You could be forgiven if you saw Johnny Gaudreau for the first time in the Calgary Flames locker room and mistook him for the stick-boy rather than a National Hockey League superstar. At a listed height and weight of 5’9″ and 157 pounds, physically Gaudreau isn’t what scouts picture when they think about superstar players. But when you see the 22-year-old on the ice suddenly it all makes sense, because you don’t get nicknamed “Johnny Hockey” unless you’re pretty good at hockey. After just over a year in the NHL, Gaudreau has quietly emerged as perhaps the league’s most dynamic, game-changing player.
Born and raised in western New Jersey, just across the river from Philadelphia, Gaudreau was never a particularly big player for any of the levels of hockey that he progressed through but had to instead rely on speed, skill and his uncanny ability to avoid large-scale physicality with other players. He turned a lot of heads as a rookie with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League, putting up 72 points in 60 games and earning Rookie of the Year honours en route to a league championship. His accolades earned him a spot on the NHL’s Central Scouting Service’s final rankings, placing him 193rd among North American skaters – a lower ranking than his offensive totals deserved likely due to his listed 5’6″, 137 pound size. But the Flames drafted him anyway, taking a chance on him at 104th overall – 91 spots after they chose “can’t miss” Swiss prospect Sven Baertschi in the first round. From their commonality as 2011 Flames draft picks, the two left wingers see their paths diverge.
The undersized Gaudreau went where prospects that need some time to fill out go – the college route – where he spent three seasons terrorizing collegiate goalies with the Boston College Eagles. Gaudreau seemed to relish adversity, improving his defensive game and tweaking his offensive talents. Case in point? He was cut from USA Hockey’s World Junior camp in his first go-around, then made the team in 2012 and led the tournament in goal-scoring and his team to a gold medal. And Gaudreau’s two returns to college after winning an NCAA championship in his freshman year were probably as much about getting the chance to play with his little brother Matt for a season as they were about chasing a second NCAA crown (he never won it again) and a Hobey Baker Trophy (he won it as a junior after being a finalist as a sophomore). Gaudreau signed an NHL contract immediately after being crowned college hockey’s top player, and was flown via private jet across the continent to Vancouver for the final game of the 2013-14 season.
By the time that Gaudreau made his NHL debut, Baertschi had already gone through a rapid ascent and downward spiral as a Flames prospect. Baertschi made his debut under bizarre circumstances, summoned by the Flames from the Western Hockey League’s powerhouse Portland Winterhawks on an emergency recall late in the 2011-12 season. He scored three goals in five games and was immediately heralded as the team’s next big star and successor to aging captain Jarome Iginla’s crown as face of the franchise. When Baertschi returned to the Flames during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, his offensive talents remained but his lack of attention to detail away from the puck seemed to frustrate new head coach Bob Hartley, who soon seemed hesitant to use Baertschi in many situations. As a result, the Swiss winger soon found himself bouncing between the line-up and the press box, and the NHL and the AHL, and eventually the Flames ended up cashing out on the prospect by trading him to the Vancouver Canucks at the 2015 trade deadline for a draft pick.
After making the Flames roster out of his first NHL training camp, Gaudreau was very nearly demoted to the AHL. He went pointless through five games, generating just a single shot on goal and spending the sixth game of the season watching as a healthy scratch. This bit of adversity woke something up in Gaudreau, as he erupted for his first two points of the season and showed glimpses of the offensive talent that made him a college star. He generated 64 points over the final 75 games of the season, earning himself an appearance in the NHL’s All-Star Game and third place in Calder Trophy voting for the league’s top rookie. And he’s continued to grow, and is scoring at over a point-per-game place as a 22-year-old NHL sophomore. He’s been a fixture in the top 10 in league scoring for much of the season.
Gaudreau’s stall may be tucked away in a corner of the Flames locker room, between the defensemen and the goaltenders, but he’s far from an afterthought as he’s been the author of much of the team’s success since he first pulled on a Flames sweater in April 2014. Moreover, Gaudreau’s managed to overcome so many obstacles over his hockey-playing career – if he’d listened to his critics, he probably would’ve packed it in as a peewee player – that in-game road-blocks don’t seem to phase him very much. Case in point: in an early December game with Boston, the Bruins sicced pesky Brad Marchand on him. After they each earned coinciding minors for a skirmish, Marchand’s in-box trash-talk was met by a wry smile from the Flames forward.
— Hockey Motion (@hockey_motion) December 11, 2015
And then Gaudreau scored in overtime to complete his second career hat-trick.
Gaudreau was never supposed to make the NHL. Heck, based on his size he was considered a longshot to even become a professional of any stripe. But he’s managed to roll with the punches and adapt to the challenges that have been thrown his way through the first chunk of his career. And while Gaudreau seems to smile his way through adversity and has continued to impress as a player, you have to think that the 29 other NHL clubs that didn’t pick him back in 2011 are doing anything but smile when trying to keep him off the score-sheet.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.