By his standards, Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau struggled for much of 2019-20 regular season, as well as the playoffs. Among the very tough decisions the club will have to make this season will be whether or not to continue building around the talented forward. Gaudreau was once considered to be the bedrock of the team, but the club now faces a decision over whether to keep him, or to retool.
Gaudreau has explicitly expressed interest in remaining a Flame, so it might be worthwhile to look for the pieces that can complement Johnny’s game for the long haul.
On the other hand, the core has failed to produce in the post-season multiple years in a row, so fans and executives alike are asking the difficult questions of who should stay, and who should go.
But what are the real issues with Gaudreau’s game? We heard lots about the first line’s struggles at even strength in the playoffs, but what was really to blame?
I argue that there is one factor that has been hurting Gaudreau more than others: His tendency to shoot bad angle shots.
It isn’t the whole picture, but Gaudreau has had a longtime habit of shooting from extremely low angles. At the beginning of his career, it worked fairly often. When these shots go in, they look pretty cool. Even now, he finds the net every now and then from a terrible angle.
But much more often, the shots wildly miss the net, leading to either a turnover or killing the flow offensively. Just because he can score from these angles doesn’t mean he should try, at least not as often.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky‘s famous quote holds true. But unfortunately for Gaudreau, so does this:
“You also miss almost all of the shots you take from terrible angles, especially when you have the chance to make a play.”Me
My personal spin on the Great One’s quote sums it up for Gaudreau. Check out this clip from the Dallas series:
In this clip, Gaudreau enters the zone with speed, and keeps possession of the puck through the zone entry. This is one of Gaudreau’s strengths, as he is one of the more skilled players in the league at navigating defenders without resorting to dumping the puck in.
But it’s what happened next that was the problem. After doing all the hard work, he just throws the puck at the net. He misses the net, and the Flames are stuck having to chase the puck once again.
What you can’t see in the clip was Rasmus Andersson coming to the right point. While the play didn’t lead to a turnover in this instance, it was the difference between Andersson receiving a pass cleanly, and having to take it off the boards.
Alternatively, if Gaudreau holds onto the puck, carries it around the net, and feeds Andersson, the Flames would have had a one timer with traffic in front.
Gaudreau needs to play to his strengths and let others do the same. Andersson is a great shooter from the point. Sean Monahan is great around the net. Gaudreau needs to hang onto the puck and do what he does well, using his incredible talents to find teammates in the offensive zone.
Later in that game, he did a similar thing.
Notice the score here. The Flames were sitting on a one goal lead. His thought process was probably something along the lines of “take no chances and just get the puck on net.” But in trying to put the puck on net, he whistled it over the net, creating a turnover… with two forwards low… with three minutes left in the game.
If he held onto the puck and kept it below the dots, not only would he have a better chance at creating offence, but it would have been much safer as well.
Keep in mind that his line with Elias Lindholm and Monahan really struggled to have offensive zone time. That makes it even more damaging when Gaudreau takes a bad angle shot that misses the net, as they work so hard to get the puck, just to throw it away on a low percentage play.
And the numbers bear out what I am saying. Take a look at this shot chart from Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath). Additional charts for Gaudreau and others can be found by exploring HockeyViz.com.
As you can see, Gaudreau frequently shoots from the goal line, but they rarely go in, if at all.
Two years ago during the 2018-19 season, he actually scored a few, but you can see again just how many low angle shots he launches with poor results.
Does shooting from low angles pay off for Gaudreau? Clearly, it does every now and then. But is it really a sustainable way to produce offence? I think the answer is pretty emphatically no. This is especially true as he gets further away from the net towards the corner.
So instead of shooting, what should he do? For starters, he should be focusing on carrying the puck to the dangerous areas more. Despite the common narrative of him being too small to go to the net, he’s more than capable of creating better offence when he does exactly that.
The following clip is from a power play, but there is no reason he could not do the same at 5v5. He had some room and he took full advantage of it and created a great offensive play.
Here’s another play from December, one of Gaudreau’s best of the year. It even follows his well-known route of skating wide where many would have expected him to take a bad shot. But instead, he held onto the puck and earned a stellar primary assist on a flashy play where he did 99% of the work.
Look at the difference between this play, and the multiple times against Dallas when he shot from the goal line. Whereas offensive plays fizzled out to nothing against the Stars, this example against the Kings shows how he can use his teammates to create offence, and he made it look easy.
In the Winnipeg clip, Gaudreau burned by Nathan Beaulieu and faced Connor Hellebuyck one-on-one, which isn’t always going to happen. But this clip against the Kings is not that. He barely gets a step, if at all, on Sean Walker, who actually did a decent job of pushing Gaudreau to the outside.
But instead of going for the shot on the short side, Gaudreau holds onto the puck, keeps his feet moving, and finds a way to get it to the dangerous area. Much of Monahan’s success has been from capitalizing on scoring chances created often by Gaudreau, so Gaudreau retaining the puck to complement that lethal Monahan finish is a win-win.
Look at the Kings’ entire five-man unit. It’s obviously hard for a player to read the play when it happens so quickly, but in this case, they honed in on Gaudreau and found themselves all below the dots.
Even if Gaudreau wasn’t able to find that pass and was forced to hold onto the puck and circle the net, there would have been more Flames closing in on the net, which again would create more dangerous, efficient offence.
Ultimately, bad angle shots are just one issue with Gaudreau’s game, but it is symbolic of what I believe his biggest problems are. He is not an elite two-way player, so needs to make his offensive touches count.
Instead, he too often settles for low percentage plays that rarely lead to good chances, and struggles to get the puck to his teammates in dangerous areas.
If there is a new coach next season and Gaudreau himself is still around, then getting the winger back to high efficiency plays should be a priority. Both Gaudreau’s future and the future of the Flames depend on it.
Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images