1. This is an important conversation
Even if you search really hard, you will probably not be able to find someone as enthusiastic as me about the chances of Johnny Gaudreau making an impact in the NHL this season. I think he has an incredibly high ceiling and is — without equivocation — a player who’s more NHL ready than most Flames prospects, regardless of how long they’ve been playing pro hockey.
Gaudreau has just one game under his belt as a professional player, and while he scored a goal in it, I don’t think anyone would be too willing to say he was definitively a difference-maker in it. That goal he scored was, in reality, a kind of fluky deflection; it’s not like he did what he usually does to opposing defenses and cut through his matchups like a white-hot knife through pre-softened butter.
He did a phenomenal job in rookie camp, and that highlight-reel goal he scored against Winnipeg in the opening game was something I’ve seen him do more times than I can really remember: Appear out of nowhere, run down an overmatched and terrified defenseman like a road-raging motorist plowing through a red light, and score a high-skill goal that the netminder had no chance to stop.
I know for sure that I’ve seen Gaudreau play hockey more than just about anyone in the greater Calgary area — about three dozen live viewings over the last three seasons, and probably a dozen more on TV — and I can say with certainty that he does this literally all the time. That’s why I think Gaudreau can make it in the NHL this year, right now, without seasoning in the minors: I’ve been watching college hockey for more than 20 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone have that much game-breaking capability. Gaudreau’s ability to stick a dagger in an opponent’s heart with a single shift is unrivaled by anyone I’ve seen at this level.
2. Under pressure
With that all having been said, just because he’s NHL ready — and again, he 100 percent is — the treatment he’s gotten in Calgary over the last week has been, to put it kindly, a bit much. Every day at camp there was a breathless dispatch about “I Can’t Believe What Johnny Hockey Did This Time!” To some extent, it’s understandable; again, he did very well in grabbing two goals (and three points in as many games) under relatively limited conditions.
But people put way, way too much stock in those tournaments over the weekend, at least from what I saw. The goaltender Gaudreau abused for the attention-grabbing backhander in the opening game was kid named Connor Hellebuyck who, like Gaudreau, played NCAA hockey. He had an awful night for the Jets, and lots of people on Twitter were commenting that it appeared he had “lost confidence” or something along those lines.
The idea that any player at this level would “lose confidence” after a bad performance, especially in this low-stakes environment, is absurd. Hellebuyck was the best goaltender in college hockey over the last two seasons, putting together a .946 save percentage on 1,545 shots (only 84 goals allowed) in 53 games; his career shutout number (12) is the same as his career loss number in those two seasons.
This is instructive. Just as a fans can’t let themselves fall to pieces over Hellebuyck’s bad night, they likewise can’t put too much stock in Gaudreau’s overwhelming skill based on these viewings. And that seems like exactly what everyone spent the entire weekend doing; Sam Bennett comparing his ability to Connor McDavid’s doesn’t help at all.
He’s going to be a very capable NHLer, but if you’re looking for anything resembling a franchise savior, you’re being a little misguided.
3. The point of concern
Then there’s the thing that happened with Frank Corrado, which must necessarily be talked about.
Gaudreau’s coming over the blue line, he’s nowhere near the puck, and Corrado gives him a super-late forearm shot right to the face. He leaves the game likely as a precautionary measure, and is said to be fine afterward. He didn’t miss the next game, but he also didn’t see much action.
So if you’re looking for the counterargument against Gaudreau’s NHL readiness, that’s it. His size makes him particularly susceptible to getting his head knocked off by some frustrated dumbass defenseman who he’s tortured all night or all season. I’ve seen it more than a few times.
There was some discussion after the tournament ended that one of the big concerns about Gaudreau was his elusiveness. That is, how ably he’d be able to avoid getting decked by big NHL defensemen who can skate really well; bigger guys in college don’t tend to be that good at moving around (though obviously exceptions exist) and the issue, then, is whether he can get through them with anything resembling as much ease he did at the college level. I would say that from what we saw this weekend and what I saw over the last few years, the answer is an unequivocal yes. His ability to almost never get hit is incredible.
But that doesn’t prevent cheapshot scumbags like Corrado from doing what they did. He had no reasonable expectation to get hit there, but boy did he ever. If someone’s going to use that as the case against his readiness, they might want to consider that literally any player is able to get clobbered like that at almost any time, whether it’s Johnny Gaudreau or Jonathan Toews. If a guy wants to put you face-first into the endboards, or elbow you a full second after the puck leaves your immediate area, then he can.
4. A potential solution?
If nothing else, this lends credence — if you’re looking to view things through this lens, and the Flames certainly are — that Gaudreau wouldn’t have gotten headhunted if there’d been someone on the ice who would have beaten Corrado to death for what he did.
The idea of surrounding your small guys with “beef,” as Brian Burke so eloquently put it, is one that’s going to be advanced by the team past, present, and future, especially in light of what just happened to the guy who’s weirdly being painted as some sort of salvational figure.
Will that be to the detriment of players like Gaudreau or Sam Bennett, who are smaller guys that bring a lot of skill to the table but will never be accused of playing “physical” hockey? Of course it will. You have to put skill with skill, plain and simple, and this is an event that’s going to dissuade the team from doing that. It ignores the circumstances — the game was already a blowout by that point, and rookie camps are where idiots try to “make an impression” with physical or even dirty play on a regular basis — and the “this could happen to anyone” circumstances as well.
That is, of course, speculation. But knowing the Flames as I do, the idea that Gaudreau would be saddled with at least one low-skill player throughout training camp and the exhibitions seems very likely from where I sit as a consequence of this incident in particular, and of organizational philosophy overall.
You’d have to think that’s detrimental to success overall.
5. And finally…
I don’t know why we have to have this conversation about Gaudreau’s size to begin with. This profile page from the Penticton tournament shows he put on a lot of weight to get ready for the NHL this summer: