Flames' Gaudreau quietly thriving on defence amid brilliant return to dominance

Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Those who wondered how Johnny Gaudreau would fit into Darryl Sutter’s defensive-minded system now have their answer: Brilliantly.

Sitting seventh in NHL scoring as the catalyst of one of the league’s most prolific trios, he’s back to being one of the world’s most electrifying playmakers.

What few saw coming was that he’s also quietly gone about incorporating a defensive responsibility into his game that has him leading the league in a stat few would ever have associated with him.

Gaudreau is one of just two players with over 100 minutes of ice time that has yet to be scored on 5-on-5. The other is Matthew Tkachuk, which says plenty about the impact their top line has had this season, outscoring the opposition 11-0 at even-strength as a line.

It’s been a tremendous response from the 28-year-old winger who was the subject of endless trade speculation over the summer, when it was clear no one was interested in ponying up significantly for the pending free agent.

Finishing below a point-per-game pace for the last two seasons, Gaudreau found himself struggling early on in Sutter's return to Calgary, picking up whatever points he could get on the power play.

This year only two of his points have come with the man advantage, which is shocking given the team's power play is ranked tenth in the league. He's done his best work at even strength, when offence is much harder to come by.

Gaudreau's six goals and 13 assists have helped the Flames get off to a 9-3-5 record that has them second in the west, second in goals against and amongst the league leaders in shots on goal, chances and general excitement offensively.

He’s back to being the highly-engaged speedster whose stickhandling, mobility and creativity make him one of the world’s best at navigating traffic to enter the offensive zone.

Once there, Gaudreau and his linemates have tilted plenty of possession stats in their favour by sustaining offensive forays, thanks to hard work and chemistry. His line had produced 121 scoring chances at 5-on-5, while limiting the opposition to 69 chances. Dominance.

He’s plus-11, which is just three off the NHL lead. Gone is any lingering talk of trading Gaudreau at the deadline. The team is playing too well for that to be a possibility.

Instead, the chatter revolves around how the Flames are going to be able to find enough money to extend Gaudreau’s stay in Calgary long-term.

After all, with the connection he has with Lindholm and Tkachuk, one wonders how either would fare without no. 13 stirring the drink.

“Everybody wanted to bury him before,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving, who has stuck with Gaudreau despite playoff hiccups and some recent sub-par seasons. “He’s been a good player his whole career. There’s always recency bias, like last year people said he was ‘no good.’ That’s silly talk.

“He’s been a productive player since he arrived in the league. You see in his game right now, he’s a top player. Not only when he’s creating offensively, he’s such a dynamic player, but his play away from the puck he’s been a really impactful player every game.”

Many wondered how the 5-foot-9, 165-pound dynamo would be able to contribute to a system in which every player is tasked with helping make the opposition miserable. He’s done that by being better defensively.

In a game in Philadelphia Tuesday in which he was heralded for throwing a career-high 10 shots on net, he also made two key defensive stops that wouldn’t previously have been noted in his repertoire. It’s shooting up his value in the eyes of the coach, the organization and around the league. Not bad for someone capable of testing the open market this summer.

Clearly, his contract situation is not a distraction, as he’s fully immersed in the action on a nightly basis.

“He’s always been like that to me,” said Treliving. “I think he’s taken a lot of lumps for no good reason. Everyone sees his skill and talent, but what people don’t appreciate is how ultra-competitive he is. He wants his team to do well. Sometimes people don’t see that. He’s pissed when we’re not successful. He loves to win.”

He’s got plenty to be happy about these days, which feeds into his insistence he’d like to sign an extension to remain a Flame. It won’t be cheap, which is why his future with the club is such a fascinating and important topic.

Will he want more than the $9 million Tkachuk will almost certainly accept as a qualifying offer? You bet he will, although long-term there is some optimism from some camps that he can be squeezed in under that if he signs for eight years.

While it’s the biggest question mark hanging over the club this season, it’s a much more palatable scenario than if Gaudreau didn’t bounce back the way he has.

In a business that’s all about asset management, can Treliving afford to let Gaudreau walk for nothing this summer? Does it make sense to overpay to keep him, perhaps at the peril of signing either Tkachuk or Andrew Mangiapane the following year?

Credit to Gaudreau for making the decisions tough on the Flames with a return to the play that made him a Hart candidate three years ago.

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