Word has just come down from the NHL that Milan Lucic has been suspended for two games, the consequences of a cheap shot punch to the face of Kole Sherwood during Saturday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. While early in the season, Lucic’s struggles have been well- documented, this latest development is a clear sign things are going off the rails in Calgary. Lucic was supposed to be a breath of fresh air for the Flames, who wanted and needed some of the grit Lucic has been known to provide in the past.
But, because Lucic has scored no goals and had two incidents this season where his decision-making has been called into question, the debate about who won the trade that saw Lucic arrive in Calgary seems pretty one-sided.
Are fans in Calgary witnessing what might be a meltdown for Milan?
Asking some specific questions about what’s going on in Calgary, Jim Jr. and Jim Sr. are taking a closer look at the situation:
1) What do you make of Lucic’s struggles as an NHL player?
Jim Jr. : Having closely watched Lucic over his few seasons in Edmonton, when the Oilers moved Lucic, it was, honestly, a good day. I’ve always liked Lucic but it was clear the Oilers overpaid to get him, something mentally wasn’t quite right, and he was never going to bounce back in an Oilers’ uniform. That he’s struggling in Calgary is not at all a surprise.
But, what I’m seeing so far this season with Lucic is puzzling. He was never going to live up to his contract; however, no goals and only three points in a Flames uniform are too low, even for what he was expected to provide. He seems clearly frustrated and it looks like another season where the mental part of the game is overriding what he could offer in terms of production.
Jim Sr. : With the Boston Bruins, Lucic had eight great seasons (between 2007 and 2015) where he scored over 60 points two times and 59 points another. He also had a pretty solid 2015-16 season with the Los Angeles Kings. During that time, he became a tough-playing, high-scoring power forward. He was the very definition of a power forward, actually.
But Lucic is facing two problems. First, the NHL has changed since Lucic was in his prime. Second, Lucic’s prime faded a while ago.
To the first point, Lucic is a valuable asset from another time. What was valued early in his career is no longer valued. That makes him expendable and, probably as a player, a bit desperate.
To the second point, Lucic sort of plays a Jamie Benn-type-beat-on-everyone hockey (as opposed to Tyler Seguin, who plays on the same team and who’s a finesse player who plays on the periphery). Comparing how these two great Dallas Stars’ players scored last season, one can see the drop in Benn’s game and the level-scoring of Seguin’s game.
That’s happened to Lucic as well. He’s a big body who’s banged and been banged so often that his body has aged quickly and his skills have rapidly faded.
2) What did you make of the Lucic for James Neal trade?
Jim Jr. : Calgary fans were mixed on the trade but like fans often do, they looked for the positives in that deal. Neal was coming off a seven-goal season and the Flames had written him off, much like the Oilers did Lucic. What surprised me most was why? Neal had an obvious track record of 20-goal seasons and his seven in 2018-19 was an anomaly. That the Flames weren’t willing to try one more year was a shocker.
It’s clear now the Oilers won this trade in a major way. This is not to say anyone expected what Neal has given Edmonton so far this year, but he was positioned to do far more than Lucic could.
Jim Sr.: When the Edmonton Oilers picked up Lucic, the organization saw Lucic as more than a good hockey player but also as Connor McDavid’s protection. Oiler fans recall that McDavid had been injured and missed so much of his rookie season that he wasn’t eligible to win the Calder that season. And the Oilers saw Lucic as riding shotgun.
Give Lucic his credit; he’s been a warrior throughout his career. He plays hurt; stands up for his teammates; and has been a presence on the ice.
The trade was for apples and oranges. It was clear that James Neal’s season was an anomaly, but that Lucic (as I noted) had been fading. Still, the trade was such a victory for the Oilers that it leaves Calgary Flames fan blithering a bit trying to make Lucic seem to have value to the team.
Still, even Johnny “Hockey” Gaudreau noted during the summer that he believed Lucic could, as the title of the article noted, “Gaudreau thinks Lucic can push Flames ‘over the edge.” Specifically, Gaudreau noted, “Obviously we’ve been looking for a bit of toughness for our team and Lucic brings that.”
Neal was never tough, but he was (and obviously remains) a quality scorer who gives the Oilers something beyond the dynamic duo of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
There’s also no doubt in my mind that Lucic watches to see how Neal does; and, Neal’s strong start must light a fire under Lucic’s pride. He’ll work harder in any way he can to prove the trade wasn’t a steal. That’s a tough position really for a prideful hockey player.
3) What are your thoughts about the two cheap shots so far this season – one on Kole Sherwood and the other on Nitika Zadorov?
Jim Jr. : The first shot on Zadorov appeared to be Lucic trying to make himself a fan favorite in Calgary and set the tone early in the season. It was unnecessary but understandable. This latest shot at Sherwood was just evidence of a player losing his cool and being frustrated with everything that’s going on so far this season.
Sherwood can be a bit of a poop disturber, but what he did by driving the net and going for a loose puck is a play we see every day in the NHL. Frankly, it’s what players are coached to do. Lucic’s cheap shot was beyond uncalled for. He was clearly taking a full swing at the player and was trying to hurt him.
My take?: as Lucic continues to struggle, this type of thing will become more of a concern.
Jim Sr. : In general, I don’t like fighting in the NHL and prefer speedy hockey with lots of back and forth. Overtime is my favorite time of any game. I don’t know if they were cheap shots. What I do believe is that Lucic is acting his “role” with the team. He’s come to deliver muscle and he has.
The Columbus Blue Jackets Kole Sherwood put a dig on Flames netminder David Rittich and then pushed harder at Rittich for good measure when he skated past again. Lucic rushed the rookie and put him to the ice. They both were penalized, so it wasn’t as if Lucic was simply seen as head-hunting. With Nikita Zadorov, who knows what it looked like from Lucic’s angle? Was it a cheap shot. We don’t know.
Sadly, Lucic seems to be in a difficult situation as a player. He was brought in to be an enforcer and has topped 200 hits each of his last seven full NHL seasons. It’s tough to know what Lucic is supposed to do. He’s lost a step, so if he isn’t providing a physical presence (as Gaudreau suggested he work), he’s done as a player. He has to know that.
4) What does Lucic have left to offer the Flames?
Jim Jr. : I don’t know if there’s much left in the tank for Lucic and the worst part is, he appears to be dragging the offense of the players around him down. Similar things happened in Edmonton and that trend has followed him down the Highway in Alberta.
Jim Sr. : If I’m correct that Lucic’s body is older than his years and he’s lost his speed and skills, what’s left? That answer to that question is a player whose top “skill” for the Flames is to become a mean-spirited, bottom-six forward who might, on any given night, place the fear of God into a player who’s playing fast and loose with a teammate. Whether that’s value-added to a team like Calgary, who’s to know. As I noted earlier, Gaudreau obviously thinks it is – or else he’s spinning.
Sad for Lucic, this will probably be his last NHL contract. In the meantime, the Flames will have to eat that contract for three seasons past this one.
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