The future of the Flames down the middle

To build on a previous post: the Flames came from humble beginnings in regards to centres, which is to say, they had none. At all. For years, cries of “Please get Iggy a number one centre!” went unfulfilled, and instead, the Flames tried different strategies.

Remember Alex Tanguay the centre? What the hell was that?

It goes without saying that these different strategies never worked. Craig Conroy was one of the best Jarome Iginla ever played with (and all love and respect to Connie, but…), and it was only once Iginla was traded away the Flames were able to draft a future potential number one in Sean Monahan.

And then Sam Bennett a year later.

Too late for Iggy, but one thing’s for sure: Calgary is no longer asking wingers to play down the middle.

One first line centre? How about two

Okay, this is getting a little ahead of oneself here, but let’s not act like this isn’t a real possibility. One of the best, most certain ways to acquire top tier talent is to draft high. The Flames have drafted high in two of the past three seasons, selecting centres with both picks. At sixth overall came Sean Monahan; the next year, at fourth overall came Sam Bennett.

Neither is an established first line centre, but then again, one is a 20-year-old about to enter his third season and the other is a rookie teenager. And the former is getting awfully close to establishing himself as a first liner. He’s not there quite yet, but with a giant leap of improvement from his first season to his second (featuring more difficult circumstances, and improved possession and higher scoring along the while), not to mention very quality wingers on either side of him, he’ll probably get there.

And we all saw what a then-18 year old Sam Bennett could do in the playoffs. At just 18. With pretty much no NHL experience.

So is it getting ahead of oneself to crown both players as first line centres? Yes. But is it a realistic possibility that’s what they both turn out to be? Also yes.

Good thing there’s more where that came from, even if nobody else projects quite as high.

Holding down the fort

One way to get players to score so much is to start them in the offensive zone. The closer you start to the opposition’s net, the more likely you are to get pucks on it. The more pucks you get on it, the more likely you are to score. 

If you want to utilize zone starts to your players’ benefits, though, then you need the opposite. If you’re going to shelter guys, somebody has to be there to take the difficult starts you’re sheltering them from.

That’s exactly where Mikael Backlund and Matt Stajan come in.

The two veteran centres may not put up a lot of points (well, Stajan hasn’t recently, but Backlund has been just about half a point a game for a few years now), but they allow the players ahead of them to do just that. By being competent enough in their own ends, they can handle the bulk of the defensive starts, and won’t hurt their team for it, allowing the top tier guys to get in better position to score.

And for all that Stajan doesn’t really score, he is the team’s best faceoff regular. He’s not going to have a 60 point season, but he’s not going to burn you, either.

Backlund and Stajan never really established themselves as top tier guys, even though Stajan was given the chance (Backlund, not so much), but they still provide value to their team, rounding out the depth. It’s also just plain nice that they’re actual centres, and not wingers asked to play out of position due to a complete shortage, as we’ve seen in the past.

High quality centres up front, and very, very solid guys bringing up the rear.

Now we have to ask centres to play on the wing

Additional players listed as centres for the Flames: Jiri Hudler, Joe Colborne, Paul Byron, Drew Shore, Josh Jooris, and Markus Granlund. There’s some discrepancy, but Lance Bouma may be among this group, too.

Players listed as centres for the Flames who actually took a regular shift at centre: Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund.

When once wingers were centres, now, centres have to become wingers to stay in the lineup. When Backlund displaced Colborne in the 2013-14 season, Colborne wasn’t scratched: he was asked to play the right side. Bouma spent a significant amount of time on the left, and Byron could rove throughout the lineup. Even Bennett – who still isn’t guaranteed to start down the middle – spent most of the playoffs on Backlund’s left wing.

Jooris and Granlund did take regular shifts at centre, though: when other centres were injured. Backlund did miss 30 games. Stajan, 23. Jooris dutifully played from second to fourth line centre, while Granlund was a call up, not yet established in the NHL, but an available middleman to take over when other guys were injured throughout the year.

Again: the Flames never had to resort to asking a winger to play down the middle, and instead had a wealth of centres who could play at least competently at the NHL level to cover instead.

Things are getting full now, though. If Bennett does play down the middle next season, the centre slots are all full up. If he doesn’t, they still may be: Jooris could be the team’s fourth line centre if the decision is made to keep Bennett on the wing for the time being.

For some of these guys to stay in the NHL, though, they’ll have to move over to the wing. Colborne did. Shore might have to. With 524 faceoffs taken last season and just a 36.8% success rate, Granlund almost certainly will play one side or the other if he stays in the NHL. 

The Flames could basically ice an entire forward lineup of nothing but centres. It’s a far, far cry from the days of Alex Tanguay and Mike Cammalleri having to play down the middle.

And, the hopefuls

Of course, among all these possibilities, the Flames still have more who may make NHL impacts one day. Their centre prospects are headlined by Bill Arnold and Mark Jankowski: Johnny Gaudreau’s college linemate, and a hyped up former first round pick.

There’s no shortage of bodies to put down the middle who actually belong down the middle. There are really, really good players among the centres the Flames have, and there are players who can fill in whatever spots they need to: the offensive powerhouses, and the defensive strongholds.

Injuries aren’t ideal, but they’re no longer catastrophic. It’s easier to switch from centre to the wing, so it’s good that’s the direction a bulk of forwards have to go in, rather than the opposite. 

A few seasons ago, centre was one of the worst positions for the Flames; today, it’s the position where they look most set.

  • SmellOfVictory

    I will say that, even though they’re often list as “centres”, Hudler, Colborne and Byron are all substantially better on the wing than they ever were at C, and that classification is more of an anachronism than anything.

      • redhot1

        Maybe I rate the kid too highly, but I think he could be a great fit on Bennett’s LW. Granlund smacks of top 6 talent, but his waiver exemption likely means he spends time in Stockton….at least until Raymond is gone.

        Between Bouma nd Granlund, I would prefer to see Granlund playing top 6 minutes.

        Just to clarify, if he played on Bennett’s LW, that line would be a protected line, but play a 2nd line role. Throw Frolik on RW.

  • RealMcHockeyReturns

    One thing that seems to get missed, by having Mony and Bennett we are able to allow guys like Arnold to take there time and fully develop before rushing them in, in the long run that in its self could pay big dividends for the flames.

    Its a luxury we havent had in some time!

    • JayCMcG

      Very much in agreement here.

      Monahan and Gaudreau are exceptional players in terms of being able to step in and step up right away. Brodie, I think, represents a more realistic approach to development and I think he also represents how well it can go if done right.

      To, @Travel-dude’s point, I’d say that Granlund is on this more extended path, like Brodie was, and is almost there in terms of being fulltime NHL ready. I remember a couple of camps Brodie looked great and then the regular season saw him back down in the AHL whereas another season he didn’t have a great camp and was brought up later in the year.

      This time around, playing with Gio, has accelerated his development but we only had that because the rebuild finally started and he actually got that opportunity.

      As far as I’m concerned, I’d like to see big minutes for Shore and Granlund in Stockton until there’s a real opportunity for them to get more minutes; Raymond/Bollig can manage on the 3rd/4th line minutes in the meantime. We have a lot of players now that if the Flames give them the time and space to develop we could have an extremely competitive roster for a good long while.

      Management has done a fantastic job so far.

  • RealMcHockeyReturns

    Not sure about Granlund, he’s a real wildcard…as is Raymond…don’t think he is as bad as people say, but these aren’t Centres anyways, but glad we have lots of options at C to help make all our wingers better!!

    • CofRed4Life

      I think Raymond might be tried out as the #2 LW to start next season (with Frolik on the other wing of course, and either Backlund or Bennett in the middle. Depends what Harley wants to do).

  • marty

    i’m a flames fan and a bennett fan, but….”the former is getting awfully close to establishing himself as a first liner” lets let the kid get you know 20 games of nhl experience under his belt before mentioning this. Jay feaster anointing sven is saying “hold up a sec”.

  • Cfan in Vic

    It really makes you realize that we are still in the rebuild. t also makes you really excited that we have had so much success this early in the rebuild. Can you imagine Bennett & Monahan at 23 & 24 years of age, established as one of the top level 1,2 punch in the league & having Brodie & Hamilton anchoring a high end top pairing D & Gilles establishing himself as a top NHL goaltender. The icing on the cake is if we make the playoffs next year, Calgary will be referred to as the model to measure yourself on as a quick rebuild. I am darn proud of this team & how management are moving this thing forward. Everyone was afraid that Burke/Treliving was going to give up youth to speed up the rebuild & he has done just the opposite to speed up the rebuild. Im a happy fan.