FN Mailbag – April 25, 2015

Mailbag

We’re nearly six games into the Flames first round series with the Canucks and as usual nothing is clear or simple with the club. Calgary took a 3-1 series lead only to lay a giant egg in Vancouver, casting a small shadow of doubt on how things will play out. 

The hobbled first line isn’t scoring, but the goaltending and special teams have been good enough to get the Flames the lead. It remains to be seen if they can close things out without functional top unit at even strength, however. 

This week we’ll look at the Flames on-going roster decisions, Mikael Backlund’s contract, how potential expansion to Las Vegas might effect Calgary and much more*.

*(There was a lot of questions for this mailbag, so please forgive me if I don’t answer yours this time around. The volume of inquiries forced me to pare things down significantly)

I consider three of the Flames C’s core pieces: Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett. All others are expendable to one degree or another.

That doesn’t mean I would move them for peanuts, however. The list includes Markus Granlund, Drew Shore, Bill Arnold, Max Reinhart and Mark Jankowski. Joe Colborne, Josh Jooris and Paul Byron can also be considered pivots, though I think they’ll all settle in as wingers in the show. Matt Stajan rounds things out.

If I was trying to flip centres for anything, my two priorities would be defensive depth and right wing depth. The problem is, I’m not sure any of the expendables bring enough value (yet) to get you a real upgrade in any of those areas. That said, Ben Lovejoy was traded for Simon Despres (!) this past deadline, so anything is possible.

That’s a fair question, but remember the same thing could be asked of Mark Giordano. Obviously Byron isn’t the same level of impact player as the Flames captain, but the comparison is just a reminder that sometimes a team’s record in a players’ absences isn’t necessarily indicative of his value.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big Paul Byron fan. I think he’s one of the best player drivers at even strength on the team and one its best penalty killers to boot. He can play capably anywhere in the lineup without hurting you and is one of the fastest players in the league. I think an NHL roster can always find room for a player like that.

With Michael Ferland and Sam Bennett suddenly becoming functional additions to the lineup this a lot tougher question than it would have been at the start of the playoffs.

The first easy substitution would be Bouma for Brandon Bollig on the 4th line. I’d likely swap in Byron for Colborne personally (that will be unpopular I’m sure, but Byron has shown himself to be a far better overall player the last year or two), but also consider bumping Mason Raymond for Byron as well.

On the back-end, swapping in Diaz for Tyler Wotherspoon is the easy decision. I’d then move Schlemko up to play with Brodie and Engelland back in a third pairing with Diaz. Here’s how things would look:

Gaudreau – Monahan – Hudler
Bennett – Backlund – Jones
Ferland – Stajan – Byron
Bouma – Jooris – Raymond/Colborne

Brodie – Schlemko
Russell – Wideman
Diaz – Engelland

This configuration gives you two scoring lines and two defensively capable units up front. It also moves Engelland down to a much more comfortable 15 minutes per night while still pairing him with someone who can skate and move the puck.

EDIT TO ADD – For some reason I interpreted this to mean “players who are relatively close to returning” instead of a full, healthy roster. In that case, obviously Giordano is back on the first pairing with Brodie and Engelland is bumped for a Schlemko-Diaz third pairing.

If I told you at the start of the playoffs that the Flames first line would be completely shut down at ES in the first five games and that the team would be leading the series anyways, you probably wouldn’t have believed me.

While no one unit is scoring a lot at 5on5, getting unexpectedly strong efforts from Sam Bennett, Michael Ferland, David Jones has helped the Flames at least saw things off most nights. Having Mikael Backlund playing high level two-way hockey and Matt Stajan (finally) higher up in the rotation has also helped.

That said, the burden the first line is placing on the team may very well catch up to Calgary pretty soon. They have been completely run over in every game in Vancouver and it’s becoming more and more difficult for the rest of the roster to compensate. At some point, Bob Hartley may have to admit that something’s amiss with Gaudreau/Monahan/Hudler and either reduce their minutes/match-ups or break up the line completely.

Backlund is a tough one to evaluate from a salary perspective. He has scored at about a 45-50 point pace over the last two seasons, but has had both years shortened by injury so the actual counting numbers aren’t as good. He plays in every situation and can flourish in a shut down role, but those are tougher skills to put dollar figures to than goals or assists.

Players similar to Backlund like Frans Nielsen and Martin Hanzal were signed in the $3 – 3.5M price range a few years ago, though I’m guessing they might cost a bit more to retain these days. Lars Eller is also a close comparable to Backlund and he’s currently making $3.25M after signing a long-term, front-loaded contract extension with the Canadiens.

In terms of the Flames internal contract structure, they recently re-signed TJ Brodie to a long-term deal at $4.625M/year. We can safely guess the Flames don’t consider Backlund’s value to the team to be greater than Brodie’s, so that puts us in a $3.25M – 4.5M per year range. Let’s split the difference and say $3.9M/year.

Aside from Bennett, the Flames went heavy on beef last year, preferring big bodies in Hunter Smith, Austen Carroll and Adam Ollas-Mattsson. This was during the same off-season where the club signed David Wolf and Deryk Engelland while trading for Brandon Bollig, so size was clearly a concern. I’m not sure that will be the primary objective this time around, however.

While drafting for need is kind of a fools errand (most of the kids taken this year won’t be ready for five years anyways), the Flames are clearly lacking in puck moving and offensive d-men. Brandon Hickey looks like he might be a player in the TJ Brodie mould, while both Brett Kulak and Ryan Culkin might fall into those categories, but it’s still an area of concern for the organization.

This question came via email:
With expansion to Vegas looking like a done deal, how will this expansion effect the Flames and their rebuild? Will we have to expose certain players who can then be selected off of our roster? Will we have to give up position in the entry draft?

Luckily other outlets have looked at this question already. According to the Score, here’s how prior expansion drafts have worked:

In both the 1998 and 1999 expansion drafts, NHL clubs were permitted to protect either one goaltender, five defensemen, and nine forwards or two goaltenders, three defensemen, and seven forwards.

First- and second-year players were exempt from the draft, and each club had to include at least one forward and one defenseman who had appeared in at least 40 games.

What would that mean for the Flames current roster? Let’s say the expansion draft happened this summer. In option 1, Calgary could protect:

9 forwards

Monahan, Backlund, Stajan, Hudler, Jones, Colborne, Bouma, Raymond, Byron

(Gaudreau, Jooris, Ferland, Granlund, Bennett are all exempt)

5 defensemen

Giordano, Brodie, Wideman, Russell (have to expose Engelland due to requirement to leave at least one defender with 40+ games unprotected)

1 goalie

Hiller

For option 2, it may look like this:

7 forwards

Monahan, Backlund, Hudler, Jones, Byron, Bouma, Colborne

3 Defensemen

Brodie, Giordano, Russell

2 goalies

Hiller, Ramo (if re-signed?)

(Ortio is exempt)

This set-up can make for an interesting dilemma. Option 1 allows GM’s to protect pretty much all of their skaters with the risk of exposing a useful goalie. In option 2, you keep your goaltenders but expose a useful skater or two. This isn’t as a big a deal for the Flames because their putative backup next year is a rookie and therefore exempt from the process. That makes this choice a no-brainer for the org: Option 1, exposing Bollig and Engelland.

As for the entry draft, expansion teams usually get seeded inside the top-5. I’m not sure how this would work with the new look draft lottery, but chances are Las Vegas would pick no lower than 5, bumping everyone else below them in the rotation down.

When this is mentioned, the assumed assets in mind is, of course, size and grit. Keep in mind, however, that the playoffs aren’t just meaner – they’re played at a much faster and more torrid pace than the regular season. This means striking a balance between the perceived need for beef against opposing qualities like quickness, speed and puck skills. Look no further than Deryk Engelland struggling mightily last game in Vancouver for illustration of this point.

The main way to build a “playoff roster” in the face of lowered officiating standards is to build a really, really good five-on-five team (whatever their size). The Kings are known for being big, but they’re also the best club in the league at controlling play at even strength. The other cup winner from the last three years, the Chicago Blackhawks, is a much smaller overall squad, but also one of the league leaders in terms of possession over that period.

Chances are, your club is going to spend a lot more time at even up in the post-season. The best plan is to make sure they tend to outshoot and outscore the bad guys in that game state. 

I addressed this last week, but it keeps coming up so it’s worth looking at again.

As far as I can tell, Playing Bennett for 10 games in the playoffs will burn a year of his ELC. And despite the value he has brought to the current roster, I am not an advocate of this approach.

The Flames would be trading a handful of playoff games of 18 year old Sam Bennett for a full season of 21 year old Sam Bennett down the road. That’s a grossly inefficient use of an asset, particularly because the Flames will be facing some significant cap questions by that time (new contracts for Gaudreau, Monahan, Brodie, Giordano, Backlund and maybe Hudler).

This question comes with the answer. Ferland doesn’t make Bouma expendable; he bumps Bollig. The time of the pure enforcer is coming to a close and Bollig is far closer to a 6-minute per night fighter than he is to a functional 12-minute per night grinder.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    “I’d likely swap in Byron for Colborne personally (that will be unpopular I’m sure, but Byron has shown himself to be a far better overall player the last year or two), but also consider bumping Mason Raymond for Byron as well.”

    Seems you’re right, I suggested this 2 hours ago and it doesn’t look to be very popular.
    I just don’t get the Colburne love? Maybe he has lots of friends commenting here, or maybe people just like the idea of having a Calgarian in the line up?

    • Colin.S

      Kent explained it really well in the last mailbag when I asked why so many people seem to love him. He called him quietly ineffective. And that pretty well perfectly describes him, he never makes that overtly terrible play where when it happens about a thousand tweets in minute come out and everyone can see how dumb that play was. Colborne doesn’t do that, he might lose a puck at the blue line, loses a puck battle on the boards, makes bad passes or just kind of skates around as an observer. But also he makes a couple of decent to good plays a game that make people overlook the fact he doesn’t really do much.

      Plus he’s huge. In a market like Calgary, if you are big or play ‘big’ or a tough guy a lot of fans will overlook so much else of a persons game because they want the big tough team. There are people who want McGratton to be called back up and playing because it’s the playoffs and you need more big tough guys.

      • Colin.S

        Until Ferland came up, we really only had one functional big bodied forward other than Bouma and that was Colborne. We really are still a team early on a re build. There will be players like him needed to bridge gaps until better ones are developed.

  • Christian Roatis

    I think the Flames need 2 top 5 defensemen and 2 top 6 forwards and don’t see any of the youngsters ready to fill those roles. I’m sure management will try the take on a bad contract to get a high draft/good player strategy and it may land 1-2 pieces this year if the cap goes down. I’ll throw some ideas out.
    1. Take Semin’s contract from Carolina. Trade them Raymond. Could they somehow get the number 5 pick in this and what more if anything would it take? Is it worth it?
    2. Take Savard’s contract from Boston. Would a Kulak, Raymond/Agostino for the 14, Savard, Bartkowski and Erickson work?

    As for the draft, I see the Flames targeting skill and high end compete with quite a few defensemen going in the second and third round. There is a lot of skill with size available this year too.

    Fire away. Does anyone else have any ideas?

    • MonsterPod

      Because of the unexpected success the Flames have had this season, I don’t know if they’re still interesting in gobbling up garbage contracts for compensation.

      Eating the last few years of a bad one is still an option, but taking on a long term stinker like Semin or Mike Richards, for example, may not jive with our financial plans in say, three years.

      Johnny put up almost identical points as Eberle this year and Eberle is a 6M guy and 3 years older. Monahan is gonna get 7M unless he agrees to a bridge. And the sky’s the limit on Bennett, but at least he’s still a ways off.

      Gio is also a 7M+ player. Hudler is gonna need a raise in a year, as will Russell. Backlund and Bouma needs raises right away. Ideally, if Johnny Boychuk had gone to July 1, we would have had a chance at him and his new 6M X 7yrs contract.

      Management might be willing to spend, but I see them wanting value in the player now, not just prospects and picks.

      Treliving did really well to get 3 second rounders in what is being called a deep draft. I hope he takes 3 defensemen, but like Kent wrote, any D taken now are 5 years out.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      I’ve been thinking LA still has to unload the Mike Richard contract, and the Flames admitted to looking at this option already. If the Flames take that albatross they should demand a top 4 defensemen and LA’s first round pick this year.

  • MonsterPod

    Colborne was excellent in that final game against the Kings.

    The problem is that he disappears — the same reason that Raymond gets benched. Having talent is not enough in the NHL. You gotta bring it, and if you play for Hartley, you gotta bring it all the time, practices too.

    I’m not blind about Colborne but I do like the kid. What I’m hoping for is that he finds his game, learns to be consistent, and starts contributing more offensively.

    When your center gets tossed, it’s great to have a RW who can win a draw. There is value in big Joe, but he certainly needs to improve to find a more stable home.

    • Colin.S

      He’s not going to contribute more offensively until he starts shooting the damn puck and he has a big problem doing that for some reason. He averages 1 shot on goal per game, his linemate Backlund is closer to around 2 shots on goal per game (if you start counting attempts the gap grows wider).

      Colborne is already getting premium ice time but still shoots the puck as much as Brandon Bollig. Heck, in this current playoff series, Colborne has as many shots on goal as Wotherspoon with 2. Among forwards he’s tied Granlund who has only played 2 games, Raymond only has 1 shot but played 2 less game, Jooris has only 1 shot and played all 5 games but also gets more than 5 minutes per game less TOI than Colborne and next to now PP time while Colborne gets a fair bit.

      Colborne’s been given prime time top 6 ice time and the best linemates the Flames have outside of Hud and the boys. Even then after all the Colborne’s claim is to be a bigger less crappy version of Bollig. Colbornes already at or past the age most NHLers begin to really figure it out.

  • Thanks for your clarification/explanation/opinion on the upcoming expansion draft. That was extremely helpful.

    Thankfully this year, even if the Flames get bumped a spot, it’s not like their getting bumped out of a top-5 or top-10 pick. I’m okay with that.

  • MonsterPod

    @Kent If the Fames end up playing 9 games in this years playoffs would you take him out of the lineup, even after he has show such high value to our first playoff run since 2004?

  • Christian Roatis

    I agree with Kent that the value for Bennett is not there compared to three years from now. But, how does Bennett take it? I’m wondering if nine games in and the Flames are in a promising position, the team’s dumping him so as not to burn a year of the ELC would sour the relationship in any way. Is that something that might negatively affect negotiations in a couple years? Or on the other hand, would saying to him that he is worth it this year and keeping him in the squad positively affect the dynamics down the road? I wonder if he’d feel let down, and if that matters.

      • cgyokgn

        To worry about burning an ELC WHEN YOU ARE DEALING WITH ONE OF THE TOP ROOKIES IN THELEAGUE is retarded. Based on how Hartley rewards effort and skill regardless of seniority has been consistent. Monahan last year, Gaudreau this year and now Bennett ARE NOT THE COTRACTS YOU WORRY ABOUT. The contracts you worry about are Bolligs, Engelland etc – not the rookies with upside!!!

  • Christian Roatis

    The thing about the draft is it’s based on the regular season until after the second round (if I’m not mistaken) so the Flames could go to game 7 of round 2 and still draft 15th, which is where they line-up to draft right now.

  • Christian Roatis

    Bennett burning off 1 year from his EL contract is purely a money issue and nothing else. Money is not an issue with Flames ownership. The consequence is that Bennett will need to be signed to his gap contract 1 year earlier….keep playing the kid he is making a huge contribution….

  • Tomas Oppolzer

    I see where you’re coming from w/ the Bennett situation in terms of money/contract issues. Think of the human aspect though. Bennett has been one of Calgary top 3 skaters in the playoffs so far, imagine the message it would send him if they benched him after playing 9 solid games purely because of contract convenience. That make me either 1) not want to resign here. or 2) try to break the bank with my contracts. Basically, doing that would send Bennett the message that he is less important than a (easy if he does play) contract situation 2-3 years down the road.