- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
The Calgary Flames iced one of the best top lines in hockey this season.
But — funny story — they were just a backup plan.
If it weren’t for a plethora of preseason injuries, Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk wouldn’t have started as the Flames’ first line. The entire complexion of Calgary’s offense — heck, of the Flames’ whole season — might have unfolded differently.
And what a season the Flames would have missed. Calgary was among the NHL’s elite teams, going 50-21-11 to win the Pacific Division for only the second time since 2005-06. That set the Flames up for a first-round playoff series against Dallas, which is currently tied 1-1 heading into Saturday night’s Game 3.
Calgary’s success wasn’t all because of its first unit, of course. But some things are just meant to be. The Lindholm line had briefly spent time together at the end of last season; it was clear even then how good they could be. But it wasn’t until coach Darryl Sutter’s options were more limited that he reunited the trio, and they took the NHL by storm.
“We knew pretty much right away it was a good line,” Lindholm told ESPN recently. “Those couple of games last season felt pretty good. When we started off this year, we had some good chemistry right away, and then we’ve been rolling ever since. Honestly for me, it’s playing with two world-class skill players and that’s pretty fun. I don’t have the same skill as they do, but I try to be contributing with other things and try to give them the puck as much as possible and they will do their magic.”
That’s the crux of what makes these three so special, an ability to complement, elevate and celebrate each other’s unique talent as it fits into the group dynamic. The late Steve Jobs said the best teammates polish one another like stones. No wonder Calgary’s big three have been so bright.
In Lindholm, their line has a capable conductor leading with authority and exemplary two-way play. Tkachuk is the drumbeat, unrelenting in his puck pursuits and finishing prowess to match. And Gaudreau has emerged as virtuoso, so quick on his feet and masterful at creating — and capitalizing on — scoring chances.
It just works. Because for all their differences, these linemates see the game alike. And that’s what Tkachuk defines as true chemistry.
“Definitely, like 1,000% it is,” he said. “We all think the game very similarly and that’s why it’s fun to play with them. We just want the puck at all times. We stay close to each other to do those little give-and-goes, and whenever the puck is turned over, the other guys are very confident that another one of us is going to get up into the play. We’re already thinking about offense as soon as we get the puck, and whoever has it is making plays out on it. We do the little support things for each other, and teams seem to have a hard time with us.”
Calgary is betting on that trend to continue.
Inside the numbers
How exactly did the Flames’ top unit stack up against the competition this season? Let’s just say they dominated:
First overall among all NHL lines in 5-on-5 goals, first in 5-on-5 expected goals and 5-on-5 scoring chances.
They scored more 5-on-5 goals (69) than any other regular line combination. They also generated the most 5-on-5 scoring chances (284).
The most 5-on-5 chances created by another regular line was 207 (coincidentally by Dallas’ Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson).
That showcases what the Flames’ top line did as a unit. Then there were the individual accomplishments.
Only 17 NHL players hit the 40-goal mark this season. Lindholm, Tkachuk and Gaudreau were three of them. Through 82 games, there were career-high totals hit across the board:
Gaudreau pulled up with 40 goals and 115 points.
Lindholm clocked in with 42 goals and 82 points.
And Tkachuk, who had never tallied more than 77 points in a season, blew his prior bests away with 42 goals and 104 points.
It’s been that kind of season for Tkachuk. Not even he can fully explain the why or how of it. But he’s sure those linemates have been a factor.
“Honestly, I think [the puck is] just going in more than normal,” he laughed. “I feel like I’m at least thinking the same way and preparing for each game in the same way, and then when our line has felt so comfortable, it’s easier. But I don’t feel like I’ve prepared differently. I’m even playing pretty similar to how I have before, but this time I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity we have.”
The positive stats are a nice perk. They just aren’t what drives Tkachuk, or his teammates. Tkachuk has always taken pride in his physical game and hasn’t let that element fade even as he’s developed into a more offensive threat. And while Calgary’s excellent season may not draw the same attention as, say, Toronto’s or New York’s, Tkachuk isn’t sweating that lack of spotlight either.
“We could care less whether we’re underrated or not,” Tkachuk said. “Although Johnny and Lindy are in my opinion still two very underrated players in this league. The important thing is that we’re a very hard team to play against. We’re physical, and I think for our line, we have to lead the way with that. We know Johnny’s not going to go out there and crush guys and neither will I or even Lindy, but as long as we’re playing hard and leading the way with the puck, then we’re playing well. If you’re coming in here to play against us, you’re going to get a full 60 minutes of hard work and play.”
Straight from Sutter’s — ahem, Tkachuk’s — lips to the rest of the playoff field’s ears.
How they got here
Like their skill sets, the journey of each Flames’ topliner was perfectly distinct.
Gaudreau was the first, but hardly most heralded, piece to drop. Drafted 104th overall by Calgary in 2011, Gaudreau then spent three standout seasons at Boston College. On the same day (April 11, 2014) that Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top hockey player, he signed an entry-level contract to join the Flames. His NHL debut came in Calgary’s final game of the 2013-14 campaign. Gaudreau hasn’t looked back since.
Tkachuk came in next, as the Flames’ highly prized sixth overall choice in 2016. He entered that draft with all the weight and expectation of eventually becoming a genuine NHL star, and Tkachuk immediately signed with Calgary to get started. He joined the Flames’ roster to start the 2016-17 season and has steadily grown closer to reaching those lofty initial projections.
Finally, Lindholm landed with Calgary on the day of a different draft. The fifth overall selection by Carolina in 2013, Lindholm spent four seasons with the Hurricanes before being traded to Calgary on draft day 2018 along with Noah Hanifin, with Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and prospect Adam Fox coming back to Carolina. Lindholm quickly carved out a niche for himself in the Flames’ top six. He’s been an under-the-radar contributor who had a long-overdue breakout this season.
Initially, Lindholm had Gaudreau as a frequent linemate. Then it was Tkachuk stapled to his wing. Tkachuk and Gaudreau had never played together regularly at 5-on-5 before this season. It made sense of course to spread that amount of talent throughout the Flames’ lineup, right up until it became apparent they were strongest when aligned.
“When we’re on the ice, it’s just there; it just clicks,” Lindholm said. “I think all of us are pretty laid back and when we get to the rink, it’s all about winning games and having fun. When you’re having a good year, you don’t think too much out there. You’re just making plays, and it feels like you’re making the right decisions all the time. It’s fun to play with those two and see the success they are having.”
The game itself has been more enjoyable this time around, too. Calgary had disappointing results in the NHL’s pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign, finishing fifth in the North Division and missing the playoffs entirely.
It was a tough pill to swallow, and not history any of the Flames’ Big Three wish to revisit — or have repeated. The opportunity to start fresh together this season wasn’t taken lightly, knowing more time and experience would only make their group stronger.
“I like to play with one line and try to keep it consistent as much as possible so you can create chemistry together,” Gaudreau said. “Then you know where they’re at on the ice, you learn off each other. As each game goes on, you learn things about the two other players and try to put everything together and make your line successful and when you do that game in and game out and practices throughout the year, you just keep getting better and better as a line.”
It’s true that familiarity is key to any good relationship. But there’s another well-worn cliche in hockey circles that also applies to each skilled player’s individual game, something he must embrace to achieve a career season.
And Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Giordano saw it coming a mile away.
‘Really difficult to face’
For 14 seasons, Giordano was the Flames’ front man. He bore the team’s captaincy. He won a Norris Trophy. And before being selected by the Seattle Kraken in last summer’s expansion draft, he watched Gaudreau, Tkachuk and Lindholm all come to Calgary in search of the best version of themselves.
Now it appears they’ve found it, partly because of one significant change.
“They’re learning how to play defense a lot better than their first few years. That’s the honest answer,” Giordano said of how that trio has grown. “That’s the biggest difference that I see this year from any other year is they’re really, really good in their own end and it’s translating into even more offense.”
Giordano may be gone from Calgary, but speaks of the team’s emergent stars with pride. Upon his departure, Giordano passed the torch to Gaudreau, Tkachuk and Lindholm so they could be the Flames’ heart and soul in a season like this one.
Instead of being involved in that success, Giordano has played against it. What he’s seen across the ice is a fully evolved top line.
“They are really difficult to face,” Giordano said. “I mean, Johnny, you’ve got to be really aware every time you shoot the puck as a defenseman or there’s a turnover, because he’s gone. He’s really good at anticipating, that’s why you see him get so many breakaways. Chucky, he’s just around the net in your own zone, he’s on the walls, he’s really good at making little plays. He’s one of the main reasons I think that line creates so much offense, because he gets the puck out of their D zone so well on the walls.”
Lindholm is a little different. While Gaudreau and Tkachuk practically came of age under the veteran’s eye, Lindholm arrived in Calgary more matured. It’s no surprise to Giordano he’s finally getting league-wide attention.
“Right from when he got there, he was unbelievable,” Giordano said of Lindholm. “He’s a true 200-foot centerman. There’s no flash to his game; he’s just a great shooter. But he’s always in a good spot. He’s really good defensively. They’re lucky to have him. With Johnny and Chucky getting him pucks in the right position, he’s a scorer, he can shoot the puck and right from day one, he was really good.”
Speaking of good, that’s been Gaudreau’s baseline in Calgary for years. And yet, when Hart Trophy conversations intensified this season, the Flames’ superstar felt more like an afterthought.
And Giordano can attest to what a mistake that is.
“Look at Johnny’s numbers throughout his career. He’s always been one of the top players in the league,” Giordano said. “He deserves a lot of credit. But people go to sleep early out east. It’s tough. But Johnny, he reminds me a lot of Mitch [Marner] here. They both see the play exceptionally well; they see it like two or three steps ahead of everyone else and that’s what makes them so great.”
Putting on a show
Tkachuk hasn’t had the displeasure of playing against Gaudreau in the NHL. But he releases a knowing chuckle when asked what the worst part of that experience would be.
“Man, he’s so shifty. It would suck,” Tkachuk said. “And he’s very smart at anticipating, so when the puck is getting turned over, he’s gone. And I think that’s very hard and keeps you on your toes. You’re already worried about defending him even when they have the puck, so when he has the puck it’s even worse.”
Lindholm still can’t fathom why Gaudreau doesn’t pull headlines like other top-tier players around the NHL. To his mind, anyone not paying attention to Gaudreau is missing out.
“Every night, Johnny is pretty fun to watch,” Lindholm said. “He’s been amazing all season for us. Every time we need that extra spark or extra goal or for something to happen out there, he seems to always be the guy that does it for us. He obviously deserves more attention, but we know how good he is, and everyone in our locker room knows how good he is. It’s fun to be a part of that and play with him, and to watch him every night and see [up close] what he’s doing.”
Gaudreau has been so integral to the Flames’ resurgence, it’s difficult to imagine him suiting up somewhere else. That remains a possibility though, as Gaudreau is set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer.
It’s a topic he’s been asked about for months. One theory after another has been posited about where his next landing spot might be. Those conversations never distracted Gaudreau or pulled energy from his on-ice ambitions. Why would they? According to Gaudreau, long-term extension signed yet or not, he’s in a great spot.
And it’s been with Tkachuk and Lindholm by his side.
“I want to win here in Calgary,” he said. “And I think right out of the gate we started playing well and we’ve been in a really good position throughout most of the year, so it’s made it a lot easier just to focus on our team and try to win games with these guys and create friendships. When you’re losing games and you’re not in playoffs, it’s a lot more difficult to think about the future.
“We have a really good group in Calgary, all the guys get along and they are a lot of fun. It’s some of the best hockey I’ve been a part of in Calgary so it’s been pretty special.”
Whether this special season ends with a Stanley Cup, it’s certain that this trio will play a central role.
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