Calgary Flames: Milan Lucic’s Decline

In hockey, the trends of play from each individual are generally similar. Take a year or two to get adjusted to the league, hit your prime for x amount of years, and slowly begin to decline as age and/or injuries get to you. Sometimes, however, certain players decline comes at such a rapid pace that it makes people think, “What happened?” Such is the case for now Calgary Flames forward Milan Lucic.

Milan Lucic
Milan Lucic (Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)

Due to his lack of production combined with his heavy cap hit, Lucic has been a lightning rod for criticism the past few seasons, making it hard to remember just how dominant he once was. There was even a time he was considered a top 50 player in the league. In his prime, every team in the league would have lined up to grab him, as he was a player who could protect your star players and also had the skill to play on a line with them.

Lucic Was an Off the Board Draft Pick

In the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, many were surprised when the Boston Bruins selected Lucic with the 50th overall pick. He certainly lacked the numbers to suggest he was a second-round talent, as he put up just nine goals and 10 assists during his draft year with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL.

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There were also questions about his skating, as he was known as a big body who struggled to get around the ice. One thing he did have going for him was his toughness, as the hulking left winger put up 149 penalty minutes that season. Whatever it was that made the Bruins decide to select Lucic that day, they absolutely nailed it, as the pick likely turned out even better than they could have imagined.

Career Started Slowly

After being drafted, Lucic spent just one more season with the Giants. He vastly improved and became nearly a point per game player, while still maintaining his intimidating presence as he racked up a nearly identical 147 penalty minutes. Due to his big improvements, the Boston Bruins decided to keep him with the team the following season. He had an okay rookie season with eight goals and 27 points, but it was the next season where he truly began to establish himself as the league’s best power forward.

Milan Lucic
Milan Lucic (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

The next season saw Lucic put up 42 points along with a career-high 136 penalty minutes, and it was then that he became a Boston fan-favourite. Whether it was hitting, fighting, or scoring, he could simply do it all. He was an absolute force around the league, which included two seasons over 60 points, one of those coming with 30 goals. Even better was a Stanley Cup championship during the 2010-11 season, which he played a massive role in as he put up 12 points and was his normal physical self throughout.

Traded to the Kings

After a frustrating 2014-15 season for Lucic and the Bruins which saw them miss the playoffs, he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. It should be noted that at the time of the trade he had just one year left on his contract, so perhaps the Bruins made the deal knowing they were not willing to pay what he would command on the free-agent market. Regardless, he moved on to the Kings where he continued to be the same dominant power forward, posting 20 goals and 55 points in 81 regular-season games.

Milan Lucic
Milan Lucic in L.A. (Photo By: Andy Martin Jr)

Unfortunately for him and his teammates, they were eliminated in just five games by the San Jose Sharks. The ending of the season meant that he had some big decisions to make, as he had become a free agent.

Lucic Signs with the Edmonton Oilers

On July 1, 2016, Lucic reunited with the general manager he had won a Stanley Cup with in Boston and agreed to a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Edmonton Oilers. This was a massive signing for the Oilers as he was regarded as the number one free agent that summer. Unfortunately for him and the team, it never worked out as planned.

Start of the Decline

His first year actually went quite well, as he put up 23 goals and 50 points, while also being one of the leaders on an Oilers team that went to the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. It was after that first season that things started falling apart for Lucic. Over the next two seasons, he played 161 games while putting up just 16 goals and 54 points.

Oilers forward Milan Lucic
Oilers forward Milan Lucic (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

By the end of his third season, fans and management alike had soured on him, but there was not a lot that could be done. His no-movement clause made it impossible to send him to the AHL, and the way his contract was structured would’ve put the Oilers in a tough position salary cap-wise for years to come if they were to go the buyout route. The only other option was the possibility of a trade, and they were eventually able to find a trading partner in the Calgary Flames.

Dealt for James Neal

This past offseason, on July 19, Oilers fan’s wishes came true when the team announced they had traded Lucic to the Calgary Flames. Coming back to the Oilers was forward James Neal, who had also struggled immensely the previous season. The Flames said they brought him in as a physical presence for their next playoff run, but were likely hoping a chance of scenery would also bring back some of his old scoring touch.

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That hasn’t happened to this point, as he has continued to struggle to put up numbers with just six goals and 17 points through 62 games. Which again brings us back to the same question. What happened?

Lucic No Longer Able to Keep Up

Watching Lucic play the last few years can be extremely frustrating. His hands always appear to be an issue, as the play often seems to die on his stick, many times due to his inability to handle passes. However, people who have watched Lucic even when he was in his prime will tell you he never relied on his hands to score goals, but his size and strength which he would use to bulldoze his way to the net.

Milan Lucic Calgary Flames
Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That seems to be the problem now. Although never considered fast, he still had enough speed to be able to drive pucks to the net. As he has gotten older and slowed down some, the game has gotten quicker and quicker each year, pushing Lucic and players with styles similar to his out of the league.

Will Lucic Rediscover His Game?

At this point and time, it doesn’t seem likely we will see the Lucic of old, simply based on the fact that he hasn’t given any reason to think differently. It also doesn’t help his case that he is averaging just 13:23 of ice time per game while playing mainly on the third line with Derek Ryan and Dillon Dube. As great as it would be for Lucic and the Flames if he was able to recapture his old form, it isn’t likely to happen.