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NHL’s best players under age 25 for 2017: Johnny Gaudreau’s explosive creativity ranks No. 9

At age 24, Johnny Hockey is one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This is SB Nation NHL’s top 25 players under age 25 series! We’ll be covering each player from No. 25 to No. 1 over the next few weeks leading up to training camp time. See the complete list and information on how the rankings were compiled.

While the NFL’s “Johnny Football” is still looking for a job on the free agent market, the NHL’s own “Johnny Hockey” is right in the prime of his career. In fact, Johnny Gaudreau is just two days removed from his 24th birthday and is primed for yet another year leading the Calgary Flames.

Gaudreau didn’t burst onto the scene like many before him on this list. In fact, the left winger took a bit of time to simmer, as he was taken at 104th overall by the Flames in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. After three years in the NCAA at Boston College, Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker Award as the league’s best player and that skyrocketed him a year later to an incredible rookie season with 64 points in 80 games in 2013-14.

Recently, Gaudreau came off a down year in 2016-17 thanks to a finger fracture that caused him to miss 10 games in mid November. Gaudreau had 61 points in 72 games and would have been on place for his second 70-point season had it not been for that injury. Even still, his 61-point season lead the Flames, making him Calgary’s top points producer for two seasons running.

In three seasons in the NHL, Gaudreau has showcased his elite creativity and high-octane offensive skill in spades. Though he has just one 70-point season to his name — in his sophomore year in 2015-16 he had 78 points in 79 games — Gaudreau has tallied over 40 assists in each of his three seasons. In total, his 131 assists across 231 games in that time span is the NHL’s 14th-highest across all forwards, and Gaudreau is the youngest of that crop.

Though his career even-strength CF% hovers just below average at 49.14, according to Natural Stat Trick, Gaudreau isn’t meant for a defensive forward role. His even strength offensive zone starts peaked at 63.3 percent last season and his skill set means he will be sacrificing defensive responsibility for scoring chances. Considering his average shooting percentage through his three-year NHL career is at 12.9, the Flames are likely just fine with Gaudreau being slightly below average with puck possession.

With the 2017-18 season on the horizon, don’t be shocked if Gaudreau hits the 70-point barrier — and maybe beyond — as he remains his prime.

Past accomplishments

Before coming to the NHL, Gaudreau already made waves in college hockey as the winner of the Hobey Baker Award in 2014. That same year, in his final season with Boston College, Gaudreau put up 80 points in 40 games en route to a Frozen Four loss as Hockey-East’s Player of the Year. At the NCAA level, Gaudreau has a total of 175 points in 119 games as a member of the Eagles.

As a rookie in the NHL, Gaudreau’s 64-point debut had him third overall in Calder Trophy voting behind winner Aaron Ekblad and second place Mark Stone. In his three seasons in the NHL, Gaudreau has made the All-Star Game all three times and gave us one of the best moments in skills competition history, and that was after the NHL nixed his idea to light his stick on fire.

This past season, Gaudreau won the Lady Byng Award as the NHL’s most “gentlemanly” player as he totaled just four penalty minutes.

In international play, Gaudreau had nine points for gold medal winning Team USA in the 2013 World Juniors where he posted a hat trick in the quarterfinals. Gaudreau also played for Team North America in 2016’s World Cup of Hockey.

Future impact

Gaudreau is already a leader on the Flames in terms of scoring, though recently he has been surrounded with the likes of Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett to bolster Calgary’s scoring. The 24-year-old winger won’t be holding the Flames up by himself, but as he continues through his prime he’ll no doubt continue to lead the way if healthy.

Back in October 2016, Gaudreau signed a more than modest six-year, $40.5 million contract to keep him signed through his age-28 season in 2021-22. By then, Gaudreau could likely command more money as the Flames offensive cornerstone but for now the $6.75 million AVV is fair price for what he brings to the table.

In the meantime, Gaudreau is poised to continue to lead the Flames by example on the scoresheet. It’s likely another 70-point season is in range for Gaudreau if his health permits, though it’s hard to tell what will happen to the Flames outside of their solid core. If Flames management gets smarter about building around Gaudreau for the future, the NHL could see another deadly young Canadian team rise to the top in the next few seasons.

Is this ranking too high or too low?

Given Gaudreau is one and done on this list as a 24-year-old, it’s almost a shame he isn’t ranked just a bit higher. A few years ago he just might have, but given the NHL’s talent pool has expanded exponentially within past year a ninth place finish is acceptable.

Gaudreau is a creative mastermind on the ice, and has the explosive offensive tools to match. If healthy, his peak seems to be cresting 80 points with 30 goals as a near-point-per-game player. The 2017-18 season will be huge for Gaudreau in continuing to establish his presence as one of the NHL’s best as the spotlight moves to the younger, newer options. In the meantime, keep trying to light your stick on fire, Johnny Hockey.

Highest rank: No. 5
Lowest rank: No. 22