Photo credit:Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
Adam Ruzicka has turned into a game-breaker for the Calgary Flames
By Mike Gould1 year ago
Looking back, it seems absurd that Adam Ruzicka sat out of all but one of the Calgary Flames’ first 11 games of the season.
The 23-year-old forward has been a revelation for the Flames in a variety of roles since being promoted to regular status in early November, racking up 15 points in 16 games while pushing play at both ends of the ice.
Ruzicka logged just 5:33 as the Flames’ No. 4 centre in the team’s 5–4 loss to the Seattle Kraken on Nov. 1. A week later, with Jonathan Huberdeau sidelined with an upper-body injury, Ruzicka slotted in next to Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli on the top unit.
Save for a brief demotion back to the fourth line in late November (with Flames head coach Darryl Sutter commenting after the fact about there still being “a reckoning” for young players), Ruzicka has remained a top-nine fixture ever since.
It’s been fascinating to track Ruzicka’s progress over the years. It wasn’t long ago that he was a streaky sniper in the AHL who relied heavily upon his linemates to generate chances in the offensive zone. Even after giving him an extended look last season, the Flames elected to scratch Ruzicka down the stretch after acquiring Calle Jarnkrok and Ryan Carpenter in March.
They’d be remiss to scratch Ruzicka now. The big Slovak has genuinely been one of the Flames’ top performers over the last month, consistently producing during five-on-five play and helping to elevate his linemates.
Ruzicka has spent much of the last month on a line with Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman (the trio logged 9:25 together in Wednesday’s 5–3 win over the Minnesota Wild). While Backlund and Coleman have always been good together, Ruzicka has been a seamless fit and a valuable presence alongside the two veterans.
In just over 52 minutes together thus far, the Ruzicka–Backlund–Coleman line has outscored its opposition 4–1 and controlled 63.68% of the expected goals at five-on-five. They’ve benefitted from sky-high on-ice shooting and save percentages, but they’re also very much pulling their own weight — and then some.
We’ve all seen the Backlund-to-Ruzicka alley-oop goal by now (click on the link if you haven’t — you’re in for a treat). Ruzicka kept up the good work against the Wild on Wednesday, helping create Coleman’s game-tying goal early in the second period with a patient, confident play to drag the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury and into a dangerous scoring area.
Coleman, who also deserves a ton of credit for his line’s terrific play, found the puck in the crease and slammed it home for his fifth goal of the season.
Ruzicka initially didn’t get credit for an assist on Rasmus Andersson’s go-ahead goal late in the third period. Thankfully, the NHL’s official scorekeepers later rectified that mistake.
Andersson never would’ve been able to take control of the puck at the right circle in the Minnesota zone had Ruzicka not barrelled down against Freddy Gaudreau behind the net. Ruzicka stole the puck and poked it to Coleman, who found Andersson, who found the back of the net.
Forecheck? Paycheck. Just 12 seconds after Jon Merrill tied the game at three for Minnesota, Ruzicka helped the Flames regain the lead — and they wouldn’t look back from there.
The Flames signed Ruzicka to a two-year contract in late September, just one day before the first on-ice session of training camp. For a team with so much money tied up at the top of the roster, having a player contributing at Ruzicka’s level for just $762,500 is a ridiculous luxury.
Ruzicka’s current scoring rate is certainly unsustainable. That said, he’s certainly earned the right to stay in the lineup. It’s only taken him a month to leapfrog nearly a half-dozen players on the Flames’ forward depth chart.
If anything, Ruzicka’s success should open the door for the Flames to promote some more Stockton Heat alumni to the big club. There’s certainly room: Calgary’s existing fourth line of Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, and Brett Ritchie has underperformed all season.
It seems the Flames’ coaching staff is beginning to lose faith in the existing fourth line. Lucic barely saw the ice in the second and third periods and ultimately logged just 5:16 — his lowest TOI figure in 15 years — in the win over the Wild on Wednesday.
Minnesota’s best line against the Flames was its fourth unit, consisting of a veteran player in Ryan Reaves next to a pair of 5’10” kids in Mason Shaw and Connor Dewar. That trio had its way with the Flames’ fourth line all night, causing all kinds of problems with its speed and energy.
The Flames have a lot going for them right now. Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri are coming around after subpar stretches, Tyler Toffoli remains hot, and the Ruzicka–Backlund–Coleman line has been dominant.
The next thing the Flames need to figure out before they can become a real powerhouse is how they can get something out of all four lines at the same time. While they might not have another 6’4″, 215-pound sniper on the farm, they could use another player of any stature who brings energy, hunger, skill, and finishing ability. (Note: This column was written before the Flames recalled Matthew Phillips on Thursday morning.)
For now, Ruzicka is the player the Flames have needed all season long: a game-breaker.
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