Flames’ Success Hinges on a Resurgence from Sean Monahan

The Calgary Flames are taking a wager on Sean Monahan this season by hoping he can refind his form. The Monahan of old was a solid 30 goal scorer and elite sniper. If he can be that player, he is a very valuable member of a team sorely lacking firepower. However, he is coming off a very poor season and has been struggling mightily to find his footing over the last two NHL seasons. If he continues to decline and produce lacklustre even-strength results, as he has the past two seasons, he creates a hole in the Flames’ lineup.

Monahan has never been an elite, true number one skater down the middle, but his goal-scoring ability has often counterbalanced his deficiencies, particularly those on the defensive side of the game. When he’s not scoring, he does not move the needle in any area of the game. It’s an issue that has, undoubtedly, been causal in Calgary’s struggles over the last two seasons of hockey. The Flames desperately need a massive resurgence from the soon-to-be 27-year-old. In fact, their success may hinge on it. Calgary ranked in the bottom third of the league in terms of goals scored last year. If they have any hope to return to the playoffs, he will need to be a vital contributor.

Monahan’s Drop-Off Has Been Steep

Monahan’s drop-off has been incredibly marked. Spanning 2017-2019, the Brampton native was a very strong offensive player. He recorded 65 goals cumulatively over that time span, good for 21st league-wide, and using Evolving Hockey’s model, ranked in the 92nd percentile of forwards in terms of goals above replacement. He also led the Flames in total goals, expected goals, and high danger chances at five on five and was the team’s co-leader in power-play goals over the two-season span. His ability to create scoring chances in dangerous areas was unquestionably strong. When healthy, his goal-scoring ability is up there with the best in the league. In fact, even with his recent downturn, he ranks 17th league-wide in total goals since 2013 with 204 tallies.

Following a career year in 2018-19, however, Monahan’s effectiveness and ability to score goals cratered. Over the last two shortened campaigns, the Flames top trigger man had suddenly vanished.

The core issue is that Monahan’s game has always been quite one-dimensional. If he isn’t scoring, he’s a defensive liability who does not provide much value in other areas. Based on his raw stats, impact, and rate states, it is clear his ability to create offence has nosedived over the last two seasons.

2017-20195v5 Metric Per 60 Minutes2019-2021
0.93Primary Assists/600.62
0.48Secondary Assists/600.36
7.82Shots For/607.19
13.4Shot Attempts/6011.4
0.93Expected Goals/600.83
5v5 Data from Evolving Hockey

Certainly, he’s not alone amongst prominent Flames who have seen their impact dip since the 2018-19 season, in which the team scored at will and won 50 games, but his rapid decline has been the most notable and pervasive.

Injuries Are Surely a Factor

What is responsible for Monahan’s precipitous decline? It’s a vexing question but one that must have an answer in Monahan’s lengthy history of injuries, most of which he has played through. He hasn’t missed much game-action but has sustained significant damage over the last half-decade. He has undergone a plethora of procedures since 2017 including two surgeries on his wrist, double hernia surgery, and groin surgery. This past season a hip injury cut his year short and required another operation over the summer.

Sean Monahan Calgary Flames
Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Surely, the grind and health issues have weighed heavily in his decline. For a player whose game is predicated on shooting with pinpoint precision in the slot, two wrist surgeries do not bode well for the future. Monahan’s hip issues may have impeded his skating and puck carrying ability as well. He hasn’t carried the puck very much at all and his duties as a centre have mostly been outsourced to his linemates. He has dragged down Johnny Gaudreau’s production and effectiveness as well over the last few seasons.

Is a Monahan Resurgence Possible?

The biggest knock against Monahan’s ability to re-find his form is that it has been nearly three years since he has been a truly effective player. Conversely, there is a historical precedent for the pivot to bounce back after offseason surgeries. Following the 2018 offseason, in which he underwent four procedures, a reconstructed Monahan put in a career year, recording 82 points in 78 games over the 2018-19 campaign. 

Age is also a consideration. Monahan turns 27 in a few short weeks. It is feasible that, at his age, he can at least correct his downward trajectory for a few more seasons and find his goal-scoring ability once again.

Could Monahan Expand His Role?

Last year, Flames head coach Darryl Sutter started to expose Monahan to different situations, including usage on the penalty kill, perhaps in an attempt to grow his game. It would be a massive transformation given that he hasn’t shown he can provide much two-way value over the course of his career. In a smaller sample of games this past year, however, his defensive game did creep towards improvement, specifically under Sutter’s system.

5v5 Data From Evolving Hockey

Forcing a player whose skill set is firmly rooted in goal scoring to play defensive hockey may not be the best strategy. However, if Sutter’s Flames can help Monahan diversify his game rendering him more effective in all areas of the ice, he could carve out a new and important role on the team.

Despite his goal-scoring woes, Sutter went out of his way to voice his praise for Monahan (from ‘Despite scoring woes, Flames coach Sutter has high praise for Monahan’, Calgary Sun, 04/11/2021). The coach certainly believes Monahan is capable of evolving his game.

He can be a really good all-around player and still make a good contribution to the team. It’s not necessarily that it always has to be based on goals and assists for somebody like that.

Darryl Sutter on Sean Monahan

It’s a Gamble the Flames Need to Pay Off

If Monahan cannot get his game back on track it will create a big problem, for the Flames in the immediate. A declining Monahan likely has little trade value in his current state. The fact his limited no-trade clause just kicked and he carries a $6.35 million price tag would not help the Flames move him if necessary. It also creates a huge slotting problem for the current forward group and renders an already thing centre group even more shallow. 

For Monahan to have a contributing role on this team, he either needs to have a massive resurgence in terms of his ability to manufacture offence, or he needs to fundamentally expand his on-ice contributions. Either way, the Flames need goal-scoring desperately, and he is one of the few skaters capable of doing that consistently. A Flames team starved for offence can’t just hope he finds his game again; they require it. It might be the biggest question mark heading into the 2021-22 season.

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