VANCOUVER — “I know you're looking for something,” Brendan Gaunce said.
And with that, busted. Gaunce is no ordinary 19-year-old.
Indeed, we were looking for something on Thursday.
The Vancouver Canucks selected Gaunce, a strapping forward from the Belleville Bulls, in the first round of the 2012 National Hockey League entry draft. He is a powerful two-way centre, lauded for his leadership and character. And for 12 months, he was the shiniest bauble in the Canucks' development system, a can't-miss kid who would soon, possibly within two years, be playing centre in Vancouver.
Then, two weeks ago, after throwing a stun grenade at the hockey world by announcing they'd traded starting goalie Cory Schneider for a draft pick, the Canucks chose London Knights' centre Bo Horvat. Horvat is a powerful two-way centre, praised for his leadership and character and projected to be playing soon in the NHL.
Brendan meet Bo. Bo, Brendan.
“He's in the other division, so I've only played his team four times in two years,” Horvat, 18, said Thursday after Canuck prospects scrimmaged at Rogers Arena. Naturally, Horvat was on one team, Gaunce the other. They lined up against one another.
“He's got a great shot, really thinks the game well,” Horvat continued. “He's going to be a good one, I think.”
But Gaunce is no longer the shiniest bauble. He still sparkles, but Horvat shines even brighter at the moment.
So, yes, we were looking for something Thursday from Gaunce about the Canucks drafting similar players for a singular need two years in a row. Jealousy, confusion, curiosity, something.
Instead, Gaunce offered perspective and maturity.
And when an initial question about the Canucks drafting Horvat was slipped back into the deck, reshuffled and replayed on Gaunce in the hope it would evoke a more exciting response, the kid from Markham, Ont., saw through it.
“You've got to have good players to win, right?” Gaunce said. “You can't just have one guy to win a series or win a Stanley Cup. You have to have good players to have a good team and to draft players like (Bo) is awesome for the organization. We all should be happy.”
But they play the same position, largely the same way and, so far, with the same effectiveness.
“I guess you can have two of them on a team, right?” Gaunce said.
So if plugging the black hole in the centre of the Canucks' third line becomes a battle of wits in September, we like Gaunce's chances. He was bright and articulate on draft day in Pittsburgh, and his intellectual development has not suffered in the year since. Neither has his physical development.
At their age, one year makes a big difference. Gaunce is 19, Horvat 18. But it's naive to think their draft positions are irrelevant. Gaunce was selected 26th in 2012, Horvat ninth in a 2013 draft class believed to be the best in a decade. Remember, the Canucks traded Schneider to draft Horvat.
It is unconventional for a team to choose in consecutive first rounds players so apparently similar.
Gaunce is 6-2 and 220 pounds. In 60 regular-season games with Belleville this past season, Gaunce had 33 goals and 60 points. Horvat, 6-0 and 210 pounds, had 33 goals and 61 points in 67 games with London. In 17 Ontario Hockey League playoff games, Gaunce amassed 22 points. In 21 playoff games, Horvat had 23 points and his 16 goals included the one that sent his team to the Memorial Cup.
Both have been invited to Team Canada's selection camp for the world junior tournament at Christmastime.
Eventually, these two players may be part of the Canucks' backbone – first- and second-line centres or second- and third-liners. But who will be which? And who will be in the NHL first?
“I think every single guy here is trying for the same opportunity,” Gaunce said. “We're all going for the same job. Realistically, we all want to play for the Canucks any way we can.
“It's great to have opportunity (but) you have to be able to seize that opportunity. Every player on the team, you're trying to compete with for a spot. I can have a battle with (Bo). I can have a battle with anyone on the team – Henrik Sedin. You're always going to try to play as high as you can and for as many minutes as you can.”
Gaunce, whose season was interrupted last fall by a shoulder separation that cost him four weeks, said he thinks he could have played better. But he's happy with his playoffs and how he finished the year. The Canucks should be happy with his development.
“There's a lot of things that come with being a professional hockey player,” he said. “When you're 18, you're at the point where you've just finished high school and feel like you're on top of the world. But you obviously know you're not. I think I've figured that out a bit this year. I've still got a lot of things to learn, but I think I've come a long way since I was drafted.”
One of the things that come with being a player on the Canucks is the unyielding intensity of the scrutiny. Just as Horvat will be associated with and measured against Schneider, Gaunce is now linked to Horvat. Thursday isn't the last time he'll be asked about the Canucks drafting another player just like him.
“When you're a pro athlete, you have to kind of be able to take that stuff,” he said. “You're getting paid to do things and be a role model in the community. People would die for this job. It's an amazing opportunity and not many people get it. If you're not going to embrace this, why would you even go for it in the first place?”
OK, advantage Gaunce.
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