Long live the 3M line; here’s what makes it so great

Updated: December 18, 2016 at 8:00 am by Mike FAIL

Everyone should love the 3M line. If you don’t, which would be a confusing thought, then I can only assume something happened in your life that prevents you from ever loving anything again. Teams hate playing against them being they are a combination of physicality (thank you Matthew Tkachuk) and two-way prowess anchored by Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik.

They’re a line that the Calgary Flames have desperately needed for several seasons because they do exactly what you need them to do in this current era of the NHL: they drive play and they find ways to suppress the opposition. 

In the past couple of weeks both Scott Cullen and Travis Yost have drawn attention to this line as a vital reason to the Flames’ turning corners after their shaky start. At the time of Cullen’s piece, the 3M line on Dec. 1 was the line was third on his list of the league’s top lines in 5v5 CF% (score-venue-zone adjusted) at 60.3% CF.

At this point, since 2013-14, there have only been four lines that the Flames have had with 150 minutes or more together that have sported a positive percentage in similar shot metrics (via Corsica Hockey):

  • 2016-17 Tkachuk – Mikael Backlund – Michael Frolik: 59.02% CF – 251.81 TOI
  • 2015-16 Sam Bennett – Mikael Backlund – Michael Frolik: 52.74% CF – 260.27 TOI
  • 2013-14 Lee Stempniak – Mikael Backlund – Jiri Hudler: 52.55% CF – 165.58 TOI
  • 2014-15 Johnny Gaudreau – Josh Jooris – Jiri Hudler: 52% CF – 153.16 TOI

Currently, the trio is sporting the following stats that are worth keeping your eyes on (5v5 score-zone-venue adjusted):

  • 68.66 CF60, 47.68 CA60 (Corsi-For/Corsi-Against per 60)
  • 50.38 FF60, 36.56 FA60 (Fenwick-For/Fenwick-Against per 60)
  • 37.8 SF60, 24.66 SA60 (Shots-For/Shots Against per 60)
  • 3 xGF60, 2.24 xGA60 (Expected Goals-For/Expected Goals-Against per 60)
The remarkable caveat to their xGF/xGA metrics is they’re scoring 2.67 GF60 currently and only surrendering 1.15 GA60. So they’re slightly below their expected totals in generating and contributing to keeping the puck out of the net. The latter point can be said, but in a shot suppression sense about their results. 

This team makes it hard for the opposition to play in the Flames’ zone and they’re often stifled in generating much. So what gives? How is this line even doing this after spending much of their time together starting shifts in the defensive zone? It’s really coming down to a lot of simple, very basic tenants that all three players seem to adhere to.

Start in the DZ, end up in the OZ

This line whether they start in the offensive zone, neutral zone, or defensive zone has a knack for creating offensive zone time and generating shots. This is one of the first elements in their game: all three find a way to drive play. 

This recent sequence from Dec. 8 speaks volumes about how the line and their defensive pairing set up in their own end. Everyone is supporting the play and both wingers are situated perfectly for a breakout to leave the zone (with possession) and enter the zone (with possession). 

Even if they have to leave the offensive zone, they regroup as a unit and strike again. Tkachuk’s abilities for creating entropy and mass chaos at any moment play into Backlund and Frolik’s strengths of passing, generating shots, and creating puck battles.

Again, another sequence in the Coyotes game where the line is supporting the play with appropriate gap control and forcing turnovers. Again we see controlled play be it passing, entries, or exits. All three forwards can do these things which means they’re not overly reliant on just one person. Yet again, the line creates chances and gets an offensive zone faceoff out of it.

The ability to transition quickly after gaining possession is something that the Flames as a whole unit need to continue to work on. Against the New York Islanders the line goes to work quickly moving through the neutral zone with possession and generating chances:

Finally, let’s close here with the simple yet elegant sequence which doesn’t seem like much but it works brilliantly. Dennis Wideman threading a pass to Backlund who exits to find a Tkachuk waiting for the handoff before heading to the bench allows Frolik to enter at full speed. 

From there, the Flames are able to generate two shots towards the net and force a stoppage in play. Simple, logical decisions like these go a long way.

Enabling their peers

An underlying theme in these sequences is how the defensive pairings still play a vital role in contributing alongside the 3M line. One pairing in particular, the Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano one, strives more than ever with Backlund, Frolik, and Tkachuk:

Against the Winnipeg Jets this became apparent again that the most lethal element on this Calgary Flames roster is these five men. Despite the error with Frolik losing his stick in the offensive zone, the team transitions quickly to play breaking out by the Jets. Again, we see Backlund supporting play along the boards which gives him an opportunity to help break it up.

After that, it’s that patented bank-pass to Tkachuk who enters the zone and drop passes to Hamilton:

And if they’re not doing it cleanly, the 3M line along with whatever defensive pairing they’re with will find a way into the offensive zone to create utter chaos everywhere. Even though this shift didn’t result in a much-needed goal, the Flames threw everything they could at the Sabres to try and draw within one:

Keep them together for forever, please

The Flames haven’t had a consistently strong line like this really since the Jarome Iginla era when the Kristian Huselius – Daymond Langkow – Iginla line in 2007-08 may have been one of the best Calgary Flames lines ever assembled that we have legitimate data on. And when I say strong line, I mean in the sense that they could carry play and not be outshot regularly.

This should be the goal in designing and shaping this roster: lines that can carry play night in and night out while maintaining offensive/defensive strengths. The 3M line in particular is eating tougher matchups, tougher starts, and still finding ways to come out ahead more often than not. 

Even if you factor in the struggles in the past few games for the team as a whole, Glen Gulutzan will probably count on this line more than ever to get back to form. Gulutzan deserves a lot of credit for assembling this line and keeping them together.

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