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How to keep breaking out: the case for Dillon Dubé at first line right wing

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Lacoste
6 months ago
Hockey players are often tagged as creatures of habit. Some players put the left skate on before the right skate every game, while some players eat the same pasta meal on game days. Others follow extensive superstitions to ensure they are comfortable to provide their greatest performance in all hockey environments.
On the ice, these creatures do not become new beings.
On the ice, these are the same athletes who put that left skate on first. They have tendencies in their decision-making, the same skating stride as last night, similar shooting abilities each and every night, and usually make the same mistakes that fans have been pointing out night after night.
How do we manage these creatures? How do we keep the good habits, break the bad habits, and help these athletes grow as people and hockey players into the stars that they may have been drafted to be? That is the million-dollar question. Some players naturally progress from training, skills coach work, and being on the ice every day. Others may need extra encouragement and education on modern professional hockey to catch up to those gifted natural learners.
Dillion Dubé had a career year offensively last year with 18 goals and 27 assists for 45 points in a full 82-game campaign. Similarly, he had a career-high time on ice of 15:09 per night last season. Whether it was the production that warranted the ice time or the ice time that warranted the production, Dubé grew into an acceptable middle-six option for the Calgary Flames, in what was a difficult year for some Flames players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Andrew Mangiapane.
However, the unfortunate reality for the Calgary Flames is that Dillon Dubé turned 25 this summer. He is going into his sixth full professional hockey season and has critics and fans both unsure of his potential. If we grouped all NHL players by trends, we would see statistically that most players hit their “prime” around age 25 and begin to fall off over the next 5-10 years to various degrees. This implies that Dubé may have reached his peak, but I’d argue the opposite. I believe that with a thoughtful deployment approach to this upcoming season and proper execution, Dubé can break out, again, at age 25. His habits alongside certain linemates have resulted in poor performances, so I propose that Dubé fits well alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and Elias Lindholm.

The Case for 1RW: Linemate-dependent

Despite being listed as a centreman on NHL.com, Dubé only took 100 faceoffs through 82 games last season. This is below Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Nazem Kadri, Trevor Lewis, and Adam Ruzicka. I see Dubé as more of a winger in the modern NHL anyway because of his play-style. Dubé does most of his best work off the rush or in high-danger areas, at least in seasons before 2023 (around the net, in the bumper position, etc.). Because of a solid combination of skating with a quick release and good offensive awareness, Dubé can react to situations and space himself in and out of cycles correctly to ensure Calgary is both attacking offensively and still covered defensively. his straight-line skating habits also make him feel more like a winger where he can attack frequently off the rush, especially in odd-man situations. I look for him to continue to do such work this season with whoever he plays with.
However, if Dillon Dubé will be a winger for another season, there are only three realistic options for his lineup spot: 1RW, 2LW, or 2RW. In the pre-season, Dubé was slotted at 2LW beside Nazem Kadri and Matt Coronato. Currently, according to Daily Faceoff, Dubé is slotted at 2RW, alongside Kadri and Adam Ruzicka, while Andrew Mangiapane is at 1RW alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and Elias Lindholm. (New acquisition Yegor Sharangovich was also used at 1RW during pre-season.) The case to keep Dubé at 2LW seems to stem from historic trends: he shoots left and he has scored off the rush as a lefty multiple times. The case for 1RW is more complex but warrants a discussion.
The first discussion is who he was initially playing with as a 2LW: Nazem Kadri and Matt Coronato. Nazem Kadri is going into the second year of a 7-year deal at $7 million each year, with a no-movement clause for much of the contract. Kadri will be the second-line centre, barring any Lindholm trade. In 2022-23 at 5v5 (the most common on-ice strength in a hockey game), Nazem Kadri and Dubé performed well from a shot generation perspective but poorly from a shot quality and execution perspective, which worries me going into next season. Specifically, according to Natural Stat Trick, Dubé and Kadri together put up 55.3% of the shot attempts share when on the ice together, but only 47.7% of the goals and 49.8% of the expected goals. This correlates well with the high-danger info, where Dubé and Kadri only offered 47.9% of the high-danger attempts and 41.4% of the high-danger goals. All of these poor offensive numbers imply poor shot quality choices from the duo while conceding multiple tough opportunities, even with 61.6% of their faceoffs during the season being in the offensive zone. This is troubling, because unless new chemistry is found or new tactics re-invent the Flames’ playing identity, it seems that this line combination may be out-classed if kept intact. Coronato is a wildcard this year, and it is possible that he can perform well alongside Kadri and Dubé because of his rush skills, quick shot, and uber-quick decision-making. Coronato’s on-ice decision-making was a second or two ahead of his opponents in the USHL, and he has since put up back-to-back impressive seasons in college because of his toolkit and hockey sense. I am curious to see if Dubé and Kadri’s issues may be resolved by the offensive potential of a guy like Coronato. Nevertheless, Dubé and Kadri should not be a cemented-in duo for next season.
It is unclear if Adam Ruzicka will remain in that 2LW spot, so I have decided to focus on Dubé in first-line situations.
If you look at Dubé’s numbers alongside Huberdeau and Lindholm (2022-23), there are promising advanced metrics: 
(Time On Ice, Corsi For %, Goals For %, Expected Goals For %, High-Danger Corsi For %, High-Danger Goals For %, Offensive Zone Faceoff %)
Player 1Playing with:TOICF%GF%xGF%HDCF%HDGF%Off. F/O%
DubéKadri401:1055.3%47.7%49.8%47.9%41.4%61.6%
DubéLindholm416:4555.5%50.0%50.9%44.1%47.8%57.6%
DubéHuberdeau51:5157.7%100%61.2%68.4%100%47.4%
DubéLindholm & Huberdeau*9:0063.2%22.6%0%
*no goals for/against or faceoffs as a trio in the small sample
Dubé only played nine minutes total with both Lindholm and Huberdeau last year (no faceoffs, meaning the time is likely only between shifts on coincidence), yet he had great numbers with Huberdeau and relatively better numbers with Lindholm than with Kadri on an individual basis. This begs the question why this trio has not been tested yet.
Furthermore, if you isolate Dillon Dubé’s production (like HockeyViz does) and see his 2022-2023 season at left wing looks rough both offensively and defensively, where he was only shooting the most from low-danger areas unlike in previous seasons at centre, seemingly shooting strictly from the left side on offence while conceding 10% more Expected Goals Against (xGA) than league average and the majority of conceded chances were high-danger (see the red blob near crease). It is clear that if Dubé will not be deployed at centre, he is not able to control opposing defensive onslaughts as a distant left-winger while also only really providing offence from his wing, which is backward considering his identity and strengths as a hockey player. Playing with a defensively-responsible Lindholm should help these numbers improve and being able to play with a player as creative offensively as Huberdeau should cause his 2024 chart to look stronger and less stale.

Conclusion

Frankly put, Dubé’s NHL job is on the line this year since his contract will expire at the end of the 2023-24 season. He will be a restricted free agent who is eligible for arbitration so he will be able to fight for his next contract, but this year and upcoming contract are both crucial to Dubé’s NHL career longevity. Playing at 1RW alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and Elias Lindholm is worth a look since past numbers with Kadri do not look great team-wise despite a career-high in points for Dubé last year. To be fair, not all past statistical figures speak truthfully to future results in pro hockey. However, if Sharangovich is not locked in at 1RW, Dubé has demonstrated good numbers with both Huberdeau and Lindholm at 5v5 and should contest for that top-line spot. This presents a good argument for a trial period as a trio, at the very least, with the belief that Dubé can have a breakout year, again, at age 25.
Keep in mind: Dubé’s work ethic has been second-to-none the past few seasons, placing first in fitness testing for three years straight while also staying in Calgary over the summer to train. It is clear that the athlete cares deeply about his physical development as a hockey player and will work as hard as he can to prove himself this year. We’ll see if that work ethic can translate into a breakout season in 2023-24.

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