I distinctly remember head coach Darryl Sutter’s exchange with reporters last season on the eve of Johnny Gaudreau‘s 500th NHL game. Normally, the head coach of a player about to reach a major milestone will offer up some kind of standard, congratulatory response to a softball question about a pending career accomplishment. Instead, Sutter’s answer on March 27 was blunt, to the point and summarized exactly how he felt about the Flames’ leading scorer: “Hopefully, he has more energy than in his 499th game.” Ouch.
Calgary’s bench boss has never been one to mince words, and he always tells his players exactly where they stand – whether they’re a fourth-line grinder or a superstar sniper. That’s why it was very telling to hear Sutter heap copious amounts of praise for Gaudreau as he passed the 550 career game plateau this week. The difference in the head coach’s assessment of ‘Johnny Hockey’ on Monday was like night and day from his terse statement from last season.
“Johnny is one of the best 200-foot players in the league right now,” said Sutter of his leading scorer. “That says a lot about him and just the way he’s approached the season… But when you become the consummate team player, making plays away from the puck or backchecking or tracking back or being in the right position on the ice or managing the clock, things like that, that’s where I think Johnny has really, really come to the front.”Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter
Sutter went on to say that Gaudreau’s game has matured in the past couple of seasons from one that focused on individual accomplishments to one that puts the team first. The 5-foot-9 dynamo has definitely bought in this season, and the results speak for themselves. When Gaudreau is on the ice for five-on-five action, the Flames have outscored the opposition 29-5.
Gaudreau’s Game Has Transformed Under Sutter’s System
While Gaudreau is undoubtedly a dynamic offensive threat whenever he takes to the ice, his defensive play has always been categorized as “has room for improvement.” For much of his tenure in Cowtown, it’s no secret the Flames fourth-round draft pick played sheltered minutes with his longtime center Sean Monahan. But over the past couple of seasons, he’s been slotted with Elias Lindholm, who has become one of the better two-way centers in the NHL — and it has definitely rubbed off.
“I’m fortunate to play with one of the best 200-foot players in Lindy (Lindholm),” he told reporters. “It makes my job a lot easier playing in the d-zone when you have a player like that playing with you.” Just a couple of seasons ago, ‘Johnny Hockey’ would never have been deployed to protect the lead in the dying minutes of a game. But now? Sutter has no issue sending out his top line to do just that, which is a testament to how much Gaudreau’s overall game has grown.
Gaudreau has been the Flames’ best player the entire 2021-22 season and the undisputed choice for the team’s early-season MVP, but it’s not about how many points he’s been piling up. Rather, it’s all about the fact they’ve been coming consistently at even strength (ES). Since Sutter raked Gaudreau over the coals on the eve of his 500th NHL game, the native of Salem, New Jersey, has amassed 47 ES points in his past 52 games — that’s third in the entire league.
Yes, Gaudreau has had produced this kind of offence before; his 99-point season in 2018-19 remains the high-water mark of his career. However, the fact that a majority of Gaudreau’s points are now coming 5-on-5 means he’s becoming much more of a complete player. “Three years ago, I was maybe cheating a little bit more to the offensive side,” Gaudreau admitted. “Obviously, I had a good year points-wise, but just looking at my game personally, I think I’ve gotten a lot better with my 200-foot game.”
Re-Signing Gaudreau Should Be the Flames’ Top Priority
The Flames have a lengthy list of star players who need new deals this offseason; Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington all come to mind. But with Gaudreau being the undisputed superstar of a team that has the second-best points percentage in the Western Conference, it’s crystal clear that a new contract for the Flames’ leading scorer should be at the top of the to-do list for general manager Brad Treliving over the coming months.
With a long-term extension, Gaudreau has the opportunity to take his place alongside the legendary Flames greats. This past week, he climbed into seventh place in all-time franchise scoring. His 531 career points trail only Jarome Iginla, Theoren Fleury, Al MacInnis, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Suter and Kent Nilsson. His current 37 points in 31 games have him on pace to squeak past his career-high of 99 that he set three years ago. And if he can remain one of “the best 200-foot players in the league” (as his head coach now describes him), Gaudreau could be the franchise MVP for years to come.
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Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.