Every coach in the league has Their Guy. Their Guy is usually a role player who doesn’t have a ton in the way of skills or offensive numbers. Still, Their Guy is in the lineup every night, and the coach will always stick their neck for him.
Make no mistake, Freddy Gaudreau is Dean Evason‘s Guy. “I think my feelings personally on Freddy are well-known by now,” he told The Athletic’s Michael Russo in a recent Q&A. “I think it’s an organizational feeling now. You could play [him] anywhere. So we actually are going to see a lot of him at left wing. … If Marco Rossi makes the team, we have to find a spot in our Top-9 for Freddy.”
If you spent the offseason thinking that younger players with more pedigree — think former-first rounders in Tyson Jost and Sam Steel, or prospects like Adam Beckman — would displace Gaudreau in the Minnesota Wild’s lineup, that’s not happening.
Gaudreau will almost certainly be where he was last season, alongside Matt Boldy. Only this time, Rossi will (probably) start the season centering him, rather than Gaudreau centering Boldy and Kevin Fiala. The training camp groupings from Thursday sure reflect this, even if Steel is also among that group.
Lest we be unfair to Gaudreau, it’s really easy to see why he was Evason’s Guy. Evason and Gaudreau go back to their days in the Milwaukee Admirals, the Nashville Predators’ AHL team. Gaudreau showed a strong defensive acumen and good skating ability, two things Evason values highly. Evason’s high level of trust that Gaudreau won’t burn him is important.
But Gaudreau just seems like such an odd player to be a staple of an NHL Top-9. He’s spent his career as an NHL/AHL tweener. Before joining forces with Fiala and Boldy last year, his career-highs were three goals and 10 points. (Albeit, those ten points came in 19 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins.)
As strange as it seems that Gaudreau is getting this massive opportunity, he might well be the best fit for the role he’s going to fill. You can dismiss Gaudreau for being Their Guy, a role usually filled by the Nate Prossers of the world. In this case, though, Evason and the Wild have a point.
Let’s not forget that Gaudreau’s line was fantastic last year. 114 lines spent 150-plus minutes together at 5-on-5. Gaudreau’s line ranked 30th in controlling scoring chances, taking a 57% share. They were also the Wild’s best at generating them, too, at 2.95 expected goals per hour.
Even better, the expected goals turned into actual goals. A lot of them. That trio put up 4.59 goals per hour at 5-on-5 play, seventh in the NHL. That’s between Sebastian Aho/Seth Jarvis/Teuvo Teravainen (the Carolina Hurricanes’ top line) and Elias Lindholm/Johnny Gaudreau/Matthew Tkachuk (the Calgary Flames’ top line). It’s even slightly ahead of Kaprizov’s line (4.47 goals per hour).
You can, and obviously should, give Boldy and Fiala credit for their game-breaking offensive talents. Perhaps you might say that those players drove the bus more than Gaudreau. They probably did! But when you’re that successful, who cares? Gaudreau was part of a line that out-scored opponents 34-18.
Like with Ryan Hartman on the top line, Gaudreau doesn’t need to drive the bus. He just needs to be a complimentary passenger. Assuming Rossi is ready to take over for Fiala’s role, Gaudreau can complement the rookies in ways Jost and Steel might not be able to.
You see, the Wild built Gaudreau’s line on speed. Fiala was a burner, and Gaudreau skates very well. While Boldy doesn’t have the best footspeed, he can move the puck in transition thanks to his size and puck protection. That line’s identity should be preserved with Rossi, who has been outstanding in transition throughout his career.
Fiala and Boldy love to handle the puck, but when defenders keyed in on them, Gaudreau was a reliable third option to carry the puck into the offensive zone. He did so with success 60.9% of the time at 5-on-5, according to AllThreeZones. That edges out Boldy (57.5%) and was fourth-best on the Wild behind Fiala, Kaprizov, and Mats Zuccarello.
Jost doesn’t offer that transition support. He entered the offensive zone with possession just 44% of the time with the Wild and 50.6% with the high-flying Colorado Avalanche. A bottom-six role might depress those numbers, but he’d have a long way to go before matching Gaudreau.
Steel, whose skating is a knock, does get pretty good marks in entering the zone. He did so with control 57.6% of the time last year. Not bad, but it often didn’t translate to scoring chances. AllThreeZones puts Steel as having 2.5 entries resulting in scoring chances per hour last season. Gaudreau had 3.8 such entries per hour, despite carrying the puck much less.
You can point to the gap between talent on both teams, but Gaudreau’s proven he can play well with talented players. Why shouldn’t he get the first crack at playing with Boldy and Rossi?
Especially when that trust is there between him and Evason. Boldy was very good defensively last season, and Rossi has a sterling two-way reputation. Still, they have a combined 49 NHL games and are counted on as Top-9 scorers on a team with aspirations to go deep into the playoffs. They’re going to make mistakes.
That’s a big reason why Evason is inclined to put Gaudreau with the two youngsters. He was one of the Wild’s Top-5 defensive forwards last season. Having a player who can make good plays defensively and keep the puck moving forward when called upon would be a real settling presence.
The arguments for bumping Gaudreau from the Top-9 are done. Gaudreau has proven he can be a valuable third member for a scoring duo. With Fiala out of the organization and Rossi stepping in, Gaudreau is no longer blocking a future star. His game is perfect for facilitating his two linemates. He’s Their Guy, and after showing why that’s a good thing last year, he’s going to get to demonstrate why yet again.
All data from Evolving Hockey unless otherwise stated.