Wednesday, January 09, 2013

His name is Johnny Gaudreau, and we can't have him

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

So, like the title says Flyers fans, this 19-year-old phenom from Carneys Point, NJ (also the birthplace of Bruce Willis)  is officially property of the Calgary Flames, who took the winger in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.

And he plies his trade in Division I college hockey, which seems in this region to be avoided like the plague despite legions of hockey fans displeased or apathetic at the lack of an NHL season and prime slots on NBC Sports Network. 

However, anyone who harbored a bit of pariotism and willingness to disrupt their sleep schedules over the last two weeks saw Gaudreau at the vanguard of an American attack which blitzed the competition to the tune of 24-5 en route to their second World Junior Championship title in four tries.

He ripped through the tournament as the leading goal-scorer for the Americans, piling up seven in seven games, including three straight multi-goal efforts and a hat trick in a rout of Slovakia.

Including his sojourn with Team USA to Ufa, Gaudreau has struck for 18 goals and 32 points in just 21 games combined between college and international competition. That doesn't mean it was all sunshine during his first break from college action to spend time on the world stage.

“I’m happy I contributed to the team,” Gaudreau said to on Saturday night. “The first couple games I wasn’t starting out too hot. The coaches relied on me to contribute, and I didn’t feel like I was filling my role. But I got a chance to talk to some friends from home and it helped me a lot. I have great friends back home and they keep my head on straight. It was nice to be able to talk to them.”

Those desperate for a "hometown-boy-does-good" story -- since it appears Bobby Ryan won't be extricating himself from the Anaheim Ducks any time soon -- forget two simple, basic facts.

5-foot-8. 153 pounds.

Those are not, never have been, and never will be the dimensions of a "Flyer," to Paul Holmgren's and all of the fans' detriment. Remember the complaints from the Flyers front office at the "development" of James Van Riemsdyk at the offensively-oriented New Hampshire program a few years back? JVR was taller and heavier than Gaudreau, came out of college after just two seasons, and sped his way through the organization for three years before an offseason trade to Toronto.

Plus, if the 2012 Hockey East tournament MVP, dubbed in some circles as "Johnny Hockey" continues on his upward skill trajectory and manages to grow a bit and pack on some pounds, you know the Flames will try and wring a first-round draft pick out of Homer if he should ever decide to ring up Alberta. And he won't just do it for someone the organization probably regards as an average-looking college kid.

“Johnny is a known entity to us,” said Flames assistant GM John Weisbrod to the Calgary Herald last  Thursday afternoon. “We know how good this guy is. We know what he’s capable of. I’ve been thrilled — especially after him getting cut last year and knowing how much that hurt him — that he’s been able to have so much personal success and, to this point, team success."

Calgary has a history of smallish, speedy forwards proving themselves since moving from Atlanta. Hakan Loob. Joe Mullen. Robert Reichel. Theo Fleury. Now Gaudreau seems poised to join the ranks. Who do the Flyers have in their corner? Pelle Eklund and Rob DiMaio. Oh, yeah, Marty Murray and Pat Falloon. Not exactly an impressive list for a franchise that prides size along with toughness and skill.

How about the fact that of the handful of players to ever reach the NHL from the Delaware Valley, Ryan is the most notable after Mike Richter?

A quick rundown of the others: Ray Staszak, memorable only as one of the biggest free agent busts in league history, cast off by the Detroit Red Wings after only four games during a 17-win season in 1985-86. Jay Caufield is remembered more as a Pittsburgh Penguin and a marginal player whose career was propped up by Mario Lemieux's influence. Eric Tangradi, a traitor -- born here but under contract to the Pens. Anyone remember Delaware-bred Mark Eaton?

Gaudreau is following in the footsteps of a recent BC grad, Chris Kreider. Kreider, who skated in last season's NHL playoffs with the Rangers and currently plays for the Connecticut Whale, spent four years on the Heights, won a pair of national titles and was a linchpin of offense for Team USA's victory over Canada in the 2010 World Junior final. Kreider, at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, better fit the archetypal Flyers mold, but he is under contract to the Evil Empire and did not even apear to be on Philadelphia's radar during his college career.

The 19-year-old will return to the Heights this weekend as BC kicks off the second-half of its conference slate with back-to-back games against JVR's UNH, key matchups as the Wildcats have kept pace with the Eagles in the Hockey East standings and national rankings.

While Gaudreau was away, his teammates provided head coach Jerry York with his record-breaking 925th career victory, but also slumped to an 8-1 loss against host Minnesota in the final of the Mariucci Classic and a 3-3 home tie against Yale at Conte Forum.

Right when he came back from Russia, a little thing called the National Hockey League came to labor accord with its players' union, and with dreams of a 2012-13 season that will be played, come thoughts of what could not be in Orange and Black.

“I like playing behind the net,” Gaudreau says. “When I’m playing down low the D has to make sure to block out the front of the net and make sure they know where the puck’s at. With their eyes off me, I run around down low try and look for an opening for a pass here or there.”

That sounds very Legion-like to me. Renberg-ish, even. A perfect complement to bigger players he could be paired with who create space both behind and in front of the opposing net. What's more, is that Gaudreau has openly praised York for helping the young winger develop his defensive game -- another hallmark of "Flyers hockey" from those on the front lines.

Yes, the Flyers have begun to put more stock in draft prospects within American Division-I hockey, and you don't have to look further than Union College sophomore defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere to find that the front office is finally sharpening their acumen.

But it should sting a little more inside that the best of the best are still being passed by due to an antiquated philosophy.

We will certainly see more things from the speedy winger like this. And this. But the red light will be lit at our end of the rink in a few years, and those with the best view will be muttering to themselves that we coulda had one of the most exciting players to come from this area in a long time.

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