The Flames Sure Could Use A Player Like Johnny Gaudreau
11:57 AM EST on January 24, 2023
Flames fans miss Johnny Gaudreau. How could they not? This little goal-scorer was the soul of this franchise for almost a decade, and I'm not sure Calgary really anticipated the end of their time together until it was too late. From his first full season in 2014–15 through the end of last year, Gaudreau scored 180 more points than any other Flame. After he put up career highs with a 40-and-75 season as the left winger on maybe the league's best line (and leading the Flames to 50 wins and a division title), the future looked bright. At least, it looked brighter than it did in Columbus, where Gaudreau decided to sign instead.
While I can't speak to Gaudreau's personal life in Ohio, on the ice so far this move hasn't worked out for either side. The Blue Jackets—not a particularly fearsome team on paper even at the start of the year—have had to weather a storm of injuries that has pinned them to last place. Gaudreau himself has contributed a mere 13 goals in 47 games, which is a drop in the bucket when you look at the team's overall -62 differential, and even making a run at the eighth seed would be a pyrrhic victory when Connor Bedard is on the draft board.
Calgary's hole is nowhere near that deep, but after the major renovations they were forced into this offseason, they're far closer to league average than Cup contender. New signing Nazem Kadri is a step below what Gaudreau provided last year, and Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, acquired in a forced trade by Matthew Tkachuk, haven't been any kind of replacement for him either. Without that dominant first line, and with a big drop in performance from goaltender Jacob Markstrom, this season has felt like an awkward first day of school. The Flames are not a team you can trust on any particular night, and just to get into the playoffs as a wild card they're going to have to pull themselves above either Edmonton and Colorado, an intimidating task
A strong second half from Gaudreau, which would be counterproductive right now in Columbus, would go a long way in Calgary. But it's too late for that! He's gone! All that's left to be shared between Flames fans and their former hero is the emotions that come from seeing him in an unfamiliar jersey. Monday night, as the Jackets visited the Flames for the first and only time this season, was their chance to let it all out. Unlike the defining NHL return of the last several years—John Tavares and the Islanders—this one wasn't totally saturated with spite. The Flames crowd gave Gaudreau a standing ovation after his tribute video.
But the game itself featured no such niceties. Gaudreau was heartily booed every time he touched the puck, and Calgary was more than ready to revel in his failures. Just five minutes into the first, Gaudreau stole a pass in his own zone and drew a penalty shot on his trip across the ice. Nobody was polite about it when he missed the net completely.
Gaudreau ended up playing a big role in this game, good and bad. The Flames dominated the action and built up a 2-0 lead, but it was Johnny's passing on the Columbus power play that helped tie it up 2-2 in the second. (Emotions were running hot enough that veteran Flame Milan Lucic got into a legit fight with Jackets brawler Mathieu Olivier.) The Jackets again equalized after Andrew Mangiapane pulled Calgary ahead, and that's how things stood entering overtime. It was there that Gaudreau got stripped of the puck by Noah Hanifin, and Dillon Dube capitalized with the game-winner.
In the postgame, neither side said anything that could turn Jackets-Flames into an actual rivalry. You got that impression that, by the time they meet again next year, everyone involved wants this story to be behind them.
"For the most part, it felt nice to see everyone standing up and clapping their hands and cheering for me," Gaudreau said of his tribute video. "And then five seconds after, start their booing again. It's what I expected coming here. It's a great fan base, and they're passionate fans. I loved it. It was a special night for me."
Meanwhile, Dube said, "I think that just shows how good of a player he was and how important he was for this organization, because you don't get a reaction like that if you're not that important."
With Columbus mired in irrelevancy and Calgary needing to—forgive me—take things one game at a time as they fight to extend their season, there won't be much reason to think about Johnny Gaudreau for the rest of the winter. Hopefully he can stay healthy, score a few more goals, and then enjoy his first offseason as a father. He's got six more years for the Blue Jackets to build something around him. For now, though, this free-agent signing is a star-crossed on-ice tragedy: The city that boos Gaudreau is the one that needs him, and the city that cheers him has no practical use for him yet.