How Flames' Johnny Gaudreau has become a fixture in the Hart Trophy conversation

Ryan Leslie and Eric Francis discuss whether we can legitimately put Johnny Gaudreau's name in the Hart Trophy conversation alongside Auston Matthews and the Oilers top guns, and discuss how Matthew Tkachuk is quietly having a superstar season.

Third in league scoring and a fixture in the Hart Trophy conversation, Johnny Gaudreau is making the game look easy of late.

It’s a product of playing with two linemates who mesh perfectly with the 28-year-old superstar, as much as it is his buy-in to Darryl Sutter’s system, which emphasizes checking.

At a time when the game is supposed to be getting harder, he’s playing the best hockey of his career, picking up 10 points in his last three outings. 

A career-high five assists in Saturday's 9-5 stunner over the Edmonton Oilers clinched NHL second star of the week honours and drew even more attention to a player who will be a focal point as the playoffs near.

Rising to every challenge thrown his way so far this season, the question is how will the game change for him in the playoffs?

“I think the biggest difference that happens as the season goes on, and you’re down into the teen games left, those teams that are used to having playoff success, their games really tighten up and there’s less space and less time,” Sutter said.

“There is not as much done on the rush. It’s a deeper game. That’s where guys get judged on the next part.

“Johnny has grabbed on to that and I think that’s why he’s played well since the all-star game quite honestly.”

The league leader in primary assists and creativity, it’s the rush where Gaudreau generates a good chunk of the team’s offence, leading the league in most analytics that revolve around zone entries.

Fact is, he’s found a way to be relevant everywhere on the ice this season, making him what Sutter calls one of the best checkers and best 200-foot players in the league.

He's certainly one of the most consistent too. 

His even-strength numbers and league-leading plus-49 speak to not only how effective he’s been offensively, but at keeping the puck out of his net.

As good as Gaudreau was three years ago when he finished sixth in league scoring with 99 points, he was only plus-18, a career high.

Sutter has clearly brought the best out of Gaudreau, teaching him how to be a complete player.

Few envisioned the 5-foot-9, 165-pound winger being able to play such a significant role in a Sutter system that emphasizes checking above all.

“Good stick, good hockey sense, good positioning,” Sutter said when asked what attributes are required to be a good checker. 

“If you’ve got great hockey IQ, and checking is about having a good stick if you’re not 200 pounds and if you position yourself well, then why can’t you?

“He’s done that, and he’s grabbed that, and that’s how he’s played.”

Saturday’s playmaking clinic came in a meaningful game under the brightest of spotlights, which bodes well for a player whose only knock has been his dropoff during the playoffs, when games matter most.

There’s plenty of reason to believe Gaudreau’s game mirrors that of the team, in that it’s better built for playoff success than years past.

“It’s not about what he did last year or two years ago,” said Sutter, who has never been one to equate player performance to point totals.

“The guys who score big goals are way more important than the guys who score lots of goals. 

"Break that down where the guys are involved in 5-on-5 play, in terms of goals for and against at even strength. Way more important than a guy who scores a lot of goals but is on the ice for way more.

“It’s how you become a good hockey club, if your top guys can buy into that.”

It goes a long way towards explaining how the Flames sit second in the west.

Consider: It took 20 games into the season for Gaudreau to be on the ice for an even-strength goal, and he’s continued to be a force in that department while on the ice for 78 even-strength goals scored and just 29 against.

These are numbers that dwarf anyone in the Hart Trophy conversation.

His 34 primary assists at 5-on-5 are 12 more than second-place Matthew Tkachuk, who has one more than Nazem Kadri.

“The way he’s played, he’s winning games for us,” said Dillon Dube, whose club hosts a Colorado Avalanche team Tuesday that Gaudreau scored the overtime winner against earlier in the year.

“He’s been awesome, he’s a leader on our team. Against Arizona, he stepped up and that whole line won that game for us. He was playing against those two big guys in Edmonton and he stepped up and I thought he was the best player on the ice.

“For him to do that is really important for us, and this time of the year to have a player like that winning hockey games is really important for us.”

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