A common expression among coaches when their team has lost is “Our best players weren’t our best players.” The logic behind that saying in the National Hockey League is that a team’s best players usually play the most, score the most and get paid the most, so when they’re simply not playing well it’s really difficult for a team to win games.
For the Calgary Flames, the phrasing has often been used to refer to forward Johnny Gaudreau – a pint-sized scoring machine that has gone strangely quiet this season after signing a long-term contract.
Two Games Make a Season
A recent two-game Flames homestand represented Gaudreau’s 2016-17 season in a nutshell:
In a 5-0 loss against the Arizona Coyotes, Gaudreau was dropped to the fourth line by head coach Glen Gulutzan after a neutral zone turnover (and a bee-line to the bench for a change) by the forward directly led to a Coyotes goal. Gaudreau played just 16:42 overall, one of his lowest ice time figures of the season.
Playing half of the game with Matt Stajan and Garnet Hathaway on the fourth line was likely meant to help Gaudreau simplify his game. The forward has been guilty at times of over-handling the puck or making too many fancy moves when a simple one would do, and playing with north-south players like Stajan and Hathaway was probably meant to correct some of those habits.
Gaudreau was a lot better two nights later against the Philadelphia Flyers. With the Flames working with a short bench after Alex Chiasson was ejected for a spearing penalty, Gaudreau ended up playing alongside regular linemates Sean Monahan and Troy Brouwer as well as taking Chiasson’s spot on the third line alongside Sam Bennett and Kris Versteeg.
He ended up playing over 21 minutes in a very tight-checking game, even managing to use his speed to punch through the Flyers’ neutral zone forecheck and create some scoring chances for his club. He didn’t generate any goals, but he did draw praise from teammates and his head coach following the game for a late shot block to maintain what was at the time a one goal lead.
Neither game was particularly bad, but both seem to characterize his inconsistent season.
The 2016-17 campaign is Gaudreau’s third full season in the NHL. Over the previous two seasons, he developed a reputation for not only being incredibly creative offensively but also for his remarkable consistency. Gaudreau was lauded for being good in all three zones and very good in the offensive zone. Moreover, his game to game consistency was also something that drew praise from those around the club.
Despite being keyed in on by opposition defenders in every game, Gaudreau found a way to generate offense consistently. He had some games where he didn’t get any points, but those games were off-set by multi-point outings. As a result, through two seasons he had 142 points in 159 games and ranked as one of the NHL’s most productive players during that span.
Through the first 58 games of Calgary’s 2016-17 season, he has just 35 points in 48 games. That’s a drop from the 0.89 points per game he put up during his first two seasons to a more pedestrian 0.73 scoring rate. Moreover, much of that production came during a seven-game scoring streak following his return from a hand injury. If you remove that streak, he’s down to 24 points in 41 games, a 0.59 points per game rate.
Big Game Johnny
Throughout his career, even dating back to college, Gaudreau has built a reputation as a player that has big games at key times. He was excellent in the Beanpot when he was with Boston College. He was dominant in the medal round of the 2013 World Juniors and excellent in the 2012 NCAA Championship tournament. During the Flames’ march to the 2014-15 Stanley Cup playoffs, he erupted for several big games – including a hat-trick in Los Angeles before the Christmas break. However, “Big Game Johnny” hasn’t really shown himself in 2016-17.
In 2015-16, Gaudreau had nine games where he put up three or more points. He’s amassed just one of those dominating performances this season, during a time where the Flames have spent the majority of the year in the midst of the playoff chase. With 24 games to go, it seems that the Flames are where they are despite Gaudreau’s play, not because of it.
That said, Gaudreau has buzzed around the net quite a bit since his return from injury. While the Flames have been reliant on Mikael Backlund’s line for offense for the most part, Gaudreau’s line frequently generates chances and merely has trouble burying them.
The underlying numbers suggest that sooner or later, the dam will burst for Gaudreau and pucks will start going into the opposition net in bunches. Hopefully, the Flames don’t have to wait too long for that to happen, because relying only on Backlund’s trio for goal-scoring probably isn’t a sustainable strategy if they wish to return to the post-season.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.