A changing of the guard or a simple line-juggling phase? An attempt to shield the team’s top duo, or supplant them?
Call it what you want, there may very well be a few new sheriffs in town.
Over the course of the next month or two, Calgary Flames fans will see whether Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan remain the team’s top liners, or if Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm are ready to make that ascension.
Place your bets.
The only thing harder than shutting down the Flames top line this year might be figuring out which one it is.
At first it may seem improbable to contemplate a duo that has combined on more goals than any pair outside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the last five years could be upstaged or outscored by teammates.
After all, Gaudreau and Monahan have been the face of the Flames for years.
However, it seems imminently possible they’ll take a back seat, of sorts, this year when you consider the fact Tkachuk led the team in points (61) and Lindholm led the team in goals (29) last season.
Being able to take Lindholm off Monahan and Gaudreau’s wing to centre another potent line is an incredible luxury that speaks to the team’s depth, which is unmatched in the North division.
Ideally, it will remain too hard to tell which line is superior, meaning both lines are producing offensively.
But first, to measure accurately, we asked head coach Geoff Ward to number his lines so we have a starting point.
“No, I can’t,” he chuckled, adhering to the coaches’ handbook in which numbering lines is a jug violation.
“When you get to the point where you really don’t want to, I think it’s a really good situation. Now you feel comfortable with your depth and confident you can roll four lines out there and you can use them the way you need to in order to win hockey games.
“The fans and media will number them, but as coaches we feel we’ve got four real good lines.
“Depending on the situation and who is going on a particular night, how that one, two, three and four looks could be different – that’s a good problem for us to have.”
And a tough one for opponents to counter.
Apportioning ice time somewhat evenly, the Flames can take heat off certain individuals like Gaudreau, who was deemed in a recent poll of NHL executives to have more pressure on him than any player in Canada this season.
While Gaudreau said he’ll only look forward, refusing to acknowledge last year’s regression, Monahan has acknowledged in camp they need to be better.
More to the point, he says they will be better following a subpar regular season and another playoff in which the opposition successfully shut them down.
Thus, the team married the team’s heartbeat (Tkachuk) and most complete forward (Lindholm) to form a duo that will draw plenty of attention, especially with the addition of emerging star Dillon Dube.
A bona fide top line, by most definitions.
“All of it plays into getting favourable matchups,” said Ward, who will start Josh Leivo on the right side of Monahan’s line in Thursday’s opener in Winnipeg.
“That’s the benefit and advantage of having the depth we have. Now we get the opportunity to do things with it.”
All this talk about top duos stems from Ward’s penchant throughout camp to keep the aforementioned pairs together while searching to find the best fits to complete the right side of the trios.
The third pairing keeps Andrew Mangiapane and Mikael Backlund together. Keep in mind, they made up two thirds of the team’s best line last year with Tkachuk.
On Thursday, they’ll play with either Dominik Simon or Derek Ryan.
The fourth duo – Sam Bennett and Milan Lucic – made up the bulk of the team’s best playoff line. They’ll open with newbie Joakim Nordstrom.
Good luck line-matching against this bunch.
“When we started this whole process we started with blocks of two – guys we feel have been together and contributed well together, and it has worked, and we’re trying to find the third,” Ward said.
Since arriving from Carolina where he also played some centre, Lindholm has spent the last two years alongside Gaudreau and Monahan, posting career years in points and goals in his last two seasons. But after yet another playoff flop as a trio, the decision was made to try Lindholm up the middle to weaponize the team’s deep roster.
It sets the table for Gaudreau and Monahan to rebound from an off year in which Gaudreau’s point total dropped by 41 points from the 99 he posted a year earlier. Monahan dropped to 48 from 82.
Gaudreau reiterated Wednesday how happy he is to continue playing alongside a friend so close they got engaged one day apart last summer.
“They’ve had tremendous success together – if you look at the amount of goals scored over the time they’ve been together, there’s not very many duos in the league that have been better than them,” said Ward, alluding to the fact that the 197 goals they’ve combined for is just two short of the Oilers’ dream duo since 2015.
“They do have chemistry, they read off of one another well, they’re friends – it’s good between them right now. If it’s not broke don’t fix it. It’s a good place for us to start.”
And likely finish.
Whether they finish on top of the team’s scoring list is irrelevant if the end result is team success.
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