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Johnny Gaudreau Has Rediscovered His Game in Calgary

Adam Herman@@AdamZHermanContributor IApril 24, 2022

Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau (13) looks to pass the puck against the Chicago Blackhawks during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, April 18, 2022, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

Johnny Hockey is back.

The Calgary Flames winger had back-to-back disappointing seasons in 2019-20 and 2020-21, dropping a then-career-low 58 points in 70 games in the former and somewhat recovering the next season with 49 points in 56 games. Those would be good numbers for most players.

But most players aren't Johnny Gaudreau, who entered the NHL with five straight All-Star Game appearances and finished fourth overall in Hart Trophy voting in 2019. Much more was expected from him. Entering this season in the final year of his contract, his apparent decline left a lot of questions about his future in Calgary.

Gaudreau has rediscovered his game. And then some. The American is putting the finishing touches on a career year, scoring 39 goals along with 72 assists (both career highs) for a total of 111 points. He's third in the league by points—only Connor McDavid and Jonathan Huberdeau have more. And per Evolving-Hockey, he ranks second among all skaters by goals above replacement. Naturally, he is in the Hart Trophy conversation.

It's no surprise that the 28-year-old did not lose his elite hockey abilities, but that's a dramatic resurgence. What changed this season? Some of it is tweaks in Gaudreau's game, but a lot of responsibility belongs to the structure around him.

                      

An Effective Line Change

Darryl Sutter, hired as head coach midseason in 2021, headed into this campaign with a full training camp to change the way the previously dull, toothless Calgary Flames played hockey. The Flames ranked 20th out of 31 NHL teams by goals scored over the prior two seasons.

One of the first, most crucial changes that Sutter made was to Calgary's line combinations. Center Sean Monahan had been practically glued to Gaudreau in previous seasons, and for some time that was justified. The former sixth overall pick had put up back-to-back 30-goal seasons before his 25th birthday.

That magic was lost in 2020, when Monahan struggled heavily. His production declined steeply, but more concerning was his 200-foot game. He was no longer driving possession for his line and, in fact, became something of an offensive black hole.

Sutter has instead grouped Gaudreau with center Elias Lindholm and winger Matthew Tkachuk, and the trio have been one of the top lines in hockey. Lindholm's goal-scoring ability is a perfect complement to Gaudreau's playmaking expertise, while Tkachuk is a complete player who has not only offensive instincts but also a major work ethic and physical edge that shows on the forecheck and in defensive-zone battles.

Monahan, meanwhile, struggled more than ever, registering just 23 points in 65 games before electing to undergo season-ending hip surgery. So much of Gaudreau's success this season is connected to the removal of a center who was holding him back and his linking up with linemates who fit his strengths and needs perfectly.

                   

Counterintuitive Tactical Fixes

While leading the Los Angeles Kings to two Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014, Sutter developed a reputation for making his teams heavy and physical. The belief, or hope, was that he could bring that style to Alberta. He has, and the Flames are indeed a forecheck-heavy team. And the effectiveness of Calgary's cycle offense has certainly contributed to Gaudreau's career year.

The irony is that this has allowed Gaudreau to lean into a run-and-gun style. The Flames, previously incapable of exiting the puck out of their zone, have relied on an improved Noah Hanifin and two emerging puck-movers in Oliver Kylington and Rasmus Andersson.

Because the Flames are so aggressive in pressuring the puck in the defensive zone, they create a lot of turnovers that leave the opposition vulnerable and allow for Gaudreau, an extremely fast skater, to fly the zone and look for transition rush opportunities.

Indeed, Gaudreau is among the top handful of players in the league when it comes to rush opportunities.

         

Shooting the Puck

The big change in Gaudreau's game individually is that he's shooting the puck more than he ever has. He will always be a playmaker primarily, as indicated by his assist total this season, but he has supplemented that with more eagerness to play selfishly. Per Evolving-Hockey, over the previous two seasons combined, Gaudreau ranked 106th among all NHL skaters by shots per 60 minutes. This season, he ranks 43rd. 

More specifically, it's the kinds of shots he's generating. Although he is still the line's primary puck-holder, the abilities of Lindholm and Tkachuk allow him to defer rather than always having to carry from the perimeter. He's getting into the slot areas, shooting from closer range on controlled possessions and also getting his stick on more rebounds. 

                      

Will He Re-Sign?

Both Gaudreau and Flames management seem comfortable making his expiring contract a problem for later. Calgary is the clear-cut second-best team in the West and is focused on making a serious run for the Stanley Cup.

Whenever their season ends, he will be weeks away from unrestricted free agency, and his future will become among the biggest storylines in hockey. The Flames will have roughly $27.2 million of cap space for 2022-23, but they will be losing a number of depth players and have a number of important players to re-sign, including wingers Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, who will both command big raises. With Tyler Toffoli ($4.25 million cap hit), Blake Coleman ($4.9 million), and Milan Lucic ($5.25 million) already on the books for multiple seasons, the Flames are overly invested in the wings.

Gaudreau is probably going to demand a contract above $10 million, and he deserves it. The Flames will likely do anything within reason to retain their best player. Yet if it were as simple as that, wouldn't this be sorted out already?

If it came down to the Flames having only enough cap space for Gaudreau or Tkachuk, who is four years younger and has 101 points this season, it would be awfully hard to make the latter the sacrifice.

Gaudreau has spent his entire career in Calgary and is thriving on a contending team that gives him all the tools he needs to be at his best. He should have plenty of reasons to want to stick around, and that feeling will be mutual in general manager Brad Treliving's office.

At the end of the day, though, a contract still needs to be figured out. If Gaudreau opts to test the market, he will be the best player to hit free agency since Artemi Panarin in 2019.

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