The idea of using forwards in “pairs” rather than three-man units is nothing new.
How many guys have the Sedins lugged to 25-plus goal seasons beyond anyone’s expectations? How many different wingers are Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron going to cycle through? The theory that two guys with chemistry is all you need to drive success, as long as that chemistry is solid and the other guy doesn’t completely stink, is well-proven.
This has not been the case for the Calgary Flames’ two best forwards in recent years. Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, probably the most outwardly skilled forwards on the roster by a decent margin, have long put up goals and assists, but they’ve been relatively unsuccessful in driving possession and, ultimately, getting more meaningful results. Some stats guys call this “empty-calorie” scoring, which is to say that you’re getting the goals but not the good process to undergird it.
Part of that, I think, is the fact that these guys have cycled through a lot of linemates in the past three seasons. Jiri Hudler, Micheal Ferland, Alex Chiasson, David Jones, Troy Brouwer, Michael Frolik, Joe Colborne, Josh Jooris. Doesn’t that seem like a lot? And don’t a good chunk of those guys seem like they probably have no business being on a line with two players this dynamic? Indeed, and this isn’t really a surprise, the only guy with whom these two got good results both in the underlying numbers and on the scoresheet was Hudler.
The other issue, of course, is that having a two-man unit as a reliable planet around which these lesser satellites orbit is something you only do when you don’t really have a reliable three-man group to lean on. What if the Sedins got a guy who made them better, rather than trying to square-peg a round hole? What if the Bruins had more certainty that the other guys in their lineup could score this year, so they could leave David Pastrnak as the third man with the big group?
The reason all this comes up in the wake of the Flames’ not-so-pretty season opener is that Gaudreau and Monahan once again played with Ferland, and while they did fine together, it came on a night when the rest of the team got smoked (thanks in no small part to Glen Gulutzan leaving his second pair to get caved in by McDavid and Draisaitl). It’s one game, and in fact it’s Game 1, but notable by his absence in that contest was a Methuselahan Czech who’s likely to become Gulutzan’s future preferred choice in Gaudreau/Monahan linemate.
The NHL writ large kinda-sorta submarined Jaromir Jagr to an embarrassing extent. The Flames got him for $1 million base salary and another $1 million in bonuses based on whether he plays a certain number of games and the team makes the playoffs. The value the team is about to wring out of that minuscule cap number could be significant, to the extent that it potentially upsets the apple cart and pushes the Flames much closer to the top of the division than their provincial rivals might like.
To understand why, one need only look at what Jagr did for his previous linemates in Florida: Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov.
None of this is to say Barkov and Huberdeau aren’t good players who will do well now that Jagr moved two time zones away, but the extent to which he made them better is both well-documented but little understood. This triumvirate — there’s no other way to put it — dominated opponents to an extent that’s difficult to process, and over the last three years, Huberdeau played 80 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with Jagr, while Barkov got in 88 percent.
We’re talking possession numbers in excess of 55-plus on a regular basis. Shot shares in the same neighborhood. Goal- and high-danger-chance shares closer to and then over 60 percent. Just incredible. The kind of stuff you expect to see for Bergeron and Marchand on their best days. This is, again, over a three-year period, so while WOWY stats aren’t always reliable, we’re talking about nearly 1,800 minutes together for Barkov and 1,400 for Huberdeau. The numbers tell a pretty reliable story, and you also have to keep in mind that the Panthers haven’t exactly been known as a dominant team during that stretch.
Without those two, and with the acknowledgement that the Panthers’ offensive depth hasn’t exactly been overwhelming the past three seasons, Jagr’s numbers weren’t nearly as good, but they were still solid for the most part. Meanwhile, Huberdeau and Barkov both saw their numbers crater. We’re talking like 44 percent possession for the former and 37 percent for the latter. Again, mitigating circumstances, small samples, and all that, but these are replacement-level numbers or worse for superstar players. The gap, then, between what they did with and without Jagr is noticeable in the way the Grand Canyon is noticeable.
Why that’s good news for the Calgary Flames is pretty clear: Jagr has a track record of doing for talented young wingers who could otherwise skate circles around him what all previous linemates besides Hudler couldn’t. He might make Gaudreau and Monahan dangerous in all facets of the game besides their style of more quick-strike offense.
The obvious concern a lot of NHL teams probably had about Jagr is whether his approach meshes with the up-tempo style most teams are trying to roll out now. He’s a million years old and would lose a foot race to most men’s league players at this point. But the league was fast as hell last year and while Jagr had a down year in terms of scoring — probably due to the injuries Florida suffered — he was still pretty damn great.
Because of that speed concern, though, I’ve seen some suggest Jagr might not be the best fit for Gaudreau and Monahan, but he basically has to be their linemate by default. Anyone who would suggest breaking up the 3M line — which was a diet version of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak last season — is out of their mind. And you don’t sign Jagr, at any amount, to put him anywhere besides your top six.
You never want to get too optimistic about a 45-year-old’s ability to be a great player in any professional sport, but Jagr seems to exist well outside the bounds of normal aging curves. The process of becoming 45 seems to have affected him not at all. So if you’re bullish on him working well with Gaudreau and Monahan, that seems well-founded. He might not make them world-beaters, but if he gives the Flames two lines that can go 54 percent possession and better than that in goals, they’re going to be awful hard to beat even if Mike Smith really fizzles out.
Calgary’s problem last year was depth-related at all skater positions, but this year it’s really only wing depth that should be a major point of concern. Signing this particular middle-aged man might address it in one fell swoop. And if it does, that entire division just got a lot tighter at the top.
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