As the calendar turned to 2017, the Calgary Flames were having a decent season, in spite of themselves. They were three points above .500 and eighth overall in the Western Conference.
Fast forward to mid-February and the team has found itself pretty much in the same spot they have been – clinging desperately to the final wild card spot and 5-5 in their last 10 games.
In the offseason, the team had gone all-in on St. Louis Blues goaltender Brian Elliott, believing that he was the final piece to propel them back to the playoffs. General manager Brad Treliving had also signed Buffalo Sabres backup Chad Johnson, shoring up what he believed to be the team’s biggest weakness.
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) January 30, 2017
What Treliving and the Flames didn’t expect was a slumping Johnny Gaudreau. The third-year forward went from scoring nearly a point per game (.99) last season (2.97 points per 60) to .73 PPG (2.29 PP60.) His goal production has dropped by nearly seven percent, and his inconsistency led to a demotion on Feb. 12, where he played only 16:42, at a time when the young star was averaging almost 20 minutes a night.
Following the demotion, the Calgary Herald agreed with coach Glen Gulutzan’s strategy, writing, “What it does make clear is that Gulutzan’s public shaming of the 23-year-old demonstrates he’s had an ongoing battle with Gaudreau in an effort to get his game back in order. It’s one thing to go from the league’s sixth-leading scorer to the third-leading scorer on your team, but it’s another to be part of the problem by deviating from the system and costing your club goals in the process.”
The young forward has failed to score a goal in the month of February and is a minus-one in that same time frame. Gaudreau is getting his chances – in a 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, he played over 21 minutes and skated 29 shifts. Still, he was unable to crack the scoresheet.
Snake bitten for sure, but Gaudreau is also suffering the same slump as long-time linemate Sean Monahan. Both players have experienced an uncharacteristic drop in production, and the normally good possession players have seen their PDO fall as well. It seems that Gaudreau and Monahan have been dragging each other down.
Stats reflect this anchoring effect. Gaudreau has shared the ice with Monahan more than any other player, including the goaltenders. At even strength, the Flames’ goals-for with Monahan on the ice is 1.94. When the pair are on the ice together, that drops 1.69. The team’s overall goals-for percentage with the pair on the ice is a paltry 38.9 percent. Not only are Flames struggling to score with the two young forwards on the ice, but the team is hemorrhaging goals against as well.
The opposite was true last season. With Gaudreau and Monahan on a line, the Flames scored 3.04 goals per game, for a goals-for percentage of 57 percent. Clearly, the success of the Flames is tied to the success of these two forwards.
Gaudreau knows what he needs to do to overcome this season’s challenges. He’s a creative puck-carrying forward, but he’s already posted 67 giveaways on the season, and while that may not seem like a lot, Gulutzan believes that the timing of the giveaways is what impacts the team the most. In the game Gaudreau was banished to the fourth line, for example, he gave up the puck at the blue line and went to the bench for a change. Plays like that have haunted Gaudreau throughout the season.
Though it isn’t tracked statistically, Gaudreau’s hallmark his last two seasons has been his mental approach. Gaudreau needs to trust his teammates – especially Monahan – and allow them to make plays as well. Dumping the puck when it’s necessary, choosing a forward pass instead of a blind drop; these are the adjustments that Gaudreau needs to make. If he and Monahan can reclaim their possession intelligence, they will rekindle the Flames in the process.