When the 28-year-old center Freddy Gaudreau was signed to a two-year deal totaling $2.4 million in late July most Minnesota Wild fans were unimpressed, to say the least. The undrafted forward had yet to spend an entire season on an NHL roster, with only 18 points (5 goals and 13 assists) in his limited 103 game career.
An early link to Kevin Fiala was made as the pair of former Nashville Predators had spent time together playing for the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL under now-Wild coach Dean Evason. Although a slow start to this season from both players had some questioning the pairing, the January call up of rookie sensation Matt Boldy solidified the line with immediate chemistry and has been an absolute powerhouse for Minnesota ever since.
Usually labeled as a defensive forward, Gaudreau’s role as a second-line center has allowed him to already break his single season records in goals, assist, points, game-winning goals, penalty minutes, shots, and blocked shots.
Even with his record-breaking year, you get the feeling that Gaudreau’s numbers are benefiting strongly from the Wild’s lack of center depth. He feeds the playmaking abilities of his wingers, and combined with an increase in time-on-ice, has led to his numbers drastic increase over previous years.
The ability to continually play at the level required to feed those wingers; however, had proven Gaudreau as a solid, consistent middle-six center moving forward.
Enter Tyson Jost from the Colorado Avalanche via a one-for-one trade, with Nico Sturm headed the other way. As his role is yet to be solidified, it is possible we see some rearranging of the center position as the former top 10 draft pick tries to reignite his offense?
Jost had been restricted to a fourth-line role with his former team and his numbers have not been good, with only 14 points in 60 games this season. Wild general manager Bill Guerin and Evason obviously believe they can pull another Ryan Hartman, and end up with a top-line player on a fourth-line budget.
But where does that leave Gaudreau?
"“There’s a reality to a player just needing a change of scenery,” Guerin said. “I think this will give him a nice jolt, and hopefully he can find his offensive game.”"
Gaudreau’s consistency in a Wild uniform, plus a team-first attitude, may allow Evason to rearrange his lines without too much concern. Gaudreau seems equally suited to playing on an up-tempo high fire-power line as he does to playing on a shut-down defensive line.
Don’t be surprised if you see Gaudreau slot in anywhere from the second to the fourth line in any given game as Jost is given some looks at playing higher in the lineup. Adding a two-way center with a higher offensive upside than Gaudreau between Fiala and Boldy or even Kaprizov and Zuccarello, may add a whole new level to their already strong game.
"“I’m really excited. This is a fresh start here and I can’t wait to get going.” – Tyson Jost"
While it is well known among Wild fans that center depth is an issue right now, and Jost is no elite center but having a new player enter the mix may provide a useful push to the rest of the center group.
Both Hartman and Gaudreau have been playing above their comfort levels to keep up with the chemistry they find their wingers displaying and have been doing a phenomenal job doing it. If Jost can find a foothold in Minnesota and play to the expectations he had when he was drafted, the bump down in responsibility for the other centers may actually be beneficial. They can play more to their own strengths instead of trying to play up to others.
The added benefit of Jost is having options.
The Wild’s lines have basically been set since Boldy entered the roster, and apart from injuries forcing a player to move up, they have not changed. Gaudreau has been a lock in between Boldy and Fiala while being seen as basically irreplaceable by anyone else on the team.
If a player were to be injured down the stretch, or another slump streak comes along, Jost may give Evason a little flexibility in the lines.
Let’s look ahead to next year and the inevitability of salary cap struggles for the Wild caused by the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts. Both proven value players such as Gaudreau, Hartman, and potentially Jost combined with young players on entry-level contracts will be key in trying to keep the rest of the core together.
Guerin and Evason’s ability to find struggling players and bring out the best in them playing up-and-down the lineup has been remarkable, and Gaudreau may be the best example of this.
It will be fun to see if Gaudreau can continue his hot season and where he ends up slotting in as we near the three-quarters mark of the season.
- All data pulled from nhl.com