Crackdown on slashing has turned Johnny Gaudreau loose

Roger Millions reports from Calgary where the Flames red hot chemistry between Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau is looking to scorch the Toronto Maple Leafs.

CALGARY – The hands and the mind turned Johnny Gaudreau into a star.

Both are now free to do their thing.

One year after having a finger on his left hand fractured in almost comical fashion – Gaudreau endured a symphony of slashes from the Minnesota Wild before being sent to the operating table – there is no hesitation when he slices through traffic in the offensive zone.

Consider the Calgary Flames winger as patient zero of an epidemic the NHL appears to have brought under control. Gaudreau is off to the best start of his career amid a league-wide crackdown on slashes to the hands.

“It’s just nice you don’t have to worry about that as much,” he said. “The refs have done a great job with harping down on that a little bit more. It gives us a little more space and time to make plays rather than worrying about breaking a finger or breaking a wrist or something.”

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It amounts to good business for a league that celebrated the quarter mark of the season last week by trumpeting a 12.4 per cent increase in scoring.

Gaudreau has done his part with 34 points in 23 games – second only to Steven Stamkos‘ 36 entering Tuesday’s visit by the Toronto Maple Leafs – and believes the slashing crackdown is a contributing factor in that success.

Defenders that previously made up for a skill deficit by taking away his hands no longer have that option available. Penalties are being whistled whenever an opponent gets a stick near the gloves. It’s not a coincidence that Gaudreau’s line with Sean Monahan and Micheal Ferland has drawn 17 minors this season while only taking six themselves.

Even as the rate of slashing calls has decreased across the NHL in recent weeks, Gaudreau doesn’t believe the standard dropped. Players are adapting. Carrying the puck through the middle of the ice certainly isn’t as painful as it was a year ago.

“You can see less and less sticks around your wrists, your fingers,” said Gaudreau. “It was difficult [before]. I think a lot of skill players were getting it. When you have the puck on your stick that much in a game, players are going to start whacking and hacking.”

The Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland line tends to spend a lot of time with the puck. They’ve controlled 57.35 per cent of even-strength shot attempts while playing together – fourth best among NHL trios with at least 200 minutes played, according to Corsica.hockey.

Amazingly, they share a dressing room with one of the few lines more effective at driving possession: Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik are humming along at 59.38 per cent.

That leaves Flames coach Glen Gulutzan with some nice options when managing his bench. Where once he would work to shelter Gaudreau and Monahan with easier minutes, he’s now comfortable letting them loose against the other sharks.

“They’re committed,” Gulutzan said of his top line. “When you have competitive guys, they accept that challenge – and I did challenge them to start playing against the top guys – and they have to play better defensively. What happens is when you’re playing against the top guys and you’re playing better defensively there’s more [scoring] chances out there for you because … it’s a little different game than if you’re playing against the third and fourth lines that are out there for one reason – to check you.

“So if you play better defence you get more offence, and right now they’ve been rewarded with playing good D.”

The Flames are seeing a deeper level of focus from their best offensive player. Among those pushing him behind the scenes is new teammate Jaromir Jagr, who has gone out of his way to try and impart some wisdom about how to thrive through the grind of a season.

The more you peel back the layers on Gaudreau’s hot start, the more it seems like a guy having everything fall into place.

He and Monahan have found comfort with Ferland on their right side. They’ve earned more trust from the coach. Gaudreau is generating more than three shots per game for the first time in his career and looks like a worthy challenger for the Art Ross Trophy.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “I think we’re spending less time in our defensive zone, which is great, making plays off the rush.”

Like other talented players around the league, they’re enjoying better workplace conditions as well.

Gaudreau is healthy and less burdened by the thought of what might happen when he carves through an opposing defence. The slash that fractured his finger last November was arguably the tipping point for wider change in the NHL.

“There’s no sense letting slashing on the hands go,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “It made no sense anyway. You’re a better player with your stick on the puck anyway, so why wouldn’t we eliminate that?”

Babcock gained a healthy respect for the Flames while breaking down tape before Tuesday’s game. In the Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland line, he sees “two real heavy guys and then a guy who is flat-out just fun to watch.”

“Actually, fun to pre-scout,” added the Leafs coach. “He’s doing a lot of good things out there.”

Amazing things happen when you let Johnny Hockey play.

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