For the first time in what feels like a long time, the Calgary Flames have started the season with a great deal of optimism. While they boast a 2–1–1 record through four games, the team’s effort has been more than the sum of its parts.
However, as the games have gone on, it has been increasingly clear what has been working well and what has not. The top of the Flames roster has been executing beautifully. Johnny Gaudreau has six primary assists and Elias Lindholm has six goals—four of which came at even strength.
Andrew Mangiapane sits second on the team with three goals and leads the team in 5v5 high-danger scoring chances with six. Matthew Tkachuk, Gaudreau, and Dillon Dube follow behind him. Newcomer Blake Coleman has fit in quite well as well, putting up his first goal with the team already this season.
This is where things begin to drop off. Six Flames skaters have yet to record a point so far this season, including Mikael Backlund and Sean Monahan, the latter limited to a fourth line role at this point. The Flames have also not found a strong linemate to pair with Dube and Mangiapane to this point, with Brett Ritchie seeming to be the option that has stuck with minimal success. On top of that, the bottom of the roster has not been able to put much together at all to start the year.
Reviewing the Flames’ currently lines
Let’s take a look overall performances so far based on the lines from the last game and see what may make more sense moving forward.
Top line: Johnny Gaudreau – Elias Lindholm – Matthew Tkachuk
For all the talk of needing to find a winger to slot in on the right side between Gaudreau and Monahan over the years, the Flames have found a way to make an elite top line without their 2013 sixth overall pick. Through four games, Monahan’s role has been limited due to him coming back from injury, but this in turn puts the Flames’ best forwards right now together. And it’s the same line that the Flames ended deploying last season as the top line.
Now, the trio of Gaudreau, Lindholm, and Tkachuk has become a surefire mainstay for the Flames. Gaudreau has been absolutely feeling it alongside Lindholm, and while the points have not come for Tkachuk to this point, he has among the best individual underlying numbers for the Flames so far this season at 5v5. Take a look at the chart below for the individual production of each player on the top line with their rank among Flames’ forwards in brackets. All data from Natural Stat Trick.
|Johnny Gaudreau||25 (2nd)||14 (3rd)||4 (T-4th)||1.06 (3rd)|
|Elias Lindholm||18 (3rd)||12 (4th)||4 (T-4th)||0.98 (4th)|
|Matthew Tkachuk||29 (1st)||16 (1st)||9 (T-1st)||2.43 (1st)|
Is there any surprise as to why this line has performed as well as they have? The Flames’ top line has been absolutely buzzing, and has produced the majority of the team’s points to start this season. At this point, even in spite of Tkachuk’s struggles to put up points, the Flames should keep this line together.
Second Line: Blake Coleman – Mikael Backlund – Tyler Pitlick
This was a brand new line last game, with the Flames trying to get Tyler Pitlick back to speed after being injured in the first game of the preseason. Statistically, in a very small sample, the line has looked quite good, putting up a 62.1% CF% in around 17 minutes of ice time.
In theory, this is probably your shutdown group. The line has been tasked with handling other teams’ top lines. This line took on the majority of the shifts against the top players for Detroit, but due to line matching by the Capitals, were rarely on against Alexander Ovechkin’s group. Through these past two games, their underlying numbers have not been bad. Take a look at the table below:
Again, a very small sample size, but not bad in terms of their ability to drive play up-ice. They have yet to allow a goal against but have not scored one either.
Is it worth keeping this line together? Maybe, but one thing that Darryl Sutter has said is that he wants to give Pitlick time to get back up to speed. Moving Pitlick down the roster to a slightly more sheltered role may help him in the short term, and replacing him with newcomer Trevor Lewis may be a welcome change.
The right handed shot brings a wealth of experience, and combined with Backlund and Coleman could form a dynamic shutdown line. Of all the Flames’ current forwards, Lewis has started the fewest number of shifts in the offensive zone, speaking to how the coaching staff views his two-way play. This would make for an excellent second line to throw out against the big lines on other teams.
Third line: Andrew Mangiapane – Dillon Dube – Brett Ritchie
While Mangiapane and Dube have been two of the Flames’ brightest spots through the start of this season, when paired with Brett Ritchie, this line has been analytically the Flames’ worst. They have an abysmal 19.4% CF%, have allowed 11 scoring chances against, and have been very lucky to have only allowed one goal against while on the ice. This is in spite of starting 75% of their shifts in the offensive zone.
Mangiapane and Dube together have been phenomenal thus far this season. Together without Ritchie, they have a 55.8% CF% and have looked dangerous at both even strength and on special teams. Even in his new role at centre, something Dube has rarely done since junior, the two forwards have thrived together.
However, when playing with Ritchie, this line simply has not worked. And it is not like Ritchie himself has been bad. So far this season, he has put up 13 shot attempts , ahead of Monahan and Backlund, eight individual scoring chances, good for fifth on the team, and even has three individual high danger chances.
The problem is Dube and Mangiapane together have been too good to separate. The Flames have two choices with this duo: move Dube back to the wing and add a centre or leave Dube in the middle and add a winger on the right.
Neither option is easy. If the Flames move Dube to the wing, the one centre that would make sense would be Monahan, but he has struggled to start the season as he tries to return to form following surgery in the off-season. Coach Sutter has talked about giving him the time to get back up to speed, so this likely is not the solution.
Alternatively, the Flames could call up a player like Glenn Gawdin to centre this line, which would provide the team an opportunity to utilize the forward who is quickly showing that he is too good for the AHL. Gawdin is a very reliable two-way player, who could allow Dube and Mangiapane to thrive offensively knowing that he can cover them in a turnover. The problem is that the Flames know what they have in Gawdin, and given their unwillingness to keep him up, it seems like it may be time to try something else.
The other option would be to keep Dube at centre, and elevate a player like Milan Lucic up to the third line. Dube thrived alongside Lucic in the playoffs two seasons ago, and spoke about how he created a lot of space to thrive on the ice. This is another option that could work, but if the Flames want Dube and Mangiapane to thrive offensively, adding the aging Lucic to the line may make them more susceptible to the puck coming back up the ice. This is a huge risk factor for a team that needs to keep the puck out of their own net.
The best option would be to call up a player like Walker Duehr. The speedy right-handed shot has already put up two goals in four games for the Heat, and has looked like a pro on the ice in California. After a very successful camp, Duehr could be just what this line needs to thrive offensively.
Fourth line: Milan Lucic – Sean Monahan – Trevor Lewis
This line has been a hodgepodge of players for the Flames, but has found little success together. Through four games, Monahan has struggled to make an impact on the ice, while Lucic and Lewis have both been fine at 5v5. The problem is that for Monahan and Lucic, there really is not much else you can do with them at this point. Monahan is still working his way back from injury, but the hope is that as he continues to recover and grow his confidence back to where it was a few seasons back, he will work his way back up the depth chart.
Lewis and Lucic have both been decent but unremarkable through four games, with Lewis being one of the Flames’ better two-way players thus far this season. If he gets a look on the second line, the Flames would be better served putting Tyler Pitlick on this line. Pitlick adds some speed to this group, and gives him a slightly more sheltered role as he also continues to work back from injury. Playing him in a playmaker type of role alongside the goalscorer Monahan and grinder Lucic would make for a strong line that can match up well against other teams’ bottom lines.
This leaves Brett Ritchie as the odd-man out for the time being for the Flames. While he has been quite good for the Flames, there just is not a place to play him in the lineup right now, and the Flames would be better served getting the duo of Mangiapane and Dube going with a different winger than with him. While he does need waivers to be sent down to the AHL, it seems a small risk that another team would claim him.
Reshuffling the Flames forwards for balance
After the changes, this is how the lines look at this point:
|Johnny Gaudreau||Elias Lindholm||Matthew Tkachuk|
|Blake Coleman||Mikael Backlund||Trevor Lewis|
|Andrew Mangiapane||Dillon Dube||Walker Duehr|
|Milan Lucic||Sean Monahan||Tyler Pitlick|
This allows the Flames’ top line to continue to thrive, gives the team a legitimate shutdown line that can still create scoring chances, and gives Mangiapane and Dube a speedy winger who can score and defend. Each line has at least two players who can take faceoffs, and puts allows the players who are struggling the greatest chances to regain their form.
With the team continuing on their roadtrip through the east coast, the Flames have an opportunity to develop the bottom of their roster, and provide additional help putting points on the board. After the changes they have made on defense, adding Oliver Kylington into the lineup, this balanced approach can be a great way to try and continue to push the team forward this season.
Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images