By David Song, October 11 2021—
Blake Coleman was, on paper, the only significant acquisition the Calgary Flames made this offseason. But Flames fans will have to wait a tad longer to see what he can do in regular season action.
The two-time Stanley Cup champion was suspended for boarding Jansen Harkins of the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 6 during a 3-2 preseason road defeat. Coleman will therefore miss the Flames’ final preseason tilt and their regular-season opener on Oct. 16 against the Edmonton Oilers.
It’s never ideal to come to a new team and serve your first suspension before playing your first regular season game. It’s also disappointing because now, head coach Darryl Sutter won’t have another chance to test drive Coleman on a line with Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm — a trio that has the potential to become Calgary’s top unit.
No, seriously. Coleman and Tkachuk with Lindholm down the middle could be the Flames’ number one line.
That might sound odd to some. After all, Coleman has yet to reach the 40-point plateau in his NHL career, and he played down on Tampa Bay’s third line during back-to-back Lightning Cup runs. Sportsnet’s Eric Francis envisioned Coleman in a middle-six role with Calgary, while The Athletic’s Hailey Salvian suggested a possible second line of Coleman with Sean Monahan and Andrew Mangiapanie.
Both of those are sensible takes. Coleman is not the top offensive threat that Flames fans hoped to acquire this summer (a moment of silence for the Jack Eichel pipe dream). His defensive acumen serves him well in a checking-line role against the opposition’s best forwards. Coleman is unlikely to dangle through defenders or terrorize goalies with his one-time snipe. But hear me out — the Flames would be amiss not to try him on their top line.
Most NHL teams, other than the Lightning of course, don’t have the luxury of a top six full of All-Star caliber players, but that doesn’t mean complementary guys can’t help out elite linemates. Chris Kunitz — who profiled similarly to Coleman in terms of his grit/skill mix — played on Sidney Crosby’s wing for years, winning three Stanley Cups in the process. Infamous bruiser Tom Wilson rides shotgun with Alex Ovechkin frequently, and they have a Cup ring together. Coleman is a three-time 20-goal scorer, and his 14 goals in 55 games last year translate to roughly a 25-goal pace over a full season. He may not be Nikita Kucherov, but he doesn’t lack for skill.
It’s hard to crack a top six when you’re playing with Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn. But Calgary’s forward group isn’t nearly as deep as Tampa Bay’s, meaning Coleman could blow away his career highs in goals and points with more offensive zone time.
Coleman’s grit is another reason why the Flames need him on the ice as much as possible. For multiple playoff years in a row, Calgary has wilted against physical opponents like the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche. Speed and skill may take centre stage in today’s NHL, but toughness still matters, especially in the postseason. Most of Calgary’s top forwards — Monahan, Lindholm, Mikael Backlund and especially Johnny Gaudreau — are not physically or temperamentally suited to hard-hitting, grind-it-out contests. Tkachuk, on the other hand, has a penchant for going too far, as evidenced by his three career suspensions and involvement in several other on-ice brouhahas (Zack Kassian, anyone?).
Coleman would be part of the solution here. He brings a nonstop motor and a relentless forecheck. His 5’11”, 207-pound frame and solid trunk equip him for battle in the corners, and he finishes his checks regularly —obviously, Flames fans don’t want to see any more boarding calls, but they’re not dealing with Raffi Torres here. Coleman will make space for his linemates and support them physically, and he could mentor Tkachuk on how to be feisty, but wise. A more disciplined Matthew Tkachuk would be an absolute win for the Flames, and it’s easy to see how he might benefit from playing with a two-time Cup winner.
More importantly, Coleman brings a number of tools to the table that casual observers may overlook. He is an underrated two-way forward who kills penalties with aplomb, and for all of the Lightning’s star power, he played an indispensable role there. Last season, Coleman clocked 404 minutes of ice time with linemates Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow, spending more time together than any other Tampa forward trio. That unit, the epitome of a modern-day checking line, was trusted with starting most games and holding third-period leads in any playoff tilt where the Lightning found themselves ahead. Calgary’s core players have thus far been unable to rise to the postseason occasion, and this is where Coleman’s experience will be vital. He’s been there and done that, and can be a stabilizing force when times get tough.
And finally, just think about the damage that a Tkachuk-Lindholm-Coleman line could possibly do. Elias Lindholm is the Flames’ best overall forward, a near 30-goal scorer who also kills penalties and takes care of his own end. Matthew Tkachuk is the young bull in a china shop who can be devastating when he plays smart. Add to that Coleman’s leadership and all-around acumen, and you have a line that (in theory) could be deployed in all game situations. Oh, and one more thing — Coleman and Lindholm can both play all three forward positions, granting such a line tremendous versatility. Lindholm would be the go-to center, but when he gets tossed from the faceoff circle, Coleman can take a draw. Sutter would be free to swap them around as he sees fit.
Having said all that, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Coleman deployed in a middle-six role. His assets would still be leveraged on the second or third line, and he would likely be a special-teams fixture either way. Nonetheless, Coleman played well with Lindholm and Tkachuk on Sept. 29, notching an assist in their first game together. It’s an experiment that deserves revisiting.