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Hockey Wilderness
  • Freddy Gaudreau Is At It Again

    Tony Abbott

    Freddy Gaudreau is the most polarizing of all the Minnesota Wild's forwards. On the one hand, he's a tremendous story, a player who seemed to be a career minor-leaguer before grabbing a full-time spot at age 28. It has to inspire everyone grinding away in the minors, awaiting their shot.


    That story works against him in some eyes, though. A 28 (now 29) year old who scored 18 points in his first 113 career NHL games isn't most people's top candidate for a scoring role. Yet, he's enjoyed that throughout his tenure with the Wild. Not coincidentally, these opportunities came from Dean Evason, who coached him in the AHL for years.


    Evason's made no secret about how much he loves Gaudreau. So when Gaudreau gets roles in the lineup — such as centering Kirill Kaprizov or Matt Boldy or regularly appearing in shootouts — that exceed his perceived talent level, it's easy to think nepotism is at play.



    That would be fair, except Gaudreau is performing again, especially during the Wild's recent hot streak. He rode Kevin Fiala and Boldy to a 14-goal, 44-point season last year. That more than doubled his career totals. Going into the season, it was interesting to see if it was lightning in a bottle or if there was some sustainable success there.


    Like most of the Wild, Gaudreau struggled to start the season. Despite getting over 17 minutes a night, he had just a goal and four points through 14 games. But now he's back on track and looking very much like the player he was last season. Despite only averaging 15 minutes a night, in his past 20 games, Gaudreau has eight goals and 12 points and is again settling into a role alongside Boldy.


    So, why did Evason still trust Gaudreau so much after a slow start? And is it really warranted? What's he doing to stay in a scoring role?


    The obvious answer might be scoring, which, yes, eight goals in 20 games will keep you in your spot. You can rightfully point out that, yes, his 22.2% shooting percentage at that time is very high. It's also true that, yes, three of those goals were on empty nets.


    So it's probably not the scoring so much as what else he brings to the table. And while his (and the team's) overall numbers took a dip this year, there are areas of the game where Gaudreau's stepped up.



    Gaudreau has improved his transition game from last season, according to data by Corey Sznajder of All Three Zones, who has tracked 11 Wild games this season. Last year, Gaudreau hardly handled the puck with Fiala and Boldy to enter the zone. He was last among the forwards who stuck with the Wild through the end of the season in zone entries per hour.


    With Fiala gone, Gaudreau's picked up some slack. Through the 143 5-on-5 minutes A3Z has tracked for him, Gaudreau is averaging 15.9 zone entries per hour. The only players ahead of him are Marcus Foligno (22.3 per hour), Kaprizov (22.0), Boldy (20.7), Joel Eriksson Ek (18.6), Sam Steel (16.8), and Ryan Hartman (16.3).


    Not only is he taking on more responsibility than before, but he is also doing more with his entries than almost anyone else on the team. Carrying the puck into the zone is much likelier to generate scoring chances than dumping the puck. And only Kaprizov carries the puck in more times per hour than Gaudreau.


    When Gaudreau enters the zone, he does it via carry-in 68.4% of the time. Aside from Kaprizov (85% carry-in percentage), the only players above 50% are Steel (60.6%), Mats Zuccarello (59.0%), Boldy (54.5%), and Eriksson Ek (51.2%).



    The reason carry-ins are usually preferred is that if you dump the puck, you have to get it back via the forecheck. And credit where it's due, Eriksson Ek's line is very good at that, for example. That's why Foligno and Jordan Greenway dump the puck so much.


    But do you know who else is good at recovering dump-ins this year? Gaudreau. Despite his line's preference for carry-ins, Gaudreau is fifth on the team in recovered dump-ins. The leaders are Eriksson Ek, Boldy, Kaprizov, and Foligno, perhaps unsurprisingly. If you can get the puck back the few times you have to dump it, congratulations. You've unlocked the secret to succeeding with multiple playstyles.


    That leads to more scoring chances for Gaudreau, at least according to A3Z, even if he and his teammates haven't converted as many as last year. His chance contributions (personal scoring chances + scoring chance assists) at 5-on-5 are at 6.70 per hour for the season.


    That might not be that far from the 6.50 he had last season but remember that this is a much less offensive team. He's now sixth on the team in generating those chances, behind Hartman (9.55), Kaprizov (8.51), Eriksson Ek (7.73), Boldy (7.05), and Brandon Duhaime (6.87).



    He's also doing this while continuing to rarely hurt the team. Evolving Hockey rates Gaudreau's even-strength defense as being top-20 among forwards in the NHL. He's taken just one minor penalty in 544 minutes, which is ridiculously good, especially on a penalty-happy Wild team.


    This isn't to say that Gaudreau doesn't have any weaknesses. Despite his improved microstats, his overall offensive impact still grades pretty low. The Wild would do well to pair Boldy with another skilled player, whether it's internally (via Sammy Walker or Marco Rossi) or externally.


    But if the Wild upgrade, don't be surprised if it's not at Gaudreau's expense. Whatever you want to say about his offense, he's a perfectly fine fit being a defense-and-transition player on a scoring third line. That was the player he was last year, and he's showing that he can do it again, even without Fiala.


    The complete trust Evason has in Gaudreau didn't materialize for no reason. Coaches love responsible players who don't hurt their team. Having players who can move the puck, defend, and not put their team on the penalty kill helps teams win. As long as he can do that without his limitations outweighing his positives, there will be a role for Gaudreau on the Wild.

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