When the Flames drafted Sean Monahan sixth overall in 2013, it signalled a new era in Calgary. Not only was it right at the start of the rebuild: it was the seemingly the first time in ages the Flames actually had someone who could actually be, at least one day, considered a first line centre.
Two years into his career, and that’s where Monahan was playing. But while before, the team was devoid of centres – including having to ask wingers to play down the middle – today, it’s the least worrying position.
The top three centres on the Flames are Monahan, Mikael Backlund, and Sam Bennett – with Bennett’s potential still to be defined as he enters just his second season. With Monahan firmly cementing himself in the top two at the position – and with a new contract coming up, presumably at some point – let’s talk about him.
Over 237 NHL games, Monahan has scored 80 goals and 79 assists for a grand total of 159 points. He’s the highest scorer of his draft class, beating out Nathan MacKinnon by six points (in 19 more games played), and Aleksander Barkov by 40 points, in 46 more games played.
That puts Monahan’s points per game at .67. MacKinnon beats him out at .70, but Barkov falls behind at .62. All in all, though – considering we’re talking about the guys who went first and second overall in the draft versus the guy who went sixth – everything looks great.
And besides, Monahan was fifth on team scoring as a rookie. He was third as a sophomore, and second in his third season; the only current Flame to have recently outscored him is linemate Johnny Gaudreau, who currently sits at .89 points per game and is blowing everyone else out of the water offensively.
Then again, Gaudreau’s not a centre; at the same time, though, at least Monahan spares him the fate Jarome Iginla suffered through most of his Flames career.
So Monahan is, no doubt, extremely good.
Dig a little deeper, and Monahan comes out looking a little less rosy.
When you compare the raw 5v5 CF%s of these four players over their careers, Monahan has the worst at 45.89. His CF60, 51.95, is also the worst; a little odd considering how highly he ranks offensively. His CA60 is only the second worst, though, at 61.25, while MacKinnon’s is 63.39.
It’s when you factor in zone starts things come out not looking so great. Monahan’s OZS% throughout his career to date is 34.01; only Gaudreau’s is higher. That means, overall, both MacKinnon and Barkov has managed to do more with less – offensively in terms of generation, and defensively, particularly on Barkov’s part. Via Corsica (click on image for a full-sized version):
Barkov comes out looking pretty awesome here. Sure he scores the least of the four, but .62 points per game is still nothing to sneeze at. That, and being outstanding defensively? That’s a complete two-way player right there.
That’s over three years of work, though, and all of these players have been – and still are – growing throughout their careers. So while the sample size is smaller, let’s look at just the 2015-16 season alone. It wasn’t a fantastic, percentage-inflated one for the Flames; rather, an honest depiction of a not-great team, compared to another player on a not-great team (MacKinnon) and a top-three scorer on a division winner (Barkov).
Over a full 82 game season, Monahan would have scored 64 points; MacKinnon, 59; Barkov, 73; and Gaudreau, 81. And as for situational use…
Now it’s MacKinnon who comes out looking rather rough: least amount of scoring, and horrid possession despite having the most offensive zone starts. Monahan and Barkov both clock in at 48.10% CF, with Barkov scoring more and getting less sheltered starts.
Still: it’s an improvement.
Monahan, in his three years of NHL hockey thus far, has, for the most part, seen consistent improvement at 5v5.
His points have gone up, and his possession has with it. The corsi events he helps generate have increased season-by-season, though that hasn’t quite been the case defensively.
That’s likely because his zone starts, like his CA60, haven’t followed a linear progression. He was actually less sheltered in the 2014-15 season (brought on by Monahan being forced to play in a defensive role when most of the Flames’ other centres went down), and comparatively, couldn’t handle it.
The more sheltered he is, though? The better a chance he’s going to have at preventing corsi events against. He hasn’t entered the black yet – but as he grows, it’s possible that could change.
A new coach
Coming out of junior, Monahan was lauded as a two-way player. We have yet to see that truly materialize in the NHL; if we really want to see a two-way guy out of Monahan’s draft class, well, it’s Barkov. That doesn’t mean Monahan wasn’t a two-way guy in juniors, though; not only was he really the only player of note on the Ottawa 67’s in his draft year (he had nearly twice the points the second- and third-highest scorers did), but via Eric Tulsky’s work, we can see he played big minutes and faced top competition, too.
So what happened? Was Monahan only a great two-way guy at the junior level, or can he find it in the NHL, too?
I don’t know. But I would suggest Monahan still has it in him to be a more reliable two-way guy, and I think this season (and next, allotting for adjustments, familiarity, and time) is when we find out.
Because the Flames have a new coach. Glen Gulutzan may not be proven at the NHL level, but Bob Hartley’s game was not possession-friendly. Gulutzan has at least talked about a more proactive defence. More preventing zone entries, fewer blocked shots, please. And if it works, then maybe we’ll see a more successful two-way Monahan.
That doesn’t necessarily mean giving him zone starts like Barkov’s, especially if he continues to centre Gaudreau. But if it means his CA60 can go down and his CF% can go in the black, then the Flames will have a better player on their hands.
He’s gotten off to a good start in his NHL career, but almost exclusively in an offensive role. If Gulutzan can improve his defensive game without sacrificing 60+ point seasons, then Monahan won’t just be a first line centre talent: he’ll be one of the better ones.