Now entering the second half of the 2022–23 season, the Calgary Flames continue to struggle to cement themselves as a playoff team. After a 2021–22 season full of outstanding individual performances across the board, this season has been the complete opposite. There aren’t many players on the roster who have stood out this season, with most of the team still trying to find their game.
That said, there have been at least a couple players who have stood out for the right reasons—and some for the wrong reasons. Now at the midway point of the season, let’s hand out some Flames midseason awards.
MVP – Mikael Backlund
As usual, Mikael Backlund is quietly having an outstanding season. He doesn’t get the headlines or attention that some of the team’s star players get, but he’s without question been the Flames’ most consistent and best forward this season. He may not have the point totals that some other forwards do, but his overall two-way game has been nothing short of elite. Take a look at where he ranks among all Flames in the below key offensive metrics. All numbers are 5v5, score- and venue-adjusted courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
|Offensive Metric||Mikael Backlund Team Rank|
Outside of GF/60, Backlund ranks top three in every other key metric. He’s been a force this season driving play and creating chances for him and his teammates. Whenever he’s on the ice, the Flames have a better chance to score than the opposition. Backlund makes whoever he’s on the ice with better every night. That’s the textbook definition of an MVP. Here’s a better look at how his teammates fare with or without him at 5v5 courtesy of HockeyViz.com.
As good as he has been at driving play, he’s been perhaps even better defensively. He’s a legitimate Selke candidate this year. Dom Luszczyszyn listed Backlund as the current frontrunner for the Selke award earlier this month. Here’s how he ranks among Flames players in key defensive metrics this season.
|Defensive Metric||Mikael Backlund Team Rank|
Outside of Jonathan Huberdeau ranking ahead of him for HDCA/60, Backlund leads the way in every other metric. He’s been that good defensively this season. As always, the Flames can count on him in any situation at any point in the game. With him they’ve been a an elite team defensively. Without him it’s been a much difference story. Take a look.
Backlund is quite literally a black hole defensively. When he’s on the ice the Flame aren’t giving up much of anything. When he’s on the bench they’re bleeding way more chances and expected goals against. If only the Flames could roll out a Backlund on every line. As mentioned his point totals don’t stand out, but he does still rank fifth on the team among forwards for points. Combine that with his elite underlying numbers, especially defensively and he’s by far been the Flames MVP in the first half.
Breakout player – Adam Ruzicka
The hype around Adam Ruzicka has died off considerably in recent weeks as he’s been buried on the team’s fourth line. That said, we can’t forget just how good he looked when given an opportunity in the top-six. Ruzicka was firmly on the roster bubble going into training camp and far from a lock to even make the big club this season. There certainly weren’t high expectations on him this season, if any at all.
Coming into the season Ruzicka had only played 31 games in his career, posting five goals and 11 points. Had he played four fewer games in 2021–22, he would’ve still been considered a rookie this season. Despite making the roster out of camp, he didn’t even get into his first game until November 1, and only played 5:33 that night. From there though he was given an elevated role in the lineup and never looked back. Over his next 24 games, Ruzicka would light up the scoresheet posting 20 points in 24 games. The 20 points over that stretch nearly doubled his career total from the past two seasons.
As well, across those 24 games Ruzicka’s 20 points ranked third on the Flames behind only Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli. Not bad for someone who wasn’t even a lock to make the team. On a nightly basis, he was one of the team’s more reliable forwards when it came to producing offence.
Unfortunately he’s found his way into Sutter’s doghouse for unknown reasons, and has since gone pointless in his last 11 games. Here’s the thing though, that’s likely more a case of his situation in the lineup than his own play. During his stretch of 20 points in 24 games, he was averaging 13:09 TOI a night, the ninth most among Flames forwards. He was also playing primarily with Lindholm and Toffoli in the top-six.
During his 11 game pointless streak he’s averaging 10:23, the second lowest total among current Flames forwards ahead of only Walker Duehr. He’s also now primarily playing with a combination of Trevor Lewis, Brett Ritchie, and Duehr on the team’s fourth line. Not exactly a recipe for success for a skilled young player. Despite this he’s still posted solid underlying numbers across the board this season. Take a look courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com.
If given a fair opportunity in the lineup, I have no doubt Ruzicka can start to contribute again. His production when given a chance with other skilled players was nearing a point-per-game pace and he’s the perfect pick for breakout player from the first half of the season.
Most disappointing player – Jonathan Huberdeau
This was the toughest award to decide, which is a perfect description of the Flames season thus far. It seems like nearly every player on the team has had a disappointing year, but some more than others. Both Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom had huge expectations on them this season after their tremendous 2021–22 seasons. Both have been incredibly underwhelming this year.
However given the massive contract he recently signed and the player he was acquired for, Huberdeau takes the title of most disappointing player from the first half in my books. Last season Huberdeau posted the second highest point total in the NHL with 115 points, tied with Johnny Gaudreau. That earned him the fifth most votes for the Hart trophy. After a massive blockbuster that brought him to Calgary, he then signed the richest deal in franchise history at $10.5 million AAV for the max eight years. Understandably so the expectations were sky-high coming into the season.
Huberdeau has failed to reach those expectations, and then some. As it stands he currently has just 31 points in 43 games. With 39 games to go, his current pace puts him on track to post just 59 points. That total would be the lowest he’s posted in a full season since 2015–16 when he had 59 points in 76 games. It’s also a whopping 56 points off his 2021–22 total. I don’t think anyone expected him to reach 115 points again, but to have a drop off that big is a massive disappointment.
He currently ranks fourth on the Flames in scoring and 112th in the NHL. To go from the highest scoring forward in the NHL not named Connor McDavid to sitting outside the top 100 in scoring is a tremendous fall from grace. The good news is there’s still plenty of season to go, and Huberdeau has been better recently at least. Over his last 26 games he has 22 points, which is a 69-point pace in a full season. Better, but still well short of expectations.
There’s also the fact he’s battled injuries this season and had to play with less than ideal linemates for large parts of the year. Not to make excuses for him but those two things play a big factor in production. Another positive aspect is that his defensive game has gone from a weakness to a strength this season. The problem is his offensive game has struggled because of this.
There’s no doubt that the talent is there for Huberdeau because talent like his doesn’t just evaporate one year to the next. The problem is we’ve only seen it in flashes so far this season and we’re now over halfway done 2022–23. He still has plenty of time to turn this season around and not make it a complete disappointment, but he better act fast.
Troy Brouwer Award – Milan Lucic
I’ve included one brand new award. The “Troy Brouwer Award” awarded to the forward who routinely gets top-six minutes despite not deserving them. Long live the #Brouwerplay. Milan Lucic is the runaway favourite for this one. Despite posting just five goals in his last 101 games played for the Flames, Lucic has regularly found a home in the team’s top-six. Like Brouwer before him, the decision makes little to no sense.
Since December 15, Lucic is averaging 13:57 TOI a game. He’s currently 13th in team scoring and dead last among regular Flames forwards. Despite this, he’s cemented a spot in the Flames top-six for over a month. The Lucic, Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri line has spent 156.5 minutes together at even strength and sits with a 48.5 xGF%. That number is last among all Flames lines with at least 150 minutes together.
Lucic is currently 383rd in the NHL for points, and 350th for goals. Despite this he’s been playing nearly 14 minutes a game for the past month. There is no player more deserving of this award than Lucic.
A disappointing first-half
When the list of options for most disappointing player is much longer than the options for MVP, it’s been a rough first half of the season. The Flames have struggled to have any player stand out this season, although Backlund and Ruzicka deserve some praise for what they’ve accomplished so far. If the likes of Huberdeau and Markstrom are once again in contention for most disappointing player come years end, the Flames likely won’t be in a playoff spot.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire