’Tis a dangerous game for a first-year coach to demote his star player to the fourth line. Especially when said player is signed for six more years and is the key to making the playoffs in the midst of a tense wild card race.
Yet, there was Johnny Gaudreau Monday night, dangling alongside Matt Stajan and Garnet Hathaway on the Calgary Flames’ checking line for the latter half of a humiliating 5-0 blowout courtesy of the second-worst team in hockey.
Following a spirited first period in which Gaudreau was one of the best players on the ice, an offensive zone turnover at the end of a prolonged shift led to an early second period goal by the Coyotes that opened the floodgates for Arizona and ended Gaudreau’s night on the top line.
While the original intent was almost certainly to demote Gaudreau for just a few shifts, a few more goals by Arizona prompted coach Glen Gulutzan to prolong the message-sending.
Why would Gulutzan choose to so publicly admonish his most prized student – a man who finished sixth in league scoring last year?
Well, for starters, he currently sits 95th in NHL scoring as part of a nightmarish season in which a contract impasse kept him from training camp and he has yet to get on track.
The endless frustration Gulutzan, management and the fans have endured watching Gaudreau struggle to regain past form clearly reached a breaking point Monday for the coach.
Unable to get through to Gaudreau behind closed doors about the importance of playing within a system that puts a premium on making smart, safe choices, especially in close games, Gaudreau’s cough-up at the Coyotes blue line seemed not only needless and careless, but also selfish as the gassed winger skated back to the bench while the visitors skated up ice to convert their second goal.
After the game Gulutzan said the turnover earned Gaudreau his demotion. A day later he was more specific.
“It wasn’t really the turnover itself. If you watched the game, it was the shift length and the change,” said Gulutzan, making no apologies for his disciplinary tack.
“It’s awareness. And we talk about it all the time. Where you are in the shift, where you are in the game. It all comes into play.”
Yes, if you ask Picasso to paint you something you can’t get mad if his goes outside the lines.
A player with Gaudreau’s gifted hands and mind is generally given plenty of freedom to be creative in the offensive zone.
However, Gulutzan’s point is salient as Gaudreau put himself and his team in harm’s way at the end of a long shift by refusing to give up on a play, getting the puck deep and making a change.
“We spoke a little this morning – that’s a turnover I can’t make in a tight, 1-0 game. Next thing you know it’s 2-0,” said Gaudreau following a 30-minute sit-down with the coach to clear the air.
“I was trying to make a play and it wasn’t the right play – I should have just got the puck in deep. We make mistakes. I’m a young guy and I’ve got to learn from this. I’ve got to be better.”
Indeed he does. In every possible way.
And that’s where the bulk of everyone’s frustration in this lies. If Gaudreau was scoring at the 30-goal clip pace he had last season the Flames wouldn’t be trailing Los Angeles by one point for the final wild card spot.
With only 11 goals and 35 points in 47 games, Johnny Hockey’s struggles are a big part of why the Flames are the NHL’s most bipolar bunch.
Not only is he absent from the score sheet far too often, his minus-18 rating suggests he’s been a detriment defensively.
On the heals of his six-year, $40.5 million US contract, he’s clearly trying to do too much, as a prolonged shift often demonstrates.
Luckily for the coach and the team Gaudreau seems to be taking the public put-down well.
Otherwise, the coach risked exposing a battle of wills a coach ultimately never wins over a star player.
Not the case here. Message received.
“It’s not unfair – it’s something me and him talked about before,” said Gaudreau, convincingly insisting this isn’t a personality clash bubbling to the surface.
“You’ve got to be smart about it. Listen, he gives me a lot of leeway to try to create plays and at that time of the game it wasn’t a time to do that. So he put me down on the fourth line and I still got some chances on the fourth line.”
For what it’s worth, Gulutzan’s move got the full backing of GM Brad Treliving.
Gaudreau wasn’t benched or called out. He was just made an example of on a team that had several others who could’ve been demoted during Monday’s game.
Gaudreau assumed his regular position on the top line alongside Sean Monahan and Troy Brouwer for practice Tuesday and there he’ll stay as the team tries to get back on track Wednesday when they host Gaudreau’s childhood dream team, Philadelphia.
“I’m not worried about Johnny’s reaction – he’s a great pro,” said Gulutzan, whose biggest hurdle earlier this season was getting the players to understand and buy-in to a system considerably different than Bob Hartley employed. “We’re all trying to get to the same spot here. We like to be a family in there and we like to be honest with each other and that’s how we’re going to get places.”
The only place they got earlier this week was the front page where Gaudreau’s demotion only served to heighten the panic of locals following their most embarrassing loss of the year.
“It was a good lesson,” said Gaudreau, doing his best to put the issue to rest.
“It was a demotion, not a benching – I still got to go out and play. I’ve said before I don’t care who I play with – I just want to go out there and try to make plays and try to help this team win. I’m fine with it.”