44Gaudreau Tkachuk
Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

An elite top line leads the list of early season Flames takeaways

There are numerous reasons Calgary is off to their best start in 20 years, but it’s hard to look past the performance of their top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk. The Flames are already a tenth of the way through the year and fully deserve their 6-1-1 record. It’s early, but it’s hard to find many negative trends, which is why the top line leads the list of mostly positive takeaways through the first month of the season.

The top line is legit

This shouldn’t really be a surprise, because the foundation for this line of Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and Lindholm was laid late last season. Remember, this trio was formed with about 16 games to go last year and combined for 51 points during that stretch. To see them picking up where they left off is encouraging but not unexpected.

In saying that, it feels like Calgary’s top trio has taken another step this year. As the only constant line through all eight games, Tkachuk, Lindholm, and Gaudreau have played more than 92 minutes together at five-on-five and have been dominant. The trio has combined for five goals together and have yet to be scored on at even strength and the story doesn’t stop there. Underlying metrics courtesy Natural Stat Trick.

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CF% HDCF% xGF% OZS%
58.8 63.0 61.9 44.6

This is the best I’ve ever seen Gaudreau play. Tkachuk’s game looks like it’s trending towards what we’re used to after the frustrations of last year. And Lindholm has been as consistent and reliable as ever and continues to cement himself as the team’s most complete centre. I know it’s only eight games, but combining last year’s results is starting to give us a decent sample size. This is a bona fide top line.

Oliver Kylington needs to stay in the lineup

Kylington went from number nine on many preseason depth charts to being a nightly top-four lock for the Flames, and good on him. After a strong preseason, Kylington took Nikita Zadorov’s spot on the left side of Chris Tanev to start Calgary’s five-game road trip in Detroit. With the way he’s playing and producing (four points in seven games), Kylington is showing no signs of looking back.

What we’re seeing from Kylington is crucial for two reasons. The Flames needed someone to step up and solidify a spot, which he’s done so far. But just as important, Kylington’s play has steadied Tanev’s game, which was way off in his time with Zadorov. It’s not even close when you compare the pairings.

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Pairing CF% HDCF% xGF% OZS%
Kylington-Tanev 60.0 66.7 61.7 49.1
Zadorov-Tanev 44.2 40.0 34.2 50.0

Calgary needs Tanev to be one of their best defencemen and he struggled while playing with Zadorov. With Kylington, on the other hand, Tanev looks like the revelation he was in his first year with the team. As of now, I don’t know how the Flames can split these two up, and Kylington is a huge reason why.

They’re not going to allow much

Eight games into the season, Calgarys sits sixth overall with a 53.3% even strength possession rate. The Flames rank ninth in limiting high danger scoring chances at five-on-five, allowing 8.96 per 60 minutes. Those are both solid numbers, but they probably don’t tell the whole story.

Calgary’s game scripts haven’t been conducive to high possession numbers and low chances against. With so many early multi-goal leads during this six-game run, it’s hard for score effects not to come into play. Even still, the Flames have limited opposition teams to single digit high danger chances in six of eight games and have kept it to five or under in four of those outings.

Much like the top line, this is a trend that started last year in Sutter’s first 30 games behind the bench. As such, it’s fair to say this brand of strong checking, defensive hockey will very much be central to Calgary’s identity this season.

They have two goalies who can play

We know how well Jacob Markström is playing, which is a massive positive. Even more encouraging, though, is the fact the Flames don’t have to keep rolling him out game after game to have a chance to win. That’s because Dan Vladar has given Calgary two decent starts and continues to give the coaching staff confidence to play him strategically, and not just in back-to-back situations.

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I truly believe managing Markström’s workload is vital, especially in a condensed Olympic year where he’ll likely be playing for Sweden. While Vladar’s 0.891 save percentage isn’t sparkling, he’s given the team a chance to win in both his starts, and that’s the most important part.

Having not allowed a goal in more than 134 consecutive minutes, Markström likely starts Tuesday night, which makes sense. With Vladar having won his first two starts, though, there’s no reason not to keep giving him semi-regular work in the early stages of the season.