PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The Vancouver Canucks proudly draped a No. 12 across Brendan Gaunce’s broad shoulders after taking him 26th overall in the NHL draft on Friday night.
It’s the 2012 draft, after all.
Then, almost as quickly, they told the teenager there was no chance he would ever wear that number in their organization. Former Canucks forward Stan Smyl, who has been involved with the club in some capacity for 3 1-2 decades, had his No. 12 retired in 1991, and there are no plans to take it down from the rafters.
“I was grateful to have that,” Gaunce said of the short time he had with the special number. “He obviously means a lot to the city of Vancouver and the team, and that’s special for myself.
“I didn’t expect anything on the back of the jersey, so I was happy with that.”
The Canucks clearly believe Gaunce, who starred for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, will make a name for himself — no matter what number he ends up wearing.
They won’t need another top-line centre for a while — not as long as Henrik Sedin stays healthy and productive — but it is easy to foresee the six-foot-two, 215-pound Gaunce filling that role someday.
Gaunce was rated No. 13 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting after accumulating 28 goals and 40 assists in 68 games last season. He also had 68 penalty minutes, a number that illustrates his willingness to mix it up and play physically.
Gaunce also played on Canada’s world under-18 team that took the bronze medal and on the gold medal-winning team in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament, where he had a goal and an assist in the championship game against Sweden.
An assistant captain for Belleville, the 18-year-old is seen as a natural leader, an asset he hopes will help carry him to the NHL perhaps a little faster than usual. He is an acknowledged two-way centre who has shown an ability to play effectively in both defence-dominated and wide-open games.
“I’m lucky to have size,” he said. “Now I need to work on the other parts of my game.”
In the days leading up to the NHL draft, all the talk in Vancouver was about who might be going off the roster rather than who would be arriving via the draft.
However, goalie Roberto Luongo didn’t go anywhere on Friday, despite the Canucks’ apparent willingness to deal him so they can give the starting job to Cory Schneider. Luongo still has 10 years and US$53 million-plus worth of cap space left on his contract, huge numbers that could prove an impediment to any deal.
Toronto would seem to be a logical place for Luongo to wind up, given the Maple Leafs’ need for a proven goalie. But Luongo stayed put at least on the first day of the draft, even if players such as Jordan Staal did not — he was dealt by the Penguins to the Carolina Hurricanes, where he can play alongside brother Eric.
At least for the moment, then, Canucks fans must be satisfied to evaluate what’s coming. And there would appear to be a lot to like in the physical Gaunce’s game, his character and his he-doesn’t-act-18 maturity.
“As a Canadian kid, I was happy to be drafted by them,” Gaunce said. “Most teams draft kids that fit in their organization and I hope that’s the case here. I hope to be able to play as soon as I can, but they’re a team that’s at the top of the Western Conference every year, so we’ll see.”