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Finding Gaudreau

by Jason Pirie / Calgary Flames

He was always noticeable, but the more I watched him I realized he was a dynamic talent. He was making everyone else look stupid.Rob Pulford on Johnny Gaudreau

CALGARY, AB -- Lifting fans from their seats with great regularity, Johnny Gaudreau has emerged as a “worth the price of admission” kind of player.

Rewind, if you will, to five years ago and the young man who has become affectionately known as Johnny Hockey was just another diminutive player trying to prove his worth.

All 137 pounds of him that season with the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Dubuque Fighting Saints.

“The first time I saw him (at U.S. Select 17 camp) I knew he had a lot of skill, but like everyone else I thought he was really small. I came away from the rink that day thinking that kid is going to make one hell of a college player,” recalled former Flames scout Rob Pulford, who now serves as U.S. amateur scout for the Arizona Coyotes.

Pulford had a number of viewings – a total of 16 that season – to ensure what he was seeing was the real deal.

He realized his initial reports were accurate.

The kid could play the game.

And not only play it, but was above and beyond anyone he shared the same ice with.

The scout was convinced.

“He was always noticeable, but the more I watched him I realized he was a dynamic talent,” Pulford said. “He was making everyone else look stupid.”

Gaudreau would rack up 72 points in 60 games that championship season for the Fighting Saints en route to being named the USHL’s Rookie of the Year.

Was the cat let out of the bag?

The Flames had to be cautious.

Showing any signs of eagerness towards the highly-skilled forward would only lead other teams on.

They had to remain tight-lipped.

Pulford, sporting his best poker face, went as far as not speaking to Gaudreau that entire season, nor leading up to the 2011 NHL Draft.

Instead, he conversed with coaches of opposing teams whose job was to come up with game plans to stop the miniscule winger.

What was their game plan exactly?

“The answer was always we want our guys to put him through the boards, but their players would keep coming back to the bench saying ‘Coach, we can’t catch him’,” Pulford said. “Later that season these teams had changed their game plan to keeping him to the outside, but that wasn’t working any better.

“It reminded me of stories my dad (Hockey Hall of Famer Bob Pulford) used to tell me about that 99 guy. The game plans to stop him never worked either.”

Fine, so the kid could play, but how high could a player his size, or lack thereof, actually climb the hockey ladder.

Better yet, would he be able to survive at the next level?

Johnny Gaudreau at his first development camp in 2011.

“I really liked the kid, but it came down to figuring out where he fit in,” Pulford said. “By December I had him going from being a great college player to a good contributor in the AHL.”

Two short months later, though, his evaluation on the speedy forward had changed.

Pulford had now projected him to become a great AHLer with a long shot chance of developing into a depth player who may one day have an opportunity to have a cup of coffee at the NHL level.

“Every time I talked to his coach (Jim Montgomery) to find out about his makeup, his training, all the usual things we need to know as scouts, I kept hearing how special he was even off the ice,” he said.

Pulford was sold.

He had seen and heard enough.

“He was a special player who had tremendous hockey sense and he had a ton of skill and speed,” he said. “He was always three steps ahead of everyone else and I was finally convinced that his size was not an issue. He was small but he played big in big games.”

Gaudreau not only made a lasting impression on Pulford but also on Flames director of scouting Tod Button.

“Johnny was really small but every time I went to see him, or Rob Pulford and Duane Sutter went to see him, he was an exciting and fun guy to watch,” said Button, who has been flocking to rinks across the planet for the Flames since being hired as an amateur scout in 1997.

“There were no knocks on him as a hockey player. People looked at him and said he was too small. You’re always worried about size, but if you take away the size and emphasize what a player does well, that’s a foundation to an organizational approach.”

With the 2011 NHL Draft on the horizon, that philosophy would favor the Flames.

At least they hoped that would be the case.

“There was no comparable at the time. Other teams were scared away by his size,” Pulford said. “The only issue for us was trying to figure out where we would take him. Was he a fourth, fifth or sixth round pick? I told Tod that I thought he was better than other players we had ranked around the third and fourth round and Tod said ‘Good by me.’”

It was now Button’s job to sell the idea of selecting the pint-sized winger to then-Flames GM Jay Feaster, who was heading his first draft with the team that was renowned for drafting size and grit.

Despite having never seen Gaudreau play in person, Feaster put all his trust in his scouting staff.

“That was the year Jay took over (as GM) and he was adamant that we were going to go off the list,” Button said. “We were going to go 1 to 100 and we were going to rate and rank them and whoever was available when it was our time to pick that’s who we were choosing. But we had a tough time putting Johnny in a specific slot. I asked Jay for some leeway that when I thought it was time to select him we would do it.”

On their first trip to the podium, the Flames selected Swiss left wing Sven Baertschi – not an overly large forward in his own right – with the 13th overall selection.

In the second round, they plucked Finnish forward Markus Granlund (45th) and defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon (57th).

Without a third round selection, the Flames were forced to wait an entire 47 picks to finally get their man.

They pushed their chips to the centre of the draft table. They were all-in on the Gaudreau pot.

To say there was plenty of finger crossing (and praying to the hockey gods) during those anxious moments would be an understatement.

“We were confident we could get him at 104, but you’re still a little antsy,” Button said.

Of course, it all worked out in the end – in spades.

It wasn’t until Gaudreau’s first development camp, however, that Pulford and the Flames recognized what they truly had.

“We knew we had a good little player, but I would be lying if I said we knew we had a superstar in the making. If we had of known that we would have taken him in the first round,” Pulford said. “At first, I started getting texts from our pro scouts and coaches asking me who this stickboy was that I had drafted, but by the end of his first camp I was receiving calls telling me how special he was. He made an immediate impact. That’s when we started thinking we might have something here.

“And then, of course, he went on to college and played a big role there and he hasn’t stopped since.”

The 22-year-old New Jersey native, who scored his first NHL goal in his first game on his first shot, has erupted for 55 goals and 143 points in his first 160 NHL games.

For fans, players that generate excitement the way Gaudreau is able to don’t come along every day.

For scouts, he might be one of those gems that come along once in a lifetime.

“He is still, to this day, the smartest hockey player I have ever scouted,” Pulford said.

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