Should the Flames Be Worried About Johnny Gaudreau?

An analytical breakdown of what went wrong and what it means moving forward.

Johnny Gaudreau is one of the league’s best creators, a rare winger who drives his line’s offence using his playmaking ability and talent with the puck on his stick. While he himself is a threat to score, he’s more likely to set up a teammate with a cross-ice pass that gives them plenty of net to shoot at, maybe after opening up the defence with his excellent skating. In 2018-19 he hit a career high in goals (36) and points (99), an almost linear step up from his previous two seasons and an indication to many that he had truly emerged as one of the league’s top players. But a major step back this season almost across the board and a difficult playoffs caused panic in Calgary and inspired an avalanche of trade rumours that hasn’t fully abated.

In this piece, I’m going to break down exactly what happened to Gaudreau’s stats, and see whether the issues were skin deep (a lack of puck luck) or maybe more concerning than that (affecting underlying numbers as well). When I took a look at Taylor Hall’s similarly crummy 2019-20 season, what I found was that a shift in play-style and uninspired performance on a bad team was mostly culpable - i.e. it was on him. Based on the statistical evidence, this doesn’t seem to be the case for Gaudreau for the most part. While he certainly saw aspects of his game drop off, particularly in regard to getting and finishing quality chances himself, I believe a lot of his issues this season can be tied directly to the play of his linemates. While a playmaker like Gaudreau drives offence, he necessarily relies on his linemates in a number of ways, and it appears to me that Johnny Hockey wasn’t the only one who struggled this season to say the least. To interrogate this point I’ll use a combination of macro-level numbers (from Evolving-Hockey and Natural Stat Trick) and manually tracked microstats (from Corey Sznajder). Finally, I’ll touch on his unproductive recent playoff performances.

Mapping Gaudreau’s Drop-Off Statistically

Prior to this season, Gaudreau had been one of the league’s most consistent superstars since entering the league. While his point totals have varied, in terms of his Wins Above Replacement (by EvolvingWild) he has been uniformly excellent up until this season:

Any way you look at it, his overall results were significantly worse this year than they were in previous seasons. Below, I’ve mapped out Gaudreau’s rate stats in terms of goals, scoring chances, shots, assists, and points at 5v5:

Gaudreau saw a sizeable decline in his own goal-scoring and finishing, although his own personal shot and scoring chance generation didn’t decline by that much (and in fact out-paced his 2017-18 performance.) As a playmaker, Gaudreau makes his money by creating a lot of goals when he’s on the ice, and his assist rates dropped by quite a bit this season. Let’s take a look at how his most common linemates, Elias Lindholm and Sean Monahan fared in all situations (with 19-20 stats pro-rated to 82 games):

Each of these three players scored well above-expected in the 2018-19 season, especially compared to the previous year. That changed this year for both Gaudreau and Monahan, who both saw sizeable drops in expected goals, goals, and goals above expected. It’s worth noting that this did not apply to Lindholm, who has had similar scoring chances in each of the past three seasons but has more than doubled his goal scoring.

A better way to visualize this line’s changing fortunes is to use HockeyViz’s heat maps. This way we can compare the Flames’ first line’s offence driving in terms of shots during 2018-19 (left) and 2019-20 (right).

As you can see, in 18-19 this unit dominated the middle of the ice all the way into the deep slot. This past season, while their shooting patterns to the outside remained fairly similar, they were unable to generate nearly as many shots close to the net. The below stats breakdown these chance rates in more detail:

This line actually took shots on goal at a higher rate this season, and saw their shot attempt numbers dip only slightly. The biggest differences were in terms of the quality of those chances and the frequency with which they went into the net. Opponents kept them to the outside, forcing them to shoot more from the perimeter. Meanwhile, they scored on high-danger chances at half the rate that they did in 2018-19, and their overall on-ice shooting percentage plummeted from 11.6% to 7.2%. That’s probably a good sign - it’s been repeatedly shown that S% is vulnerable to randomness and bad luck, and considering the track record of these guys it’s not out of the question that we’re talking about an unsustainable slum here. Additionally, many of these stats improved after Bill Peter was fired, suggesting both that these results are not the result of a new system and that they were trending back to normal.

Digging into the Microstats

When a question about a player’s performance shifts from “what happened” to “why did it happen,” one of the first things I do (other than bothering Jack Han about it) it check out their microstats. Corey Sznajder has collected an impressive database of manually tracked stats that would otherwise be exclusive to private companies, which allow us to dive deeper into how players get their results. If you look into Gaudreau’s transition stats and passing numbers, there’s doesn’t appear to be anything defective under the hood. The stats below are represented in percentile form (so 99% means he outranked 99% of the league’s forwards).

There are certain elements of Gaudreau’s game that took a step back, but others actually improved. He dumped the puck in more often and was less likely to spring his teammates for rush chances with passes from the neutral zone, and was less ambitious when it came to getting the puck out of the defensive zone (an area where he was pretty single-minded in 2018-19). But it’s the passing data that would seem to be the most confusing. As measured by Sznajder, Gaudreau was one of the league’s most dangerous in-zone passers this season, completing 3.4 high danger shot assists per 60 minutes. On Sidney Crosby, Artemi Panarin, and Patrick Kane ranked higher in that category.

Expected goals models do not incorporate pre-shot movement because of limitations to publicly available data (although it is “baked into” the results in aggregate). This is where players who are extremely talented playmakers (or who play with great passers) can exceed “expectations” consistently - for example, Patrick Kane is an unremarkable player in terms of his expected goal driving, but consistently drives actual goals at an elite level because he sets his linemates up with cross-ice passes and one-time opportunities so frequently. Gaudreau isn’t an exact analogue (his expected goal driving is much stronger than Kane’s), but I think it’s likely that current models underestimate the quality of chances he provides to his teammates. This could help explain why Lindholm’s goal totals have exploded so much in the past two seasons while his expected goal totals have remained steady. He wasn’t getting these looks in Carolina:

Given the fact that Gaudreau was sending better passes to his linemates than ever, it seems odd that his on-ice scoring chances would have declined. One possible explanation? His linemates were significantly less involved as playmakers than they had been in 2018-19. Monahan went from above-average to mediocre across the board in terms of shot assists and Lindholm’s high-danger passing contributions plummeted from 65th percentile to 14th. Not only were the Gaudreau’s teammates not finishing their chances, they weren’t creating as many as before for themselves or for others.

What Happens in the Playoffs?

Check out this clip:

That secondary assist, a low-percentage shot attempt from the point that happens to careen off Alex Kerfoot to Sam Bennett who takes his own low-percentage shot attempt from the high slot that happens to careen off Erik Johnson right to Sean Monahan *breathes* is the only 5v5 point that Johnny Gaudreau has scored in the past two playoffs.

Against Colorado, Winnipeg, and Dallas, Gaudreau has overall been effectively shut down, which is pretty consequential considering that he is the Flames’ primary driver offensively. In this time, he has a dismal 42% expected goal share compared to 52% in the regular season. On top of that, his 0.5 individual expected goals per 60 and points per 60 rank eleventh out of twelve Flames forwards who played 100 minutes or more in both postseasons combined. Despite that, his shot rates are in line with his regular season results, suggesting that he forces pucks to the net from the outside - a notion reflected by his shot map (provided by InStat Hockey):

Both Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm see similar dips in shot quality, and in a very small sample Gaudreau’s high danger passes are less frequent. It seems as though the tighter checking and collapsing defence that takes place in the playoffs has been an effective counterweight to his offensive ability. The video below contains four short clips of his from game six performance against the Stars that illustrate the complex dynamics here; from the eye test, Gaudreau in the playoffs isn’t any less of a creator, but with time and space taken away what he creates is much less dangerous.

It’s unadvisable to point to performance in a fifteen game sample and make declarative statements about a player’s quality. All three of Gaudreau, Lindholm, and Monahan have scored below expectation in that time, and it’s not inconceivable that some slightly better puck luck might make this picture a bit different. Nonetheless, the Flames were a contender in 2019 and at least a strong matchup for the Stars this season, and Gaudreau undeniably disappointed. You need your best players to be your best players, and there’s reason to believe that he has not been that for the Flames in the playoffs.

Conclusion

It might be fun to freak out when a star player has a sudden downturn, in large part because trade rumours are exciting. It’s not remotely out of the question that Gaudreau’s point totals will never reach their 2019 heights again - that season reminds me a lot of Taylor Hall’s 2017-18 campaign in terms of everything going right in terms of individual goal scoring, linemates, and percentages. At the same time, a lot of things had to go wrong for him to regress to a 67 point pace this season. His underlying numbers and microstats suggest that the drop-off in his and Monahan’s finishing stats very well could just be bad luck, and that Johnny Hockey gave his linemates more high danger passes than ever this season. A playmaker like Gaudreau will always rely to a certain extent on the players around him to get to the right areas of the ice and finish the chances they’re given.

The playoff issue is more troubling. While the dual factors of sample size and points make evaluating Gaudreau’s performance difficult, from both the stats and the eye test it’s clear that something shifts in the postseason for the Flames that limits his ability to create scoring chances for himself and his linemates. Whether it’s tighter checking or systems designed specifically to limit him isn’t fully clear, but indications are that something’s going to have to change for this Calgary core to make a run before time runs out.

With two years left on his deal and rumours abounding that he would prefer to play for the Flyers or Devils, I fully understand the temptation to move him now. I just don’t see where the big return would be that would make the Flames a better team moving forward, let alone approximating fair value for Gaudreau’s talents. He’s a major bounceback candidate this season, and it might be better for everybody to wait this out and see whether this season was indeed just an outlier.

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