The Calgary Flames have been rolling four lines with success across the board. And while there have been great performances from players up and down the lineup, the majority of the team’s success has come off the back of the team’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk. These three have combined for five of the team’s 18 goals at 5v5 so far this season, and have been a big reason why the team has gone 6–1–2 to start the season.
As of November 4, the team wakes up to the news that Tkachuk is still a Calgary Flame, despite rumours that he would be involved in a trade for Jack Eichel. With the Flames missing out once again, the team moves forward with no significant roster changes. Right now, the most important thing for the team is that their top line is clicking, and are putting up results that are among the best in the league so far.
On the scoreboard, it has been a whole lot of Lindholm, who is tied for second in the league in scoring with seven so far this season. Johnny Gaudreau has found his stride as well, putting up nine assists—eight of which were primary. The one outlier has been Tkachuk, who has not made as much of an impact on the ice with just six points so far—five of which were on the power play. However he has been analytically very good on the ice, and he has been making both Gaudreau and Lindholm better. While his numbers do not jump off the page, he has been the key factor to this line’s success. Here’s why.
On-ice numbers for the Flames’ top line
This trio has been phenomenal at driving traffic towards the net and the numbers back that up. They control nearly 60% of the shot attempts at 5v5 when they are on the ice, which shows not only their ability to drive play but also their ability to limit chances against. They also boast incredible numbers above 60% in scoring chances for, high-danger chances for, and expected goals for. Here’s the craziest part: they have not been on the ice for a single goal against this season at 5v5.
Individually, they also boast phenomenal numbers, shown below with their rank team-wide in brackets, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com:
|Johnny Gaudreau||34 (4th)||23 (1st)||8 (3rd)||1.71 (4th)|
|Elias Lindholm||20 (7th)||16 (7th)||5 (7th)||1.12 (6th)|
|Matthew Tkachuk||38 (2nd)||22 (2nd)||12 (1st)||2.05 (2nd)|
What’s particularly interesting is when you compare these numbers to who is scoring the goals, they look a little askew. Tkachuk has been the key player at getting the puck on net both often and from dangerous areas, but has not produced the expected results to this point. Conversely, Lindholm is getting the goals almost like they’re going out of style. Expand these numbers to all situations and Tkachuk’s numbers go even further up. He has almost double the number of expected goals as compared to his next closest teammate, Andrew Mangiapane.
Measuring Tkachuk’s impacts on his teammates
To this point, we know that Tkachuk should be scoring more goals than he is and Lindholm maybe should be scoring a little less. But what else is there? What we really want to look at is how this line is playing together, and who is driving play. The fun thing about hockey is by looking at who is on the ice with who at any given time, you can look at their performance and infer which players make other players look good.
Micah Blake McCurdy’s model at HockeyViz.com does a really good job showcasing this using with-or-without-you as a chart. Here is what Matthew Tkachuk’s looks like so far this season:
Let’s breakdown what’s happening here. The axes show expected goals for per sixty minutes on the x-axis (bottom), and expected goals against per sixty minutes on the y-axis (side). It is inverted, so the bottom-left corner shows limited production and lots of chances against (bad), while the top right shows limited chances against but lots for (good). Isolated, Tkachuk shows somewhere in the middle at the top: limited chances against, but about average for.
The legend denotes where each player is with Tkachuk, without Tkachuk, or Tkachuk without the player. Most players are somewhere around where he would be, especially Tkachuk with both Lindholm and Gaudreau (black). Tkachuk without Gaudreau has similar results, but Tkachuk without Lindholm allows more chances against, but also produces more chances for- making him look more fun.
Here’s what’s most interesting: when away from Tkachuk, both Gaudreau and Lindholm look horrendous. Lindholm is in the bottom left corner, indicating that when separated from 19, he is allowing numerous chances against and producing very little. Gaudreau fares a little better, but still substantially worse than with him. The only other player who fluctuates as much with or without Tkachuk is Nikita Zadorov. Probably not the company that you’d want to be in if you’re the Flames’ top players.
Tkachuk brings more to the table on the top line
This shows first and foremost the incredible impact that Tkachuk has not just on the ice but to the team’s top line success. For all the talk about how this team has been driven by their elite-level top line, it is Matthew Tkachuk who is driving these results. And although Gaudreau and Lindholm have done really well to produce points and get the results on the ice, it is the quiet influence of the Flames’ number 19 that allows them to do what they do.
On the ice, he is not always recognizable, but he has allowed Gaudreau to be more effective in his role as the playmaker. Tkachuk is able to cause havoc around the net, driving defenders towards him. This has allowed Gaudreau and Lindholm to have more room to maneuver in the offensive zone, giving them higher quality looks.
On the back end, having both Tkachuk and Lindholm on the same line has given this group even more ability to backcheck. Playing Sutter hockey has also miraculously transformed Gaudreau into a very good two-way skater, which has allowed this line to hold their own against almost any other line in the league. Theis play together has been nothing short of incredible, but it has flowed from Tkachuk’s abilities in the rough areas of the ice to push the puck forward and drive the puck back into the offensive zone.
Finally, what it tells us is the incredible impact that he has on the ice, and that it is a fool’s errand to undervalue the Flames’ winger. When he played on the 3M line with Mangiapane and Mikael Backlund, there was always talk that he wasn’t being used to his full potential in this role. Now we are starting to see Tkachuk in a more offensive role and watching him become the player the Flames hoped he would be when he was drafted sixth overall in 2016. An offensive superstar, Tkachuk is quickly developing into one of the best players on the team, and someone who the Flames will hope to count on through this season and hopefully well beyond.
Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images