A disappointing loss to the Dallas Stars in the playoffs to cap the season had many Calgary Flames fans clamoring for change. But when general manager Brad Treliving didn’t make moves to shake up the team’s core at the draft, the fan base resigned itself to seeing the same team toil toward the ever-elusive goal of postseason success again in 2020-21.
Now, Treliving set to work during free agency to address several team needs—a proven starting netminder in Jacob Markstrom, and shoring up the bottom-six forward group. However, the question remains: Can this team really contend? While a healthy Matthew Tkachuk, a Sam Bennett looking to build on a solid playoff, and elevation in play to the level of previous years by Mark Giordano and Sean Monahan would be a boon to the Flames’ chances, the hometown heroes’ hopes rise and fall with the performance of Johnny Gaudreau.
Disturbing Trends in Gaudreau’s Game
Much of the criticism leveled at the team in recent months has fallen squarely on Johnny Hockey’s shoulders. All the way back to the All-Star game two seasons ago now, Gaudreau’s play has been on a steady decline. This dip saw him fail to reach the 100-point mark on that season by a single point after a terrific start that put him well on pace to surpass it. Continuing the pattern last year, he hit a career-low in points with 58, albeit in a season shortened by 12 games due to COVID-19.
These are concerning trends for any forward, especially when the one in question is the team’s best offensive player and the one tasked with driving play and creating chances. So many unanswered questions about Gaudreau and the offense had some fans eager to cut losses on the asset and see Brad Treliving deal Johnny Hockey away in a trade that would bring back valuable pieces. An understandable alternative to the potential risk of another disappointing couple of years that would plummet his value and send him running to free agency at the end of his contract.
There were rumblings from unhappy fans about wanting change for the sake of change or even for the GM to rebuild and eject other members of the core as well. But Treliving’s offseason moves directly contradicted the naysayers’ wishes. Instead of rebuilding, he doubled down. And he was right to do so.
When the GM lands the biggest goaltender on the market during free agency, the players know he’s in their corner. When he refuses to unsettle the core of the team, instead of adding strong bottom-six forwards to support it, the leaders know he still believes in this Flames group.
A Tale of Two Gaudreaus
But success depends on the tale of two Gaudreaus. Will it be the triumph or the tragedy?
Will fans see the No. 13 who attacks gaps in the defense with his speed and shiftiness, or the one who buttonhooks inside the offensive zone at every entry, favoring safety and possession over putting opposing defensemen on their heels? Will we see the Johnny Hockey who draws defenders to him on the powerplay before threading the needle to wide-open teammates cross-ice, or the one who takes predictable slapshots into the opposing goalie’s chest?
Will this season’s Gaudreau be the player who gives his goaltenders the confidence to celebrate five whole seconds before he scores on the breakaway in overtime, or the frustrated player with no confidence in himself shying away from contact in the rough areas and disappearing in games?
You should expect more of the former than the latter. Johnny’s too good of a player to not return to form after a poor season.
Flames Have Reason to Believe in Johnny
Bill Peters’s sudden resignation last year shocked the team and led to Geoff Ward taking the reins as interim head coach. Despite the awkward transition, Ward’s Flames resulted in a higher point percentage for the season post-resignation than they had before the coaching change (Peters — .500; Ward — .607).
With the man behind the bench getting the chance to buff the interim title off his nameplate this year, expect a more prepared Flames team playing a tighter system right from the get-go. Stability, predictability and routine are all important to high-performance athletes. Right from the start, expect to see a sharper team and a rejuvenated Gaudreau take to the ice because of this.
Goaltending is also no longer a question mark for the Flames, and despite an All-Star quality first half by David Rittich and an admirable performance stepping in during the playoffs by Cam Talbot, the consistency simply wasn’t there.
Markstrom, an incredibly consistent netminder over the previous few years in Vancouver, is just what the doctor ordered to address the question marks in net. Not only is he one of the best in the business, but he also thrives on the types of opportunities the Flames allow against them.
Inserting a player so perfect for Calgary’s system will allow Gaudreau the freedom to do his thing without worrying that a mistake in the neutral or offensive zones will end up in the back of the Flames’ net.
The Case for Giving Gaudreau a Letter
A tactic the Flames could try to jumpstart Gaudreau might be to sew a letter to his jersey and make him one of the team’s rotating alternate captains alongside Mikael Backlund, Monahan, and Tkachuk. Now, I’m not necessarily advocating for this. Calgary already has a strong leadership group in the aforementioned alternates and captain Giordano, and we all know that you don’t need to be a captain to be a leader in the room. But if the team and coaching staff foresee Gaudreau reacting to this honor with a little more spring in his step, then there’s no sense in not doing it.
Throughout his career, Gaudreau’s most oft-cited comparable has been Chicago’s Patrick Kane. Both are small-yet-slick American-born playmakers with the kind of electrifying skill that brings crowds to their feet. Like Gaudreau, Kane was seen for most of his career as someone who was not really one to bestow a captaincy upon, instead freeing him from those responsibilities to focus on driving the team’s offense and put up points.
Things changed in recent seasons, though. First, Kane saw himself become an alternate to the alternate captain. A fill-in when the injury bug struck teammates like Brent Seabrook. And then last season the promotion became permanent following a long-term injury to Seabrook—Kane received the ‘A’ on his chest.
Despite the Blackhawks’ vanquishing of the Oilers in last season’s play-in round to advance to the playoffs, they are a rebuilding team looking to get younger. This cyclical shedding of veterans puts long-time players like Kane in positions of de facto leadership on a young team, which likely played into the decision to make him an alternate captain. Still, he considered it an honor.
I’ve been with these guys for a long time, so it’s kind of fun to share that leadership group with them. I’d rather have ‘Seabs’ in the lineup and not be wearing it, but it’s still a big honor to wear a letter for the Blackhawks organization.– Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane
Gaudreau’s play, like Kane’s, usually speaks for itself. Driving the engine of the offense and doing what needs to be done for the team to score is his way of leading on the ice. With greater age and maturity, he no longer pleads and whines with the refs for penalties nearly as often as he used to when calls don’t go his way. He’s reached the point in his career where he’s no longer a fresh-faced rookie, but a seasoned vet that knows what it takes to excel at the highest level—a role model to younger players of what a good pro should be.
With what should be a bounceback season for Gaudreau, the Flames granting him this external honor might be just the confidence-building moment of validation that will push his play and investment in the team to the next level. Should it happen, might this be the year Johnny Hockey puts the team on his back and surges past the point per game mark once more?
Expect the Spectacular Again from Gaudreau
Gaudreau has proven he’s a special player. And with his deft stickhandling, shifty speed, and incredible vision, he has all the tools to be a 100-point player (given a non-pandemic-shortened season). Another single bounce going his way two seasons back and he would have been one. Still, in his prime at 27, he has time to reach those past heights again, and even exceed them.
So with stability restored to both the bench and the lineup, and a vote of confidence by the GM, expect a resurgent Gaudreau to be back to his old tricks again come the New Year. And now, with the recent announcement of the team’s new reverse retro jerseys to be worn during the upcoming campaign, only one question remains: Does Johnny Hockey look good in black?