West Coast Bias: Gaudreau, Gulutzan going through growing pains

HC's Nick Kypreos says the Calgary Flames aren't necessarily making a hard push for Marc-Andre Fleury, but they're at least kicking some tires on the netminder.

•Flames coach Gulutzan wants Gaudreau to be a team leader
•Canucks refuse to give in
•Manning handles Oilers hostility with guts

Johnny Gaudreau and his new coach, Glen Gulutzan, are going through the growing pains that so many star players have gone through with head coaches. Think Ken Hitchcock-Brett Hull or Nazem Kadri-Mike Babcock.

The coach wants his highest-paid forward — Gaudreau is tied with defenceman and captain Mark Giordano with an AAV of $6.75 million — to be a team leader. He expects a player who is an example to the rest of the team, likely a spokesman as well, and one who trains and produces commensurate to the investment the Flames have made in him.

Now, the on-ice production you can’t always control, and Gaudreau’s points-per-game has gone from 0.99 last season to 0.73 this year. But he’s been a plus player in each of his first two seasons, and heading into a Hockey Night in Canada meeting with Vancouver on Saturday, Gaudreau is currently at minus-18 — worst among Flames forwards.

We also suspect Gaudreau’s team-leading average shift length of 51 seconds doesn’t sit real well with the coach, though we have no evidence of that. Long shifts and bad plus-minus numbers often go hand in hand, and only the fittest players can pull off a shift length of 51 seconds. That’s another area where the Flames have found Gaudreau wanting, sources tell Sportsnet.

Remember a year ago, when Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Lance Bouma all arrived on Super Bowl Monday late for a practice? Bouma was kicked off the ice by then-coach Bob Hartley, practice was ended early and the three were made healthy scratches the next night.

Gaudreau missed the team bus for the Flames practice at Central Park earlier this month, arriving just in time for the start of practice in a New York taxi. These things happen, even to the most dedicated players. But when they keep happening to the same players, it’s cause for concern.

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Last Monday, during a 5-0 shellacking at the hands of Arizona, Gulutzan demoted Gaudreau to the fourth line. After the game, Gaudreau was nowhere to be found. The usual drill after a team gets lit up like that — especially at home — is for the leadership group to share the burden of answering media queries, but Gaudeau left that chore to others. You’d never see a Sedin twin anywhere else but in front of his locker room stall after a game like that, but Gaudreau was requested by media and could not be produced by Flames staff.

Hockey, a veteran coach told us Friday, is about accountability: on the ice, off the ice and in the gym. “All the young guys have some fun. That’s fine,” he said. “But the good ones train like hell, and they have a team culture that demands it.”

A few years ago in Edmonton the kids were running the show, and management failed to build a proper veteran support group. Rumours flew about that group being out on the town too much, though I should say, as someone who chased those rumours, I never found enough concrete evidence to write the piece.

Missed busses and healthy scratches aren’t big things, but they’re not small either. Watch for GM Brad Treliving to continue to acquire the right veterans — the way he brought Troy Brouwer in last summer — as this Flames team grows.

•••

Canucks Culture

Speaking of leadership groups, the Canucks get some props for a team that just won’t say die — no matter how many people outside their dressing room expect them to roll over eventually.

The Sedin twins have undoubtedly lost a step — and you can throw Alex Edler and Alex Burrows under that blanket as well. But is there a another team in the NHL who was picked to do worse this season that, with a couple of wins, could be right back in the wild-card hunt?

It might not be great for the overall health of the Canucks that they won’t give in, but give the leadership group credit. They won’t allow that losing culture to get roots in the dressing room at Rogers Arena, the way it did inside Rexall Place.

•••

Mad Props

The Brandon Manning visit to Edmonton provided a slice of hockey culture seldom seen anymore. After being part of the play that injured McDavid last season, Manning drew the ire of an entire Canadian city and team when he was accused by McDavid of telling him it wasn’t an accident.

(Manning denies that claim, and McDavid has moved on. We don’t take either side on it.)

Tough games like the one that met Manning in Edmonton used to be commonplace in the NHL I began covering 25 years ago. They’re not so common anymore, and that’s why Manning earned huge stripes with his Philadelphia Flyer teammates for a steady, gutsy performance in a 6-3 loss Thursday.

“Give him mad props that he was able to perform the way he did, when every time he touched the puck you knew they were going to finish their checks,” said teammate Matt Read. “A lot of guys could have shied away and not played their game. He handled himself great, and had a target on his back all night.

“You couldn’t ask for much more from him. And, he handled himself well in the fight (with Patrick Maroon).”

Has Read ever found himself in that spot? “Thank God I haven’t,” he said.

How about you, Wayne Simmonds?

“Yup,” he shrugged. “Happens sometimes.”

•••

Nothing to See Here

Had to revisit this quote from Arizona backup goalie Louis Domingue, uttered post-game to reporters earlier this week inside the visitor’s dressing room at Rogers Place.

Domingue had allowed five goals on 33 shots, including one off a 5-on-3 advantage and a couple more the Oilers shoveled in from the blue paint. I didn’t mind his game as much as his coach Dave Tippett did. “Real stoppable,” Tippett said of the 5-on-3 goal. “(Connor) Murphy played it wrong in front. A very stoppable goal.”

Anyhow, reporters approached Domingue after the game for a comment, and he waved them off: “Honestly guys, I’ve got no answer for you. I play once a month. It wasn’t good enough. So I have zero answers for the rest of your questions.”

On one hand, as a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, let the record show that NHL and NHLPA standards state that all players are supposed to make themselves available to be interviewed post-game. On the other hand, we do appreciate Domingue’s honesty.

I wonder if he’ll have more to say the next time, if he only lets in two and his team wins? Just sayin’…

•••

Leading The House

Forget trying to stay ahead of his linemates in goals, Edmonton’s Mark Letestu has to work to capture the goal scoring title in his own household.

“My five-year-old (Caleb) has been giving me a hard time, because he’s got 11 goals in Timbits,” said Letestu, who scored his 11th of the season this week. “He was the leading goal scorer in the house, and he knew I had 10. He’s been telling me he’s the leading goal scorer. There’s been some pressure.”

The fact that Letestu, Edmonton’s fourth-line centre, is on pace for roughly 15 goals is testament to depth scoring the Oilers are getting this year that was nonexistent last.

•••

Nailed to The Bench

Nail Yakupov finally played for St. Louis on Thursday after being a healthy scratch for five straight games, taking Scotty Upshall’s spot against Vancouver. He had a blank score line — no points, shots, hits, takeaways etc. – through 8:49 of ice time.

It doesn’t appear as if the St. Louis experience is going any better than the Edmonton experience did for the 2012 No. 1 overall draft pick. He’s got 3-3-6 in 32 Blues games, averaging 10:33 in ice time per game.

On a more positive note, how about Justin Shultz’s 39 points in Pittsburgh this season? He’s sixth among NHL defencemen, and is turning into the offensive D-man everyone thought he could be.

The bad news? The Penguins announced on Friday that Schultz has a concussion. He’s out indefinitely.

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