At 34 years of age, Darryl Sutter’s right-hand man, Milan Lucic has seen better days in the NHL. So much so, many question whether it’s time for an up-and-coming prospect to take his spot on the Calgary Flames’ roster.
‘Out with the old and in with the new;’ is a motto that should be adopted by Calgary Flames’ head coach, Darryl Sutter, regarding his long-tenured, and well-travelled forward, Milan Lucic. The 34-year-old has been a principal talking point early into the Flames’ season.
The reason? Well for starters, his offensive output has ceased to exist, plus he has a stranglehold on a valuable roster spot that some young and fresh-faced talent – currently stashed away in the Flames’ AHL affiliate club the Calgary Wranglers – could put to good use.
With the Calgary Flames’ offence not being nearly as lethal as the season prior, questions have been asked about how more offence can be generated and why certain players – I’m looking at you, Milan – continue to be given ice time by the team’s coaching staff.
Clubs across the NHL have adopted a ‘score first, ask questions later’ regiment, as the league has become very technical and skill-based of late. On the other hand, Sutter continues to coach an old-timey, defence-first, rough-and-tumble style of hockey that was popular a decade ago. In Sutter’s eyes, in order to execute this strategy there needs to be a reliance on a veteran presence, like Lucic. However, Lucic can no longer compete with the top emerging talents. Today’s game is too fast and too skilled for him, and it’s obvious.
You constantly see him lose foot races and puck battles, make egregious turnovers with the puck and watch opponents have no issues stripping him from the puck. If you’re lucky, you might even see all these errors in just one shift.
As of Nov. 24, Lucic has logged 19 games and registered just five assists. This puts him tied for fourth-last in points by Flames, alongside Mackenzie Weegar and Michael Stone.
While Lucic’s nightly assignment is to intimidate the opposition and protect his teammates, he’s not following through with what’s expected of him.
Knowing how unhinged or menacing Lucic has been in past seasons, consider this season his application for the Lady Byng Trophy. In his 19 games played, only seven penalties have been called on the 240 Ib forward, and all but one has been a stick infraction of some kind. A trip, a hook, a slash, a couple of cross-checks, and one interference have been called, but no roughings or fighting majors.
And somehow, through all of these talking points, Sutter and the rest of the Calgary Flames coaching staff continue to give Lucic over ten minutes of ice time a night and on occasion, a spot in the top six.
The obvious solution is to take Lucic out of the lineup and replace him with a member of the Wranglers. Whether it be a short-term or long-term move, the Calgary Flames are in desperate need of some fresh legs to bolster the club’s offensive production. However, the main issue at hand is, Darryl Sutter did not see enough from the prospects during training camp to justify giving them a roster spot.
"“There’s no kids pushing anybody for jobs in training camp at any position. So, I think there is a little bit of a comfort level there and guys got to push themselves out of it. They’re good players and good guys. They can push themselves. It doesn’t always have to come from having to bench somebody.” -Darryl Sutter"
But maybe, just maybe, his opinion has shifted thanks to Adam Ruzicka. Ruzicka, who spent much of his last three seasons bouncing between Flames and their AHL affiliates, has potentially secured a permanent spot in the Flames’ main roster following a nine-point, eight-game outburst to start November.
After being a healthy scratch for eight of nine games to start the season, Ruzicka was slotted into the Flames’ first line, alongside Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli, and hasn’t looked out of place yet.
While the Flames’ prospect pool was knocked pretty hard by Sutter ahead of the season, it’s hard not to imagine that Ruzicka’s hot streak has gotten management thinking again.
Now, as for who to call up, the answer is pretty clear.
The hometown kid, Matthew Phillips, is the guy for the job.
Phillips, who’s entering his fifth season with Flames’ AHL club, lead the Stockton Heat in points last season and finished tied for eighth across the entire AHL. This season, Phillips has remained at the top of the scoring race, leading his crew in both points and goals, while sitting in fourth place in the AHL leaderboard with 20 points in 16 games. Despite his 5’8″ and 160 Ibs frame, Phillips is in a league of his own and it’s indisputable. Besides, critics made the same comments toward Johnny Gaudreau during his time in Calgary and he didn’t turn out so bad.
If the Calgary Flames’ do step up to the plate to meet the demand of what seems to be the entirety of the fanbase by calling up Phillips, they cannot – at all costs – toss him a few games on the bottom line. If you want a prospect to find success with the main squad, they must be given a larger sample size than a couple of games.
For a player like Phillips to flourish, the Flames need to play to his strengths. He’s a small, crafty player with an excellent hockey IQ. He’s not a well-defined powerhouse that excels in the corners of the ice. If management truly wants Phillips to find success with the Flames, he needs to be given a considerable amount of time somewhere in the team’s top six. It will take time to get accustomed to the pace of the NHL, and we cannot jump the gun if points do not immediately erupt out of Phillips.
Matthew Phillips is not getting any younger. He’s had more than enough time to develop in the minors and it’s time to see him swap places with a guy like Milan Lucic.
After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen?