Since joining the Calgary Flames, it’s fair to say Milan Lucic has exceeded expectations. Traded for the much-maligned James Neal in the summer of 2019, Lucic was coming off of a career-low 20 points in 79 games. Expectations were low, to say the least, with most fans simply hoping Lucic would be slightly better value for his enormous contract than Neal was the season prior.
Even with low expectations, it was unclear he could cut it at the NHL level any longer. After all, big power forwards were (and are) becoming less common in favour of faster and more skilled players. But the fresh start in Calgary did him well, and he bounced back with 20 points, this time in only 68 games.
While that jump isn’t huge, it was progress, and it led to an even better season in 2021 where he notched 23 points in 56 games. This season, it looked like more of the same from Lucic to start the year, with a strong start.
Although he has struggled a bit lately, there are aspects of his game that continue to make him an effective depth player, when used in the right role.
Lucic is using size to his advantage
Normally, I wouldn’t worry about a player’s size. It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog, right? But it’s undeniable that Lucic’s hulking frame adds an important element to his game.
Not only do his size and toughness bring energy to the game by engaging the crowd through hits and fights, he also effectively uses his body to forecheck hard and force errors on the part of opposing defensemen. Take this hotly contested play from the most recent edition of the Battle of Alberta:
Philip Broberg is without a doubt the quicker player, and is well ahead of Lucic in the puck race. But instead of winning the race and picking up the puck below the goal line, he (smartly) takes a look over his shoulder to read the play. Identifying the forechecker behind him, Broberg panics.
Not wanting to risk a collision in the boards with Lucic, Broberg attempts to stop up and slow Lucic down away from the boards, just enough for his teammate to pick up the puck. In doing so, he sacrifices possession for his team. This example happened to end with a big hit leading to controversy, but often similar plays occur in which Lucic’s presence forces opposing players to make a mistake, with less dramatic results.
Thinking the game at a high level
Aside from his well known physical presence, an underrated aspect of Lucic’s game is his ability to slow the play down effectively. While this might seem out of step with coach Darryl Sutter‘s constant preaching of the need to play with speed, the reality is Lucic—listed at 231 pounds—simply cannot be expected to push the pace through foot speed.
But “playing fast” isn’t all about foot speed, it’s also about quick passes, which have just as much of an impact on the pace a team plays at. One way Lucic makes up for his lack of foot speed is by making good decisions when passing the puck. Defenders often get sucked in, tempted to pressure the slower player, only to have a pass get through to where they should have been defending.
This clip from Mike Gould is a great demonstration of Lucic making high IQ plays to make up for a lack of foot speed:
Lucic does an excellent job using the tools he has, his stick and his size, to his advantage. Even when not on the puck, he does a good job of finding open ice to make himself an option for his teammates. It’s easy to discount Lucic as a big grinder, there to knock heads around and fight, but in reality, because of his hockey sense, he can be an effective force even when physicality is not called for.
Overall, it’s clear why he has strong defensive results. This graphic from Evolving-Hockey.com breaks down their goals above replacement ratings into their components and produces a rating based on the player’s percentile rank in that category. For Lucic, it’s clear his strong suit is defence, where he ranks in the 81st percentile.
Despite a lack of speed, Lucic’s size and hockey sense allows him to break up passes and recover pucks in his own end. With his relatively small offensive potential, the fact that he adds value defensively is an important part of his game.
Getting the most out of Lucic
Lucic is a fan favourite for all that he brings, from hits to five-hole snipes. That’s why it’s particularly unfortunate to see him struggling lately, holding down the fort in the bottom-six. His recent opportunity with Toffoli and Monahan had a lot of potential, but Lucic has been pointless on that line, and in his last ten games overall.
Part of the problem, despite the addition of a scoring talent like Toffoli, is the lack of speed among Calgary’s bottom-six. Considering the strengths of Lucic’s game are playing heavy and slowing the game down, it seems unfortunate to pair him with two other players who struggle in the same department.
This chart from HockeyViz.com shows the impact Lucic has on his teammates expected goals rates.
Up in the top right, two players stand out as benefitting from Lucic as a linemate, Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane. Notably, two of the team’s faster forwards. At the other end of the spectrum, slower players like Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis have struggled on lines with Lucic.
With what we know about Lucic as a player, and what type of player the data shows he meshes well with, it seems like the best way to get Lucic going is to get him with some quicker teammates. As a duo, Lucic and Dube have an impressive 66% expected goals percentage at 5v5. As a trio with Monahan, that falls to a still impressive 60% (expected goals data is taken at 5v5 and score- and venue-adjusted, from NaturalStatTrick).
What might reignite Lucic
While it’s certainly hard to complain about the Flames’ performance of late, it’s fair to say the bottom-six hasn’t been the driver of that success. By reconnecting Lucic with Dube, the Flames could (hopefully) reignite Lucic’s offense, as well as find some more stability at the bottom of the roster.
For Lucic personally as well as the team, let’s hope it happens.
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