There’s a solid case to be made that nobody on the entire planet is currently playing better hockey than @Johnny Gaudreau.
The 28-year-old winger has skyrocketed up the National Hockey League’s scoring leaderboard since the end of December, posting six goals and 21 points in his last 10 games with the Calgary Flames.
14 of those points — one goal and 13 assists — have come in the Flames’ last four games, three of which the team won in blowout fashion. Gaudreau has registered an astonishing 23 shots on goal in those four contests.
Those numbers look incredible on paper, but they somehow don’t even come close to doing Gaudreau’s play justice. The Salem, NJ product has been downright magical in the offensive zone this season, evoking memories of his awe-inspiring play from the memorable 2014–15 campaign with his trademark serpentine rushes through multiple defenders.
Gaudreau is in the final season of the six-year, $40.5 million contract he signed with the Flames back in 2016 and is undoubtedly playing his hardest for a new one. That’s translating into major success on the ice for his team, on which he plays alongside @Matthew Tkachuk (also in a contract year) and @Elias Lindholm.
With Gaudreau on the ice during five-on-five play, the Flames have outscored their opponents — get ready for it — 43 to 11
. According to Natural Stat Trick
, they’ve generated 30.96 expected goals’ worth of chances and have allowed just 21.08.
Here’s the full list of NHL regulars (min. 15 GP) with a better on-ice goal differential at five-on-five than Gaudreau this season:
Gaudreau already has 51 points in his first 38 games of the 2021–22 season, putting him on pace for a career-high 110 over a full 82-game campaign. He currently ranks sixth in NHL scoring, with only @Leon Draisaitl, @Jonathan Huberdeau, @Alex Ovechkin, @Connor McDavid, and @Nazem Kadri ahead of him.
Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals’ ageless wonder, leads the league with 44 even-strength points in 44 contests. Despite having played six fewer games, Gaudreau ranks second in that category with 41 points.
Draisaitl? McDavid? They’re way down at 34 and 33, respectively.
Part of Gaudreau’s offensive surge this season has come as a result of him shooting the puck at a ridiculously high rate. After a down 2020–21 season in both categories, Gaudreau is averaging 0.88 individual expected goals and 15.24 shot attempts per 60 minutes during five-on-five play — both high watermarks for his career.
As of 10:00 a.m. MT on Jan. 27, 671 skaters have touched NHL ice for at least 150 minutes at five-on-five play in 2021–22. Among them, on a per-60 minute basis, Gaudreau ranks 98th in shots, 73rd in individual expected goals, 66th in shot attempts, and 62nd in individual scoring chances — and these figures apply to a player who functions primarily as the distributor on his line.
Let’s be real: Gaudreau isn’t going to continue posting a plus-32 goal differential at five-on-five … but that has less to do with his own play than that of his goaltenders.
With Gaudreau on the ice at full strength this season, the Flames have scored on 11.98 percent of their shots. That’s a very high figure, but not entirely unprecedented. Ovechkin and Huberdeau have respective posted 12.93 and 11.85 on-ice shooting percentages at five-on-five this season.
What is extremely suspect, however, is Gaudreau’s on-ice save percentage, which ranks 17th in the league. During his shifts at five-on-five, the Flames’ goaltenders — whether it’s been @Jacob Markstrom or @Dan Vladar in net — have posted a jaw-dropping .958 save percentage.
That number is bound to come down at some point. Even if it does, though, it won’t necessarily represent an indictment against Gaudreau’s play. While Tkachuk and Lindholm have been the primary defensive drivers on the Flames’ top line, Gaudreau has been the recipient of praise — from his notoriously ornery bench boss, no less — about his commitment to playing a complete game.
“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,” Flames head coach Darryl Sutter told the media
at an availability earlier this month. “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.”
Sutter went on to describe Gaudreau as the “ultimate team player” who has risen to the occasion defensively by “making plays away from the puck, or backchecking, and tracking back and being in the right position on the ice.”
He’s not wrong.
Gaudreau has only received votes for the Hart Trophy — the NHL’s most valuable player award, voted on by the media — in one previous season during his career. Back in 2018–19, when he scored a career-high 99 points (and the Flames won the Pacific Division with a 50–25–7 record), Gaudreau finished behind only @Nikita Kucherov, @Sidney Crosby, and McDavid in Hart balloting.
This season, Gaudreau is playing some of the very best hockey of his career. He’s on pace to post new career highs in virtually every offensive category and is re-establishing himself as a player the Calgary Flames absolutely cannot afford to lose.
Even if it takes north of $9 million annually to lock down Gaudreau on a long-term deal, the Flames have no choice but to keep him — or else, face the prospect of entering the 2022–23 season without their primary offensive engine. If the Flames aspire to contend beyond this year, they simply can’t let Gaudreau walk in unrestricted free agency.
Johnny Gaudreau is, without question, the Flames’ most valuable player. With the way he’s played this year, he should be firmly in contention with Huberdeau and Ovechkin (and well clear of the lottery-bound Edmonton duo) in the race for the Hart. No member of the Flames has ever captured that trophy.
Dating back to Jarome Iginla’s tenure in Calgary, no Flames player has ever counted for more than $7 million annually against the team’s salary cap. It’ll almost certainly cost more than that to retain Gaudreau’s services beyond this season.
It would be a worthwhile investment.
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