CALGARY, Alberta — When he was three years old, Johnny Gaudreau's dad, Guy, learned there was one way to get his son to keep skating: Spread Skittles on the ice and allow him to pick them up and eat the sweet treats.
Eighteen years later, the 5-foot-9, 150-pound Gaudreau — the Calgary Flames' gifted left winger and the pride of Gloucester Catholic High — no longer has to be bribed to continue skating.
Gaudreau, 21, has blossomed into one of the NHL's top rookies, and on Thursday he will face the team he followed while growing up in South Jersey — the visiting Flyers.
The player they call "Johnny Hockey" is not easy to defend.
Flyers center Sean Couturier, a strong defensive forward, was impressed by Gaudreau when the teams met March 3 at the Wells Fargo Center.
"He's a pretty shifty player," Couturier said after the Flyers' practice in Calgary on Wednesday. "I mean, he's small, but he's pretty fast and pretty good on his edge. He's hard to hit. Sometimes, small guys you can take advantage of, physically, but what makes him good is that he's a hard guy to hit and check. You've got to be careful not to give him time and space, that's for sure."
Flyers defenseman Michael Del Zotto agreed.
"He's got a lot of skill," said Del Zotto, who has missed the last six games with an undisclosed injury but is expected to return to the lineup Thursday. "He's a great passer and he can score as well, and those are the toughest guys to play against because you're not sure if they're going to shoot or pass. Kind of a double threat."
Gaudreau (19 goals, 53 points, plus-7) has moved into the rookie-of-the-year conversation as Nashville's Filip Forsberg (21-55-plus-13) has cooled off. Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad (34 points, plus-7) and underrated Dallas defenseman John Klingberg (35 points, plus-5) are also in the discussion. Klingberg had off-season surgery to both hips and started the season in the AHL before showing he was ready to play with the Stars.
After Thursday's morning skate, Gaudreau admitted he keeps an eye on the other rookies.
"I definitely keep tabs on other rookies," said Gaudreau, who said he was a "huge Flyers fan" growing up in South Jersey and idolized John LeClair and Keith Primeau. "I met a few of them at the All-Star Game and there's a lot of good guys around the league that are rookies and I'm getting to know them better. It's great to see other guys contributing, and it's exciting to be in a race like that."
When the Flyers met the Flames earlier this month, Calgary scored a 3-2 overtime victory as Gaudreau helped set up game-winning goal.
No word on if his dad awarded him with a pack of Skittles.
Mason's road woes. Steve Mason will aim for just his second road win in 19 games. The Flyers have scored two goals or fewer in 16 of his 18 road appearances.
The 6-4, 217-pound goalie is 1-11-6 on the road with a 2.63 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. At home, he is 13-5-4 with a 1.97 GAA, and .936 save percentage.
Mason, Jake Voracek and Cluade Giroux are the top candidates to win the team's MVP award.
Breakaways. The Flyers sent defenseman Brandon Manning back to the Phantoms. Michael Del Zotto will return to the lineup Thursday after missing six games with an unspecified upper-body injury.....Gaudreau, who plans to spend half the summer in Boston and the other half in South Jersey, is excited to be an uncle; his sisterm Kristen, delivered a girl on St. Patty's Day..... Jake Voracek is fifth in the NHL with 69 points, three behind the leader, John Tavares, of the Islanders….Voracek and Nick Grosmann lead the Flyers at plus-6, while Michael Raffl and Nick Schultz are at plus-5….If the season ended today and the Flyers did not win the draft lottery, they would have the No. 8 overall selection...Wayne Simmonds' next goal will be his 100th as a Flyer...Flyers assisatnt Joey Mullen won a Cup (1989) and two Lady Byng Trophies (1987, 1989) during his playing days in Calgary.
Follow Sam Carchidi on Twitter @BroadStBull.