Flames make radical line changes in attempt to reignite stars

Flames head coach Geoff Ward hopes major line tinkering will give his players new energy, explaining his theory on why he’s trying Johnny Gaudreau with Milan Lucic and Derek Ryan.

Depending on how you look at it, Johnny Gaudreau has been demoted to the third line, or Milan Lucic is the Calgary Flames’ new first-line winger.

Either way, the two will line up on opposite sides of Derek Ryan Thursday night as part of a radical retooling of the Flames’ forward units.

While interim coach Geoff Ward doesn’t like numbering the lines, the top unit will see Elias Lindholm centering Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane. The second line will see Mikael Backlund moving from centre to left wing, alongside Sean Monahan. Dillon Dube will play on their right wing.

Yes, slice it any way you want, Gaudreau is now a third-liner, perhaps befitting his five-goal total. Shocking, especially when you factor in moving Gaudreau from his usual perch on the left side to the right, where the left-shooting playmaker has rarely played.

Potentially foolish.

But that’s how desperate this team is to try reigniting its scoring stars.

In the midst of the team’s five-day break between games, Ward tinkered with his trios before confirming Thursday morning he’s going to test them against the visiting Buffalo Sabres.

“We liked a lot of things we saw so we’re going to see how they are,” Ward said. “Sometimes new energy does things – we’re hoping it does something for everybody, not just Johnny.

“If it can spark our team to play harder and with more energy, it will probably be a good move for us. We’re not looking at one or two guys in our lineup. We’ve got to find ways to score more goals and be harder on pucks.”

Ward spent the first two games as Bill Peters’ replacement icing the same lines the recently resigned coach employed. Now it’s time to spread his wings in a new approach to solving the team’s biggest problem: goal scoring.

Although the Flames have picked up seven points of a possible eight of late, scoring continues to be an issue for a team that finished second overall in that category last year. This year they sit 27th.

Asked what he hoped to get out of the moves, Ward shrugged.

“Hopefully some goals,” he smiled.

“Looch has always had his most success with a right-handed centre – he played in Boston with David Krejci. The right-handed centre puts it into his corner. He can get in there and bang around and recover pucks. It takes a little of the focus away from Johnny, so hopefully he’s able to hide in the weeds and then pop into holes and get pucks back.

“The other benefit is Looch does a good job saving pucks in the offensive zone and that could give us the opportunity for Johnny to get the puck more in the o-zone. We like the potential of the three guys together. Tonight we’ll see it in game action for the first time.”

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Ward says that unlike Peters, who would so often follow up line changes by deferring to his usual lines late in a tight game, he’d like to give these new trios sustained opportunity to build chemistry.

For better or worse.

Yes, Lucic and Ryan have been the base of the Flames’ best line the last few games, alongside Dube. They’ve simplified their approach by dumping it in and mucking it up, giving the team momentum and a shocking number of scoring chances.

But the logic behind pairing the team’s biggest playmaker with a scoreless Lucic and Ryan – who has four goals – is fuzzy.

Then again, nothing else has helped Gaudreau, as he’s struggled to gain zone entry or sustain offensive zone time with anyone he’s played with.

We’re a long ways away from the days when Lucic was a regular 20-goal scorer alongside Krejci, and the game has changed considerably since then, adding speed that isn’t Lucic’s forte.

“It’s a reset for us – we see this as an opportunity to tinker with a few things and try things,” said Ward, who will start David Rittich and will have Travis Hamonic back in the lineup.

“We want to try to give this an opportunity to be around for a while, so guys can start to develop some chemistry. We’ve seen some chemistry over the last few practices. You need to play with the same guys.

“It’s a work in progress – we’ll see.”

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