It’s been a rough few years for Calgary Flames fans, but there’s now a glimmer of light visible at the end of the long rebuild tunnel.
After a season that saw the team acquire their highest draft pick in franchise history, fans are eagerly awaiting the debut of the franchise’s most highly anticipated prospect since Dion Phaneuf.
No, not 2014 fourth-overall pick Sam Bennett — 2011 fourth-round pick Johnny Gaudreau.
Gaudreau being selected at No. 104 overall was met with little fanfare three years ago. The first draft of the post-Darryl Sutter era had already resulted in the acquisition of small-but-skilled forwards Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund, a shock to the system for Flames fans who had become accustomed to the steady addition of size and grit to the prospect pool.
The drafting of Gaudreau, however, introduced a whole new dimension of undersized forwards to the organization.
Listed as 5-foot-6, 137 pounds on draft day, Flames fans were highly skeptical — if not downright pessimistic — about the pick. A draft day thread on the popular Flames forum Calgarypuck reads as a barrage of short jokes mixed in with the odd lamentation over not picking Michael St. Croix instead.
But somewhere between draft day 2011 and this summer, something special happened — Johnny Gaudreau put together one of the most remarkable college careers in recent memory.
A cool point-per-game rookie year at Boston College put him on the radar as one of Calgary’s most intriguing prospects. Gaudreau’s sophomore season saw him post an NCAA leading pace of 1.46 points per game and win a gold medal with Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championships. This past season Gaudreau was in a league of his own, notching 80 points in 40 games, winning the Hobey Baker Award as a 20 year old and popping his first NHL goal in his first and only game in the Flames’ season finale against the Vancouver Canucks.
With his first full professional season looming, fans are beginning to set expectations for Gaudreau — ranging from languishing in the AHL for most of the year to Calder-worthy NHL domination. Reality probably lies somewhere in the middle. Exactly how good will Johnny Hockey be in 2014–15?
The problem with predicting Gaudreau’s season is that we really don’t have any good comparisons to draw from. Sure, there have been a few recent undersized NCAA stars we can use as a starting point.
After a 1.82 point-per-game season in his final year at Miami University (Ohio), 5-foot-8 Arizona Coyotes prospect Andy Miele had three great AHL seasons. But since then, he has only played in 15 NHL games and has yet to score a goal.
Fellow Boston College alumni Nathan Gerbe followed up his 1.58 point-per-game Junior year with two productive AHL campaigns, and has been an NHL regular for the past four seasons, registering 31 points in 81 games for Carolina in 2013–14.
Peter Sejna’s history most closely mirrors Gaudreau’s story so far. In 2002–03 the 5-foot-9 Sejna scored 82 points in 42 games for Colorado College and scored in his first NHL game for the St. Louis Blues to cap off a promising start to his career. Sejna had some productive AHL seasons, but ultimately failed to break into the NHL. He ultimately played in 49 big-league games before retreating to the AHL-NHL tweener utopia of Switzerland to skate out his days in relative obscurity.
Flames fans shouldn’t fret over these underwelming examples, though.
The key difference between these cases and Johnny’s is age. Miele (23) and Sejna (24) were much older than Gaudreau in their final year of college. Gerbe has managed to enjoy a respectable NHL career, but even he was a year older than Gaudreau was in his final year at BC and also scored 0.42 fewer points per game. Theoretically, Gaudreau is ahead of all of these guys in his relative development.
Gaudreau’s uniqueness isn’t just in the numbers.
To describe Gaudreau as “skilled” is something of an understatement. The shot and speed are both there, but when mixed with his wizardly puck handling skills and ethereal hockey sense, the result is a player that has managed to delight hockey fans at every level he’s played at. For those who haven’t seen him play, this dismantling of the Germans at the IIHF World Championships this May — he scored 10 points in eight games — was the most apt example I could find on YouTube.
Having unloaded wingers Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak and entering only their second year of the rebuild, the Flames’ roster situation is ideal for a prospect of Gaudreau’s caliber. Despite Brian Burke and Jim Treliving’s attempts to slow down the hype train, it is simply too difficult to imagine a scenario where Gaudreau doesn’t make the team out of camp.
The more interesting question is: Who will Gaudreau line up with?
If Mikael Backlund continues to slot in against opponents’ top lines, and if the Flames feel Sean Monahan can handle an increase in quality of competition, I’d like to see Gaudreau centred by a reliable veteran like Matt Stajan. Both Stajan and Gaudreau play a steady 200-foot game. Mix in a young right winger, such as Joe Colborne — who adds some size and resilience against the boards in the offensive zone — and I think such a line could be ideal for both the Flames and for young Johnny.
Of course, if Bob Hartley wants to keep playing Stajan against tougher competition, a Gaudreau-Monahan-Colborne line would surely excite fans who have been eagerly awaiting Calgary’s youth movement.
As with any rookie, there will be adjustments that Gaudreau will have to make.
The college kid, who had a 31-game point streak last year, will go through a dry stretch or two. But anyone who thinks that Gaudreau won’t make the team or will only make a minimal impact need to look past his size — he’s now 5-foot-9, 150 pounds — and consider the abilities that got him to this point.
If 5-foot-7, 153-pound Paul Byron could have success with the Flames, as he did in 2013–14, Gaudreau could do the same this year. I expect Gaudreau to put up at least 0.5 points per game this season in the NHL.
Come find a seat with me on the hype train, there’s still time before it leaves the station.