A month from today, the U.S. National Junior Team will begin its quest for the World Junior title against Germany. Additionally, USA Hockey is expected to announce its preliminary roster for its pre-tournament camp early next week. Stay close to USofH for complete Team USA WJC coverage.
Johnny Gaudreau — Left Wing
Hometown: Carneys Point, N.J. Birthdate: August 13, 1993
Current Team: Boston College
NHL Rights: Calgary Flames (4th Rd., 104th overall, 2011)
National Team Experience: U.S. Under-18 Select Team (2010 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka, 2nd place)
As Johnny Gaudreau racked up points in his first and only season with Dubuque in the United States Hockey League, I wondered if it would be enough to convince NHL teams he was a pro prospect. Players at his size can’t just be productive, there has to be something special about them. With my lack of familiarity with him at the time, I didn’t know if Gaudreau had that special quality. Then I finally got to see him play.
The first time, in a game against the U.S. Under-18 Team, Gaudreau made a move that was so devastating, it took John Gibson almost two feet outside his crease before Gaudreau slipped the puck into the net. Prior to that I saw Gaudreau dancing around defenders and saw those elite puck skills on display. Then I got it. I still didn’t think an NHL team would take him before the sixth round, just knowing how tough it is for guys his size to get their due, but Calgary did and every year that fourth-round pick looks better.
Since then, Gaudreau has become one of the elite players in college hockey with Boston College. He already has a national title under his belt and is on pace to play a big role in the national scoring race this year, possibly garnering serious Hobey Baker buzz along the way.
Now USA Hockey badly needs him to take his immense skills with him to Ufa as he is the best left wing in the player pool by a lot. Goals can be awfully hard to come by, but Gaudreau’s creativity and skill should allow him to succeed against elite competition.
In a year with so much uncertainty for the U.S. roster, with many good candidates but few true great ones, having locks like Gaudreau helps a lot. There’s no uncertainty there.
Now a sophomore at BC, Gaudreau leads the Eagles and ranks fourth in the country with 19 points (9g-10a). Averaging 1.73 points-per-game is big, but it’s his timely scoring and continually coming through in big situations that make him an invaluable asset.
Gaudreau has limited international experience, with just the 2010 Ivan Hlinka to look back on, but he’s played on championship teams in back-to-back years. In his rookie-of-the-year campaign in the USHL, he helped the Dubuque Fighting Saints capture the Clark Cup in their first year of existence. Then last year, he went on an absolute tear for Boston College, particularly in the last half of the season and throughout the postseason. Gaudreau was named Hockey East Tournament MVP and scored the ridiculous goal that iced the national championship game, as seen here:
When it comes to smaller players, success usually gets qualified with a “for a little guy,” but that would be an inaccurate assessment of Gaudreau’s game. He’s not just good for a small player, he’s a good hockey player period. Right now, he’s in the top one percent when it comes to college hockey players and there’s reason to believe he could be an NHL regular one day.
Gaudreau plays a style that looks almost European, and I don’t mean that as a snarky Cherry-esque euphemism for soft. It’s the creativity that you most often see out of Swedish and Finnish players that Gaudreau seems to have. He’s not your typical North American, north-south, dump-it-deep-and-go-get-it player. He uses the whole of the ice to make things happen and perhaps more importantly, keeps the puck on his stick until he finds the best option for it.
Gaudreau isn’t a hockey robot like so many of the young players coming through the ranks. Most American players don’t have that flair or the ability to do something you haven’t quite seen before. That’s why Gaudreau could be a huge asset to Team USA.
The big ice should be to his advantage, with a little more space to make things happen even though he probably doesn’t need it.
One thing that remains to be seen is that while Gaudreau has been playing against players much older and stronger than he over the last few years, and no matter how many big games he’s played in, he’s never been in a situation as emotionally charged as Team USA’s game against Canada will be on Dec. 30. He may never have played in an environment as hostile as USA vs. Russia should be on Dec. 28.
That said, it seems every time someone throws something new at Gaudreau, he rises to the occasion and doesn’t just overcome it, he obliterates it. Can he do it again? If Team USA is going to have any hopes at a medal, he’ll have to.
Team USA’s Core
While USA Hockey has a plethora of good options for who to bring to the World Junior Championship, this team is not going to look as good as any of the past several on paper. There just isn’t the same level of offensive talent coming into the tournament. That said, the last two entries looked like they’d score in bunches, but really didn’t except in the gimme games.
While last year’s team had guys like Emerson Etem, Brandon Saad, Austin Watson, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Nick Bjugstad, just to name a few, they couldn’t get the job done and somehow ended up finishing seventh.
That’s part of the tournament’s thin margin for error, where things can go very bad very quickly, but also proof that the best teams on paper don’t always perform as planned. While Canada, Russia, Sweden and Finland might be able to ice better teams, it’s an 11-day tournament where anything can happen, so counting out the U.S. before they drop the puck isn’t a good idea.
If there’s one thing this U.S. team can hang its hat on, it’s the strong core that it has to build around. Team USA is going to have players that could be considered among the best players in the tournament at each position.
With Johnny Gaudreau at left wing, Alex Galchenyuk at center and J.T. Miller at right wing, if the U.S. chooses, they have an elite top line straight through. Each are different in what they bring to the table, but all are elite players in this age group.
Having guys that you can point to on the bench in key situations that give you the best chance for a goal is huge. Galchenyuk and Gaudreau played together at the National Junior Evaluation Camp and showed flashes of that high-end playmaking ability. Miller gives the U.S. strength, physicality and skill that should allow him to shine in those hotly-contested battles against Russia and Canada.
On defense, the U.S. has Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba. Both have game-changing capabilities and stack up well with any of the defensemen you’ll see in the tournament.
The U.S. has a guy in Jones that it can easily throw out against top lines and feel confident he’ll be successful in shutting opponents’ best players down. Trouba brings that toughness that sets the example in the more physical games and helps the U.S. dictate the game, while also providing a solid offensive threat.
In goal, Team USA will lean heavily on John Gibson, who has the ability to be the best goalie in the tournament, even with first-rounders Malcolm Subban and Andrei Vasilevsky in the mix. When he’s on his game, he’s as good as it gets for this stage of his development.
There might not be the depth of teams of the past, but there is strength at the top. That won’t be enough on its own, but it helps to have a straw to stir the drink and a strong core like this just might be it.