Sunday, April 13, 2014

Johnny Gaudreau in the NHL: A Limited Engagement (for now)?

Johnny Gaudreau will make his much-anticipated debut for the Calgary Flames tonight against the Vancouver Canucks. Enjoy it, everyone, as it may be a while before his next NHL game.

While CBA rules -- as confounding as they are sometimes, means Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver will be as close as Gaudreau can get to Abbotsford this season, I fully expect Gaudreau to be reporting to the Heat six months from now when the 2014-15 seasons begins. Here is why:

The Flaw with the Monahan Comparison

Many have already brought up Sean Monahan. The argument being that Gaudreau looked just as good as Monahan did last July at the Flames development camp, so why couldn't he also step right into the NHL next year. Heck, he'll even be two years older than Monahan was this season.

The big difference with how Monahan was handled this year -- staying with the NHL club the entire season, compared to Gaudreau's situation next year is the options available. When it comes to moving on to the all-important 'next level', increasing the challenge so a prospect's development curve doesn't flatten out, the two situations are very different.

For Monahan, who turned 19 on Oct. 12, the options were limited. Since the American Hockey League was not a possibility per an agreement between the NHL and CHL that prohibits that route at Monahan's age, the choice was he either go back to the Ottawa 67's, where he had already played 207 games over three full seasons. Or, he remain with the Flames. His play in the pre-season, as well as October as the NHL season began, clearly showed that he was ready for a next level so Calgary was where he stayed.

Gaudreau's situation is entirely different. When he arrives at training camp next year at age 21, there will be two options for the New Jersey-born left-winger to play at a higher level. There's the NHL, obviously, and there will also be the AHL. Both will present new challenges after three years of NCAA hockey and I'd look at it this way: When your child graduates from the kiddie pool to the regular pool, does it make sense for them to close their eyes, plug their nose and immediately dive into the deep end? Not so much. Instead, the smart approach is slip into the water at the shallow end and move towards the deep end.

Why the AHL Route Makes Sense

First, a disclaimer. I won't altogether rule out the possibility that Gaudreau impresses the coaching staff so much next September that he earns a spot in the Flames line-up to start the year. Heck, maybe he'll never play a game in the AHL. We'll have to wait until September and with a longer body of work determine what makes sense. However, I'd be very, very surprised if he starts the season with the Flames for several reasons.

1. Get Acclimatized to the Rigorous Schedule

An adjustment that can't be overstated is how grueling the pro hockey grind is compared to U.S. college hockey. This year with Boston College, Gaudreau played only 40 games. Last year, he played 35 games. At 76 games, the American Hockey League regular season is longer than his past two NCAA seasons combined. And that's not even factoring in the playoffs and the possibility of up to 28 more games. So at minimum, you're looking at double the amount of hockey games than you're accustomed to.

Then, there's the travel. While playing at the Boston College campus in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, many of their road trips were in-state to places such as Boston, Cambridge, Lowell, Worcester and Andover. In contrast, there are no in-province trips for Abbotsford. In fact, nothing remotely close. Instead, we're talking about lengthy journeys to the likes of Des Moines, Iowa. Or Utica, New York. Or Cedar Park, Texas. Or Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Hamilton, Toronto, etc.

Boston College traveled a total distance of 14,000 km this season. They left the Eastern time zone only once for a weekend trip to Minneapolis and two games with the University of Minnesota.

In comparison, by the time Abbotsford's 2013-14 regular season ends -- so this doesn't include the playoffs, the Heat will have travelled over 95,000 km, nearly seven times the distance.

If you travel regularly -- for work or otherwise, you'll know that it is never as glamorous as people think -- especially in the minors. Delayed flights, cancelled flights, malfunctions, weather delays, bus detours. It can be and often is exhausting.

2. Opposing Bigger, Stronger Players

For Gaudreau, his diminutive size is the story line that will never, ever go away. He's listed on the Flames roster as 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds although he says he's more like 160. Based on official rosters of all 30 teams maintained by the NHL, 150 would make Gaudreau the lightest player in the NHL and 160 still lands him in the bottom five of over 970 players (second lightest is Flames teammate, Paul Byron). The adjustment Gaudreau will face in the NHL of playing against bigger, stronger and older players is going to be considerable, there is no denying.

The good news is the AHL provides a very similar proving ground.

For example, the Flames play Vancouver on Sunday. The Canucks roster averages 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. Comparably, Abbotsford plays Oklahoma City on Sunday. The Barons roster averages 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds.

What you get in the AHL, which is a luxury you don't have in the NHL, is a bit more time and space and while Gaudreau works on thickening up his frame and moving that 150 into the mid-160's at minimum, this is a good thing. Like some minor hockey parents when their kids arrive in bantam and body contact for the first time, we don't want Mrs. Gaudreau having to cover her eyes every time little Johnny heads into the corner in pursuit of the puck.

3. 2014-15 Isn't the Focus Anyway

It's understandable that fans could look at how competitive Calgary has been over the final three months of this season -- either winning, or losing closely, and wonder if playoffs could be a possibility next season. After all, since Jan. 18, the Flames record of 20-13-1 is better than several playoff-bound teams.

While I don't see any reason the team can't be as competitive as it was this season -- with Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie anchoring the blue-line and several rookies this year being that much better as sophomores, it's a stretch to believe Calgary can pick up the extra 15 points that would be necessary to get into the playoff mix in an awfully tough Western Conference.

Given the highly touted youth that is in the pipeline finally, guys like Morgan Klimchuk and Emile Poirier probably bound for the AHL next year, the season that Flames fans should really be circling on their calendar is 2015-16. Wedding plans, spring vacation plans, that is the year that ardent Red Mile enthusiasts are going to want to keep their April and May calendars open... just in case.

Knowing that, why rush Gaudreau unnecessarily? Let him adjust and learn the NHL game in the AHL, where he can do so at an appropriate pace.

4. See Gustav Nyquist

So there's this guy named Gustav Nyquist, perhaps you've heard of him? He's got 23 goals in his last 33 NHL games and has taken the NHL by storm. How Detroit has handled him is making veteran Red Wings GM Ken Holland look like a genius and might be a blueprint that the Flames should closely consider when it comes to Gaudreau's career path. After all, there is a lot in common between the two former college players.
  • Both were NHL 4th round draft picks -- Nyquist 121st in 2008, Gaudreau 104th in 2011.
  • Both Turned Pro After Three Years of College -- Both playing in Hockey East, Nyquist was at the University of Maine, Gaudreau at Boston College.
  • Both won a NCAA scoring title -- Nyquist in 2009-10 (19-42-61 in 39 gm), Gaudreau this past year (36-44-80 in 40 gm).
  • Both had Hobey Baker-worthy seasons -- Nyquist was runner-up in 2009-10, Gaudreau, of course, won it on Friday night after being a runner-up last year.
  • Neither is Six-Feet Tall -- While Nyquist is much more generously blessed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, he doesn't tower over others. Gaudreau, hopefully still growing, is listed as 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds.

Detroit was extremely patient with Nyquist. He spent parts of four seasons in the AHL including two close-to-full years. During that time, his short NHL stints didn't amount to much. Prior to this season, he had four goals in 40 NHL games. But the Red Wings were patient -- extremely patient, and now they've got a real talent on their hands. With 28 goals in 57 games after being called up on Nov. 21, Nyquist ranks sixth in the NHL in goals-per-game behind Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Max Pacioretty, Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski. That's pretty good company.

In addition to Nyquist's 122 AHL games, other top NHL scorers also played significant stretches in the AHL to begin their career: Patrick Sharp (163 games), Jason Spezza (122), Nazem Kadri (119), superb Tampa Bay rookie Ondrej Palat (117), Brad Marchand (113), David Krejci (94) and Kyle Turris (86), to name just a few.

Now maybe Gaudreau's stint in the minors would be short. Ryan Getzlaf (8-25-33 in 17 gm) and Corey Perry (16-18-34 in 19 gm) began their careers in the AHL with Portland in 2005-06 (worth noting, this was while Brian Burke was General Manager in Anaheim). It took less than 20 games for them to prove they were too good for that level. Why not play it cautious with Gaudreau also and have him earn his way to the NHL the same way instead of starting him at the top and run the risk of sending him the other direction like the Flames ended up doing with Sven Baertschi this season.

5. Building a Nucleus and Developing Together

In Abbotsford next year could be many key players that will be important pieces when Calgary is ready to become playoff-relevant once again. I'm talking about players like Poirier, Klimchuk, Patrick Sieloff, Tyler WotherspoonMarkus Granlund (although the latter two could graduate to Calgary next fall). Add in Gaudreau, Bill Arnold and Kenny Agostino and you have what could be the core of the Flames for many years to come. 

Again, I draw your attention to the Detroit model and why wouldn't that be one to emulate considering they've made the NHL playoffs an astounding 23 years in a row -- no rebuilding required. 

If you look at the Red Wings youth, who are all key contributors on the Red Wings today -- Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Joakim Andersson, Brendan Smith, Riley SheahanBrian Lashoff, all of them played together and got better together while toiling for Grand Rapids in the AHL. 

It's that type of succession planning that will keep the Red Wings in the playoffs for many more years to come.

Conclusion

Perhaps the best indicator of what the Flames and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke are already thinking came on Friday night. 

That night, in a telephone interview with local media, Burke shared his opinion on player numbers and how it's going to change for Calgary next year.

"We're doing away with high numbers in Calgary. We're going to get back to No. 1 to 35," said Burke. "If that was good enough for the great teams in the '50s, than it's good enough for us.”

Meanwhile, that same night in Philadephia, Gaudreau was being awarded jersey No. 53, and Arnold was given No. 46.

"They're taking training camp numbers, just like any other young player," explained Burke. "The way we do it in Calgary now is you have your training camp number and you keep that training camp number until you make the team."

So, while college kids Gaudreau, Arnold, Agostino and Bryce Van Brabant will skip the Pacific time zone this year and subsequently miss an opportunity to join an Abbotsford team getting primed for the playoffs and a Calder Cup run, you can bet most -- if not all of them, will arrive in British Columbia next fall when their pro careers really get underway.

Heads up Abbotsford, get your seasons tickets for next season now as Johnny Hockey will be coming to an arena near you.

3 comments:

  1. The NCAA average player size is actually on par with the NHL. So it's not really that much of a jump, size wise, for the kid.

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  2. yeah but the speed is an up tick so it is a jump

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  3. Calgary has a history of blowing it with young small players....they even cut Martin St. Louis..

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