In his second season with the Calgary Flames, Milan Lucic is bound to face a challenge with the introduction of yet another head coach, his third in Calgary. It has to be challenging to have that much turnover, and with the new head coach being hard nosed and demanding Darryl Sutter, it will surely be a challenge. Or will it?
Lucic emulates exactly what Sutter loves: old school hockey.
There is no question Lucic has had a strong start to the season. With six goals thus far, he is single-handedly out-scoring the likes of Jack Eichel, Nathan MacKinnon, Jack Hughes, and Jamie Benn, among others. With the Flames’ highest scoring player Elias Lindhom only ranked 34th overall in league scoring, every goal counts.
The real strength of Lucic’s game however, is his physical presence on the ice. There is no doubt he is a big player, standing at an intimidating 6’3” and weighing in at 233 pounds. His ability to make himself known on the ice is something that is lacking in the rest of the roster.
On top of that, his fight with Darnell Nurse during the battle of Alberta on March 7th demonstrated his ability to rally a team behind him, a trend which is sure to continue as Sutter steps in. This past Flames – Oilers game was arguably Lucic’s best of the season thus far, and it is no coincidence it closely followed the announcement of the major coaching change.
With a long coaching history, the players are aware of Sutter’s old school style and are preparing for the adjustment, but Lucic may be more prepared to handle the change than his teammates. After all, Lucic did have Sutter as his coach in 2015-16, a season that saw Lucic put up 20 goals and 55 points for the Los Angeles Kings.
What does old school mean?
Old school coaching typically involves discipline, anger, yelling, toughness, and intimidation. During his time with the Kings, Sutter was known for having a temper, erupting in fits of rage regularly. However, times have changed, and while some of the tactics Sutter used in the past will have to be reformed, the overall style that he employs probably isn’t going anywhere. As the old saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Don’t expect practices to include DJ Rasmus Andersson’s playlist anymore. It is safe to say his style of coaching will provide a major shockwave to most of the roster.
In the past, Sutter has put a strong emphasis on the importance of getting the puck on net. He was one of the first old school coaches to incorporate analytics into his tactics, which was particularly evident during his time with the Kings. During his final season with the Kings in 2016-17, the team led the league in Corsi For percentage (CF%), an achievement that Sutter will undoubtedly strive to reach again in his return to the Flames.
It is important to highlight the old school coaching style has brought Sutter a lot of coaching success in the past. Every team he coached for a full season has qualified for the playoffs. With a track record like this, it is extremely unlikely Sutter will move away from his desired style of hockey, so it will be on the players to make the transition or suffer the consequences the new coach doles out.
Where does Lucic fit in?
Sutter’s old school style involves a lot of physicality, something that Lucic will be able to deliver. He will likely remain a third line player, but Sutter will expect more from him: more hits, more puck possession, more fights, and especially more leadership. In terms of hitting, there is no doubt just how much of that he brings to the teams he is on. He currently sits second on the team in that category, behind only Matthew Tkachuk.
Lucic also is skilled in puck possession, another important component of Sutter-style hockey. He has already put up some impressive numbers for the current season, of which his new coach is sure to be happy with.
With the combination of physical presence and puck possession, Lucic has the ideal skill set for the return of Sutter, which should be utilized well in the second half of the season.
However, Lucic’s compliance to old school hockey goes further than his gameplay. Off the ice, he is never one to make excuses for the team, particularly at the expense of the coaches. He is not a player known to challenge the leadership of the team, something Sutter wants from his players.
Where will the growing pains be?
Other members of the roster may have a bit more of a learning curve in adapting to a new coaching style, but most hold a different set of skills than that of Lucic. Particularly, younger players who were introduced to an NHL that had a focus on speed and quick passing rather than the physical component of the game. Johnny Gaudreau for example, represents this new school style of hockey. He is significantly faster than Lucic, and his speed and puck handling ability are his greatest strengths.
Where the struggle may be is the checking and 50/50 battles along the boards. Gaudreau is not much of a hitter, and is not known as the type of player to finish his checks in the offensive zone. His play along the boards will need to be more than just a one-handed poke check down into the corner. How he adapts to the new system will be incredibly telling for his growth as a player, as well as his future with this team.
The Flames organization has made it clear that Coach Sutter is not going anywhere. Not only is he signed for three seasons, the understanding is that he did not come cheap. This is likely the last shot that this Flames core will have together, and unless they produce on the ice and under this coach, the organization may be looking to make major changes quickly.
The players are going to need to buy in to this new system, and having a guy like Lucic in the dressing room will go a long way. Expect Coach Sutter to rely on a player like Lucic, who already has the desired skills for leadership on the team, as part of his plan to transform the Flames into a playoff team.
Only time will tell how well the Flames adjust to the coaching change, but this is shaping up to be a prime opportunity for Lucic to make more of an impact during his time in Calgary. His combined physical presence and skilled puck possession is exactly what Sutter has looked for in the past, and what he will try to bring out in the Flames this season. Fans should be prepared to see more of Lucic: more ice time, more hits, more shots, more fights, and hopefully more wins in the upcoming games.