The Flames have been dressing rather consistent lineups as of late. Unfortunately, their ability to score at even strength seems to have dried up, while their powerplay – loading their top talent alongside one another – has been thriving.
It’s only natural to question and propose new lineups in such a time. There are a number of key questions on what the lineup should look like, too, so let’s tackle that.
The NHL roster freeze is in affect, so what we see is what we get for at the next two games, no exceptions.
That means, when forming lineups, these are the only players available to us.
Forwards: Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett, Lance Bouma, Troy Brouwer, Alex Chiasson, Micheal Ferland, Michael Frolik, Johnny Gaudreau, Freddie Hamilton, Garnet Hathaway, Sean Monahan, Matt Stajan, Matthew Tkachuk, Kris Versteeg
Defence: T.J. Brodie, Deryk Engelland, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, Jyrki Jokipakka, Dennis Wideman, Tyler Wotherspoon
Goaltending: Brian Elliott, Chad Johnson
And a refresher with what the Flames have been going with as of late:
Gaudreau – Bennett – Chiasson
Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik
Versteeg – Monahan – Brouwer
Ferland – Stajan – Bouma/Hathaway
Giordano – D. Hamilton
Brodie – Wideman
Jokipakka – Engelland
The goaltending poses its own question, which has little effect on the rest of the skaters. There are a couple of key breakdowns there, though, that decide the rest of the lineup.
Who should be Gaudreau’s centre?
If there’s one thing the Flames aren’t short on, it’s centres. There are three good options to play with Calgary’s top offensive player.
Backlund is a proven extremely capable two-way player who can be trusted to score around half a point-per-game in a season. He’s a playmaker who should have no problem dishing out the puck and supporting Gaudreau on both sides of the ice. As a bonus, he automatically comes with a quality right wing attached to the line in Frolik who does pretty much all the same things he does.
Bennett is the latest combination, and the two of them look like they fit together on the ice. There’s reason to estimate Bennett could be the Flames’ unquestioned number one centre one day, in which case, playing him with the number one winger only makes sense.
Monahan and Gaudreau have years of proven chemistry, and it’s only furthered as they play on the same powerplay unit. We know these two can work together, and now that both appear to be over their horrible starts to the seasons, putting them back together makes sense.
If you look at Gaudreau’s WOWY stats so far this season, they actually most support playing him with Monahan: in 277:55 of shared 5v5 time, they have a CF of 52.79%. In 99:58 with Bennett, they’re at 40.46%. Both pairs get favourable zone starts, with Monahan’s being a little better. Gaudreau really hasn’t played enough with Backlund to analyze that potential partnership.
This brings us to another question: if not with Backlund and Frolik, who is his right winger?
What side should Versteeg play on?
Versteeg has taken up the left side as of late, giving Monahan two veteran wingers to play alongside. He is, however, a right shot: something that we thought was coveted on the Flames until it turns out they can just play them on the left side anyway.
Although Versteeg being a healthy right shot has gone a long way to fix the powerplay, so. Maybe it’s time to put him back on the right?
Frolik and Brouwer probably aren’t going anywhere, but there’s a glaring misfit in the top nine: Chiasson. He really doesn’t have the skill Gaudreau and Bennett have, which makes his presence on their line baffling and, seemingly, an easy fix.
If you move Versteeg to the right side, you bump Chiasson down to the fourth line, and need a new left winger to move into the top nine. Enter the most obvious of candidates: Ferland, who really is better than fourth line minutes anyway.
Seriously, I don’t understand how this hasn’t happened already.
Pause: potential top nine combos
So we’ve got a few options here, none of which strike me as particularly terrible.
Gaudreau – Bennett/Monahan – Versteeg
Ferland – Bennett/Monahan – Brouwer
Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik
Or mix it up even further, and…
Gaudreau – Bennett/Monahan – Versteeg
Tkachuk – Bennett/Monahan – Brouwer
Ferland – Backlund – Frolik
Put Monahan with Gaudreau and Bennett with Tkachuk and those are the groupings the Flames started the season with. True, they were disastrous; on the other hand, they’ve had time to get to learn Glen Gulutzan’s system by now. Wouldn’t that be worth a look again?
What about the fourth line?
We’re now left with five players to fill three spots: Bouma, Chiasson, Hamilton, Hathaway, and Stajan.
Let’s get this out of the way: Stajan is easily the best player of this group. He does not get scratched. He could play left wing or centre, but he stays in the lineup.
Chiasson is probably a better option than Bouma or Hathaway, which presumably would fill in the right side, though he could always be asked to play out of position if necessary. Bouma and Hathaway are the same type of player: big bruisers whose role is to provide energy and, um, provide energy. Probably hit or fight a dude or two. That’s about it. They’re kind of interchangeable.
Meanwhile, I’m not entirely sure why the elder Hamilton constantly gets the shaft. He’s not amazing, but he’s not a liability, either, and he needs another 24 games to fill an eligibility requirement for the expansion draft. It’d probably be a good thing to get him those games, just in case the Flames need him to count.
The second defence pairing?
I think we can all agree that Giordano and Hamilton are working great together, and there isn’t much reason to split them up. Unfortunately, that leaves Brodie completely stranded one way or another, most often on the left side this season.
And because of the upcoming expansion draft, there really isn’t a fix for it this season. Next season, though, that should be a priority of the Flames – whether praying one of their upcoming defence prospects can step up and fill the gap sooner rather than later, or whether via free agency. There are a number of guys who haven’t yet been re-signed could be potential fits – Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Kulikov, for example – but for now, there isn’t really much that can be done.
Unless you actually wanted to dress Wotherspoon or even Brett Kulak when he was up and maybe even test them out in the top four alongside Brodie at some point, because it’s not like there would be anything to lose in such a scenario and at the minimum knowledge to gain, but that would be just crazy, wouldn’t it?