A 21-year-old player will begin the season as the Calgary Flames undisputed number-one center, and perhaps the first undisputed number-one center the Flames have had in decades. In past years, such an occurrence may have been seen as a sign of trouble – that the Flames were shallow and rebuilding.
A year ago, I might have agreed with that contention. But then Sean Monahan followed up a pretty solid rookie campaign with a season that looked at the concept of a “sophomore slump” and scoffed derisively. Heading into 2015-16, Sean Monahan has scored more goals than any other player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft. And he did it while playing on an injury-riddled Flames team (center-wise) than forced him to take on the tough minutes.
When people say that Monahan is a special player, this is what they mean: after being sheltered as much as Bob Hartley could via line-matching and zone starts as a rookie, Monahan was thrown into the deep waters and swam very well. So what’s he got in store for 2015-16?
Sean Monahan entered the NHL and turned 19 in his first month. He played 75 games as a rookie, with Hartley sheltering him from tough match-ups and situations as much as possible. With all that back-up, Monahan scored 22 goals and had a sky-high shooting percentage, particularly at even-strength. His break-down of goals and assists at even-strength tells the tale of his year: 18 goals, 6 assists. Monahan had a nose for going to the front of the net and a knack for knocking pucks in. Could he find his linemates? Sometimes, but not often. He was a below-average possession player on a below-average possession team and was loaded up with power-play time and offensively-skewed situations, but he managed to put the puck in the net more often than most of his teammates, so his year was considered a success.
Last season, Monahan turned 20 in the first month. He played 81 games, missing just the final game of the year against Winnipeg to rest up for the post-season. His usage was much different. The plan was presumably to ease him into tougher match-ups, something made possible by the presence of Matt Stajan and Mikael Backlund in the line-up. But both men – and Joe Colborne – went down with injuries, leaving Calgary with a center group featuring Josh Jooris, Paul Byron and Markus Granlund. Amazingly, Monahan adjusted well and when everyone got healthy again, Hartley had the confidence to match Monahan in best-versus-best situations rather than keeping him away from the other top lines. He also was used more often on the power-play than the year prior, and added penalty-killing to his repertoire, though he did end up getting a fair amount of offensive zone starts to balance things out.
Here’s a visual representation of his even-strength assignments, via War On Ice; blue is better in terms of Relative Corsi, higher up means tougher competition (based on time on ice), while further to the left means more defensive zone starts.
Monahan went from being one of the team’s most sheltered regular players to being arguably the forward most relied-upon to drive the team’s success. And even with his match-ups getting tougher, Monahan had better possession numbers (though slightly worse relative to the rest of the team, as shown by his red Corsi Relative mark above, scored about as often and was much more able to find his teammates to set them up for goals. In short: Monahan got a year older, but seemed to improve – or at least stay as good – in just about every area of his game. And his slightly worse defensive numbers were arguably a product of him playing more often against tougher players.
Well, the hope is that Monahan will continue his all-around growth. He’ll turn 21 just after the season starts, and he’ll be a year older and wiser, and he’s shown himself to be a very intelligent player that has learned from each situation he’s been in thus far and improved.
Will he score a lot? Sure. The Flames will arguably be deeper up the middle than they have been in decades, with Monahan, Backlund, Stajan, Josh Jooris and newcomer Sam Bennett in the fold. The introduction of Bennett to the center ranks probably means he’ll get the situational shielding that Hartley gave to Monahan in the first year. But last year Monahan showed that he didn’t require sheltering to score, and that means we’ll probably see Hartley play around with deployments for the non-Bennett pivots to start the year.
If Monahan continues to play with Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau to the degree that he did last season – they were the Flames’ most frequent line and Monahan played more even-strength minutes than any other forward on the team – then I suspect his production will continue. If Monahan’s development flattens out and he doesn’t improve much more, the improvement of the group around him should at least keep him north of the 30-goal mark this season – heck, I think he’s probably a lock to return to the 30 goal, 30 assist club.
If he can get better in any way – better at face-offs, better defensively, better positionally, better at using his size, etc – then there’s a pretty good shot he could start flirting with 80 points as early as this year.
Either way, expect him to be Calgary’s top centerman and dueling with Johnny Gaudreau for the team lead in scoring throughout the entire season.