The Calgary Flames need to fix their fourth line.
The trio of Milan Lucic, Joakim Nordstrom, and Derek Ryan has thus far sputtered horribly in their time together. 7:46 of total 5v5 ice time is a relatively small sample, but the line’s on-ice expected goals rate thus far has been a dreadful 7.99%.
Lucic has made some critical mistakes in the early goings of the season, making some costly turnovers and constantly bobbling the puck, while Ryan has been largely unnoticeable at even strength.
That said, Nordstrom’s play to this point has been the most heinous.
Flames fourth line isolated possession metrics from Natural Stat Trick
Time spent together at 5v5
5v5 Expected goals percentage
not Joakim Nordstrom
not Joakim Nordstrom
Whereas Ryan and Lucic are both coming off solid campaigns in which they played good hockey at both ends of the ice, Nordstrom is not. His 2019-20 season was one in a line of many where he contributed to his team’s defence at a replaceable level while doing very little offensively.
At his $700,000 salary, Nordstrom is cheap and his contract is easy to manage. By that same token, he can also be stashed on the Flames’ taxi squad without costing a single cent against the salary cap.
Nordstrom is fine to have around in a depth role for when injuries strike. He should not be occupying a regular spot in the Flames’ lineup. Instead, in Dillon Dube’s absence (and perhaps longer), general manager Brad Treliving should be looking to fill Nordstrom’s place on the fourth line with a more seasoned prospect who can provide a jolt in multiple situations.
Enter Matthew Phillips, the Flames’ sixth round pick from the 2016 Draft who has been a solid contributor in the American Hockey League since he turned professional in 2018. Phillips, a small speedster who shoots right and plays both centre and wing, could be a perfect complement to the size and presence of Lucic and the workmanlike versatility of Ryan.
Phillips scored 202 points over his final 141 games with the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals before joining the Stockton Heat on a full-time basis in 2018-19. As a first-year professional, Phillips finished in a tie with Spencer Foo for seventh on the Heat with 38 points in 65 games.
As a 21-year-old sophomore, Phillips showed that he can be a primary offensive contributor on an AHL team. He scored 33 points in just 38 games despite missing time after fracturing his knee-cap in December. Among Heat regulars, only Glenn Gawdin, Alan Quine, Byron Froese, and Austin Czarnik scored at a better rate than Phillips, but the latter three all have at least five years’ worth of additional experience.
Phillips is small—the AHL’s website lists him at 5’7″ and 155 pounds—but he also plays with a very high skill level and would add a great deal of speed to the Flames’ lineup. He could add a new dimension to the Flames’ lineup in many of the same ways as Andrew Mangiapane did down the stretch in 2018-19 or Dillon Dube did leading up to and in the 2020 playoffs.
As it currently stands, the Flames’ fourth line has Milan Lucic, an expensive veteran who cannot be waived, and a reliable two-way centre in Ryan who has yet to find his groove. It also features Nordstrom: a strictly defence-first, zero-offence winger who has been dragging both of his linemates down to begin the season.
Instead of deploying the known (and unremarkable) quantity that is Nordstrom, the Flames should take a chance and inject Phillips, a new, young face with numerous desirable attributes, into the lineup. At worst, they can return him to the minors when Dube makes his return.
If it works, the Flames’ fourth line could start scoring again—perhaps consistently.