Way, way back in early July, Brad Treliving referred to the NHL as a “league of pairs”. He wasn’t talking about defencemen there; rather, he was referencing the composition of forward lines.
You find two players who compliment one another perfectly, and that’s your base for that particular line. Repeat four times, until you’ve got four pairs of players who can really feed off one another’s game, and then add the final component to their line.
The best exhibit of this the past season on the Flames was the combination of Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler. The two were glued together throughout the entire year: a responsible, savvy veteran to go with an offensive wunderkind rookie. They spent approximately 70% of their time at even strength together, and it paid off: they were numbers one and two in team scoring, after all, and right at the top of the league.
Who could be the Flames’ pairs going forward?
Johnny Gaudreau – Jiri Hudler
Why mess with success? The two combined for 34 points: 53% of Gaudreau’s total was influenced by Hudler, and 45% of Hudler’s by Gaudreau. The two developed a real sense for one another on the ice. Hudler was the perfect player for Gaudreau to start his career with. Just think of what the two will be able to do together with a full year of familiarity behind them.
Johnny Gaudreau – Sean Monahan
Ideally, you keep Sean Monahan with both Gaudreau and Hudler, and form the perfect trio (were they not the best line in hockey back in March 2015? If they weren’t, they were certainly up there).
Ideals don’t always work out, though. While all three will soon require new contracts, Monahan and Gaudreau will be just 21 and 22 years old, whereas Hudler is already 31. His age isn’t a bad thing, but we’re still talking about a rebuilding team. Hudler is the only free agent of the trio, and he could end up a casualty of the cap.
Should Hudler depart from the Flames, you already have a budding duo to take his place in Gaudreau and Monahan. They showed promise together as early as November 2014, but really shone when put together full time. They combined 18 times for goals, 13 of which came in the two months and a bit following the All-Star break.
There’s clearly something there, something that only just began last year. Imagine how great they could be together just a few years from now, as we watch them grow together.
Johnny Gaudreau – Sam Bennett
On the other hand, the Flames have already shown a small penchant for putting Monahan in more defensive zone starts. True, a large part of that was due to the fact that for a significant portion of the season, Monahan was the veteran centre in the lineup; that said, it’s an area he was slowly but surely growing in, and could show promise in down the line.
Do you try putting Sam Bennett in that same position – or give him the sheltered offensive zone starts? You probably want to give those to Gaudreau, putting him in position to score. It’s a strategy the Chicago Blackhawks use, splitting up their two main stars as they play different roles.
Only the Flames have the advantage of another budding top flight centre in Bennett. He’d be able to keep up with Gaudreau, no problem. Imagine giving them offensive zone starts and letting them go to work, while Monahan helps hold down the fort: it could be a lethal offensive combination.
Sam Bennett – Emile Poirier
This is getting a little further ahead, as Emile Poirier has yet to make the NHL. He’s looking like he’s going to, though, and if he does, he’ll probably join the lineup as a top six forward: if not in the beginning, then for the long-term future. He’s blazingly fast, physical, and can put the puck in the net.
If Gaudreau and Monahan do end up sticking together, you want a high quality winger for Bennett, and Poirier could end up being just that guy. Bennett is physical, as well: together, the two could be high-scoring wrecking balls.
(To step out from the pairing situation – even imagine a Gaudreau – Bennett – Poirier line one day in the future. Wouldn’t that be fun?)
Mikael Backlund – Michael Frolik
Let’s take a step back from all these high-scoring kids we have years to get excited about, and take a closer look at some of the guys who will likely be holding down the backend. Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik have been linked together pretty much before Frolik officially became a Flame, with speculation that the two could be perfect linemates.
Then Frolik actually did become a Flame and, well, it only seems fitting the European Mikes end up together at some point. They’re slightly older – 26 and 27 years old, respectively – and they excel defensively, while showing talent to contribute offensively throughout the season.
Seriously, how do they not belong together?
Paul Byron – Mikael Backlund
With the news that Bennett is expected to play centre, Bob Hartley may want to give him his own Hudler, and that could end up being Frolik. After all, he’s the top paid forward on the Flames now, and you want him to score. Combine that with the fact that he’s a responsible veteran Bennett can play off of, and Backlund’s potential hockey soulmate may not be on his line just yet.
There’s someone else who should fit well with him, though: Paul Byron. It’s only been very recently Backlund has been seen as meeting expectations, while Byron has to keep proving himself. They’ve never posted strong basic stats, but their underlying numbers have always been fantastic, and they both have a strong penchant for making their linemates better.
If Monahan and Bennett are the top two centres on the Flames, then the third line defensive role falls to Backlund. Byron can already handle that role quite well: why not put them together and have them shut down opposing teams on a regular basis?
Lance Bouma – Mikael Backlund
I don’t particularly like this pairing, but as of the All-Star Break, Bob Hartley seems to love it. Backlund spent about 50% of his even strength time on ice with Bouma this past season, and Bouma about 40% of his with Backlund (Backlund’s numbers being skewed because his injury held him off the ice for much longer). And it’s not like they’re strangers to one another: Bouma’s first-ever NHL point was an assist on a Backlund goal.
Backlund does most of the work in this pairing, as Bouma needs him to succeed at a higher level; at the same time, you can justify their relationship in a potential shutdown role, with Bouma providing the muscle and Backlund the puck possession.
It’s probably not ideal, but hey, when the coach finds something he likes, he tends to stick with it.
Matt Stajan – David Jones
This isn’t a pairing that should exist for much longer – Jones is an impending free agent, and there isn’t going to be much room to re-sign him (and that’s assuming he doesn’t become trade deadline fodder, as is wont for rebuilding teams to do with veterans on expiring contracts) – but for this season, why not?
The two are among the older players on the Flames, leaving them open to forming a savvy veteran pairing. Plug in a rookie on the other side of the line – say, a Micheal Ferland – and together, they could form a solid mentoring team.
At least you know any rookie who needs some seasoning probably isn’t going to get overwhelmed with these two; especially considering the firepower up above, their assignments would likely be easier, anyway.
Who would you guys like to see the Flames pair up – for the 2015-16 season, and beyond?