1. Here’s Johnny
Even before his hat trick on Monday night, I had been thinking a lot about Johnny Gaudreau.
That’s because I had been doing a bit of work to determine era adjustments for goals and assists numbers in college hockey over the years (vis a vis Jack Eichel vs. Paul Kariya, the two best draft-eligible freshmen in a runaway since 1992-93). In his draft year, Kariya went 25-75-100 in 39 games for the University of Maine, and I wanted to see how Jack Eichel stacked up with his 8-19-27 in 16 games for Boston University so far this season.
I also compared them to the draft-year totals of Brian Gionta, Dany Heatley, and Zach Parise, who round out the top-five in terms of points per game among 18-year-old NCAA rookies. The results can be found here. I thought they were extremely interesting.
But given how far ahead of the pack Kariya was even after adjusting for the high-scoring era of the early 1990s (2.27 adjusted points per game, compared to Eichel’s second-best 1.94 when accounting for today’s far stingier defending), there was really only one other modern season to which he could hope to be compared:
Johnny Gaudreau’s 36-44-80 in 40 games last season. Obviously 80 points is still well shy of Kariya’s 100, a mark that won’t be touched by anyone ever again in college, let alone a freshman. But when you adjust for the era, Gaudreau’s season and the number of games played blew Kariya’s out of the damn water.
Now, obviously, Gaudreau did this as a 20-year-old with a first-round pick on his line, and Kariya did it at 18 with two guys who were never that good (only one of his linemates, Jim Montgomery, made the NHL, and he played just 122 games over nine seasons).
I think this says a lot both about Gaudreau as a college player — i.e. he’s one of the best ever — and his potential ceiling at the NHL level.
2. Tough to compare?
Sure it is. Hockey’s way different now than it was 22 years ago. And some guys have skills that are perfectly suited to the NCAA game and not so much in the NHL. I think we’re starting to see now that, after a slow start, Gaudreau is a more than capable player at the highest level of the sport.
I mentioned this on Puck Daddy yesterday, but Gaudreau’s slow start has given way to him being almost a point a game over the last two months. But here’s something to keep in mind: In 35 games, Gaudreau is only 12 points away from what Kariya posted in 47 as a rookie in 1994-95 (he went 18-21-39, Gaudreau is on 10-17-27). Suffice it to say that scoring is a lot lower now than it was then; at the time of Kariya’s start, teams combined for 5.97 goals per night. Today, that number is 5.34.
Now, the obvious caveat here, too, is that Kariya went from what he did as a rookie to posting at least a point a game in the NHL over the next six consecutive seasons, and also that Kariya’s injuries derailed what was shaping up to be a pretty clear Hall of Fame career (402-587-989 in 989 games, plus a season and a half lost to two lockouts, and he retired at 35 due to concussion problems that had been limiting his effectiveness for years).
I am defintitively not saying that Gaudreau is going to become a Hall of Famer or anything close (he has the in-game talent but there’s an entire career to be played) nor am I saying that he’s going to be a point-a-game player. But what he can do to anyone in this league with his skill is just astonishing.
3. Monday’s game
The Kings contest should have been a blowout loss (Flames outshot by a considerable margin and dominated for most of the game; Calgary didn’t score at all at 5-on-5), but Gaudreau took it over in a way that I’ve seen before. Many was the time at BC where the team wasn’t playing well through a period, maybe 30 minutes, and Gaudreau would just go take it over all by himself because he both could and had to, and all he needed from his teammates was for the rest of them to not-blow-it when he was catching a breather on the bench.
The ease with which these things happen when Gaudreau is on the ice is often confounding. Let’s break it down:
On that first goal, he got a fortunate bounce on the power play, absolutely, but the speed with which he released that shot made it basically impossible for Jonathan Quick or any goalie alive to stop. Most guys on this team, maybe in this league, don’t get that shot off in time. But more important to the play is how he receives the pass from Kris Russell, and holds it for a second, drawing Trevor Lewis over to him and well out of the diamond formation the Kings were using on the PK. Lewis is then out of position for the pass back across to Russell, who taps it over to Dennis Wideman, who one-times it. The shot is blocked, but by this point Lewis is running around and had no chance to collapse appropriately to clean up the mess. Good recognition from Gaudreau there.
The second goal is a 6-on-5 situation, which helps things, but Gaudreau receives the pass behind the net and instead of immediately trying to stuff it on the short side, he takes a wider berth, and gets Quick to creep out and open up a hole in his pads that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. And that guy who was a step too slow coming from behind the net? Drew Doughty.
The third one was a little goofy, obviously, but Doughty was victimized again. Gaudreau finds a seam in the middle of the ice, and carries across the blue line. Two strides in, and there are four Kings who are closer to the puck than the next-closest Flame. Doughty is backchecking hard. Now, Gaudreau is a player with incredible vision; he looks over his shoulder, very briefly, in the split second before he attempts to center the puck. There isn’t a single Calgary Flame in the frame, so if he was looking for Monahan, who wasn’t even at the top of the far circle when Gaudreau was at the hashmarks, his pass was going to both be off the mark and go the other way. I’m not saying that he was attempting to play the puck in off Doughty’s skate, that would be impossible to expect. But the better play for him there is to shoot on the backhand and hope for a rebound. He got a lucky bounce, but I think he might have been trying for it.
4. How does he stack up?
Right now, Gaudreau is not first in rookie scoring. That honor goes to Filip Forsberg, who has been electrifying for the Predators and playing on their top line alongside James Neal and Mike Ribeiro all season.
Gaudreau is currently five points behind Forsberg, but eight ahead of Aaron Ekblad, so suffice it to say this is a two-horse race for the Calder. Right now, Forsberg is your clear winner, because he has two fewer games played and more points. He’s also faced tougher competition.
Here, in fact, is a usage chart for the guys who currently sit top-10 in rookie scoring:
As you can see this is Forsberg’s trophy to lose. And it’s important to note that zone starts don’t refer exclusively to where a guy begins his shifts; it actually refers to the zones in which faceoffs are being taken through a guy’s ES TOI, meaning that if he has a shift on which he gets three draws because his team put three shots on net, that’s three zone starts right there.
In fact, in terms of even-strength points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Gaudreau is actually fourth among these rookies behind Forsberg, Drouin, and Hoffman, and tied for fifth in goals per 60 with Sekac and Jooris.
Just some stuff to keep in mind going forward, but again those numbers include Gaudreau’s rather slow October.
5. The last two months
When you get into the discussion of November and December only, one starts to see how Gaudreau is taking over among rookies. He still trails Forsberg (and Ekblad) in ES points, and his points per 60 is tied for second at 2.3. His quality of competition is also starting to distance itself from the pack quite nicely, though it’s still well below Forsberg’s. His numbers also seem a lot more sustainable (10.5 shooting percentage) compared with the other guys.
And he’s shooting more. He’s being used more often and in more diverse situations, he’s personally setting up more goals. He still has room to grow across the board, but he’s already starting to do it pretty convincingly.
I think the most telling thing about what Gaudreau has done so far this year, though, is a comment from Bob Hartley from after Monday night’s game. When asked about using Gaudreau in these key situations, his response was simple:
“He leaves me no choice. His play demands it.”