(Candice Ward / USA Today Sports)
Now that the contractual mess is over with and the games are finally set to begin, we can finally address a burning question: who the heck lines up alongside Johnny Gaudreau and center Sean Monahan on the Flames’ top line?
Gaudreau has played 160 regular season games in the National Hockey League, which amounts to roughly 2,315 minutes of even strength ice time. Of that time, approximately 64.8% of it has been spent with Monahan.
The Gaudreau/Monahan connection works for both players. Gaudreau has 1.7% better Corsi percentage with Monahan than apart (2.07 better CF60 and 1.89 better CA60), and Monahan has 5.2% better Corsi percentage (6.89 better CF60 and 4.66 better CA60). Long story short: they’re better offensively and defensively together than apart. Given the team’s obsession with pairs throughout their lineup, these guys fit together extremely well.
PAST THIRD WHEELS
The challenge is finding a reliable third member of their band. In 2014-15, Jiri Hudler was on that line for basically the entire season to great success. In 2015-16 they tried that approach again and it never quite gelled.
That led to a rotating cast on that line, and the big challenge for this season is this: the five most common non-Monahan partners for Gaudreau have all left the organization.
- Gaudreau spent 52.9% of his ES time with Hudler, who is with Dallas.
- Josh Jooris (12.6%) is with the Rangers.
- David Jones (9.8%) is a free agent.
- Joe Colborne (8.3%) is in Colorado.
- Markus Granlund (8.0%) is with Vancouver.
The most frequent surviving winger that played alongside Gaudreau and Monahan is Micheal Ferland, who played on his off-side and represents just 6.7% of the sniper’s overall ice time.
The requirements to play alongside Gaudreau and Monahan, at least under Bob Hartley, were as follows: big, physical, ideally a right shot (or willing to play the off-side). There were few, if any, departures from that mould, the most obvious being Hunter Shinkaruk (who played with them a bit after he came over from the Canucks).
Ideally, you’d like somebody who is fast enough to play with the top line guys and talented enough to bury some chances if they bounce their way. Physicality and/or size would be nice, but I’m not sure that the coaching staff wants to give up talent on the top line to get it.
For this season, let’s presume that Glen Gulutzan would rather not break up any of the established pairings (Gaudreau/Monahan, Brouwer/Bennett, Frolik/Backlund) and would rather swap around bodies to complement those groupings and make them as effective as possible.
So who’s left?
MICHEAL FERLAND: The remaining winger with the most experience playing with the dynamic duo, Ferland is big and rugged and the thought is that he could be good in a crash-and-bang, puck retrieval role. He has experience playing the off-wing last season with Gaudreau and Monahan, and has displayed a scoring touch in junior.
KRIS VERSTEEG: Just snatched from the clutches of the Oilers, Versteeg is a really interesting case. He’s a right shot, a good skater and a rock solid two-way player. The only knock against him is that he himself is not a high-level offensive talent. But he’s shown the ability to play with high-end players in the past, and it seems as if he’ll start off the season with Gaudreau and Monahan.
MATTHEW TKACHUK: Sort of a blend between Ferland and Shinkaruk, Tkachuk is rugged and talented and could be a nice complement to the 200-foot presence of Monahan and Gaudreau’s finesse and speed. But do you want to break up that strong second line (with Bennett and Brouwer)?
FREDDIE HAMILTON: It might be a bit of a reach, but hear me out. He’s a right shot. He can take faceoffs, which would allow Monahan to cheat a bit on offensive draws while retaining the safety net of somebody that can win draws if he gets thrown out. Hamilton’s a player that’s pretty good at everything but doesn’t have any huge strengths. In short? He’s carryable, and his ability to take draws could really help a trio that’ll see a lot of offensive zone starts.