This is my personal scene: I'm in Minnesota on June 25, 2011. We're in the middle rounds of the draft, and my friend and I are wandering around the Xcel Energy Center. We stop when the Calgary Flames are up, finally drafting again after two second round picks and nothing in the third round. At this point, I have no idea who they're going to select.
They call a name, and the kid's physical stats flash up on the board: he's 5'6, and 137 lbs. My friend bursts into laughter, and I'm just standing there thinking, "Whoa. Well, this means two things: one, he's ridiculously skilled; two, he's definitely playing four years in the NCAA."
His would-be fourth NCAA season actually turned into his first NHL season. He was second in Flames scoring, third in Calder voting, and the top rookie scorer throughout the year (second highest in the playoffs). He didn't grow much from those initial measurements; now allegedly 5'9 and 150 lbs., he's... perfect?
As perfect as you could hope for a severely undersized then-17-year-old hockey player to turn out, anyway. At number one on our list of the best Flames players under 25 years of age, we have one of the brightest hopes for the entire organization for years to come: Johnny Gaudreau.
|Rank||Player||DOB||Draft||2014-15 team||Vote total|
|1||Johnny Gaudreau||08/13/93||104th overall, 2011||Calgary Flames (NHL)||171|
Let's jump right into his draft year. In the 2010-11 season, Gaudreau left his south Jersey home to play for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL. Dubuque was the top team in the Western Conference that season, and moved their way up through the playoffs, ultimately topping Green Bay 3-1 in the Clark Cup championship game.
On Dubuque, Gaudreau was the Fighting Saints' top scorer, putting up eight more points than the next closest guy - who so happened to be three years older - in four more games. (After Gaudreau and Vinny Saponari was Zemgus Girgensons, who would be the 14th overall pick in 2012; he had 23 fewer points in nine fewer games.) Gaudreau was fourth in overall USHL scoring that season, younger than everyone else above him.
With his USHL career effectively over and drafted nearly 90 spots ahead of where he was ranked according to North American skaters, Gaudreau de-committed from Northeastern University when then-head coach Greg Cronin took a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Instead, he selected Boston College.
As a freshman, Gaudreau was a point per game player, and the second-highest scorer on the Eagles: second to just Chris Kreider, who scored all of one more point than he did. BC was the top team heading into the NCAA championship in 2012, and went on to win it all that year, defeating Ferris State 4-1 in the championship game. In the dying minutes of the game, and with BC clinging to a one-goal lead, Gaudreau did, well, this:
If the hype about him wasn't real before, it was then.
Returning as a sophomore, Gaudreau took over BC's scoring lead, upping his scoring to nearly half a point per game while pulling away from the other players on his team. He was also tied for fourth in overall NCAA scoring. He took a detour from his college season to play in the 2013 World Junior Championships, leading the Americans in scoring and being named to the All-Star team en route to a gold medal. BC's season wouldn't end as nicely, as they fell to Union in the East Regional semifinals. Gaudreau was a finalist for the Hobey Baker, but lost out to Drew LeBlanc.
Three years after being drafted in a criminally low spot, Gaudreau rose to even further heights. He went up to two points per game, bringing linemates Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold to the top of BC scoring with him and forming one of the top lines in the league. (The next highest scorer on that team had just 30 points.) Gaudreau was also the top scorer in the NCAA, with 15 more points than the next guy: his own linemate, Hayes.
BC made it to the Frozen Four in the 2014 NCAA championship, but once again fell to Union, this time in the semifinals in a tight, 5-4 loss. Gaudreau avenged his Hobey Baker loss from the previous year, winning it this time, and with that, ending his collegiate career - but not his 2013-14 season.
Gaudreau played his first NHL game, the playoff-less Flames' final game of the year, and scored his first goal on his first shot. He then went on to represent Team USA at the World Championships, and was their top-scoring forward (and second overall scorer, with Seth Jones beating him out with an extra assist). The Americans, however, lost in the quarterfinals.
Ready to begin his professional career, there was some question as to whether Gaudreau would play in the AHL or NHL. He very quickly put those questions to rest in the preseason, was given his chosen #13, and after five scoreless games and one healthy scratch, rose on to be tied for 29th in overall NHL scoring in his rookie year.
Gaudreau had doubters ever since he was drafted. They're quiet, now.
Strengths and weaknesses
Gaudreau can score. Like, he can really, really score. No matter what level of hockey you place him in, he rises to the occasion without fail every single time, all the way up to the highest level. We saw it in his NCAA years: he got progressively better as he rose from freshman to junior, starting off pretty well and becoming flat out dominant. There was a small adjustment period in the NHL, but it didn't take long for Gaudreau to realize he could play in the best league, too.
He has incredible creativity, vision, hands, and hockey sense. He skates well, he protects the puck, and opposing players have a hard time separating it from him, or even defending against him; Gaudreau seemingly has an answer for everyone, no matter how big or nasty or even defensively sound they are. He's shifty, capable of catching opposing players off guard and scoring absurdly timely goals seemingly whenever needed.
It's hard to truly determine who's a "big game" player... but Gaudreau would seem to be it.
His only truly notable weakness is his size. He's much smaller and lighter than the typical NHL player, and sure, in a contact sport, that's a concern... but he's never really been hurt playing. Would it be nice if he was the same player, but 6'5 and 215 lbs? Sure. But would he really be Gaudreau, then? He's learned to play with the body he has, and he's beyond excelled with it.
I guess you could say something about defensive abilities, but as the season went on he showed greater acumen for it. That'll improve with time. But if Gaudreau has his way, he really won't be seeing much of the defensive zone at all.
Future with the Flames
First line left winger and top scorer. That's the calling Gaudreau has, and he's already nearly met both those ranks after just one season.
Gaudreau is going to be a player the Flames will be relying on for a long, long time: and he's a player who should be able to meet those expectations, especially with him being guaranteed to have a Sean Monahan or Sam Bennett centring him. He'll be one of the Flames' best, if not the best, in the lineup, night in and night out.
It sounds lofty for someone who's only just turned 22. And it is. But if anyone can reach those heights, it's going to be this kid.
Expectations for 2015-16
Taking over the team scoring lead wouldn't be out of the question here. Hell, given the factors surrounding him that should play a role going in the next season - presumably a built-in line with Monahan and Jiri Hudler he won't have to wait half a year for, his potential for rapid fire growth, and a year of NHL experience now under his belt - approaching point per game status may not be out of the question.
He'll be blossoming as one of the NHL's top scoring threats. He probably won't be one of the league's absolute top scorers this season, but if this keeps up? Soon.
Earlier ont he list
#25 - Ryan Culkin // #24 - Hunter Smith // #23 - Pavel Karnaukhov // #22 - Garnet Hathaway // #21 - Kenny Agostino// #20 - Mark Jankowski // #19 - Bill Arnold // #18 - Kenney Morrison // #17 - Andrew Mangiapane // T-#14 - Mason McDonald // T-#14 - Brandon Hickey // T-#14 - Rasmus Andersson // #13 - Tyler Wotherspoon // #12 - Oliver Kylington // #11 - Morgan Klimchuk // #10 - Markus Granlund // #9 - Drew Shore // #8 - Joni Ortio // #7 - Micheal Ferland // #6 - Emile Poirier // #5 - Jon Gillies // #4 - Sam Bennett // #3 - Dougie Hamilton // #2 - Sean Monahan