Johnson: Flames fans patiently wait for Gaudreau, hoping he’s not a Justin Schultz flight risk
Top prospect insists he’s staying in school at Boston College to improve his game, not sign with someone else when he’s done
The object of all the unease insists there is nothing sinister afoot. No hidden agendas. No carefully-concocted plots or simmering subterfuge.
“I really enjoy it here,” protests Johnny Gaudreau, the little guy with the big talent from Carneys Point, N.J. “I love all the coaches and the GM. I really enjoy my time when I come up here to Calgary.
“I’m just trying to get my education right now and I just want to keep playing hockey and hopefully I’ll get a chance to play for the Flames someday.”
As easy to pin down as a drop of mercury, as shifty as a card shark at a table full of rubes, he’s already conquered his current landscape.
Co-leading scorer for the gold-medal Americans at the last World Juniors. Hobey Baker finalist. Frozen Four and Beanpot champion.
If Gaudreau so chose, he could, with one flourish of pen to paper, take one of the left-wing slots on boss Bob Hartley’s starting-from-ground-zero club for the upcoming season.
Instead, he’s chosen to head back to Boston College for his junior year, and then likely his senior year, too. Which continues to leave folks hereabouts a tad fidgety.
Only last summer they watched defenceman Justin Schultz, drafted 48th by Anaheim in 2008, finish out his four years of college hockey eligibility, become a free agent, forsake the Ducks, and sign on with the Edmonton Oilers.
Might John Gaudreau, secretly dreaming of playing pro in, say, his home state or Boston, pull the same sort of sleight-of-hand?
Thursday, the first morning of Calgary’s 2013 development camp at WinSport Arenas, Gaudreau’s out there, No. 53, fizzing around the ice, slaloming past defenders, and later patiently posing for photos with fans wearing a Flaming C jersey.
Yet despite everyone’s most earnest assurances, some skeptics remain doubtful he’ll never pull on one for real.
“I understand (the apprehension),” says Gaudreau. “Like the Schultz thing. That was a big deal. Some players do it.
“I’m strictly going back to school to improve my game, not to wait out the years to try and sign with someone else.”
Outwardly, at any rate, the Flames remain the picture of calm. The lure of playing alongside younger brother Matt at B.C. this winter, the opportunity to pack a bit more poundage on that undeniably slender 5-foot-8, 155-pound frame before he ventures out on an ice surface against carnivorous, 220-pound men, and the enticement of finishing his schooling, they repeat, are all acceptable reasons for his returning to the Golden Eagles.
“I’d be more worried,” reasons assistant to the GM Craig Conroy, “if next year at this time we were at this same point. We have the same agent. And I’ll kill Lewis (Gross) if he pulls a fast one on us.”
(But seriously . . .)
“I think if Johnny looks at our team and the opportunity he’s got here, it’s a good fit. We’re rebuilding, he’s a young guy. If he wants to go back and play with his brother . . . he knows how we feel about him.”
Conroy’s direct superior, GM Jay Feaster, also claims his sleep — at least for the moment — is untroubled by Gaudreau’s reluctance to turn pro.
“I’m not concerned about it, from the standpoint of, ‘Do I think that he’s going to do four years of college, then wait until Aug. 16 to become a UFA?”;
“We’ve had enough conversations with Johnny and his family, with his family adviser, that I’m not concerned about that.”
“As we go forward, there will be opportunity for him on the left side. There’s one more year (at B.C.) and I don’t think it hurts anything. But clearly we’d like to get him here sooner rather than later.
“I know (him leaving as a UFA) is what the fans worry about, but I’m not concerned that he’s going to college as a ruse for, ‘I don’t want to play in Calgary.’ That’s not the case.”
Where he ultimately plays is one issue. If he can play at an elite level, given his size, is another.
Until any young hopeful is thrust into an NHL environment and, say, Dustin Brown tries to feed him six inches of composite stick shaft or Milan Lucic happens to look cross-eyed at him, you just never know.
But out on the ice at WinSport, against his peers, at any rate, Johnny Gaudreau is a step ahead, a burst apart. Somehow just out of reach. As smooth as a shot of Bailey’s on a cold Jersey winter night.
“How many times,” asks Conroy following the hour-and-a-half workout, “did we hear ‘Whooo!’ or ‘Aaaah!’ or ‘Wow!’ today? He’s so shifty. Everyone says ‘He’s small, so hit him.’ But he’s so quick, his hands are so good, he’s got his head up, has such great vision and he skates so well, especially laterally, that it’s way easier to talk about than actually do.
“You figure you’ve got him and then . . . he’s gone. He may not be huge but he’s electric.
“You can see the difference in him. He came here as a shy kid the first year, didn’t really talk much, push himself into the group a lot. Now he’s much more confident. He’s won a national championship. He’s done some amazing things.
“He wasn’t sure when he first got here, he was feeling his way like everybody else, but now you look at him and you know that he knows he belongs.”
Yes, but belongs where, and to whom, when he does finally decide he’s ready to test his mettle against the big boys?
“I’m just trying to show them,” says Gaudreau, “that I can make their team someday. I know every year I’ve been getting better and better.
“I know I want to make sure they believe in me and when I do come in I want to make sure that I’m ready.”
Seems utterly logical, that explanation, in every respect.
So the wait continues.
And with it, despite all those lovely assurances, the unease.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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