The Calgary Flames need to become faster, more skilled, and more difficult to play against.
Right now, Milan Lucic isn’t helping them in any of those areas.
It’s been nearly 10 years since Lucic last missed a game as a healthy scratch. Back on April 20, 2013, Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien gave the big winger a rare night off in the midst of one of his least productive seasons to date.
Lucic scored just seven goals in 46 games with the Bruins during the shortened 2012–13 NHL regular season. He matched that figure in just 22 playoff contests that year as the Bruins reached the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
At the time, Lucic was genuinely one of the most uniquely impactful forwards in the league. He’s always been a distinctive physical presence — at 6’3″ and 240 pounds, he’s impossible to miss — but, back in the early 2010s, Lucic was both an elite enforcer and a regular 20-goal scorer. They just don’t make players like that anymore.
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Flash-forward to the present. Lucic hasn’t scored a goal in 20 games this season. He didn’t find the back of the net once in 12 playoff games last year. And, in his final 46 games of the 2021–22 campaign, he scored once — when a pass attempt bounced off his skate and in.
That’s now 78 games — almost a full season — without scoring a single goal with his hockey stick. As much as the common refrain revolves around Lucic’s job not being to score, it still has to be part of the equation for every player in today’s NHL.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say Lucic’s job has nothing to do with scoring, both on individual and team levels.
Lucic also hasn’t fought once this season. Through 20 games, he’s taken eight minor penalties. The most recent one negated a prime scoring chance for Flames defenceman Noah Hanifin.
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Call it a dive by T.J. Oshie. It might’ve been. But it’s also a cross-check all day long. Alex Ovechkin scored on the ensuing power play to make it 3–0 Capitals.
Also on Friday, Lucic turned the puck over in the offensive zone and coasted back as Oshie opened the scoring with the eventual game-winning goal for the Capitals. While the Flames finished the game with a strong 57.29 on-ice 5v5 expected goal percentage, Lucic ended up posting a team-worst 38.91 5v5 xGF%.
The Flames were outchanced, outshot, and outscored with Lucic on the ice. He had the last Flames touch on one goal against and was in the penalty box for another. This has been a recurring theme all season long.
As part of his postgame comments with the media, Flames head coach Darryl Sutter remarked on demoting forward Adam Ruzicka down to the fourth line during the game after he started in the top six: “He wasn’t sharp enough. There’s a leash, too — you go three or four games and your game starts dropping off. There’s still a reckoning for those young players.”
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But there also needs to be a reckoning for Sutter’s preferred veteran players. Lucic has not played NHL-calibre hockey this season. The head coach may trust him to play his style of game and not make mistakes, but the numbers don’t lie. The Flames have been thoroughly outplayed during Lucic’s shifts this year.
Lucic ranks last among Flames forwards this year in on-ice 5v5 expected goals percentage (47.44). He’s last in actual goal share, too (35.00). He’s also last in both scoring chance percentage (45.67) and high-danger chance percentage (46.84).
Less than a month ago, The Fourth Period reported that the Flames have evaluated the prospect of signing Lucic to a contract extension. At this point, they ought not to. What they should consider is giving Lucic a night off — or a few.
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We’ve already written at length here at FlamesNation about the different options the Flames have to inject some life into their lineup from the American Hockey League. Matthew Phillips leads the entire league in goals and was putting together a first-star performance at the Saddledome on Friday while the Flames were being shut out in Washington.
But there’s no shortage of strong offensive players on the farm. The Calgary Wranglers are one of the top teams in the A, with Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary, Cole Schwindt, and Radim Zohorna all putting together great starts to the season.
The Flames also have the cap space to bring one of those players up. They should. While the likes of Brett Ritchie and Trevor Lewis have been fine to start the year, Lucic and Kevin Rooney have not played at an NHL level.
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Phillips is set to become a Group 6 UFA next summer. He has 13 goals in 17 games with the Wranglers this season. If the Flames are looking for someone who’s earned a promotion (and a raise), he’s the guy. There also should be a sense of urgency to see what they have in him before the door opens for him to walk elsewhere.
But the issue currently at hand lies with Lucic, who has been a great NHL player and a good Flame. In the first two years after he first arrived in Calgary, he was a strong bottom-six forward who could be counted upon to push play from his end of the ice to the other.
Lucic deserves a ton of credit for the way his career has played out. He was a pleasure to watch in Boston. Even after things went south in Edmonton, he was able to remain effective a little while longer after receiving a change of scenery.
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But it looks like those days are coming to an end. With Ruzicka back on the fourth line (for now), the Flames are — again — short a top-nine forward. Lucic isn’t a viable option to fill that hole.
At this point, the 12 forwards in the NHL lineup should be Huberdeau, Lindholm, Kadri, Toffoli, Backlund, Coleman, Mangiapane, Dube, Ruzicka, Ritchie, Lewis, and an AHL call-up. Neither Rooney nor Lucic should be in there. The Flames have the cap space to make this arrangement a reality.
The Flames have given Lucic a chance to bounce back after he struggled mightily down the stretch last year. He hasn’t risen to the occasion.
Now, it’s time to see some new blood.