In the two years preceding this past regular season, discussions surrounding the name Sean Monahan had polarized into two dramatically different narratives. While the first five seasons of the opportunistic centreman’s career culminated in a magnificent sixth that saw him notch 34 goals and 82 points and flirt with NHL stardom, the following year witnessed his numbers wither to a mere 22 goals and 48 points before the season prematurely halted.
The dip stirred speculation and skepticism among quarantined Calgary Flames fans as they twiddled their thumbs and stared at the flecks on their ceiling for months. Was the point-per-game tempest in the 2018-19 campaign a fluke? Was the disappointing sequel of 2019-20 a temporary bout of bad luck? Which season was the anomaly? Which performance represented the true Sean Monahan? Is he a first-line fixture or a secondary scorer? What is he? Who is he? Who am I? Who can I trust? Is any of this real? Is any of this worth it? Does the world dissolve, disintegrate, disappear into an empty and endless void every time I close my eyes?
After an inconclusive bubble playoff and an underwhelming pandemic season, it seems that Monahan has answered some of the (less existential) above questions for us. His regression continued without a hint of resurgence. His goal-scoring and possession numbers plummeted to his rookie season standards. While his playmaking and power play production persisted at passable rates, Monahan proved this past season that the glory from two years ago has slinked and slithered from his grasp. The verdict looks finalized—Sean Monahan is a second-liner.
*(Unless the hip injury that haunted him for half of the season was to blame for all of his struggles. If Monahan suggests a return to form next season—in Calgary or elsewhere—let those questions spiral once more.)
The central theme inking the first six chapters of Sean Monahan’s career with the Calgary Flames can be distilled into a single numerical word: second.
As the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NHL entry draft when the Flames snatched him from the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL, Monahan was the second-highest Flames draft selection of the past decade (alongside Matthew Tkachuk in 2016, who was also drafted sixth). He finished second on the entire team in goal scoring as a rookie after cracking the roster for the 2013-14 season.
He was second on the Flames in goals-per-game the following year, second in both goals and points the season after that, second in points only the next year (as he led the squad in goals), second in points again the following season (sporting the team goal crown once more), and second in both points and goals a final time for that fabled 2018-19 boom.
He netted at least 30 goals three separate times. He posted over 60 points four separate times. While his yearly totals mounted and mounted, his role and scoring rates as compared with his teammates indicated the same thing. Sean Monahan was the unrivaled first-line centre of the Calgary Flames, and he seemed capable of sustainably and reliably producing at a first-line rate for the rest of his career.
Now, the central theme inking the most recent chapter of Sean Monahan’s career with the Flames can be distilled into a different numerical word: sixth.
Monahan finished sixth among all Flames players in both goals and points this past season. For those nitpickers nagging us to remember that he missed the last handful of games to prepare his hip for a long-awaited-but-long-hushed surgery, he ranked sixth on the team in points-per-game, too. He even finished sixth in face-off percentage, a realm over which he usually reigns.
The gulf between the second-highest scorer on a hockey team and the sixth-highest scorer on a hockey team absolutely gapes. The latter is still valuable—Sean Monahan accumulated assists at a pace reminiscent of his better years, plus contributed a healthy helping of power play points. The sixth-highest producer on the team still provides essential secondary scoring to complement the elite marksmen.
But, frankly, the lopsided style of play Monahan offers on a roster demands that he snipe. Monahan posted the lowest even-strength CF% of any Flames skater who dressed more than 12 games this past season, largely due to his failure to offset his defensive weaknesses with his previously customary onslaughts of offence. As usual, he and Johnny Gaudreau played sheltered minutes—he began 67.13% of his shifts in the offensive zone, after all.
When that brand of coddled deployment translates to buckets of goals, it is totally justifiable. But when the centreman depended upon by the Flames to atone for defensive lapses on the scoresheet struggles to score, when liabilities lap and outweigh payoffs, questions arise as to where he could feasibly fit in future lineups.
Maybe Monahan’s skillset is not entirely to blame, though. Neither Dominik Simon, Josh Leivo, nor Brett Ritchie exactly represent a substitute for Elias Lindholm. Shuffled and reshuffled lineups filled Monahan’s right flank with feebler talents than he has known in his best seasons.
Plus, of course, one wonders how much his challenges stemmed from that devilish hip of his. Monahan only scored 3 goals and 7 points in his final 24 games of the season, and Sutter suggested that he was grimacing through every shift in that span. Hockey is hard—healthy hips help. Perhaps some restored mobility after he recovers will inspire a resurgence in his production. Or perhaps the issue really is his calibre. Wherever he plays next year, we will see.
Pegged to make $6.375 million for two more seasons, Monahan has a couple controllable years crammed into his current contract before he adorns any shelves on the open market. That fact might be more comforting to Ottawa Senators, Columbus Blue Jackets, or New York Rangers fans, though. The rumour mill churns and spits a new possible destination for Monahan every week, and while names like Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk have sprouted like pimples in trade conversations for a while now, they’ve been consistently popped. Only Monahan continues to circulate among whispers and insiders, and it’s seeming more and more likely that the hotly anticipated splash that Flames fans are begging Brad Treliving to make will use the alternate captain as the rock displacing the water.
The safest speculation about Sean Monahan’s movement, however, is that he will not be joining the Seattle Kraken on the day of the expansion draft. His floor is a top-six asset, after all. Barring an absolutely bonkers surprise when they announce their protection list, the Flames will reserve him. Unless they ship him elsewhere first. Or unless that brittle hip just crumbles into dust one of these days. Sean Monahan is a question mark right now—but, at the very least, he is a question mark who hinted for the second consecutive year that he belongs on second-line sentences, regardless of who ends up holding the pen.