Monday, March 27, 2017

He's Back: On Cusp of 200 Points, Rejuvenated Gaudreau Makes Flames a Formidable Foe

Here's Johnny.

That sound you hear, that gust of wind you feel, that's not a Chinook sweeping through Calgary.

It's the collective exhale from Flames fans, who all season have been waiting for this version of Johnny Gaudreau to finally show up.

This is what everyone was expecting back in October when the diminutive 23-year-old signed his name on a lucrative five-year, $40.5 million deal with an annual salary of $6.75 million.

Here's Johnny, alright. If you're an opposing team in his path right now, look out.

If you're familiar with the visual that accompanies that infamous line from The Shining, uttered by Jack Nicholson as he fiercely smashes his way through the bathroom door with an axe in pursuit of Shelley Duvall, well, that might very well be the same mental image opposition defencemen are imagining these days as they prepare to go up against No. 13. When Gaudreau is feeling it like he is right now, there may not be anyone in the league more dangerous.

It's the re-emergence of Gaudreau -- alongside his pal Sean Monahan -- that makes the Calgary Flames a deeper and far more formidable threat heading into this post-season than two years ago.

The Long Road Back

If you woke up on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 21, and skimmed through the NHL's top 100 scorers, one particular name was conspicuously absent.

You wouldn't have found the name Johnny Gaudreau.

Sure, he had missed three weeks with a broken finger but not anywhere to be found in the top 100? This is a guy that was tied for sixth in league scoring as a sophomore just one year ago.

But everything changed that night at the Bridgestone Arena in Music City.

In the ongoing carousel at right wing on the used-to-be-but-no-longer-referred-to-as-the-top-line, next guy up in that slot after the stubbornly tried but failed experiment of Alex Chiasson was Micheal Ferland, someone who earned the audition with his impactful play on the fourth line.

This wasn't the first time he had been tried there, former coach Bob Hartley tried it on more than one occasion. But this was the first time Glen Gulutzan had given that trio a try.

It worked. Instantly.

Ferland scored twice that night against the Predators while Gaudreau had four assists. Monahan chipped in with three helpers.

From that point forward, the team got on a roll -- winning 10 straight games -- and so did that line, in the process wrestling back the label of the team's No. 1 unit.

Heating up at the Right Time

With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, Calgary remains the hottest team in the NHL and it's largely because they have a top-six that can arguably match up with any team in the West.

Make no mistake, the 3M line is still very much in the same groove as they've been in all season, but with the Flames finally being led production-wise by two guys that should be the offensive catalysts, this is a club that has the ability to do some damage in its second playoff appearance in the last eight years.

Ferland patrolling the right side on that top line has done wonders to rejuvenate Gaudreau's game. There's his heavy forecheck, tenacity, punishing hits, deceptive speed, smart offensive instincts and ability to go and retrieve a puck in the corner. Maybe his best attribute is his wicked shot that is one of the league's best kept secrets.

But also not to be forgotten, he also adds a presence to that line that Lady Byng-winning Jiri Hudler never did. Now if you want to slash No. 13, you might want to think again. Safe to say there's some persuasive video to be found on YouTube that shows a side of Ferland you may not want to tangle with.

The difference since that line has been put together has been staggering.

If you work up this morning and went to skim through the NHL's top scorers since that point, you don't have to go very far to find Gaudreau's name.

Five weeks ago, his points 'peer group' consisted of guys like Kyle Palmeiri, Sam Gagner, Travis Zajac, Mike Fisher and Jonathan Marchesseault.

Since that point, the peer group that are even or within a point of him are Patrick Kane, Brad Marchand, Connor McDavid, Ryan Getzlaf and Jack Eichel. Now that's more like it.

Plus-minus, for what it's worth, paints a similar story.

Gaudreau used to be tied with a group that included ex-Flame Joe Colborne at minus-18. That ranked him 798th. For real. Honestly, I didn't even realize there were that many players in the league. Monahan (minus-16) was only marginally better at 783rd.

Again, the difference before and after Feb. 21 has been black and white, or red and black if you prefer.

Since that game in Nashville, Gaudreau's plus-14 is second-best in the NHL, tied with teammate Mark Giordano. The only player better? That's right, Monahan (plus-16), who suddenly finds himself back to even.

Depth Equals Dangerous

The Gaudreau line flying high heading into the playoffs is a movie we've seen before.

Two seasons ago with Hudler running shotgun with that same duo, that line was scorching hot over the final 5-6 weeks of the season.

Then the offence dried up. That line struggled mightily in the post-season and while Calgary was still able to slip past Vancouver in round one, death came swiftly in round two at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks.

Reason for optimism if you're a Flames fan that this post-season could play out differently is this club's greater depth.

Two years ago, the fall off after the top line production-wise was dramatic. In the six weeks leading up to the post-season, the best of the rest up front points-wise -- besides Backlund -- were Lance Bouma, Josh Jooris, Mason Raymond, David Jones and Matt Stajan -- all with seven points apiece.

When the post-season opened in Vancouver, the No. 2 line consisted of right-out-of-junior and fresh-off-shoulder-surgery Sam Bennett -- wearing No. 63 -- with all of one career regular season game under his belt, and Colborne.

This time around, Backlund -- having a career-best season himself -- has Michael Frolik and impact rookie Matthew Tkachuk with him. I don't need to remind you how good they've been all season. In comparing the top six right now to 2014-15, it's a massive upgrade.

Solid Foundation for Years to Come

This hot stretch for Gaudreau -- he will take a four-game point spree into Monday's game against the Colorado Avalanche -- has the third-year pro on the cusp of 200 career NHL points.

When he gets it and against the league-worst Avalanche, I like his odds, it will be the fastest a Flames player has reached 200 points to begin his career in the last 25 years.

Monahan, who just reached this same milestone three weeks ago, did it in 302 games. Gaudreau is about to play career game No. 226.

As long as that next point comes anytime this week, he'll be the eighth fastest to 200 points in team history, sliding just ahead of Hakan Loob, who got there in 229 games.

20 Fastest Flames to Reach 200 Points (to start career) 

1. Kent Nilsson - 130 gm
2. Guy Chouinard - 158 gm
3. Joe Nieuwendyk - 173 gm
4. Theoren Fleury - 193 gm
5. Sergei Makarov - 199 gm
6. Paul Reinhart - 212 gm
7. Gary Suter - 219 gm
Johnny Gaudreau (199 pts) - 225 gm >
8. Hakan Loob - 229 gm
9. Al MacInnis - 233 gm
10. Robert Reichel - 241 gm
11. Carey Wilson - 254 gm
12. Joel Otto - 267 gm
T13. Sean Monahan - 302 gm
T13. German Titov - 302 gm
15. Dion Phaneuf - 312 gm
16. Jarome Iginla -  314 gm
17. Gary Roberts - 321 gm
18. Jim Peplinski - 334 gm
19. Cory Stillman - 343 gm
20. Mikael Backlund - 420 gm

Meanwhile, Gaudreau is also on the verge of becoming the eighth youngest to reach 200 points since the Flames relocated to Calgary in 1980.

Monahan was second-youngest when he reached that milestone, just three days older than Robert Reichel.

To have two core pieces of your forward group both hit 200 career points before age 24 and for them to be linemates. That's a nice foundation to build from upfront and sets this team up for long-term success moving forward.

20 Youngest Flames to Reach 200 Points (to start career) 
(Date of 200th point, age at the time)

1. Robert Reichel, Nov. 11, 1993 - 22 years, 139 days
2. Sean Monahan, Mar. 3, 2017 - 22 years, 142 days
3. Theoren Fleury, Mar. 26, 1991 - 22 years, 270 days
4. Joe Nieuwendyk, Oct. 27, 1989 - 23 years, 47 days
5. Paul Reinhart, Mar. 27, 1983 - 23 years, 81 days
6. Jarome Iginla, Oct. 12, 2000 - 23 years, 103 days
7. Al MacInnis, Nov. 24, 1986 - 23 years, 136 days
< Johnny Gaudreau (199 pts), Mar. 27, 2017 (maybe) - 23 years, 226 days >
8. Gary Suter, Mar. 26, 1988 - 23 years, 276 days
9. Dion Phaneuf, Mar. 14, 2009 - 23 years, 338 days
10. Jim Peplinski, Dec. 5, 1984 - 24 years, 42 days
11. Gary Roberts, Mar. 2, 1991 - 24 years, 283 days
12. Kent Nilsson, Oct. 21, 1981 - 25 years, 51 days
13. Carey Wilson, Nov. 3, 1987 - 25 years, 168 days
14. Guy Chouinard, Jan. 4, 1983 - 26 years, 76 days
15. Hakan Loob, Oct. 22, 1986 - 26 years, 111 days
16. Cory Stillman, Nov. 10, 2000 - 26 years, 326 days
17. Joel Otto, Jan. 7, 1989 - 27 years, 70 days
18. Mikael Backlund, Jan. 4, 2017 - 27 years, 293 days
19. Jamie Macoun, Feb. 11, 1990 - 28 years, 178 days
20. Mark Giordano, Oct. 11, 2014 - 31 years, 8 days

Final Word

The Flames open up a four-game homestand tonight against Colorado. Rolling into town after that are the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.

Last year, nobody scored more points at home than Gaudreau. While his home-road splits have been far more even this season -- in fact, 30 of his 56 points have been on the road -- that doesn't mean No. 13 is any less of a threat when he's wearing his home red sweater and performing in front of the adoring C of Red.

Given the recent role he's on, the chemistry that unit has with Ferland, this should be an exciting week to be at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Heck, with home-ice advantage well within reach, you know that will provide a little added incentive.

It's going to be fun.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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