The Calgary Flames found a few forward combinations that worked well in 2023-24

Photo credit:© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
1 month ago
At this point, it’s almost a cliche to say that Mikael Backlund’s been a life preserver for the Calgary Flames. For the better part of the past decade, Backlund’s line has been relied upon to give the club quality minutes. If all else failed, the Flames coaches could throw Backlund onto the ice and everything would work.
In 2023-24, Backlund continued his strong play with Blake Coleman on his wing. A bunch of different wingers were used on their flank – like Andrew Mangiapane, Jonathan Huberdeau, Matt Coronato and Martin Pospisil at different points – and it always worked.
The better news for the Flames is that after a very rocky start to the season, a second strong line emerged with Nazem Kadri between Connor Zary and Pospisil. And so instead of having a single strong line to cling to and work around, the Flames had two good lines that they could pivot away from in order to try to strengthen the lineup.
Here’s a quick rundown of how things unfolded in the forward group.

Most-used lines

(Via MoneyPuck; data via Natural Stat Trick)

Best lines

(Via MoneyPuck; data via Natural Stat Trick; minimum 100 minutes played together)

Player usage chart

(via Dobber’s Frozen Tools; up is together opposition, down is easier opposition; left is more D-zone starts, right is more O-zone starts; blue is stronger possession numbers, orange is weaker)
As you would expect: Backlund and Coleman (and Mangiapane, when he was with them) got tough deployments and assignments, which allowed the remaining players a bit of high ground. Kadri’s group with the kids received middle-ground assignments, but lots of offensive zone high-ground – and they thrived with that set-up.
The remainder of the group: a mixed bag of deployments and assignments, and kinda blah results.

The rundown

The 2023-24 season began the way the 2022-23 season ended: trying to determine who had chemistry with Elias Lindholm and/or Jonathan Huberdeau. Should they be played together? Apart? Could either have chemistry with Nazem Kadri? The Flames went 2-7-1 over their first 10 games as they churned through a lot of different line combinations in a hurry. It got weird – remember that one game where Huberdeau, Lindholm and Kadri were a line? – and as a result Matt Coronato’s first 10 NHL games saw a 20-year-old rookie bounce all around the lineup before being sent to the minors.
Anyway, once the Flames decided to shuffle the deck a bit and called up Zary and Pospisil from the AHL, things started to get figured out. Looking for players with complimentary skills in mid November, head coach Ryan Huska put Zary and Pospisil with Kadri. Huberdeau was placed with Backlund and Coleman, while Yegor Sharangovich landed on the top line with Elias Lindholm and Andrew Mangiapane. Suddenly, the Flames had a bit of traction.
For most of the season, the Flames had one or two lines rolling at a time. Usually it was Kadri’s line or Backlund’s line. Lindholm’s line saw constant tinkering with different wingers swapped in and out before he was sent to Vancouver at the trade deadline and Sharangovich was moved to centre. The fourth line showed some nice flashes here and there due to the stability provided by Kevin Rooney and/or A.J. Greer at various points.
In short: the Flames experienced a decent amount of line churn during 2023-24, but it felt like less than in 2022-23 because once Lindholm left the team, they only really needed to figure out Huberdeau’s usage – and he started to develop some chemistry with Sharangovich and Andrei Kuzmenko late in the season.
But the real step forward was the emergence of Zary and Pospisil as really effective NHLers. Them stepping into the lineup in November and developing chemistry with Kadri suddenly gave the Flames a second safety blanket, which allowed them to lean on Backlund and Coleman a little bit less and made them a more dynamic, consistent hockey club.
They’re obviously nowhere near where they want to be, but they have two groups of forwards they can likely lean on and build on in the coming season(s).
What was your favourite Flames forward trio during the 2023-24 season? Let us know in the comments!

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