FN Mailbag – January 2, 2017


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That’s it for 2016. It was a year marked by both modest frustrations and modest growth for the Calgary Flames. They came back down to earth after their Cinderella 2014-15 season, settling back into draft lottery territory before ultimately picking Matthew Tkachuk at sixth overall. 

Luckily Tkachuk has been a revelation so far in his rookie season, settling in on the left side with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik to help form one of the best two-way forward units in the entire NHL. Usually kids – especially teens – struggle to play a complete game at the NHL level, but Tkachuk has leapt fully formed into the show. 

On the other hand, the Flames haven’t yet seen the growth they likely expected from other notable youngsters like Sean Monahan or Sam Bennett. Those guys essentially running in place has made Glen Gulutzan’s life much more complicated, leaving him trying to find a way to shelter everyone who isn’t playing with Backlund in the top nine rotation. 

So what will 2017 bring? Can one of the other kids take another step? Can the club get back into the playoffs? Who is going to be sacrificed in the expansion draft? Lots of interesting questions will potentially be answered this year. 

For the first edition of the FN mailbag for 2017, we take a look at Sam Bennett, Matthew Takchuk and the Flames’ defensive prospects. 

“Just fine” is a good descriptor, but I agree that Bennett has yet to take another step forward. He’s on pace to essentially score the same amount of points as he did last year (38) and his underlying numbers remain mediocre. He’s only 20 years old and is trying to learn a tough position, but at some point he needs to improve in order to fulfill his potential. 

If Bennett settles into a 40-point, third line C it’s not necessarily a bad thing – but I know the organization (as well as many fans) had much higher expectations for a kid who had an outside shot to go #1 overall in his draft year.

It’s hard to say at this point. If Bennett indeed finishes as a 38-point, negative possession player by the end of the year, we can start to generate some comparables with more confidence. 

Right now, he reminds me of guys like Josh Bailey or Brayden Schenn. Bailey was picked ninth overall by the Islanders in 2008 after scoring 96 points in the OHL. He jumped right into the NHL and was considered an elite, young talent at the time.

However, his development seemed to stall in the show. He scored 35 points in his sophomore season as a 20-year-old and has managed just one season over 40 points in the six seasons since. He’s a capable middle rotation player, but he’s not a difference maker. 

Brayden Schenn is similar. He was picked fifth overall by the Kings in 2009. Unlike Bailey, it took him a couple of years to make the NHL, but eventually he settled into support player territory. He scores a bit more than Bailey (thanks to a career high 59-points last year), but he’s mostly a 40-45 point guy who can ride shotgun with good players but isn’t a play driver (example: he has the worst relative possession rate on his team this year). 

On the other side of the aisle is a guy like Kyle Turris. Chosen third overall in 2007, it took Turris years to really find his legs at the NHL level. He was rushed into the show by the Coyotes and struggled defensively while only putting up middling offensive results. Eventually, though, Turris became a positive two-way force and above average offensive driver for his second team, the Ottawa Senators. He was 24 when the light finally came on.

We don’t really know which way Bennett will go yet, so we just have to hope he follows Turris’ path. 

As mentioned, I don’t think Bennett’s game has progressed much over his rookie season. He seems to be negotiating a couple of things right now: how to play on the edge without taking unnecessary penalties and how to translate his junior offense at the NHL level. 

Some nights we see the blend of aggression and creativity that made him such a high impact player in the OHL. There are long stretches of play, however, where Bennett looks more frustrated than anything. He’s good at generating shots for himself in aggregate, but the Flames’ total shot attempts at even strength drop by five shots per hour (versus the team’s average) with Bennett on the ice right now. 

As a center, he can influence that number to a non-trivial degree. I’d like to see him get to average or above average in terms of team shot generation by the end of the year (or next year) at the very least. 

Right now the results all point to Tkachuk. He’s younger, scores more frequently at even strength and has much better underlying numbers. Of course, he’s also a winger who has been placed into a great situation where he’s developed instant chemistry with a couple of other quality two-way players, so it’s hard to compare. Of note – Bennett excelled on Backlund and Frolik’s wing last year as well (just not quite to the degree that Tkachuk has).

That said, we only have 30-odd games of information on Tkachuk, so any pronouncements need to be taken with a grain of salt.

I can’t speak to any of the intangibles given that I don’t know either player personally or how they interact with their teammates. 

That said, I don’t know if the Flames would necessarily target Patrick Eaves if they were to get rid of Troy Brouwer. Eaves is 32 years old and has been a merely competent role player for many seasons. He’s on pace to score 40+ for the first time in his career this year, but that should by no means be considered typical or likely for the player. 

In fact, the best bet for Eaves is he hangs around as a third or fourth line player for another couple of seasons before leaving the NHL.

It’s hard to compare Fox to the other two guys since he’s a couple of years behind them in his development. However, right now it looks like it might be him – his start at Harvard compares favourably to other elite level college defenders and he’s the only one of the three who made the WJC as an 18-year-old.

Of course, Fox also has a long way to go before he becomes a professional and a lot can change between now and then. Oliver Kylington and Rasmus Andersson are closer to the show and are better bets to become NHLers, if only because we have way more information on them, but if Fox continues to build on his already impressive resume and results, he’s a particularly impressive talent.

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  • Stu Cazz

    I’ll give Bennett a pass this year as he is only 20 and basically lost a valuable year of his development due to his shoulder rebuild. But I do admit I am starting to get concerned somewhat…..

  • freethe flames

    Is Bennett becoming the next Backs? Think back to how many times we expected Backs to break through and then something happened and it did not become what we expected. Now most of us are happy with the solid two way 40 point center he is. I had hoped for more from Bennett and will be patient with him. Even if he struggles to produce the rest of the year what I want to see is the bite and intensity return to his game. When that starts to happen then I think we will see the rest of his game re-emerge.

  • madjam

    Most young players are still growing and rushed to play truculent hockey , and few are physically able to handle that part of game at a high level of competence . Tkachuk an exception .

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      I have to agree that Bennett, does not have the body type to play the physical style every night. He will have to pick his spots like Gilmour. Players like Tkachuk and Ferland have some thickness which allows them to engage physically.

  • Burnward

    Sammy will be fine. Kid’s a warrior and has skills. Just fighting it so far this year, he’ll come around.

    The real blessing is they can probably get him signed to a very reasonable deal that he should, in all likelihood, outperform.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    I’m really coming around to putting Tkatchuk on Bennett’s wing and putting Ferland with Backlund and Frolik (3M rev.1.0), although it pains me to break that trio up. I can see a lot of opponnets attention shifting away from Bennett to Tkatchuk, providing a bit more time and space for the pivot.

    • freethe flames

      Is this not what was tried during the preseason and early in the season and while it looked good in the preseason it failed during the regular season(Tkachuk/Bennett/Brouwer).

      I have been an advocate of the Ferland/Backs/Frolik as an option even in the preseason. The Tkachuk/Backs/Frolik line has been so solid I worry about messing with it. Regardless I still think we are 1 or 2 forwards short up front; too many guys playing to far up the depth chart- Chaisson and for that matter Brouwer as well.

      • Kevin R

        I too would love to see Tkachuk with Bennett as well. But I kind of agree that we are so close in the hunt for a wildcard spot that I doubt GG breaks the only winning line combo up, who really could argue with him on that. The other lines (except the 4th line, which has been actually pretty good) are really struggling. That is where we get bold. If we all agree that the 3M line is our best line that go head to head with the heavies, what have got to lose & shift Monahan or Bennett to the RW & play Gaudreau Monahan & Bennett together on a favourable OS on the 2nd line. I really don’t care which one they move to RW because Monahan is better on FO’s but Bennett is faster & plays with more bite. If somehow these 3 started to click as a unit, we just may have for the very first time in years a true 1-2 punch EVS.

    • Toofun

      I don’t think Calgary should mess with that line at all. They do so many things well everytime they are on the ice together and they take turns making each other look good, no passengers. I wouldn’t risk trying to improve on it.

      Strangely, I like that Tkatchuk was benched for a while last game to send a message about discipline and dumb penalties. Calgary had a nice lead in the game and it seemed like just enough punishment without being personally embarrassing for him.

    • Baalzamon

      He lost Tkachuk. Bennett’s underlying results cratered pretty much immediately when Tkachuk was replaced with Versteeg.

      I mean, part of the problem is his quality of competition took off as soon as Tkachuk left his wing. Maybe it will fall again with Gaudreau and Monahan back together.

    • OKG

      Third line minutes instead of first line.
      2nd unit PP behind Gaudreau/Monahan/Backlund instead of first unit QB.
      Third line QoT instead of first line (Gaudreau isn’t yet a first line caliber winger in Gulutzan’s grindy system and Chiasson/Brouwer are fourth liners full stop. Tkachuk is our best winger in this system and Backlund has him albeit deservedly). Don’t even get me started on Jokipakka/Engelland.
      Creativity stifled in favor of dump and chase.
      Too many offensive zone starts where he isn’t using his skill to drive the play. Ends up using his speed to backcheck, and then is gassed at the end of every shift where Jokipakka/Engelland hang around the net like pylons.
      Bad puck luck/confidence on PP.
      Chunk of season wasted on Stajan’s wing.
      Still producing same 5v5 P60 as the older stronger Leon Draisaitl.

      Am I worried? In the sense that he might top out as more of a Brayden Schenn or Nazem Kadri than Peter Forsberg…maybe. In the sense that he’s not a centre? Not remotely. He has played his best hockey at centre with the sole exception of his stint as Backlund’s LW. Which was more Backlund and less LW.

  • PlacidSeanMonahan

    Here’s a good article about how the game can be properly analyzed in 3D versus the 2D analysis of Corsi metrics.

    Definitely worth reading.

    http://edmontonjournal.com/sports/hockey/nhl/cult-of-hockey/analytics-expert-says-kris-russell-of-edmonton-oilers-is-underrated-and-one-of-nhls-top-defensive-d-men

    The analytics expert mentioned in the URL just happens to be a lawyer who started his own analytics company because he was unhappy with Corsi as a stat because it doesn’t give any weight to the circumstances or pressure a player was under ie 3D vs 2D.

    Oh, and this lawyer also played 320 games in the NHL so I give greater weight to his point of view than I do to Mom’s basement dwellers, you know, 3D vs 2D.

  • FL@med

    Benny”s an excellent stuck with mediocre to semi good players. The kid will be fine if the flames find a winger to pair him with (Klimchuk, Mangipanae??) Could have been Burmistrov, but the Flames didn’t even bother to put in a claim (he was picked by the Yotes).. Reid Bouchers also on waivers… At 800 k or so he seems like a low risk high reward claim.

  • Arminius

    Start Elliott against Colorado and the first Canucks game regardless of how he plays. He’s beaten both teams in the last few weeks and his last 4 games have given a nice glimpse at how he can play. I can see his record back to .500 by Saturday.

    Johnson the Calgary Kid gets the 2nd game regardless of how Elliott fares.

  • Arminius

    Also a real opportunity in the next 6 games before Edmonton. 4 at home with 5 of the 6, ones the Flames should win. Should set up a good Saturday Night Coast to Coast Oiler beatdown

  • Derzie

    GG system rewards the Corsi guys (3M) and under-utilizes skill. Every skill guy is under-performing in his system. I hesitate to draw any conclusions about individual player performance under his system. Bennett included. My measuring stick for Bennett is Draisaitl. Way behind the curve but playing for a Corsi coach so comparisons are suspended.

    • jakethesnail

      Exactly what I concluded was happening! When your skill players are unable to perform up to expectations something sucks with the “system”.

      As for Sam Bennett the issue is that he is now expected to play Centre when he had been deployed more at the wing. Tkachuk’s line mates are two of the most experienced players on the Flames. Bennett has not been so lucky. Wing is much easier to master, although Tkachuk and his line mates excel at a high proportion defensive zone starts.

      I see more development from Bennett as the Flames solidify their RW positions.

  • I”ve always said I see Bennett more as a winger over Centre not saying he’s awful at centre but it’s a lot easier to use his speed, his grit, and his skill on the wing than at centre. I find Bennett kind of get’s tamed at teh centre position when he broke out here in the first few games he was using his speed on the forecheck and to beat guys wide and get in tight to the hashmarks.

    I honestly believe Left Wing or even Right Wing is a more suitable position for Bennett. I feel like he can let lose there.

  • Just.Visiting

    Please, no more acquisitions of depth players from the waiver wires or some other secondary deal.

    They are not going to be a critical component of any playoff run. They also potentially damage the longer term objective of being a serious contender because they take away a roster spot or ice time that would better go to a Kulak, Wotherspoon, Janko, Klimchuk or Mangiapane to enhance their development for the future (or at least enable us to understand more fully when and how they might fit into that future).

    Every player on the team actually carries two costs-the salary and the opportunity cost of what you can’t do because that player is on the team. The latter is often ignored, when it is actually a very real cost.

    Moving David Jones at the deadline last year was a great example of the latter. Notwithstanding that we didn’t get a lot back in that trade, we freed up a spot for someone else to take the ice time he was otherwise getting.

  • Trevy

    Everyone keeps forgetting about Versteeg who is a very versatile player. Having said that, there are options, however the biggest problem is GG continues to mix up these lines even after one bad game. No time for chemistry to develop. I would attempt

    Gaudreau Mony Brouwer/
    Ferland Backs Frolik/
    Tkachuk Bennett Versteeg/
    Bouma Stagan Hathaway/

    Ferland/Tkachuk can be interchangeable. Chiasson/Bouma as well. This gives you skill and grit on every line, which you need in our division.

  • John Wayne's Hat

    Bennett is still quite young. Bennett pretty much missed a year of hockey. Bennett doesn’t get to play with excellent wingers. Bennett is learning to figure out how to be aggressive but not take penalties. GG is giving him important defensive assignments – PK, late game leads & face-off’s. Bennett will be just fine as he matures physically and mentally.