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TALKING POINTS: Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames’ unheralded on-ice leader

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Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, NHL trade

Buried at No. 20 this week is a thought-provoking Calgary Flames tidbit.

Considering the reach of Elliotte Friedman’s sometimes salacious and always insightful 32 Thoughts for Sportsnet, I was a little surprised the Johnny Gaudreau note didn’t get more play after it was published.

20. I was surprised Johnny Gaudreau did not get a letter in Calgary. I know he’s an unrestricted free agent-to-be, but that’s not automatically disqualifying.

Maybe it was because of its placement, buried under a video. Or because people didn’t necessarily agree with the sentiment. But the two sentences really align with something that has stuck with me since Gaudreau’s first availability on the NHL’s opening day when he made a comment about leadership.

Gaudreau talked about his evolution coming into season. Sitting beside Jacob Markstrom at the podium, he talked about dealing with criticism and being more serious as you get older. Becoming “a little bit more of a leader on the team,” he said.

A reporter quickly asked if Gaudreau believed he was a leader on this team. Not out of malice, but almost surprised his name would be associated with the seriousness of leadership.

“I hope so. I’m a little bit of one,” he said genuinely, as if he was a bit wounded by the question. “I don’t talk too, too much in the locker-room. I try to lead on the ice and help my team win games.”

Markstrom quickly jumped in to defend the all-star forward, answering at the same time as Gaudreau.

“Yeah he is. Absolutely!” the goalie interjected. “Look at him. When he walks into the room and everybody gets quiet. He’s got that character when he walks in the room – it’s like, woah, here he is. What you see on the ice is the same in the locker-room.”

It would be easy for teammates to be in awe of Gaudreau, who had a 99-point season in 2018-19 – the last one before the pandemic – and has totaled 498 points in 523 NHL regular-season games so far.

Expiring contract doesn’t change Gaudreau’s current standing with the Flames

After that exchange at the Saddledome, many wrote about the Calgary Flames captaincy or Gaudreau’s expiring contract in the season’s first week. Rarely were those two subjects linked together. As Friedman speculated, maybe in part because of the likelihood of a wait-and-see approach to signing a new contract. But not getting a letter doesn’t mean Gaudreau isn’t a leader.

His play through the first three games is a pretty good indication of the way he leads. Johnny Hockey has become Johnny Backcheck. He’s been a great example of a skilled forward buying into the defensive responsibility the coaching staff expects. But it’s not hurting his offence, either. With four assists – all at even strength – Gaudreau has been setting up his most recently favoured triggerman Elias Lindholm (not Sean Monahan).

The winger has set up two of Lindholm’s three goals so far. The first against the Anaheim Ducks was a laser through traffic and across the ice. In Detroit, Gaudreau sent a perfect backhand setup from behind the net to a charging Lindholm in the slot.

“I saw Lindy for a second, saw him breaking through the slot there. He’s got a great shot and finish,” Gaudreau recounted on FlamesTV ahead of Saturday’s matinee in Washington.

“They’re two great players,” he continued, talking about linemates Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk. “We played well toward the end of (last) season, found some chemistry right away. It’s easy playing with those two guys. They’re smart players, they play the game the right way.

“We’ve been getting rewarded.”

His reward may not come in the form of a letter on his chest, but that won’t stop him from being a leader on the ice if not in the room.

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