The Calgary Flames are rolling right now. After an incredible back and forth overtime win against the league’s top team the Colorado Avalanche earlier this week, the Flames have put themselves firmly in first in the Pacific division with their latest win coming against the Edmonton Oilers.
Outside of Darryl Sutter, the primary reason the Flames have fared so well this season is the complete dominance of their top line. Since being united at the beginning of the season (though technically at the conclusion of the prior season), the trio of Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, and Johnny Gaudreau has been arguably the best line in the entire NHL.
It’s obviously a group effort, however the recent narrative from fans and the media is that Lindholm is the driving force behind the line’s dominance. His elite two-way play has drawn the attention of everyone across the league. Now in his fourth season with the Flames, Lindholm is without a doubt having the best year of his career.
That said, is he really the driving force behind the Flames top line? And is his position as the team’s best two-way forward really warranted? Let’s take a look at why the numbers don’t back up those claims, and why it’s clear that Tkachuk is the best two-way forward on the team.
Lindholms’ faceoffs and penalty killing
Let’s just get this out of the way off the top. A major reasoning behind the claim that Lindholm is a better two-way player than Tkachuk is his faceoff ability and play on the penalty kill. There are two major problems with that.
First off, regardless of how much they’re talked about, faceoffs really don’t mean much at all when looking at the larger picture. Using Eric Tulsky’s work, Scott Maxwell of LeafsNation took a look at how much faceoffs correlate to winning and puck possession back in November. To summarize, they don’t correlate at all. Maxwell put it best:
“For every really important faceoff that creates a goal or wins a game, there are 50-100 that have almost no impact aside from who starts the shift with the puck, and as we’ve learned, good teams will find ways to get the puck regardless of their faceoff ability.”Scott Maxwell
Secondly, Lindholm currently ranks 42nd among centres with at least 200 faceoff wins for faceoff percentage. It’s not like he’s the best faceoff taker in the league or even close to being so.
So how about the penalty kill? Just because Lindholm plays on the penalty kill and Tkachuk doesn’t shouldn’t take away from Tkachuk. He can’t choose where he plays. You can’t compare two players penalty killing ability when one has a sample size of nearly zero. Considering he’s one of the team’s best defensive forwards, there’s no reason he wouldn’t be successful on the penalty kill if he was deployed in those situations.
Trevor Lewis and other league-minimum players kill penalties, that doesn’t mean they are better defensively because they do. The majority of the game is played at 5v5, and as we’ll see Tkachuk is better defensively than Lindholm in that aspect of the game.
Comparing Tkachuk and Lindholm’s offensive numbers
With his recent hot streak, there’s been a near consensus across the fanbase and the media that Lindholm is the team’s best two-way forward, and perhaps even best overall player. Not to be a downer, but that’s far from the case. It is a good problem to have when there’s this mch debate about who’s better.
Lindholm is probably the third best player on his own line, let alone the best player on the team. As good as Lindholm is, Gaudreau and especially Tkachuk are even better. Let’s have a look at how each player compares stats wise so far this season offensively.
First we’ll take a look at basic point production. Only players with 500 minutes TOI were considered. Per 60 numbers are 5v5, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com. Number in brackets indicates team rank among forwards.
|Matthew Tkachuk||27 (T2)||38 (2)||64 (2)||1.22 (3)||1.3 (2)||3.21 (2)|
|Elias Lindholm||27 (T2)||31 (3)||57 (3)||1.25 (2)||0.47 (6)||2.5 (3)|
Currently Tkachuk and Lindholm are tied with 27 goals, however Tkachuk has seven more assists and therefore seven more points. The two are neck and neck for G/60 with Lindholm narrowly ahead, however Tkachuk is miles ahead in terms of 1A/60 and P/60, trailing only Gaudreau for both numbers.
In particular, Lindholm’s 0.47 primary assists per 60 lags way behind, currently sitting behind the likes of Milan Lucic among Flames forwards.
So Tkachuk’s raw offensive production has clearly been better, how about when we look at each players underlying numbers so far this season? Again, only players with at least 500 min TOI were considered.
|Matthew Tkachuk||61.19 (1)||61.34 (1)||13.95 (1)||16.66 (2)||1.07 (2)|
|Elias Lindholm||58.49 (6)||59.79 (4)||10.87 (5)||13.69 (6)||0.85 (5)|
Tkachuk is simply on another level right now. He leads the team in CF%, xGF%, ixG, and is second for iCF/60 and ixG/60 behind only Blake Coleman. If anyone ever questions who is truly the motor of this team offensively and the league’s best line at even strength, show them this table. If that isn’t convincing, then show them what’s below.
Again, Lindholm is great and his numbers reflect that but he ranks inside the top five for only three of the five metrics and doesn’t rank any higher than fourth. For a player outside the top three in all of these key metrics, justifying him as the team’s best forward is a stretch. Tkachuk is simply a force at even strength offensively and an elite play driver.
Let’s see how they compare using HockeyViz.com’s isolated 5v5 impact charts to get a better idea of their impacts on offence.
Again, Tkachuk comes out looking much better here. His isolated impacts are much stronger than Lindholm’s in the offensive zone, and again it really isn’t close. In fact, Lindholm is actually ineffective when isolated.
Comparing their defensive numbers
Now the big question, who is better on defence? Well let’s take a look at the numbers to find out.
|Matthew Tkachuk||45.66 (4)||1.67 (2)||2.11 (3)|
|Elias Lindholm||48.18 (6)||1.79 (4)||2.17 (5)|
Although the two are very tight in these three key metrics, Tkachuk comes out on top in each one. In particular he ranks top four among Flames forwards for all three metrics, while Lindholm ranks inside the top five for just one. Tkachuk’s GA/60 ranks behind only Mikael Backlund. It’s also worth noting that Lindholm ranks behind the Flames second line centre in Backlund in each defensive metric.
Using Evolving-Hockey.com’s regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) graph, it tells a very clear story. The RAPM chart let’s us look at impacts that players have in terms of per 60 rates, and eliminates factors out of their control.
I mean wow. Tkachuk is simply elite at even strength on both offence and defence. His ability to both generate shots and goals as well as limit them at the other end is remarkable and among the best in the entire NHL. Lindholm meanwhile, doesn’t come out looking as pretty. His offensive rates are strong, but his defensive rates are barely above average.
There’s been some discussion around cherry picking RAPM charts to show that Tkachuk is better as the model favours him so heavily, so let’s take a look at some other metrics as well.
If we use another metric in Dom Luszczyszyn’s 5v5 on-ice impact measured in goals above average, Tkachuk comes out on top again. Using Luuszczyszyn’s model, Tkachuk has a defensive 5v5 on-ice impact this season of 7.8 which ranks in the 90-100th percentile in his model. Lindholm’s 5v5 on-ice impact sits at 5.0 which places him in the 70-90th percentile.
If we again look at their isolated impacts at 5v5 but this time on defence, it tells the same story.
Both players do a good job at limiting opponent chances, but once again Tkachuk’s impacts are stronger this time on the defensive side of the puck. What’s even more telling is how the Flames fare on defence with each player and without each player.
The Flames are great defensively with Lindholm on the ice there’s no denying that. However even without him the results are nearly identical, in a larger sample size of course.
The same can’t be said for Tkachuk, as the Flames are actually stronger defensively with Tkachuk on the ice compared to when he’s not on the ice.
No matter what model or metric you look at, Tkachuk comes out looking stronger defensively than Lindholm. His per 60 rates in the RAPM model are much better, his underlying metrics are better, his isolated 5v5 impacts are better, and his 5v5 on ice impact in terms of average goals is better on defence.
Impact on teammates
Another talking point recently has been that Lindholm is the driver of the Flames’ top line, and that his impact on Tkachuk is much larger than the other way around. Let’s take a look at why that is also not the case.
First let’s tale a look at the top line and see how their numbers are impacted without Tkachuk, and without Lindholm. All numbers are 5v5, score- and venue-adjusted.
|Gaudreau – Lindholm – Tkachuk||652:46||60.76||62.05||61.95|
|Tkachuk and Gaudreau w/o Lindholm||51:54||74.18||73.72||79.27|
|Lindholm and Gaudreau w/o Tkachuk||33:55||30.70||30.83||49.33|
Now these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt considering the small sample size, however they stand out in a big way regardless. The Flames’ top line is dominant, but without Tkachuk, their numbers fall off a cliff. More so, without Lindholm the lines numbers actually increase. Again, it’s a small sample size but the clear-cut difference in the numbers certainly can’t be disregarded.
This isn’t to say the top line would be better without Lindholm, because that’s obviously not the case. It’s more to show who is the most important piece on the line. It’s not a coincidence that Gaudreau and Lindholm’s numbers suffer without Tkachuk. If Lindholm was driving the line, Tkachuk and Gaudreau wouldn’t see their numbers go up without him.
Another tool to judge the impact of a player on his teammates is WOWY (with or without you) courtesy of HockeyViz.com. Let’s take a look at Tkachuk’s WOWY from the 2021–22 season.
If that doesn’t drive home the point, I’m not sure what will. Both Lindholm and Gaudreau benefit in a massive way from playing with Tkachuk. With him, they’re in the upper tier of both xGA/60 and xGA/60, but without him, they see their numbers plummet in those metrics. In other words Lindholm is elevated in a big way by playing with Tkachuk.
Tkachuk meanwhile goes from the upper tier in both metrics with Lindholm… to the upper tier in both metrics when away from Lindholm. That is to say, Tkachuk is elite at both ends with or without Lindholm. The only player that Tkachuk is truly elevated by is Gaudreau, as both Tkachuk’s offence and defence takes a step backwards without him.
If we look at Lindholm’s WOWY it tells a similar story.
There is one major observation here that we didn’t already see on Tkachuks WOWY. Unlike when he is away from Tkachuk, Gaudreau actually sees almost no change to his xGF/60 and xGA/60 when without Lindholm. Again, it drives home the fact of who has the biggest impact on the Flames top line.
Lindholm sees his numbers suffer without Tkachuk, while Tkachuk remains elite at both ends with or without Lindholm. Judging by the numbers above, Tkachuk is the key cog on the top line, and not Lindholm.
Tkachuk is the only choice
I get the infatuation with Lindholm. He’s probably the team’s best centre since Joe Nieuwendyk and is a key player for the Flames. However the recent takes surrounding him have gotten out of control. Claims that he’s the teams best two-way player, and the driver of the top line simply aren’t backed up by any metric or number.
Let’s be certain of one thing, to be holding this debate at all is a very good problem to have. However, the eye test is one thing, actual evidence and numbers are another and the numbers clearly support Tkachuk as the Flames’ best two-way player and driver of the top line, not Lindholm. Until there are actual facts to back up the opposite, Tkachuk holds the crown.
Ahead of tonight’s contest, the bookies have predicted a tight matchup, with Betway Sports pricing the Calgary Flames at +110 and the Washington Capitals at +160 to win the game in regulation, with an overtime decision being priced at +330.