January 02 2017 08:00AM
That's it for 2016. It was a year marked by both modest frustrations and modest growth for the Calgary Flames. They came back down to earth after their Cinderella 2014-15 season, settling back into draft lottery territory before ultimately picking Matthew Tkachuk at sixth overall.
Luckily Tkachuk has been a revelation so far in his rookie season, settling in on the left side with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik to help form one of the best two-way forward units in the entire NHL. Usually kids - especially teens - struggle to play a complete game at the NHL level, but Tkachuk has leapt fully formed into the show.
On the other hand, the Flames haven't yet seen the growth they likely expected from other notable youngsters like Sean Monahan or Sam Bennett. Those guys essentially running in place has made Glen Gulutzan's life much more complicated, leaving him trying to find a way to shelter everyone who isn't playing with Backlund in the top nine rotation.
So what will 2017 bring? Can one of the other kids take another step? Can the club get back into the playoffs? Who is going to be sacrificed in the expansion draft? Lots of interesting questions will potentially be answered this year.
For the first edition of the FN mailbag for 2017, we take a look at Sam Bennett, Matthew Takchuk and the Flames' defensive prospects.
"Just fine" is a good descriptor, but I agree that Bennett has yet to take another step forward. He's on pace to essentially score the same amount of points as he did last year (38) and his underlying numbers remain mediocre. He's only 20 years old and is trying to learn a tough position, but at some point he needs to improve in order to fulfill his potential.
If Bennett settles into a 40-point, third line C it's not necessarily a bad thing - but I know the organization (as well as many fans) had much higher expectations for a kid who had an outside shot to go #1 overall in his draft year.
It's hard to say at this point. If Bennett indeed finishes as a 38-point, negative possession player by the end of the year, we can start to generate some comparables with more confidence.
Right now, he reminds me of guys like Josh Bailey or Brayden Schenn. Bailey was picked ninth overall by the Islanders in 2008 after scoring 96 points in the OHL. He jumped right into the NHL and was considered an elite, young talent at the time.
However, his development seemed to stall in the show. He scored 35 points in his sophomore season as a 20-year-old and has managed just one season over 40 points in the six seasons since. He's a capable middle rotation player, but he's not a difference maker.
Brayden Schenn is similar. He was picked fifth overall by the Kings in 2009. Unlike Bailey, it took him a couple of years to make the NHL, but eventually he settled into support player territory. He scores a bit more than Bailey (thanks to a career high 59-points last year), but he's mostly a 40-45 point guy who can ride shotgun with good players but isn't a play driver (example: he has the worst relative possession rate on his team this year).
On the other side of the aisle is a guy like Kyle Turris. Chosen third overall in 2007, it took Turris years to really find his legs at the NHL level. He was rushed into the show by the Coyotes and struggled defensively while only putting up middling offensive results. Eventually, though, Turris became a positive two-way force and above average offensive driver for his second team, the Ottawa Senators. He was 24 when the light finally came on.
We don't really know which way Bennett will go yet, so we just have to hope he follows Turris' path.
As mentioned, I don't think Bennett's game has progressed much over his rookie season. He seems to be negotiating a couple of things right now: how to play on the edge without taking unnecessary penalties and how to translate his junior offense at the NHL level.
Some nights we see the blend of aggression and creativity that made him such a high impact player in the OHL. There are long stretches of play, however, where Bennett looks more frustrated than anything. He's good at generating shots for himself in aggregate, but the Flames' total shot attempts at even strength drop by five shots per hour (versus the team's average) with Bennett on the ice right now.
As a center, he can influence that number to a non-trivial degree. I'd like to see him get to average or above average in terms of team shot generation by the end of the year (or next year) at the very least.
Right now the results all point to Tkachuk. He's younger, scores more frequently at even strength and has much better underlying numbers. Of course, he's also a winger who has been placed into a great situation where he's developed instant chemistry with a couple of other quality two-way players, so it's hard to compare. Of note - Bennett excelled on Backlund and Frolik's wing last year as well (just not quite to the degree that Tkachuk has).
That said, we only have 30-odd games of information on Tkachuk, so any pronouncements need to be taken with a grain of salt.
I can't speak to any of the intangibles given that I don't know either player personally or how they interact with their teammates.
That said, I don't know if the Flames would necessarily target Patrick Eaves if they were to get rid of Troy Brouwer. Eaves is 32 years old and has been a merely competent role player for many seasons. He's on pace to score 40+ for the first time in his career this year, but that should by no means be considered typical or likely for the player.
In fact, the best bet for Eaves is he hangs around as a third or fourth line player for another couple of seasons before leaving the NHL.
@Kent_Wilson Highest ceiling of the top 3 defensive prospects Kylington, Andersson and Fox?— Ryan Eggen (@RCE_66) December 30, 2016
It's hard to compare Fox to the other two guys since he's a couple of years behind them in his development. However, right now it looks like it might be him - his start at Harvard compares favourably to other elite level college defenders and he's the only one of the three who made the WJC as an 18-year-old.
Of course, Fox also has a long way to go before he becomes a professional and a lot can change between now and then. Oliver Kylington and Rasmus Andersson are closer to the show and are better bets to become NHLers, if only because we have way more information on them, but if Fox continues to build on his already impressive resume and results, he's a particularly impressive talent.