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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Milan Lucic struggled mightily down the stretch in 2021–22 after a hot start

Milan Lucic had an up-and-down 2021–22 season, to say the least.

Playing in his third season with the Calgary Flames, the 34-year-old winger kicked off the year with an impressive run of five-hole goals before going almost entirely quiet down the stretch (save for a memorable hit on Matt Duchene).

Lucic has one year remaining on his contract, which carries a $5.25 million hit against the Flames’ salary cap. What does the future hold for the veteran forward? Let’s take a look at his story.

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The past

Lucic’s story is well-known by now. After being selected by the Boston Bruins in the second round of the 2006 NHL Draft, the teenaged Lucic earned MVP honours as the Vancouver Giants won the 2007 Memorial Cup.

Lucic made the jump to the NHL with the 2007–08 Bruins and emerged as a 30-goal scorer in 2010–11. He added 12 points in 25 playoff games that year to help the Bruins win their first Stanley Cup since 1972.

Two years later, Lucic dominated in the playoffs as the Bruins made the Stanley Cup Final once more. They lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, but Lucic had fully established his reputation in Beantown as a beloved Big Bad Bruin.

After two more productive years in Boston, Lucic — a pending UFA — was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings. He had a strong year in L.A., helping the Kings return to the playoffs in 2016 after a disastrous 2014–15 season.

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Lucic had successfully set himself up to cash in on the open market, and he did just that in July 2016. Less than a month after his 28th birthday, the 6’3″, 231-pound mammoth signed a seven-year, $42 million contract to join the Edmonton Oilers.

The deal was heavily scrutinized by onlookers in Edmonton and around the league. To his credit, Lucic kicked off his Oilers tenure with a 50-point season. But the weight of his contract quickly exceeded the value of his on-ice contributions, with Lucic falling to just six goals in 79 games with the Oilers in 2018–19.

In 2019, the Oilers traded Lucic (along with a conditional third-round draft pick) to the Flames in exchange for James Neal. Both players had four years remaining on their respective contracts, with Neal carrying a $5.75 million cap hit; the Oilers agreed to retain $750,000 of Lucic’s bonus-laden $6 million AAV.

Lucic, the owner of a full no-movement clause, took a little while to warm up to the deal and required 28 games to score his first goal as a Flame. He caught on nicely down the stretch in 2019–20, though, and meshed very well on a line with Dillon Dube and Sam Bennett in the 2020 playoffs.

Lucic carried his momentum from the end of the 2019–20 season into 2020–21, during which he remained productive basically all year long. He finished eighth in team scoring with 10 goals and 23 points in 56 games.

The present

Here are three numbers:

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  • 48
  • 1
  • 4

The first number represents how many games Lucic played with the Flames from February 16 to the end of the playoffs (48).

The second and third numbers respectively represent how many goals (1) and points (4) Lucic scored during that span.

There is no sugarcoating those numbers. After starting the 2021–22 season with nine goals and 18 points in 46 games, putting him on pace for one of his best years in recent memory, Lucic completely fell off the map down the stretch. He finished as a minus-nine on a team with a plus-85 goal differential.

Lucic’s struggles came to a head in the playoffs, where he saw his ice-time cut drastically during the Edmonton series. He took just four shots in 12 playoff games, with only one of them coming in the Flames’ five-game loss to the Oilers.

According to Evolving-Hockey, Lucic’s on-ice expected goals percentage (50.22) in the playoffs was the worst of any Flames forward. After picking up an assist in Game 3 against Dallas, Lucic failed to record another point the rest of the way.

It was really fun to watch Lucic score five-hole goal after five-hole goal to start the season. They somehow just kept happening, giving Flames fans at the Saddledome had plenty of reasons to chant Lucic’s name.

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Unfortunately, Lucic’s scoring streak didn’t last. At a certain point, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a player’s “job” or “role” to score  — one goal in 48 games just isn’t good enough, especially for a forward who takes up such a massive chunk of the Flames’ payroll.

The future

Lucic has one year left on his deal. He’s due a $3 million signing bonus at the beginning of July, after which he’ll be paid a $1 million salary for the 2022–23 season.

Beginning on July 1, Lucic will be able to present the Flames with a 10-team list of teams to which he would accept a trade. While his no-movement clause still prevents him from being placed on waivers, Lucic will become a little bit easier to deal next month.

Lucic has been a legitimate upgrade on the player he replaced in Calgary and, at times, has even come somewhat close to matching the value of his contract. That being said, it seems like the right time for both sides to explore a change of scenery.

When they acquired him, the Flames had a spot open for Lucic on their third line. These days, the Flames have significantly stronger depth on both wings and a top prospect in Jakob Pelletier who has earned a long look in the NHL.

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Lucic has his own future to think about, too. If he’s keen to continue playing, it might not be best for his career to remain in Calgary as a depth forward. Accepting a trade to, say, Seattle or Arizona and playing higher in the lineup for a year could better position Lucic for another contract beyond his current one.

It’s also wise to consider the financial aspects of Lucic’s situation. After his bonus is paid out at the start of July, Lucic’s cap hit will exceed his actual compensation by a significant amount. How much interest would a team like Arizona or Ottawa have in getting $5.25 million closer to the cap floor while only committing to pay Lucic $875,000 in real money?

In short, there are a lot of factors to consider. Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane, and Oliver Kylington need new contracts. The Flames have multiple prospects deserving of promotions into the NHL. Lucic’s contract doesn’t really work for the Flames at this point, but it might fit in nicely with a rebuilding team — if he’s willing to go to one.

Whatever happens with Lucic this summer, Flames fans can (and will) always remember him as someone who found new life in Calgary for a while. He’s had some really fun moments with this team. But all things must come to an end.

2021-22 Flames player evaluations

Johnny Gaudreau | Calle Jarnkrok | Matthew Tkachuk | Trevor Lewis | Jacob Markstrom | Dillon Dube | Elias Lindholm | Chris Tanev | Adam Ruzicka

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