Flames’ once-red-hot top line has been ice cold

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For years now, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau have gone together like peanut butter and chocolate, so it was startling to see Bill Peters split them up, even briefly.

With the Calgary Flames going through (very much relative) struggles lately, Peters has tried different things. Sometimes that means pushing Elias Lindholm up and down the lineup, trying Michael Frolik with Gaudreau, and most jarringly, placing Monahan as a third-line center, with Gaudreau on Derek Ryan‘s wing.

If morning skate lines stick, the Flames are going back to that combination of Monahan, Gaudreau, and Lindholm on Friday. Let’s take a look at their recent funk, which explains why Peters decided to shuffle up the deck chairs in the first place:

Monahan: Five-game pointless streak, a four-point game against the Devils representing the only time he’s generated points in the last eight games (one goal, three assists from that contest against New Jersey).

Lindholm: Also on a five-game pointless streak, and also not much going on beyond blowing the doors off of the lowly Devils. Lindholm has one assist in his last seven games. He’s failed to generate a point in 11 of his last 13 games. Much like Monahan, getting those four points against the Devils (one goal, three assists in that one) camouflages a big drought to an extent. Overall, he has one goal and four assists for five points in his past 13 games.

Gaudreau: Had an assist in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, but has been slumping by his standards, too. Gaudreau only has two points (1G, 1A) in his last six games. He thumped the Devils for an-even-more-ridiculous six(!) points, making his last 11 games look fine with five goals and four assists for nine points, yet he’s been held without a point in seven of his last 11 games.

Taking it to heart

Gaudreau still tends to pass the “eye test” most nights, and with Lindholm feeling a bit like “found money” as a newcomer with unclear expectations heading into 2018-19, much of the angst seems focused most on Monahan. Even weeks ago, a Flames Nation mailbag seemed to be all about what’s wrong with Monahan.

During his brief demotion, it seemed clear that Monahan is all-too-conscious of his cold streak.

“Yeah, when things aren’t going your way and you’re feeling frustrated, that’s when you tend to tighten up your stick and not make the plays you want to make,” Monahan said, via the Calgary Sun’s Daniel Austin. “When you’re coming into a game without that confidence, usually it tends to be a tough game so you’ve got to be tough-minded and ready to go each and every night.”

The bounces dry up

This is an opportunity for Monahan, Lindholm, and Gaudreau to get on track, but to me, it would be wise if someone emphasized optimism with these players. After all, consider that:

  • Gaudreau’s already at career-highs for goals (35) and points (93), blowing away last season’s career-high of 84 points.
  • Monahan’s tied his career-high of 31 goals, and after peaking with 64 points last season, he’s at a career-best 76 points.
  • Lindholm never had a 20-goal season in Carolina, yet he has 27 in his first go with the Flames. Lindholm has more assists (50) this season than he ever generated points with the Hurricanes (his ‘Canes-high was 45), making Lindholm’s 77 points in as many games a truly profound jump.
  • The Flames already clinched a playoff spot, and seem almost certain to win the Pacific. They can take the time to a) rest and b) regain their confidence, while also avoiding a scary first-round matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights.

In the grand scheme of things, the Flames’ top line was playing over their heads for much of this season, and regression recently hit them like a cruel bucket of ice water.

Just consider their shooting percentages before and after the All-Star Break.

Gaudreau pre: 29 goals in 51 games, 17.8 percent.
Gaudreau post: 6 goals in 26 games, 7.9 percent.

Lindholm pre: 21 goals in 51 games, 17.6 percent.
Lindholm post: 6 goals in 26 games, 10.3 percent.

Monahan pre: 27 goals in 51 games, 17.1 percent
Monahan post: 4 goals in 24 games, 8.9 percent.

Maybe it’s not very satisfying to say that a lot of this comes down to luck and bounces, but … a lot of this comes down to luck and bounces.

Now, with a playoff spot locked down and their seeding close to guaranteed, the Flames would likely be wise to rest prominent players. Monahan was recently injured, and even if he can play, maybe he’d benefit more from a brief breather? Gaudreau’s a player who uses his elusiveness to avoid some of the grind of the NHL, but an 82-game season wears on everyone.

(And, while Mark Giordano defies age as a strong Norris candidate at 35, the Flames would probably be wise to let him heal up before the big games, too.)

***

None of this totally dismisses the unease that comes from seeing a dominant line’s numbers dry up. That is a little scary. And it’s a bit troubling to realize that, while this trio should give opponents fits, their early numbers might have been a bit of a mirage.

Yet, the Flames have one of the best second lines in the NHL, and chances are, their top line will start moving the needle again soon enough. Nonetheless, it’s something to watch, both as the season winds down and the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.