Many believed the hiring of Darryl Sutter would mark the beginning of the end for Johnny Gaudreau as a Calgary Flame.
On Saturday, the new coach added credence to that theory.
Or did he?
Hours before the 27-year-old Flames winger was slated to suit up for his 500th NHL game, Sutter was asked for a cursory quote on the struggling star’s milestone.
“If you’re just basing it on his 500th game tonight, hopefully he has more energy than in his 499th game,” said Sutter.
In terms of background, it must be pointed out that Sutter has long used the media as a tool to take regular shots like that to try firing up players.
This one felt cheap though.
So much so the Flames omitted it when rebroadcasting the coach’s Zoom call on their website.
It wasn’t a good look.
But, pardon me for asking, did it work?
By night’s end, Gaudreau had his first assist (he had a second one taken away after the game) since Sutter joined the team ten games ago.
He drew a penalty, set linemate Brett Ritchie up for two great scoring chances and looked like his old, freewheeling self as the game progressed and the Flames broke a 2-2 tie to snap a four-game losing skid with a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
While he would never come out and say the coach’s comment motivated him, he certainly admitted it caught his attention.
“Ya, I heard it — didn’t think much of it,” shrugged an unusually talkative Gaudreau, clearly proud of his game log.
“I’ve been playing hockey for 24, 25 years now, and I know when I haven’t played well and when I have played well. Personally, I’ve been going up and down throughout the season and obviously not finding the net sometimes. I try to work as hard as I can each night for the 23 guys in that locker room. I played for a long time with a lot of those guys in that locker room and I’m sure a lot of them are really happy for me after tonight. It was a special night. It was a great night to win, playing my 500th game.”
It’s no secret the struggles Gaudreau has had this season and last have been compounded by Sutter’s arrival.
The growing pains were inevitable given Sutter’s demand for defensive details and dreaded dump-ins.
He’s taken just as many hellacious hits (two, thanks to Neal Pionk and Justin Holl) as he has scored goals since Sutter was hired, albeit in three minutes less ice time nightly than Geoff Ward afforded him.
The coach has urged him to shoot it more, which has proven to be troublesome in a tighter defensive system the five-foot-nine, 165-pound winger has been uncomfortable adapting to.
He admitted as much last week while being a good soldier by adding that regardless of his obvious adjustment period, the coach’s word is gospel.
Give him credit, as a gifted playmaker who has accrued the bulk of his 472 points from the perimeter, he seems focused on trying to satisfy the coach in ways he hasn’t before.
“All coaches are different — whether you tell me personally or the way I heard it tonight, I take a lot out of my game,” said Gaudreau.
“I look at it and try to play as hard as I can each night. I’m an offensive guy and sometimes the numbers aren’t there and that looks bad on me. But I try to be smart defensively. I try to do the right things and I feel like I’ve been getting better at that throughout my years here. Tonight was a big win for us and that’s what I can take out of it.”
Where the relationship goes from here is anyone’s guess, as Sutter has a long track record of being unrelenting on his top players, forever insisting they need to give more.
How Gaudreau responds may play a role in his fate this summer.
But then, it might not.
When asked after the game about his pre-game suggestion Gaudreau lacked energy his last outing, Sutter doubled down.
“I didn’t suggest it – it was a fact,” said Sutter, who regularly lit similar fires under Jarome Iginla.
“He was much better tonight. His pace was better. Quite honestly it was his best game he’s played since I joined the team. He’s an elite-level player in this league, so he has to try to have his best game every game for us.”
Midway through the first period, Gaudreau earned stick taps from his teammates as the undersized fourth-round pick was saluted on the Jumbotron for a half-century of games that have him sitting tenth in NHL scoring since the Hobey Baker winner joined the Flames in 2014 with a goal on his very first shot.
His victim? Jacob Markstrom, for you trivia buffs.
He’s since had 30 game-winners, posted a 99-point season, won a Lady Byng and proved countless doubters wrong.
It certainly seemed he deserved better than to have his accomplishments brushed aside Saturday morning by a coach whose only focus was getting the most out of his marquee man.
Or was it exactly what he needed?
NOTES: Juuso Valimaki and Dillon Dube were made healthy scratches for Saturday’s game. “They’ve got to be better players. Okay’s not okay in this racket,” he said of the young duo. They were replaced by Brett Ritchie and Michael Stone. The Flames host Winnipeg Monday night.