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Sean Monahan’s game is starting to come around

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Pat Steinberg
10 months ago
Sean Monahan looked like a shadow of his former self the first two months of this season. Coming off significant hip surgery in May, it felt like the seven-time 20-goal scorer was destined to finish his tenure in Calgary as a third or fourth line centre. In recent weeks, though, Monahan has looked like a different player. It’s a trend the Flames are hoping can continue into the second half of the year.

What we’re seeing

Monahan’s first two months were tough to watch at times. He didn’t look comfortable skating, he wasn’t finding soft spots in the offensive zone, and when he did, his shot wasn’t overly dangerous or accurate. Whether Monahan would admit it or not, it looked like he was still adjusting to hockey after major lower body surgery.
Monahan’s other adjustment was to a new role on the depth chart. Separated long-term from Johnny Gaudreau for the first time since his rookie season, Monahan was being used as Calgary’s third or fourth centre. His linemates were primarily a rotation of Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, and Dillon Dube.
The results through October and November, a 22-game segment, weren’t pretty. Monahan had just two goals and ten points during that stretch, and only two of those points (both assists) had come at five-on-five. His underlying metrics weren’t any better and he was producing shots, attempts, and chances at the lowest rates of his career.
Things started to change in early December, however. It was around that time Monahan’s most important indicators started to improve, and we’re still seeing that improvement almost two months later (with an 18-day COVID pause factored in). Monahan started doing the things he does best at rates that were far more comparable to his career averages.
Take a look at Monahan’s individual outputs at five-on-five through his first 22 games (October and November) compared to the last 17 games (December and January). It really isn’t close. Underlying metrics courtesy Natural Stat Trick.
SegmentS/60CF/60xG/60HDCF/60
First 22 games4.7310.890.491.66
Last 17 games8.5813.610.965.03
We’re talking about a stark contrast here. Monahan has almost doubled his per-60 rates in shots and expected goals. But what really stands out is the quality of shot attempts Monahan has been getting since the start of December. He’s creating more than three times as many high danger opportunities per 60 minutes.
All of this correlates to the eye test. Monahan looks to be skating far better and getting from point A to point B more effectively. As such, he’s been able to create more space and separation in the offensive zone, which has allowed him to start finding better areas to shoot from. The offence has followed, too; Monahan has five goals and nine points since the beginning of December.

What it all means

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Monahan seems to have settled into a decent role. Right now, he’s a number three centre at even strength behind Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund and remains a fixture on Calgary’s number one powerplay. If Monahan continues on the path he’s on, perhaps we’re talking about him and Backlund in a 2A/2B conversation in the near future.
Regardless, it’s good news for the Flames in the immediacy. Outside of Lindholm, centre has not been the team’s biggest position of strength this year. But if Monahan can remain as effective as he’s been the last two months, and if Backlund can continue his strong play of late, Calgary can feel a whole lot more comfortable with their forward depth.
More than anything, it gives the Flames options they didn’t have earlier this season. With Lindholm and company solidified as the number one unit, head coach Darryl Sutter can think about using a Monahan line in an offensively tailored role. Similarly, the option exists to use Backlund and his line in a more defensive/shutdown fashion.
And yes, stronger play from Monahan also has the opportunity of making him more attractive on the trade market. If Calgary has eyes on a big fish or two prior to the deadline, moving money out could be essential. The same is true this offseason when the Flames have multiple raises to consider for players on expiring contracts.
Perhaps Monahan never returns to his peak form of 2017 and 2018. But what we’ve seen from him the last couple months is promising, especially compared to how last season and the first two months of this year went.

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