WNBA

The Flames could certainly use a player like Johnny Gaudreau

Flames fans miss Johnny Gaudreau. How could they not? This diminutive scorer was the soul of this franchise for nearly 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 to the end of last year, Gaudreau scored 180 more points than any other Flame. After he hit career highs with a 40 and 75 season as a left winger on perhaps the league’s best line (and led 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 for either side. The Blue Jackets – not a particularly formidable team on paper even at the start of the year – have had to weather a storm of injuries that has brought them to last place. Gaudreau himself has contributed just 13 goals in 47 games, which is a drop in the bucket when you consider the team’s overall -62 differential, and even making a run at the eighth seed would be a Pyrrhic victory when Connor Bedard is in the draft.

Calgary’s hole is nowhere near as deep, but after the major renovations they were forced into this offseason, they are far closer to league average than Cup contenders. New signing Nazem Kadri is a step below what Gaudreau delivered last year, and Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, acquired in a forced trade for Matthew Tkachuk, haven’t been any kind of replacements for him either. Without the 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 aren’t a team you can count on on any given night, and just to get into the playoffs as a wild card, they’ll have to pull off either Edmonton or Colorado, a daunting 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 is gone! The only thing left to be shared between Flames fans and their former hero is the emotion that comes from seeing him in an unfamiliar jersey. Monday night, when the Jackets visited the Flames for the first and only time this season, was their chance to let it all out. Unlike the defining comeback in the NHL over the past several years — John Tavares and the Islanders — this one wasn’t completely saturated with spite. The Flames crowd gave Gaudreau a standing ovation after his video tribute.

But the game itself offered no such subtleties. Gaudreau was heavily 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 on his trip across the ice. No one was polite about it as he missed the net completely.

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2xzC9ie_Aw(/embed)

Gaudreau ended up playing a big role in this game, good and bad. The Flames dominated action and built a 2-0 lead, but it was Johnny’s pass on the Columbus power play that helped tie the game 2-2 in the second. (Feelings were hot enough that veteran Flame Milan Lucic got into a legit fight with Jackets brawler Mathieu Olivier.) The Jackets equalized again after Andrew Mangiapane put Calgary ahead, and that’s how it stood going into overtime. That’s where Gaudreau was stripped of the puck by Noah Hanifin and Dillon Dube capitalized on the game-winner.

In the aftermath, neither side said anything that could turn the Jackets-Flames into an actual rivalry. You got the impression that when they meet again next year, everyone involved wants this story behind them.

“For the most part, it felt good to see everyone standing up and clapping their hands and cheering me on,” Gaudreau said of his tribute video. “And then five seconds later, start their boos again. That’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.”

In the meantime Dube said: “I think it just shows how good of a player he was and how important he was to this organization, because you don’t get that kind of reaction if you’re not that important.”

With Columbus mired in irrelevance and Calgary having 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 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 has six more years for the Blue Jackets to build something around him. For now, though, this free-agent signing is a star-crossed tragedy on the ice: The city that’s boosting Gaudreau is the one that needs him, and the city that’s cheering for him has no practical use for him yet.

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