Canucks prepare for toughness test against Avalanche

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — You could call this week a toughness test for the Vancouver Canucks.

Two of the main examinees Tuesday night will be Vancouver defenseman Erik Gudbranson and winger Darren Archibald as the Canucks (23-60-6) host the Colorado Avalanche (31-23-4).

With the NHL trade deadline approaching, Canucks general manager Jim Benning has made it known publicly that he is looking for more team toughness.

Accordingly, Vancouver’s team — and individual — toughness display against the Avs could help Benning determine who stays and who leaves.

Gudbranson, listed at 6-foot-5, 220-pounds, is a key supplier of hits and rough stuff, but he is due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and the clock is ticking on either a new contract or a trade.

Meanwhile, Archibald, who recently signed a two-year deal with Vancouver and joined the Canucks after languishing in their farm system for about four years, was brought in specifically because of Benning’s desire to protect highly touted prospects in coming seasons.

Archibald had been playing on a minor league deal this season before signing an NHL pact. Now he has the opportunity to show the Canucks whether he should be considered a fringe player or be given a more prominent role instead of anyone that Benning might consider adding.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Gudbranson indicated that his toughness will be on display Tuesday for the purpose of securing a new contract from Benning.

“I’m learning a lot about the business side of hockey and making an educated decision,” said Gudbranson, who is expected to make between $4 million to $5 million per season in a new deal. “I’m aware of all the angles. I have a mindset that I want to be here and getting something done soon.”

With Gudbranson’s name bandied about in trade speculation for a number of weeks, he has had difficulty dealing with his uncertain status with the Canucks.

“It certainly has been on my mind the last month,” said Gudbranson, who is playing on a one-year deal. “I think I deserve some security and I’d like a couple of years to be part of a group that’s growing.”

The 26-year-old Ottawa native has been inconsistent since arriving before the 2016-17 season in a trade from Florida that sent forward Jared McCann, who was a first-round draft choice (24th) in 2014, and two 2016 draft picks the other way. Gudbranson has also battled injuries but has stood out more lately, especially in Saturday’s 6-1 win over Boston, one of the top clubs in the league.

“I feel like I’m starting to play my game and I’m more comfortable,” he said. “It has taken some time to get my confidence level to where it is right now — and I’ve got a good opportunity to play against top guys and make them miserable every night.”

Meanwhile, Archibald, a 28-year-old Newmarket, Ontario, native who was never drafted, is enjoying life in the NHL again after four years of misery in the minors. His exile included stints in the American and East Coast leagues.

“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” Archibald, who has 16 hits in his last five games, told Sportsnet.ca. “My first sniff in the NHL, mentally, I don’t think I was as consistent as I needed to be. It seems like forever ago. To be back here now is an amazing feeling.”

While Archibald is feeling better psychologically, the Avs are dealing with physical problems. Defensemen Erik Johnson and Anton Lindholm have been sidelined indefinitely with undisclosed injuries after getting hurt in Sunday’s home loss to Edmonton.

“The couple injuries in the back end could hurt us more than just the loss … ,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar told reporters.

The Avs, whose 10-game home winning streak ended, are looking for a better effort in Vancouver after dropping an overtime decision to the Canucks on Jan. 30 at Rogers Arena.

The Avs have been bolstered offensively by the return of forward Nathan MacKinnon. He suffered an undisclosed injury in a collision with Canucks defenseman Alex Edler in the late January game and only returned to action Sunday.

Before MacKinnon was injured, he was second in the NHL in scoring with 61 points. As he has fallen down the scoring chart because of his inactivity, the Avs have become less of a playoff bet. While he was away, Colorado sported a modest 4-4 record.

Despite MacKinnon’s layoff, he appears poised for a strong stretch drive after logging 22:20 of ice time against the Oilers.

“I felt fine,” he told reporters.