After an offseason that saw a flurry of personnel changes for a slew of NHL clubs, the most exciting change ushered in by the 2015-16 season may not have involved a single trade or free-agent signing at all.
That honour arguably went to the NHL’s decision to shift the regular season overtime format from 4-on-4 play to 3-on-3, opening up the ice and creating more room for offensive creativity to run rampant – a decision aimed at reducing the number of games decided by the shootout.
While the addition of 3-on-3 has been a hit league-wide, it’s been an absolute game-changer in Calgary. The Flames have thrived off of the new format all season long, leading the NHL with eight overtime victories through the first 33 games of the season.
Calgary’s overtime prowess hasn’t simply been an interesting sidenote to their 2015-16 campaign – it’s been the only thing keeping them afloat. The Flames are currently in fifth place in the significantly weak Pacific Division with 32 points. Their eight overtime wins account for over half of their 15 total victories, netting them a crucial 16 points.
But, the Flames haven’t succeeded in this area due to superior strategizing or staunch defensive play. Rather, they’ve been riding on the coattails of young phenom Johnny Gaudreau, who is quickly becoming the most exciting player in the sport.
Though the season may only be less than halfway done, Gaudreau has already racked up an astounding eight points in overtime thus far – scoring three goals himself and setting up five others.
If that total seems absurdly high considering the rarity of overtime occurring and the probability of the same player finishing off games each time – well, it is. In fact, it’s historic.
Gaudreau has now tied Markus Naslund and Joe Thornton for the most overtime points scored in one season. More telling is the fact that the young Flames forward now has nearly 50 games to try and break the record. Considering how often Calgary has seen their games go to overtime thus far, it seems clear he’ll have plenty of overtime opportunities to work with.
That being the case, there’s a very realistic chance that by the end of 2015-16, no NHL player in history will have scored more overtime points in one season than the 22-year-old Gaudreau.
Of course, key to be considered in this discussion is the effect the new format has had on Gaudreau’s success. Naslund’s and Thornton’s record-tying seasons both came in the mid-2000’s in the former 4-on-4 format. It can’t be forgotten that this previous format was so terrible at allowing players to score that the league was ultimately forced to step in and replace it, as far too many games saw zero overtime goals and thus required shootouts to decide victory.
In that case, it seems that Naslund and Thornton scoring eight overtime points in one season is remarkable, and arguably more impressive than Gaudreau’s sum thus far. Although, continued success over the course of the season could tilt the conversation in Gaudreau’s favour. While his numbers are inflated at the moment due to the 3-on-3 format, this won’t matter if his overtime pace continues.
For example, if for the rest of the season Calgary did somehow continue to let games go to overtime at the same rate they have been this season – and if Gaudreau continued to come up with clutch overtime plays as he has – the diminutive forward could finish the season with upwards of 15 points in overtime.
Regardless of the format, such a total would simply be remarkable and undoubtedly worthy of the historic impact it would have.
It seems the factor more in question is whether Calgary will have as many overtime opportunities over the second half of the season, as a myriad of factors would have to combine to allow this to take place. The second factor doesn’t seem to be an issue, as anyone who’s seen Gaudreau in the 3-on-3 format can attest to the fact that there’s simply no stopping the quick-footed forward when those five extra minutes hit the board.
The 3-on-3 format is simply tailor-made for Gaudreau’s skill-set.
Let’s take a closer look at why exactly this is the case. Firstly, the central additions brought on by shifting from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3 were more time and space. By taking two of each team’s players off the ice instead of one, each remaining skater has more opportunity to carry the puck and flex their creative muscles.
The excitement of the format is grounded in the fact that moving to three players forces each team into a triangle. Thus, teams trying to set up in the offensive zone aren’t able to sustain pressure for very long, as they have only three perimeter pieces to cycle between, as opposed to four or five players forming an umbrella around the opposing net.
That being the case, 3-on-3 more often turns into a myriad of two-on-one or breakaway chances going either way, with each team trading mismatch opportunities.
If there are two things you don’t want to give Gaudreau, it’s time and space. Firstly, because he remains one of the fastest skaters in the league, and may even be the league’s best when it comes to accelerating from standing still to top speed. Gaudreau’s speed makes him hard enough to contain during 5-on-5 play, but leaving one or two defensemen alone in open ice to try and keep him in check has proven to be a tenuous situation, as he can easily sprint past the opposition, or simply sprint into open space to create offensive opportunities.
Take this overtime period between the Flames and the Chicago Blackhawks, for instance.
Just over a minute into the extra frame, Gaudreau’s shift begins and havoc immediately ensues. At the clip’s 1:15 mark, Gaudreau sees that teammate Dougie Hamilton is about to gain control of the puck along the boards with some space to work with. In little more than one second, Gaudreau sprints backwards through the neutral zone, and by the time the Blackhawks turn around to defend, he’s already waiting on the blue-line with the puck, setting up a two-on-one opportunity.
That space creates more time for the young playmaker, and it’s that time that is lethal. Gaudreau has already proven to be among the league’s elite when it comes to his pure playmaking skill, as he can confidently drive offense both by deferring to his linemates or getting the puck on net himself.
His exceptional stickhandling skill also makes him a nightmare for opponents — not only because he can easily weave through traffic and end up alone at the net-front, but also because he keeps his stick moving quickly at all times, making it increasingly difficult to predict whether he’s about to pass, shoot, or continue stalling while weighing his options.
That’s precisely the issue Boston’s Tuukka Rask ran into during this overtime winner from Gaudreau:
A terrible offensive zone giveaway from Boston led to a two-on-one from Calgary with Gaudreau trailing as the uncontested late man. Once the puck is on his stick, he simply stickhandles through the slot and freezes Rask with indecision before netting the five-hole winner.
Vancouver’s Ryan Miller suffered an identical fate, as he was caught standing still, watching Gaudreau’s quick stick while the puck found the back of the net:
And yet, this remains only one among a plethora of dangerous options available to Gaudreau. Against Chicago, this came in the form of stripping veteran defender Brent Seabrook of the puck in front of his own cage and pulling a phenomenal backhand-forehand move before roofing the puck for the goal. Against Nashville, he took a different route on the two-on-one, sending a perfectly placed saucer pass over to Kris Russell, who tallied the winner with Predators netminder Pekka Rinne cheating over to Gaudreau’s side in anticipation of another quick shot.
Needless to say, if the Flames head to overtime, there’s little chance for the opposition if Gaudreau gets the puck on his stick, as his blend of speed and skill is often too unpredictable to adequately shut down.
Calgary has undoubtedly caught on to this, and is trying to exploit this mismatch as much as possible while they still can. It’s a gameplan that could do wonders for the Albertan club as they aim to work their way back into a playoff spot, but one that could prove problematic should they actually make it to the postseason.
A key to consider is the fact that, while Calgary has accumulated eight wins via overtime thus far (losing only once in the extra frame this season), those victories have come in a format that won’t exist come playoff time, when post-60-minute play shifts to the traditional continuous 5-on-5 format.
Gaudreau has racked up 26 regular season points in 33 games already this season, so it isn’t as if his skill-set is of no use in traditional 5-on-5 play. But it is clear the Flames must avoid banking on winning via 3-on-3, as it won’t help them at all when it matters most.
And make no mistake, their success has been grounded almost exclusively in overtime prowess. Through 33 games, Calgary has only six regulation wins – the lowest of any team in the league. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs – who rank last in the league with 11 total wins so far – have had more regulation success than the Flames, having won eight of their 11 wins during 5-on-5 play.
A quick look at the top contenders in the league further reveals the value of this difference.
The two clubs who have racked up the most total wins of any team this season just happen to be the two who have the most regulation wins as well. Washington and Dallas hold that title, sharing the top spot as each as won 24 times overall, with 20 of those coming in regulation.
Thus, from a team perspective, Calgary’s reliance on overtime could end up being somewhat problematic in the long run. But until that time comes, there’s no denying Gaudreau’s 3-on-3 play is nothing short of exhilarating. And there’s little to suggest his excellence in this area will fade any time soon.