There is no shame in being pushed out of the No. 1 center spot by Jack Hughes. Guys will have to get used to that happening for a long time. And it’s a lot easier to endure when it produces a career opportunity you might not have seen coming.
Such was the case with Jonathan Gruden, the Ottawa Senators fourth-round pick in 2018. Gruden was humming along as a center until Hughes, the phenom almost certain to be taken first overall in 2019’s draft, came up to play with the under-18s on the U.S. National Team Development Program. Instead of pushing Gruden down the depth chart, the coaching staff decided to keep him on the left side of the line along with New York Islanders 2018 first-rounder Oliver Wahlstrom on the right side, and a funny thing happened. It opened up Gruden’s game and made him a more versatile player.
So when Gruden hits the ice with Miami University (Ohio) this season – he’s one of the few elite American players to eschew the London Knights of the OHL for college hockey – he’ll do so as a winger. “Honestly, it doesn’t matter where I play – it’s not going to change who I am as a player,” Gruden said. “I made the change to the wing last year, and I was comfortable with that.”
Moving to the wing has not only diminished Gruden’s defensive responsibilities down low, it also gave him an opportunity to explore his offensive game. Growing up, Gruden was always a pass-first player, which is a great attribute when you’re a center, but moving over means he’s getting more opportunities to shoot. And that means beyond getting in the weight room and getting bigger and stronger, he’ll be spending a lot of time in the shooting area in Miami. “My shot is one of my weaknesses,” Gruden said. “So I’m going to work on that a lot here. A lot of it is just working with the coaches and putting in the time to get bigger and stronger, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Gruden is the son of John Gruden, Sr., the former NHLer and journeyman who coincidentally played 22 of his 92 big-league games with the Senators. The elder Gruden coached the Hamilton Bulldogs to the OHL championship before taking an assistant coaching job with the New York Islanders this season.
This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.