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Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames during a game against the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 6, 2016. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports)
Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames during a game against the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 6, 2016. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports)

The Calgary Flames’ big guns are misfiring this NHL season Add to ...

At his best, Johnny Gaudreau plays the game of hockey with a brazen audacity. When he was setting the NHL afire in his first two years, it was because of his unwavering nerve.

Even if Gaudreau tried and failed to make a risky play, one shift later, he would be undeterred, and out there trying something equally terrifying and creative. It’s what made him a rookie-of-the-year finalist in his first year; the NHL’s No. 7 scorer last year; and a rich man this past summer, when he signed a six-year, $40.5-million (U.S.) contract extension with the now 5-8-1 Calgary Flames.

But ever since signing that deal, and showing up for work right at the end of Flames’ training camp, Gaudreau has been out of sync. A perfect illustration of what’s different came in a game this weekend in Los Angeles. Gaudreau made a key turnover at the offensive blueline in the final minute of the first period that started a Kings goal rush and ended with a 5-0 Calgary loss.

Gaudreau was hardly seen the rest of the night, a meek presence in a Flames’ lineup that isn’t scoring enough goals, isn’t keeping enough of them out of their own net and is terrible again on special teams. If all that sounds familiar, it’s because those were all the same flaws that resulted in them missing the playoffs a year ago and getting coach Bob Hartley fired.

The difference is that under Hartley, Gaudreau and the rest of the Flames’ star players thrived. This year, they are all struggling. Gaudreau’s regular centre, Sean Monahan, has also been unable to shake off the cobwebs in the first month, after missing the World Cup and most of training camp recovering from injury.

Defenceman Mark Giordano was one of only four NHL defenceman to score 20 or more goals last season. He managed that by finding seams in the offensive zone and by making the smart choices as to when to make an aggressive offensive thrust. This year, Giordano has just one goal and five points, and the power play he’s quarterbacking is ranked 30th overall in the NHL.

“Any time you’re going through a bad stretch, it’s on your top players to push you through – and it starts with me,” Giordano said Tuesday. Monahan added: “Right now, we’re not good enough. Me and Johnny know that. We’ve got to find a way to get rolling and produce offence. When you play big minutes and get time on the power play, you’ve got to find a way to get the job done.”

The common thread among the three is all received massive pay hikes that kicked in this season and are playing as though they have to earn every one of those extra millions on their next shift. It’s a point that president of hockey operations Brian Burke made on the radio Monday morning. The problem, according to Burke, is that they are collectively trying too hard to make a difference, instead of just relying on their usual games and instincts.

Naturally, when the Flames resumed practice Tuesday morning, there was no real consensus about why so many of the team’s established players are playing poorly, in a year when the supporting cast has been unexpectedly productive. Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund, two thirds of the third line, have been excellent. Matthew Tkachuk muscled his way on to the team as an 18-year-old, despite the organization’s philosophical wish to send him back. The goaltending has been solid and an upgrade over what they had last year. Deryk Engelland, sixth on the defensive depth chart, has been lights-out good in his role. The former 194th overall pick in the 2000 entry draft is leading the team in plus-minus.

With all that cheery news, you’d think the Flames might be pushing the Edmonton Oilers for Pacific Division supremacy, instead of labouring in the middle of the pack and coming off a pair of disheartening weekend losses in southern California. In fact, the defeat at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks was record-setting in the way you don’t want to set records. It marked Calgary’s 24th consecutive regular-season defeat in Anaheim, surpassing the NHL record of 23 consecutive losses that Pittsburgh had in Philadelphia between 1980 and 1987.

“It’s a slippery slope,” said first-year coach Glen Gulutzan. “You want to make sure you’re coaching and pushing them, but also, you want to be encouraging them and keeping them confident – because offensive players need confidence to do what they do. Sometimes, you just want to alleviate the pressure they’re putting on themselves.”

The belief is that if the Flames can get their top players going and the foot soldiers continue to provide solid play, then they have a real chance to start winning consistently.

But it’s got to happen soon and the two things need to go hand in hand. The bottom end of the roster can’t drop off, once the top guys start rolling. Otherwise, this mess of a start will continue for so long that pretty soon, it isn’t going to matter who is at fault – or why.

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