Flames’ Top Line Has Taken Major Step Back From Last Season

The Calgary Flames had a very good team last season that won their division and pushed on to the second round of the playoffs. That team was led by their top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk. Two of the three were forced to be replaced this past offseason.

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New faces up front included Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri with players like Tyler Toffoli and Dylan Dube forced to step up and fill more important roles. No line in the league could compare to the Flames’ top line in 2021-22 and it is very tough shoes to fill this season for the forward group.

Flames Top Line a Shadow of Its Former Self

Rather than loading up the top line and feeling like a one line team again, the Flames spread the wealth and hoped that two to three lines could all produce offensively rather than relying on the top line to dominate. The first line last season was incredible at both ends of the ice. Lindholm finished second in Selke Trophy voting, all three were 40-goal scorers, and they combined for 301 points and a plus-182 plus/minus, with 226 of those points coming at even strength.

It’s never an easy task replacing two of the highest scorers and most effective players in the league in one offseason. Brad Treliving did as well as he could not only replacing Gaudreau and Tkachuk with Huberdeau and Kadri, but also adding in a very skilled defenceman in MacKenzie Weegar.

Jonathan Huberdeau Calgary Flames
Jonathan Huberdeau, Calgary Flames (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There are no complaints about Weegar as he’s done what is expected of him so far. The Flames’ defence group is stellar and he is already a major part of that success. Kadri has also outperformed his contract and expectations heading into this season as well. The problem is the most hyped of the three additions in Huberdeau. He put up 115 points last season, good for second in the league. But that comes with the expectation that it can and will be replicated this season with the Flames. This team plays a much tighter game than the Florida Panthers and isn’t as high-flying offensively. That, in theory, should result in less scoring and better defensive play by Huberdeau.

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As a top-line player and someone expected to be the best player on the team, Huberdeau has averaged just 16:09 per game, fifth amongst forwards on the Flames. He averaged nearly 19:30 last season and hasn’t had this little ice time since his sophomore season nine years ago. This speaks to the level of play, regardless of how much offence he’s produced. For a player as dominant offensively as Huberdeau was last season, one goal and five points through seven games is not impressive. It is a new team and new system, so it’s unwarranted to be too tough on him right away. But we’ll have to start seeing improvements in his game soon as he starts to get more comfortable.

The panel on Sportsnet discussed the production and effectiveness of the Flames’ top line during the intermission of the Battle of Alberta this past Saturday (Oct. 29). Kelly Hrudey brought some interesting points up regarding the top line as follows, “the number one line centered by Lindholm has not been that great. That isn’t just me, Lindholm has talked about it. He needs to be a lot better, he only has two goals on the season and not many good looks.”

Elias Lindholm Calgary Flames
Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Lindholm is the only player remaining from that dominant top line last season. The panel thinks he has about another month or so to find his game. I believe that to be true considering the Flames don’t have any great options to bolster that top line without making an early trade. The second line is already playing more than the first line and playing much better. Hrudey also states, “He’s (Lindholm) just been such a good player for them (Flames) that he’s be the last player to expect this from.” Lindholm has just two goals and three points after scoring 42 goals and 82 points in 2021-22.

Kevin Bieksa added, “What’s the rush? If the Flames are playing this well, they’re winning, and the Kadri line is carrying them…buy him time, it’s not a panic, he’ll find his game.” Lindholm should find his game as he has been very consistent for the Flames for the four seasons he’s played for them. As for Toffoli, he has arguably been the best player on the top line. He just isn’t the player Gaudreau or Tkachuk are. His skillset should probably have him playing on the second line, but the Flames’ weak area is their right side, something they’ll have to address eventually.

Flames Second Line Stepping Up

What appeared to be the most concerning line in training camp and heading into the season has by far been the best line for the Flames. There wasn’t ever that much doubt in Andrew Mangiapane, but goal-scoring production is hard to replicate, especially if someone has only just broken out scoring goals.

Nazem Kadri Calgary Flames
Nazem Kadri, Calgary Flames (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Many expected Kadri to immediately take a step back from the level of play he was at last season when he scored 28 goals and 87 points in 71 games. But he has been possibly the best player on the Flames thus far with four goals and nine points in seven games.

There was a carousel of wingers being tested out on the second line in training camp including Dube, Blake Coleman, and even Sonny Milano. Dube appeared to be the best fit for that spot in the lineup, but Darryl Sutter wasn’t sold. The second line has proved to be the driving force of the team thus far.

It’s a nice change for the Flames to be able to fall back on the production of another line if their top line goes cold. It makes the Flames much more dangerous when it eventually does start to produce as expected. Chemistry takes time to form and the team is in a good place even with the lackluster production of the first line. It’s a long season and a lot of time to get things going for the Flames’ top unit.

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