The Calgary Flames have been off to a flying start this season. Currently boasting a 7–1–3 record through 11 games, the team currently sits fourth in the latest iteration of the TWC Power Rankings, which evaluates both records as well as analytics numbers to evaluate overall performance.
Much of the team’s success has come from the top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk. The trio have combined for 39 points—18 of which were at 5v5. For a team that has long been talked about as one that has struggled to score, this top unit has been putting up goals and driving offence in a major way.
The line has also been among the league’s most tight defensive lines, limiting their opponents to an incredible zero goals against so far at 5v5, and are the only line to do this in over 70 minutes on the ice together. Let’s break down what has made them so good this season using data from Evolving-Hockey.com.
Offensive numbers for the top line
The Flames’ team success this season has been largely driven by the top line’s success, but since Coach Darryl Sutter took over the reins at the end of last season, the signs of this line’s success have been evident. They initially began to click at the end of the shortened 2020–21 season, with some very strong games together in spite of the team being effectively eliminated from playoff contention at the time they were put together.
They have only continued to grow into a line of total dominance this season. While they are the only line to not allow a goal against all season with a minimum of 70 minutes on ice together, they also boast phenomenal results at creating chances. Together, they boast a 62.6% CF%, good for second in the league behind only the David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron line in Boston. They also boast an expected goals for percentage of 69.1%, good for best in the league. This shows not only their ability to produce but also their ability to limit other team’s from creating chances as well.
Production-wise, for every sixty minutes of ice time, they create 68.9 shot attempts, which is sixth league-wide. The line also has an expected goals for rate of 3.2, eighth in the league. What this means is that this group is not only creating a high voluume of chances when on the ice, but also are creating quality looks to go with the volume. They are also doing this while shooting just a touch over 10%, which is around average for these three. This suggests that the top line’s offensive numbers are not a fluke—they really are the real deal.
Defensive numbers for the top line
Here is where things get really interesting. Would you believe that a line with Johnny Gaudreau has been among the best two-way lines in the NHL? The Flames’ top unit has surprisingly been among the league’s top defensive lines so far this season. For every sixty minutes on the ice, they allow just 41.1 shot attempts against (CA/60), which is the second best in the entire league. Of the chances against, very few are high-danger. Their expected goals against per 60 minutes is just 1.44, the best in the league. This clearly shows just how good they have been at limiting other teams to taking shots from the outside.
Pairing these numbers with their excellent offensive numbers, this line has been among the best in the entire league. Their shot attempts differential per 60 minutes, a metric of shot attempts for and against, is 27.8, good for third in the entire league. Meanwhile. their expected goals differential per 60 minutes on ice is 1.8, best in the league. This line’s offensive numbers has already been exceeding expectations, but their defence has been outstanding to a whole new level.
What this means for Calgary
The Flames under Darryl Sutter have been talked about as being tough to play against, but the numbers back this up. Historically, it felt like the Flames’ top line was strong offensively, but an absolute liability going the other way. Memories of the Flames’ 6–0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2019 in which the Flames’ top line was routinely exploited for rush chances against linger in the collective mindset of the fanbase. That night, Gaudreau was a -5, so far this season, he is +10.
Of course lots of credit has to go to goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who has been outstanding to start the year. With four shutouts in his first nine games, he has found his way into the NHL record books.
On top of that, the Flames’ defence corps has been incredible. The three current pairs of Rasmus Andersson with Noah Hanifin, Oliver Kylington with Chris Tanev, and Nikita Zadorov with Erik Gustafsson have all been in the top half of of defence pairs league wide, and all are positive possession and shot attempt pairings.
Finally, every discussion of the Flames’ success starts and ends with the coaching of Sutter, whose systems and style have made this team into one of the best in the entire league. After numerous coaches, it was he who turned Gaudreau into a strong two-way player. Playing him with two-way players like Tkachuk and Lindholm have made this line so strong at both ends of the ice.
Sutter has also elevated Tkachuk’s game even more than expected. He has been the driving force of this line, making both his linemates substantially better. The Flames are seeing desired outcomes due to the success of this line. It has been a long time since a trio of players has clicked and put up numbers like theirs in the league, let alone the Flames. if they keep producing, the Flames are in line for a great season.
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