July 18 2013 08:24AM
When you're covering Calgary Flames prospect camps, the first question you get from the more casual Flames fans is “Which one is Johnny Gaudreau?” The second thing you hear is “Ohhhh, wait, nevermind...” as the person speaking to you suddenly sees the little guy do something dazzling on the ice.
The fourth round selection of the Calgary Flames in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft has been the centre of attention for the past three prospect camps; the first because people were wondering how pint-sized he really was, the rest because he's racked up a lot of accolades playing in the NCAA. Standing a generous 5-7 and weighing just under 160 pounds, the New Jersey native has won an NCAA championship, a World Junior gold medal and was named one of the best college players in the United States last season for Boston College.
At this year's development camp, the fan reactions seemed to alternate between salivating over Gaudreau's immense talent and then mini-panic attacks when confronted with the possibility that he could sign elsewhere after he finishes four years of college – or two more seasons from now. On the first full day of camp, Gaudreau held court with local media and the subject of “Schultzing” the Calgary Flames was the topic du jour.
“I really enjoy it here, all the coaches and the GM. I really enjoy my time here when I come up to Calgary, and I'm just trying to get my education right now and hopefully I'll just keep playing hockey and I'll get a chance to play for the Flames someday.” said Gaudreau.
The 19-year-old (he'll be 20 in August) has completed two years of a communications degree at Boston College. While he's looking forward to pursing a second NCAA championship and the opportunity to play with his younger brother Matt this season, he cites his education as the primary reason for staying put in college. As for the opportunity to impress Flames brass at development camp, Gaudreau noted that it's part of a process.
“I'm just trying to show them that hopefully I can make their team someday. Whether it's this year or next year, I know I just want to make sure that when I come in I'm ready. I know getting my weight up is really important right now, so trying to focus on that pretty much in college,” said Gaudreau.
While nothing is ever entirely certain with college players until the ink is dry on a contract, the situation with Gaudreau and the Calgary Flames is fairly cut-and-dry, at least for the time being. The Flames insist that there's nothing to worry about and have made it clear that they want Gaudreau in Calgary when the time is right (and that he'll get to decide when that is). Gaudreau is openly complimentary about the organization, the city and the fans. While he hasn't ruled out the possibility of playing elsewhere by signing, he spoke a lot about playing for Calgary “someday” in the future (and contemplated timelines with the Canadian Press' Darren Haynes).
Gaudreau is probably a year away from making a serious decision about his hockey future. There's really no forward prospect in the system – aside from maybe Sven Baertschi – with his offensive sizzle, so a Corban Knight situation where he has too many guys ahead of him on the depth chart is unlikely. He'll also have finished most of his degree – and can probably tackle the remaining classes over the summer months – and he'll have spent enough time in a tough college conference to know if he can hack it at a higher level.
And for the Flames part, they can spend the next year or so amassing assets to complement Gaudreau and make his decision easier. One could argue that this process has already begun, what with the acquisition of bigger, more physical forwards such as Knight, Sean Monahan and Emile Poirier (ahead of the more physically slight Hunter Shinkaruk) over recent months. It's as if Flames management saw the difference in Gaudreau's on-ice confidence level at the World Juniors when he was playing with bigger line-mates compared to when he played with the more diminutive forwards.
Until Gaudreau signs on the dotted line, though, both Flames fans and management will probably operate under an air of cautious optimism. There are no sure things in life and you can't really blame a tiny guy for getting his education finished before gambling on a pro hockey career. But when the player in question is as talented and successful as Gaudreau, you sure wish he'd get it over with and sign already so everyone can see what he can do as a pro.