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Photo Credit: Candice Ward/USA Today Sports

After Milan Lucic’s bounce-back 2020-21, what can he do for an encore? (2021 year in review)

If you’re like most of us, you’ve binged a lot of programs during the pandemic. One program many have discovered is Apple TV’s Ted Lasso. For Ted Lasso fans, 2020-21 is the season where Calgary Flames forward Milan Lucic embraced being his team’s Roy Kent.

The past

Lucic has had a pretty strong hockey career overall. A product of Vancouver’s minor hockey system, he made the WHL’s Vancouver Giants as a 17-year-old and ended up playing in two Memorial Cups over two seasons with the Giants – he was named the tournament’s top player in his second go-around.

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A second round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2006, he made the NHL roster out of training camp in 2007 (as a 19-year-old) and has been an NHL regular ever since. He played eight seasons with Boston, scoring 30 goals and winning a Stanley Cup in 2011. He was flipped to Los Angeles in the summer of 2015 – part of a pair of trades that landed Martin Jones in San Jose – and then Lucic signed a hefty seven year, $42 million deal with the Edmonton Oilers.

Lucic and the Oilers just didn’t work out. His $6 million cap hit basically meant that to meet expectations, he’d need to produce offensively at a level similar to other players with that cap hit. Because Lucic played a physical style and was getting into his 30s, it just wasn’t in the cards as Lucic slowed down a little bit and didn’t really fit in with Edmonton’s style.

After a couple awkward seasons in Edmonton, he waived his no-move clause in 2019 to facilitate a trade to Calgary for a similarly miscast James Neal – who wasn’t scoring for the Flames and subsequently didn’t fit as a checking forward.

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The present

The 2019-20 season seemed to be one of introspection for Lucic, as he seemingly tried to figure out what he had left in the tank and where he fit in with the Flames. He initially had no clear role under head coach Bill Peters, but a coaching transitions and a role mentoring youngsters like Dillon Dube gave him a niche and seemed to rejuvenate him.

If 2019-20 was Lucic figuring himself out, 2020-21 was him embracing his role. Much of the first season of Ted Lasso involves Roy Kent, a mid-30s former high-end midfielder, adjusting to being a supporting player. Lucic has made the adjustment, and spent the entire season as a third line winger and arguably one of the Flames’ most consistently reliable performers.

Lucic was eighth among Flames forwards in average five-on-five ice time per game. Among regulars, he was eighth in Expected Goals For Per 60 and fifth in Expected Goals Against Per 60. That’s about where you would expect and hope to see him fit in: he’s in a checking role, and the gig is to prevent opposition offense and maybe chip in a bit, too. Five-on-five, you could argue Lucic chipped in offensively more than would be expected: he was sixth in goals (eight) and points (21) at full strength among forwards.

For the traditional box car stats, Lucic had 10 goals and 23 points. He was seventh among forwards in both respects, and it’s hard to argue with those results. He had a clear role as a crash-and-bang third liner and a net-front presence on the second power play unit. He played his role well and aside from being pricey for that role, it’s hard to find many faults with what he brought to the table.

Lucic played in his 1,000th NHL game this past season and was voted Calgary’s Masterton Trophy nominee by the local PHWA chapter – disclosure: I am a member.

The future

In June, Lucic turns 33. In July, he’ll be exposed in the Seattle expansion draft – he’s waived his no-move clause to allow the Flames to expose him. He’s from the Pacific Northwest, is a solid veteran and Seattle needs to hit the salary floor, so it’s not impossible that he could be selected by the Kraken.

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Lucic has two seasons left on his current contract with a $5.25 million AAV to the Flames and another $750,000 covered by the Oilers. Based on this season, it seems reasonable to expect at least one more season at this season’s level of performance from Lucic as a rock-solid bottom six forward. After that, who knows?

If nothing else, Lucic has proven himself savvy and self-aware enough as a player that he could continue reshaping his game as a role player as he gets older, though his ability to succeed at that may be determined by how much foot-speed he loses over time.