When the Minnesota Wild lost Nick Bonino to the San Jose Sharks in free agency, they lost a solid depth center and needed to go shopping in the bargain bin for his replacement, especially after the buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter left them with limited funds available to them.
The Wild found their man in 28-year-old Frederick Gaudreau, who had played just over 100 regular season games over four seasons for two different organizations. Gaudreau had scored just five goals and 18 points in that time, but his individual scoring contributions, or lack thereof, aren’t what the Wild were betting on with this signing. Gaudreau doesn’t have much of a scoring touch, as his career 5.7% conversion rate can attest to, but he’s successfully tilted the ice in his team’s favour to a pretty impressive degree over his short career.
Eleven games into his Wild career, that has remained very much the case as the Wild have dominated the territorial battle with Gaudreau on the ice.
This feat becomes all the more impressive when considering he averaged less than 10 minutes of ice time per game before coming to the Wild, where he has now averaged 17:25 over his 11 games.
Evidently, the team identified Gaudreau as a player ready to take on a much larger role and, so far, their bet has been a good one. Joel Eriksson Ek, Kirill Kaprizov, and Kevin Fiala are the only forwards on the team who have played more minutes than Gaudreau and his most common linemates have been Fiala and Kaprizov.
While Gaudreau has only scored once on 21 shots, somehow converting on shots even worse than his career average, his goal provides a good example of how he’s able to tilt the ice in his team’s favor on a consistent basis.
The play starts in the Wild’s defensive zone, where Gaudreau gets a stick on the defender at the point trying to get the puck in deep, creating a turnover to Fiala who makes a pretty pass up to Gaudreau with speed in the neutral zone. Gaudreau makes a nice feed off the rush to a driving Victor Rask, who just barely misses the wide open cage. Luckily, Gaudreau is right there to pick up the loose puck as it goes below the goal line and starts the cycle with Fiala. Gaudreau keeps his feet moving and plays a couple give-and-go’s before launching a one-timer from distance which misses the net. Soon after, Gaudreau keeps the possession alive by winning a race to the puck in the corner against a now exhausted Kings defender before eventually finding a soft spot in the slot where Fiala finds him for the one-timer goal.
There are so many subtle positive plays by Gaudreau leading up to that goal that enabled the Wild to stay on the attack and kept the Kings back on their heals. It’s a death-by-a-thousand cuts type of shift, which is the essence of Gaudreau’s game, even if it doesn’t usually end in a goal like it does in this particular instance.
Another example of Gaudreau’s 200-foot game leading directly to a goal for the Wild came against his old team in the Pittsburgh Penguins, the only game in his career to date in which Gaudreau eclipsed 20 minutes of ice-time.
Gaudreau’s sequence starts off rough when he turns over a rolling puck in the neutral zone, but he quickly gets into position on the counterattack and gets his stick in the lane to deflect a shot into the corner. Things settle down from there as the Wild successfully keep the puck to the perimeter and eventually clear the puck to a streaking Kaprizov. Gaudreau doesn’t ultimately touch the puck leading to the defensive zone exit, but watch how he stays in position to deny passing lanes and closely support teammates. He stays in a position to deny the middle of the ice to the opponents while also being close enough to the puck battles that if a loose puck pops out, it’s likely Gaudreau who gets it. When the puck moves into the offensive zone corner, Gaudreau does the same thing which leads to a quick puck recovery and pass back to the point for a shot. The shot is stopped and it’s Gaudreau there again to collect the rebound, sending it back to Goligoski whose second shot hits the post and lays there behind Tristan Jarry in the crease for Kaprizov to put it into the gaping net.
Another sequence from that game highlights a lot of what Gaudreau does well. First he plays a give-and-go in the neutral zone to buy his defender some space to get the puck into the offensive zone. Gaudreau does a good job tying up the puck retrieving defender after a Wild point shot, but doesn’t have any support from his linemates to recover the puck. Unfazed, Gaudreau gets back on defense and knocks a neutral zone pass out of the air to prevent a good Penguins chance off the rush before making an uncharacteristic ill-advised pass which results in a turnover. Again, Gaudreau recovers by smothering the Penguins attackers down low before ultimately drawing a penalty in the defensive zone.
Over his 115 career regular season games, Gaudreau has taken just three minor penalties while drawing 15 against him. Gaudreau’s ability to put up such great on-ice chance differential numbers while very rarely taking penalties and drawing a bunch himself is really impressive and adds a lot to his total value, especially on a two-year deal with an AAV of $1.2 million against the cap. That’s before even adding in the fact that he plays on both the powerplay and the penalty kill.
Another thing worth noting is that despite his lack of finishing ability, Gaudreau is actually a pretty competent player with the puck on his stick, something I had definitely underestimated about him coming into the season. While he apparently can’t shoot, Gaudreau is a capable puck carrier in transition and is actually a pretty good passer, though the sample size for last season was admittedly small as he only played 19 games. He’s probably not actually one of the most dangerous playmakers/shooters in the league, but, to the eye, he looks to be a more than capable passer.
The other thing is, while Gaudreau hasn’t shown an ability to finish his chances thus far, it’s not due to poor shot selection. Gaudreau doesn’t shoot often, but when he does it’s most often from dangerous areas. The hope for the Wild would be that Gaudreau can find a way to convert on a higher rate of his chances than he has thus far in his career while being surrounded by much better talent. It seems like a reasonable bet to make, but maybe he really is just a completely terrible shooter? Regardless, the Wild seem to be insistent on finding out.
Gaudreau has been a really nice, low-cost addition for the Wild. He’s a player the coach can put out there in any situation and trust what he’s going to get from him. Gaudreau is a puck hound all over the ice, but is also very smart and doesn’t get caught overcommitting. He’s just a very sound positional player who helps his team continually get the puck back in a variety of ways while making it very difficult for the opposition to create anything dangerous themselves. Gaudreau is proving himself as the proverbial “Swiss Army knife” player for his new team, already providing good value on his small contract. If Gaudreau is able to unlock a little more individual offence in his much increased role, that surplus value has the potential to increase further.