Don’t look now, but the Calgary Flames have one of the NHL’s top lines once again.
And no, it doesn’t involve Elias Lindholm, Nazem Kadri, or Jonathan Huberdeau.
Instead, it’s the Flames’ third trio of Mikael Backlund between Andrew Mangiapane and Blake Coleman that sits atop the NHL’s expected goals percentage metric.
The de facto shutdown unit, which has been deployed together in 16 games this campaign, leads all lines this season at 76%, according to analytics site MoneyPuck. That trumps the trio of Jesper Bratt, Erik Haula, and Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils, who rank second at 69.4%, and the Boston Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, who sit third at 69.1%.
“We got to play together last year, especially in the second half, quite a bit,” Backlund said. “So we had some good chemistry from then and playoffs. We know what it’s like to play with each other. I got to play most of last year with Colesy too, so I know what he’s like, and same with Mange too. We’ve played a lot together over the years. We’ve been linemates for most of his time here. Just knowing the guys from before helps when you’re put back together again.
“All three of us, we work hard on the forecheck, we’re relentless on the forecheck, we get pucks back and make it hard on the other team and that’s how we create chances.”
Calgary’s connection has logged an expected goals-for of 7.3, and an expected goals-against of 2.3 over 79.9 minutes of work together.
By comparison, the Flames’ top grouping of centre Elias Lindholm and wingers Dillon Dube and Tyler Toffoli have an expected goals percentage of 59.8%, while Nazem Kadri’s line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Milan Lucic ranks at 48.6%.
Together, Backlund, Mangiapane, and Coleman have a possession rate of 67.98, outshooting opponents 64-32 when hopping over the boards — another league best. The group, per 60 minutes of play, launches 90.88 pucks toward the opposition’s net, which also tops all of the NHL’s top trios.
“We get some personal and team stats from our coaches and stuff,” Backlund said. “Just looking at those, we can tell we’ve been good together. You feel it too, on the ice. We want to score more, though, but we know we create lots and haven’t let too many chances against.
“Last year, I know we were on the higher chances for/against lines. I’ve read that. I haven’t heard the stat this year, but you can feel it when you play good, too.”
Though they’ve yet to produce goals at the same rate, they’ve matched opponents — typically drawing assignments against other teams’ top-six skaters — 2-2 on the actual goals front.
And they’ve dummied opponents on scoring chances, too, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Against quality competition, the line has amassed 68 scoring chances and surrendered just 28. That lopsidedness swings even further when counting high-danger chances, which favours the Flames’ group 28-8.
“I think it’s been good,” Coleman said. “We get to the forecheck. That’s kind of where our game generates a lot of our offense. Obviously a couple goals here and there…but the chances, there’s been a lot of them. We feel good about that. We just keep emphasizing to each other and ourselves that we need to finish off more.
“There are still little things we want to correct and be better. They’re easy guys to play with. They both play hard. They both compete to make plays and to defend. It makes my job pretty easy.”