The Calgary Flames are a surging team right now, and much of that success has been driven by the elite play of the team’s top line. Elias Lindholm has been dominant in all situations, Matthew Tkachuk has bounced back after a slow season last year, but perhaps most of all, Johnny Gaudreau is putting points on the board like he hasn’t in a couple of years. He sits ninth in the entire league with 36 points in 30 games, the only Flame above a point-per-game pace this season.
Even more impressive, Gaudreau is third in the league in plus/minus. While it is a flawed stat, this level of dominance shows his ability to drive puck the right way and limit chances against. It was this strong two-way play that earned him high praise from head coach Darryl Sutter, who said that Gaudreau is “one of the best 200-foot players in the league right now.” This is enormous praise from the generally stoic bench boss. Let’s break down just how good he has been at both ends of the ice.
Gaudreau’s stats speak volumes
The one big knock against Gaudreau through his career is that while his offensive game is undoubtedly elite, his ability on defence has lacked substantially. Opposing teams have been able to exploit this in his game, particularly when the Flames’ top line would ice the puck and the other team would send out their top line for a faceoff in their offensive zone. The Vegas Golden Knights did this particularly well in a 6–0 drubbing over the Flames in 2019, which was probably the hallmark of this style of play.
However over the course of this season in particular, Sutter has been able to train Gaudreau to play effectively at both ends of the ice. So far this season, Gaudreau and his two linemates have only been on the ice for five goals against at 5v5 in over 350 combined minutes. In fact, among all lines that have played at least 100 minutes together, they sit fourth in goals for percentage at 85.2%. But get this—the three lines ahead of them have played fewer minutes combined than the Flames’ top group.
For an elite offensive weapon, the hope for Gaudreau is not that he ends up as the team’s top shutdown guy, but that defensively he is responsible and is able to hold his own. On the face of it, this is what is happening with Gaudreau this season. Check out his numbers from HockeyViz.com:
Offensively, Gaudreau is +11% when it comes to his finishing impact on goal odds of unblocked shot, which is very good. Defensively, he is +1, which is just barely above breakeven. What this means is that accounting for everything, Gaudreau is effectively a net-neutral defensive player at 5v5.
However, when he is on the ice, the Flames’ defence is better than when he is not. Turning to Calgary’s 5v5 defence charts with and without Gaudreau:
Taken together, these charts show the impact that Gaudreau has on the team’s defence. There is no doubt that the Flames are a strong two-way team, but when Gaudreau is on the ice and all other factors are held equal, the Flames are a better defensive team than when he is not.
Gaudreau is starting the highest percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone of his career. Up until this season, Gaudreau has started around 60% of his shifts from a faceoff in the offensive zone. This season, that number is hovering just a touch over 50%, and is buoyed by the team’s collectively ability to hem teams in their own zones. Their latest game against the Chicago Blackhawks was a prime example of this.
Perhaps most telling of all was the way that Coach Sutter deployed Gaudreau on the power play against Chicago in that game. Instead of deploying him on the flank with Andersson at the point, the two switched spots, and Gaudreau took the spot at the point. Check out this clip and description from Jack Han:
Han is right, this was absolutely a risky play. Were Chicago’s Calvin de Haan (#44) or Kirby Dach (#77) able to strip either of Sean Monahan or Gaudreau of the puck, the Flames’ power play would be surely facing a two-on-one going back the other way with either the diminutive forward or potentially Andersson in the middle trying to break that play up shorthanded.
However, it is clear that given his play of late, the Flames’ bench boss trusts Gaudreau’s instincts and defensive abilities to put him in such a difficult position on the man advantage. This is perhaps as high a compliment as the quote itself. It shows that Sutter walks the talk with his players on the ice. For a player who has always filed working on his two-way game in the areas of improvement category, it is clear that Gaudreau has taken huge strides in this part of his game.
What does this mean for the Flames?
Is Johnny Gaudreau the heir apparent of Mikael Backlund? Absolutely not. His two-way game has taken huge steps forward, but do not expect Gaudreau to be part of the team’s top shutdown unit. He’s too good at offence to by taking that responsibility. However, this substantial step forward has made the Flames much tougher to match up against.
Typically, the way that the Flames would match up would be they would send the Backlund line out against the opponent’s top group, and the Gaudreau line against the team’s second line, and hope they would be able to exploit the weaker second group. This strategy worked well at home, but on the road when you cannot control matchups as easily, it allowed the Flames’ top line to be exploited by strong offensive lines.
Now the Flames have an elite shutdown group, but also a top line that can hold their own in any area of the ice. Putting Gaudreau with Tkachuk and Linholm has created an elite top line that can both score and defend almost equally well. This only bodes well for them for the rest of the season and hopefully through the playoffs as well.