Friday’s 5–2 loss to the St. Louis Blues was nothing less than ugly for the Calgary Flames.
Little-used third-pairing defenceman Connor Mackey scored the Flames’ only two goals of the evening, with the first one bouncing in off his arm. Most of the team’s top players — Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and Andrew Mangiapane chief among them — finished with empty statlines and minus ratings.
While Blues goaltender Thomas Greiss faced 43 shots in the game, very few of them were of any consequence. The Flames made him look pretty good all night long.
Darryl Sutter’s squad has prioritized quantity over quality when shooting the puck this year and it didn’t look any different on Friday night. Despite doubling the Blues in shot attempts (68 to 34) at five-on-five, the Flames somehow managed fewer high-danger chances than their opponents.
With all their work along the perimeter, you’d think they were building a fence.
Even as they’ve struggled to score for much of the 2022–23 regular season, the Flames have received consistent contributions from upstart centre-turned-winger Adam Ruzicka. The 23-year-old Slovak has 17 points in 21 games and has been one of the team’s most prolific five-on-five scorers and drivers of play all year.
Naturally, the Flames benched Ruzicka in the third period on Friday in favour of elevating and double-shifting Milan Lucic, who hasn’t scored a goal with his hockey stick in nearly a full calendar year. Not much more needs to be said than that.
Nevertheless, we’ll go on. The Flames elected to insert Lucic back into the lineup for Friday’s game after he sat out of the previous three as a healthy scratch, but you wouldn’t know he’d ever been demoted based on his deployment against the Blues.
For reasons we’re still trying to decipher, the Flames gave Lucic eight shifts in the third period. Ruzicka — whose 76.39 five-on-five expected goals percentage led the Flames on Friday — left the ice at the 2:18 mark of the final frame and didn’t return for the rest of the night.
Lucic was one of six Flames to finish below 50 percent in the expected goals battle on Friday, and even his final differential (48.61) was inflated by his ice time on the top line in the dying minutes when the game was all but out of reach. For much of the first two periods, that number was down around the 10 percent mark — the Blues were walking over the Flames with Lucic on the ice.
The Flames’ No. 17 was on the ice when Jordan Kyrou scored his second goal of the game to add insult to injury midway through the third period. Instead of staying with Kyrou, Lucic backed out of the passing lane and allowed the St. Louis forward to feed the puck past a sprawling Jacob Markstrom, off a skate, and in.
All this ties into a larger overall conversation about Sutter’s player deployment tactics. It’s certainly valid, at this point, to wonder whether Huberdeau is a good fit in a Sutter system. He’s shown flashes of brilliance; at the same time, he looks like an east-west talent playing in a north-south system.
Last year, Sutter had the Johnny Gaudreau–Elias Lindholm–Matthew Tkachuk line as a failsafe to lean on in difficult situations. To this point, the head coach has been unable to identify a single combination to get this team to the top of the mountain — or even within close range. They still haven’t gotten past base camp.
The result has been a complete hodgepodge. Blake Coleman led all Flames forwards in five-on-five ice time on Friday. Huberdeau played less than a minute more than Lucic, who, in turn, saw more ice than Mangiapane and Elias Lindholm.
It just all feels pretty random and, quite frankly, chaotic. Last year, the Flames’ three leaders in average five-on-five TOI for forwards (in order) were Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and Lindholm; this year, it’s Kadri, Coleman, and Backlund.
Lindholm, this club’s supposed No. 1 centre, ranks seventh. Tyler Toffoli and Ruzicka, the team’s two most consistent offensive players all year, have been bunched up with Trevor Lewis and Milan Lucic in the 10-to-11-minute range.
But what’s really interesting about all this is that the Flames’ forwards have all been playing practically the same amounts this season. Last year, the Gaudreau line was given a ton of runway every night (usually more than 14 minutes at five-on-five) and it paid off.
Here’s a look at the Flames’ five-on-five average TOI leaderboard this year:
Average five-on-five TOI per game
Right now, the Flames kinda just don’t have a top line. Some nights, Sutter has elected to throw some extra rope to a line (or, more specifically, a few players) he feels has dictated play. Others, he just rolls two or three lines while stapling the others — typically, the likes of Ruzicka, Radim Zohorna, and Matthew Phillips — to the bench.
You could make a pretty strong case that Huberdeau hasn’t earned any more ice time than what he’s gotten. He’s also dealing with the worst on-ice shooting percentage of his career. The Flames aren’t generating much with him on the ice, but they also aren’t giving up a whole lot.
Why not, then, try Huberdeau alongside a player like Ruzicka, who has been on an incredible tear this year? (Huberdeau has spent just 37 seconds on the ice with Ruzicka at five-on-five this year). Or perhaps they could lean more heavily on a player like Toffoli, who has been dominant in the offensive zone over long stretches.
Under Sutter, the Flames suffered in the playoffs last year when they kept rolling lines while their opponents elected to keep riding their hot hands. This year, it’s been more of the same — except without the Gaudreau line as part of the shuffle. So, to offset their inability to take over games with raw talent, the Flames are playing workmanlike, dump-and-chase hockey with lots of low-danger shots. It’s not particularly compelling to watch.
We’ll see how the Flames fare when they take to the road this weekend. However, until the coaching staff can successfully identify a top line that works, they’ll most likely be stuck in neutral for the foreseeable future.