CALGARY — Johnny Gaudreau was still living in a Calgary hotel seven weeks after reporting to Flames training camp.
The hotel room represents both sides of a coin for Gaudreau. The Flames haven’t yet committed to keeping the 21-year-old in the lineup, but they’ve liked Gaudreau’s play enough to keep him in the NHL for now.
“I’ve got a clean bed made every morning so that’s nice,” the rookie forward said Wednesday. “I’m going to sit there in the hotel and wait until I’m told to get a place.
“Hopefully, I keep showing I belong here.”
Listed at five foot nine and 150 pounds by the Flames, there were questions about Gaudreau’s ability to take NHL-sized checks over an 82-game season, and whether he should start the season with the American Hockey League’s Adirondack Flames in upstate New York.
But Gaudreau led the Flames in shots on net in the pre-season and dazzled with moments of brilliant playmaking. He earned his spot on the opening-day roster, but then managed just one shot on goal in his first five games.
Gaudreau was a healthy scratch Oct. 17 in Columbus. He responded by scoring his first NHL goal of the regular season two days later in Winnipeg.
After getting zero shots on net Saturday against Washington, Gaudreau shone in Calgary’s 2-1 shootout loss to Montreal on Tuesday.
He assisted on Calgary’s lone goal and put six shots on Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who stole the game for the Habs.
“That was Johnny’s best game,” Flames head coach Bob Hartley said. “I felt he was our best forward.”
Calgary (5-4-2) is at home against the Nashville Predators on Friday. Hartley is giving Jonas Hiller a second straight start in net. The Flames open a five-game road trip Sunday in Montreal.
It would have been surprising if Gaudreau’s first month in the NHL was a smooth learning curve. While he did turn the puck over during an early power play against Montreal, he hasn’t been a major defensive liability despite his inexperience. After 11 games, the right-winger from Carney’s Point, N.J., was plus-five along with a goal and three assists.
“I’ve definitely been trying hard lately to be better in the defensive zone,” Gaudreau said. “I’ve been talking to the coaching staff and going over clips about things I need to get better at.”
But it’s been Gaudreau’s puck and passing skills that gets Flames fans buzzing. His nickname is “Johnny Hockey.” It’s good timing if Gaudreau feels more confident on offence because the Flames are suddenly thin up front.
Centre Matt Stajan is out up to six weeks with a knee injury he sustained in Tuesday’s collision with Montreal’s Jarred Tinordi. Centre Joe Colborne’s status is day-to-day following a wrist injury that took him out of that game. Winger Mason Raymond was already sidelined with a shoulder injury and is said to be week-to-week. Calgary called up Markus Granlund from the Adirondack Flames on Wednesday.
The Flames drafted Gaudreau in the fourth round in 2011. Calgary signed him to a contract April 11, which was the same day he won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in NCAA Division 1 men’s hockey.
After his college career with Boston College concluded, Gaudreau tantalized Flames fans by scoring a goal in Calgary’s final game of the regular season and his first in the NHL.
When combined with NHL pre-season games and rookie-camp games, Gaudreau has played almost half a college season before the end of October. To prepare for the NHL marathon, he says he spent more time in the weight room to build strength and less time on the ice to build up his reserves in the off-season. Gaudreau knows he’ll have to be vigilant about managing his energy if he’s to stick with the Flames.
“I definitely feel how many games we’ve played,” Gaudreau said. “It’s my rookie year so it’s something I’m going to try to think (about) and make sure I’m getting rest and getting fluids in me when I do have days off.”
Flames assistant general manager Craig Conroy expects Gaudreau’s learning curve to continue rising as he adjusts to NHL defences.
“Last year when I watched him, every time he got the puck, the first thing (the opposition) did was back up,” Conroy said. “They gave him all that room. In college, if they tried to pinch on him, he could make them look silly.
“Now in the NHL, the guys skate so well, they’re so big, they close gaps quickly.
“There’s going to be times, maybe four or five games, he’s not very good. This is the best league in the world and guys are not going to cut him any slack. They’re going to try to win the game and run him over and make it hard as they can on him. I think he’s done a great job up to now. He’s got to protect himself and put himself in good positions. He’s starting to figure that out which is good for us.”