Despite facing pressure entering new season, Gaudreau focused only on his game
Fresh off the heels of a $50 million spending spree (which was precipitated by another early playoff exit), the Calgary Flames enter the upcoming season with heightened expectations.
Outside of Marc Bergevin, arguably no other general manager of a Canadian team did more to improve their roster than Brad Treliving last off-season. No longer can the franchise point to a significant roster flaw as the reason it doesn’t advance beyond the first round of the playoffs, a feat the Flames have accomplished just once since their 2004 run to the Stanley Cup Final.
It has its long-term goalie in Jacob Markstrom. It has its shutdown blueliner in Chris Tanev. It has its forward depth in Dominik Simon, Josh Leivo, and Joakim Nordstrom. And, of course, it has its stars in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Mark Giordano.
Coming off a 61-point season, Tkachuk is embracing the opportunity to prove that the Flames are legitimate threats this season.
"It's time for people to look at us as a serious contender throughout the league," he said on a Zoom call during the first week of training camp.
"We have to be looked at as one of those teams that is a contender each and every season and I think we have to start proving that this year."
In TSN Senior Hockey Reporter Frank Seravalli’s survey of 22 NHL front-office executives, 15 said that Gaudreau is under the most pressure of any player in a Canadian market this season. Despite the off-season scrutiny, the forward hasn’t changed his approach too much heading into Thursday’s 2020-21 season opener against the Jets in Winnipeg.
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“Just play your game like you always have, enjoy coming to the rink and competing with your teammates,” Gaudreau said when asked about handling that pressure.
Flames head coach Geoff Ward praised how the star forward has handled himself, while also emphasizing the fact that the team is blocking out the external noise.
“We’re extremely happy with him,” he said on Wednesday. “He’s in a good frame of mind moving into a new season and that’s all that matters.”
A case can be made that the Flames have the deepest group of forwards of any Canadian team, enabling Ward to roll four lines. Not only did Treliving sign Simon, Leivo, and Nordstrom, the team has also shifted Elias Lindholm from wing to centre, playing him with Tkachuk.
“I like the depth of our core group, but also the ability to have offence from many different lines, many different individuals,” Treliving said in a media session on Tuesday.
On the back end, young Rasmus Andersson appears poised to eventually take the torch from captain Mark Giordano. The two will start the season together, with the Swede now assuming top power-play duties. Tanev will provide toughness on the second pairing with the slick Noah Hanifin. Stealth Calder candidate Juuso Valimaki and KHL veteran Nikita Nesterov round out a deep blueline.
And then there is Markstrom, the first bona fide No. 1 goalie the Flames has had since Miikka Kiprusoff in 2013. Early on, Treliving has lauded the Swede’s competitiveness and work ethic.
“Comes early, stays late, works on his game, tremendous teammate” is how the general manager summarized his impact so far.
As with any team, the 2020-21 Calgary Flames face questions.
Will Gaudreau and Monahan rebound after disappointing seasons? How will Markstrom adjust to a new team and structure? Will Giordano continue playing at a high level? Will the new additions make an impact? Is the team capable of playing heavy hockey come playoff time (and winning a round)?
One thing is certain though - this season, the bar has been raised in Calgary.
FLAMES PROJECTED LINEUP AGAINST THE JETS THURSDAY: