The relative struggles of Johnny Gaudreau is one of the biggest stories one quarter of the way through Calgary’s 2019-2020 season. The team’s most dangerous offensive player has looked off to start the season, and it’s not just your eyes. Across the board, Gaudreau’s numbers are down, which is concerning knowing how last year’s postseason went.
If you look at Johnny’s numbers thus far, they don’t strike you as horrible. In fact, he’s only a few points behind his 99-point pace through 20 games from one year ago.
Take into account, though, that Gaudreau recorded six of his points in the first three games of this season; that leaves him with 11 over the last 17. But this goes well beyond Gaudreau’s counting numbers. The Flames count on him to consistently be their most dangerous offensive player. To this point, that hasn’t been the case.
The eye test
Relative to what he’s capable of, Gaudreau looks off. Passes aren’t as on the mark, he’s not creating as much space, and opposing defences seem better equipped to contain him. As a result, some of the deficiencies in Gaudreau’s game have been more noticeable.
Johnny has never been confused as a defensive specialist, which is fine. But when he’s not generating at a high level offensively, Gaudreau’s work away from the puck becomes more detrimental. Even with the puck on his stick, though, Gaudreau’s decision making has been suspect; he sits tied for 12th in the NHL with 22 giveaways, which was inflated with seven of them Saturday vs. St. Louis.
Again, the important word to remember here is relative. Even while struggling, Gaudreau is still more dangerous than 90% of the league and remains capable of taking over a game at any point. And, for a guy who’s fighting it to still be close to a point-per-game pace shows just how much upside is there.
Finally, and perhaps most noticeably, Gaudreau looks frustrated, likely from a combination of things. After averaging almost 34 drawn penalties the last five seasons, Gaudreau has drawn just five through 20 games this year; that has him on pace for around 20 for the full campaign. When you combine not getting calls you’re used to getting with offensive struggles, you can understand how an emotional player like Gaudreau would be fighting high levels of frustration.
What the numbers say
Our eyes can only tell us so much, but when they’re backed up with relevant data, we can really start to see things more clearly. Unfortunately for Gaudreau, the numbers back up all of what we’ve seen with our eyes to this point. At five-on-five, Gaudreau’s on-ice totals are as bad as we’ve ever seen. Scoring chance data courtesy Natural Stat Trick.
Gaudreau, and the line he’s played on, has never been strong on the possession side. That’s something we’ve come to expect and be okay with, mainly because of how prolific he’s been on the attack. The most troubling thing above, however, is how routinely the opposition is out-chancing the Flames at high danger with Gaudreau on the ice. Either that has to change or head coach Bill Peters is going to need to start sheltering the top line more.
On-ice totals are only part of the equation, though, and aren’t solely indicative of one player’s impact. Because four other players are out there with Gaudreau at any given time, he hasn’t been the only reason for a discouraging on-ice scoring chance ratio. To broaden the scope a little more, let’s take a look at Gaudreau’s individual metrics, both at five-on-five and overall.
This is where things get really bleak. Almost across the board, Gaudreau’s scoring rates are at career-low depths. Many times drops like that can be explained by poor luck or a misnomer shooting percentage, but that’s not the case here. Look at how infrequently Gaudreau is creating individual high danger chances compared to career norms.
At both five-on-five and overall, Gaudreau has quality chances on his stick less than half the time compared to his least dangerous season (2015-2016). He just hasn’t been anywhere near as dangerous as we’ve seen in the past; we’ve seen that with our eyes, and it’s really driven home with a deeper dive into the numbers.
Let me brighten the mood a little bit: this can’t go on indefinitely. Gaudreau is too talented and too good to be THIS ineffective (relatively) long-term. The problem is, there’s no definitive answer as to when this rectifies itself, because there are so many things to consider.
I believe there are a number of things at work, starting with how Gaudreau is being defended. He’s been in the league for more than five years and opposing teams have started to hone in on how to limit him. They’re angling and tracking Gaudreau differently, which has allowed them to close more effectively. This happens to a lot of high end offensive talents and it forces them to adjust and refine their game; most are successful.
There’s also something to be said about what we’re seeing from Sean Monahan. Gaudreau’s running-mate is struggling in a similar way, which is undoubtedly a factor, too. Monahan isn’t finishing, or generating, chances like we’ve seen for most of his six NHL seasons, and there’s no way that hasn’t had an effect on his most consistent linemate.
If I were a betting man, I’d suggest Gaudreau’s first quarter will end up being his worst for 2019-2020. Calgary has 62 games remaining, and even with what we’ve seen thus far, I’d be surprised if we don’t see significant steps forward for Gaudreau. There’s no question he’s struggled early on; now we wait to see how long those struggles last for.