Much of the talk around the Calgary Flames since their first round playoff exit has been around the need for them to shake up their top line. Specifically, there have been calls about the Flames needing to trade Johnny Gaudreau or Sean Monahan.
Since becoming a full-time presence in the NHL in the 2014-15 season, Gaudreau has been one of the Flames’ best players. Putting up 445 points in 464 regular season games, including a 99 point season in 2018-19, he has consistently been a top offensive threat.
However, 2019-20 was not kind to him or his linemates Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. All three took a step back in their offensive production, just one year after the trio played large roles in putting the Flames scoring stats into the NHL history books.
The top line especially struggled in the postseason. They were unable to record a single high-danger chance until their last game of the playoffs, an effort too little too late. They just looked a step behind the play both against the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars. The Flames’ first line produced one single 5v5 goal in their ten playoff games, with the goal coming courtesy of Lindholm.
Gaudreau, the diminutive dynamo struggled to create chances on his own or for his linemates, and has shouldered much of the blame for the playoff exit. As a result, the calls for him to be traded have resurfaced.
On the other hand, Monahan has had his name out there in potential trades but not nearly as much as Gaudreau, with the former generally seeming to stay out of the spotlight on trades. The question that needs to be asked is what is the one without the other? Would Monahan be as good without Gaudreau, or would Gaudreau struggle without Monahan?
To look into how the Flames’ offensive duo have performed, I explored the data from Natural Stat Trick. All data shown at 5v5.
Monahan and Gaudreau in 2019-20
|Monahan & Gaudreau||841||51.2||48.1||48.2||49.2|
|Monahan w/o Gaudreau||136||39.1||39.2||46.7||40.3|
|Gaudreau w/o Monahan||179||46.3||51.2||44.1||47.8|
Want to know more about what these statistics mean? Read our primer on how to make sense of advanced hockey stats.
Although the two spent little time separated during the regular season, in the time they were apart, Gaudreau with other linemates was quite strong. It looked like he was driving offense, and getting scoring chances on net. While his high-danger chances numbers were lower than Monahan’s with other linemates, the numbers are not far off from one another.
Monahan did not fare as well away from Gaudreau. Posting a sub-40% CF, he struggled to drive offense and create scoring chances. On top of that, Monahan was on the ice for only three goals for without Gaudreau and 11 against, while Gaudreau was on the ice for six goals for and six goals against. It is clear that Monahan struggles without Gaudreau on his wing.
Monahan and Gaudreau in 2018-19
Even during their offensive outburst in 2018-19, there’s still a highly pronounced difference in their possession metrics.
|Monahan & Gaudreau||1051||53.8||52.2||52.8||53.1|
|Monahan w/o Gaudreau||89||52.7||48.7||50.0||47.7|
|Gaudreau w/o Monahan||215||58.2||57.1||59.7||60.4|
It is even more clear looking at the numbers that Gaudreau is the one that drives offense and can generate quality scoring chances. His linemates tend to benefit from playing alongside him, and he tends to make those with him look better.
The same cannot be said for Monahan who looks significantly worse without Gaudreau on his wing. Monahan struggled to create offense as reliably, and his expected goals for is much lower.
Maybe it’s a usage issue
Could Monahan look better in Calgary with a different linemate such as Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane, or Dillon Dube? Yes absolutely he could, but the Flames are putting a lot of stock on Monahan generating more offense for his line.
Elliotte Friedman noted on 31 Thoughts The Podcast that Monahan is a finisher. He scores the majority of his goals from right in front of the net. In order to be successful, he needs someone who can create space, and find him down low. In 2018-19, the Flames were successful because Gaudreau and Lindholm were able to create space effectively and draw defenders away to open space for Monahan.
However, the Flames’ head coach Geoff Ward said that the most misunderstood Flames players by the media are Gaudreau and Monahan. Ward went on to praise Monahan not as a finisher but as an elite two-way player. A player who takes great pride in being able to play at both ends of the ice.
If the Flames see Monahan as an effective two-way player like Mikael Backlund, they need to put him with linemates that compliment that. Lindholm, Tkachuk and Mangiapane have been excellent at this over the last couple of seasons. Perhaps redefining the Flames’ lines to give Monahan more defensive zone starts may help compliment what the Flames see as his new style of play.
By contrast, Gaudreau is a player who naturally generates offense. He has struggled on the backcheck and when starting shifts in the defensive zone. Even worse, against teams that pinch at the line like the Vegas Golden Knights, Gaudreau even struggles to generate offense on his own.
The Flames need to find the right players to complement Gaudreau, as his ceiling seems to be limited by his linemates, not himself. Setting him up to start heavily in the offensive zone with linemates that can move with him and get open for chances in front of the net may be a more effective fit for his style of play.
Tweaking the top lines
To do so, the Flames may need some more help in their forward corps. If Monahan shifts to the second line with Mangiapane and perhaps Tkachuk or Dube on his wings to form a shutdown line, Ward can experiment with Lindholm at centre with Gaudreau and Tkachuk or someone that they can pick up in free agency on the other side.
With Mark Jankowski unlikely to return next season, Derek Ryan would likely centre the fourth line with Backlund taking the third line centre role. A little shuffling and tweaking could bode well for the Flames.
The top six would look something like this:
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|Johnny Gaudreau||Elias Lindholm||Matthew Tkachuk|
|Andrew Mangiapane||Sean Monahan||Dillon Dube*|
Of course this assumes the Flames make no personnel changes to their top six, and that Mangiapane signs a new contract this off-season. Whether Dube is ready for top six action is also another question, but what this does is it allows the Flames more flexibility in their line deployment.
It also allows the Flames to have a dynamic second line that can match up against the best in the league that can also generate offense. To have an excellent passer in Dube feeding an excellent finisher in Monahan, and have havoc created by tiny Mangiapane all over the ice, the Flames could end up doing some major damage with their top two lines.
Perhaps a bigger benefit to this is how this can shift the Flames’ bottom six. A ton of stability is added to the third line with Backlund bumping down a line. Putting him with someone like Sam Bennett on the third line gives a healthy offensive dose while also providing the defensive strength that the Flames have been looking for with their bottom groups.
Throw in a player like Tobias Rieder, who can still be re-signed, and the team has a balanced third line that can score and also defend. Imagine a balanced three line combo with heavy play-making talent on the top line, some lethal shots on the second, and a third line that can hold its own without dragging down the team.
Line blenders with benefits
While the Flames will still need to fill in some holes, and hopefully find a couple of right shot forwards, the Flames should definitely consider parting ways with the duo of Gaudreau and Monahan. But not by sending either one of them packing to another team.
Saying goodbye to the tandem and splitting them up could potentially make a lot of sense and provide a lot of benefits. The two have been stapled at the hip for most of their careers, but their strengths make it such that setting up the lines for the two to be apart could be the move the Flames really need to make.
They are both exceptional hockey players. Writing either of them off as needing to be traded is not giving them the credit they deserve. Putting them on separate lines might be the experiment that gives them both a chance to shine in their respective areas of strength.
Photo Credits: Jeff McIntosh/ The Canadian Press