"(Benjamin Gaudreau) is a great goalie and we are lucky to have him between the pipes for us."
A simple, but clear message was sent by defenseman Corson Ceulemans after Canada's round-robin win over Belarus earlier at the U-18 World Championship in Texas. But after watching him through three games at the tournament - an event where no goalie in particular has really shined through enough - Gaudreau has been a clear difference-maker thus far for Canada.
When the other top 2002-born goaltenders were playing minor midget in the Toronto area, Gaudreau spent his U-16 season playing against older competition in the Great North Midget League in Northern Ontario. It turned out to be a great decision, with Gaudreau winning all 20 of his starts while putting up the best goals-against average since the league began tracking it with a 1.13. He then continued on with a silver medal at the Canada Winter Games, with his only loss of the entire season coming in the championship game against Quebec.
"Pure dominance," a Northern Ontario scout said to describe Gaudreau's play. "We've never seen a goalie like him up here." And it's true. While some GNML goalies have made it to the AHL (Dallas Stars prospect and Canadian World Junior champion Colton Point), none have played an NHL game yet. Gaudreau could be the first.
"He would have been in the first-round conversation had the OHL season gone on as normal," another scout said. "He's got the poise, the size, the speed and the ability to read plays that makes him an NHL-caliber goaltender."
Statistically, there was nothing special about his rookie season in Sarnia. Sarnia wasn't a good team, sitting in 17th place and out of a playoff spot before the COVID-19 pandemic put an early end to the regular season. But scouts could tell something was there – his record when facing at least 44 shots was 3-1-1, with Gaudreau seemingly performing at a high level whenever his team looked outmatched.
The 2020-21 season was supposed to be a big season for Gaudreau, the top-ranked Ontario-born goaltender for the 2021 draft. Instead, the OHL never got going. Gaudreau had an opportunity to play in Oslo, Norway while the OHL was on hiatus, but didn't have his passport renewed in time before the opportunity was gone. He still managed to keep busy despite not seeing any action until the U-18s, training with Sarnia goalie coach Frankie Palazzese when possible.
"He maintained 4-6 workouts a week even when Matt (Marquardt) and Ken (Appleby) went to play in the United States," Benjamin's father, Robert, said. "He also spent the winter using the backyard rink of a terrific family in Powassan to continue working on hand/eye and movement drills.
"I laugh when I think of a kid preparing to play net in his draft year in a gymnasium and a backyard rink," Robert added. "Seems to have worked out so far."
Indeed it has. Despite not getting the start for the opening game against Sweden, Gaudreau got two starts in the round-robin while splitting time with Thomas Milic. Milic allowed just one goal against Sweden and one against Sweden, but Gaudreau was given the start in the quarter-final and didn't disappoint with a couple of highlight-reel saves.
"He's been unreal, he has made some timely saves," forward Connor Bedard said.
Gaudreau has added about 15 pounds of muscle mass to his frame this year, and you can tell from watching him in Texas that he looked stronger and bigger in the crease without sacrificing any speed. "He has looked so crisp for Canada given his time off," a scout said. "His rebound control is a huge asset of his game. Tracks it so well and reads cross-crease passes effectively. When he gets aggressive at the top of the crease, he leaves the shooter guessing."
It's not easy being a prospect in 2021, let alone a goalie, where your starts are limited to begin with. But Gaudreau's play in Texas has reignited the interest in scouts who thought he was a first-round prospect to begin with and some believe it's not far-fetched to think he's got the talent to be one, either. When Gaudreau didn't start against Sweden, the wonder was whether the Canadian coaching staff was just wanting to be patient and ease him in or not - based on his start in the playoffs, that's exactly what it looks like.
Goalies are a risk at the NHL draft, with very few ever going in the first round - and with Jesper Wallstedt expected to go near the top 10, a second team might not be willing to take a gamble. But scouts don't consider Gaudreau to be a wildcard - he's got all the makings of a modern-day NHL goaltender. He has had heavy workloads in the past and was asked to do a lot of heavy lifting to make Sarnia competitive on a given night.
Now, Team Canada - and soon, an NHL team - will be asking for the same.