It was a strange year for Calgary’s most important forwards. Four of the team’s top six had strong years, led by another huge step forward from Matthew Tkachuk. Unfortunately, two forwards continued their struggles from the back half of the prior season in a big way: Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. As we continue our 2019-20 report cards, the woes of those two skew the perception of the group as a whole.
Matthew Tkachuk: A
Tkachuk gets top grades for this past season, because, well, he was the best forward on the team. In his fourth NHL season, Tkachuk led the team in scoring, and was second in five-on-five possession, high danger scoring chances, and points-per-60 (1.97). He was regularly dominant at even strength while taking on the toughest opposition matchups every night. On a team that was 20th in the league in scoring, Tkachuk was on pace for 72 points.
Tkachuk also holds firm with an A because of what we saw in the playoffs. No, he didn’t score at a high rate in the six postseason games he dressed for, but Tkachuk was a consistent impact maker. But what really seals his high grade is how the team changed for the worse following game two vs. Dallas when Tkachuk sustained a season-ending concussion. The series swung dramatically against the Flames from that point forward, which showed me how much Tkachuk meant to this team.
Andrew Mangiapane: A
I initially started with a B+ for Mangiapane, but the more I combed through his season, I couldn’t deny him his final A. Other than Tkachuk, Mangiapane was Calgary’s most effective forward and led the team in five-on-five possession, high danger scoring chances, and points-per-60 (2.02). Had he seen more powerplay time, or been on a line with Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund most of the season, his point totals would have been higher.
In saying that, I think it’s important to point out Mangiapane wasn’t just a product of riding shotgun on the revamped 3M Line. His underlying outputs were just as strong when stuck in the bottom six, or when on a line with Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm. Like many, Mangiapane wasn’t as effective in the playoffs, but he was still an offensive threat most nights and I didn’t dock him him significantly.
Mikael Backlund: A-
We don’t tend to give Backlund poor marks very often here, and that trend continues. Forgetting his odd cameo on the wing, when Backlund was at his natural position he remained the team’s best two-way centre by a large margin. And, from his return to the middle in early February to the end of the playoffs, Backlund was the team’s best player at any position. But, because his stint on the wing wasn’t overly successful, we’ll drop his grade to A-.
What’s also important to note about Backlund’s season is what he did in the summer. Along with Sam Bennett, Backlund was one of Calgary’s two best playoff forward, which was an important step. In prior postseasons, Backlund was rightfully lumped into a group of high profile underachievers. The 2020 restart, however, saw Backlund continue what we saw from him in the final six weeks of the regular season.
Elias Lindholm A-
I seem to get a lot of pushback when I point out how good Lindholm was last season, and I’m not sure why. He led the team with 29 goals and his 1.07 five-on-five goals-per-60 rate was also tops on the team. In his 26-game stint at centre, he excelled and was the most important forward on the team. And, knowing how much Monahan and Gaudreau struggled all year, he had an even tougher job being that line’s defensive conscience when they were together.
Lindholm wasn’t short on effort in ten playoff games, but there’s no doubt he struggled compared to his regular season. Partly to blame is the defensive burden that accompanies playing alongside Gaudreau and Monahan. That said, much like 2019 vs. Colorado, that line just wasn’t very good five-on-five against either Winnipeg or Dallas.
Sean Monahan: C
I remember talking to Monahan outside of a cabana at the Encore in Las Vegas 17 months ago. Up for the Lady Byng, Monahan was there for the NHL Awards and was still smarting from a five-game playoff exit to Colorado. Monahan spoke openly about the need to become a better all-around player, specifically in his two-way game. It wasn’t lip service, either, because the guy dug in and made an honest effort to do just that. But in year one of Monahan’s attempted transformation, the results weren’t strong.
The regular season saw Monahan with his lowest scoring rates since his rookie season, which was an alarming trend seeing how ineffective he was at five-on-five. That got worse in the playoffs, as his line was crushed at even strength virtually every night. Yes, Monahan led the team in playoff scoring, which isn’t insignificant, but it was done almost entirely on the powerplay and wasn’t enough to get him any higher than a C.
Johnny Gaudreau: C-
Like Monahan, Gaudreau’s five-on-five scoring rates were all at lows not seen since his rookie season. When Gaudreau isn’t scoring at an elite level, his limitations become very apparent. Let’s not mince words: Gaudreau is a defensive liability at the best of times, but it’s easy to look past when he’s scoring at elite levels. We didn’t see that for the vast majority of the regular season.
Then, just when Gaudreau seemed like he was starting to get things on track, a pandemic hit and the league went on pause for four months. Upon returning, Gaudreau had another frustrating playoffs, which included going pointless at five-on-five. Six powerplay points and an empty netter just isn’t enough from a player as important as Gaudreau.