The Calgary Flames have put their lines in a blender after consecutive losses. They are just eight games into the season and need to spark the rest of the lineup. With a number of new faces, like Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri, this was bound to happen, but in time, the lines will be shaped just right.
The second and fourth lines have done their job, but that isn’t enough for the team to be successful. Success comes from good play at both ends of the ice and, despite scoring the eighth-most goals per game this season, the Flames have allowed the 16th-most goals against per game. Head coach Darryl Sutter cares more about defence, but the offence is just as important. The Flames are 5-3-0 with an above-average power play and penalty kill. It’s just a matter of getting the lines going at even strength.
Flames’ New Forward Lines
Instead of trying to replicate last season and loading up one line, the Flames have tried a new approach. They have spread out the production to give the team a good chance at each end of the ice, no matter which line is on. That hasn’t necessarily worked out. Here’s a look at the forward lines before the switch:
Jonathan Huberdeau – Elias Lindholm – Tyler Toffoli
Andrew Mangiapane – Nazem Kadri – Dylan Dube
Blake Coleman – Mikael Backlund – Trevor Lewis
Milan Lucic – Kevin Rooney – Brett Ritchie
No matter which way you look at it, the right side was much weaker than the left. But in terms of point production, the right-wingers were outplaying the left-wingers. Now, Sutter has hinted at loading up one line. Here’s what the new lines look like:
Jonathan Huberdeau – Nazem Kadri – Andrew Mangiapane
Milan Lucic – Elias Lindholm – Tyler Toffoli
Dylan Dube – Mikael Backlund – Blake Coleman
Trevor Lewis – Adam Ruzicka – Brett Ritchie
What the New Lines Give the Flames
I don’t think anybody expected the top line of Huberdeau, Lindholm, and Toffoli to replicate the success Lindholm had with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk last season, but they are off to a slow start even by the standards they were held to (from “Why the Flames shouldn’t split up Jonathan Huberdeau, Tyler Toffoli and Elias Lindholm yet,” The Athletic, 10/30/22). Huberdeau was expected to come in and be the elite playmaker he was with the Florida Panthers and average roughly a point per game. This season, he has one goal and five points in eight games as opposed to three goals and 10 points in the same number of games last season. He isn’t known for slow starts and has points in just four games this season.
Since Kadri is hot right now, leading the second line, he could easily get Huberdeau going. Kadri has been rewarded for his strong start and could see close to 20 minutes a game. It’s a nice touch to bring Mangiapane up to the top line with Kadri since Huberdeau and Kadri are better known for their playmaking skills than scoring. Both had career years last season, scoring 30 and 28 goals, respectively. Kadri has been the goal-scorer so far and that could increase with Huberdeau on his wing. This top line will also allow Mangiapane, who scored 35 goals last season, to start putting pucks in the net at a higher rate.
However, I’m not sold on the second line. It is a big step up for Lucic, who has been playing fourth-line minutes for some time now. He is averaging under 11 minutes a game but is placed in a scoring role with Lindholm and Toffoli. Lindholm has become a goal-scorer, while that is what Toffoli has always been. Other than tough play, size, and net-front battles, I don’t see Lucic or this line succeeding, and that’s exactly what the Flames need Lindholm to do. Toffoli is off to a strong start and was producing more than Lindholm. He should stay with Lindholm to, at least, give the second line something right now.
The third line definitely got better with Dube dropping down, and I don’t think this demotion was supposed to be considered a negative. Backlund and Coleman are very strong defensive players and should give Dube a step up from his linemates last season. This line needs an offensive spark, and that’s what Dube brings. He had a breakout season of sorts last season, and the expectation was that he’d take another step forward in 2022-23. He will be a better two-way player alongside Backlund and Coleman but adds the offence that Lewis couldn’t provide.
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The fourth line got a new face in Ruzicka, who is expected to get into his second game of the season. He replaces Rooney, who has yet to earn a point in seven games. Ritchie may be the biggest surprise, in a good way. He is tied for third on the team in goals with three and tied for fourth in points with five. This is all while logging less than 10 minutes of ice time per game. The fourth line has been playing well and didn’t need a big spark, but it’s the right decision to start getting the young Ruzicka in some games while Rooney struggles.
It’s early in the season, so changes were expected, but this is big. The second line is the only one I question, but they could easily prove me wrong. The Flames should have some time to work with these new lines and prove Sutter was right for making the drastic changes.