Did anybody see this coming?
Milan Lucic has become an invaluable part of the Calgary Flames’ offensive attack. Skating on a unit with Andrew Mangiapane and Mikael Backlund, Lucic has found real chemistry with his linemates and is once again driving play like a borderline top-six forward.
Both Backlund and Mangiapane have seen their offensive and defensive results improve next to the hulking winger. Lucic hasn’t been a passenger on the so-called “Dough Line“; instead, he’s been a key part of its success.
How did Lucic get to the point where these sorts of results from him are surprising? For some additional context, let’s take a look back at his time in Los Angeles and Edmonton.
On Jul. 1, 2016, then-Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli signed Lucic to a seven year contract worth $6 million annually.
Lucic recorded a 50 point year with the Oilers in 2016-17 but quickly showed signs of regression in the first season of his contract. In 2015-16, Lucic helped his Los Angeles Kings play excellent hockey at both ends of the ice; in his debut go-round in Edmonton, Lucic contributed offensively to a lesser degree while falling off the map defensively.
The Oilers surrendered 2.36 expected goals per 60 with Lucic on the ice in 2016-17, tied for the fourth-worst on-ice mark of any player on the team. His expected goals percentage, 49.17%, ranked 14th among 26 Oilers skaters (min. 10 GP).
In 2017-18, Lucic had the worst season of his career. His offensive play (particularly on the man-advantage) continued to deteriorate and his defensive results remained underwater, despite small improvements. Still, his 5v5 expected goals percentage climbed into the Oilers’ top-10, with only nine of the team’s 26 other skaters (again, min. 10 GP) boasting a better result than Lucic’s 52.64 xGF%.
Lucic was 29 three seasons ago and in the middle of a huge period of regression; now, he's on his way to putting together a second consecutive strong two-way season. who knew it was possible? #Flames pic.twitter.com/aJvwg3Eu2j
— Mike Gould (@miketgould) February 13, 2021
Something funny happened in 2018-19. Lucic remained woefully ineffective in the offensive zone, scoring just six goals in 79 games, but he started putting up some genuinely good defensive numbers. With Lucic on the ice at 5v5, the Oilers allowed just 2.14 goals against/60; as a whole, the Oilers averaged 2.65 goals against/60 in 2018-19. Lucic’s expected goals rate of 49.30% ranked 5th on the Oilers. Evolving-Hockey (subscription required) calculated Lucic’s defensive play in 2018-19 as being worth 3.1 expected goals above replacement (xGAR), the best mark on the Oilers.
Still, Lucic’s abysmal offensive play in 2018-19 frustrated Oilers fans and management alike. New general manager Ken Holland sought to rid his team of the final four years of Lucic’s $6 million contract; similarly, in Calgary, Brad Treliving’s team was one catastrophic season into James Neal’s five year deal annually worth $5.75 million.
As everybody now knows, the two provincial rivals decided to swap problems. The Flames received Lucic (with $750,000 of his yearly salary retained by the Oilers) and a conditional draft pick which eventually became a 2021 third-rounder; the Oilers got Neal. Both players involved in the swap had four years remaining on their respective contracts.
An overwhelming majority at the time judged the deal as being an easy win for the Oilers. Prior to his stint with the Flames, Neal had been a strong offensive player with passable defense in both Vegas and Nashville; Lucic was coming off a solid year of defensive play but it looked like he would be a permanent liability for Calgary in the offensive zone.
But Neal’s struggles with Calgary in 2018-19 far surpassed those Lucic had ever displayed in his career. According to Evolving-Hockey, Neal was the sixth-worst offensive player in the entire league and his total xGAR figure of -7.3 ranked 879th (out of 893 players) in the NHL.
Neal began his Oilers tenure with nine goals in eight games. Lucic scored his first Flames goal in his 28th game with the club. To put it mildly, early returns in the trade favoured Edmonton.
But Lucic heated up as the season progressed, recording eight goals and 16 points in his final 41 regular season games and playing dominant defensive hockey along the way. The Flames surrendered just 2.07 expected goals against/60 with Lucic on the ice in his final 41 contests—among Flames regulars, only captain Mark Giordano (2.04 xGA/60) fared better in his own zone during that span.
Make no mistake, Neal also rebounded somewhat with the Oilers (albeit not to the same level that his early-season hot streak might have promised). He remained a negative-impact player in both zones at even strength; however, he regained his prowess on the power play, finishing sixth in the NHL with 12 goals on the man-advantage.
Lucic finished his first regular season in Calgary with eight goals and 20 points in 68 games. Neal posted 19 goals and 31 points in 55 contests and added three more post-season points (two of them goals) en route to the Oilers’ four-game qualifying round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Flames beat the Winnipeg Jets in the qualifying round before losing to the Dallas Stars in round one of the playoffs. Lucic was a big part of the Flames’ post-season success, recording six points in 10 games while finding great chemistry with Sam Bennett and Dillon Dube.
Lucic was not impressive in the opening games of the 2020-21 season. He was the worst player on the ice in Calgary’s season debut, posting an atrocious 5.92 expected goals percentage and drawing harsh criticism from one, er, Mike Gould in FlamesNation’s post-game recap.
Suffice to say, things have since improved on the Lucic front. He scored goals in back-to-back games on Jan. 28 and 30, despite playing a team-low 9:25 in the latter contest. After the calendar flipped to February, Lucic found his gear and started turning in praise-worthy performances.
Lucic has seen far greater deployment at even strength recently as a result of his excellent play-driving. In his last six games, Lucic has posted expected goals percentages of 82.05, 68.94, 69.83, 78.37, 91.26, and 53.76.
Lucic received a well-earned promotion to Backlund’s line after his regular centre, Derek Ryan, suffered a hand injury. Including power play time, Lucic has averaged around 14 minutes a night ever since (up from nine to 12 early in the year).
The Flames’ new third line—with Mangiapane, Backlund, and Lucic—has been nothing short of dynamite since it was formed. Most encouragingly, Lucic hasn’t been a drag on his new linemates; instead, he’s actually helped them be better.
|Lucic Linemate(s)||Status of Lucic||5v5 time on ice||5v5 expected goals percentage (xGF%)||5v5 high-danger chance percentage (HDCF%)|
|Mikael Backlund||With Milan Lucic||58:49||75.04||74.07|
|Mikael Backlund||Without Milan Lucic||103:07||52.17||47.73|
|Andrew Mangiapane||With Milan Lucic||39:31||74.17||77.78|
|Andrew Mangiapane||Without Milan Lucic||117:40||65.76||65.91|
|Mikael Backlund with Andrew Mangiapane||With Milan Lucic||37:37||74.36||77.78|
|Mikael Backlund with Andrew Mangiapane||Without Milan Lucic||56:06||69.89||66.67|
Evidence of chemistry between Backlund and Mangiapane dates back to last season; however, since Lucic’s arrival, the already great combination has started to click at an elite level.
The “Dough line” nickname—reviled as it may be, unfortunately—originated both from a literal translation of Andrew “Bread Eater” Mangiapane’s last name and the hefty dough attached to Backlund and Lucic’s contracts. It may not be ideal to pay two players over $5 million each to play on the third line, but the reality is that this new combination gives the Flames a dominant shut-down deployment option to use against other teams’ stars.
Lucic is no longer the fearsome offensive threat he was in Boston and he’s found a new identity after his struggles to find a role in Edmonton. He makes the odd mistake with the puck but, generally speaking, he’s a low-risk player who works effectively in conjunction with linemates of certain skillsets.
As long as Lucic remains a positive influence on two of the Flames’ best two-way players, he’ll be worth his salary. He certainly represents an improvement on the player Treliving traded to acquire his services. Who knows how long Lucic will remain able to reverse his previous regression—he is 32, after all, and he still has two more years after this one on his contract.
For now, Flames fans should just sit back and enjoy what Lucic is doing for the team. Among Flames with 100+ minutes of ice time this season, Lucic ranks second behind Johnny Gaudreau with 2.80 points/60. His 11.76 on-ice shooting percentage is bound to regress but his underlying impacts look rock-solid.
Oh, also, if it matters to you—he has 33 hits in 13 games. #GRIT.
This article features numbers from Natural Stat Trick.