Why has the Calgary Flames’ top line been so ineffective?

After an incredible season last year in which the Calgary Flames finished with 50 wins, and won the regular season Western Division crown, expectations were sky high for this team. Finally, after a long rebuild, it finally felt like the team was in win-now mode. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm had excellent seasons, 3M was able to (mostly) shut down other teams’ top lines, and little known David Rittich was one of the top goalies in the league until getting hurt. Add in Andrew Mangiapane for the full season, getting rid of James Neal, who, regardless of how you feel about Milan Lucic, simply did not fit in last season, and complement the depth, it seemed like the Flames were a clear playoff team at the very least.

That has obviously not been the case so far this season. Now below the .500 mark, the Flames cannot seem to buy a goal, and have struggled to contain other teams’ offense. While Bill Peters has been heavily juggling his lines, it hasn’t done much.

While all four lines have struggled, it seems in particular that the top group has been especially bad so far this season. With career low shooting percentages, bad bounces, and extreme frustration for all three guys, this has been a major problem for this team. A common argument has been that this line has been snakebitten, and that chances that would go in last season just aren’t. Let’s take a deeper look at the numbers.

Zone Starts

Last season, the Flames relied heavily on their top line of Gaudreau, Monahan, and Lindholm to score most of the goals, This season it has been almost exactly the same

YearOffensive Zone
Start %
Neutral Zone
Start %
Defensive Zone
Start %
2018-2019373527
2019-2020413127

The top line has started the biggest chunk of their shifts in the offensive zone. In fact, compared to last season, they are starting an even greater percentage of their shifts in the attacking zone. But even with Monahan winning a career high 56% of his faceoffs this season, this line is struggling to get the puck in the net with the same regularity as they did last season.

Expected Goals For

While their usage this season suggests they are getting opportunities to score, they struggle to get the puck from the faceoff dot to the back of the net. Together the line has a Corsi for of 54.2%, almost identical to last season, but their expected goals for is way down.

Through 25 games, the line has an xGF of 8.5 goals at 5v5 which paces for 27.8 goals over the course of the season. That’s down eight full expected goals from last year’s number of 35.8. All three forwards are down on their individual production quite substantially as well. Gaudreau is down by 16 expected goals, and Monahan and Lindholm are down by 10 apiece. Although they are a positive Corsi for line overall, they are not generating the quality of chances necessary to score.

On top of that, the line is actually below the 50% xGF mark, meaning they are expected to allow more goals than they score themselves. Currently posting a less-than-impressive 48.6% xGF, the line has struggled defensively this season. This was especially clear in the 6-0 loss against Vegas where the team was pressured at the blue line into turning the puck over, and then the puck was in the back of the Flames net. Both Gaudreau and Monahan were -5 that night, and say what you will about +/- as a stat, being that far down is a clear indication that things are not going well.

Scoring Chances For

Looking at scoring chances, the top line is sitting close to even at 49.8%, but have given up 42 high danger scoring chances against, to their 35 for. This has resulted in seven high danger goals against and only three for. If you take Lindholm out of the mix, who is shooting at an unsustainable 15.9%, Gaudreau and Monahan together have a dismal 29.4% HDCF resulting in three high danger goals against and zero for in 50 minutes of ice time.

It may be a combination of low shooting percentages for Monahan and Gaudreau, who are shooting at 3.9% and 4.5% respectively, but if these shots are coming from outside and, in Gaudreau’s case from the corner, the puck is just not going to go in as often.

What does it come down to

At the end of the day, it is more than just bad luck. Monahan, Gaudreau and Lindholm quite simply have not been as dangerous. They are not driving the puck to high danger areas nor are they moving the puck as effectively to generate quality looks. It may be that other teams have figured out how to defend against them, but if the Flames’ solution has been to give them more offensive zone starts, it has not been working at all. Other teams seem to be exploiting their defensive weaknesses, and shutting them down.

The coaching staff needs to help this line drive to the net harder, and try to switch up how they play in the offensive zone. Simply driving to the net and taking the shot rather than looking for the pretty pass or the perfect play may help improve their chances of scoring. Additionally, working on controlling the puck and backchecking as the other team skates up the ice may help keep games closer. At this point in the season, anything that they can do to generate scoring chances and limit opposing ones will be welcome news.

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