This morning on Twitter Mikael Backlund confirmed he will indeed return to the line-up tomorrow night versus the Chicago Blackhawks. Backlund has been out since the start of the season with a broken finger, but is apparently 100% after six weeks of rest and two surgeries on the injured digit.
This has a number of implications for the current line-up. First is that the Flames are already at the 23-man roster limit. Backlund’s activation means one of the other players – likely a forward – has to go away. And second, new line combos and coaching decisions are avaialble.
The Usual Suspects
The candidates for a demotion are various, but the answer isn’t a simple one. Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan, Brendan Morrison, PL3 and Roman Horak could find themselves on the short flight to Abbotsford tomorrow, depending on certain factors.
Hagman and Stajan have spent a few nights as healthy scratches this season and even longer than that in coach Brent Sutter’s doghouse. Hagman has been the guy on the outs recently and so is the more likely guy to get the pink slip. Financially, it makes more sense for Hagman to get waived as well: his $3M salary is cheaper than Stajan’s ($4.5M) and he only this year left on the deal. Demoting Hagman rather than Stajan means a smaller hit to the owners should he stick with the Heat and slightly higher chance he will be picked up by another team on waivers since his contract is expiring and therefore not much of a commitment.
Brendan Morrison has also been a healthy scratch recently and he’s less than half the price of Hagman. He’s also 36-years old and coming off of major knee surgery. A favorite of the club last year when he was running hot, Morrison has yet to score a point this season and it looks like the bloom is off the rose as a result. Morrison would be an easy choice to cut if he had not been re-signed in the off-season by the Flames new manager – meaning the optics of the move would be awful for Feaster and the organization.
On pure hockey terms, pugilist Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond is the obvious choice. He’s cheap ($525k), has only averages about five minutes per game and doesn’t bring anything beside the nominal value of a dropping the gloves. Of course, all that was true before the team acquired him for a fifth round pick in the summer and it seems the club is determined to have a fighter on the big club for whatever reason.
The last choice is simultaneously the most natural and probably the least popular. Roman Horak is 20-years old and still waiver exempt. He could therefore be sent down to the Heat without incident. The kid is also on a two-way contract meaning his $800k salary drops to just $62,500 in the AHL, making him the cheapest demotion on the club by several orders of magnitude.
Of course, Horak has quickly become one of the more popular figures on the club. His unlikely NHL debut straight of junior and ability to stick with the club made Tim Erixon’s struggles in New York all the sweeter for Flames fans. Horak has played in relatively difficult circumstances (no forward has a worse zone start ratio) and while he’s not exactly killing it like Gabriel Landeskog in Colorado, there have been flashes from the kid that suggest he’s not totally out of place on the big team. He has auditioned on a line with Iginla in the absence of other options and the organization made a lot of noise about "jobs being on the line" heading into 2001-12.
If Feaster demotes Horak in the face of his popularity with both the coach and th fans as well as the Flames marketing efforts this off-season, it will surely be poorly received – despite the fact it makes the most sense from a number of angles.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Feaster will make a last minute trade that will spare the club the need to send someone to Abbotsford. I suppose there’s an outside possibility someone out there will take Hags or Morrison for nominal "future considerations" although it seems unlikely at this juncture.
Depth Chart and Line Matching
Regardless of who gets the boot, Backlund’s return means Calgary will have another option down the middle. Sutter has shuffled through numerous combinations the last few weeks in an attempt get the Jarome going at even strength, with little success. I submit that Backlund should get a turn with the captain – and that Sutter should finally take this opportunity to fully and consistently shelter Iginla.
Heading into the season we discussed at length around these parts the enduring need to give Iginla the high ground at this point in his career. We have dicussed at length his lackluster possession rates from last year and how poorly he fared the last time Sutter chose to hard match Iggy against the other team’s best players.
Jarome can still put the puck in the net in the right circumstances, but it’s obvious to anyone perusing his stats or watching him this year that he needs some help just about everywhere else on the ice. Brent has split top-line duties between Iginla and Jokinen units so far this year (something he did last year), but it’s apparent he needs to work harder to give Iggy more favorable circumstances.
The captain has an even split between offensive and defensive zone draws so far this season and his possession rate is in the red (-4.75). Jarome hasn’t been gifted with better than average percentages so far this season, which is why he has just 3 even strength points through 14 games so far. That number will improve as a matter of course since Iginla plays about 16 minutes at 5on5 per night, but the other concern is how much the team gives up with him on the ice. So the need to shield him from tough minutes is doubly important.
The utility of burying one line for the sake of another can easily be demonstrated. Perhaps the best illustration comes from a few miles north of Calgary: Tom Renney has fed veterans Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff the toughest minutes with frequent match-ups against other team’s best lines and zone start ratios of less than 35%. This has left the high powered "kid line" to thrive. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle all have Sedin-like zone starts north of 70% and are rarely tasked with skating against the opposition’s best. The result is team best possession rates for the yongsters and whole lot of irrational exuberance up in Oilersville.
Whatever drives Sutter’s decision making regarding faceoffs and match-ups currently, Im hoping the return of Backlund prods him to reconsider his strategy. The current set-up has yielded modest returns at best and, as it stands, the Flames most expensive forward is largely a liability most nights.
It’s entirely possible Sutter isn’t comfortable with any one line getting completely buried, but the team is at the point where the coaching staff should wander beyond the status quo. I figured the need to actively shelter Jarome would be self-evident to Sutter at this point in his tenure, but apparently not.
My suggestion, therefore, is to ice this line-up:
Tanguay – Backlund – Iginla
Glencross – Jokinen – Moss
Bourque/Hagman – Stajan – Stempniak
Jackman – Horak/Morrison – Kostopolous
with these match-ups and zone starts as the goal:
Backlund line – 2nd/3rd liners, 60%+ ZS
Jokinen line – 1st/2nd liners, 40%- ZS
Stajan line – 3rd liners, 50%-ZS
Horak/Morrison – whatever is left
There are zero, proven shut-down type forwards on the Flames so the Jokinen is unit is probably the best bet to feed to the wolves. Shift Backlund between Ignla and Tanguay and concentrate on getting them the high priced real estate as much as possible. Alternate Giordano and Bouwmeester pairings behind Jokinen and the Brodie and Giordano pairings behind Iginla, circumstances permitting.
I’m not certain this would necessarily turn the team’s fortunes around to any great degree…it may be shuffling deck chairs. But it’s worth a game or five to see what happens.