When the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers swapped their two worst contracts in the summer of 2019, fans on both sides of the Battle of Alberta collectively rolled their eyes. Could a fresh start for Milan Lucic and James Neal really change the fate of two players who had been lightning rods of controversy in their respective markets? In Neal’s case, the answer was a hard no. He was bought out before the start of the 2021-22 season and is now long gone from the Oilers organization. And Lucic? Well, he’s still grinding it out for the Flames, and is off to his best goal-scoring pace in five years.
Lucic Could Post First 20-Goal Campaign Since 2016-17
With an annual cap hit of $6 million, Lucic is well aware that his on-ice performance and utilization will always be under the microscope. Not many NHL teams are paying fourth liners that kind of money, but the 33-year-old has proven from the get-go that despite the contract concerns, he still provides tangible contributions to the overall success of the team. After potting eight goals his first year in Calgary, the big man upped his total to 10 last season, and he already has six markers in 22 games to start the 2021-22 campaign.
If his current pace holds up, Lucic would score 22 goals this season, which would almost match the 23 he potted in the 2016-17 campaign – the last time he finished with 20 or more. He’s pulled off this impressive start despite playing bottom-six minutes and skating alongside fellow muckers and grinders Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis. It was a couple of weeks into the season before the trio of former Los Angeles Kings officially formed a line in Calgary, but head coach Darryl Sutter (who worked with all of three players in L.A.) singled them out early as poster boys of “Sutter-style” hockey.
During training camp, the Flames’ bench boss talked about how the three role players have earned a reputation of playing the right way in the playoffs. “They have connections with winning and experience and that’s what it is, right?” Sutter told reporters. “If you just look at that one line with Brad, Looch and Trevor — those would be the guys I have connections with, but the connection is, they have four Stanley Cups. This organization needs that.”
Lucic Leads the Flames in Much-Needed Depth Scoring
While it’s certainly debatable if Lucic will actually hit the 20-goal plateau this season, here’s one thing you can’t argue. The big galoot is the only bottom six forward who is actually providing the Flames with consistent secondary scoring. Outside of Calgary’s top four snipers Andrew Mangiapane, Matthew Tkachuk. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, “Looch” is the only one lighting the lamp with regularity.
The 6-foot-3 brute has double the goals of newcomer Blake Coleman, two more than Mikael Backlund and has matched the combined totals of bottom six forwards Dillon Dube, Richardson, Lewis, Tyler Pitlick and Brett Richie. Not too shabby. Lucic probably scored his most important marker of the campaign on Monday night in a tight contest with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Lucic gave the home team the lead midway through the second period after he chipped a stretch pass from Oliver Kylington past a Penguins defender, rumbled along the boards and fired a hard wrister right through Tristan Jarry. It was the big man’s third “five-hole” goal of the year, something he’s actually becoming known for. But, more importantly, it was the only regulation goal the Flames scored in a thrilling 2-1 shootout win.
If you’re a fan of advanced stats, the Vancouver native is also averaging 7.26 shots per 60 minutes and 0.57 individual expected goals (ixG/60) during 5-on-5 play this season (courtesy Natural Stat Trick). That last figure is the fourth best of his career, and his shots per 60 rate is his highest since the 2007-08 season. So, despite not having great speed or fancy dekes in his arsenal, “Looch” continues to find ways to contribute offensively.
“Looch” Has Become a Fan Favorite and Leader in the Dressing Room
You don’t have to wait long for chants of LOOOOOCH to rain down from the rafters at the Scotiabank Saddledome. They start any time he touches the puck, but they really ramp up if Lucic makes a bit hit, drops the gloves or scores another goal. Despite all of the chatter about him being grossly overpaid for the offensive output he provides, the C of Red embraced the former Oiler with open arms almost immediately, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“It is great. I’ve kind of had that going my whole career. So, it’s fun when you hear it. You talk about the fan stuff, and you appreciate the love they have for you as a player and I think this year, it’s not just individuals. You feel the love for the team from the fans here in Calgary.”Milan Lucic, speaking with CalgaryFlames.com
The love fest could also be applied to the entire Flames organization, as general manager Brad Treliving once described Lucic as a “big presence who people gravitate to”. 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. Prior to Monday night’s game, teammate (and occasional linemate) Dube used a question about Sidney Crosby to pay homage to the “legendary Looch”.
Here’s a prime example of why Lucic is so revered in the Flames’ dressing room. In a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 23, “Looch” scored a beauty in the first frame, but it was a goal late in the third period that he could have scored that garnered the most attention. With the home team clinging to a one-goal lead, Trevor Lewis flipped a dribbling puck towards the Hawks’ empty net. Lucic had the opportunity to simply tap it in for his second goal of the night, but instead chose to shield the puck from a charging Domink Kubalik, ensuring Lewis got the credit.
“I was kind of a (bit) of a curler on that one… a sweeper, to make sure it was going in because I knew one of their guys was coming back,” a smiling Lucic told reporters. The big man wore a letter while in Edmonton, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually sports an ‘A’ on his jersey during his tenure with the Flames. There’s even been some rumblings the big man should be considered for the captaincy.
No Apologies From Lucic About His Physical Style
It wouldn’t be a legitimate discussion about Lucic without talking about how he uses his 231-pound frame to make life miserable for opposing teams. While the hulking forward has only dropped the gloves a couple of times this season, it’s the bone-crushing hits that really ignite the home crowd and at times… get him into trouble. Just this past Saturday, Lucic plowed the Jets’ Dylan DeMelo into the end boards, a dangerous play that saw the burley forward get tossed from the game.
The NHL ultimately decided not to dole out any further punishment over the hit and to be fair, Lucic doesn’t have a big history of supplemental discipline over his style of play. The big man has only been suspended twice: once in 2016-17 for roughing Kevin Connauton and once in 2019-20 for roughing Kole Sherwood. He’s been fined three times for various infractions but he’s technically not considered a repeat offender under the CBA. Speaking to the media about Saturday’s hit, the 6-foot-3 winger didn’t apologize and told reporters that DeMelo saw him coming and didn’t make the right adjustment to avoid a major collision.
“We made eye contact. He looked at me and I looked at him.” Lucic explained. “He knew I was coming and put himself in a bad spot. There’s a responsibility on the hitter to make safe hits and I’ll tell you what – there’s guys that have said ‘thank you’ to me because I’ve seen them in a vulnerable position and haven’t finished them…there’s also responsibility on players to not put themselves in a vulnerable position.”
Lucic is Making the Most out of His Bottom Six Role
Ultimately, Lucic is player who has accepted the role that has been given to him. He plays on the fourth line and is expected to grind out some defence-first minutes, dole out some big hits, occasionally throw some punches and chip in a few goals to boot. When chatting with reporters before Calgary’s game against the San Jose Sharks a couple of weeks ago, the third-year Flame reflected on his best start in five seasons.
“The main thing for me is I just want to have fun and just contribute to the team any way that I can”, Lucic said. “I know what my abilities are. I know what I need to do and what I need to bring on a day-to-day basis to help this team win… I think we talked about it — just having a fresh start was something I needed and honestly, I give a lot of credit to the group here.”
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.