July 18 2011 11:51AM
Now that Brendan Morrison is back in the fold, the Flames have at least five NHL centerman at their disposal, including Mikael Backlund, Olli Jokinen, Daymond Langkow and Matt Stajan. The last three guys make $3+ million year while Backlund made a strong case to move up the depth chart last season. Like the club's ever growing collection of depth defensemen, Calgary's situation down the middle seems to similar with lots of middling guys and fewer top-end options.
it's going to be interesting to see how Brent Sutter manages his centerman this coming season because there's no obvious, clear-cut top-ender. Last year, lacking Daymond Langkow, Brent began with Stajan on the top line, Backlund on the fourth, with Morrison and Jokinen occupying the middle lines. That rotation was essentially inverted by the end of the year, with Stajan skating on the fourth line and Backlund with Iginla and Jokinen and Langkow again somewhere in the middle. This is closer to how I see things shaping up this comiing year, although October will be the first time Sutter has all five healthy bodies available at the same time.
First off, I've compiled and ranked each guy's corrected corsi rating. This measure simply adjusts for zone starts, allowing us to put every guy on even footing.
|Player||ice time||corsi/60||corsi raw||o-zone||d-zone||ZS diff||corr corsi||cc/60|
The table shows each players even strength ice time, corsi/60 minutes rating, raw corsi as well as offensive zone and defensive zone face-offs at ES. The corrected corsi is presented in both raw and rate (/60) form. Daymond Langkow was left excluded because of a tiny sample size.
Of course, the possession numbers are only a part of the story.
Daymond Langkow is a bit of an unknown commodity, having only appeared in four games last year and turning 35 in September. He has been the Flames best hard-minutes option down the middle for years and I thought he looked surprisingly good in his return considering the seriousness of his injury and the amount of time he spent away, but one wonders if or when time is going to catch up to him. Langkow managed a corsi rate of +11.71 in his four-game stint, which is very strong, but of course the sample size is way too small to really judge anything.
If Daymond is indeed fully functional this season, I don't expect him to land with Iginla and Tanguay. Aside from an ill-fated two month experiment where rolled played Iginla and Jokinen in a power-vs-power role, Sutter has been tried to shelter Iggy a bit by feeding other lines the tougher match-ups. In 2009-10, Langkow and Bourque were more or less chosen for that role while last season Jokinen and Bourque were the guys splitting the tough match-ups.
As a result, I half expect Langkow to be placed in a sort of second/third line shut-down duty with with either Bourque or Glencross, where he's mostly matched up against the big boys and not expected to score as much. It's a role he can handle better than anyone other center currently on the club, so if he's indeed 100% then he may be able to shift the tide a bit more in the Flames favor.
Although Backlund's totals weren't overly impressive last season (10 goals, 25 points) the 22-year old nevertheless made a strong statement in his first full season in the league. Although he was highly sheltered for most of the year, Backlund's underlying numbers remain impressive with a corsi rate of +14.89/60, by far the best amongst the Flames middle-men.
Backlund spent a lot of time with Jackman in a fourth line role, particularly to start the year, but there's no question he knocked the ball out of the park. Killing the lesser lights is the first step every kid needs to take in order to move beyond a replacement level player and it's one Flames prospects have frequently been unable to take.
Although he was a healthy scratch during some of he tougher times at the start of the year, Backlund found himself playing with Iginla and Tanguay near the end of the year when injuries had claimed Morrison and Moss. In the last seven games of the season, his ice time crested 17+ minutes four times, well above his season average of about 12. This is in contrast to Matt Stajan, whose single game high in the same span was 12:59.
The kids game seemed to progress last season by eye as well. By the latter half, he was holding onto the puck in the offensive zone a bit more and seemed to have rid himself of the habit of crossing the blueline and firing the biscuit whenever convenient. His vision and hands were on display to a greater degree the more comfortable he got and I think he was chosen to be elevated above Stajan on merit. As an added bonus, he also scored what might be the Flames goal of the year:
Backlund has spent the first 97 games of his career crushing the other team's fourth liners, so I think it's time the kid was moved up the rotation a bit. As it stands, he is my preferred option to center Iginla and Tanguay (assuming the Langkow line takes the heavies, of course).
My favorite target for derision and nicknames had himself an okay season considering how Brent Sutter used him. Joker has never been a heavy hitter at ES, mostly feasting on easy match-ups and PP time to put points in the past. He and Bourque split tougher minutes with Iginla and Tanguay and they struggled to keep their heards above water (although the anchor seemed to be Bourque rather than Jokinen). Olli didn't get completely crushed in that role, however, plus he did manage to produce with the man advantage unlike his first tour of duty in Calgary.
With Langkow back in the fold, Jokinen can probably face second and third lines again, particularly if he skates with, say, Glencross and Moss. Glencross and Jokinen formed a fruitful partnership for a brief period in the middle of season last year. It could happen again, especially if the Big Fin isn't expected to skate against the big boys. A third line-center, first unit PP role for Jokinen is probably ideal.
The centerpiece of the Dion Phanuef trade has been a total bust in Flames colors so far. Stajan began his time in Calgary as the guy tabbed to center Jarome. By the end of his first full season, he was playing 10 minutes a night and looking every inch a fourth line centerman.
Stajan certainly had some things go wrong for him last year. His SH% dropped to just 7.4%, a career low. Of course, his shot rate also fell to just over one per game, which is defensive defenseman territory. As a player, Stajan doesn't seem overly good at anything, but has a few glaring weaknesses. Primarily, he seems to struggle to win puck battles and physical contests along the boards. He gives up the puck really easily, even in the neutral zone, and he doesn't produce enough opportunities at the good end of the ice to excuse his lapses elsewhere. He also tends to get clocked by an opposing defender pretty regularly.
Stajan produced pretty well for the first month or so, but it was pretty much all percentages. Once those regressed, Sutter busted him down the depth chart and buried him, preferring to move up guys like Morrison and Backlund instead. Sutter even turned to David Moss to play center rather than elevate Stajan mid-season. That's as strong an indictment of a $3.5 million veteran there is I think.
Stajan could probably put up more points if he was given more ice time and that SH% is bound to bounce back up to career norms, but I'm not convinced he'll ever be good enough to justify his contract in Calgary. His underlying numbers this past year were mediocre even though his circumstances in aggregate weren't too much different than Backlund's. I suspect the latter guy is as good or better a player right now and will certainly be in the future. Despite the disparate price-tags I assume (and hope) Sutter defaults to Backlund as the better option going forward.
Signed out of desperation after Ales Kotalik and Daymond Langkow were declared not fit to start the season last year, Brendan Morrison provided a surprising amount of value for his $750k ticket. The 36-year old was really productive given his price-tag and he managed to bounce around the line-up, filling holes at both center and wing where ever he was needed.
It turned out to be a serendipitous acquisition for the club. No center was more efficient than Morrison at producing points at even strength. He also managed 4.7 power-play points per 60 minutes of ice, second behind only Olli Jokinen. It was appropriate, although ironic, then that his season-ending knee injury was considered such a blow to the Flames play-off hopes in March.
That's the good stuff. On the other hand, Morrison's underlying numbers are the very worst of those discussed here. His corsi rate per 60 was bottom-of-the barrel of any Calgary skater. If we look at corsi tied (which eliminates playing-to-score effects on possession), Morrison was dead last on the club with a .452 ratio. This means he spent the most time chasing the puck around the defensive zone of any center, and that's even with Olli Jokinen playing a role that was above his head.
Morrison traded on some team-best percentages to stay afloat. His PDO (on-ice SV%+SH%) was 102.7. No other regular centerman crested 100. This was mostly driven by an on-ice SH% of 10.16% at ES. To put that in perspective, the NHL average SH% at 5-on-5 is sually about 7-8%. Matt Stajan was second on the team with a 8.88% rate.
There's a couple of conclusions here: either Brendan Morrison is finding a way to drive percentages to a greater degree than most NHL forwards can manage or the hockey gods saw fit to smile on him last season. Given that we know percentages typically regress towards the mean in the long-run, I'm going with door number 2.
None of this is to say Morrison is altogether terrible and useless. I think with Matt Stajan falling off a cliff plus some of the injury concerns last year, Morrison was often thrust into positions that are technically above his head at this point in his career (top-six rotation). The percentages masked his struggles to the degree that he remained preferable to other options, so he continued to see more ice time than his true talent might warrant.
The data here is cautionary: on one hand, Morrison was one of the most efficient producers of points while he was on the ice for the Flames last season. On the other hand, he spent a lot of time getting outchanced...Iginla's scoring chance ratio with Morrison, for example, was 47.6%. Without Morrison, it was 55.3%. Morrison's own SC ratio last season was 50.8%, the third lowest of regular Flames forwards. The risk here is assuming the percentages will hold for BMo and he'll continue to score like a top-six forward despite the puck heading the wrong direction when he's on the ice. That's likely a bad bet.
As such, I hope Morrison doesn't return from his injury and bump a guy like Mikael Backlund down the depth chart or to the wing. The old guy should be used as the utility player he is, not the second-line center his counting stats suggest. If he lands in the bottom-six as a winger or replaces Stajan as the fourth-line center (assuming the club could ever move Stajan's ticket out of town), I'll be satisfied.
Overall, the Flames have some options and I think fans should be heartened by the return of Langkow (who can take on the tougher minutes) and Backlund (who appears ready to take a big step forward ia afforded the chance). As mentioned at the onset, the club doesn't have a truly above-average to elite option down the middle which may cause problems against the better clubs in the league and could result in a lot of game-to-game shuffling of the deck if the team goes through some hard times.