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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Exploring the Sean Monahan paradox

Eight years ago, the Calgary Flames selected Sean Monahan sixth overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. His selection was the first big building block in the club’s rebuild, and the hope was he could be a foundational piece for the club.

Eight years later, Monahan is one of the most productive players in that draft class: second in goals and third in points. But he’s reaching a unique juncture in his career, where the aspects of his game that made him so successful may also have contributed to his offensive game tailing off recently.

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One of the calling cards of Monahan’s game since he was a fresh-faced rookie is that he’s been really, really consistent at getting to the front of the net and scoring goals.

Here’s a heat map from his career, via @ice_hockey:

In terms of shot volume, Monahan lives in what hockey people call “the high rent district.” In terms of his goal-scoring, that’s also true. Since his debut in 2013, Monahan’s most common goals were wrist shots from between 15 and 20 feet – basically the area immediately in front of the net in the slot. He’s also been effective with tips, redirects and rebounds from that area.

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If you look at recent highlight videos, there’s a lot of Monahan scoring goals from that area.

But here’s the rub: the reason why hockey people call it “the high rent district” is because the price of hanging around that part of the ice is high. Defensemen and goalies often employ their sticks as weapons in that area, with slashes and cross-checks often going uncalled in that part of the ice as players jostle for position.

Monahan is one of the most productive players in the net-front area and the slot in Flames history, and certainly within the 2013 draft class, but his body has paid the toll for that productivity. Since 2017, Monahan has had injuries on his wrists (twice), his hips (three times) and his groin. And that’s just the injuries that have required surgeries and that were disclosed by the team; he definitely had less severe injuries that likely weren’t publicly disclosed.

Via Evolving-Hockey, here’s a quick look at how Monahan’s game has changed, performance-wise, over the past five seasons. (If you’re into advanced stats, subscribe to Evolving-Hockey. It’s expensive and incredibly interesting if you want to drill down into different parts of players’ games.)

The following table is Goals Above Replacement (GAR), broken down into six elements: even strength offense and defense, power play offense, shorthanded defense, penalties taken and drawn. A positive number means a player is above a replacement player in that category, a negative number means they’re below replacement.

Season Total GAR EV Off. EV Def. PP Off. SH Def. Taken Drawn
2016-17 7.1 8.1 -3.4 1.2 0.8 1.5 -1.1
2017-18 10.1 13.3 -4.3 1.7 -0.4 1 -1.2
2018-19 12.1 8.9 -3.4 3.8 0 2.3 0.5
2019-20 1.7 2.8 -3.3 1.6 0 1.1 -1
2020-21 0.1 -2.9 0.5 1.5 0.5 1 -0.5

Let’s dive in!

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  • His offense has diminished quite a bit, and now he’s below replacement in that category. You can probably point to the injuries as a big reason there, as having your hips and wrists turned into scar tissue makes it tough to go to the net and do cool hockey things.
  • But he’s made improvements defensively, transforming from a pretty unimpressive defensive presence to slightly above replacement.
  • His power play offense has stayed pretty consistent.
  • His shorthanded defense has been pretty consistent.
  • Collectively, his penalties taken and drawn have wobbled around replacement level.

Taken as a whole, the numbers suggest that Monahan’s become a less effective offensive player in recent seasons but he seems to have tried to compensate with better defensive play. For the curious, the better defensive players on the Flames (from a GAR perspective) in 2020-21 were Andrew Mangiapane, Derek Ryan, Mikael Backlund and Milan Lucic.

Can Monahan bounce back as an offensive player? A lot of it depends on if he can go to the front of the net and stay healthy. Defending is a lot easier on your body than attacking, and Monahan has faced a lot of punishment and produced a lot of goals as a result, but eventually the body cannot take it anymore and a player needs to be transitioned into a less prominent, less demanding role. Perhaps Monahan ends up as a shutdown player or a defensive specialist.

But for a Flames club that seems like it’ll be winning (or losing) a lot of close games, an extra goal or two from Monahan over the season could make the difference between playing in the playoffs or not. Perhaps trying Monahan in a more sheltered role than he’s previously been in could allow the coaching staff to keep him fresh, healthy, and squeeze out a few more goals over the season.

For this to happen, though, the Flames may need to get even more than they have been from Backlund and Elias Lindholm, which may be a tall order considering Lindholm’s been their key offensive centre and Backlund has been their key defensive centre. How the Flames manage their pivots will be a big storyline to follow throughout training camp (and beyond).

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