Darryl Sutter doesn’t dish out superlatives the way Johnny Gaudreau dishes out assists.
So when the Flames coach was asked Monday about the recent play of his superstar winger, few expected his response to be as staggering as the numbers Gaudreau has been producing.
"Johnny is one of the best 200-foot players in the league right now and that says a lot about him and just the way he's approached the season," said Sutter, whose prized winger is coming off back-to-back three-point games.
“Really consistent and really buying in in terms of the whole package in terms of how we want to play. Your top players have to emulate how you want to play.”
He didn’t stop there.
“If it’s all about goals and assists and not about winning, that’s kind of where this team was,” added Sutter.
“But when you become the consummate team player and are making plays away from the puck, or backchecking, and tracking back and being in the right position on the ice or managing the clock, and things like that. That’s where I think Johnny has really, really come to the front.”
It’s an incredible endorsement for a player whose size and style had many wondering how he’d fit into Sutter’s system, which revolves around defensive responsibilities and being hard on the puck and opposition.
After all, things didn’t get off to a roaring start for Johnny Hockey when Sutter first arrived.
Suffice it to say, the five-foot-nine, 165-pound veteran has bought into the program and found a way to be a difference-maker at both ends of the ice.
Of all the gaudy stats the 28-year-old has piled up in his career, perhaps none are more telling of the season he’s having than the fact he wasn’t on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal against until the 20th game of the season.
It also represents a monumental turnaround for a player who has had very few Calgary coaches who’d ever put faith in having Gaudreau on the ice to protect a late lead.
Yet, there he’s been all season long, playing key minutes late in games in which his 17-7-6 club is preserving a win.
Anyone who has seen him help spearhead the team’s rebirth this season has to agree he’s a better player than he was three years ago when his 99-point season put his team atop the Western Conference and landed him fourth in Hart Trophy voting.
“I think three years ago maybe I was cheating a little bit more to the offensive side,” said Gaudreau, who tied Nathan MacKinnon for seventh in league scoring that year.
“Obviously, I had a good year points-wise. But I think looking at my game personally, I’ve gotten a lot better in my 200-foot game. I think that was something that was important before the season started.
“I think our line has done a great job not costing our team games in the defensive zone. We maybe had that a little three years ago, but I’ve gotten better in the d-zone.”
Few would have batted an eye had Sutter anointed Lindholm one of the league’s best 200-foot players, as he has been since arriving in Calgary.
Tkachuk deserves more praise there too, as he’s spent plenty of time in the past on the team’s top shutdown line alongside Mikael Backlund.
Told of Sutter’s praise, Gaudreau broke into a grin.
“I mean, it’s nice to hear obviously,” beamed the 13-goal, 36-point man, in an aw-shucks type of way.
“You like when you hear good things about yourself, and the way you’re playing.
There’s a lot of good players in this league. I’m fortunate to play with one of the best 200-foot players in Lindy. It makes my job a lot easier playing in the d-zone when you’re playing with a player like that.”
All three members of the Flames top line are top-11 in plus-minus, with Lindholm leading the league at +25 and Gaudreau third at +21.
They are just part of the sparkling numbers Gaudreau has authored of late.
He’s scored three goals and added three helpers as part of his team’s two wins coming out of the Covid/Christmas break.
His 18 primary assists have him tied for the league lead with Connor McDavid and Jakub Voracek.
His ten-game point-scoring streak on the road is the league’s second-longest behind Jake Guentzel’s 12-gamer.
Oh, and he’s eighth in the NHL scoring race despite playing fewer games than all but one of the lads ahead of him.
Yet, here we are talking about his defensive game.
“Obviously I know I can be better in my defensive zone throughout the years – it’s really important,” said Gaudreau, whose improved puck management no longer makes him prone to costly neutral zone turnovers.
“Obviously with Darryl, he expects a lot out of the players, and you’ve got to be good in your d-zone, you’ve got to get pucks out.
“At the end of the day you’ve got to make those plays and if you don’t you’ll be on the bench.
I had to get better at it and, fortunately, I’m playing with Lindy who is really good in his own zone too.”
Gaudreau and his team will be put to the test this week with three road games in four nights against the Panthers, Lightning and Hurricanes.
“They are three really good teams - two of them are top of the league and the other has won the Cup the past two years,” said Gaudreau, whose club is well-rested and brimming with confidence following an Omicron outbreak that hit him and 20 teammates.
“I think it’s a good test for us. We’ve obviously had a lot of success on the road, so hopefully, we can bring that with us in these next three games.”