The Johnny Gaudreau Question

There’s a lot we already know about Boston College junior Johnny Gaudreau.

We know he is the nation’s leading scorer with his 64 points being 10 clear of the next closest player. We know he has points in 29 straight games and has been held off the scoresheet just once this year. We know he’s averaged nearly a point and a half per game over three years at BC. We know he’s the most electrifying player in college hockey in years (possibly of the last decade or more) and we can say without much trepidation he’s going to win the Hobey Baker this year.

What we don’t know is what Gaudreau is going to do next and the biggest question of them all, one that has followed Gaudreau since he started getting noticed in the USHL, will his game translate to the NHL level? (There’s another important question, too, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.)

It’s something we won’t really know until he gets there, of course. Though it can be overstated, and probably will continue to be for a long time, Gaudreau’s size is obviously the biggest factor in the overly-cautious projections. There’s also the long line of college players that torched the NCAA without amounting to much at the next level. One doesn’t have to look much farther than the list of college hockey’s leading scorers since 2000.

Only one of those 13 players — Nathan Gerbe — has established himself as an NHL regular, with Gustav Nyquist sure to join him soon.

There’s also the history of Hobey Baker winners not amounting to much in the NHL. Of the last 10 Hobey winners, only Matt Carle, who won the award in 2006, became an established full-time NHL player.

College success does not guarantee NHL stardom, as everyone knows. That said, while history is always important to note, Gaudreau deserves a clean slate. He also deserves the benefit of being evaluated for what he truly is: a unique talent.

The skills required to succeed at the college level can vary. For many of the top players, success comes from age, physical maturity and experience. That’s never been the case for Gaudreau. His success comes from talent, from an unrivaled skill level and hockey sense that has made him near unstoppable.

It was a surprise that Gaudreau was picked at 104th overall in the 2011 draft because of his size, but it was a calculated risk by the Calgary Flames’ brass at the time. They bet on skill knowing that Gaudreau probably wasn’t going to grow much more. It’s a bet that could yet pay off albeit under a new regime in Calgary that puts more weight behind size and truculence than the previous one.

Though Gaudreau’s projections remain cautious, he continually takes another step every season.

This year, he has a pair of outstanding senior linemates in Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes which helps production, but Gaudreau is the straw that stirs the drink and he has been on every line he’s played since the second half of his freshman year at Boston College.

Gaudreau has a nation-leading 30 goals, his 34 assists rank second and he’s posted 1.88 points per game.

Given the fact he’s reaching mythic levels of praise with his college performance, it’s very easy to speak about Gaudreau in hyperbole. So I’ve tried to think about all of the other players I’ve had the good fortune of seeing since I’ve been more tuned into international hockey. I’ve always been particularly fond of skill players, guys that are excellent stick handlers and distributors of the puck.

Off the top of my head, here’s the list of the most skilled players (again, just of guys I’ve seen in the last seven or so years as prospects at various events I’ve attended. Hence no Jonathan Drouin, who is dazzling, but I have yet to see live):

1. Patrick Kane, 2. Mikael Granlund, 3. Teuvo Teravainen, 4. Evgeny Kuznetsov, 5. Johnny Guadreau, 6. Ryan Murphy, 7. Mikhail Grigorenko

These guys have been among the most memorable to me because of their ability to create.

That’s the kind of skill we’re talking about here. The difference is Gaudreau is a fourth-round pick and the rest of these guys are first-round picks. He might not be in the same class as those guys as overall prospects (or in Kane’s case an NHL star), but when it comes to his hand skills and offensive instincts, he belongs in this group.

You can’t just be a skilled player, though. Gifted Swede Linus Omark is a magician with the puck, but as skilled as he is, he never found a way to make that translate to NHL success. There are plenty of other amazing stickhandlers that didn’t have other tools that could get them to the next level.

This is another area where I think Gaudreau has separated himself from his historical comparables. As important as Gaudreau’s hand skills are, they’d be wasted without high-end hockey sense. This is where I think Gaudreau to be among the elite outside of the NHL presently.

It’s something that Patrick Kane doesn’t get enough credit for because of his immense skill. The ability to create time and space, make patient plays under pressure and find the best play instead of the first one is what makes him one of the most dangerous players in the NHL. Kane may never win the Art Ross as a top scorer, but he’s going to make those around him better.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I loathe comparisons, so I’m not comparing Gaudreau to Kane. But Kane is an example of why hockey sense is just as important as the skill and that’s a big reason Gaudreau has a chance to be a solid player in the NHL. I don’t think he’d be a superstar player, but he certainly would help a lot of teams.

Gaudreau is an ace with the puck on his stick, finding the time and space and seeing the lanes no one else sees. That kind of skill set helps him find better ways to enter the offensive zone, establish and sustain pressure when attacking and extends plays in general.  It is in those areas where skill players help their team the most, not just the plays that end up on highlight reels. Of course, Gaudreau has incredible one-one-one ability to make defenders miss. He also fools goaltenders with stunning regularity thanks to a quick release on his shot and creativity in tight spaces.

Here’s a look at those one-on-one skills via BC Interruption:

It’s one thing to do what he’s doing against college players and another against the NHL, but with so few comparables he deserves the chance to prove it.

Even with that in mind, what he’s doing at the college level is kind of ridiculous. The nature of college hockey today makes it quite difficult for players to do what Gaudreau has done. The fact that he’s gone 29 games without being held off the score sheet is rather incredible. That level of consistency against the level of competition Gaudreau faces each game and the fact that the schedule is staggered the way it is in college hockey makes it all the more intriguing. It’s not like a guy is playing every few days, gets into a rhythm and stays hot. Gaudreau has been in a season-long rhythm.

Also of benefit, Gaudreau has a record against elite competition, having played in the 2013 World Junior Championship, where he overcame a slow start to finish as Team USA’s leading goal scorer en route to the gold medal. Some of the stuff he was doing in Ufa last year was just remarkable. YouTube user Anthony Cook was kind enough to compile all seven of Gaudreau’s goals and some of his best plays from the tournament right here:

Beyond whether or not his skills will translate to the NHL, the next big question is should he leave a year of eligibility on the table at BC by signing with the Calgary Flames this off season? That’s another query with no truly clear answer.

You can say that Gaudreau has done all he can at the college level and that it’s time for him to focus on making the jump to the pros. It’s hard to argue with that logic. He’s improved his point totals each season and this year is off the charts. He already has a national title, multiple Beanpots and almost certainly the Hobey this year.

With postseason games left to play in Hockey East and in the NCAA tournament, Gaudreau is already the most productive college player since Andy Miele’s 71 points in 2010-11. As USCHO’s Elliot Olshansky noted, Gaudreau’s 1.88 points per game is the best since Colorado College’s Peter Sejna’s 1.95 points-per-game in 2002-03 en route to the Hobey Baker. Chris Kunitz, who finished third in Hobey voting that year also had 1.88 points per game.

So if Gaudreau signed with Calgary, nobody could begrudge him for it.

The New Jersey native has options though and one of them is to return to BC for his senior season, attempt to become the first two-time Hobey Baker Award Winner and try to lead BC, who will be without Gaudreau’s linemates from this season Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes. Additionally, if he stays, he opens the door to becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer should he choose not to sign with Calgary.

That could be a very interesting scenario as Gaudreau would likely be able to attract a lot of suitors and choose where to go. That said, Calgary has a pretty clear path to the NHL at this point with a rather weak prospects system and a lineup that will go through some turnover next year. It would seem he’s a good fit where he is, unless Gaudreau is concerned about Brian Burke’s affinity for bigger, stronger players (Gaudreau was drafted by the since fired Jay Feaster).

I don’t think Calgary has a lot to fear at this point, but they should pursue signing Gaudreau this year just to be sure. He had a chance to sign last year, but opted for another year of school, which at the time was absolutely the right call. Whether he goes pro or stays, I think is moot. One way or another, he’ll be advancing his development. Though he has made it look easy this year, he’d still get pushed at the college level and still needs a little more rounding out.

On the other hand, with what he has accomplished this season, having the opportunity to go to training camp next fall to play and train with NHL players and perhaps get into a few preseason games will be a great test. Even if he didn’t make the team out of camp, it’s a large step in his career and the chance to prove himself against pro-caliber players. There won’t be anymore ifs at that point, there will be tangible evidence one way or another and at 21 (by then), he should be more than ready for that.

The Flames don’t have anyone like Gaudreau. Not a lot of teams do. As long as they give him a real shot, he should be able to make the team relatively soon, even if that means taking some time to adjust to the pro game in the American Hockey League.

Gaudreau has had doubters the whole way up through his career and at every turn he has quieted them emphatically (They’re quiet because they usually can’t pick their jaws up off the floor). I don’t think it would be a bold prediction to say Gaudreau will play in the NHL one day, perhaps soon. Whether or not he turns into a productive player at the next level is harder to predict, but there’s no doubt his skill level and hockey sense are NHL-ready even if his frame is not.

Regardless of what happens next, these next few weeks could be the last college hockey sees of the kid they call Johnny Hockey. Enjoy it while it lasts, because there haven’t been and probably won’t be many like him.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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5 Responses to The Johnny Gaudreau Question

  1. Dave Mannes says:

    Ryan Duncan could be a good comparison.

    • Chris Peters says:

      With all due respect to Duncan, his Hobey season was fantastic and he had a tremendous college career, but I don’t think his skills were ever at the same level as Gaudreau’s are at now. That’s where I see separation.

  2. Larry Kettlewell says:

    Think your comment later in the piece about Burke. Not so long ago, and shortly after taking the helm of the Flames he stated “…we’re not big enough.” Even so, it would be to Calgary’s advantage to sign him now and use him to trade for others. I hope it doesn’t come to that as I’d love to see Johnny Hockey play in Calgary (my future new home). But, rebuilding is rebuilding.

  3. Corey says:

    Johnny is welcome in Calgary. That quote by Burke saying we need to get bigger was kind of taken out of context. He said a few weeks later that skilled smaller players are very necessary to a competitive team. Overall we need to get bigger but to have a Kane light and possibly a beartschi and Porier could complement us well with grit skill and size. I hope to god he signs, I have a retro flames jersey waiting for his name to be on the back. Here’s hoping for a championship so there is no reason to go back one more year.

  4. John Beck says:

    Bill,Interesting article NHL or stay in college? Note miami’s Andy Miele with 71 points 3 years back had a higher total than gaudreau,, but gaudreau still,has remaining games ,gets one mention.excellent highlight videos on gaudreau too, .we saw gaudreau play at frozen four in tampa as,a,freshman,he was unreal.John

    Sent from my iPad

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