After seven seasons of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan leading the Calgary Flames’ offence, the dynamic duo has finally been split up. The last five games have seen Gaudreau alongside Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk on the top line, while Monahan has moved down to the second line alongside Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane.
With the Flames barely in the playoff picture and needing everything that they can muster to earn themselves a playoff spot, the Flames have finally done the one thing that seemed like heresy since the two were united. And although it has only been five games, Gaudreau has points in four of them, while Monahan has two even strength goals. Let’s break down why this is working.
Gaudreau and Monahan’s previous track record
Gaudreau and Monahan have been a powerhouse in the past as the leading duo upfront. This season however, has been disappointing to say the least. Their combined first three quarters of the season lacked any sense of excitement. Gaudreau and Monahan scored only 13 and 7 goals respectively, significantly less than expected from the top offensive pairing.
Neither head coach Geoff Ward or Darryl Sutter were able to find a right-wing to round the top line. While Sam Bennett and Brett Ritchie made a valiant effort, neither was the right fit on that right side. With the team electing to move Elias Lindholm to centre so as to make the team harder to match up against, they have lost the one right wing option that seemed to work with these two.
There is no doubt however that #13 and #23 have talent. The duo peaked during the 2018-2019 season, where Gaudreau and Monahan both recorded career highs in points. There must be some reason the boys are not playing up to their standard… right?
What went wrong for the Flames?
There are many potential reasons for the disappointing performance by the top line this season. Here are a few possible problems, and how the line change has addressed them.
There is no question that Sutter’s style of hard-hitting, dump-and-chase hockey does not complement the style of the top Flames forwards. However, it is easy to forget the Flames have seen a total of five head coaches during Gaudreau and Monahan’s seven years with the team. Adapting to new coaching styles is nothing new for this duo, but can be difficult. This is even more so for the leaders of the team who are expected to produce, regardless of the staff behind the bench.
A look at Gaudreau’s stats under each head coach:
|Head Coach||Season(s)||Average Points per Season|
|Geoff Ward||2019 – 2020||58|
|Bill Peters||2018 – 2019||99|
|Glen Gulutzan||2016 – 2018||72.5|
|Bob Hartley||2014 – 2016||71|
And similarly, Monahan’s stats under each head coach:
|Head Coach||Season(s)||Average Points per Season|
|Geoff Ward||2019 – 2020||48|
|Bill Peters||2018 – 2019||82|
|Glen Gulutzan||2016 – 2018||61|
|Bob Hartley||2013 – 2016||53|
Both forwards peaked with Bill Peters. Whether it is impacted by personality or playing style differences, it is absolutely possible that the dynamic duo simply do not play well under Sutter.
Line changes are an excellent resolution to this. By splitting up the two players, Sutter is able to place them with linemates who have a different style of play. Tkachuk is a great example of a “Sutter style player,” and pairing him with Gaudreau may encourage the top line forward to adapt to a new playing style.
Impact of playing during a pandemic
From division changes to player isolations, this year has been chaotic, to say the least. It would be reasonable to conclude the two Flames stars are simply having a bad year. Whether the pandemic has affected mental or physical health, it could be contributing to the sub-par performance.
The difficulty here, is players earning $6 million a year can not have afford to have a bad season. Changing the lines has given all the Flames forwards a fresh start, and a chance to play with teammates they don’t play with often. This change has already started to yield positive results for Gaudreau.
Gaudreau’s latest success
Gaudreau’s new pairing with Lindholm and Tkachuk is shaping up to be a successful top line. The 5-0 win against the Oilers on April 10th, was a welcome reminder of the skill Gaudreau is capable of. When Johnny Hockey is at his best, he can dangle past any defenceman in the league. So far, Lindholm and Tkachuk are allowing Gaudreau to do what he does best.
He has racked up six points in just the last five games, contributing to a season total of 33 points. Four out of six of those points were at 5 on 5, although over half of his total points this season have come on the powerplay. Getting Gaudreau going at even strength is key to getting him back to the player that he was a couple seasons ago.
More than Gaudreau on his own, the line of him with Lindholm and Tkachuk has looked very good together on the ice. Here is a breakdown of the data from Natural Stat Trick.
The numbers have been much better than when Gaudreau was playing alongside Monahan and a rotating cast of wingers. This new look top line has not been on the ice for a single goal against at 5v5, and is creating more chances for than against.
What is even more interesting is the impact that this change has had on Tkachuk and Lindholm. They sit second and third respectively in shot attempts, are tied for the lead in scoring chances, and are tied for second in high-danger chances. While Gaudreau sits around the middle of the pack, getting Tkachuk and Lindholm going is a big step forward for a team struggling to create offence in their top six.
Impact on Monahan
While Gaudreau was partnered with a struggling Tkachuk and a generally good Lindholm, Monahan was matched up with a surging Andrew Mangiapane and an up-and-down Dillon Dube. However, unlike his diminutive partner, Monahan has struggled to really get going with his linemates. Here is how the numbers have looked so far, again from Natural Stat Trick.
While their underlying numbers have been quite decent, Monahan is still mired in his own slump. In the past five games, he has generated a team low three shot attempts and one high-danger scoring chance. He has hit the net just once at 5v5, which managed to make it past the goalie. Having a 100% shooting percentage looks great as a fun factoid, but it is obviously not a recipe for success.
With the underlying numbers looking the way that they do, the odds are good that this group will be able to create more chances, but looking at Monahan’s individual 5v5 numbers, it seems like it will come in spite of #23 rather than because of him.
Something is clearly going wrong with him this season, and whether it is an issue on the ice or off of it, something is going to have to give. Hopefully between Dube’s luck of the eyebrows and Mangiapane’s work ethic, Monahan will be able to break out of his funk.
With the odds of the Flames making the playoffs this season approaching zero, this is likely an audition for next season. With how the underlying numbers are looking for both groups and the performance on the ice of the Gaudreau group, there is no reason for the Flames to reunite Gaudreau and Monahan. While it is sad to see the duo potentially come to an end, any hope in the offensive zone makes this change worth it.
Sutter has never missed the playoffs during a full season of coaching, so the pressure will be on next season. Whether or not the Flames make some major roster changes in the offseason, these lines are certainly the closest the Flames have looked to a playoff team this year. Continuing these lines as long as possible could bring the team some much needed consistency, and give the fans something to root for.