With yet another big game from the Calgary Flames’ top line on Thursday night in San Jose, the Flames have all but guaranteed they finish first in the Pacific Division. Almost no one could have ever predicted just how successful the Flames would be this year.
Outside of Darryl Sutter, the main reason the Flames have had such high levels of success this year is the play of the top line. Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm have been absolutely dominant all season, and arguably the best line in the entire NHL.
In particular, Gaudreau and Tkachuk have been tremendous as they have carried the Flames to first in the Pacific Division. Despite this, it seems like both have been dismissed or left out of Hart Trophy talk for most of the season.
Despite what the media may tell you, both Gaudreau and Tkachuk should be contenders for the Hart trophy and both should have a real chance to win it.
Calgary’s top line dominance
As mentioned, the Flames’ top line has been perhaps the best line in the entire NHL this season. Led by Gaudreau and Tkachuk, the line has put up some elite numbers so far this season. Take a look courtesy of MoneyPuck.com. League rank is among lines with at least 300 minutes TOI this season.
|Stat||Gaudreau – Lindholm – Tkachuk||League rank|
The line ranks top four in every metric, and in particular has generated the most xGF in the entire league. Along with the Maple Leafs’ top line of Mitch Marner, Michael Bunting, and Auston Matthews, the Flames top line is the only other line to rank top four in each metric.
If we look at overall goal production, it paints a similar picture.
|Stat||Gaudreau – Lindholm – Tkachuk||League rank|
Unexpectedly, the line also ranks first in the NHL for actual goals for, as they do for expected goals for. The trio has been on the ice for 64 goals, and only 27 against. The +37 difference is tops in the league by a wide margin. Their GF/60 is second to only the Maple Leafs’ top line. However, the Flames’ top line is the only one in the NHL to rank at least top six in all three metrics.
Their impacts at both ends of the ice have been, in a word, preposterous, as Micah Blake McCurdy described them. The line is being thrown to the wolves with only 14% OZ usage compared to 13% DZ usage, which isn’t the case for some other top lines in the league.
Gaudreau’s offence is on another level
Offensively, Gaudreau has without question been the Flames’ best player this season and one of the best forwards in the entire NHL. His 99 points have already tied his career best set back in 2018–19, and he still has 10 games to go. At his current pace he would put up 114 points in 82 games.
At 114 points, it would be the second best season in Flames franchise history behind only Kent Nilsson who had 131 points in 1980–81. The last Flames player to put up at least 100 points in a season was Theoren Fleury, all the way back in 1992–93.
Here’s where Gaudreau currently ranks league wide in some major statistical categories. Numbers are courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
As we all know, Gaudreau’s point production has been absurd this season. With one more point, he’ll become just the fourth player to reach 100 points this season. His playmaking ability is on another level right now as his 65 assists are fifth league wide, and fourth among forwards.
His 47 primary assists at all strengths are second in the NHL behind only Jonathan Huberdeau who has 49. His current pace of 0.65 primary assists per game is currently the 69th best rate in NHL history in one season. Since the turn of the century, only Joe Thornton, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Huberdeau this season have put up a better rate over the course of a regular season.
The best even strength forward in the NHL
What makes Gaudreau truly stand out and sets him apart from the rest of the league is his production at even strength. Here’s Gaudreau’s totals and league ranks for even strength production.
|ES Primary assists||41||1st|
|ES Primary points||69||1st|
I mean, what else is there to say? Gaudreau has without question been the best player in the NHL at even strength this season. His 41 primary assists at even strength are 12 better than second place Huberdeau—a player who many have ahead of Gaudreau in the Hart trophy race.
His 78 even strength points are seven better than second place Matthews, while his 69 primary points at even strength are nine more than second place Matthews. Only nine of Gaudreau’s 78 points at even strength haven’t been primary points.
On his current pace, he’s set to put up 89 points at even strength. That number would be the highest single season even strength point total since Steve Yzerman had 87 all the way back in 1992–93.
Only 12 players in NHL history have put up more than 89 even strength points in one season. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Jari Kurri, Steve Yzerman, Mike Bossy, Phil Esposito, Jaromir Jagr, Ken Hodge, and Marcel Dionne, Peter Stastny, and Bryan Trottier. Quite the company.
Strong at both ends
Another factor in Gaudreau’s favour has been his strong play in his own zone this season. Typically labelled as a liability in his own zone by certain members of the media, Gaudreau has seen the best defensive results of his career this season. Courtesy of HockeyViz.com, here’s how the Flames have faired in their own zone with Gaudreau on the ice this season.
Gaudreau currently ranks 30th in the NHL among forwards with minimum 750 minutes TOI for CA/60, 37th for xGA/60, and 11th for HDCA/60. Those are some superbly impressive numbers for a player that currently ranks 4th in the NHL in scoring.
He’s doing this all while starting just 55.40% of his shifts at 5v5 in the offensive zone. That number ranks 117th among forwards with 750 minutes TOI this season. Gaudreau and his line are being given some tough circumstances by Sutter, and still coming out on top most shifts
For comparison sake, let’s take a look at Huberdeau who many have ranked ahead of Gaudreau in the Hart race. Spoiler: Huberdeau doesn’t play defence.
Huberdeau ranks 54th for CA/60, 188th for xGA/60, and 219th for HDCA/60 among forwards with 750 minutes TOI this season. Even worse? Huberdeau starts a ridiculous 80.68% of his shifts at 5v5 in the offensive zone. That total is the fifth most in the entire NHL among forwards with 750 minutes TOI. He’s getting incredibly sheltered minutes and still getting caved in in his own zone.
A clear contender
Given Gaudreau’s production this season, especially at even strength, and his strong two-way play there is no question he should be a finalist for the Hart trophy. Simply put, he’s been the best forward in the entire NHL at even strength this season. If that doesn’t warrant a plethora of Hart trophy votes, I’m not sure what would.
Despite Huberdeau’s impressive production, Gaudreau has vastly out produced him when it comes to even strength and primary point production all while playing much tougher minutes. Debating between Matthews and Gaudreau is another discussion, but there’s no question that Gaudreau should firmly finish the season top three in Hart voting. In fact I find it hard to see how he should finish anywhere but first or second at this point. He’s been that good for the Flames this season.