Of the possible risks with goaltender Benjamin Gaudreau’s game prior to the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, the biggest knock was that he simply hadn’t played any hockey in the season prior to being draft-eligible. That was because in the Ontario Hockey League, where Gaudreau still currently plays, the COVID-19 pandemic hampered any chance for the 2020-21 season to commence.
Gaudreau did, in fact, play five games in that time period — for Team Canada during the 2021 U18 World Junior Championship. Canada won its fourth championship title in the under-18 division, thanks in large part to Gaudreau’s play. He finished the tournament with a 5-0-0 record, 2.20 goals-against average (GAA) and .919 save percentage (SV%).
Understandably, it wasn’t much to go off of for NHL teams, who themselves probably had to collectively shift draft-strategy in the pandemic year to target more surefire prospects whose seasons weren’t canceled, or were at least playing somewhere overseas to avert a gap year. But Gaudreau’s opportunity to do so was thwarted by visa issues.
It was undoubtedly a risk for the Sharks to draft the netminder. Yet, they mitigated the risk by trading down their 71st pick for the 81st and 177th overall pick to select Gaudreau — plus Swedish center Theo Jacobsson, who was the result of that additional sixth-round pick. The St. Louis Blues, who received the highest pick in the agreement, selected Simon Robertsson, a Swedish winger. Some small compromise.
Accounting that Gaudreau was considered the top North American goaltending prospect in the draft, taking him mid-draft at 81 seems like a win. The North Bay, Ontario native and San Jose’s second selection of the 2021 draft represents a prospective feature the Sharks hope will pan out: the return of a franchise starting goaltender.
For what it’s worth, The Blues themselves are great representatives of this formula: Jordan Binnington was drafted 88th overall in 2011 by St. Louis and became the de facto starter in the 2018-19 season, when he led the Blues to a Stanley Cup. Other examples include Chris Driedger of the Seattle Kraken and Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders, who are active NHL goaltenders with similar draft pedigrees.
The Sharks last drafted a goaltender in 2018, when Zachary Emond was taken in the sixth round. Out of the 27 goaltenders drafted by the franchise, the most noteworthy are Evgeni Nabokov (1994, ninth round), Vesa Toskala (1995, fourth round), Miikka Kiprusoff (1995, fifth round), and Alex Stalock (2005, fourth round). Still, the most fair comparison for Gaudreau, as far as draft-allotment goes, might be Thomas Greiss (2004, third round), who is still active with the Detroit Red Wings.
Now that the OHL is back in full-swing, Gaudreau’s sample size is less enigmatic and the Sharks’ development team has a better grasp on what they have to do to bring the once-top-60 prospect through what is usually a long journey through the system for NHL netminders.
Apart from a few tantalizing accolades — seventh overall draft placement in the OHL, best goaltender honors in the U18 WJC; a 20-0-0 record during the 2018-19 season in the Great North Midget League (an U18 AAA league), where he averaged a 1.13 GAA playing against older competition at 16-years-old — his stock probably rose highest with the franchise during the 2021 Rookie Faceoff tournament.
During the tournament, Gaudreau started against the Vegas Golden Knights rookies, and played impressively in a 5-2 Sharks victory. During the game, he showed the familiar athleticism and vision acclaimed in his pre-draft scouting reports. He also appeared in net for a single period during the Sharks development camp. Though he has not yet signed an entry-level contract with the Sharks, and will not be AHL-eligible until 2023-24, he seems to be able to hang with pro-level competition.
In the OHL this season, Gaudreau’s stats have improved since his inaugural junior season with Sarnia in 2019-20. In that year, he posted a 4.34 GAA and a .890 SV% on a last-place Sarnia team. The 2020-21 season was canceled, but in the current season, he is sporting 3.26 GAA and .905 SV% through 20 games on a slightly-better squad, which is a few shades better.
But for OHL goaltenders, you can’t place all stock on the numbers. The league, among major-junior leagues, is more reputable for offensive talent than the defense-wealthy WHL, for example. This means OHL netminders probably have slightly-skewed statistics when compared against a WHL goaltender.
At the end of the day, there is the development-upside for the Sharks if Gaudreau is facing more high-danger chances in a hard league, on a weak team, night after night until he is ready to play in the NHL.
What We Like
Throughout his international and junior career, there have been many games where his team was heavily outshot — those are the games were Gaudreau shines. On Jan. 16, for example, he stopped 49 of 51 shots against a staunch London Knights squad to lead the Sting to a 4-2 victory. He’s impactful at the best times, which is something we have seen as essential for winning this year with James Reimer, and to some extent, Adin Hill.
He has similar tools to both goaltenders as well: rebound control, awareness and a glove like Reimer, and size, vision and athleticism like Hill. Gaudreau also ranks highly against his draft peers when it comes to saves on high-danger to medium-danger shots and rebounds (chances from the inner-slot and high-slot).
Per Smaht Scouting:
With Gaudreau, the Sharks have a big kid who performs in big games and big moments, and the rights to rear a legitimate No. 1 goaltender prospect into the franchise for years to come. That’s something they haven’t been able to do since Nabokov.
Areas of Improvement
On the same token of stopping high-danger and medium-danger chances, he falls below the average for low-danger shots (shots from beyond the slot). Though this isn’t too alarming, we can all recall moments in Sharks’ goaltending history where such chances resulted in back-breaking goals against.
Gaudreau has also been criticized by the scouting community for his slow decision-making when handling the puck. Here’s another area where NHL competition can really make the opponents pay for easy mistakes. That being said, I think where Gaudreau lacks can be eventually be improved by coaching and development.
Here’s another example of a game where the dependability on Gaudreau was high, if only to make some huge saves to keep the lead. Notice the vision through traffic and the awareness to square up to a point-blank chance. He does not disappoint.