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Maple Leafs 2, Flames 0: Calgary has a top-six problem

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Gould
1 year ago
The Calgary Flames split another two-game series with the Toronto Maple Leafs this weekend, winning the first game on Friday before being held without a goal on Saturday.
The Leafs soundly outplayed the Flames in these two games, drawing comparisons to the previous time these two teams met for a back-to-back set.
Back on Feb. 22, the Flames managed to seal a 3-0 win in Toronto despite controlling just 31% of the expected goals at even strength in the game. Two nights later, the Leafs dominated possession once again and finally managed to solve David Rittich enough to win, scraping out a 2-1 decision in overtime.
Fast-forward one month and one coach later. Fresh off an embarrassing 7-3 loss in Edmonton, the Flames returned to The Six on Friday for the first time since Darryl Sutter’s return behind the bench. They somehow won 4-3 despite clinging on for dear life at points, ultimately surrendering 52 shot attempts and 11 high-danger chances at even strength while respectively generating just 28 and four of their own.
A Flames win on Saturday would have meant a great deal. It would have allowed them to keep pace with Montreal in the divisional playoff race while gaining even more separation from Vancouver.
Instead, they put up another stinker. Jack Campbell and the Leafs cruised to a 2-0 shutout win and fired yet another dart in the direction of Calgary’s rapidly deflating balloon. The Flames now sit four points back of Montreal and have played one extra game.
Everybody knows the Flames’ forward group has no shortage of holes. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are currently playing with a winger who entered Calgary’s training camp without a contract and who has just 15 points in his last 92 games. With all due respect to Brett Ritchie, the days of Alex Chiasson and David Jones on that line suddenly don’t look so bad in hindsight.
Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm have also played with a rotating crop of wingers, ranging from Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube to Ritchie, Sam Bennett, and Josh Leivo. Lately, not much has worked up there.
The Flames entered this season with the strong desire to give Lindholm an extended shot at the centre position. “I think we really want to explore whether or not we have a better lineup with Elias Lindholm at centre than right-wing,” ex-head coach Geoff Ward said last November.
Lindholm’s positional switch has done little to curtail his production. He currently leads the Flames with 28 points (eight goals, 20 assists) in 32 games and, generally speaking, the Flames typically control the play when he’s on the ice. Lindholm’s line struggled in Toronto and he posted on-ice 5v5 expected goals marks of 9.18% and 32.37% in the two games but, otherwise, he has ranked among the Flames’ better play-drivers.
While Lindholm should likely remain at centre, the same argument cannot be made nearly as effectively in favour of Sean Monahan. The perennial 20-goal scorer looks unlikely to achieve that feat this year and has been struggling mightily as of late, recording points in just five of his last 15 games.
As has been the case in recent years, Monahan is having some serious issues with driving play and looks to be dragging Gaudreau down by a considerable amount. His on-ice 5v5 expected goals rate has fallen below 50% in 11 of his last 15 games.
Johnny Gaudreau with and without Sean Monahan since the 2018-19 season
Gaudreau statusMonahan status5v5 TOI5v5 CF%5v5 xGF%5v5 SCF%5v5 HDCF%
With Johnny GaudreauWith Sean Monahan2261:4352.1051.3350.0750.66
With Johnny GaudreauWithout Sean Monahan463:5252.6156.3354.6955.21
Without Johnny GaudreauWith Sean Monahan256:3844.7144.0343.2347.62
Without Johnny GaudreauWithout Sean Monahan5825:4952.1852.0052.5752.09
With both Gaudreau and Monahan on the ice at 5v5 over the last three seasons, the Flames have outscored their opponents by a 110-96 margin. It has been a good offensive combo that has given up a little more than its fair share in the defensive zone.
Now, Gaudreau and Monahan have stopped scoring. The duo has combined for just seven goals this season at even-strength and has rotated through a lot of different faces on the right side.
From a stylistic perspective, it’s fair to ask whether Monahan is Gaudreau’s best complementary option at centre. Gaudreau still boasts the ability to break out of his zone in a flash and carry the puck through neutral territory as the relied-upon number-one option.
As a centre, Monahan has a lot more ground to cover. That rings even more true these days as Sutter continues to hammer the Monahan line with defensive-zone starts (Gaudreau and Monahan both lined up for six D-zone starts on Saturday and just one in the attacking zone).
From the day he was drafted sixth in the 2013 Draft, Monahan’s biggest downside has always been his skating ability. He has a knack for finishing offensive plays and getting into the right position to fire shots on net but, compared to Gaudreau, he plays a relatively stationary game.
With Monahan often being the last forward to exit his own defensive zone on breakouts, he’s often forced to try and catch up while Gaudreau is free-wheeling 30 feet ahead of him. As a winger, playing higher in his own defensive zone, Gaudreau often has a head-start on the attack regardless of who carries the puck across the blue line.
The difference in speed between Monahan and Gaudreau seems to have become more apparent this season, particularly as Sutter has started to lean more heavily upon Monahan to play defensive-minded hockey. It’s led to the combination falling out of sync, particularly in the transitional game.
Might it be time to shift Monahan to the wing? The move could reduce some of the strain on Monahan and allow him to lead the charge on offense with a head-start of his own. His big frame could prove useful for receiving pucks rimmed along the boards. He might be able to preserve some of his energy for bursts up the ice if he’s allowed to play a less rigorous defensive position that’s tailored more towards his attributes.
The Flames could choose to deploy four versatile and responsible centres with speed. They could even keep Monahan on Gaudreau’s line (as the other winger) and slot Lindholm in as their pivot. Mikael Backlund should be reunited with Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane on the tried-and-true “MMA Line.” Derek Ryan and Sam Bennett can serve as the focal points of the third and fourth lines.
As it presently stands, the Flames have a top-six problem. Their big guns have stopped producing and driving play. Instead of trying to distribute the wealth among the top three lines, perhaps the Flames should let their depth be depth and look at strengthening their top-six with the players already available to them.
We’ll see what Sutter comes up with before the Flames play the Senators on Monday.

The One* Gould Star

It’s a play on my last name, see.
This “Gould Star” will be used to recognize a player who was noticeable—for reasons both good and bad—in the game being discussed.
  • Gould Star One: Look, you can fault David Rittich for the goals if you really want to. He still made 31 saves on 33 shots in a game where his team probably deserved to lose by a lot more than they did. Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell was pretty good, too, and deserves a lot of credit for a well-earned shutout. But Rittich helped the Flames stay within striking distance all night and was instrumental in the team killing all four of its penalties.
*There is only one Gould Star tonight. Sorry.

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