Flames remain plagued by nightly search for stable line combinations

Flames coach Geoff Ward spoke about his Flames players not being gritty enough after a loss to the Nashville Predators.

CALGARY – The coach punctuated the Calgary Flames’ latest loss by ripping into his team for its lack of grit, desperation and compete-level.

The players spoke of their confidence issues on offence.

What no one mentioned is the fact that many of the aforementioned problems plaguing the Flames right now stem from the fact this team still doesn’t have set lines.

A stunning 55 games into a National Hockey League season and interim coach Geoff Ward is still tinkering with line combinations on a nightly basis.

Not ideal.

“You’re 100 per cent right – we need to get consistent combinations,” said Ward, prior to the team’s third-consecutive loss.

“That’s a priority for us, to get down to those set combinations. I think we’re really close to that. I think we’ve got the foundation of what those are, but when things aren’t going, and you’re going more than half a period and not much is happening on the offensive side for you, then you feel like sometimes you may need to change one or two guys to see if it can work.”

He’s referencing one of the biggest issues the team has been dealing with the bulk of the last five years: Who to play alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan?

Outside of Jiri Hudler four years ago and Elias Lindholm last season, the Flames have struggled to find someone compatible with the team’s marquee duo.

Home of the Flames
Stream all 82 Flames games this season with Sportsnet NOW. Get over 500 NHL games, blackout-free, including Hockey Night in Canada, all outdoor games, the All-Star Game, 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and more.

In Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Nashville Predators, the top line started the night with AHL call-up Buddy Robinson, and finished with PTO signing Tobias Rieder.

The two have combined for two NHL goals over the last two seasons. The idea behind using them there is that the two workhorses provide energy, speed and the ability to retrieve pucks for the duo that is well off the offensive pace set last season.

A long list of others have auditioned for the gig, without call-backs.

The coach’s belief is that if they can just find the right fit alongside Gaudreau and Monahan, the other lines can flow from there.

“I think that’s the key – what’s working there,” said Ward, whose club has two wins (via shootout) in its last eight outings.

“It kind of sets everything else up. [Lindholm] has been able to play with them. Jiri Hudler had some success with them, but there’s been different guys in and out of there to try to make it go.

“Johnny is a dynamic talent and Monny can finish tremendously, so that guy on the other side has to be potentially a lot of things. He has to have a lot of tools in order to fill in everything that needs to happen for those other guys to exercise their strengths. That’s why it made sense to try [Mikael Backlund] there – good hands, can see the ice, defensive presence… there were a lot of things we liked about it. It was good early.”

And then it wasn’t.

Lindholm started the season with Gaudreau and Monahan but the trio wasn’t having anywhere near the impact it had last season. So, when Ward took over in late November he moved Lindholm from the wing to centre a line alongside Matthew Tkachuk.

It had some success early, leading the team to a seven-game winning streak that got the Flames back into a playoff spot that is now just one point away from disappearing.

When the Flames are pressing hard for a late goal Ward will still occasionally reunite Lindholm with Gaudreau and Monahan, as he did in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks.

“The last couple games we went dead, flat,” said Ward, explaining his second and third-period line-tinkering.

“Buddy has shown himself well where he is, but we talked about it during the first and second periods [Tuesday], thinking, ‘maybe if we put Elias back it might spark those guys a bit and drive a little energy.’”

It didn’t.

Sign up for NHL newsletters
Get the best of our NHL coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

NHL Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

Suffice it to say, very few teams in the playoff hunt are dealing with similar line issues.

On most nights this season it’s been tough to identify the Flames’ top line.

Early on in Ward’s tenure it appeared Tkachuk, Lindholm and Andrew Mangiapane were poised to take over as the club’s top unit.

However, they too have been unable to produce offensively with any sort of consistency.

Fact is, the Flames don’t have an obvious top line, which helps explain how the team sits 23rd in scoring, with a goal differential of minus-20.

Ward insists he’s happy with the basic framework of his lines, which focuses on compatible duos such as: Monahan and Gaudreau; Lindholm and Tkachuk; Milan Lucic and Derek Ryan; Sam Bennett and Backlund.

The rest of the players have been used to try filling in the blanks – a good word to describe how they’ve been shooting of late.

“You’re always trying to assess stuff and see what’s there,” said Ward, whose club opens a four-game road trip in Vancouver Saturday that winds its way through all three California stops.

“But we’ve got to get down to the consistent lineup for sure.”

By the playoffs?

“I’d like it in the next week to be honest with you,” he chuckled.

“We’re getting there.”

Not quickly enough.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.