Milan Lucic could make or break the Flames’ fourth line in 2022–23
Photo credit:Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
By Mike Gould1 year ago
On paper, the Calgary Flames boast a very strong first line. Their projected second and third combinations look pretty good, too.
How the fourth line will fare is anyone’s guess.
Expect Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, and Kevin Rooney to form the Flames’ primary checking unit in 2022–23. Rooney is a newcomer from the New York Rangers who will likely spend most of his time between the two ex-L.A. Kings forwards.
Lewis, 35, is basically a known commodity by now. He’s a right-handed forward who can take (but seldom win) faceoffs, and he won’t hurt you too much in his own zone — even if you shouldn’t expect him to give you much of anything past the red line.
Rooney, 29, has been a relatively inoffensive fourth-line forward for much of his career, although he really struggled at both ends of the ice last season. It’s still a tad difficult to rationalize the contract the Flames gave him on the first day of free agency, but it’s not as though it’s the riskiest bet the team made this summer.
Collectively, Lewis and Rooney will count for $2.1 million against the salary cap this season. If necessary, one or both of them could be relegated to the American Hockey League with negligible financial consequence. It certainly isn’t difficult to imagine Flames head coach Darryl Sutter faithfully playing both Lewis and Rooney every night, but it probably won’t be a huge deal if he does.
Lucic, 34, is expensive and declining. He’s entering the final season of the behemoth seven-year deal he signed with the Edmonton Oilers back in 2016, and only Nazem Kadri, Jacob Markstrom, Jonathan Huberdeau, Andrew Mangiapane, and Mikael Backlund will cost more against the Flames’ $82.5 million upper limit this season.
In a world where the Flames have already had to forfeit a first-round draft pick to relieve the burden of Sean Monahan’s contract, Lucic remains in Calgary as a testament to the value of cap space in the modern National Hockey League. The structure of his contract hasn’t helped matters: it’s completely impractical to buy him out and his no-trade clause severely limits a potential market for him.
Furthermore, while Lewis and Rooney could feasibly be demoted to the Calgary Wranglers at some point during their contracts, Lucic’s no-movement clause prohibits him from being taken off the NHL roster without his consent.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Lucic will be here all year long. Quite frankly, he proved himself capable of playing a top-nine role on this Flames team over the first two-and-a-half seasons of his tenure — even if it took him 28 games to score his first goal.
According to Evolving-Hockey’s Standings Points Above Replacement (SPAR) model, Lucic provided the Flames with $8.4 million of value with his play in all situations during the 2019–20 and 2020–21 seasons. He started well enough last year, scoring nine goals and 15 points in 42 games before the all-star break.
But it’s difficult to overstate just how much Lucic struggled after that. For the first time since the Flames acquired him, Lucic looked like a borderline AHL player. Between his final 40 games of the regular season and the Flames’ 12 playoff contests, Lucic managed one goal and six points.
That one goal bounced in off his left skate.
Lucic’s average ice time decreased drastically over this span, going from a high point of 14:11 per game in December to just 10:51 in April and 9:23 in the playoffs. Sutter has always understood the importance of riding his top horses in the biggest races. By the end, Lucic wasn’t close to being one of his coach’s prized thoroughbreds.
This all being said, we’ve seen Lucic rebound after similar struggles in the past. His production plummeted midway through the 2017–18 season — his second with the Oilers — and both his scoring output and play-driving impacts remained disappointingly poor throughout 2018–19. Immediately thereafter, the Flames acquired him and he found renewed success in a bottom-six role.
Lucic was 31 when he joined the Flames. He’s now 34, and we typically see players begin or continue to regress at that age — although, in fairness, it’s hard to imagine Lucic faring worse than he did down the stretch last year (it’s important to note that he also dealt with a nagging shoulder injury through the playoffs, although he didn’t miss any games).
When the Flames acquired Lucic, they had just lost underrated checking winger Garnet Hathaway to the Washington Capitals and needed someone to fill that void on the third or fourth line. Lucic has been grossly overpaid throughout his tenure in Calgary, but he has absolutely been a capable NHL forward for the team.
Lucic’s cap hit wasn’t a huge problem for the Flames until it looked like they needed to move it to re-sign Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. Now, with the cap crunch delayed by a year, Lucic’s contract is manageable again. The Flames can afford to have him on the books, but only as long as he fills a role.
It looked like Lucic was going to continue playing at a third-line level at the beginning of last year. By the end, he was almost completely obsolete. But if he can rediscover his form from 2020–21, when he scored 23 points in 56 games, the Flames might actually be able to roll four effective lines.
If not … well, Lucic’s contract will become easier to move with every passing game in 2022–23. But it seems more likely that he’d end up sitting in the press box most nights instead of being traded. The Flames will be able to continue accruing cap space throughout the season, and they could be in the market to acquire a suitable Lucic replacement by Christmas.
We’ve seen Milan Lucic play well in the past, and he could be the difference between the Flames’ fourth line succeeding or failing this season. We basically know what to expect from Rooney and Lewis, but Lucic could go any which way.
It’s up to him to show us what he’s still got.
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