Two years ago, the holiday season saw a veritable clash of hockey titans. In the gold medal game of the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship, the United States beat Sweden 3-1 to capture their first gold medal since 2010. Now, two years later, two key players from that match-up are locked in a battle of their own over the National Hockey League’s Calder Trophy.
Johnny Gaudreau was a member of that United States gold medal-winning team, and in fact was the team’s leading scorer in the tournament. The pint-sized phenom from Carney’s Point, New Jersey has long been dogged by criticisms and concerns about his size. More and more, most recently as a member of the upstart Calgary Flames, Gaudreau has baffled critics and let his play speak for him.
In short: Gaudreau is really, really good.
A fourth round selection of the Flames in the 2011 Draft – the 104th player selected in that year – Gaudreau impressed many onlookers by making the Calgary Flames roster out of training camp. He further impressed them by adapting his game to the NHL level without changing very much. Standing a generously-listed 5’9″ and weighing around 155 pounds or so, many were concerned that he would get creamed in the land of the giants, or at least be relegated to a role as a perimeter player.
Instead, Gaudreau was scratched for a game after struggling to find time and space with the puck for the previous five. He followed coach Bob Hartley’s instructions – to merely relax and watch the game – and his game has completely opened up. In the 29 games since being a healthy scratch, he has 10 goals and 17 assists, a pace putting him near the upper echelon of NHL talents and in the elite of the NHL’s rookies.
Gaudreau’s 27 points on the season have put him just behind his old nemesis, Swedish forward Filip Forsberg, now toiling with the NHL’s Nashville Predators. Their paths crossing in the 2013 World Juniors may be the few things these guys have in common, and the differences between them cloud the waters a bit in terms of comparing their prospective Calder chances.
Exactly a year younger than Gaudreau, Forsberg was a highly touted prospect in the 2012 Draft and went 11th overall to the Washington Capitals. He spent 91 games in the Swedish Allsvenskan professional league before making the jump to North America; in the interim his rights were swapped to the Predators in exchange for Martin Erat. After a year toiling in the American Hockey League, he made the jump to the NHL full-time this season.
Gaudreau is several inches (and many pounds) smaller than Forsberg, which is likely one of the main reasons he was drafted significantly later in the 2011 Draft – 104th overall – than Forsberg was in 2012. He made the jump from the USHL to the NCAA’s tough Hockey East conference amidst concerns about his size. As he had done in prep school and in the USHL, Gaudreau proved his critics wrong and excelled in the NCAA. During his three years with Boston College, he emerged as one of the NCAA’s most versatile and exciting players, earning the nickname “Johnny Hockey.” His tenure in the NCAA included an NCAA Championship and a Hobey Baker Award. He turned joined the NHL this season with exactly one game of professional experience, compared to Forsberg’s 91 games in Sweden.
In terms of weighing one player versus another, right now, Forsberg has a clear lead over Gaudreau. He scores more often than Gaudreau and represents a larger proportion of his team’s offense than his Calgary counterpart, and also plays more minutes in more situations. In addition, for whatever it’s worth, even controlling for Forsberg playing on a better team, his possession numbers are notably better than Gaudreau.
Proponents of Johnny Gaudreau, however, point to a few factors. Primary among them is the perception that Forsberg was already a good, experienced pro when this season began. Gaudreau? He’s had to learn to become a good pro, and his progression during the season could actually propel him past Forsberg. In both his play with and without the puck, Gaudreau’s confidence has visibly grown since the start of the season, and while Forsberg is likely the front-runner for the Calder Trophy right now, the gap between him and Gaudreau is likely closing as more and more of the eligible voters for the Calder see the small forward in-person and get a sense of what he’s capable of.
In short: Forsberg is ahead by a sizable margin right now, but this race is likely far from over.