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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Johnny Gaudreau had a fantastic 2021-22 season (and probably earned a big, big raise)

Since he arrived on the scene in 2014, Johnny Gaudreau has been the offensive heartbeat of the Calgary Flames. In short, the Flames were only going to go as far as Gaudreau’s scoring prowess could take them. But this past season, his usual scoring prowess was complimented by some smart two-way play and backstopped by a team playing style that seemed to accentuate his contributions.

The result was quite possibly the best single-season offensive performance by any player in Flames franchise history.

The past

There’s two things that have been consistent with Gaudreau dating back to his days in junior hockey: he’s always been considered undersized for the level that he played in, and he’s always ignored the size chatter and produced at a high level offensively.

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He was a standout with the United States Hockey League’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, putting up tremendous offensive numbers on a championship team. This was back before the USHL had really built a reputation as a strong junior league, so between that and his size Gaudreau’s NHL Draft stock was considered moderate (rather than high).

The Flames took advantage of that and, after some scouting subterfuge – they only scouted him in road games and by sneaking in the side door to obscure their interest in him – they selected Gaudreau at 104th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft.

Gaudreau spent three seasons at Boston College post-draft. He was a really good college player as a freshman – it took him about a month to figure the NCAA game out – and then became an elite college player as a sophomore and junior. Flames assistant general manager Craig Conroy was famously dispatched to the Frozen Four in 2014 to get Gaudreau and linemate Bill Arnold to sign; he was successful, and Gaudreau made his NHL debut in the final game of the 2013-14 season.

Joining the Flames full-time in 2014-15, Gaudreau initially struggled during his first handful of games – he wasn’t awful, he just couldn’t generate any offence. But after one healthy scratch, he figured things out, and he’s since rattled off a series of pretty productive NHL seasons despite never progressing beyond the physical label of “undersized.”

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Season Games Goals Points
2014-15 80 24 64
2015-16 79 30 78
2016-17 72 18 61
2017-18 80 24 84
2018-19 82 36 99
2019-20 70 18 58
2020-21 56 19 49

Gaudreau fairly quickly established himself as the club’s most dynamic (and consistent) offensive player and soon he became a fixture on the Flames’ top line – from 2014-15 through 2018-19, essentially whatever line Gaudreau and Sean Monahan were on was by default the Flames’ top line.

Gaudreau was voted to the All-Rookie Team in 2014-15 (and was also a Calder Trophy finalist) and voted the winner of the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 2016-17. Sometimes other clubs used physicality (and slashes to the hands) to keep him to the outside of the home plate area in the offensive zone, but generally speaking Gaudreau has used his speed and creativity to be a consistently good (and occasionally great) offensive player.

The present

The Flames hired Darryl Sutter as head coach midway through the ill-fated 2020-21 season, and changed up much of the rest of the staff over the 2021 off-season – assistant coach Ryan Huska and goalie coach Jason LaBarbera were retained.

With Sutter as head coach and Kirk Muller as the associate coach running the forwards and power play, Gaudreau had his best season as an NHLer. By far. Gaudreau amassed 40 goals, 75 assists, 115 points and a league-leading +64 plus/minus rating. (He tied for second in the entire NHL in points, and led outright at even strength points.)

So what changed?

In terms of team systems, the Flames used a more active forechecking scheme than they did in prior seasons, which meant that they had the puck more. If you give Gaudreau the puck more often, he’ll do good things with it. It’s also important to note that the four defenders that Gaudreau played most often with – Chris Tanev, Oliver Kylington, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson – all had superb seasons, and they played a puck-moving transition style that gave Gaudreau’s line a lot of odd-man rushes, and the quartet were also really active in the rush and in engaging in offensive zone cycling, which both led to more goals and more points for Gaudreau.

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He also played virtually the entire season alongside Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk. Lindholm had a fabulous season, with his savvy two-way play and superb shot from the slot complimented by Tkachuk’s hard-nosed style and tenacity, and the trio elevated each other’s play for essentially the entire season. They were probably the best overall line in the NHL, and Gaudreau was arguably the best player on that line.

But while the systemic changes definitely favoured Gaudreau’s playing style, he has to be given credit for his work within it. Gaudreau earned the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Johnny Backcheck” this season, as he was frequently chasing down the puck in the neutral and defensive zones. He’s never been a Selke level defensive player, and he occasionally looks for the transition pass way before the Flames gain possession of the puck, but his attention to detail and tenacity away from the puck was noticeable this season.

According to the analytics at Natural Stat Trick, Gaudreau had the best offensive season of his career based on expected goals for per 60 and individual expected goals per 60. Per Evolving Hockey’s modelling, he had the best season of his career in terms of goals above replacement, in both the offensive and defensive components of GAR.

In short? Gaudreau was everything anyone could’ve wished him to be in the regular season. He was also superb in the first round against Dallas, while he was one of several Flames who weren’t quite good enough against Edmonton in the second round.

The future

I don’t know if you’re heard, but Gaudreau’s current contract expires at the end of the day on July 12 (midnight ET) and he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. That is, unless, he re-ups with the Flames.

Gaudreau, who has no poker face based on local media’s dealings with him, has said he would be open to returning, and has spoken extensively of his love of the Flames and Calgary in general. General manager Brad Treliving, who is all poker face, has said the club will do whatever they can to get him to return. If Gaudreau stays, the Flames have a top-flight scoring forward that can anchor their attack. If he leaves, they have a gigantic hole in their lineup.

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Both sides seem to have the same goal: locking Gaudreau into a long term deal that keeps him in Calgary. All that needs to be figured out, as Treliving often jokes regarding free agent negotiations, is dollars and term.

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