Not many years ago, the NHL was a league you needed to have size in order to play. It was very rare you’d see players below the six-foot mark. A big part of this was because bigger, slower defencemen were able to get away with all sorts of infractions such as hooking, holding, and slashing on a much more regular basis. Fast forward to where we are now, and even the smallest infraction is usually two minutes in the penalty box.
As a result, the big mean and slow defencemen are not nearly as common as they once were. You have to be able to skate to play in today’s NHL. This has allowed smaller, skilled players a much easier chance to make the league. Take Montreal Canadiens prospect Cole Caufield as an example. (from ‘David Schoen: Size doesn’t matter for NHL draft prospect Cole Caufield’, Las Vegas Review — 06/18/19) .
He was selected at pick number 15 at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, despite his listed size of just five-foot-seven, 162 pounds. Something like this would have never happened back in the day, and goes to show just how much the game has changed.
Fleury Paved the Way
Theoren Fleury was one of the first to become not just an NHL player, but a dominant one, despite his small stature. Without him, there are likely many other small players who wouldn’t have gotten a shot in the NHL. As a result, he is looked to many current and former players as an idol, even somewhat as a pioneer.
One of those players who benefitted from Fleury paving the way is current Calgary Flame Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau, also known as “Johnny Hockey”, is one of the most skilled NHL players in the game today, and has been one of the top players on his team for years now. As it turns out, these two have many similarities.
As I had previously mentioned with Fleury, he was an extremely small player, being listed at just five-foot-six, 180 pounds. Gaudreau is also very undersized. Although he has height on Fleury, being five-foot-nine, he isn’t as heavy, weighing just 165 pounds. Despite their sizes, it hasn’t seemed to impact either of their careers as they have both been able to produce high levels of offence.
The one difference with them in this category is that the game is a lot less physical for Gaudreau than it was when Fleury played. When Fleury was in the league, the game still featured those big defencemen who would punish you every time they could. Thankfully for Fleury’s sake, he was tough as nails and played a lot bigger than his size. While defencemen in today’s game are still certainly tough, they are not nearly as physical as they once were, which helps Gaudreau.
When Fleury played, it was clear he had an abundance of skill. He had two seasons with over 100 points, and three seasons of 40 or more goals, including a career-high 51 set during the 1990-91 season. Gaudreau is also extremely skilled. He just missed out on his first 100-point season in 2018-19, when he set a career high with 99.
They are also quite similar in career points per game. Fleury finished his career just over a point per game, with 1088 in 1084 games. Gaudreau is slightly behind, but is very close to that mark, with 445 points in 464 games.
Yet another similarity between these two is that neither were considered high-end prospects heading into their draft years, mainly due to their size. Fleury wasn’t selected until the eighth-round (which no longer exists) with the 166th overall pick at the 1987 NHL Entry Draft by the Flames.
Gaudreau took quite a while to get selected as well, not being taken until fourth-round with the 104th pick at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Looking back now, it is clear that both these players could and should have been taken within the first five picks of their respective draft years.
Both of these players have had long stints with the Flames. Fleury played in eleven seasons as a member of the Flames, before being traded at the deadline of the 1998-99 season to the Colorado Avalanche. Over the course of those 11 seasons, he played in 791 regular-season games, posting an incredible 364 goals and 830 points.
Gaudreau’s tenure hasn’t been as long but has been impressive nonetheless. His seven-season career has all been as a member of the Flames, and as mentioned above, he has posted 445 points in 464 games, 151 of those being goals.
There is a chance he is able to match or even surpass Fleury’s total number of seasons in a Flames jersey, but that remains to be seen as he has been subject to trade rumours over the past few seasons. Plus, he has just two seasons remaining on his contract.
Two Incredible Players
Of course, there are also several differences between these players. Fleury, as he himself has mentioned, played in a much more difficult era physicality-wise than Gaudreau, and as a result, played a much tougher and meaner game. He was also able to win a Stanley Cup, which Gaudreau has not yet been able to do.
However, Gaudreau still has many playing years left ahead of him, so he may soon enough win a Stanley Cup as well. Regardless, these two certainly have many similarities in both their games and backgrounds and both have undeniably impressive resumes.
Former Jr. A player turned writer. Cover both the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, and am part of both the Flames Faceoff and Oilers Overtime podcasts.