After a disappointing start to the season, the Flames made a coaching change. In came Darryl Sutter, and out went Geoff Ward. Management was careful to make clear that responsibility for the poor start was not on the coach alone, emphasizing that the players were responsible for their own struggles.
The hope was that Sutter’s experience as a coach would allow him to get the most out of his players, citing his previous tenure in Calgary and his time coaching the Los Angeles Kings as proof. The change has had a substantial impact early, with the Flames playing a faster, heavier game, as was expected when Sutter took over.
This system has seen the bottom six flourish, but the top six has struggled, indicating that there has been an improvement in the way the team has maximized the impacts of some players more than others. The player who perhaps has struggled the most under the new system is Johnny Gaudreau, who seems to struggle with the dump and chase style of hockey implemented by Coach Sutter.
So far, the results have been underwhelming for him along with the rest of the top six. As much as he has struggled, his linemates have not pulled their weight either. With the Flames moving Elias Lindholm to centre, Gaudreau and Sean Monahan have had a rotating cast of right wingers of varying qualities. What the team has not done is try to split up 13 & 23.
Just like his predecessor, Sutter seems averse to uniting Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm as a duo, sticking instead with a Matthew Tkachuk and Lindholm duo on the top line and the Gaudreau and Sean Monahan duo on the second. The idea is good, but in practice it seems that regardless of who is playing on the right side of either duo, the top six is not meeting expectations.
It’s time for a change more substantial than cycling back to one of Dillon Dube, Josh Leivo, Dominik Simon, or any of the other previously tried pieces there. Its time to put Gaudreau with Lindholm to maximize both of their skill sets.
The Monahan/Gaudreau duo
This season, and especially recently, the duo of Monahan and Gaudreau have struggled to create much. At even strength, they are getting out-chanced, with the team putting up a 49.8% expected goals for percentage (xGF%) with the two of them on the ice. Looking at just the time since Sutter took over, things look even worse, with the team putting up an abysmal 38.1% xGF% with that duo on the ice. All stats are courtesy of NaturalStatTrick, taken at 5v5, and adjusted for score and venue.
Looking over the last few years, its clear the offense is drying up. The 2018-19 season was high flying and helped in part by high shooting percentages, while the 2019-20 season was the exact opposite. The team was clearly banking on a bounce back this season, but it hasn’t happened, and time is running out to secure a playoff spot. If the team hopes to push for the playoffs, they need to make some changes.
Even in the 2018-19 season, when Monahan and Gaudreau played as a duo without Lindholm on their wing, the results were underwhelming, as the two were on the ice for 14 goals against and only 11 for in over 200 minutes of ice time. The on-ice results of the Monahan and Gaudreau duo clearly rely on having a strong right wing, and with Lindholm moved to centre, the team really doesn’t have a strong enough right side option for them.
But what is most alarming is the dropping goals for rate. This duo is the team’s most important offensive weapons, and they are simply not putting up goals at the rate they are expected to. The team is struggling to score, and keeping these two together is not the solution.
One change that could be worth exploring is playing the duo of Lindholm and Gaudreau together, with Lindholm remaining at centre. In a small sample size this season, the duo has been significantly more effective at controlling play and scoring goals than Gaudreau and Monahan.
|Player Combination||TOI in 2021||xGF%||GF/60|
|Lindholm/Gaudreau without Monahan||41:55||56.1||2.8|
|Monahan/Gaudreau without Lindholm||362:25||49.4||1.8|
Per 60 minutes of ice time, the duo of Lindholm and Gaudreau outscores the duo of Monahan and Gaudreau by more than a full goal. They also control almost 9% more of the expected goal share. The results clearly show that this is a more successful duo, and giving them a longer look would be a good way to get the best out of both players.
Its not just this year either. Since Lindholm first played for the Flames in 2018, the team has done well to control the play when he plays with Gaudreau.
|Player Combination||TOI since 2018||xGF%||GF/60|
|Lindholm/Gaudreau without Monahan||222:45||60.6||2.7|
|Monahan/Gaudreau without Lindholm||921:16||49.3||2.3|
|Monahan Gaudreau and Lindholm||1366:25||52.8||3.3|
Clearly, the combination that has the most offensive potential is to put the three players together. But with the team intent on keeping Lindholm at centre, its unlikely to happen. Because of this, it seems obvious that Gaudreau should be with him on the top line with Lindholm to maximize the offensive potential of both players, rather than with Monahan where it seems the offense has dried up without Lindholm.
There is a bit of a caveat here, as Lindholm spent most of his first two seasons with Calgary on the wing, not at centre, but regardless of position, he and Gaudreau are clearly dangerous when out on the ice together. Giving them a chance to find that success again without Monahan is an option worth exploring.
What does this mean for the rest of the lineup?
If the team seriously wants to maximize their players, that means putting Johnny Hockey in a position to create as much offense as possible. His passing skill is incredible, his offensive instincts are unmatched on the team, and his point totals along with his underlying metrics over the years reflect that. However his defensive play leaves something to be desired. Knowing this, the team should prioritize putting him in a position to create offense. It’s vital to Gaudreau as a player, and Gaudreau is vital to the team.
To get the most out of him , Sutter should switch up the top six to have Lindholm and Gaudreau play together. They create more offense than the Gaudreau/Monahan duo, and Lindholm is a better defensive player than Monahan, making him a more reliable centreman for Gaudreau. With that in mind, here are some suggestions to maximize the performance of players in the top six.
Option one – Loaded top line
This is the most potent top line structure available to the team, loaded up with the team’s three best forwards. This option has pros and cons. On the one hand its the teams three best players on one line, what could possibly go wrong? If the team wants their top line to produce more, this is the way to do it. Considering the measly offensive output of the Flames this year (the team is 20th in goals for at all strengths and last in the North Division) it might not hurt to load up a line to spark the offense. The defensive prowess of Lindholm and Tkachuk could help balance out the offensive focus of Gaudreau, and make this a dangerous and responsible line.
Gaudreau, Lindholm and Tkachuk have played less than five minutes together this season at even strength, and even since Lindholm joined the team they have only played about 44 minutes as a trio. But, in that time, they have an exceptional 73% expected goals percentage and have scored at a rate of 4.2 goals per 60 minutes.
Where things start to come apart is the second line. The options to play with Monahan are limited, especially with the success of the bottom six. With the way the bottom half of the roster has been playing, those lines would ideally not have to change. If Ritchie is back soon, shifting Dube to the left makes the most sense to me on this line.
The majority of Dube’s time in the NHL has been spent on the right wing, but has played on the left in the past. It is worth remembering he’s a left shot who was actually drafted as a centreman. With a top six structured like this, the team would be forced to use Backlund more than Lindholm in the shutdown role, which has worked in the past.
Option two – Balanced
This option is definitely more balanced, but doesn’t necessarily provide the same offensive jump as the loaded top line from the previous scenario. I’ve also left the second line right wing option intentionally vague. Moving Lindholm to centre has given the team strength down the middle, but has opened up a clear gap on the right side that none of the team’s forwards have adequately filled this season.
Take your pick of one of various placeholders that simply must be improved on if the team intends on competing for the cup. In this situation the second line is still strong with the addition of Tkachuk, and the combination of Gaudreau and Lindholm have the opportunity to lift the team’s offense together on the top line.
However, removing the defensively sound Tkachuk from Lindholm’s side makes defensive matchups more difficult just like with the loaded up top line. However, the Backlund line is still available to play that role, leaving the more offensively gifted players open to take advantage of easier minutes. Derek Ryan and the fourth line can also be used in shutdown capacities, and Sutter has already shown a willingness to trust them against opponents’ top lines if he feels others aren’t performing well enough.
Whichever option the team looks at, separating Gaudreau and Monahan would go a long way to helping the team drive offense. These options would at least provide a good spark to the struggling top six. With losses mounting this season, there’s no time left to hope Monahan and Gaudreau turn it around together.
How would you set the lines? Let us know in the comments or on social media!
Cover Photo by Jim Wells/Postmedia