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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Calgary’s new top line headlines early season takeaways

After starting with three games in five nights, the Flames are in the midst of their longest break of the season. Calgary doesn’t play again until Sunday afternoon’s marquee matchup with Toronto, which gives us a good window to dive into some early season observations. At 2-0-1, the Flames are off to a nice start, led by a new-look top line driving the bus.

The new top line is playing like it

Not everyone has been on board with moving Elias Lindholm away from Calgary’s former top line with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. For me, though, transitioning Lindholm to the team’s de-facto “number one centre” role was a crucial adjustment in making this team more difficult to matchup against. Well, so far the trio of Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, and Dillon Dube has played exactly like a top line should.

Player CF% HDCF% xGF% OZS%
Matthew Tkachuk 71.2 85.7 75.1 42.9
Dillon Dube 67.4 80.0 67.8 50.0
Elias Lindholm 65.4 66.7 63.1 48.0

Tkachuk, Dube, and Lindholm lead the the team in five-on-five possession through three games. They also make up three of the top four ranked forwards in high-danger chances and expected goals. And, as you can see from their usage, not one of Lindholm, Tkachuk, or Dube have seen sheltered roles.

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In fact, in their recent two-game set, the Lindholm trio was matched up primarily against one of Vancouver’s top two lines. For instance, Lindholm spent 65.9% of his time head-to-head against Bo Horvat on Saturday and 73.1% vs. Elias Pettersson two nights later. From virtually every angle, this line has been the team’s best early on, which is a promising sign.

The power play is rolling

Rasmus Andersson

Tkachuk, Dube, Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Mark Giordano have combined for six power play goals thus far, marking the best start through three games in almost 30 years. For historical reference, the 1992-93 Flames had eight power play goals in their first three games courtesy Joe Nieuwendyk (2), Al MacInnis (2), Sergei Makarov, Gary Roberts, Carey Wilson, and Robert Reichel. Not bad company.

Two things really stick out. First, it feels like Calgary has picked up where they left off in the bubble, where their power play clicked at 28.6% in ten games. The only personnel change comes at the top of the number one unit, where Rasmus Andersson has fit seamlessly in place of the departed Erik Gustafsson.

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Additionally, the Flames are getting good production from not one, but both of their units. The number one power play still gets the bulk of the time, but when they come off for a rest, Calgary looks just as dangerous with the second group on the ice. That isn’t something the Flames have had consistently for what feels like a long time.

Jacob Markstrom is good

You don’t need a bunch of numbers to tell you Markstrom has looked good, but I’ll give you them anyway because I’m a nerd. Through three starts, Markstrom’s 0.935 save percentage is top ten in the league for any goalie with multiple starts. Most impressive, though, is Markstrom’s 0.938 SV% on high-danger shots; he’s stopped 15 of 16 ten-bell attempts at all strengths this season.

Markstrom’s strong numbers only back up what has been evident to the eye: he just looks like a number one goalie. Even while allowing four goals on opening night in Winnipeg, Markstrom gives off a very calm and under control vibe in the crease. Knowing Calgary’s recent history with goalies and unrestricted free agents, this start is encouraging.

The third pair is off to a nice start

Juuso Valimaki

It felt like the Flames took a hit to their blueline depth during the off-season, at least on paper. It hasn’t played out that way through three games, however, thanks in large part to Calgary’s third duo of Juuso Valimaki and Nikita Nesterov. The pairing has fit well and allowed for a relatively even distribution of minutes at five-on-five. The coaching staff is just going to gain more confidence in Valimaki and Nesterov if they remain this effective.

Player CF% HDCF% xGF% OZS%
Nikita Nesterov 56.2 62.5 63.4 72.2
Juuso Valimaki 53.9 62.5 60.9 68.4

Valimaki and Nesterov lead all blueliners in possession, high-danger chances, and expected goals for. Yes, they’re seeing a high volume of offensive starts, but that’s to be expected when talking about a rookie and a guy who hasn’t played NHL minutes in more than three years. The encouraging news is Valimaki and Nesterov are making the most of those minutes, which allows the coaching staff to roll three pairings for the bulk of a game.

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