The Calgary Flames dropped just their second game of the season on Saturday, losing a 3–2 heartbreaker to the Edmonton Oilers. Despite a solid performance for most of the game, the Flames couldn’t get the insurance markers they needed to put the Oilers away. One of the main culprits was the top line, as they once again failed to make a major impact at 5v5. Could Darryl Sutter finally be shaking things up?
Calgary’s new lines at practice
If yesterday’s practice is any indication, Sutter may have finally thrown the Flames forward group into the line blender for their upcoming game against the Seattle Kraken tonight. The team practiced with completely new lines from top to bottom, with some interesting pairings to say the least. Let’s take a look at each new forward line and what we should expect from them.
All numbers throughout the article are 5v5, score- and venue-adjusted courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
Jonathan Huberdeau – Nazem Kadri – Andrew Mangiapane
Sutter is giving the people what they want with this line. Not only do we finally get to see first line Andrew Mangiapane, we also get to see the Flames two new major offseason additions play together in Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri. As Meek Mill once said, “I used to pray for times like this”. This is by far the most exciting and promising new trio to debut at practice yesterday.
Huberdeau has had quite the slow start to his Flames career, currently sitting with one single 5v5 assist and no goals at 5v5. He’s posted an okay five points in seven games, but that rate is far behind what is expected of the Flames future $10.5M forward. If the Flames want to have sustained success, they need their new superstar Huberdeau at his best.
There’s no better combination to get Huberdeau going than Kadri and Mangiapane. Both players are high-end play drivers and should help out Huberdeau in a massive way. Both Kadri and Mangiapane are top five among Flames forwards for CF/60, and top three for xGF/60. The trio currently holds down the top three spots on the team for xGF/60.
There’s no telling what #10 and #88 can do together:
Neither Elias Lindholm or Tyler Toffoli are high-end play drivers, which has contributed to Huberdeau’s slow start. He needs a puck carrier on his line and both Kadri and Mangiapane can do that. Combining Mangiapane’s scoring touch with Huberdeau’s elite playmaking could be a deadly combo. Toffoli just doesn’t have the speed and extra step that Mangiapane has. Here’s the two when comparing offensive impact this season courtesy of HockeyViz.com.
If you’ve been watching this team over the past couple seasons, you know that Mangiapane pretty much makes whatever line he is on much better. There’s a reason the Dillon Dube, Kadri, Mangiapane line has been the Flames’ best so far this season. No offence to Dube, but Huberdeau brings a whole other level of skill and talent. Kadri and Mangiapane were already playing great with Dube, just imagine what they could do with Huberdeau.
Milan Lucic – Elias Lindholm – Tyler Toffoli
Everyone please say a prayer for Lindholm. The Flames’ supposed top line centre has gone from playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk to playing with Milan Lucic and Tyler Toffoli in the span of a few months. I just don’t understand the vision from Sutter here when it comes to this line. If there’s any line that showcases just how badly the Flames need more depth on the wing, it’s this one.
Lindholm was already struggling to produce with Toffoli and Huberdeau, so the odds of him turning it around with Lucic stapled to him instead of Huberdeau are slim to none. We’ve been proven wrong by Sutter before, but I just don’t see any way this line stays together longer than a few shifts. Toffoli and Lucic are arguably the two slowest forwards on the roster, leaving Lindholm to be the primary, well everything, on this line. He’s never been one to drive his own line, so putting him with two players who are the opposite of play drivers is an interesting move.
Lucic is currently dead last on the team with an xGF% of 43.46 and an xGF/60 of 2.23. He’s been a positive surprise this season on the fourth line, but more often than not the play dies on his stick. He shouldn’t be anywhere near a second line. In terms of CF/60, Toffoli and Lucic rank 11th and 12th among Flames forwards. Not exactly the best duo to run on a second line.
I don’t know what Lindholm is expected to do with this duo on his wings other than survive until the next shift. He’s not Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, you can’t just plug and play anyone on his wing and expect success. He needs play drivers leading the charge and Lucic and Toffoli are certainly not that. I get the Flames are dangerously thin on the wing, but there has to be a better solution than top-six Lucic, right?
Dillon Dube – Mikael Backlund – Blake Coleman
This should probably be considered the Flames actual second line, although they’ll likely be deployed as a purely shutdown, matchup line. The duo of Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman have looked great together dating back to last season when they have a capable winger with them. With Dube in over Trevor Lewis, they have that again.
Lewis has never been a fit on this line and only drags the dynamic two-way duo of Backlund and Coleman down, so getting him away from them can only mean good things. Last season, when on a line with Lewis the duo posted a CF% of 47.69 across 82 minutes. Away from Lewis? They posted a CF% of 61.71 across 537:57 minutes. It really doesn’t get more clear than that. Now Dube isn’t as strong as their running partner in Mangiapane last season, but he’s still a huge upgrade over Lewis.
Adding Dube’s speed and skill to this line makes it so much more balanced compared to having an eraser type player in Lewis. If they stick together, it’ll be interesting to see how Dube manages playing in such tough minutes as he’s typically struggled in similar roles. Regardless, the line becomes much more competent with Dube over Lewis as he brings a shot of speed to match Coleman’s.
Trevor Lewis – Adam Ruzicka – Brett Ritchie
The Flames fourth line has been the surprise of the season so far, but even they weren’t safe from the line blender. Youngster Adam Ruzicka may finally get his first shot this season to prove he deserves to be a regular in the lineup. Although it was a small sample size, Ruzicka looked very solid during his 28 game rookie season in 2021–22.
Ruzicka stayed above water in terms of CF% and xGF% last season and looked mostly ready to make the jump to the NHL full time. He may not have a high ceiling, but he’s able to inject a lot more skill and upside compared to the player he’s replacing in Kevin Rooney. Rooney has been surprisingly okay in 2022–23, but like Lewis, he offers zero upside.
I never would’ve pictured myself saying this, but Ruzicka and Brett Ritchie could form a solid fourth line duo for the Flames. Ritchie has started 2022–23 on a massive note, already matching his goal output from last season in 34 fewer games. He won’t continue to score at this rate, but he’s shown some surprising scoring touch this season. He currently leads all Flames for G/60, and is seventh for ixG.60. Not bad for a league minimum fourth liner.
If Ruzicka can continue his impressive form from last season, and Ritchie can keep up even a sliver of his offence thus far, the duo could provide the Flames with some depth scoring on the fourth line which is something the Flames haven’t had in forever.
Time for the Flames to experiment
The 2022–23 season is still incredibly young, meaning the perfect time to experiment with new lines and combination is now. The Flames clearly haven’t figured out their perfect combinations just yet, so it makes sense that they want to throw things into the blender and see what works. This likely won’t be the last time Sutter brings out the blender, but hopefully some of the new combinations find some instant chemistry.