VANCOUVER -- As teammates, linemates and close friends at Boston College, Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold say it will be easier to make their NHL debuts with the Calgary Flames on Sunday night because they have each other.
Gaudreau and Arnold signed with the Flames two days after their college season ended, and immediately after Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in the NCAA on Friday. They will play their first game for the Flames on the same line against the Vancouver Canucks.
Gaudreau, who could have returned for another season at Boston College, said it was easier to sign with the Flames because Arnold was already doing the same.
"He’s one of my best buddies at school, and I thought it would be a cool idea to be on the same team as him and get to play with him," said Gaudreau, who had 80 points in 40 games with Boston College this season. "It would be a lot more stressful and nerve wracking without Billy here. By yourself it would probably be more difficult, but it makes the transition a lot easier having him here."
For all those reasons, coach Bob Hartley said it was "an easy decision" to keep them together against the Canucks, but warned it won't always be that way.
"It might just be a one-shot deal," he said. "Next year they have to fight for a spot."
Gaudreau was picked 104th by the Flames at the 2011 NHL Draft, one year after they selected Arnold, a 6-foot center with the 108th pick. Arnold had 14 goals and 53 points this season, and spent most of it with Gaudreau on his left side.
Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke has already indicated Arnold may need some seasoning in the minor leagues. As for Gaudreau, questions remain about how his skilled game and a 5-foot-9, 150-pound frame will translate to the NHL.
Hartley wants Gaudreau to learn from other undersized Flames like Jiri Hudler, Mike Cammalleri and Paul Byron, a 5-foot-8, 153-pound forward who will play on the right wing with Gaudreau and Arnold in their NHL debut.
"It’s not how big the guys is, it's how big he plays. This is what counts," Hartley said, tapping his heart with his hand. "I’ve coached some 6-foot-4s that couldn't beat an egg in a frying pan. I've coached some little guys that fought like little roosters. For me, do I care about the size? I care about the speed. I care about the way they play the game, the way they react facing adversity."
As for expectations, Hartley tried to downplay them, but admitted they are hard to avoid with a nickname like "Johnny Hockey," and having a private jet waiting after the Hobey Baker Award ceremony to hurry Gaudreau and Arnold back to Calgary will do little do quiet it. Craig Conroy, the Flames special assistant to the GM who signed the duo, went over Calgary's systems on the flight from Philadelphia. Hartley had planned to do the same again Saturday night, but he doesn't want to overwhelm them.
"We’re going to feed them with all kinds of stuff about our system but we don't want them to get caught on the ice trying to be the perfect system guy," Hartley said. "They will spend the entire game thinking and forget to play. So just enjoy the moment, play close to what we expect, but at the same time be yourself."
Flames top-pair defenseman TJ Brodie is a game-time decision after missing practice Saturday for what Hartley called "maintenance." But Cammaleri will return after missing the 5-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday because he "was sick like a dog with a missing tooth," Hartley said.
The Canucks didn't practice on Sunday morning after a 5-3 road loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night, so there is some uncertainty about the lineups as coach John Tortorella continues to rotate veteran defensemen out to let rookie Frank Corrado play some late-season games. Yannick Weber is likely to come out as the only right-shot defenseman yet to take a turn in that rotation.
Goalie Jacob Markstrom will start a third straight game after watching his first 16 as a Canuck after he was acquired from the Florida Panthers as part of the trade for Roberto Luongo. Markstrom is still looking for his first NHL win since Oct. 11.
Forward Michael Zalewski is expected to come out of the lineup after playing his first NHL game on Saturday, with Tom Sestito back in his place on the fourth line to add toughness against a bitter rival, while Zac Dalpe should also get back in on the fourth line for Jordan Schroeder.
Here are the projected lineups for the Flames and Canucks, though Hartley warned they will change quickly if he doesn’t like what he sees:
"If not, we're going to put the balls in the big machine and just like old ladies playing bingo, we’ll pull some new numbers," he said.