Ever since arriving from the Edmonton Oilers in the summer of 2019, Milan Lucic has done everything in his power to become a fan favourite in Calgary. He throws big hits, will take on anyone in a fight, and has generally done an admirable job filling his role in the bottom-six forward group.
He doesn’t shy away against rivals, either:
The only other way he could win fans over would be by piling up points, but that was never the expectation for him when he was acquired. The reason he was acquired was to not be James Neal, and at that he has especially shone since joining the team.
All this, after it looked like his career was sputtering after a few tough seasons in Edmonton. Heading into 2021–22, Lucic will look to continue to lock down his position in the lineup while bringing his well-known charm and smile to the locker room each day. The question is, who will he be playing with at the bottom of the rotation this season?
With so much turnover among the bottom-six forward group, there are lots of new players to fit in.
The new guys
The question is not as simple as looking to his linemates from last season. This year, the Flames forward group will have a new look. Not only have they added Blake Coleman, likely to slot in to the top two lines, they have also added Tyler Pitlick, Brad Richardson, and Trevor Lewis, who will battle for their positions in the bottom-six.
That’s all without mentioning new internal options, players like Glenn Gawdin, Adam Ruzicka, and Matthew Phillips, who impressed in the AHL last year, or even recent first rounders Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier. All of these are options who could push to make the roster out of camp, dramatically changing the team and especially the players around Lucic.
All of that is to say, it’s very unlikely his line mates stay the same.
A look at 2020–21
Last season, the unit he played with most often at even strength included Mikael Backlund at centre and Andrew Mangiapane on the other wing. They had a solid season, posting above-water possession numbers and slightly outscoring their opponents, nine to eight.
Still, with an offseason spent pressing the need for change, and a message on the first day of camp about “eight or nine” new players who could be in the lineup, there’s no reason to expect the line to stick together.
This with-or-without-you (WOWY) chart from Micah Blake McCurdy at hockeyviz.com shows how each player on the Flames with at least 68 minutes played with Lucic fared with and without him.
It can be a bit tricky to read, but essentially if a player’s name is further up and/or to the right than their number circled in red is, they perform better in terms of expected goals for with Lucic on the ice than without. If the opposite is true, their performance is worse with Lucic.
On the other hand, the numbers in blue tell us how Lucic does without the player who wears that number. Taking a look at the chart also shows us that last year’s line made a lot of sense. Mangiapane performs even better with Lucic than without, and Backlund loses a bit of offense but improves defensively with Lucic.
Lucic himself performs much worse without one of those two with him, which really isn’t surprising. Mangiapane is a legitimate top-six winger, and Backlund is no slouch either. That’s not to knock Lucic who is coming off a solid season, but those are two strong players to get paired up with as a third liner, it’s no wonder they improved his on-ice results so much.
While it’s clear the two are great linemates for Lucic, the team will likely break up the trio. Mangiapane needs to see more ice, and Backlund may be seeing second line minutes if Sean Monahan can’t return to form after a rough 2020–21 season. The best fit for Lucic must also be a good fit for the Flames.
Finding the best fit
Something else jumps out from the WOWY chart above—the majority of players see their defensive results improve when they play with Lucic. Among forwards, only Mangiapane also sees offensive results improve. Everyone else sees their offense suffer when playing with Lucic.
This demonstrates what is well known, that Lucic is best suited for a checking role. The best line mates for him aren’t offensive-minded players, who will be throttled by his lack of footspeed, but other checkers. And say what you will about the Flames’ disappointing offseason, the team certainly added checkers. Whether or not that was a good idea is another discussion, but it’s what happened, and in Lucic’s case, it provides a bit of flexibility in terms of his spot on the roster.
Assuming none of the young guys surprise out of camp and make the team, there are a number of combinations they could run. Following my belief that Lucic is best paired up with other defensive forwards, the two names that immediately jump out as options are the new guys, Lewis or Pitlick.
Dube is also a consideration, having often played with Lucic over the past few seasons, but the fit is not ideal. Despite showing promise, Dube’s skillset hasn’t translated into much offensive success yet. To help him find offense at the NHL level, he would be better served playing away from Lucic.
That also relegates Lucic to the fourth line, however. Dube is a young up and comer deserving of minutes, and he shouldn’t have to sacrifice minutes for Lucic to play. Not only that, but the addition of Coleman has pushed all the bottom-six players down a slot in the rotation.
Let’s assume the top-six forward group looks something like this:
That’s the easy part, however. Those lines, or at least some combination of those players, are fairly certain to be the top two lines this season. That leaves us with this in the bottom six:
The blanks on the right side are somewhat more difficult to fill in. If the expected happens and Pitlick and Lewis make the team out of camp, either could fit well with Lucic. Pitlick is the better player though, and would take the third line role, leaving Lewis to play with Lucic as two thirds of a low-event, shutdown bottom line.
The final third is another tough question. Between Richardson, Ruzicka, and Gawdin, the race is on for the fourth line centre role. Being the veteran of the group and known as a shutdown guy, Richardson is the obvious choice. But with Lucic and Lewis, the lack of foot speed on that fourth line would be a terrible risk if they got caught on the ice against a top line.
While not known for his speed, Adam Ruzicka has youth on his side, and fits the Sutter mold as he measures in at 6’4″. This is what I would call the realistic option, with either Ruzicka or Richardson anchoring Lucic and Lewis.
The fit is not the best for Lucic personally after a season with Mangiapane and Backlund, but is best for the team, and puts him in a role more appropriate for his skill set.
Truthfully, however, the realistic option is a bit underwhelming. Lewis is a fringe NHL player, and the team should hope for better. But with Lucic best suited for a shutdown role, it’s tough to pair him with any of the young guns.
In a best-case scenario, Matthew Phillips forces his way onto the roster out of camp. Tiny and and more of a scorer than a shutdown guy, it would make sense for him to play on a third line with Monahan and Dube, pushing Pitlick to the fourth line, giving the third line a bit of an offensive boost, and making for a much more confidence-inspiring bottom six.
Getting optimal results from Lucic
With a new focus on playing defense-first Sutter hockey, and a weaker back end for when mistakes do happen, finding depth lines that work and don’t give up anything easy will be key this year. Giving Lucic solid defensive linemates and not dragging down the team’s offensive weapons while doing so is an important part of that.
Hopefully, these lines are enough to get the most out of Lucic, and allow the team to make a strong playoff push this season. As his hockey career continues while Neal went from being bought out by the Oilers to signing a PTO in St. Louis, getting a good performance out of Lucic just solidifies the last laugh.