan Kesler without the afterburners.
Of course, if Brendan Gaunce had Kesler’s jets he wouldn’t have been around last June when the Canucks took him 26th overall. Nonetheless, the Markham, Ont., native has all the markings of a blue-chip prospect, a player whose balanced, two-way game should transition nicely to the pros.
Like the Canucks’ all-purpose Kesler, Gaunce is an excellent penalty killer, plays on the power play and is matched up against the opponents’ top offensive line. He also the captain of his OHL club, the Belleville Bulls, and oozes maturity.
“He’s our captain and our leader and he sets the table in terms of his work ethic and compete level,” Bulls GM and coach George Burnett said Thursday.
“He expects a lot from himself. He wants to be out there in all the critical situations, and when things don’t go well, he looks at himself.”
Gaunce, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, already has an NHL frame, but he hit a big pothole early this season when he suffered a second-degree separation to his left shoulder on Oct. 17. It cost him nearly a month — but has come back strongly in the second half.
“We were in Sudbury and I just went into the corner awkward and got rubbed out weird,” said Gaunce, 18.
“I thought it was my (trapezius) at first, but when I came back out and tried to take a draw and it didn’t go too well.”
Gaunce admits he came back early and the injury continued to nag him, but he’s picked it up offensively since Christmas.
He’s currently on a three-game goal-scoring streak, with five goals in that span along with one assist. Gaunce has 26-20-48 in 48 games. Last season, his second after being selected second overall in the OHL Priority Draft by Belleville (behind Alex Galchenyuk), he had 28-48-68 in 68 games.
Belleville, which is amongst the OHL’s elite this season, made two key acquisitions in early January: centres Tyler Graovac and Alan Quine. The ripple effects saw Burnett put Gaunce on left wing with Graovac for the first three weeks following the trade, but he’s now back at centre.
Gaunce prefers the dynamics of centre, but he also knows that making it as a pro is a lot about being versatile.
“I played wing a bit when I played for Canada a few times,” said Gaunce. “I think I played two or three weeks here and I think I got pretty used to it. Whatever I’m told to do, if I’m playing in the NHL, I would do. If they asked me to play D, I would try to play D.”
Gaunce is an intriguing package, but concerns about his foot speed have top-end projections stalled at third-line centre at the NHL level. But Burnett thinks that’s shortsighted.
“Is he the best skater? No, but he’s a big-frame, big-body guy,” said Burnett. “I think he’s learning how to play with a big frame. We play on an Olympic-size ice, so you can’t hide. His skating has never been an issue. Everybody can get a little quicker off the mark or in a change of direction, but as his fitness and strength continue to develop as he moves into the pro game he’ll get a little quicker. I don’t see it as something that will keep him from being a successful pro.”