Maybe it was the last name, the fact he's another right-handed shot, his size or the fact that he developed well for me in NHL 14 - whatever it was, there was something inside this hockey writer that got excited at the announcement defenseman Alex Gudbranson had signed with the Minnesota Wild.
A native of Orleans, Ontario, Gudbranson is no stranger to the NHL, having watched his older brother Erik, another defender, get drafted third overall by the Florida Panthers in 2010. The very next season, the brothers would play their first and only OHL season together with the Kingston Frontenacs. Erik - by far the bigger brother at 6'5" and 216 pounds - had his best season of his major junior career that year, scoring 12 goals, 34 points and 105 penalty minutes in 44 regular season games. Alex, on the other hand, struggled like any rookie, notching three goals, 14 points and a negative-11 rating in 62 regular season games.
Erik moved on to the big leagues in 2011-12, leaving Alex to prove himself worthy of NHL consideration as his draft year got underway. Unfortunately, the big defender ran into a bit of a sophomore slump, scoring just two goals and nine points in 50 games. However, he did see a boost in penalty minutes as he grew into his body and began to make his presence felt around the ice. His defensive ability also seemed to improve as he stayed at an even-plus minus rating through the regular season. Still, the 2012 draft came and went, and Gudbranson went unclaimed.
Instead, he found himself switching sweaters in his third major junior season, suiting up for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds after being traded shortly before the draft. In 65 regular season games, Gudbranson once again scored three goals and 14 points, this time adding 62 penalty minutes and another even plus-minus rating in the process of helping the club into a short-lived playoff run. It still wasn't enough for scouts, and the draft passed him by once again, leaving Gudbranson with more questions than answers.
By the time last season rolled around, Gudbranson was more motivated than ever to win a contract with an NHL club. In 66 regular season games, the Greyhounds' new assistant captain scored career highs in goals, points, penalty minutes and plus-minus rating with seven, 15, 76 and a plus-8 rating, respectively. The big rear guard also played a key role on the Greyhounds' back end in the 2013-14 postseason, notching a goal, four points and 18 penalty minutes in nine games. Yet it still wasn't enough to see his name flash across the television screen on draft day. Talk about frustrating.
To his credit, Gudbranson had established himself as a blue line mainstay in Sault Ste. Marie, endearing himself as a fan favorite within the organization with a simple, solid defensive style and a sandpaper-like edge. As such, the Wild brass had seen enough to think it worth inviting him to rookie camp and, consequently, training camp, as well. In the process, Gudbranson's self described style of "simple, mean and tough" was winning over Minnesota's coaching staff and GM Chuck Fletcher. Pardon the pun, but the big defender also made serious strides in improving his skating over the summer, forgoing (with the club's permission, of course) the Greyhounds' late August training camp in order to participate in an "elite power-skating camp". It worked wonders for him, apparently.
Now, instead of returning to Ontario for a fifth season, the big 6'3" 220-pound defender is set to take the next big step towards joining his brother in the NHL ranks. Equipped with a new three-year entry level deal courtesy of the Wild, Gudbranson will take his simple defensive game and, what the rest of y'all might call "face-puncher-ness", with him to Des Moines and the organization's top minor league affiliate. There, he'll join a talented young defensive corps containing the likes of Jonathan Blum, Gustav Olofsson, Guillaume Gelinas and likely one of Christian Folin and Mathew Dumba among others.
The thing is, so many of these young guys aren't far away from the NHL, and the same can probably be said of Gudbranson. He's already got NHL size, though that doesn't guarantee he also has the NHL skating, defensive ability and, ideally, offensive touch. The fact of the matter is, there's something there the Wild brass and coaching staff really like. It would be hard to believe if the club expected him to eventually step in as a top-4 minute-munching NHL blue liner. However, Gudbranson has the ideal build and potential to be the kind of veteran shutdown defenseman playoff-bound teams are looking for every time the trade deadline rolls around.
At the very least, the addition of Alex is an extremely low risk move that could potentially provide some serious upside if he continues to work hard and develop his game. There's just not a lot to dislike about this signing. Now, if you'll excuse me, "Guddy" and I are going to go play a little NHL 14.