For Flames fans, the final month or so of this season was a mostly miserable slog to an inevitable playoff elimination. One positive and important trend emerged from that awful procession, though: Calgary’s new top line of Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, and Johnny Gaudreau. The team’s three best forwards combined to form a consistently dangerous and productive line that also gives Flames fans something to look forward to next season.
Head coach Darryl Sutter put his new top line together following an Apr. 5 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was the team’s eighth regulation loss in nine games and led into a previously unscheduled four-day practice break. The trio’s first game was Apr. 10 as Gaudreau put up two points en route to a 5-0 win over Edmonton. The line stayed together for almost all of Calgary’s final 16 games, save for a few periods in early May.
All three players saw an offensive uptick upon being put together, but Gaudreau’s was the most dramatic. Johnny posted almost 45% of his total offence for the season in 16 games with Tkachuk and Lindholm, which really drives home how stale things had gotten for him with Sean Monahan.
Gaudreau looked like a completely different player down the stretch. More accurately, he looked like the dynamic offensive threat Flames fans had become accustomed to the prior six seasons. Gaudreau wasn’t the only one benefitting, though. All three players saw major bumps across the board, as illustrated below with on-ice and individual metrics at five-on-five. Underlying numbers courtesy Natural Stat Trick.
I was expecting to see a big swing comparing the first 40 games to the final 16, but it was more staggering than I was anticipating. All three of Lindholm, Gaudreau, and Tkachuk saw improved outputs across the board, the vast majority by a huge margin. For instance, Gaudreau and Lindholm more than doubled their goals-per-60 rate, while Tkachuk almost doubled his per-60 points rate.
Most significantly, all three players were over 57% expected goals at five-on-five, which would put them in the same realm as other good NHL top lines. A range of, say, 57% to 59% over a full season would put this trio in the mix with lines that feature Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, and Brad Marchand, for example. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but also promising.
There’s one crucial question that needs to be answered when discussing the future of this line: will all three players be here to start next season? Trade speculation will follow the Flames all summer long, and for good reason. This core has had virtually zero playoff success since 2015, which puts the long-term future somewhat in question for two members of this line.
As I’ve stated before, I fully believe Johnny Gaudreau wants to stay in Calgary beyond his current contract, which expires at the end of next season. That said, a deal still needs to be done and some believe he’s a prime trade chip this off-season. Tkachuk also has one year left on his current deal and his frustrating campaign have some wondering if a huge money, long-term extension is the way to go.
If all three players are back for next season, though, this line has to be written in pen from day one of training camp in September. Yes, the sample size is small, but Tkachuk, Gaudreau, and Lindholm gave the Flames their most dangerous top line since the Purple Gatorade Trio was scoring at will for the first 50 games of 2018-19.
If this line can sustain something close to what they did down the stretch over a full season, Calgary should benefit from a sizable trickle down, too. Over their first 40 games, the Flames averaged 2.55 goals before teaming up Lindholm, Gaudreau, and Tkachuk. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that number swelled to 3.31 in the final 16 with this trio leading the way.
In what was a largely negative campaign, Flames fans still had a few positive stories to carry them into the off-season. Andrew Mangiapane developed into a bona fide top six winger. Chris Tanev was one of the league’s elite defenders. Noah Hanifin took the biggest step of his career. And, perhaps most important, a dangerous new top line emerged down the stretch.