February 01 2016 10:00AM
We're now 48 games into the season, and with the All-Star Break over, just starting to round the corner on the final stretch. This is when we may see line shuffling come to an end, and we're far enough into the season to know just who works together and how well.
For example, it was about this time last year Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Jiri Hudler became a regular trio; the same can be said for Lance Bouma, Mikael Backlund, and David Jones on a line of their own.
Granted, injuries play a role in this, such as Backlund missing out on two months of the 2014-15 season due to an abdominal strain. And this season, the Flames have yet to be fully healthy, with players consistently getting injured throughout the year - a major factor in Head Coach Bob Hartley being unable to maintain definitive lines.
But now, with no new injuries before the All-Star Break, and with Micheal Ferland's anticipated return right after, the Flames may finally be healthy: and they may finally be able to put together a consistent lineup.
Here's how what we've had this season looks so far.
Gaudreau - Monahan - ?
Johnny Gaudreau has been the Flames' best forward this season. This isn't even deniable: he leads the team in scoring with 20 goals and 47 points, 18 more points than the team's next highest scoring forward. He's been on his own level, and as it stands right now, the Flames don't appear to have the linemates to match him.
Well - they might. With Sam Bennett continuing to impress in his rookie season, he may one day get the chance, although the insistence on playing him on the left wing - Gaudreau's position - is quashing the notion for the time being.
But Gaudreau and Monahan worked absurdly well together last season, and with 571:45 5v5 minutes together this season, they've practically been inseparable. And it's not like they don't deserve to be linemates - after Gaudreau, Monahan is the Flames' next-highest scoring forward.
The only problem is they don't really have a suitable right wing candidate. This season's Jiri Hudler doesn't quite look like last year's guy, regression be damned. David Jones was an option for a time, but he's simply not a first line player. And Micheal Ferland was getting a look before he was injured - and just maybe starting to show something, albeit in a very limited sample size.
Here's how the trios have performed (all data via Puckalytics' Super WOWY tool):
According to Puckalytics, at 5v5, Hudler has spent 282:46 minutes with Gaudreau and Monahan, Jones 102:31, and Ferland just 10:44 - so obviously, anything to do with Ferland (including lack of goals scored thus far) is a total work in progress.
Gaudreau and Monahan may have scored the most with Jones on their line, but based on possession stats, they're better off with Hudler. It is concerning that despite sheltered zone starts, they aren't able to break 50% on possession, but quite simply, Hudler is the best guy for the job at the moment.
The upcoming trade deadline throws another wrinkle into the mix. Both Hudler and Jones are candidates to be traded, but even despite Hudler's lacklustre season this year, he's a more valuable trade chip than Jones. Over his time as a Flame, Hudler has shown that at worst, he's capable of being a positive impact in regards to secondary scoring: something playoff teams would likely find valuable.
And Hudler's the one who needs his value boosted more than ever right now. Assuming he doesn't finish the season as a Flame, there will be plenty of time for Ferland to get more chances in the team's top six, but as things stand right now, Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler is probably the way to go for the Flames' first line.
Bennett - Backlund - Frolik
Sam Bennett has been tossed around throughout the lineup this season. As it currently stands today, though, his most common linemates at 5v5 have been, in order: Michael Frolik, Mikael Backlund, and Markus Granlund, all of whom he's played at least 170 minutes with. After them there's Hudler and Jones, and even Gaudreau, but he's yet to reach even 100 minutes with any of those players.
Bennett probably should be playing centre, but instead, he's most often found himself on either Backlund or Granlund's wing. And if the candidates are between Backlund and Granlund, then the answer is obvious: if Bennett's going to play on the wing, he's got to play on Backlund's.
Quite simply: Backlund boosts Bennett, while Granlund can't seem to keep up. Bennett and Backlund score together, they actually drive possession together, and they do it without wildly favourable zone starts.
When you add Frolik into the mix, it becomes more obvious that this is another major line for the Flames, at least for the time being. Over 177:47 5v5 minutes together, the Bennett - Backlund - Frolik line has a CF of 50.3%, a GF of 57.1%, and an OZ of 51.3%. Put simply: they get the job done.
So if Bennett won't be used at centre, this has to be the line for him. It's probably the Flames' best line at this time, period.
Things get much more confusing once you dip out of the top six. Markus Granlund has been a regular this season, but will he be forced to go back to the AHL due to roster constraints? Josh Jooris should have been a regular this season, but for some reason, has yet to be able to make the lineup night in and night out. Lance Bouma probably would have been a regular if it weren't for his freak injuries, and now that he's healthy, it's something we can likely expect of him - but there's no data this season we can use to really determine where he should go, because he's barely played.
Joe Colborne has been all over the lineup, from first line to fourth. Who has he played best with? Well:
The above chart shows the 10 forwards Colborne has played the most with 5v5. Be warned, this is ice time ranging from 30 minutes to 230, so there's a great disparity in sizes. (Left-to-right for most minutes spent with to least.)
Six of these players we've already identified as should be in the top six: Monahan (who he looked to perform okay with, although they didn't score often), Backlund (who he did reasonably well with), Hudler (whom he was very sheltered with, without the results), Bennett (extreme sheltering), Gaudreau (smaller sample size, relatively intense sheltering, but something to show for it), and Frolik (same as Gaudreau, but with less scoring).
Colborne doesn't really bring a compelling argument to separate any of those players from their otherwise-designated linemates, though, so that leaves us with a few other options: Stajan, Jones, Ferland, and Granlund.
Colborne and Granlund in a sheltered role could work, but Stajan seems to do a pretty good job with him, and that's with poor zone starts.
Stajan is, essentially, the Flames' fourth line centre at this point in time. That would require playing Colborne in a fourth line role, but playing as a supporting player - and remember, when the Flames have an optimal lineup, they can still roll all four lines at no detriment to themselves - seems to be much more Colborne's speed than somebody to be relied upon for important situations.
Colborne, Stajan, and Ferland have yet to all be used on a line together, but it is, perhaps, a combination that could work. This would likely leave Bouma, Jooris, and Jones as the Flames' last line - assuming a Granlund demotion for the time being and Mason Raymond and Brandon Bollig as healthy scratches - which could potentially work, although members of that group have barely played together this season at all.
Right now, the bottom-six looks to be something more of an experimental grounds. But with the Flames looking good to sell over the course of this month, new avenues will open up for players - and judging by how this season is going, they may be auditioning for spots to start the 2016-17 season with.