Monday, March 27, 2017

He's Back: Now Over 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.

Best Record since Feb. 21:

1. Calgary - 17 gm, 14-3-0, 28 pts 
2. Chicago - 17 gm, 12-3-2, 26 pts
3. Nashville - 17 gm, 11-3-3, 25 pts
4. Columbus - 16 gm, 11-3-2, 24 pts
5. Carolina - 19 gm, 9-4-6, 24 pts

Heating up at the Right Time

With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, Calgary is boasting a top-six right now 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.

After Monday night's NHL action if you go and skim through the top scorers since that point, you don't have to go very far to find Gaudreau's name, or Monahan's for that matter.

Scoring Leaders since Feb. 21:

1. Nikita Kucherov TB, 17 gm, 17-14-31
2. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 17 gm, 6-17-23
T3. Patrick Kane CHI, 17 gm, 14-8-22
T3. Jack Eichel BUF, 16 gm, 10-12-22
T5. Brad Marchand BOS, 16 gm, 12-9-21
T5. Sean Monahan CGY, 17 gm, 7-14-21
T5. Connor McDavid EDM, 16 gm, 6-15-21
T5. Ryan Getzlaf ANA, 14 gm, 3-18-21

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

Since that point, now it's Patrick Kane, Brad Marchand, Connor McDavid, Ryan Getzlaf and Jack Eichel. Oh, and his centre is right there in the mix also. Now that's more like it.

Top Line is Scorching Hot

"We’re building chemistry every single game which is nice," said Gaudreau after the win over the Avalanche. "Good time of the season to do it too. I think we played well tonight."

Monahan concurs.

"It’s a big time of the year. We’ve been talking about that the last little while," said the 22-year-old. "We’re trying to step up and do whatever we can to help this team. Right now when things are rolling good things happen.”

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-15 is second-best in the NHL. The only guy better than that has been Monahan (plus-17). In fact, Flames own the top three rungs with Dougie Hamilton (plus-14) alone in third.

Goaltender Brian Elliott likes what he's seen from the trio.

"It looks like a good mixture of everything," said Elliott. "Johnny has that dangerous breakaway speed, Mony has the eyes to find him and Ferly with that lethal shot. If they find him, it's probably in the back of the net. all those guys put together, it's a good line for us."

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 has nine points during a five-game points streak -- has pushed his career totals to 201 points.

His assist on Ferland's second period goal made him 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. It took Gaudreau 226 games.

Hs is the eighth fastest to 200 points in team history, getting there three games quicker than Hakan Loob.

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
8. Johnny Gaudreau - 226 gm
9. Hakan Loob - 229 gm
10. Al MacInnis - 233 gm
11. Robert Reichel - 241 gm
12. Carey Wilson - 254 gm
13. Joel Otto - 267 gm
T14. Sean Monahan - 302 gm
T14. German Titov - 302 gm
16. Dion Phaneuf - 312 gm
17. Jarome Iginla -  314 gm
18. Gary Roberts - 321 gm
19. Jim Peplinski - 334 gm
20. Cory Stillman - 343 gm

Meanwhile, Gaudreau is also the eighth youngest to reach 200 points since the Flames relocated to Calgary in 1980. Monahan was second-youngest to do it, 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
8. Johnny Gaudreau, Mar. 27, 2017 - 23 years, 226 days
9. Gary Suter, Mar. 26, 1988 - 23 years, 276 days
10. Dion Phaneuf, Mar. 14, 2009 - 23 years, 338 days
12. Jim Peplinski, Dec. 5, 1984 - 24 years, 42 days
12. Gary Roberts, Mar. 2, 1991 - 24 years, 283 days
13. Kent Nilsson, Oct. 21, 1981 - 25 years, 51 days
14. Carey Wilson, Nov. 3, 1987 - 25 years, 168 days
15. Guy Chouinard, Jan. 4, 1983 - 26 years, 76 days
16. Hakan Loob, Oct. 22, 1986 - 26 years, 111 days
17. Cory Stillman, Nov. 10, 2000 - 26 years, 326 days
18. Joel Otto, Jan. 7, 1989 - 27 years, 70 days
19. Mikael Backlund, Jan. 4, 2017 - 27 years, 293 days
20. Jamie Macoun, Feb. 11, 1990 - 28 years, 178 days

Final Word

The Flames four-game homestand continues Wednesday against the Los Angeles Kings. With a regulation win, they'll clinch a playoff spot. Rolling into town after that are the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks -- the latter mired in a six-game losing streak.

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 58 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, and how that line performed Monday night in combining for eight points, it should be an exciting week to be at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

"I'm proud of the guys and the spot they've put themselves in. A lot of hard work went into that and now we need to finish it off," said Gulutzan. "We want to do it ourselves. We think the good teams get themselves into the playoffs themselves, they don't wait for help."

Heads up Red Mile, things are about to get very busy.

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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    1 comment:

    1. Gaudreau (and Monahan) came into the year with a new contract, new coach, new systems and no training camp. He then had to endure that horrible start of the entire team, and then had his first ever injury in his entire career. Then he gets Chiasson, a solid 4th liner but a horrible 1st liner, for 31 games on his RW. All things considered, it's quite reasonable that he isn't the point per game player he was last season. Considering he has been a top point producer in the league ever since Chiasson/Brouwer was swapped with Ferland, I think it's safe to say that he is a legitimate point per game player, which is an elite level in today's league, and that his last year self is more the norm for him than this year's numbers (which are still top line level). Johnny and Monny's shooting percentages are down a few points this year (due to bad luck and the reasons I listed above) yet they are still on pace for 70 and 60 points respectively over a full season. Add to that the fact that Ferly is on pace for 30+ goals and 42 points since being put on the top line, and that forms one of the better lines in the league to add to our already amazing 3M line.

      I've nicknamed them the 'two and a half men' line. They're gonna be a long term force in this league. And once Bennett breaks out, we're going to have lethal top 9 depth.