Just over five weeks into his tenure as a Calgary Flame, Milan Lucic was ready to hang up the skates for good. It’s almost been a full year since a very open and honest appearance on Hockey Night in Canada’s After Hours revealed just how unhappy the big winger was with his rough start to the 2019-20 season. The wide-ranging interview also covered the immense pressure that came with swapping teams with James Neal and his soured relationship with former head coach Bill Peters.
“Nothing was said to me by anyone,” Lucic explained to After Hours host Scott Oake. “And I wasn’t really happy about it. I even started questioning whether I should just hang ‘em up, you know? It just wasn’t fun for me anymore. And it had nothing to do with James Neal having success. It was just really hard. Especially when you’re getting benched and nobody’s saying anything to you.”
A New Head Coach Made a World of Difference
Lucic credits the team’s coaching change in late November 2019 for giving him a new lease on his hockey life. The 32-year-old winger had a previous relationship with Geoff Ward from his years playing for the Boston Bruins and gives full marks to the Flames’ current head coach for giving him the fresh start that he desperately needed. Hockey became fun again, but with an annual cap hit of $6,000,000, Lucic was well aware that his on-ice performance would always be under the microscope. The Vancouver, BC native was out to prove that he was more than just a bad contract.
The rest of the 2019-2020 season saw Lucic play some very solid hockey skating alongside veteran center Derek Ryan and youngster Dylan Dube. In 68 regular-season games played, the burly forward scored eight goals and added 12 assists for 20 points, but we didn’t see his best work as a Flame until he was placed on the third line with Sam Bennett in the Stanley Cup playoff bubble in Edmonton. Along with Dube, the trio was probably the team’s best unit in the play-in series against the Winnipeg Jets.
While the Flames bowed out in six games to the eventual Western Conference champion Dallas Stars in the first round, Lucic’s strong playoff performance proved that he could still be a useful piece of the puzzle moving forward and expectations were higher for the big man heading into the shortened 2020-21 NHL season.
A Sluggish Start Led to Increased Scrutiny
Being the “six million dollar man” means Lucic has been a lightning rod of controversy and criticism from the moment he first suited up for the Flames, and the hulking forward didn’t do himself any favors beating back the naysayers after a very shaky start to the season. Starting on the fourth line, Lucic seemed to struggle with simple plays along on the boards and had a knack for bad giveaways, including an untimely gaffe that sparked the Winnipeg Jets comeback in the season opener.
Full discloser: I was one of those naysayers who questioned the Flames’ coaching staff for utilizing Lucic on the second power-play unit and as the extra attacker with the goalie pulled. I even asked if he should be booted from the starting lineup and relegated to the taxi squad. In my most recent Flames Weekly piece, I wrote “Ward seems to have unwavering faith in the big galoot… giving him repeated chances to redeem himself.”
A Roster Shake-up Sparked the Bounce Back for Lucic
Well, it seems the head coach’s faith in Lucic was actually warranted. After an injury to Ryan forced the team to reshuffle the forward lines, No. 17 found himself skating with Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane in last Saturday’s Battle of Alberta, and the results speak for themselves. The “big galoot” had his first multi-point showing of the season and the Backlund line had a breakout game. Talk about redemption.
Lucic followed up his best game of the season with a repeat performance in Tuesday’s tilt against the Jets, where a timely assist helped propel the revamped “3M line” to another great night. Since being promoted to the top nine, the second year Flame has been excelling at digging pucks out and creating space, giving his new linemates more room to operate. While he’s always been good defensively, Lucic has also shown more finesse with his playmaking and passing than I had been giving him credit for.
One could argue that teaming up with one of the Flames’ hottest players in Mangiapane, and arguably the team’s best two-way center is the obvious reason for the resurgence. It’s true that Backlund has a history of making those around him better – just ask former Flames Joe Colborne and Lance Bouma, who had career years skating with the steadfast Swede. However, a closer look at Lucic’s advanced stats shows he is quietly having a very solid 2020-21 campaign, and he should be recognized for an impressive first quarter of the season.
Lucic’s Advanced Stats Reveal a Well-Rounded Game
Before we dive into the world of complicated hockey metrics, a cursory glance at Lucic’s “old fashioned” stats tells me the imposing winger is currently on pace to outperform his previous four NHL seasons. After 13 games, he’s posted three goals and three assists for six points – averaging almost a half-point a game, which Lucic hasn’t accomplished since his 2016-17 season with the Edmonton Oilers.
While linemate Mangiapane is currently leading the Flames in all of these advanced statistical categories, Lucic is certainly no slouch, beating out such top six forwards as Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
- Corsi for% (57.21%) 5th on team
- Fenwick for% (58.23%) 3rd on team
- Shots for% (52.55%) 5th on team
- Expected goals for% (63.22%) 4th on team
- Scoring chances for% (62.04%) 4th on team
- High-danger scoring chances for% (65.00%) 2nd on team
Sustained Success From Lucic Would Help Balance Flames’ Roster
It’s easy (and completely lazy) to look at Lucic and dismiss him as a one-dimensional player – a big, physical presence who can no longer provide the offensive punch he was once known for. Don’t forget, this is a Stanley Cup winner and a former 30-goal scorer who can still supply some much-needed offense from time to time. Ward was an assistant coach with the Bruins during Lucic’s heyday and is convinced the big man still has a lot to offer. In yesterday’s media availability before the first of four consecutive contests against the Vancouver Canucks, the head coach heaped more praise on the left winger:
“There’s a comfort level there with me, with him, just based on our history together. He’s got the ability to give a huge emotional boost to a team at any particular point in a hockey game.”
Whether it’s a big goal, a big hit, or a big fight – there are multiple ways Lucic can contribute to the team’s success and move the needle. It’s also no secret that he’s taken on a leadership role within this group, mentored some of the young guys and is a very popular figure in the room. GM Brad Treliving once described Lucic as a “big presence who people gravitate to”, and that goes a long way to explaining why many Flames’ faithful have also embraced the tough-as-nails forward. Back when the Saddledome was filled with spectators, loud chants of LOOOOOOCH would rain down whenever he touched the puck.
Of course, not everyone is a fan, as there will always be the “Lucic-haters” who look at his hefty price tag and want to make him the scapegoat for anything and everything that goes wrong with the Flames. While his game may never return to the career highs he enjoyed while playing with the Bruins, I think we can expect a lot more from LOOCH this season. I’ve already counted out the big galoot once. I won’t make the same mistake twice.