Shuffling Up Calgary’s Tired Lines

Given the Calgary Flames’ struggles this season – as I write this, they’re dead-last in the National Hockey League – many fans and pundits have been calling for Flames management to axe Bob Hartley as head coach. Granted, I’m not sure that would solve many of the team’s problems, but one big axe I have to grind with Hartley is his lines.

To avoid beating around the bush, Hartley’s relying far too much on the same few lines, even when they’ve failed to generate much offensively (or are getting stomped defensively). To see what I mean, let’s look at the lines the Flames have largely been rolling with this season.

THE FIVE MOST COMMON FORWARD GROUPS

  • Johnny Gaudreau – Sean Monahan – Jiri Hudler (15.56% of ES ice-time)
  • Joe Colborne – Matt Stajan – David Jones (10.28% of ES ice-time)
  • Sam Bennett – Mikael Backlund – Michael Frolik (9.9% of ES ice-time)
  • Joe Colborne – Sean Monahan – Jiri Hudler (3.77% of ES ice-time)
  • Micheal Ferland – Matt Stajan – David Jones (3.12% of ES ice-time)

THE FIVE MOST COMMON DEFENSIVE PAIRS

  • Mark Giordano & T.J. Brodie (19.23% of ES ice-time)
  • Kris Russell & Dougie Hamilton (16.18% of ES ice-time)
  • Kris Russell & Dennis Wideman (12.59% of ES ice-time)
  • Deryk Engelland & Dennis Wideman (9.22% of ES ice-time)
  • Mark Giordano & Dennis Wideman (8.93% of ES ice-time)

EVALUATING THE LINES

5on5 TOI GF GF% GA GA% CF%
Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler 201:46 8 20.0% 10 16.7% 46.7%
Colborne-Stajan-Jones 119:11 5 12.5% 3 5.0% 40.4%
Bennett-Backlund-Frolik 124:44 5 12.5% 3 5.0% 48.7%
Colborne-Monahan-Hudler 41:21 3 7.5% 5 8.3% 49.3%
Ferland-Stajan-Jones 36:47 1 2.5% 1 1.7% 48.3%

(GF%/GA%: percentage of Calgary’s even-strength GF/GA that line is on for)

Before your eyes pop out of your head, the second group gets the tough minutes and absolutely buried into their own end in terms of zone starts. That said: woof. That group should be separated. And considering that Monahan hasn’t been great this season AND Hudler hasn’t been great this season AND Gaudreau is the team’s most potent offensive driver, the team should move Gaudreau onto another line to spread things out a bit.

That said, it’s nice to see that two of the most-used lines are at least scoring more goals than they’re giving up. In this light, 19-Year-Old Sam Bennett’s having a pretty solid rookie season.

EVALUATING THE PAIRINGS

5on5 TOI GF GF% GA GA% CF%
Giordano & Brodie 220:27 10 25.0% 15 25.0% 49.6%
Russell & Hamilton 194:48 7 17.5% 10 16.7% 45.7%
Russell & Wideman 156:38 7 17.5% 14 23.3% 42.9%
Engelland & Wideman 108:46 3 7.5% 1 1.7% 44.1%
Giordano & Wideman 111:49 2 5.0% 5 8.3% 51.7%

When you see this, ask yourself one question: is Kris Russell really this bad? So far, the answer is yes. Every player he plays a ton of minutes with sees their numbers crater. Most notably, the Flames absolutely have to keep Russell and Wideman apart. Also worth noting: Engelland and Wideman are the only one of the “regular” pairings to generate more goals than they give up.

Yes, I’m as terrified by that as you are.

ALTERNATIVES

If the idea is to mix things up with an eye towards giving the Flames a fighting chance and making it harder for opposition coaches to isolate their offensive players, here’s the line-up I’d probably recommend based on how the different lines have performed together.

Colborne – Monahan – Hudler
Gaudreau – Backlund – Raymond
Bennett – Granlund – Frolik
Ferland – Stajan – Jones

Scratches would likely be Jooris & Bollig. Colborne and Monahan can rotate face-offs and you get a couple big bodies with Hudler, who’s not big. The second line really emphasizes speed and you have two guys that can benefit from Gaudreau generating scoring chances. Bennett and Granlund can rotate face-offs and learn from a strong 200-foot player in Frolik. And the fourth line grouping has already proven they can handle tough minutes, and it’ll give Ferland a chance to further develop his niche a as a physical limited-minutes player.

Giordano – Brodie
Russell – Hamilton
Engelland – Wideman

Smid would be the lone scratch. While Russell is a sink-hole defensively (and offensively) right now, the other two pairings are doing well enough that it’s probably worth keeping them together given the alternative would be moving them onto worse pairings for the sake of change.

OH YEAH

The key here is that the Flames need to shuffle up their lines and keep them shuffled for awhile. While line chemistry is important, the bigger issue is that teams are doing their homework when they face the Flames. Considering there’s a metric ton of video on the Gaudreau/Monahan/Hudler line, for instance, sticking with old lines when the team’s struggling is playing right into their hands – the playbook on beating the Flames has been written already, so it doesn’t make sense to try and out-smart other teams by doing more of the same.

Straight-up: the Flames need change. If management is unwilling or unable to change up the coach, and the trade market is non-existent, the only thing they can do is shuffle the deck and try to present the best version of the 23 players they have available to them.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Also… another thought I had with respect to the article. This concept that other teams figure you out and thus game plan around the stuff that worked for you in the past; I think there is some truth to that, but I also doubt you will see Benn/Seguin/Sharp split up much for the rest of the season. When you’re good you’re good and you just dominate other teams anyways. Our best players just need to be… well… better

    • RickT

      Firstly, I love the nicknames you’ve developed.

      Honestly, I would go with these. Alternatively, have Granlund on the wing where JoJoo is, if he’s not going to be in the lineup (but I’m still not sure why he wouldn’t be – though Granlund gives us a little more offense on paper).

      • Matty Franchise Jr

        Thanks! I can only take credit for Murder and FroFro, though.

        If I was to switch Granny in for someone, it would be for Colbort before JoJoo. He has his uses, but we know exactly what they are now and I’d like to see what Granny can bring to the table with some extended time. So I guess I’m officially switching Granny for Colbort.

        I’d really like to see Johnny/Benny/FroFro. A dangling wizard, a skilled power forward, and a defensive vet. What could go wrong? What couldn’t go right?

  • Truculence

    There never was a reason to put Bennett on the wing, and now he isn’t playing with Backlund, the one (very trivial) saving grace for what was always a flawed concept in the first place.

    Put Bennett back at center. It’s past time.

    • piscera.infada

      Agreed. Given that the season looks to be over let’s develop him as a center. Now that Hamilton’s game has greatly improved, I’d like to see him paired with Brodie, even if only for parts of games.

  • Truculence

    Let them keep doing the same thing they have been doing all year -that way we’ll get a lottery pick.

    No need to shuffle the deck at this point, because playoffs are not on the radar this year.

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    Are you actually advocating putting Johnny on a line with Backlund and Raymond? Those two guys may have the worst hands on the team!
    No thanks.

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    For me (when healthy):

    Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler

    Granlund-Bennett-Frolik

    Bouma-Backlund-Jones

    Ferland-Stajan-Colborne

    Jooris/Bollig

    Gio-Brodie

    Russell-Hamilton

    Smid-Wideman

    Engelland

    Ramo/Hiller