For the past three seasons in a row, the Flames have debuted star rookie after star rookie. First, it was Sean Monahan posting a then-exciting 34 points in 75 games as the rebuild officially got underway. Then, it was Johnny Gaudreau doing Johnny Gaudreau things, including scoring 64 points through 80 games.
Sam Bennett’s following season may have seemed like something of a letdown in comparison. The Flames were ramping up, but it was going to be difficult for anybody else to match Gaudreau’s level, let alone exceed it. In Bennett started, with 36 points in 77 games: roughly on Monahan’s level.
Up next, it could be Matthew Tkachuk’s turn. Bennett may be a centre, but he spent significant time on the left wing through his rookie season (as Markus Granlund took control of his spot as centre in the lineup, for some reason).
Maybe looking at just who Bennett got to play with as a rookie will help determine what line Tkachuk will be on, should he make the NHL this year.
Sam Bennett’s linemates
Bennett spent over 350 minutes at even strength alongside Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund. They were, by far, his most common linemates, as Bennett played on the left side with them. They were also the best linemates he played with, scoring more goals and putting up better corsi numbers with them than with any other players.
The other players Bennett played with? He spent over 100 even strength minutes alongside Granlund, Micheal Ferland, Joe Colborne, Josh Jooris, David Jones, Johnny Gaudreau, and Jiri Hudler. There are some good names in that bunch – okay, the last two are good names – and otherwise, the group isn’t quite as impressive, and it reflected in Bennett’s numbers.
Had Bennett ended up with Backlund and Frolik throughout the entire season, he probably would have put up better counting stats. But that wasn’t quite the spot for a centre to play his entire rookie season.
Matthew Tkachuk’s potential linemates
Unlike Bennett, Tkachuk actually is a winger. He’s a left winger, specifically, but has made reference in the past to being able to play the right side, and the Flames organization isn’t necessarily committing to playing him on the left just yet.
If he does, though, then Backlund and Frolik could be options for Tkachuk right out of the gate. Why not? They’re two veterans who are incredibly smart on both sides of the puck, and who both tend to score at least half a point per game.
The only way in which that may not be seen as an ideal fit has to do with player responsibilities. But when Bennett played alongside those two, their offensive zone starts went up; they played in a much more defensive role once the rookie was off of their line. That does leave the possibility of having Matt Stajan as pretty much the sole defensive centre on the team – but that wouldn’t have to be the case the entire time, necessarily.
Should the Flames want to avoid that and have Backlund taking defensive draws throughout the year, though, then more options exist for Tkachuk.
Bennett himself, for example. He’s still likely to get more offensive zone starts than defensive ones – and on paper, his game seems like a match made in heaven for Tkachuk’s. That line may need some veteran balancing (Troy Brouwer?), or the Flames could go all in on the kids front if Hunter Shinkaruk is able to make the NHL lineup as well.
And hey, if Tkachuk is comfortable playing the right side? Monahan and Gaudreau could still use a missing piece.
If Tkachuk is to get quality linemates, though, these players may be his only option.
Most of Bennett’s linemates from his rookie season aren’t even on the team anymore. Granlund, Colborne, Jooris, Jones, and Hudler are all gone, leaving just Frolik, Backlund, Ferland, and Gaudreau.
Then again, there may be some new options for Tkachuk to try. Daniel Pribyl, when he’s ready, could get the chance to be the missing piece on the top line – or he could join Tkachuk. Or Shinkaruk could. Or maybe this is even Alex Chiasson’s go at a fresh start; he is big, relatively young, and has at least had a 30 point season in the past.
Other than the loss of Hudler, these new options probably aren’t any worse than what Bennett had to work with. If anything, there’s more potential for improvement with the new wave of youth – although the Flames may want more veteran presence on Tkachuk’s line first.
Outside of Backlund and Frolik, Tkachuk’s potential linemate options are uncertains. Backlund and Frolik have pretty established NHL careers at this point; Bennett does not. If Tkachuk is to play on the top line, he’d be playing on his off wing. Shinkaruk and Pribyl remain big question marks, while Brouwer and Chiasson are brand new to the team, and we’re not entirely certain how they’re going to fit in, themselves.
No matter what, though, just who Tkachuk spends the year alongside will definitely be interesting.