As currently constructed, the Calgary Flames’ top line is humming along at a solid scoring pace. But its recent success is almost certainly unsustainable.
The line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and Milan Lucic has spent 92:49 together at 5-on-5 this season, most of that since the Flames’ two-game series in San Jose against the Sharks late last month.
To their credit, the trio has outscored its opponents 7–3 in its shifts together. Most recently, Lucic teed up a one-time pass from Huberdeau to open the scoring in Friday’s game against the New York Islanders at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
But it’s not a sustainable arrangement. Lucic is a respected veteran forward and a feel-good story in the last season of his current contract. Beyond goals, though, his linemates have fared better away from him this season.
The Flames’ current top line is riding unsustainable percentage waves for both shooting and goaltending that almost directly correlates with Lucic’s arrival next to Huberdeau and Kadri. But correlation isn’t the same as causation, and there’s not a lot of tangible evidence to suggest Lucic has been the catalyst 10 and 91 needed to get going.
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Per Natural Stat Trick, the Huberdeau–Kadri–Lucic line has attempted a lot of low-danger shots but has finished in the red in terms of expected goals percentage (48.72), scoring chance percentage (47.96), and shot differential (47.83). As a line, they’ve consistently finished games underwater (either by raw or relative measures) in the majority of predictive metrics. In terms of production, they’re overdue to regress back to a certain baseline before too long.
Huberdeau and Kadri have recent track records of influencing play at both ends of the ice to measurably positive extents. Lucic doesn’t. Despite his recent run on the top line, he still ranks last among all Flames regulars in pretty much every significant underlying category. The Flames would be wise to reconsider this arrangement if they truly aspire to contend.
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While the Flames’ top line has largely been getting outplayed since Lucic’s arrival, Huberdeau in particular has fared relatively well in isolation for most of the year. In more than 377 minutes away from Lucic, Huberdeau has posted a sparkling 55.89 expected goals percentage but has struggled to produce by way of an unfortunate 5.76 on-ice shooting percentage.
To put all of this more succinctly:
  • Since Huberdeau has been slotted next to Lucic, his line has struggled to generate chances while scoring at a likely unsustainable rate;
  • In Huberdeau’s time away from Lucic, the Flames have largely outplayed their opposition by significant margins but have struggled to convert on their chances.
So, is Lucic the finisher the Huberdeau line needed to finally get out of its shooting percentage funk? Well … probably not.
Going back to the start of last season, Lucic has generated 0.57 individual expected goals per 60 minutes. a figure that ranks 15th among Flames forwards over that span. He’s certainly taken more shots over the last 10-ish games — to be expected, given the quality of his linemates — but he hasn’t been setting the roof on fire by any means.
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The Flames won’t break up the Huberdeau–Kadri–Lucic line right now. Goals are goals, even when they’re more the result of being opportunistic than dominant. But, down the line, there’s a pretty good chance that the current top line will begin to falter. If and when that time comes, the Flames will have a few options.
First of all, they shouldn’t touch the Mangiapane–Backlund–Coleman unit, which is only just rounding into form again and should be counted on as the team’s top matchup unit down the stretch (and, potentially, into the playoffs). It’s the old standby for good reason.
The Dube–Lindholm–Toffoli line has been really good, too. It certainly hasn’t been tried and tested to the same extent as 88–11–20, but it’s been reliable to this point. It generally isn’t a good idea to break up a good line to fix an underwhelming one.
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Adam Ruzicka is the obvious candidate to move up the lineup, given his strong start to the season at both ends of the ice. He had a bit of a tough outing against the Islanders on Friday but has remained a positive influence even since being relegated to the fourth line in early December.
Through 30 games this season, Ruzicka has 20 points and ranks third on the team (behind Toffoli and Backlund) with a 57.69 on-ice expected goals percentage at 5-on-5. He’s a big guy with a great shot and the ability to play both centre and wing. He makes far more sense than Lucic, even as an interim solution, as the winger next to Huberdeau and Kadri.
What might tickle the Flames’ fancy a little more is the prospect of shelling out a little bit to bring in some help from the outside. Flames GM Brad Treliving is in the final year of his contract and might be tempted to take an aggressive swing, even as pragmatic as he’s proven to be over his tenure. Besides, this could very well end up being the peak year for the new veteran core … they might as well go for it now.
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We’ll undoubtedly write more down the stretch about all sorts of potential Flames trade targets — Timo Meier, Brock Boeser, and Max Domi, among others — in the coming weeks. Until they change things up, the Flames’ No. 1 right wing spot will remain one of the team’s most glaring holes to fill.
It’s good to see Lucic finding the score sheet again. Nevertheless, it’s very difficult to imagine him as a fixture on the top line of a championship team.