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A look at Calgary Flames coach Ryan Huska’s forward line blender

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
5 months ago
Since the beginning of the 2023-24 season, the Calgary Flames haven’t had a lot of cohesion or consistency in their forward combinations. Well, besides Mikael Backlund’s line with Andrew Mangiapane and Blake Coleman (and to a lesser extent the club’s fourth line).
Nine games in, let’s delve into how Flames head coach Ryan Huska has utilized his lines, and how that’s changed along the way.

Game 1: Winnipeg

Starting Lines5v5 TOIxGF%OZF%
Huberdeau – Lindholm – Dube3:4612.30.0
Sharangovich – Kadri – Coronato8:1913.966.7
Coleman – Backlund – Mangiapane4:5858.480.0
Greer – Ruzicka – Duehr4:5128.525.0
About midway through the game, the Flames swapped Dube and Mangiapane. Dube played 5:16 with Backlund and Coleman (78.9% xGF, 14.3% OZF%) and Mangiapane played 6:16 with Lindholm and Huberdeau (96.6% xGF, 50.0% OZF%). In short, the swap seemed to work really nicely; it really got the Lindholm line cooking and the Backlund trio stayed sharp.

Game 2: Pittsburgh

Starting Lines5v5 TOIxGF%OZF%
Huberdeau – Lindholm – Mangiapane8:0140.284.6
Ruzicka – Kadri – Dube10:1075.3100
Coleman – Backlund – Coronato8:0624.10.0
Greer – Sharangovich – Duehr9:5577.3n/a
Good news: Huska didn’t make any major shuffles in-game! Bad news: heavy O-zone starts didn’t translate to success for the Lindholm line, and heavy D-zone starts sorta neutralized the Backlund line. On the other hand, the other two lines were really effective – and that’s with Yegor Sharangovich suddenly being a centre!

Game 3: Washington

Starting Lines5v5 TOIxGF%OZF%
Huberdeau – Lindholm – Mangiapane8:3691.685.7
Ruzicka – Kadri – Dube8:3741.087.5
Coleman – Backlund – Coronato12:5888.214.3
Greer – Sharangovich – Duehr7:3480.7100
Huska went right back to the same four lines in Washington, and it largely worked. The Backlund line got heavy D-zone starts – and succeeded at moving the puck up ice to a great degree – and that line’s success facilitated heavy O-zone starts for everybody else. The Kadri line struggled despite that advantage, while Lindholm and Sharangovich’s lines performed well.

Game 4: Buffalo

Starting Lines5v5 TOIxGF%OZF%
Huberdeau – Lindholm – Mangiapane7:5556.760.0
Ruzicka – Kadri – Dube7:1523.4100
Coleman – Backlund – Coronato8:2571.280.0
Greer – Sharangovich – Duehr7:2553.2100
Against Washington, three of Huska’s four lines did well and so he went back to the same set-up in Buffalo. Once again, three of his four lines did well. Heck, the Backlund line was quasi-dominant from a possession standpoint. But once again the Kadri line struggled mightily despite 100% of their face-offs being in the offensive zone. Yikes.

Game 5: Columbus

Starting Lines5v5 TOIxGF%OZF%
Huberdeau – Lindholm – Mangiapane11:0145.433.3
Ruzicka – Kadri – Dube11:3166.971.4
Coleman – Backlund – Coronato8:3329.818.2
Greer – Sharangovich – Duehr7:4926.80.0
With two games of evidence under his belt that three lines were working well, Huska rolled the same four lines against Columbus. He gave Kadri’s group heavy offensive zone starts – for the third consecutive game – and it finally worked. However, heavy defensive zone starts contributed to the other three lines struggling hard.
Alright, now what?

Game 6: Detroit

Starting Lines5v5 TOIxGF%OZF%
Ruzicka – Lindholm – Coronato10:4555.366.7
Huberdeau – Kadri – Dube11:0755.9100
Coleman – Backlund – Mangiapane10:4087.350.0
Greer – Sharangovich – Duehr6:4952.450.0
After four and a half games apart, the Backlund line is reunited! The Sharangovich line remained intact, but the rest of the forwards were shuffled around a bunch. And the logic you would expect to see from a coach deploying lines on the road – heavy D-zone starts for your fourth line and Backlund’s line to allow heavy O-zone starts for your scoring lines – generally were followed and worked.
The Flames also put Sharangovich in Coronato’s spot on the Lindholm line for a chunk of the second half of the game (2:40 5v5 TOI, 85.8 xGF%, 25.0 OZF%).
Yeah, the Flames struggled against Detroit’s speed, but they fed into it with turnovers. The overall shape of their game and how their lines were used were generally pretty astute.

Game 7: NY Rangers

Starting Lines5v5 TOIxGF%OZF%
Huberdeau – Lindholm – Sharangovich7:4268.933.3
Ruzicka – Kadri – Duehr3:4368.2n/a
Coleman – Backlund – Mangiapane11:0177.550.0
Hunt – Dube – Coronato
After a game where the results weren’t great (due to turnovers) but the Flames generally played well structurally, the Flames debuted three new lines against the Rangers. (The lone holdover: Old Faithful, the Backlund line!) Hunt came in for A.J. Greer; Greer’s performance wasn’t awful, but getting fresh legs in after a long road trip (especially one that ended with a one-sided loss on the scoreboard) makes a lot of sense.
Due to the injury to Adam Ruzicka late in the first period, though, the Kadri and Dube lines became a bit of a hodgepodge for much of the game and so data on their performances are kind of muddled. Coronato played with Hunt (and Kadri or Dube) with 100% of his shifts starting in the O-zone. Especially in the survival mode of playing a forward short, the Flames leaned heavily on Backlund’s line (and Lindholm’s, since it was playing well) to give their other players lots of O-zone starts.

Game 8: St. Louis

Starting Lines5v5 TOIxGF%OSF%
Huberdeau – Lindholm – Kadri3:490.0100
Coleman – Backlund – Mangiapane10:0768.662.5
Hunt – Dube – Coronato3:1093.475.0
Greer – Sharangovich – Duehr4:0777.2100
The Backlund line, Old Faithful, sticks around. Greer returns after the injury to Ruzicka and is reunited with Sharangovich and Duehr on their proven-effective fourth line. Without Ruzicka for the top six, the other two lines are a bit of a hodgepodge, including Kadri playing as a winger and Dube, usually a winger, playing up the middle.
The Huberdeau-Lindholm-Kadri trio, seemingly a “What do we do with Huberdeau and Kadri?” declaration in player deployment form, lasted one period. The Backlund line stuck together for most of the game, but the other three lines were mixed and matched and shuffled, including Dryden Hunt getting 4:01 in Huberdeau’s spot on the top line (7.8 xGF%, 40.0 OZF%)
What was learned in this game of weird experiments? Not much. The Backlund line worked. The fourth line worked. Both of those notions were seemingly established in previous games.

Game 9: Edmonton

Starting Lines5v5 TOIxGF%OZF%
Hunt – Lindholm – Dube11:0016.940.0
Huberdeau – Kadri – Coronato10:1036.8100
Coleman – Backlund – Mangiapane11:3120.240.0
Greer – Sharangovich – Duehr7:0130.266.7
The Backlund and Lindholm lines was given heavy D-zone starts to give a bit more O-zone time to the other two lines. It didn’t really work. None of the Flames lines really had a good evening, even Old Faithful.

Early trends and conclusions

One of my thoughts throughout the Flames’ recent struggles has been “Hey, why hasn’t Huska broken up Mangiapane, Backlund and Coleman to fix the rest of the lineup?” Looking at their WOWY (“With or without you”) possession data, they’ve already tried that and the results weren’t great:
  • All three together: 64.4 xGF%
  • Backlund and Coleman without Mangiapane: 57.2 xGF%
  • Mangiapane without Backlund and Coleman: 49.4 xGF%
Similarly, the Greer-Sharangovich-Duehr line has cooked at 62.1 xGF% when used together. So the Flames have two lines – nominally their third and fourth lines – that work really well.
It’s the other two lines that aren’t clicking, and they’ve tried all sorts of different combinations of the team’s three offensive big guns of Huberdeau, Lindholm and Kadri.
  • All three together [9:34]: 36.1 xGF%
  • Huberdeau & Lindholm [61:15]: 47.7 xGF%
  • Huberdeau & Kadri [28:12]: 44.7 xGF%
  • Lindholm & Kadri [7:43]: 5.8 xGF%
  • Huberdeau away from Lindholm & Kadri [10:52]: 30.4 xGF%
  • Lindholm away from Huberdeau & Kadri [40:19]: 39.6 xGF%
  • Kadri away from Huberdeau & Lindholm [72:40]: 52.8 xGF%
  • None of them on the ice [183:37]: 58.2 xGF%
With any of the three on the ice at 5v5, the Flames are being out-scored 14-5. With none of them on the ice, they’re being out-scored 10-6.
And that, in itself, may be the big challenge with the Flames’ forward groups: there are combinations of those three guys that work better together, but none of the combinations have shown particularly exciting results. And the success or failure of the Flames’ season probably depends on Huska’s ability to get one (or more) of those three players going.
But when none of the combinations are working, what can be done besides trying different things and deploying those combinations in different ways to try to spark something.
What would the ideal line combos be for the Flames forward group? Let us know in the comments!

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