There are a lot of things going right for the Calgary Flames so far this season. The second line of Andrew Mangiapane, Nazem Kadri, and Dillon Dube have been exceptional to start the year, Milan Lucic looks like a man possessed at this point in the season, and the Flames have been finding a way to win four of their first five games against some very tough opponents.
The Flames’ first line struggles
The one area that has really been an area of struggle has been the team’s top line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Elias Lindholm, and Tyler Toffoli, who have struggled to build anything at 5v5. And while most expected it to be Toffoli who struggled most on the line, he has appeared to be the bright spot so far. Let’s break their underlying numbers down individually to better understand the issue. All numbers from NaturalStatTrick.com.
|5v5 TOI||5v5 Points||CF%||SCF%||HDCF%||xGF%|
Huberdeau’s underlying numbers through five games are not bad. They could definitely be better, but he’s been pretty close to an even possession player to this point in the season. The problem has been his 5v5 production. Given he’s coming off of a 115-point season, it is quite low so far.
Two big points stand out with Huberdeau to this point. First has been his two-way game, which has been a bit of a work in progress. He noted earlier this season the difference in adjusting from a zone system to a man-to-man system and how that has changed the way he plays his game. If Sutter could teach Johnny Gaudreau how to play defence, it’s only a matter of time before Huberdeau learns as well.
The more concerning issue is his unwillingness to shoot the puck. Huberdeau has transitioned to being a pure playmaker on this line, forcing every play to be a passing one as opposed to shooting the puck. Through five games, Huberdeau has just seven 5v5 shot attempts. That’s second last on the team, with only Kevin Rooney recording fewer among regular skaters. That’s a problem.
Huberdeau was brought in both for his incredible playmaking ability but also for his ability to shoot the puck and create chances on net. He’s been quite decent at the former, making numerous outstanding passes, but has really struggled with the latter. Once Huberdeau decides to be more selfish with the puck, it feels like he will break out of this funk.
Lindholm has been the scapegoat for the Flames’ top line struggles this season, and it is no small wonder why when you look at these numbers. He has finished in the bottom five on the team in every statistical category and is the only Flame to not be on the ice for a single goal for at 5v5. Yikes!
Even compared to his linemates, Lindholm’s numbers are substantially worse than expected, and while his numbers were worse than both linemates Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk last season, him being this far underwater is not a good sign at all.
Like Huberdeau, Lindholm really isn’t getting as many shots off as expected. He has just nine shot attempts so far this season at 5v5, but unlike Huberdeau, most of his shot attempts have been from high scoring areas like right in front of the net. His three high-danger chances for puts him third on the team in this category. This is also while also being the defensive anchor on the line.
Last season, Lindholm was much more of a shooter on his line, tallying 25 goals at 5v5. With Huberdeau as the distributor, the hope is that he will continue to put points on the board this year. He just needs to keep getting shots off to be successful.
I think the big question on this line was always going to be Toffoli. He was expected to be the goal scorer on a line of an elite playmaker and an elite two-way centre while being a good-not-exceptional player. His top-line speed and two-way play were probably going to make him a bit of a liability. Thankfully, he has actually been decent with this group, and has been serviceable at putting points on the board.
Toffoli—like Huberdeau—has been around a positive possession player, falling on the wrong side of two of the four metrics in a small sample size. However, on the ice he’s been solid, generating a number of scoring chances and good plays that have helped the Flames remain competitive so far this season.
Individually, Toffoli is in the top five on the team in terms of individual scoring chances and individual high-danger chances for so far this season. He has been the beneficiary of most of the passes from Huberdeau and Lindholm, but has struggled to score on those chances, though.
There are only so many high-danger chances you can take before they have to start going in, but it does begin to beg the question of the impact he is having relative to being a passenger with two good linemates.
Toffoli is starting to look quite good for the Flames, especially of late after scoring the overtime winner against the Carolina Hurricanes. He has shown he has a lot of the tools that the team needs to be successful, and with an elite winger on one side and a defensively responsible centre in the middle, this line should work quite well.
Calgary’s first line altogether
However, despite how Toffoli has been good enough to start the season, the line just simply has not been great together. Looking at the numbers, it looks like a role definition issue. The team has made Huberdeau into solely a playmaker, who is responsible for just feeding his linemates and getting them to score.
Toffoli is expected to be the finisher on the line, and the numbers back that up to this point. He has been generally decent in this role, but the Flames need to find a better winger on the trade market. For the time being, however, he has been quite fine.
The problem seems to be Lindholm, who seems to struggle without a clear role at this point. He hasn’t been as strong defensively, nor has he been generating looks with the same frequency as he did last season. And with such strong roles for his two linemates, having to be basically the everyman has been problematic to this point.
This is not to say Lindholm is the source of the Flames’ woes on the top line, but rather to say that the Flames need to redefine the way they craft this line, allowing Huberdeau to shoot the puck more and have Lindholm be as much of a distributor as a finisher as well. The line seems to operate as three individuals with three individual jobs without realizing that everyone needs to work together for this line to function.
This is the joy of developing chemistry on a line; sometimes it takes a bit of time and a bit of perspective for it all to work out. The good news is that there are still 77 games left in the schedule, and the Flames will need these three to figure out how to play effectively together if they hope to add 16 more postseason wins to hoist the Stanley Cup.