For many years, the Calgary Flames top line followed a familiar pattern.
Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland. Gaudreau-Monahan-Jones. Gaudreau-Monahan-Stewart. Gaudreau-Monahan-Lindholm. Gaudreau-Monahan-Ritchie. Gaudreau-Monahan-Versteeg.
You get the picture. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan were the constants; Ferland, Versteeg et al. were the variables.
Well, Johnny Gaudreau has left to be closer to home (but not too close). Sean Monahan is coming off an injury-plagued eight-goal season. And almost all of those Ailiers droits they are long gone, with one exception.
Elias Lindholm has supplanted Monahan as the Flames’ No. 1 center for the past three seasons, most recently finishing second in the race for the Frank J. Selke Trophy after scoring a career-high 42 goals in 82 games.
Lindholm finished one spot ahead of Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov in Selke’s voting last year. Coincidentally, Gaudreau also finished just in front of Panther-turned-Flame Jonathan Huberdeau in the voting for the Hart Memorial Trophy.
While the Flames have historically chosen to play their best offensive players together on the top lane, the Panthers chose to separate Barkov and Huberdeau in 2021-22.
Huberdeau spent just 204 of his 1,010 five-on-five minutes playing with Barkov last season, according to Natural Stat Trick. Instead, the two superstars spent a lot of time running their own lines, with Huberdeau mostly playing in a Sam Bennett-centric unit.
The Flames are in a position where they could run a similar scheme with their forwards. Andrew Mangiapane is practically begging for a top line job and would be a perfect fit alongside a Selke candidate at Lindholm.
At the same time, Huberdeau has shown that he can work wonders with a wide variety of line-mates. This is a player who helped Sam Bennett, yes, that Type: Become a 28 goal scorer with the Panthers. Anthony Duclair, another Huberdeau teammate, scored a career-high 58 points for him last season.
Lindholm is the top center for the Flames. You’ve earned the opportunity to drive your own line. Players like Mangiapane and Blake Coleman could help Lindholm establish the Flames’ superior unit as a dominant two-way monster. (Of course, Mangiapane would also spend a lot of time with Huberdeau on the power play.)
That would leave Huberdeau to fill the same role he thrived in with the Panthers. He has proven capable of creating all kinds of offenses while also rejuvenating the careers of recovery projects and young players hoping to break out.
Huberdeau is a pure midfielder. Tyler Toffoli is a pure finisher. That’s a combination that makes a lot of sense on paper. And how about giving someone like Sean Monahan a chance, on a short leash, to see if he can rediscover his finishing touch on a line drive with one of the best passers in the game? Failing that, how about someone like Paul Stastny or Evan Rodrigues in that spot?
If having separate Lindholm and Huberdeau lines works for the Flames, that would leave Mikael Backlund to run the third unit. Backlund would arguably be the best third-row center in the league, though he would still be Calgary’s second-best player at that position.
Having Backlund in the back row would give the Flames another strong defensive matchup unit. But casting Lindholm in a Barkov-type role would also give the Flames some wiggle room to potentially put less established players like Jakob Pelletier and Dillon Dube in a slightly more isolated Backlund lineup.
None of this is to say that the Flames can’t get Huberdeau and Lindholm to play together in high-leverage situations, like when the Flames need a late-third-half goal. A Huberdeau-Lindholm-Mangiapane combo would have enough skill to rival any opposing forward trifecta in the league.
Still, Huberdeau has shown he can thrive in situations where he’s the only star on his line. He could be the key for the Flames to unlock some additional secondary scoring in their lineup.
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