WWYD Wednesday: Break up the 3M Line?

It’s no secret that the forward unit of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk has been the most consistent for the team all year. The “3M” line has been together for majority of the season so far and combined they own the team’s best results at even strength by a wide margin. 

So why consider breaking them up? Simply, to spread the wealth. While the Backlund line continues to put up above average shot rates at 5on5, every other regular forward unit on the team has mostly been drowning. While having three potent play drivers on one line makes for a highly effective single unit, it also means the rest of the team struggles to get out of their own end on many nights. 

And for Glen Gulutzan only being able to rely on a third of your top nine rotation to outshoot or outchance the opposition is a tough way to win hockey games over the long run.

The Forward Line Comparison

Let’s first put some numbers to what I’m talking about here. I used Puckalytics’ Super WOWY tool to look at the four more consistent line combos over the last few weeks. The table includes each line’s corsi for (CF%) ratio and offensive zone start (ZONE%) ratio.

Line CF% Ozone%
Tkachuk-Backlund-Frolik 57.1 36%
Gaudreau-Bennett-Chiasson 43.8 64%
Versteeg-Monahan-Brouwer 40.2 57%
Ferland-Stajan-Hathaway 47.2 27%

The divide between the 3M line and everyone else – particularly the other two “top nine” units – is glaring. 

Backlund’s unit gets buried at even strength but still owns over 57% of all shot attempts at even strength. The Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett units, however, are getting the high ground and still struggling from a shots perspective. The Matt Stajan line does as well as can be expected given their circumstances (almost no offensive zone draws and a rotating cast of wingers on the right side).

While a group can survive for a time while ceding nearly 60% of the shots at even strength (thanks to hot shooting or great goaltending), eventually they will be overrun by sheer volume of shots and chances against.

So you see the problem here. Gulutzan is overly reliant on the Backlund line to eat hard minutes at the top of the rotation. This might be okay if at least one of the Bennett or Monahan line was taking advantage of the high ground, but they’re not – quite the opposite in fact. 

The extreme divide between the circumstances and results of the 3M trio and everyone else in the Flames top nine almost demands a re-shuffling of the deck. 

The Options

So what can be done? If you break up the 3M line, you risk destroying the best forward unit the team has without any guarantee of improvements elsewhere. On the other hand, sticking with the status quo risks watching Monahan, Bennett and Johnny Gaudreau struggle to break out of their zone most nights for the rest of the season. 

There are a few options:

1.) Keep 3M together, experiment with other combinations

Troy Brouwer being out for some time should spur Gulutzan to test other forward combos, which will include moving Micheal Ferland up the rotation. Like Backlund and crew, Ferland has been one of the team’s best play drivers this year, so he might help move the needle.  

2.) Keep Backlund and Frolik together and move Tkachuk

We know from experience that the duo of Backlund and Frolik can keep their heads above water with just about any line mate (*cough* Joe Colborne *cough*), so Gulutzan could continue to have a capable shutdown trio even if he moved Tkachuk to help another unit. 

Something like this could be the result:

  • Tkachuk – Monahan – Versteeg
  • Ferland – Backlund – Frolik
  • Gaudreau – Bennett – Brouwer/Chiasson

3.) Keep Tkachuk with Backlund and move Frolik

This seems almost unnatural since Backlund and Frolik have been partnered for so long, but it’s certainly an option (if Gaudreau and Monahan can be broken up, anyone can). 

Tkachuk can stick with Backlund, but Frolik can be moved to try to help another unit. The good news here is Frolik shoots left so he can play either side. 

  • Frolik – Monahan – Versteeg
  • Gaudreau – Bennett – Ferland/Chiasson
  • Tkachuk – Backlund – Ferland/Chiasson
  • Bouma – Stajan – Hathaway/Brouwer

4.) Move both Frolik and Tkachuk

Of course, if you want to spread the wealth around maybe moving both Frolik and Tkachuk away from Backlund is the best choice.

  • Tkachuk – Monahan – Versteeg
  • Gaudreau – Bennett – Frolik
  • Ferland – Backlund – Chiasson/Brouwer
  • Bouma – Stajan – Hathaway/Brouwer

In this configuration, you have puck distributors and play drivers on each of the top two lines and a clear shutdown unit centered by Backlund. The fourth line becomes a bit of a question mark and you probably won’t get much offense out of the third line, but perhaps the top six improves enough for this not to be a problem.

So what’s your preference FlamesNation? Keep the 3M line together and pray for something else to emerge? Or see if they can balance things out a bit by bumping Tkachuk or Frolik (or both) to other units?

    • KiLLKiND

      I am not Backlund hater but I agree with you that Backlund and Froliik would slot in ideally as third line players given their point production.

      However, I am wondering do you think Monahan and Bennett have actually outplayed Backlund this year?

      And would like to trade him since his value would probably pretty decent given his contract?

      Also I am wondering what you like in return if the Flames were to trade him? Or what do you think we could get in return for him? Would you be happy with two second rounders from a potential playoff team (e.g. Eller to Capitals)?

  • Brodano12

    Despite playing on separate lines, somehow Gaudreau has scored far more points with Versteeg and Monahan than with Bennett and Chiasson. That should be our top line. It reminds me of dominant The Boyz N Da Hud line – a creative cup winning vet with Gaudreau and Monahan.

    I also think the Bennett-Tkachuk pairing needs to be tried again. Tkachuk can help drive play, and they showed good chemistry in the preseason. This gives us 3 lines that can score and drive play.

    Gaudreau-Monahan-Versteeg

    Ferland-Backlund-Frolik

    Tkachuk-Bennett-Chiasson/Brouwer

    Bouma-Stajan-Hathaway

  • freethe flames

    The problem with any of the changes is the lack of RW alternatives. At this point I don’t like the idea of asking Tkachuk to play his off wing. Ferland has had a number of opportunities to be a RW and has not produced there; he has been a much more effective player as LW on the 3rd/4th line than when he has been asked to play up the depth chart. Until someone from the farm steps up or BT can make a trade I am not sure how juggling the lines would really change anything. Versteeg is the one RW who could move and he is currently playing the LW- go figure that one out.

    Would these lines work?

    Johnny/Sam/Brouwer(and of course he is injured), Tkachuk/Monny/Versteeg, Ferland/Backs/Frolik and Chiasson/Stajan/Hathaway.

    But again I still think we are a couple of forwards shy of being really good.

  • OKG

    Assuming the guys on the farm stay on the farm I would go with

    Tkachuk-Bennett-Gaudreau
    Frolik-Backlund-Brouwer
    Ferland-Monahan-Versteeg
    Stajan-Hamilton-Chiasson

    Not that I don’t appreciate what Bouma and Hathaway bring, I just think Stajan/Hamilton > Bouma and Chiasson > Hathaway. Having injury insurance like Bouma/Hathaway ain’t bad at all.

      • OKG

        You realized you are calling Gulutzan an idiot right?

        Our lines ::right now:: are

        Tkachuk-Backlund-Frolik
        Gaudreau-Bennett-Chiasson
        Ferland-Monahan-Versteeg

        Literally the only thing I changed around was swapping Tkachuk for Chiasson on the Bennett line and letting Backlund carry Brouwer since he is the only player who can ostensibly carry Brouwer. You don’t think a line with Gaudreau and Tkachuk would be our top line? I do. You don’t think the Backlund line would be our second or first line in every situation on the planet considering he is our best centre? I do. You don’t think Monahan is already playing with Ferland, Versteeg, Brouwer right now? Because I do.

  • Scarface

    Unrelated to topic: It’s somewhat a fear of mine that Ras never a develops the foot speed and agility needed and OK never develops the ‘smart’ hockey IQ. This is based on extremely small sample size of my direct viewing and 3rd party accounts that I have read. My observation of OK’s decision making so fart in this tourney has me concerned. It could be the pro trying to show that he’s exactly that. Shots on the pp when the shot is not setup, aggressive d play to ultimately get caught out of position are some of the things I’m referring to. Admittedly, I’m not giving him credit for the things he does well here.

    • The GREAT WW

      “My observation of OK’s decision making so fart in this tourney has me concerned”……

      He was a bit of a fart last game, but he has had a really good first 2 periods today!

      He is skating well and has taken a boat load of shots, not all getting through but he is playing great today.

      WW

      • Scarface

        Your buddy Huska mentions it when he speaks about OK, getting the ‘youthful’ plays out of his game. I’m sure many will come to his defense on this, but it is a mans game not just physically but mentally too. Don’t get me wrong, I really want this kid to succeed.

        Gotta say, ive noted a more bullish Flames attitude from you recently. It’s a good thing. Light up the darkness.

  • Ktop

    I’ve suggested it before. Lets actual put are best players (by position, LW C RW) on one line.

    Gaudreau-Backlund-Versteeg

    Ferland-Monahan-Frolik

    Tkachuk-Bennett-Chiasson/Brouwer

    Bouma-Stajan-Hathaway

    Couldn’t hurt and might click.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      If I am reading this right, you have our shut down line as Tkachuk, Bennett, an Brouwer which is lot to ask from a 19 and 20 year olds. I can’t see Monny’s line as the shutdown.

  • Just.Visiting

    Can we at least try Tkachuk on the right side with Monahan and Gaudreau for a game or two? Perhaps take baby steps and give him the front of the net role on the first unit PP as a test drive for chemistry.

    For context, Tkachuk played the right side in junior and offers grit to the line to meet the apparent some grit on each line preference.

    If it doesn’t work, you go back to the more conventional thinking.

    If it works, though, your first line RW problem is solved for a long time and you’ve just enhanced your PP as well.

    If MT is moved off the three M line, Ferland seems like the logical replacement, as his style is similar and he played well with them last year.

  • RealMcHockeyReturns

    How about Johnny-Mony-Versteeg (V replaces old Hudler mentorship)

    Tkachuk-Bennett-Frolik (2/3rds of best line, takes most tough assignments)

    Ferland-Backlund-Chiasson (Backs carries line who gets better o-zone starts)

    Bouma-Stajan-Hathaway (takes some tough assignments)

    Brouwer injured and Freddie’s sitting now

  • everton fc

    Our lack of quality on the right side…

    Tkachuk has played, and is comfortable, on the right-side…

    Ferland would do well w/Backlund and Frolik.

    Just a few ideas….

    • freethe flames

      Playing RW in junior is different than the NHL; I’m not saying he can’t or won’t do it but I would prefer him to remain on the LW for this season.

        • Baalzamon

          And I’d like to see he and Ferland stay on the left side.

          You say this a lot about Ferland, but there’s no evidence that he struggles on RW. If anything, the evidence says he’s actually better on the right than the left (Gaudreau – Monahan – Ferland was one of the best lines Hartley ever assembled).

          • freethe flames

            The Johnny/Monny/Ferland line had good possession numbers but Ferland’s counting numbers were not first line numbers. For me I believe he is in his ideal element as a 3rd/4th line lW not trying to think about being an offensive threat but just being himself. Last year playing on the top line seemed to confuse him. So many people project him for more than he is. I believe he would ideally be part of the third line with Backs/Frolik and scoring between 10-15 goals a year anything more than that would be icing on the cake.

          • everton fc

            Ferland’s peroducing offence from the left side. But I’m not convinced he couldn’t on the right-wing w/Gaudreau and Monahan. I think he could be more than a 3/4 wing in this league. I’d take him on the same line w/Gaudreau and Monahan, over Chiasson.

            What we lack is a legitimate 1st line RW. So I think the discussion here is around a default solution tot hat issue. Barring a trade, we have Versteeg, Tkachuk, Chiasson, Ferland… All could be tried on that line w/Gaudreau and Monahan. I’d even toss Hathaway in their, for a few shifts. What do we have to lose?

          • freethe flames

            I have been hopeful that Ferland would show the progress you are speaking of but what I see is almost every time he is asked to make that step up is a more tentative player making me believe he is a solid 3rd liner.

  • Skuehler

    I don’t understand this concept of tearing apart something that is working. Lets break up Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler, lets break up Brodano, and now lets break up one of the best lines in the league in Tchuck-Backlund-Frolik. The fact that the other 3 lines aren’t producing as they should tells you how hard it is to make these players excel together. You keep em together and you fix what is actually broken. Not to mention defending against this line must drive opposing coaches mad

    • KiLLKiND

      I think you must misunderstand the situation when you say don’t fix what isn’t broken. The Flames finished 5th last, last season the team as a whole was pretty broken. Yes we had a good line and a good d pairing, but it’s a team sport and the majority of the team is failing. From the article you just read the majority of this team 3/4 of it are not doing well at all. The team apart from one line is failing. “The fact that the other 3 lines aren’t producing” as you say doesn’t mean you have to keep together the line that isn’t producing and it doesn’t seem to indicate that any line should be untouched. When the team as a whole is sinking the whole team sinks, and they need to strive for continuous improvement if we want to excel in the NH:. You have no proof that spreading around the great players will hurt the team as a whole.

      • jakethesnail

        “…the majority of the team is failing”. and
        “…the team as a whole is sinking.”.

        This is not the case this year. Diluting the talent on the top line will give you four mediocre lines.

        If the majority of the team is failing why are the Flames in playoff contention? Gaudreau and Monahan continue to produce. The Flames have lost 3 out of their last 12 – wow, what a failure this bunch is!!!

        Leave Tkachuk/Backs/Frolik together so the Flames can secure a playoff spot!

  • KiLLKiND

    I think Gaudreau needs to play with higher skill player, as Bennett to me isn’t ready to be a #2 center and Monahan isn’t even succeeding as a #3. That leaves Backlund and Stajan. Backlund has been shown to really drive play exceptionally well, as everyone on this site knows by now. He could really do some damage with Tkachuk who seemed to mesh really with Bennett as mentioned earlier in the comments. The next pairing of center with a lefty should be Ferland with Monahan. leaving Bouma with Stajan. I think Versteeg would compliment Gaudreau well as he is a great point producer, while not being as great at driving play as Frolik. Next would be Frolik who is great at driving the puck to stay with Tkachuk and be the Hudler to 20-year-old Sam Bennett. Hamilton and Chiasson are in the final two RW spots and I would put Hamilton with Monahan, as Monahan clearly needs to be sheltered. Chiasson to me is better defensively than Hamilton and would be more reliable for defensive zone starts, which is why I would put him on the Stajan line.

    Gaudreau Backlund Versteeg

    Tkachuk Bennett Frolik

    Ferland Monahan Hamilton

    Bouma Stajan Chiasson