Flames fans who were at the Don Hartman NE Sportsplex back in 2011 for Johnny Gaudreau’s debut at the Calgary Flames’ summer development camp likely still laugh when thinking back on their first glimpse.
He looked like a staff member’s kid invited onto the ice for a twirl with the rest of the prospects. He was swimming in his equipment. The Flaming C jersey went to his knees, billowing like a sail behind him and needing a tactical Gretzky tuck to keep it from dragging on the ice as he zipped around.
Even after seeing how quick and skilled he was in action with the other newbies, you’d be hard-pressed to find even one person who saw him there who truly believed he could become one of the most dynamic and exciting players at the National Hockey League Level.
The equipment fits a little better now, but many seeing him in person for the first time still can’t believe how small the 5-foot-9, 157-pounder is when dwarfed by other NHLers.
“He’s filled out a little bit,” veteran Flames teammate Matt Stajan said with a laugh when asked to recall the first time he laid eyes on Gaudreau. “Obviously he’s matured and he’s got a little stronger with age, but he’s not a driving force in the weight room with his strength.”
Strength may have little to do with it, but there’s no denying that Johnny is the driving force of the Flames’ offence now.
His line (Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Micheal Ferland) has provided 17 (or 61 percent) of the team’s relatively paltry 28 goals from the forward ranks so far. The team has scored just 36 times total this season. Gaudreau netted four of them himself, and has assisted on another 15 (seven first assists) — factoring into nearly 53 percent of the team’s output.
“Hopefully it drops down to 25 percent and we start finding the net five, six times a night,” Gaudreau told reporters Tuesday after the morning skate ahead of their 5-3 loss the Vancouver Canucks. “A lot of our games have been 2-1, 3-2 games. You need your top offence to find the net there in those.”
Monahan has been doing that, with plenty of assistance from his left-winger. The sniper has eight goals and his setup man has primary assists on three of them, with four secondary assists. Only one of Monahan’s goals has come without Gaudreau’s help.
For some perspective, it took 24 games for Gaudreau to earn 15 assists last year. The electric start to his fourth NHL campaign is more along the lines of what people expected last year, which turned out to be relatively disappointing after a promising start to his pro career.
His rookie season included 24 goals and 64 points in 2014-15 — all coming in the final 75 games after he took the first handful to find a way to adapt to the greatest league in the world after three years of NCAA hockey with Boston College. He added nine points in 11 playoff games to cap it off.
Stajan remembers seeing the skill set when Gaudreau joined the veterans at training camp in 2014.
Like most people, Stajan wondered how he’d adjust when guys would attack him physically.
“That’s the question I think everybody had,” said Stajan, who watched as Gaudreau got his audition through the preseason and remained on the team when the regular season began.
Held without a point in the first five games and a healthy scratch for the sixth, there was a brief period of doubt that the 2011 fourth-round gamble would be able to make the transition successfully.
Then came the game in Winnipeg. Stajan recalled both the team they were playing and the precise moment that Gaudreau would gather some NHL confidence.
On the powerplay with Mason Raymond and Joe Colborne, Gaudreau got the puck behind the net on Ondrej Pavelec’s right side and jammed it into his left before you could say Johnny Hockey.
In a matter of weeks, Stajan — and most of the hockey world — knew the Flames had found something special.
As a sophomore, he hit 30 goals and 78 points in 79 games, but the Flames missed the playoffs.
Last year he had a modest setback. A contract holdout, finger injury and a shooting percentage under 10 limited Gaudreau to 18 goals and 61 points in 72 games. Not terrible contributions by any stretch, but not the progression he wanted, either. And during a disappointing playoff sweep, he had just a pair of assists in the four games against the Anaheim Ducks.
“Last year, I had a new coaching staff, it was difficult to get into the rhythm of things,” admitted Gaudreau, who was clearly affected by so many of the early obstacles.
Perhaps this year will be the one that sees Gaudreau pile up the points personally while the team manages to carry some regular season success into the playoffs.
Head coach Glen Gulutzan is hopeful, having seen the strides his star forward has taken over the last year.
“Oh, I’d like to say that he’s learning the game more under his new coach, but I don’t think he is. I just think he’s that good of a player,” Gulutzan said of Gaudreau.
“He’s putting on the layers of work every year. I think he looks quicker and more dynamic.”
Calling him a “real coachable star who wants to be good in both areas” of the ice, Gulutzan believes Gaudreau’s whole game is improved, watching him track and strip pucks and turn that into offensive opportunities.
Others are going to need to follow Gaudreau’s lead for the team to have the kind of success Gulutzan believes they are capable of. As incredible as Gaudreau’s own numbers have been, the percentage of production of the Flames offense he’s responsible for so far is staggering. The team’s secondary scoring is practically non-existent beyond the 3M line of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk.
The lower lines were shuffled with little success Tuesday due to Jaromir Jagr’s return, but the Flames can take comfort in the fact their top offensive tandem is off to a great start.
Mostly thanks to Gaudreau, who may only be a couple of inches taller and five or 10 pounds heavier than he was when we first laid eyes on him, but has grown into one of the NHL’s best playmakers, period.
“He plays to his strengths. He puts himself in situations when he can use his quickness and his body position to make plays. It works for him. That’s what’s made him elite — one of the most dynamic players in the league,” said Stajan, one of only four Flames remaining from Gaudreau’s draft year.
“It’s been great to see, just watching him develop year to year. He controls the game when he’s out there. It’s a special thing to see a guy become that player. He’s been able to do that in a short time early in his career.”