Long live the 3M line; here's what makes it so great

Mike FAIL
December 18 2016 08:00AM

Everyone should love the 3M line. If you don't, which would be a confusing thought, then I can only assume something happened in your life that prevents you from ever loving anything again. Teams hate playing against them being they are a combination of physicality (thank you Matthew Tkachuk) and two-way prowess anchored by Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik.

They're a line that the Calgary Flames have desperately needed for several seasons because they do exactly what you need them to do in this current era of the NHL: they drive play and they find ways to suppress the opposition. 

In the past couple of weeks both Scott Cullen and Travis Yost have drawn attention to this line as a vital reason to the Flames' turning corners after their shaky start. At the time of Cullen's piece, the 3M line on Dec. 1 was the line was third on his list of the league's top lines in 5v5 CF% (score-venue-zone adjusted) at 60.3% CF.

At this point, since 2013-14, there have only been four lines that the Flames have had with 150 minutes or more together that have sported a positive percentage in similar shot metrics (via Corsica Hockey):

  • 2016-17 Tkachuk - Mikael Backlund - Michael Frolik: 59.02% CF - 251.81 TOI
  • 2015-16 Sam Bennett - Mikael Backlund - Michael Frolik: 52.74% CF - 260.27 TOI
  • 2013-14 Lee Stempniak - Mikael Backlund - Jiri Hudler: 52.55% CF - 165.58 TOI
  • 2014-15 Johnny Gaudreau - Josh Jooris - Jiri Hudler: 52% CF - 153.16 TOI

Currently, the trio is sporting the following stats that are worth keeping your eyes on (5v5 score-zone-venue adjusted):

  • 68.66 CF60, 47.68 CA60 (Corsi-For/Corsi-Against per 60)
  • 50.38 FF60, 36.56 FA60 (Fenwick-For/Fenwick-Against per 60)
  • 37.8 SF60, 24.66 SA60 (Shots-For/Shots Against per 60)
  • 3 xGF60, 2.24 xGA60 (Expected Goals-For/Expected Goals-Against per 60)

The remarkable caveat to their xGF/xGA metrics is they're scoring 2.67 GF60 currently and only surrendering 1.15 GA60. So they're slightly below their expected totals in generating and contributing to keeping the puck out of the net. The latter point can be said, but in a shot suppression sense about their results. 

This team makes it hard for the opposition to play in the Flames' zone and they're often stifled in generating much. So what gives? How is this line even doing this after spending much of their time together starting shifts in the defensive zone? It's really coming down to a lot of simple, very basic tenants that all three players seem to adhere to.

Start in the DZ, end up in the OZ

This line whether they start in the offensive zone, neutral zone, or defensive zone has a knack for creating offensive zone time and generating shots. This is one of the first elements in their game: all three find a way to drive play. 

This recent sequence from Dec. 8 speaks volumes about how the line and their defensive pairing set up in their own end. Everyone is supporting the play and both wingers are situated perfectly for a breakout to leave the zone (with possession) and enter the zone (with possession). 

Even if they have to leave the offensive zone, they regroup as a unit and strike again. Tkachuk's abilities for creating entropy and mass chaos at any moment play into Backlund and Frolik's strengths of passing, generating shots, and creating puck battles.

Again, another sequence in the Coyotes game where the line is supporting the play with appropriate gap control and forcing turnovers. Again we see controlled play be it passing, entries, or exits. All three forwards can do these things which means they're not overly reliant on just one person. Yet again, the line creates chances and gets an offensive zone faceoff out of it.

The ability to transition quickly after gaining possession is something that the Flames as a whole unit need to continue to work on. Against the New York Islanders the line goes to work quickly moving through the neutral zone with possession and generating chances:

Finally, let's close here with the simple yet elegant sequence which doesn't seem like much but it works brilliantly. Dennis Wideman threading a pass to Backlund who exits to find a Tkachuk waiting for the handoff before heading to the bench allows Frolik to enter at full speed. 

From there, the Flames are able to generate two shots towards the net and force a stoppage in play. Simple, logical decisions like these go a long way.

Enabling their peers

An underlying theme in these sequences is how the defensive pairings still play a vital role in contributing alongside the 3M line. One pairing in particular, the Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano one, strives more than ever with Backlund, Frolik, and Tkachuk:

Against the Winnipeg Jets this became apparent again that the most lethal element on this Calgary Flames roster is these five men. Despite the error with Frolik losing his stick in the offensive zone, the team transitions quickly to play breaking out by the Jets. Again, we see Backlund supporting play along the boards which gives him an opportunity to help break it up.

After that, it's that patented bank-pass to Tkachuk who enters the zone and drop passes to Hamilton:

And if they're not doing it cleanly, the 3M line along with whatever defensive pairing they're with will find a way into the offensive zone to create utter chaos everywhere. Even though this shift didn't result in a much-needed goal, the Flames threw everything they could at the Sabres to try and draw within one:

Keep them together for forever, please

The Flames haven't had a consistently strong line like this really since the Jarome Iginla era when the Kristian Huselius - Daymond Langkow - Iginla line in 2007-08 may have been one of the best Calgary Flames lines ever assembled that we have legitimate data on. And when I say strong line, I mean in the sense that they could carry play and not be outshot regularly.

This should be the goal in designing and shaping this roster: lines that can carry play night in and night out while maintaining offensive/defensive strengths. The 3M line in particular is eating tougher matchups, tougher starts, and still finding ways to come out ahead more often than not. 

Even if you factor in the struggles in the past few games for the team as a whole, Glen Gulutzan will probably count on this line more than ever to get back to form. Gulutzan deserves a lot of credit for assembling this line and keeping them together.

Dd8a30132153b9abea573df3f57957fb
Mike Fail is the Nation Network's Director of Good Content and FlamesNation's Community Manager. When he isn't pining about the penalty kill, he's likely cooking up that good content you all love to consume.
Avatar
#1 MontanaMan
December 18 2016, 08:46AM
Trash it!
28
trashes
Props
13
props

Tkachuk is the key to the line. Backlund and Frolik are good two way players but lack any physical presence which Chuk provides. Chuk's skill level has also elevated their games. It would be nice if a few more players stepped up the way Chuk has - imagine if he didn't - the Flames would be in Coyote territory.

Avatar
#2 cunning_linguist
December 18 2016, 10:04AM
Trash it!
3
trashes
Props
57
props
MontanaMan wrote:

Tkachuk is the key to the line. Backlund and Frolik are good two way players but lack any physical presence which Chuk provides. Chuk's skill level has also elevated their games. It would be nice if a few more players stepped up the way Chuk has - imagine if he didn't - the Flames would be in Coyote territory.

Michael backlund has been the centre on three of the four top CF% lines since the lockout. I would say he is the key. Frolik took him to the next level, and Tkachuk has complimented them perfectly.

Avatar
#4 Baalzamon
December 18 2016, 10:53AM
Trash it!
4
trashes
Props
8
props

@Mike FAIL

MontanaMan is correct, though, in the sense that Tkachuk is the best LW that line has ever had. Not that the competition is that fierce (Basically it's Ferland and Bennett, who as I have to constantly remind everyone, is a terrible winger). But if you replace Tkachuk with literally anyone (except perhaps--maybe--Gaudreau) it wouldn't be even nearly as effective.

The line blender has been an issue for this team for quite some time, historically at least.

I really wish the line blender wasn't the default tactical move for EVERY COACH EVER. It's super annoying and doesn't accomplish anything.

Avatar
#5 Kevin R
December 18 2016, 11:22AM
Trash it!
13
trashes
Props
10
props

So I expect this post to generate lots of trashes but keeping this line together forever does not not mesh with the long term future of the Flames. Here are some facts to put out:

-Chuck is a very high draft pick (same spot as Monahan) & therefore expectation of being a huge piece of our top 6 forward core.

-Bennett & Monahan are our top 6 future core centres going forward.

-Backlund has 1 more year left & then will be getting a huge raise on a 5-6 year deal

In the next year a decision is going to have to be made whether Backlund is that top 2 core centre or our 2 young centres that are the highest picks in Flames franchise history. It's a cap world, we can't pay a 3rd line centre, as elite of a shutdown as he is for the Flames, 6.0 mill per year. Therefore, I think we need to take the training wheels off of Chucky & put him on a line with Monahan & Versteeg. Monahan is a big boy, he beefed up but he will never play aggressive as Chucky. I think having Chucky going in & doing what he does best is exactly what Money needs, the aggressiveness may even wear off on Monahan. But that is the future of this team in my view & I would imagine Managements eyes as well Bennett & Gaudreau & Monahan & Chucky our 4 of the future top 6 core.

Now, I would have no doubt that Backs would be a bonafide 2nd line centre on many NHL teams. His value would be huge & should be considered as barter at the draft next June. Unless, we are prepared to part with one of our young centres & go hard at resigning Backlund as one of our top 2C, top 6 core. If that's the case, then keep the line together forever. Problem is this is a Cap league. Personally, this team is still rebuilding & the only thing really masking the fact we still have a ways to go is where we were able to draft players like Gaudreau & Brodie. If GM's had crystal balls, those two would have been top 3 picks in their respective drafts. That's a lot of suck we didn't have to endure. Trash away.

Avatar
#6 Newbietwo
December 18 2016, 11:47AM
Trash it!
5
trashes
Props
5
props

@Kevin R

I agree with your post fully mate.. having said that given Backlunds lack of offensive results he maxes out at $4.75 to $5 million so it is a difficult conversation to have and it comes down to who will replace him..

In a league where you roll four lines your third centre is a difference maker look at cup winning teams so we might choose to keep him.. thing is Tampa has a centre named Boyle I really like and Jankowski up and coming..

There are young big skilled wingers like Mantha, Dallas has one playing in Russia who wants a trade, Detroit has one in his first year and Anaheim does as well.. if we can get a first for our second and one of those wingers I am game for a trade next year

Avatar
#7 Newbietwo
December 18 2016, 11:56AM
Trash it!
1
trashes
Props
12
props

I'd just like to add that the 3M line are typically playing with our top line defenders in the ice which makes a massive difference with how you get out of your own zone.. as our d gets more balanced I hope next year and on you can see the impact on how we drive play.. when as forwards you are stuck in your zone having to support your D or if your D make the wrong choice or slow choice in the neutral zone it becomes out of your hands unfortunately..

As a side note Bennet needs to stop driving play on the sides and get to puck possession down the middle more often.. he keeps skating to the sides which eliminates half his offensive options..

Avatar
#8 Derzie
December 18 2016, 02:44PM
Trash it!
2
trashes
Props
5
props

In these turbulent times for a Flames fan, I find myself begrudgingly comparing our team to the Shelbyvillians. Jesus over Johnny, Drai over Sam, Monny over Nuge. You get the idea. BUT, Tchuk over Poolo and 3M over their entire squad is a definite point of pride.

Avatar
#9 beloch
December 18 2016, 06:07PM
Trash it!
2
trashes
Props
10
props

I wrote this regarding the drop-pass to Hamilton during the Dec. 10 game against the Jets.

Tkachuk made a really interesting play here. He gains the zone and, instead of trying to drive around the defender and take an easy-to-save, no-screen shot from the flank, he drops the puck back to Hamilton. He doesn't go out to the flank and try to get open for a medium-danger shot. He heads straight for the net and gets in a defenders face. This sets up a double screen for Dougie while simultaneously keeping that defender off of Hamilton and giving him all the time in the world to line up his shot. Hutchinson didn't have a chance.

I felt this is worth re-posting, because it shows just how intelligent a player Tkachuk is. The kid frequently makes plays that are impressively smart by NHL standards, let alone by the standards of 18-year-old NHL'ers. While it's going too far to say Tkachuck is driving the bus on the 3M line, he's not a passenger either. He is keeping up with and adding a vital element to the games of two veteran, possession-focused forwards. For an 18-year-old to do that in the NHL is truly special.

Backlund and Frolik are fantastic two-way players, but Tkachuk is going to be on another level in a few years. I haven't been this excited about a Flames pick since Gaudreau started lighting things up in the JWC!

Avatar
#10 ChinookArchYYC
December 18 2016, 08:15PM
Trash it!
1
trashes
Props
5
props

This line doesn't disappoint. It works because there are no passengers and all three players play a high hockey IQ game. Each of them brings something different to the mix. When they're on the ice with Giordano and Hamilton, they can can compete with any line in the league. Now the coaching staff needs to find more magic amoung the rest of the forward group.

Avatar
#11 John Wayne's Hat
December 19 2016, 09:43AM
Trash it!
0
trashes
Props
1
props

@Newbietwo

Re: Bennett. I agree, he is more dangerous in the middle. However, the team is being coached to go to the 'flanks'. I don't agree with that in Bennett's case and he should have more freedom like Johnny does.

Comments are closed for this article.