Why Johnny Gaudreau Is Thriving Under Darryl Sutter

For a while there, Johnny Gaudreau’s future as a Calgary Flame looked bleak. Longtime running mate Sean Monahan was sinking to new lows with every passing shift. Darryl Sutter, a demanding bench boss whose emphasis on structure runs counter to Gaudreau’s freewheeling tendencies, also returned for his second stint as the Flames’ head coach. The 28-year-old pending unrestricted free agent was stuck in a system that favors process over production.

This…didn’t seem like it would end well.

But Gaudreau took on Sutter’s challenge of playing a tighter and tougher brand of hockey. The whole team has committed to the cause, and it’s yielded a 12-3-5 record in addition to a stellar individual campaign for Gaudreau (23 points in 20 games).

How has Sutter gotten his brightest star to buckle down? Firstly, by granting him stronger linemates. Typically saddled with Monahan (9 points in 20 games) and a revolving door of right wingers, Gaudreau is now taking the ice alongside dependable pivot Elias Lindholm (22 points in 20 games) and skilled agitator Matthew Tkachuk (18 points in 20 games). Not only do these forwards provide ideal top-line attributes (two-way acumen, finish, playmaking, physicality), they’re unquestionably the most talented partners Gaudreau has had in his career.

After offering him more to work with, Sutter then asked more of Gaudreau. He’s never been so engaged defensively:

Is this picture-perfect defense? Not by a long shot. He still loses inside position more often than you’d like. However, he’s putting in consistent effort—and that’s half the battle. In previous seasons, he’d give up on plays or cheat for offense. Now, he’s paying attention to the details of the game instead of taking shortcuts. That means supporting defensemen on the breakout and on pinches, staying below his mark in the defensive zone and using his stick to disrupt shots.

The 5’9”, 165-pound playmaker is also harder on the puck in every zone, entering 50/50 battles for possession and ensuring that he completes clearances to relieve pressure. He may find himself physically outmatched in many scenarios, but he’s digging in and doing his part. He even ran over Erik Haula for good measure:

When do you recall Gaudreau ever playing with this type of urgency?

As is frequently the case with Sutter, he’s found a recipe for success. In Gaudreau’s case, the effects have been nothing short of spectacular. Through 20 games, he’s been on the ice for 19 Flames goals and one against at 5-on-5. That lone conceded goal is tied for the lowest total among NHL forwards (minimum 200 minutes played).

Obviously, Calgary’s goaltenders won’t sustain their 99.3 save percentage during his shifts, but the defensive improvements in his game are impossible to ignore. The Flames own 61.2% of the scoring chances, 59.4% of the high-danger chances and 58.4% of the expected goals when Gaudreau is on the ice. Those are career bests across the board. He hasn’t just suppressed shots and opportunities against either. That emphasis on puck pursuit and defense is yielding more chances, expected goals and actual goals for his line too.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, sometimes the quickest path to offense is through defense. If you can hold your ground and then flip possession in a hurry, you can catch your opponents before they’ve settled into their posture:

Gaudreau isn’t merely a counterattacker, of course. He remains an absolute wizard with the puck on his stick. By leveraging his speed and elusiveness, he’s developed a flair for hypnotizing defenders as he wheels and deals in the offensive zone. His vision and hands then conspire to deliver slot pass after slot pass. Moreover, he’s become more deceptive, striking a better balance between setting up teammates and claiming opportunities for himself.

He ranks second leaguewide in primary assist rate, 30th in goal-scoring rate and seventh in points/60 while shattering his career averages in SCF60, HDCF60 and xGF60. That’s the sign of an offensive force coming into his own. A potent dual threat.

Since defenders must respect his passing ability, his linemates’ nose for the net and his newfound eagerness to pull the trigger, he’s generating countless grade-A chances on a nightly basis:

None of the sequences above end up in goals, but Gaudreau no longer seems as frustrated when he can’t get a bounce. There’s a faith in Sutter’s game plan embedded in every single Flame. Protect the house, hound the puck, don’t give your opponents a second to breathe. Jump all over them. They believe that executing his scheme will pay off in the end. And when you pair that work rate with a dazzling talent like Johnny Hockey, it does. Often:

While Gaudreau has reached a similar production level before, he’s unquestionably delivering the finest three-zone performances of his career in 2021-22. He’s never been so involved defensively. He’s never been so willing to enter the trenches. He’s never been so efficient on the attack, toning down the flash in favor of simpler, deadlier designs.

He can still fly up and down the ice, but these days, he’s more interested in tilting it for his team and thus winning games.

Instead of looking for a way out, he bought in.

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