Calgary Flames: How bad boy Milan Lucic became one of the good guys

Milan Lucic #17 of the Calgary Flames. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Milan Lucic #17 of the Calgary Flames. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images) /

Calgary Flames forward Milan Lucic has gradually shed his bad boy image.

The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy is awarded each year by members of the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association (the same people who vote on the Hart Trophy) to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. This year, the Calgary Chapter of the PHWA nominated Milan Lucic.

While I could see perseverance and dedication certainly being traits Lucic has always held, there was a time when he was one of the most controversial players in the NHL.

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That was earlier in his career, of course. I haven’t forgotten the time he blew up then-Sabres goalie Ryan Miller in 2011, managing to actually concuss him. Or the time he (kind of, allegedly) threatened to kill Dale Weise of the Montreal Canadiens in 2014. One might even say that to anyone who wasn’t a Bruins fan, he was a villain.

The Masterton Trophy is usually about a feel-good story. Recipients often struggled with adversity off the ice to come back and renew their careers. Villains rarely get a Masterton nod.

But Milan Lucic is no longer a villain. At some point, he managed to change that narrative, and his Masterton nod signifies that.

Good guy Milan Lucic worthy of the Masterton

When Peter Chiarelli signed Lucic to the Edmonton Oilers in the offseason of 2016, Chiarelli was upfront about his intentions. He wanted the gritty forward because of the impact he would have on the team’s culture.

Lucic was a part of a Boston Bruins core that was renowned for its leadership and hard work, both on and off the ice. It was a core that Chiarelli was instrumental in building. He knew what he was getting in Lucic. And Lucic knew what he was getting in Chiarelli. At the time, Lucic said his loyalty to his former GM was a motivating factor. This was the start.

Incidentally, the previous Oilers regime had tried this very thing once before when they signed Andrew Ference in 2013. That was a failed experiment, but that is another story.

Like Ference, Lucic was a straight-shooter, and a leader in the room. He didn’t quite live up to the expectations that might follow a seven-year, $6 million per year deal. But fans often forget that was the going rate for Unrestricted Free Agents in 2016. The reality is that no one expected a $6 million dollar player at age 35. That same year, Loui Eriksson, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, and David Backes all signed similar deals. Of the bunch, Lucic actually did the best by far.

And with his help, the Oilers did make it into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2017, falling just one game shy of a berth in the Western Conference Final. So in that sense, he delivered on expectations.

Milan Lucic (17)
Milan Lucic #17 of the Calgary Flames. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

But it was after he suffered a sharp decline in his performance that the narrative really changed. In the summer of 2018, numerous sources from TSN reported rumors that Lucic wanted out. But I distinctly recall another, quieter rumor at the time. The rumor was that Lucic didn’t want out. The rumor was that he went to Chiarelli, and said that he would waive his No-Trade Clause, if Chiarelli needed him to. In other words, he knew his contract was hurting the team, and he was willing to be dealt, if that was best for the team.

We can only put so much stock in rumors.  But history has strongly corroborated that one. When Lucic was dealt to the Calgary Flames in 2019, he allegedly told the Flames the same thing. He would waive his No-Trade Clause if they needed him to.

And this rumor was recently confirmed. It has been reported by multiple sources that not only is Milan Lucic going to waive his No-Trade Clause in the face of the Seattle Expansion Draft, but that it was a “verbal promise” he made to the Flames when they traded for him.

What I mean by a “verbal promise” is that he wasn’t legally bound to keep it. Seasoned negotiators tend to avoid relying on verbal promises for this reason. There’s no point putting stock in something you can’t rely on.

Players negotiate for No-Trade Clauses because by the time they are in their late 20s, they want to settle down somewhere. They often have young families, and want to keep them in one place. No-Trade Clauses offer security. And that security is hard-earned, from players whose destinies begin with mostly one-sided Entry Level Contracts and Restricted Free Agency.

Milan Lucic didn’t have to sacrifice the protection his contract afforded him. But he was true to his word. And he didn’t just sacrifice that protection for the Flames’ sake. That verbal promise helping Calgary now was what got him out of Edmonton.

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It’s possible to look at his decision as a practical one. He’s not succeeding in Calgary, maybe Seattle is a better fit. He only has two years left on his deal. But when you look at the movements leading up to it, a pattern emerges. At every turn, Lucic has shown loyalty, integrity, and putting the interests of his team first. These are not the qualities of a villain.

The Masterton nod comes on the heels of this. As the old saying goes, just being nominated is an honor. For Milan Lucic, I’d say it’s more than that. I’d say it marks an evolution. Just imagine if one day, we think the same way of Washington Capitals pest Tom Wilson.