Monday, October 10, 2016

A Day for Flames Fans to Give Thanks as Gaudreau Returns to the Fold Just in Time

At dining room tables across Calgary on Monday, as family gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving, I suspect Johnny Gaudreau's name came up more than a few times.

After all, it was a day for hockey fans to give thanks that the diminutive kid from New Jersey will remain a member of the hometown Flames for another six seasons.

The dramatic impact the 23-year-old has had on this city in his two years removed from Boston College has been immeasurable. Thus, news of his $40.5 million contract extension -- the exact same deal inked last summer by Mark Giordano -- was reason for fans to celebrate.

The last time Gaudreau was spotted on the ice was Sept. 21 in Toronto, his last shift a memorable one. It was his slick pass to Nathan MacKinnon that set-up the overtime winner as Team North America defeated Team Sweden 4-3 in the World Cup of Hockey.

Since then, two-and-a-half weeks -- that to many probably felt like two-and-a-half months -- have passed with the star left winger conspicuously absent from Calgary's training camp.

Monday morning, as players filtered off the ice after a brisk, lengthy and detail-oriented practice at the Saddledome, they all put on a brave face with the obvious discussion topic, a non-topic.
  • Mark Giordano spoke about the excitement of opening the season against Edmonton.
  • Sean Monahan talked positively about the different atmosphere around the team this year.
  • Mikael Backlund mentioned the system play and how encouraged he is with how it's going.

Heck, even coach Glen Gulutzan was in on the facade, insisting that Linden Vey wasn't just playing on the wing with Monahan and Michael Ferland as a placeholder for a certain absentee, but that he had liked Vey's camp and deserved to be there. Sure. Although that doesn't really explain why he was put on waivers on Friday.

Anyway, no disrespect to Vey, but he just tumbled down the forward depth chart and the spot he was clinging to on the power play is long gone.

Day to Rejoice for Fans

Make no mistake, the real winners here are supporters of the Flames, who pour their hard-earned money into supporting the team through tickets, jersey sales, etc.

Having been subjected to two tours of Olli Jokinen, having never had the opportunity to enjoy the raw talent of their own top-three pick, never mind a first overall like the neighbors to the north redeem on a regular basis, Gaudreau is arguably the most exciting player in franchise history.

Kent Nilsson, for those of you old enough to remember, was darn talented too, but the 'Magic Man' left Calgary over 30 years ago after five seasons.

Gaudreau already has two seasons in and expect him to hang around for at least six more. Am thinking it won't be long before you can remove the 'arguably' from that previous sentence.

While he may be a fourth round pick, re-visit that 2011 draft and name one player you would rather have instead of him. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? Gabriel Landeskog? Mark Scheifele? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Those spotted giving an extra couple fist-pumps at the news was season ticket holders and why not, considering the Saddledome is the gallery where his finest work has always been on display. The highlight-reel dangles, the sublime passes, the display of raw emotion after the big overtime goal -- so often it comes with him wearing red. It's as if hockey's version of The Louvre has an address of 555 Saddledome Rise.

Johnny's Hockey Town

Walking from the parking lot into the arena as I do every home game, I always make a point of observing the names that adorn the backs of the crush of Flames jerseys as fans head to the game. Jarome Iginla's town up until three years ago, the last few years have been one of transition.

But it seems like every game, the ratio of Gaudreau-to-other names slides further and further in the direction of No. 13.

Heck, on an off-night last season I took my teenage daughter to a game and I left there $150 lighter in the wallet as she joined the masses. That's the impact he has had and will continue to have. It's an impact that extends well beyond what he produces on the ice.

He's personable, friendly. For the same reason my generation grew up adoring Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, he's an adorable presence. It's something about being short. How many grandparents out there want to just reach into their television and give his cheeks a pinch.

Competitive Fire

Of course, don't confuse this as someone just happy to be here. Oh, he loves to play hockey. But to be clear, he loves to win at hockey.

"It's something I've had in my blood my whole life. I hate losing at whatever we're doing," Gaudreau told me last December when in this piece, I set out to investigate the origin of his competitive fire.

Heck, he even confessed to cheating at board games with his family.

"I remember this one game, Chutes and Ladders," he recalled last December. "Me, my brother and my two sisters used to play it constantly. You would go up and down and up and down and I used to always try to find a way to sneak my guy up one more level."

That drive has never abandoned him. After a Flames OT victory last year while the media was in a scrum a few feet away with the winning goal scorer -- Giordano or Backlund, I can't remember who it was now -- there was this commotion heard from Gaudreau's dressing room stall nearby as he took off his gear and fired it to the floor in anger.

Had Calgary not just won? They had, but Gaudreau had the winning goal on his stick seconds earlier and failed to convert, and he was furious at himself for that.

Arriving Just in Time

Whether it's late Monday night or early Tuesday morning, Gaudreau will get on a plane bound for Calgary. The team expects him to arrive in time for the Flames practice at 11 am on Tuesday. Other than Wednesday's game-day skate in Edmonton, this is the last chance for a solid practice before the season-opener.

Safe to say that instead of binge-watching House of Lies on the flight, a mini-series of video clips produced by Gulutzan will be what airs on his tablet. After all, there is a lot to learn in a very short time with a new system at even-strength and a few changes to the power play.

It's going to take a while and expect some cramming to be necessary as the exam schedule is a busy one -- Oilers on Wednesday, Edmonton again on Friday, Canucks on Saturday, Sabres on Tuesday, Hurricanes on Thursday, Blues on Saturday. Yikes

And there's no time to slowly settle in either.

Calgary started the season miserably a year ago and it cost them. A 2-8-1 opening 11, just two regulation wins in their first 19. The playoff chase was over before it realistically began.

The widespread fear was a repeat of that this year. Think about how the Oilers would have been salivating at the possibility of getting two of this season's four showdowns with the Flames out of the way before Gaudreau had signed.

Now with him back in the fold, a sense of normalcy can return with guys back in their proper seats on the bus.

While Calgary continues to search for a solution at top line right wing -- it looks like Michael Ferland will get the first shot, for now anyway -- at least they're not also searching for a top line left-wing.

Sunny Skies

The work turned in this off-season by general manager Brad Treliving has given fans many reasons to be optimistic heading into 2016-17. The emergence of a second line with a rejuvenated Bennett and his early chemistry with Troy Brouwer. The huge improvement in net with established veteran Brian Elliott. The first impression given by scrappy 18-year-old Matthew Tkachuk.

But that optimism, that sunshine, had been blocked out the past month as the Gaudreau contract stalemate hung over the city like a dark storm cloud.

Well, the clouds parted on Monday night and the sun can once again shine through.

While this isn't necessarily the year for the Flames. You never know either. They're better than the team that made the playoffs two years ago. They're much better than last year when they only ended up missing by 10 points.

Get into the post-season, if you have a hot goalie, with some scoring depth, you never know what can happen.

Long-term as this mix of youth, mid-career savvy and experience grow together, there's even more optimism. Consider that this is a team in which Gaudreau, Monahan, Brouwer, Frolik, Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton are all locked up for at minimum, the next four years. You can inevitably add in Bennett and Tkachuk to that list too.

It's a solid core that will be together a long time and while that foundation is the engine that should drive this team to success, you still need the key that starts it up and that guy is Gaudreau.

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  1. Let's see that guy who always wants to trade Johnny Hockey away now go on his rant

  2. Will be an exciting season with 2 top lines in the fold. Johnny/Monny/Ferland (or Versteeg) and Tkachuk (or Ferland)/Bennett/Brouwer. The key to those lines as well as the third line with Bouma/Backlund/Frolik are the pairings of players on each line: Johnny/Monny, Bennett/Brouwer and Backlund/Frolik.