Bill Peters deadpanned that it was the first time he had heard the question.
What did you learn about Johnny Gaudreau that you didn’t know before you started coaching him? Midway through his first season with the Calgary Flames, Peters has his answer scripted by now.
“Just his competitiveness,” Peters said. “Everyone fully understands his skill set and the vision, and what they don’t understand is the competitiveness. And what he’s added to his game a little bit more than what he’s had in the past now is good defensive awareness and commitment.”
A well-rounded “Johnny Hockey” and Peters have been a perfect match for Calgary, which is atop the Pacific Division and cruising toward a return to the playoffs despite an unheralded goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and David Rittich. While Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers are floundering again, their Alberta rivals lead the Western Conference and can be considered Stanley Cup contenders in large part because of Gaudreau and what Peters has unlocked in him.
Gaudreau had already tied his career high with 84 points with more than a dozen games left. The point total far and away leads the Flames and is tied for sixth in the NHL. General manager Brad Treliving thinks the 5-foot-9 winger from Carney’s Point, New Jersey, has always had that kind of offensive talent and that this season is evidence that Gaudreau’s game has matured to the point he can play against anyone.
“(It’s) his play away from the puck,” Treliving said. “When you play against top lines, you’d better be smart without it because you can get hemmed in. So I think his play away from the puck, as crazy as it seems with all the points, I think it’s helped him obviously get the puck more and have it more.”
The notion that the best defence is having the puck is right out of the Mike Babcock school of coaching, not surprising because Peters spent three seasons as an assistant in Detroit before getting a head job in Carolina. The Hurricanes finished in the bottom 10 in the league in scoring in three of Peters’ four seasons there and never made the playoffs. His Flames are scoring at the NHL’s fourth-best rate (3.55 per game through Tuesday).
Elite offensive talent helps, though Peters also deserves some credit for how his style suits his personnel, from Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to an active defence led by Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano.
“He’s a real student of the modern game in terms of how you have success now,” Treliving said. “You have to play fast, your D have to be part of your offence, your attack has to be five men not three and you have to defend fast.”
Rod Brind’Amour, who worked four seasons under Peters in Carolina before succeeding him as coach, said the 54-year-old implements a lot of structure with his teams. Gaudreau figured out fast that Peters demands 200-foot play from everyone as a prerequisite for ice time, a recipe that has worked for Calgary.
“He knows how to win,” Gaudreau said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re top line, bottom line, if you’re not playing well you’re not going to be on the ice. He’s not going to put you over the bench there. He expects a lot out of his players and it’s been great playing for him this year.”
Gaudreau is already on his third coach in just his fifth NHL season after mixed success with Bob Hartley and Glen Gulutzan. A playoff appearance under each was fine, but Peters has already proven to be a better fit as a tactician and as a communicator who knows how to squeeze the most out of his talent.
“There’s no grey area with Bill,” Treliving said. “He outlines very clearly how he wants our team to play as a group, how he wants individuals to play and I think that’s probably his greatest strength is he’s very clear in his communication and very strong in his beliefs. I think that structured approach I think has really helped our group.”