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)
— Lord Stanleyberg (@fake_steinberg) April 23, 2015
— Lord Stanleyberg (@fake_steinberg) April 23, 2015
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.
— Beale (@m_beale) April 23, 2015
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.
— Rubberbadger (@Rubberbadger) April 23, 2015
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.
— Matt Fenwick (@FenwickMatt) April 23, 2015
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.
@Kent_Wilson Mikael Backlund extension will be needed after the playoffs. Who are comparables and what cap hit do you foresee?
— Braedon (@NiddNation) April 23, 2015
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.
@Kent_Wilson what do you think the flames will focus on in the upcoming draft?
— Steven (@stvoLaflare) April 23, 2015
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:
Monahan, Backlund, Stajan, Hudler, Jones, Colborne, Bouma, Raymond, Byron
(Gaudreau, Jooris, Ferland, Granlund, Bennett are all exempt)
Giordano, Brodie, Wideman, Russell (have to expose Engelland due to requirement to leave at least one defender with 40+ games unprotected)
For option 2, it may look like this:
Monahan, Backlund, Hudler, Jones, Byron, Bouma, Colborne
Brodie, Giordano, Russell
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.
@Kent_Wilson What effect do playoff officiating standards have on team analysis? Can a team be “built for the playoffs” (test case: LA)?
— Ben Sargent (@fortybillion) April 23, 2015
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.
— Curtis (@curtis_hinds) April 23, 2015
— speeds (@hockeysymposium) April 23, 2015
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).
— cdec17 (@cdec17) April 23, 2015
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.