The Calgary Flames iced the NHL’s best line for all 82 games of the 2021–22 season. Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm combined for 124 goals, 177 assists, and 301 points. Of course, two thirds of that elite line are no longer with the team, Lindholm being the last man standing.
The addition of Jonathan Huberdeau effectively replaces Gaudreau on that line, but the remaining question mark is on the right side where Tkachuk skated last season. The prevailing opinion is that Tyler Toffoli will start on the right side of the top line with Lindholm and Gaudreau, but the correct choice is, instead, Andrew Mangiapane.
The role that Tkachuk previously played
The reason why the Flames’ top line last season was so dominant was not only because it featured three elite players, but because their synergy allowed them to achieve more than the sum of their parts. Each player on that line filled a very specific role, and to replicate, or get close to, that level of success this season, the Flames will need to find a new RW that can fill the role vacated by Tkachuk.
Last season, Gaudreau was the primary puck handler and distributor. He was the primary assist machine, but would float around the offensive zone away from the boards. Observers will remember Gaudreau’s one-handed hack at the puck whenever it went near the boards to try and get it deep without engaging in any contact from defenders.
Lindholm was the two-way centre, finding soft spots in and around the slot to convert on Gaudreau’s passes, but also ensuring he was always in position to backcheck since there was a good chance that Tkachuk would be stuck down low and wouldn’t be able to come back and defend if the puck went the other way.
Tkachuk’s role was to get the puck to Gaudreau from the defensive or neutral zones, if he happened to have the puck there, to facilitate the breakout. In the offensive zone, he was a mucker. Tkachuk was tasked with engaging in board battles down low, retrieving pucks, hanging around the net for rebounds or back-door passes, and score goals on the other side. Tkachuk got around his weak skating by having elite vision and hockey IQ, and despite not being the puck carrier he could reliably get the puck to where it needed to be. Tkachuk also played on his off wing, which meant he had to be good on his backhand and able to finish one-timers when the opportunities presented themselves.
The fit that Mangiapane now brings
Mangiapane is the current Flames player who fits that role the best. He’s a natural left winger, but is very talented on his backhand and possesses high finishing skill that should fill in those boxes perfectly. Here’s an incredible rush goal from Mangiapane last season. Notice that he’s breaking into the zone on the right wing, carrying the puck on his backhand, and finishes it off with an absolutely stunning display of backhanded talent.
And here’s another one. Breakout on the backhand, excellent patience and vision to see what was unfolding from the defence and goalie, and then a nice finish.
He’s a great board battler and does not shy away from contact along the wall, winning more than his fair share of puck battles in the corners. The ability to win those battles and retrieve pucks is key to the success of that line, and Mangiapane is adept at doing just that. Mangiapane’s motor and compete level is at 100% every single shift and that’s exactly what this line needs.
Add in Mangiapane’s high hockey IQ and vision, possession and two-way dominance for his whole career, and you basically have a mini version of Tkachuk. Of course, you’re never going to be able to replace Tkachuk as perfectly as Huberdeau will hopefully replace Gaudreau—especially in the offensive zone—but Mangiapane is the next best thing on the roster right now.
With 35 goals last season and a knack for high finishing skill throughout his career, Mangiapane will open up another legitimate scoring threat for Huberdeau to distribute to and give the Flames two lethal weapons in the offensive zone.
What really tips the scales in Mangiapane’s favour for that first line RW role is his two-way play. Tkachuk was almost always the last member of that line to make it back to the defensive zone after a possession change, and it was up to Lindholm and Gaudreau to defend the rush. Mangiapane’s speed and defensive acumen gives the Flames two elite defensive players on that line.
Huberdeau, who hasn’t been a great defensive player in his career thus far, won’t need to pick up all the slack from Gaudreau. Instead, Mangiapane can fill that backchecking role and allow Huberdeau to fully focus on his skillset while on offence.
The data backs up Mangipane
Looking at the player cards from Evolving-Hockey.com, we can see that the skillset of Tkachuk and Mangiapane are extremely similar. Tkachuk is the superior player, but moving Mangiapane up to a primary offensive line with more minutes could bring him even closer to Tkachuk’s level.
Lindholm and Mangiapane also played briefly together at 5v5 last season. The sample size is extremely small so this doesn’t indicate repeatability by this duo, but it’s encouraging at the very least of what they could accomplish together.
In 36:06 TOI, the duo put up 61.90 CF%, 61.76 SCF%, 69.23 HDCF%, and 60.35 xGF%. They outscored their opponents 3–1 as well, which is incredible considering how few minutes they played. There is definitely something there that the Flames should explore.
Line combinations with Mangiapane on the top line do get a little clunky, however. Toffoli would likely play on the second line with Coleman and Backlund. The Flames will still need someone to fill the vacant winger slot on the third line, whether that’s an internal or external hire, and the fourth line will remain intact.
The Flames may go another route with their lines, but they’d be remiss if Mangiapane didn’t get a solid look. Mangiapane fills all the boxes the Flames are looking for on that 1RW slot. He deserves the chance to prove himself on that line and offers more than Toffoli does at this stage of his career.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire