Facing an uncertain future, key to Gaudreau's present may be Monahan reunion

Watch as Ryan Leslie and Eric Francis discuss why you can't blame Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau for not wanting to talk about his looming contract, and what the key to success is for the team this season.

It didn’t take long for Johnny Gaudreau to set the tone on how he’ll handle one of the biggest questions looming over the Calgary Flames this season: his future.

Two queries into his season-opening availability, the 28-year-old winger was asked how he’d characterize negotiations with the team to possibly extend his stay in Calgary beyond this season.

"That's between my agent and Tre (GM Brad Treliving), and I probably won't answer many questions for you throughout the year on that," said Gaudreau, a pending unrestricted free agent who has one year left on a deal paying him $6.75 million annually.

And with that the focus surrounding the face of the franchise turned to how he can best maximize his value following a disappointing, playoff-less season.

The answer: by reuniting with Sean Monahan.

The two have formed one of the NHL’s most potent duos over the last seven seasons, making it a natural for coach Darryl Sutter to open camp with them on a second unit with Andrew Mangiapane and Brett Ritchie rotating on the right side. (Ritchie won’t be there long.)

If effective, it could relieve pressure on the top unit of Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Blake Coleman, on a squad that struggled to score goals under Sutter’s defensive-minded system.

"Obviously it wasn't the season we wanted as a team -- we didn't make the playoffs,” said Gaudreau, who tied Lindholm for the team lead with 19 goals. “That's something I've got to look at myself at, for not producing a little bit more offensively. Obviously you always want to get better and produce a little bit more.

"But I had a crazy year last year with COVID and the coaching change, and I think me and Mony, we played with four, five, six different guys again. It'd be nice to just try to find a guy that can stick with us and we can play a good month, two months with and create some chemistry. It's been a while.”

It sure has.

“I think we had Lindholm for a year,” added Gaudreau, listing the rotating cast of characters on their right side. “We had (Micheal) Ferland for about a year. We had (Jiri) Hudler for about a year. But since then, if we find a guy who can read us well on the ice and can create some good chemistry with and string along some games, I think it's really important for me and Mony.”

The addition of Coleman via free agency was made to strengthen the team’s notoriously weak right side, giving the team a full six-pack of accomplished scorers on the top two lines.

No more third of fourth liners masquerading as scorers.

Mangiapane was one of the few Flames who didn’t have a poor season last year, emerging as the team’s new fan favourite with a scoring touch that saw him finish one behind Gaudreau despite playing third line minutes.

Given Mangiapane’s upward trajectory, hockey sense and dogged determination on the puck, the pair can’t ask for a better linemate.

A left shot who has proven to be capable of finishing from his off wing, Mangiapane could be the latest to take a crack at being a regular alongside the pair that were long counted on as first liners.

That changed last year, when Lindholm was moved to the second unit in an effort to insulate Gaudreau and Monahan -- a plan that fell apart when Monahan suffered an early hip injury that derailed his season and led to season-ending surgery.

"I think it was probably after about the sixth game of the year," revealed Monahan when asked to pinpoint when he got injured. “The whole season was pretty frustrating. You want to be healthy when you're playing and you want to be at the top of your game every night. When there’s something that’s limiting it gets to you.”

Credit to the perennial 20-30 goal scorer who heard the criticism all season long but never went public with his ailment until he was shelved for the season.

"If you're dressing and you're playing you can't really pull out excuses,” said Monahan, who had 10 goals in 50 outings. “It is what it is, but an injury like that is tough to deal with mentally, feeling like you can't do the things you want to do out on the ice, but like I said, if you're getting dressed and you're playing you have to be ready to go."

Given a clean bill of health following a solid summer of rehab and training, he’s ready to start proving last year was an anomaly.

He’ll do so with Gaudreau by his side, just as they stood when Gaudreau was married late this summer. It’s where they belong -- together, and as support players who are better equipped to shine when not receiving the opposition’s top checkers.

Separated from Monahan late in the season, Gaudreau flourished alongside Lindholm and Tkachuk (on the right side), albeit playing meaningless games.

“I think Blake is not going to change the way he plays – he’s a 200-foot guy and that’s similar to Lindy as a centre,” said Sutter of his opening line rationale. “I think them with Matthew will be a good fit. We’re looking at everything, but I really want to see if that (line) is something.

"I just like the way those two lines set up. Matthew is a better left winger. We wanted Matthew to get back to being a powerful player in this league.”

Hopefully, for nervous Flames fans, Gaudreau and Monahan and the rest of the lines will follow.

Those lines were rounded out in Thursday’s opening camp skate with Dillon Dube, Mikael Backlund and Tyler Pitlick, followed by Milan Lucic, Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis, who all played for Sutter in Los Angeles.

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