Johnny Gaudreau

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Goaltending, Lucic’s role among biggest questions facing Flames

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Calgary Flames.

Let’s take a look at three big questions for the Calgary Flames for the 2019-20 season.

1. Who is going to stop the puck?

There is probably no question that will impact the Flames more than this one.

Goaltending has been a constant struggle for nearly a decade now as the team has not finished higher than 15th in save percentage since the 2011-12 season, and hasn’t finished higher than 20th since the 2013-14 season. That is simply not championship caliber goaltending, and it was probably the single biggest weakness the team had this past season.

David Rittich was a nice surprise, but he struggled down the stretch and is still a bit of an unknown entering this season. Challenging him for playing time will be Cam Talbot who was brought in on a one-year deal to replace Mike Smith.

The Flames have elite, high-end forwards and a strong defense that is carried by Norris Trophy winning blue-liner Mark Giordano.

That core at forward and defense is good enough to compete for a championship right now and maybe even win one if everything goes right. Goaltending, however, is going to be the biggest “make-or-break” aspect of this team and if things do not dramatically improve in net it is going to be an impossible obstacle to overcome.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | Under Pressure: Treliving | Talbot the X-Factor]

2. What can they get out of Milan Lucic?

James Neal‘s brief tenure with the Flames did not go as anyone could have planned it, so it is not really a surprise they were willing to part ways with a 32-year-old winger coming off of a down year.

What is a surprise is that they traded him for Milan Lucic, a player that is regarded to have one of the worst contracts in hockey.

How badly has Lucic’s career deteriorated in recent years? He scored just 16 goals over the past two years and has looked like a player that is simply not built for the modern day, faster paced NHL.

If the Flames think they can rejuvenate his career or that his size and physical presence is going to dramatically alter the success they are likely setting themselves up for disappointment. They didn’t get upset in the first round by the Colorado Avalanche because they weren’t big enough or physical enough — they lost because they were outplayed by a faster team that is quickly emerging as a powerhouse in the Western Conference. Giving Lucic a significant role and assigning him to be the muscle to “protect” their stars as a deterrent is only going to hold them back.

If they play him in the bottom-six role he should be in they are committing $6 million in salary cap space to a player that isn’t going to give them that sort of a return on their investment.

Maybe they had to trade Neal, but trading him for a worse player with a worse (and buyout proof!) contract doesn’t seem to move the needle much in the right direction.

3. Will Johnny Gaudreau‘s playoff luck finally change?

Gaudreau has blossomed into a superstar for the Flames and is one of the league’s most dynamic offensive game-changers. He is the definition of an impact player and one that can take over a game on any given night, and he has consistently done that for the better part of the past three seasons.

The problem: It has not yet happened for him in the playoffs.

In his past two playoff appearances Gaudreau has scored zero goals in nine games while managing just three assists. Not great for a player that has been one of the best point producers in the league.

It’s easy (and lazy) to write that off as him “not being a playoff player” or being “too small.”  It is most likely a lot of bad luck. It is not as if Gaudreau has lacked chances in those playoff games. He still generated shots and he still created chances — he just hasn’t had the puck go in the net. That is not an uncommon development for any player. Pick out any superstar in the league and look at their postseason careers and you will find extended stretches over multiple postseasons where they did not consistently score goals.  Gaudreau is too good, too talented, and too productive to be shut down in the playoffs.

MORE:
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sharks vs. Avalanche: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff preview

The San Jose Sharks entered the season as one of the serious contenders for the Stanley Cup, but they are a team with a major concern and it nearly resulted in them losing to Vegas in Round 1. That concern is goaltender Martin Jones.

Certainly Round 1 wasn’t all bad for Jones. He was solid in Game 1 and stopped an incredible 58 of 59 shots in Game 6. In between that though, he was a disaster. Vegas chased Jones out of Games 2 and 4 and beat him six times in Game 3. One of the things that stretch also demonstrated is Sharks coach Peter DeBoer’s lack of faith in backup Aaron Dell, who struggled this season. If Dell was ever going to start in a playoff game this year, it would have been after those three ugly starts by Jones. For better or worse, the Sharks will stick with Jones.

Regardless, the Sharks deserve credit for rallying. They overcame a 3-1 series deficit against Vegas and had a Game 7 that will be discussed for years to come. With San Jose down 3-0 midway through the third period, Cody Eakin crosschecked Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, resulting in a scary injury and a five-minute major to Eakin. The Sharks scored four times during that power-play en route to a 5-4 overtime victory.

Colorado’s series against Calgary was far less dramatic. Although the Flames were regarded as the heavy favorites, the Avalanche surged to get into the playoffs and weren’t slowed down by Calgary. Colorado eliminated the Flames in five games thanks to hot goaltending and two very effective scoring lines.

Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon were everything the Avalanche could have hoped for in Round 1 while on the Flames side, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan combined to score just a single goal. Colorado has emerged as a great Cinderella story, but this is a year where there have been plenty of Cinderella stories to chose from.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Sharks: Erik Karlsson was unavailable for most of the last third of the season due to a groin injury, but he has excelled in the playoffs. He’s tied with Jaccob Slavin for the league lead in assists with nine and has averaged 27:15 minutes per game in the postseason. Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture were also major factors in Round 1. Each forward finished with six goals and eight points and both are entering Round 2 on a three-game goal scoring streak.

Avalanche: As mentioned above, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon did everything possible for Colorado in Round 1. With the exception of Game 1 where the Avalanche were shutout, the Flames simply couldn’t contain them. Rantanen had five goals and nine points in the five-game series while MacKinnon finished with three goals and eight points. In Rantanen’s case, he’s also on a four-game multi-point streak.

Struggling Players

Sharks: Gustav Nyquist was fine in the regular season after being acquired by the Sharks, but he was quiet in Round 1. He had no goals and three assists in the seven-game series and was held off the scoresheet in Games 6 and 7. They could certainly use more from him going forward, especially if Pavelski’s injury ends up sidelining him for a significant amount of time.

Avalanche: Colorado was led by its star forwards in Round 1, but in Round 2 the Avalanche will likely need more from their supporting cast. Carl Soderberg and Alexander Kerfoot each had just one assist against Calgary. There were only nine forwards in Round 1 that averaged at least 17 minutes and finished with no goals. Of them, only four are playing on teams that advanced to Round 2 and Colorado has two of those four forwards in Soderberg and Kerfoot.

Goaltending

Sharks: Martin Jones has been the Sharks’ main weakness this season, but it wasn’t always that way. He was a solid netminder for San Jose from 2015-16 through 2017-18, but he was horribly inconsistent in 2018-19 and finished with a 2.94 GAA and .896 save percentage in 62 starts. Among goaltenders who started in at least 40 games, only Jonathan Quick on the Western Conference-worst Los Angeles Kings finished with a lower save percentage.

The Sharks continued to lean on Jones though because Aaron Dell was even worse. Dell, who had been a solid backup in his previous two seasons, finished 2018-19 with a 3.17 GAA and .886 save percentage in 25 contests.

As mentioned in the intro, those goaltending woes extended into Round 1 and are something the Avalanche will need to exploit in Round 2.

Avalanche A hot goaltender can take you far in the playoffs and right now Philipp Grubauer is very hot indeed. He’s certainly had rough patches this season, but he’s also a big part of the reason the Avalanche were even able to make the playoffs. From Feb. 23 onward, he posted a 9-2-2 record, 1.44 GAA, and .956 save percentage in 14 contests.

Grubauer proved to be a big problem for Calgary in Round 1 too. The best the Flames did against him was in Game 1 when he allowed three goals on 31 shots. After that, Grubauer surrendered just seven goals over the final four contests, giving him a 1.90 GAA and .939 save percentage in five postseason starts this year.

He also had a chance to lead the Capitals at the start of the 2018 playoffs, but struggled out of the gate, resulting in Braden Holtby taking over in Game 2 and leading Washington the rest of the way. Grubauer has taken advantage of this second chance to show that he can be a strong playoff goaltender.

Special Teams

Sharks: San Jose had eight power-play goals in Round 1, but four of them came on that major penalty to Eakin. While it was a dramatic way to end the series, it has also skewed their power-play numbers. That said, the Sharks ranked sixth in the regular season with a 23.6% power-play success rate and they’re certainly capable of continuing to be very effect with the man advantage going forward. Their ability to kill penalties is a far bigger question mark. The Sharks were a mid-tier team in that regard in the regular season with an 80.8% success rate and their PK was heavily exploited by Vegas in Round 1. Of the teams that advanced, San Jose has the worst playoff penalty kill percentage at 72.4%.

Avalanche: Colorado was 5-for-25 on the power play in Round 1. Unsurprisingly, it was MacKinnon and Rantanen leading the charge there too. The duo combined for four of the five markers and MacKinnon got a point on all five power-play goals. In the regular season, the Avalanche ranked seventh on the power play with a 22% success rate. The Avalanche killed only 78.7% of their penalties in the regular season though, making them one of the worst teams in that regard. Colorado wasn’t any better in Round 1, killing 77.3% of their penalties. It’s looking like this is going to be a series where both squads will be able to frequently take advantage of their power-play opportunities.

X-Factor For Sharks

Not to be a broken record about it, but their goaltending. There’s just so much else to love about this team. They have both star power and depth up front. They have two Norris Trophy winners on defense. They have veterans loaded with playoff experience and plenty of reason to be hungry. The one element that’s potentially missing here is goaltending.

Jones doesn’t need to be great, he might not even need to be good. It’s hard to see the Sharks getting through without him being at least passable though. San Jose managed to just barely recover from Jones’ meltdown from Games 2-4. The Sharks might not be able to survive if he endures a similar slump going forward.

X-Factor For Avalanche

Everything beyond the Avalanche’s big three. Rantanen and MacKinnon couldn’t have been asked to do more in Round 1 and while Gabriel Landeskog wasn’t as effective as that duo, he certainly contributed too with a goal and four points in five games. The larger question is if the Avalanche have the offensive depth to go deeper into the playoffs. If the Sharks manage to shutdown the Avalanche’s stars, can the supporting cast step up?

The Avalanche don’t have a lot of offensive weapons beyond their big three, which made Soderberg and Kerfoot’s quiet first round all the more alarming. They ranked fourth and fifth respectively in Colorado’s forwards scoring race in the regular season. They’re also the only two forwards on the Avalanche that recorded at least 40 points outside of the big three.

The silver lining is that the Avalanche did get some secondary scoring from other sources in Round 1. Matt Nieto, who had 23 points in the regular season, scored two goals and four points in five playoff contests. After finishing 2018-19 with 27 points, Colin Wilson came up big in Game 5 with two goals and an assist.

Prediction

Sharks in 6. I think I’ve made it clear at this point that Jones gives me pause and there’s also the question of Pavelski’s status, which at the time of writing is still unknown. Even with that though, San Jose is far closer to the complete package than Colorado. I can certainly envision scenarios where the Avalanche win this series — especially in what is becoming the year of the upsets — but if you’re asking for what I believe is the most probable outcome, it would have to be San Jose advancing.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info
Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Held at bay, Gaudreau hopes to ignite Flames in Game 5

DENVER (AP) — Summoning Johnny Hockey! His scoring prowess is required ASAP.

After a 99-point regular season, Calgary All-Star forward Johnny Gaudreau has been held to a single assist and just 12 shots against Colorado. It is a big reason why the top-seeded Flames trail the Avalanche 3-1 in a first-round series that heads back to Calgary for Game 5 on Friday night (10 p.m. EDT, NBCSN).

Gaudreau’s linemates, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm, have been held in check, too, with a goal apiece. Even more, captain and Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano has two assists in the series. This after finishing second in scoring among defensemen during the regular season.

No panic, though. Just action.

”Everyone has to look at their own games and be better,” Gaudreau said. ”We’ve got to get back to the way we were playing all year.”

Either that, or summer starts early. The Flames are on the brink of being knocked out in the first round, just like Tampa Bay – the top seed in the East.

Dating to the expansion in 1967-68, there have been various playoff formats in the NHL from division-based, conference-based and for two seasons, ’79-80 and ’80-81, the top 16 teams being seeded by regular-season points. At no point over that time have the top two teams in each division or conference – or the teams with the two best records – been eliminated in the first round, according to the league.

”It will be tough. Obviously we’d rather be 2-2 than 3-1,” Lindholm said. ”Go back to Calgary, we have a good crowd there for us, try to come back and play even better than (Wednesday) and hopefully get a win. Then it’s game on again.”

The Flames don’t have a monopoly on vanishing stars in this postseason. Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov had one goal and three assists between them in being swept by the Blue Jackets; while Sidney Crosby only had an assist as Pittsburgh lost four straight to the New York Islanders.

Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen have been as advertised for Colorado. They have a combined six goals and five assists.

”Our depth,” MacKinnon said, ”is very underrated.”

In particular, J.T. Compher (two goals) and Matt Nieto (two short-handed tallies).

”They don’t get enough credit for what they’ve done all season, how much they’ve contributed,” MacKinnon said of Colorado’s supporting cast. ”It’s very encouraging that we can flip the switch. You don’t have to play a perfect game to win.”

Game 5 can’t get here soon enough for Flames center Mikael Backlund , who had a forgettable final flurry in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Avalanche on Wednesday. He took a late tripping penalty that led to Rantanen’s tying goal in regulation. In overtime, Backlund had a perfect view on Rantanen’s winning shot soaring right past him.

No time to hang their heads, though.

”We have nothing to lose now,” Backlund said. ”I don’t think a lot of people think we can do it but we can. We’ve faced a lot of adversity and if there’s any group I believe in and know they can do it, it’s this group right here.”

It starts with Gaudreau, who’s been bottled up in the series with Colorado clogging the middle of the ice. Gaudreau and his teammates just can’t seem to break free.

”We’ll regroup,” Giordano said.

Keeping them in games is goaltender Mike Smith , who’s stopped 99 of 108 shots over the last two contests.

”I’m just one little cog,” Smith said. ”It’s nice to have personal success but when you don’t get the results it doesn’t matter. You need to do more.”

TORONTO at BOSTON (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

The Bruins threw a wrinkle at the Maple Leafs by shuffling their lines. It did the trick during a 6-4 win Wednesday to tie the series at 2-2. David Pastrnak had two goals, while Brad Marchand added a goal and an assist.

Just the sort of boost the team was hoping for with Game 5 on Friday in Boston.

”We got some bounces” Wednesday, Marchand said. ”Hopefully we get them next game.”

The changes by the Bruins didn’t bother the Maple Leafs as much as miscues.

”I thought our matchups were fine. That, to me, wasn’t it,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”We just made some mistakes. Gave up some opportunities that we didn’t need to give up.”

Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen has already set aside the loss in which he surrendered five goals on 30 shots.

”Short memory,” Andersen said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Gaudreau, Peters have Flames cruising toward playoffs

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Bill Peters deadpanned that it was the first time he had heard the question.

What did you learn about Johnny Gaudreau that you didn’t know before you started coaching him? Midway through his first season with the Calgary Flames, Peters has his answer scripted by now.

”Just his competitiveness,” Peters said. ”Everyone fully understands his skill set and the vision, and what they don’t understand is the competitiveness. And what he’s added to his game a little bit more than what he’s had in the past now is good defensive awareness and commitment.”

A well-rounded ”Johnny Hockey” and Peters have been a perfect match for Calgary, which is atop the Pacific Division and cruising toward a return to the playoffs despite an unheralded goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and David Rittich. While Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers are floundering again, their Alberta rivals lead the Western Conference and can be considered Stanley Cup contenders in large part because of Gaudreau and what Peters has unlocked in him.

Gaudreau had already tied his career high with 84 points with more than a dozen games left. The point total far and away leads the Flames and is tied for sixth in the NHL. General manager Brad Treliving thinks the 5-foot-9 winger from Carney’s Point, New Jersey, has always had that kind of offensive talent and that this season is evidence that Gaudreau’s game has matured to the point he can play against anyone.

”(It’s) his play away from the puck,” Treliving said. ”When you play against top lines, you’d better be smart without it because you can get hemmed in. So I think his play away from the puck, as crazy as it seems with all the points, I think it’s helped him obviously get the puck more and have it more.”

The notion that the best defense is having the puck is right out of the Mike Babcock school of coaching, not surprising because Peters spent three seasons as an assistant in Detroit before getting a head job in Carolina. The Hurricanes finished in the bottom 10 in the league in scoring in three of Peters’ four seasons there and never made the playoffs. His Flames are scoring at the NHL’s fourth-best rate (3.55 per game through Tuesday).

Elite offensive talent helps, though Peters also deserves some credit for how his style suits his personnel, from Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to an active defense led by Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano.

”He’s a real student of the modern game in terms of how you have success now,” Treliving said. ”You have to play fast, your D have to be part of your offense, your attack has to be five men not three and you have to defend fast.”

Rod Brind’Amour, who worked four seasons under Peters in Carolina before succeeding him as coach, said the 54-year-old implements a lot of structure with his teams. Gaudreau figured out fast that Peters demands 200-foot play from everyone as a prerequisite for ice time, a recipe that has worked for Calgary.

”He knows how to win,” Gaudreau said. ”It doesn’t matter if you’re top line, bottom line, if you’re not playing well you’re not going to be on the ice. He’s not going to put you over the bench there. He expects a lot out of his players and it’s been great playing for him this year.”

Gaudreau is already on his third coach in just his fifth NHL season after mixed success with Bob Hartley and Glen Gulutzan. A playoff appearance under each was fine, but Peters has already proven to be a better fit as a tactician and as a communicator who knows how to squeeze the most out of his talent.

”There’s no gray area with Bill,” Treliving said. ”He outlines very clearly how he wants our team to play as a group, how he wants individuals to play and I think that’s probably his greatest strength is he’s very clear in his communication and very strong in his beliefs. I think that structured approach I think has really helped our group.”

Johnny Gaudreau shares ‘special’ All-Star experience with dad

SAN JOSE — All-Star Weekend is a time for NHL players to relax, have some fun and enjoy the festivities with their families. Johnny Gaudreau’s three days in San Jose was extra special because standing behind him on the Pacific Division’s bench Saturday night was his dad Guy.

After Friday’s All-Star Skills, which saw the Calgary Flames forward win his second straight Puck Control event, a fun idea was hatched during a conversation between Guy Gaudreau and Bill Peters, who coached the Pacific Division: What if Johnny Hockey’s dad served as one of Peters’ assistants for the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament?

After getting league approval, the move was official and Guy Gaudreau was behind the bench watching his son play in his fifth NHL All-Star Game.

“I thought he was joking,” Guy said. “He wasn’t joking. So here I am.”

“It was awesome,” said Johnny Gaudreau. “He’s done so much for me growing up with hockey, coaching me [for a decade] when I was younger, to have him out there with me was pretty special.”

The Pacific didn’t fare so well, losing their game 10-4 to the Central Division, but Guy got to see his son score as he became more involved in the action with his coaching duties.

“He might’ve given Bill a few pointers,” joked Johnny Gaudreau. “He was quiet at first for a little bit, but I think he hates losing more than me, so he started giving guys little pushes on the back saying ‘let’s go, let’s go.’ He had a lot of fun with it.”

Getting the chance to coach his son again meant a lot to Guy. It was a tough year for the Gaudreau family as back in March Guy suffered a cardiac event while running a half marathon, forcing Johnny to leave Calgary for his family’s home in New Jersey and miss two Flames games.

“We were nervous there 10 months ago. We weren’t sure he was going to make it or not. He pulled through,” Johnny Gaudreau said. “It’s been a great 10 months since then. He’s come to a lot of my games and this was just a great memory for me and him. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Guy Gaudreau worked with Peters to come up with line combinations and figure out the Pacific Division’s starting lineup, which didn’t include his son since there were three San Jose Sharks in the game. Coaching has been his life and he currently serves as Director of Ice Hockey Operations at Hollydell Ice Arena in Sewell, N.J, which also happens to be where Johnny Gaudreau learned the skate, thanks to a little help from some Skittles.

The result wasn’t what they wanted, but the memories the Gaudreaus will take away from this weekend will last forever.

“I think it was just neat for him to be able to be out there with Johnny,” said Peters. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.