Fantasy Hockey Features: Johnny Gaudreau's lost value
The Johnny Gaudreau story has as many twists and turns as a good Agatha Christie novel. Drafted in the fourth round in 2011 despite being far and away the best draft-eligible skater in the USHL that season. His fall can be attributed to his diminutive size. He'd go on to become the best player in College hockey and even trademark the nickname, Johnny Hockey.
A few all-star appearances and NHL stardom followed in Calgary. He wrapped up his time in Canada by registering 115 points in the 2021-22 season and ended up signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency. Things did not go to plan in his first year with the Jackets, posting 74 points in 80 games with a shot-per-game mark (2.75) that fell nearly a half-shot per outing (3.2) from the year before. It has been worse thus far in 2023-24 with just one goal and six points in 15 games, landing fewer than 2.5 shots each night. Let’s look into what he did towards the end of his Calgary Flames tenure, what’s gone wrong in Columbus, and what fantasy players can expect moving forward.
From 2018-2021, Gaudreau managed 73 goals, 133 assists, and 566 shots in 208 appearances. That is roughly 29 goals, 52 assists, and 223 shots per 82 games. At the ages of 25-, 26-, and 27-years-old, he was just shy of a point-per-game player. The kicker is this: He rarely skated with Matthew Tkachuk, who had a 34-goal and 77-point season in 2018-19 as a 21-year-old. Gaudreau had Tkachuk as a linemate for just 12.5% of his total time at 5-on-5 in the 2018-21 stretch. In those minutes, however, the team created far more offensively together – 3.2 expected goals, 35.3 shots, and 3.7 actual goals per 60 minutes – than when Gaudreau was on the ice without him: 2.5 expected goals, 30.1 shots, and 2.8 actual goals/60. Those two showed fantastic chemistry but did not get an extended look together.
That changed in 2021-22 as Gaudreau had Tkachuk as a linemate at 5-on-5 for roughly 87% of his time. Those two, along with Elias Lindholm, formed one of the best even-strength lines in recent memory by scoring 4.6 goals/60 at 5-on-5, controlling over 70% of the goal share and nearly 62% of the expected goal share. It gave both Gaudreau and Lindholm their best offensive seasons of their respective careers.
Tkachuk is the key to all of this. In 2019-20, tracking from AllThreeZones had Tkachuk in the 85th percentile for shot assists, or passes leading to teammate shots at 5-on-5. He was also in the 80th percentile for his individual shot rate. The following season saw relatively stable shot rates but his scoring chance assist rate – passes leading to teammate chances rather than shots – was 4.0 per 60 minutes, easily a first-line rate and similar to names like Pavel Buchnevich (4.0/60) and Martin Necas (4.1/60). Gaudreau was much higher but the two of them had developed into high-end, dual-threat wingers. And then 2021-22 came around.
Both Gaudreau and Tkachuk saw a rise in shots, scoring chances, and scoring chance assists in the year they played together almost exclusively. Racking up the points as they did – their points/60 at 5-on-5 are 3rd and 14th, respectively, among all forwards in any single 82-game season since 2007 – required some good fortune, but they had skills that complemented each other, and both could create for others or themselves. Then Tkachuk was traded, Gaudreau signed in Columbus, and here we are.
Gaudreau’s downturn in 2022-23 is easy to pinpoint: No one in Columbus can replicate Tkachuk’s contributions. In 2021-22, that same tracking data had Tkachuk at 9.0 scoring chance contributions per 60 minutes. With Jakub Voracek having to eventually leave the team, there was no one on the 2022-23 Columbus roster that had chance contributions over 6.3/60, a mark 30% lower than Tkachuk’s. Patrik Laine is a great scorer, but he is not able to create chances for his linemates like Tkachuk can. This can be seen via on-ice shot locations from HockeyViz with Tkachuk/Gaudreau together in 2021-22, and then Laine/Gaudreau in 2022-23:
The interesting part is Gaudreau managed 1.94 points/60 minutes in his first year in Ohio. Across the 2019-20 and 2021 Bubble seasons, he managed 1.9 points/60 minutes. His first Columbus season was right in line with what he did in the final couple of years before getting Tkachuk as a regular linemate. That one year really threw expectations out of line.
Not having a dual-threat option for Gaudreau to play off is an underrated aspect to all of this. Over his final three seasons in Calgary, the winger averaged 8.25 shots/60 minutes at 5-on-5 with Tkachuk next to him, shooting 15.9%. Without him, those numbers dropped to 6.91/60 and 9.9% shooting. Perhaps there’s a very good reason why he’s landing 7.8 shots/60 while shooting 7.1% at 5-on-5 in Columbus other than bad luck. His 2022-23 season alone saw him shoot 8.3%, so it’s not just the awful start in 2023-24 to blame.
At this point, it’s a race against the clock for Gaudreau. There is a lot of elite prospect talent in the organization like Adam Fantilli and David Jiricek, but our subject is now 30 years old. If it takes, say, three more seasons for those elite prospects to be elite NHLers, Gaudreau will be in his mid-30s. If there is age-related decline kicking in for Gaudreau as we wait for the young stars to ascend, it may not end up being at the right time for the veteran to reclaim former production glory.
It creates a dilemma for fantasy players. Gaudreau still has the talent to be a high-end producer, but he does not have the right linemates for it – not yet anyway. Things will get much better over the balance of the season – he has genuinely been unlucky thus far – but getting back to that 100-point level appears more a dream than a reality at this point. If Fantilli takes a big step forward next season and becomes a high-end center earlier than anticipated, that could change the equation. It leaves Gaudreau’s future very uncertain, and keeper/dynasty managers are caught between a rock and a hard place: He is unlikely to reclaim former glory, but his trade value is at an all-time low. The only hope now is to hang on and hope Fantilli takes leaps forward very soon.
*Additional stats from Natural Stat Trick