Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames need to find the right role for Sean Monahan

When he first entered the NHL, Sean Monahan gave Calgary Flames fans reason to hope they had found their best young centre since the team acquired Marc Savard from the New York Rangers in 1999.

Monahan quickly met—and even surpassed—those expectations. He scored 31 goals as a sophomore and exceeded 55 points in five consecutive seasons after his 22-goal rookie campaign.

With an impressive seven goals and 11 points in his first 15 playoff games, Monahan looked to be an important piece for the Flames to build around if they hoped to find future success in the postseason.

Assessing Monahan’s goals above replacement

In 2018–19, Monahan scored 38 goals and 82 points in 78 games. According to Evolving-Hockey, he tied his career high that season with 12.2 goals above replacement (GAR)—51st among NHL forwards.

While his defensive game left much to be desired, Monahan was unquestionably a top-end centre who had proven himself more than capable of playing with Calgary’s elite wingers. The four seasons remaining on his $6.75 million AAV contract looked like sure bargains.

Two years later, Monahan’s trajectory appears far less certain. His production plummeted to 48 points (22 goals, 26 assists) in 70 games during the 2019–20 regular season and fell even further to 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists) in 50 games last year.

Over an 82-game season, Monahan’s 2020–21 production would translate to 16 goals and 46 points. Those are numbers closely in line with Mikael Backlund‘s track record, not that of the Flames’ longtime No. 1 centre.

Monahan’s regression has impacted more than just his counting statistics. In his first six NHL seasons, Monahan provided the Flames with 4.2, 6.1, 12.2, 7.0, 10.1, and 12.2 GAR, respectively; he dropped to 1.1 GAR in 2019–20 before falling to exactly zero in 2020–21.

Evolving-Hockey’s GAR model is divided into six components: even strength offence, even strength defence, power play offence, shorthanded defence, penalties taken, and penalties drawn.

Prior to 2020–21, Monahan had always been a positive-impact player in the “even strength offence” category and in the negatives for “even strength defence.”

Something strange happened last year. Monahan fell to -2.9 even strength offensive GAR, the 15-worst figure in the entire NHL. He remained effective on the power play, suggesting the increasingly emphasized transition and rush aspects of even strength play may not have been as friendly to Monahan in his current physical state.

Curiously, Monahan moved into the positives for even strength defensive GAR for the first time in his career. It’s an encouraging development, although it should be qualified with the fact that the Flames’ goaltenders posted a team-high .941 save percentage with Monahan on the ice at 5v5.

Monahan also contributed 0.5 GAR while averaging 32 seconds of shorthanded time per game, giving him a total defensive figure of 1.0 GAR (11th on the Flames).

Shifting Monahan’s role

After coming aboard mid-season, Flames head coach Darryl Sutter praised Monahan for his developing all-around game.

“I think his practice habits have been outstanding,” Sutter told Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson on April 11. “I think to show confidence in him by using him on penalty killing a little bit has helped him understand that he can be a really good all-around player and still make a good contribution to the team. It’s not necessarily that it always has to be based on goals and assists for somebody like that.”

That being said, Monahan cannot continue at his current level of offensive production if he wants to remain a $6.375 million player beyond the duration of his existing contract.

Injuries have undoubtedly taken their toll—Monahan has had at least six surgeries over the last five seasons and his wrist shot appears to have lost a bit of its past power—but Monahan still has the raw talent and instincts to be an effective player.

For much of his last seven NHL seasons, Monahan formed a regular partnership with Johnny Gaudreau and served as the finisher on Calgary’s primarily Gaudreau-driven top line.

That started to change in 2020–21. The Flames’ former first line of Gaudreau, Monahan, and Elias Lindholm spent just 44:54 together at 5v5, according to Natural Stat Trick, and the Monahan-Gaudreau pairing finished the season as a thing of the past.

After Gaudreau and Monahan spent more than 10 minutes together at 5v5 in 36 of Monahan’s first 38 games of the 2020–21 season, Sutter split up the combo in Calgary’s 5-0 win over Edmonton on April 10 and largely kept Gaudreau on a line with Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk to complete the season.

If the Flames want to keep that trio together as the top line in 2021–22, Monahan will need new linemates. An obvious candidate immediately comes to mind, one who can make plays from the wing and potentially help Monahan continue to grow as a defensive player while giving him the passes he needs to score.

Rebuilding Monahan’s value

A line with Andrew Mangiapane, Sean Monahan, and another good two-way winger—perhaps Blake Coleman?—could be a fast, productive, and defensively capable secondary unit behind the Flames’ top line.

Mangiapane and Coleman are both analytical darlings who could do some of heavy lifting to retrieve pucks and put them in the high-danger spots where Monahan thrives. While all three are left-handed shots, Mangiapane and Coleman are both capable of playing on the right side and Coleman has taken hundreds of face-offs in his career.

With the right deployment, a line like that could be key for Darryl Sutter’s Flames winning the match-up battles over 60 minutes. It could be the perfect workmanlike counterpart to the ultra-skilled Gaudreau line.

As a well-rounded second-line forward with his long-standing role on the Flames’ top power play unit, Monahan could quickly re-establish himself as a key part of the Flames’ balanced attack.

He may not be the 82-point player he was in 2018–19. He’s certainly no Jack Eichel. But maybe Sean Monahan doesn’t have to be Eichel to help the Flames in a big way.

Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

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