Sam Corey The Hockey Writers
The Flames Need to Keep Gaudreau
Playing in the National Hockey League can be difficult, grueling, and enervating in the best of circumstances, and playing hockey in the revolving doghouse of huffy fans and unappeasable sports-talkers is certainly not the best of circumstances.
Dividing hockey players up into types inside said revolving doghouse is easy – you have your standard pigeons and benders, defensive liabilities, overcompensated contractual albatrosses, and your grey-bearded hangers-on who hover around roster bubbles more so out of accumulated goodwill than their recent resume.
There are a lot of NHLers who have drifted in and out of this dubious territory, but no reputation is more pernicious and unenviable than the superstar who shrivels into a diminished version of himself come “The Biggest Stage” and “The Brightest Lights” or whatever.
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This label dogged Alex Ovechkin until he hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2018, as he veered dangerously close to becoming the Dan Marino of hockey; his lack of championship hardware had some in the punditocracy questioning his Hall of Fame credentials, despite the Great Eight possessing a once-in-a-generation lamp-lighting prowess that could threaten Wayne Gretzky’s long-standing (and probably invincible) goal record.
Divided Opinions on Gaudreau
It is a queasy quagmire to witness as a fan, but if you’ve followed Johnny Gaudreau over his six-plus seasons for the Calgary Flames, then it should go without saying that he is, for the time being, firmly entrenched into this eternal archetype. A fan base divided over a borderline-generational talent remains unconvinced that the undersized winger has the goods to deliver when physicality increases, the whistles are muted, and space is at a premium—seemingly on sheer ulcerous principle.
Many after-season postmortems—which range from delicate consternations about roster shakeups to sour bloviating—have concluded it is absolutely imperative that Gaudreau is shipped, and none of these takes really scan as anything new, because it is simply how glowering fans and gassy commentators overreact after curdled ill-will and a cascading sequence of playoff choke jobs.
Gaudreau is the sort of player that tends to be slightly underrated by those who begrudgingly focus on his blemishes, and deliriously exalted by fans appreciative that their preferred team rosters a bonafide beauty.
Undeniably one of the league’s most electrifying talents, Johnny Hockey has a lousy playoff track record. In 30 postseason tilts, he has 19 points – seven of which came during even-strength – which translates to .63 points per game, compared to his .96 points per game over his half-dozen regular-season campaigns.
An underachieving playoff performer on a similarly frustrating team, he was noticeably absent in Calgary’s earlyish bubble booting. Gaudreau was reduced to little more than an ornament during 5-on-5 play for most of Calgary’s quarterfinal implosion against the Dallas Stars, as was the case last year in a five-game first-round upset loss to Colorado. It’s not as if his postseason stat-sheet is completely barren, though. During the Flames 11-game run in the 2014-15 postseason, Gaudreau tallied four goals and five assists.
Gaudreau is the owner of a suite of remarkable hockey talents, which is the sort of thing that gets overlooked because they haven’t translated into playoff glory.
Despite his 5-foot-9 string-cheese frame, he has been a star everywhere he played, winning the Hobey Baker Award in 2014 as the best player in college hockey, and has vastly exceeded expectations when he came into the NHL after being a fourth-round draft pick in 2011 out of Boston College. He is a lightning-quick skater and a dynamic puck-mover who can scream across the ice and generate quality chances for himself and teammates, equally dangerous at even strength and the power play under ordinary regular-season intensity levels.
A consensus contender for the Hart Trophy in 2018-19 on the back of a 36-goal, 66-assist effort, Gaudreau has topped 24 ginos four times in six seasons and is ninth in league scoring since he was a rookie in 2014-15. Surprisingly durable despite his diminutive stature, he has skated in 79 or more games in four seasons, with his lowest total standing at 72 in 2016-17 (notwithstanding this year’s abrupt/unexpected COVID-19 pause).
What Would the Flames Get for Johnny Gaudreau?
The complicating factor in all this is Johnny Hockey may be more Phil Kessel than Connor McDavid. On the superstar spectrum, he slides closer to complementary playmaker than a stud who can singlehandedly mask roster deficiencies. While on the heels of a decidedly lackluster go-around, at age 27, Gaudreau is nonetheless comfortably situated at the peak of his powers, and is locked into a team-friendly pact of $6.75 million for the next two seasons—ranking 47th among the highest-paid NHL forwards.
The Flames are in dire need of a young point man for their aging and UFA-filled defensive corps. Alex Pietrangelo is a de facto pending free agent, but blue-chip blueliners only hit the open market if an utter collapse in contract negotiations brings a great deal of dysfunction that leaves the relationship between them and their team truly and pyrotechnically screwed.
Recent deals of similarly priced forwards who perform within a tick or two of Gaudreau’s production – i.e. J.T. Miller, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone – have netted something in the range of a first-round draft pick, a middle-six forward or middle-pairing defenseman, and a middling prospect or two. Another possibility would involve pairing Johnny Hockey with his kindred playoff underwhelmer Sean Monahan to nab an elite defensive anchor.
If the Flames are trying to crowbar their Stanley Cup window wide open, as they ostensibly are, the only way either deal would make sense is if they are unshakable in their virtual certainty of inking free-agent forward jewel Taylor Hall, who is prognosticated to have at least a half-dozen suitors.
But the soon-to-be 29-year-old left-winger projects to command an annual salary approximating $10 million on the open market. With a solid, albeit limited, playoff resume—12 points in 14 games—and an average of .89 points per game over a career dampened by various dings and the misfortune of suiting up for some of the NHL’s most hapless organizations, it is no certainty that Hall would represent a major upgrade over the Flames’ current first-line scorer, assuming they even secure his services.
As it happens, we have plenty of recent examples of how this hypothetical deal might go.
Similar Trades Haven’t Gone Well
The Boston Bruins shipped out Tyler Seguin after a bad postseason to the Dallas Stars for a declining and breaking Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith (who they traded two seasons later), and two prospects who never panned out.
The Chicago Blackhawks dealt Artemi Panarian in what turned out to be a nightmarish return that marked the beginning of the decline phase of their erstwhile dynastic run.
Grasping for a competent blueliner, now-disgraced and former Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli exchanged Hall for Adam Larsson, which was inexplicable at that moment and retroactively a league-wide laughingstock.
Ryan O’Reilly was shuttled out twice within four seasons, both times for packages worth less than he was in his own right, with the latter of those trades leaving a permanent bruise on the Jason Botterill doofus reign in Buffalo.
The uniting theme that pieces this little episodic shards together into a bigger picture is that every one of these teams defenestrated their franchise scorer and were notably worse off for it.
Where Do the Flames Go From Here?
And that’s the stuff of the NHL offseason, more or less. Gaudreau is a supremely gifted first-liner on an above-average team who both turn in lackluster postseason performances, cursed by misplaced, overinflated over-expectations.
Johnny Hockey is imagined to be in the elite group of singlehanded game-breakers, a la Sidney Crosby or Nathan MacKinnon or McDavid, when he has settled into a notch below that tier: great but not NHL Legend Great. Fans have evidently forgotten that if the truly elite wasn’t such an exclusive high watermark, the definition would lose all meaningful functionality.
Congruently, the last five seasons for the Calgary Flames have been a turnstile of missed playoffs and early-round departures. This year, they were an eight seed that was two periods away from forcing a sudden death Game 7 against the Western Conference powerhouse Dallas Stars. Last year, they were the top seed who imploded against an up-and-coming Avalanche squad who have continued their ascent into legitimate Cup contenders.
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Regression toward the mean suggests the Flames will likely land somewhere in between these two outcomes next season with a few roster tweaks around the edge; potentially having the stuff to go on a serious playoff run, with the obvious caveat of not surrendering seven straight goals in an elimination game.
It seems like a playoff-caliber team would be better served by acquiring reinforcements as opposed to jettisoning its top source of scoring, because, despite the insatiable rabble demanding Gaudreau’s immediate ex-communication, displaying a lack of impulse control isn’t exactly an effective substitute for best roster management practices.
For better or for worse, the Flames and Johnny Hockey are better off together than apart, and it’s a situation that at least half the league would be thankful to find themselves in.
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