Johnny Gaudreau Can Silence His Critics at the World Cup

When Johnny Gaudreau began to play organized hockey, he faced doubters and critics that suggested he go do something else. He was too small, they said, and he would get exposed at higher levels of competition. That assertion has turned out to be completely removed from reality, as he’s proven since he was a teenager.

Rising to the Occasion

Gaudreau performed well in prep school hockey in his Philadelphia suburb, but he’d get exposed in the United States Hockey League. He was Rookie of the Year and won a USHL championship (and even was chosen in the NHL Draft), but there was no way he would be able to do that in the NCAA. He was conference playoff MVP and won an NCAA Championship as a freshman, but there was no way he would be able to top that as a sophomore. He was conference MVP and led Team USA to a World Junior gold medal as a sophomore, but there was no way he would be able to top that as a junior. He won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player as a junior, but there was no way he would be able to transition to the National Hockey League without hiccups. He overcame a brief early-season stumble as an NHL rookie, only to top that effort with a nearly point-per-game performance as a sophomore in 2015-16. His first two NHL seasons included well-deserved appearances at the NHL’s All-Star festivities.

But there is no way he’ll be able to top those performances as he goes forward in his NHL career…right?

Hiding in Plain Sight

Gaudreau enters the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in a unique position. He’s a restricted free agent without the ability to sign an offer sheet, so he is left to wait while agent Lewis Gross hammers out a new contract with general manager Brad Treliving of the Calgary Flames. He’s simultaneously the lowest-drafted skater on Team North America’s squad of young guns – only goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was taken later – and he was the highest-scoring member of the team last season, 17 points ahead of Mark Scheifele. Of the entire North American roster, only five players have more career NHL points (Sean Couturier, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Brandon Saad and Scheifele) and all have played more NHL games. Only Connor McDavid has a higher points-per-game scoring rate than Gaudreau – 1.067 to Gaudreau’s 0.894 – and Gaudreau has played nearly four times as many games.

Yet despite his impressive resume – both in his entire hockey career and in the NHL alone – Gaudreau has seemingly faded into the background amidst the pre-season hype machine surrounding the World Cup. McDavid is the group’s captain, and openly spoke of as a bonafide superstar. That’s not to say that Gaudreau’s an after-thought, but on a team featuring nearly two-dozen past first round selections and first overall picks from five of the past six NHL Drafts, his soft-spoken “aw shucks” demeanour fades into the background to some extent. In a locker room with many dynamic personalities, Gaudreau more closely resembles the stick-boy rather than a budding superstar – something that’s been half-joked about since he arrived at his first Flames summer rookie camp in 2011. For what it’s worth: Calgary’s previous superstar, Jarome Iginla, exhibited a similar demeanour, preferring to let his play do the talking for him.

The Waiting Game

Roughly a month before his third NHL season is to commence, Gaudreau remains without a contract as his agent and the Flames negotiate. The monetary demands from his side – reportedly around $8 million per season – likely center around two factors: his primacy as an offensive catalyst for the Flames and his placement in the league’s scoring elite in 2015-16. He’s a top-ten scorer, and the argument is likely that he should be paid like one going forward. The doubts held by Flames management are similarly logical and almost entirely the same as previous criticisms of Gaudreau: he’s small and he hasn’t played a lot of games in the NHL yet. They’re not sure if he’s plateaued already, or if the league will figure him out. Some of their fears are well-founded, given the disparity between Gaudreau’s production at home (where Flames coaches can pick and choose which opposition he plays against) and on the road (where they can’t): he had 56 points in 40 home dates, but just 22 points in 39 road games. (For comparison’s sake, Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler had the same number of points as Gaudreau but nearly an even home/road split.)

That “what if” factor – What if Gaudreau remains an 80-point guy? What if his scoring rate regresses? What if he gets even better, as he has throughout the past 5-6 years of hockey? – is likely prolonging the negotiations and causing both sides some restless nights.

Big Game Johnny

In the pantheon of the Flames, Iginla remains the top of the pyramid as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, most beloved player, and a future first ballot Hall of Famer. His legend was cemented through a series of big moments that have probably glossed over some of his flaws. Iginla was a crucial figure in back-to-back Memorial Cup championships, arguably the toughest trophy in hockey to win because of the three-month duration of the junior hockey post-season. After being the best player on a bad Flames team for years and not getting the opportunity to play in big games, Iginla cemented himself as an NHL superstar through strong performances in the 2002 Olympics and the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs. There’s a sequence in Game 5 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final that’s known within Flames circles merely as “The Shift.”

Perhaps due to his luck of being on some really good teams over his young career, and perhaps due to the primacy of YouTube and other video sources in recent years, but Gaudreau’s legend has already grown to unheard-of levels in many hockey circles. While his impressive foot-speed and hand-eye coordination have earned him the nickname “Johnny Hockey,” another well-earned moniker is “Big Game Johnny” because Gaudreau seems to thrive in high-pressure situations. When a big event comes on the hockey calendar, within a few hours of it there is a GIF or a video of a snazzy offensive play by Gaudreau at a key moment.

As a college freshman, Gaudreau was tremendous in the Hockey East playoffs and scored several highlight reel goals in Boston College’s march to an NCAA crown. As a sophomore, he was the leading scorer in the World Junior Championship tournament. After going pro, he was over a point-per-game for Team USA at the World Hockey Championship. He’s scored more points against the Flames’ divisional rivals from Vancouver and Los Angeles than any other team, the latter being pretty impressive given how defensively staunch the Kings have been in recent years. Arguably his most impressive regular season performance was a hat-trick he scored in Los Angeles prior to Christmas in 2014-15, and he’s similarly terrorized opponents in high-leverage situations during his two seasons in the NHL.

For a player that thrives in big-game situations, the 2016 World Cup represents a perfect opportunity for a big-game player to have a big-game performance at a really opportune time given his tenuous contractual status.

A Perfect Storm

Let’s be honest here: the World Cup has been engineered specifically to get the best players in the league to a single mega-event. Most All-Star weekends don’t have the level of talent and star-power that the World Cup has drawn. The teams were drawn up to avoid any cannon fodder. The goalies include Vezina winners. The defenders include Norris contenders. The forwards have all scored a ton of goals. Stanley Cup winners are found throughout the tournament’s field. Yet the most dangerous player in the tournament may be its most unassuming.

The North American team has a “nothing to lose” mentality. Its players are all young and in the process of proving themselves, both in the NHL limelight and on the international stage. Because of his diminutive stature, Gaudreau has been proving himself for years. The World Cup represents a tremendous opportunity for him to do what he’s done on the big stage frequently in recent years: turn heads and open eyes with big-game performances. Given the suspected concerns about the sample of size of his elite performances, another handful of great showings against the game’s elite can do nothing but help him sew up a new deal with the Flames. He reportedly shrugged off concerns about his contract status when World Cup camp opened, as has become his style.

He seems content to let his agent do the negotiating. As he always has, Gaudreau chooses to do his talking on the ice.

The Hockey Writers coverage of the World Cup of Hockey 2016 is being brought to you by PrimeSport, the official Fan Travel & Hospitality Package Partner of the World Cup of Hockey 2016.