Craig Conroy has been around hockey long enough to know when to reserve judgment. That’s why, while watching Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau at their first Calgary Flames development camp together, Conroy’s wheels didn’t immediately start turning. Not after the first goal, anyway. Or the first few. But then things got so silly that Conroy allowed himself to cast forward, just a bit.
“They were scoring goal after goal and making it look easy,” says the Flames assistant GM. “You thought, ‘It’s just a summer [camp], but one day, who knows, maybe we’ll see that [in the NHL].’”
Two years into its prime-time run, the Johnny and Sean show is everything Conroy could have hoped for and figures to dazzle southern Alberta audiences for years to come. The basic premise is long-shot Yankee winger meets big, high-drafted centre who’s almost a Canadian hockey caricature. The story is made compelling by the contrasts, but there’s also undeniable overlap between the youngsters at the centre of it.
As a sixth-overall pick in 2013, the six-foot-three Monahan was always expected to make a notable impact. How quickly he hit, though, registered as a surprise. Conroy and the rest of the Flames staff mentally had him pencilled in for a fourth season of major-junior hockey in 2013–14 until Monahan—in the weeks leading up to his 19th birthday—pushed his way onto a Calgary club bereft of high-level talent. Monahan scored 22 goals that season and, at the end of the campaign, Gaudreau—the 104th-overall pick in 2011—joined the club for one game to mark the end of his NCAA career. (Because of that, his entry-level contract expired this summer, and despite a long negotiation process he signed a six-year extension on the eve of the season.)
The following October, the pair teamed up with Jiri Hudler to form one of the best lines in hockey. Gaudreau’s 64 points tied him for the rookie scoring lead, while Monahan netted 31 goals as Calgary made a surprise trip to the second round of the playoffs.
Monahan potted 27 more last season—though the Flames finished well outside the playoff spots—and his 0.34 goals-per-game mark through his age-21 season outstrips players like Anze Kopitar, Phil Kessel and Matt Duchene. Gaudreau, meanwhile, became a top-10 scorer last year with 78 points in 79 games. (His 56 home points paced the NHL, but Gaudreau has to fight through tougher matchups on the road, where he posted seven goals and 15 assists.) Listed at just 157 lb., the 23-year-old is as close to a bar of soap on skates as you’ll find. And though he has dipsy-doodles for days, awareness is the real key to thriving at his size.
“His sense of where people are at all times, on his team and the other team—maybe that’s why he gets those chances,” says New York Ranger J.T. Miller, who played with Gaudreau on Team North America at the World Cup and with the U.S. at the world juniors. “He just knows what’s going on in every situation.”
There’s a pretty straight line to be drawn between 2015–16 scoring champ Patrick Kane’s elusive game and Gaudreau’s. While Kane was younger upon entering the league (19 compared to 21 for Gaudreau), Gaudreau’s 0.89 points-per-game mark through his first two years tops the 0.88 recorded by Kane in the same span. Most of that production, naturally, has come playing with Monahan. That means while Calgarians muse about the influence of new coach Glen Gulutzan and goalie Brian Elliott this year, they won’t spend much time wondering where their offence will come from.
“It’s just nice when you have two guys who are young; they really feed off each other and complement each other so well,” says Conroy. “It checks off two boxes we don’t have to worry about for a while.”
While it’s tough to criticize either player’s on-ice showing, some have taken lighthearted digs at Monahan’s off-ice persona. The “Boring Sean Monahan” Twitter account is devoted to making the real Monahan appear as dry as an item that’s often referenced in its tweets. Case in point:
Says Gaudreau of the 140-character zingers: “I don’t think he minds it. I think he thinks they’re pretty funny.”
Gaudreau is certainly in a position to know. He calls Monahan one of his closest friends on the Flames and sets the record straight for those who think Monahan’s quiet nature indicates a lack of depth.
“You’ve just gotta give him time to open up,” Gaudreau says.
Calgary has done just that and felt confident enough in Monahan’s character to give him an “A” last season. With the hockey portion of that responsibility well taken care of, Monahan—who turns 22 on the season’s opening night—still has time to grow into the leadership role.
“I think he needs to be a little bit [louder] in the room and talk a bit more, but he will do that eventually,” says veteran teammate Michael Frolik. “I think he can be a great leader.”
Despite being the senior member of the friendship, Gaudreau says he definitely takes cues from Monahan. Like his reserved pal, Gaudreau is never going to be described as gregarious. That said, his ability to read rinks extends to rooms, and when Gaudreau is comfortable, barbs often follow. Conroy saw that first-hand at a Flames charity event last year when Gaudreau was onstage with teammate Josh Jooris.
“He’s got a quick sense of humour,” Conroy says. “He was giving Josh some shots.”
And while the on-ice shots are usually left to Monahan, he didn’t really enter the league with that reputation. His metamorphosis to triggerman likely has a lot to do with skating beside a guy who can find your stick with the puck even when that shouldn’t really be possible. And with these two sides of the same coin in the lineup, everything is on the table in Calgary’s future.
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