Another rollercoaster ride this week in Flames Nation, though the lows outnumbered the highs. After a December that saw Calgary right the ship and get back into the playoff race, fresh leaks have sprung up everywhere in the new year.
For sanity’s sake, it’s best to remember that the Flames are likely a season or two away from really being a playoff contender. This year was always about development and assessment more than contention. The goal was to take a step forward in aggregate over the Hartley regime and see where the club would need support and improvement moving forward.
That sort of perspective is hard to regain, however, after a series of frustrating losses, particularly the blowout against the Oilers. This iteration of the Flames has made strides but still suffers from fundamental flaws – some expected, some not. The coaching staff has the rest of the year to figure out how to solve some of them and the executive staff has the summer to try to fix the rest.
Deep breath everyone. Development is rarely linear in the NHL. And just as the Flames probably aren’t as good as they seemed last month, they probably aren’t as bad as they seem right now.
Today we talk about the Flames’ depth at C, particularly what to do with Sam Bennett and how much Mikael Backlund might cost to re-sign.
— Travis (@THilli13) January 21, 2017
There’s no obvious or easy solution with Sam Bennett right now. He’s just not playing good hockey and the Flames don’t have enough depth to manage him properly.
If Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan (been much better recently) and Troy Brouwer were rolling, it would likely be a lot easier to move Bennett around and find a fit. But with only a single line working at even strength (3M), Gulutzan is left with nothing but bad or less than ideal options.
Personally, I’d move him to the wing for now. It’s an easier position to learn in the NHL and it’s the only place he’s experienced any real success in the show so far. There he can simplify his game and concentrate on figuring out how to translate his offense at this level, rather than also having to worry about the defensive side.
The Flames have said they are still committed to developing Bennett as a C. And while some notable players have started out on the wing and moved to the middle over time (ex: Tyler Seguin), in the end it will be about doing what’s right for the player – if he’s a better LW than he is a pivot, then that’s where they should play him.
— Spencer (@sathome14) January 21, 2017
— Dallin (@dallinpl) January 21, 2017
This is the 3M paradox: the more they separate themselves from the Flames’ other forward units, the more it seems like the team needs to break them up to accomplish anything.
Nevertheless, I don’t know if Gulutzan will want to risk breaking up one of the best even strength units in the league, but at some point they need someone else to get going up front. Monahan has shown signs of coming to life after a long slumber through the first half of the season, but they’ll also need one of Bennett or Gaudreau to snap out of it to get anything of note accomplished.
Does moving Tkachuk do that? We know Bennett flourished with Backlund and Frolik and there’s signs that Tkachuk can drive play by himself. At this point, I think it’s worth trying out something like this:
- Gaudreau – Monahan – Tkachuk
- Bennett – Backlund – Frolik
- Ferland – Stajan – Versteeg
- Bouma/Chiasson – Hamilton – Brouwer
— Ian Duval (@duvie27) January 21, 2017
— Abdu Hage (@abduhage03) January 21, 2017
It’s way toon early to give up or consider moving on from Bennett, at least for something as prosaic as a second pairing defender. It’s also generally a bad idea to sell low on this kind of asset – truly Bennett’s stock has likely never been lower than it is right now.
So unless someone comes along and offers a true upgrade (think: Matt Duchene) you keep Bennett and try to get his progression back on track. In addition, declaring a 20-year-old guy a bust half way through his second season is jumping the gun.
— Adrian DeCorby (@decorbs) January 21, 2017
Ironically, Monahan is probably the best hockey of the season right now. He’s not only finishing, but getting more shots and chances than he was through the first 35 games or so.
So I don’t think it’s time to worry, but perhaps it’s time to shift perceptions on him somewhat. When Monahan entered the league, he came with a reputation for solid two-way play and was often compared to guys like Jonathan Toews.
In reality, Monahan has never shown a penchant for strong defensive play in the show. We can be pretty sure now that he’s an above average finisher and quality offensive player, but we’re getting to the point where we have to ditch any hope he’ll be a true play driver.
Through the last three seasons (including this one), Monahan has been in the 81st percentile for ES goals and 73rd for ES points, but just the 15th percentile for shot suppression and the 33rd percentile for shot impact. Remember too that Monahan gets more offensive zone draws than any other C on the Flames.
Being great at scoring and producing points is still extremely valuable. Being not great in the defensive zone and two-way play just means Monahan will always need a bit more management at even strength (and won’t have much value during scoring slumps or if his scoring touch abandons him).
— kingcambie (@kingcambie) January 21, 2017
Haha, no. Dennis Wideman can’t be traded and there’s practically no chance the Flames are interested in bringing him back.
Wideman gets a lot of ice time because he’s the best of the bad options. We noted this past offseason that the Flames’ blueline was sadly lacking in bottom-end depth. With Jyrki Jokipakka sinking ever further into “seventh defensemen” territory and Dreyk Engelland being who he is, GG doesn’t really have another option than to play Wideman in the top four right now.
@Kent_Wilson last year you wrote an article on “big risers”. It seems like the Flames have corsi jump but arent quite there. What’s missing?
— Mark Willms (@MarkWillms11) January 21, 2017
Despite their frustrating inconsistency right now, there are signs the club has improved in terms of outshooting opponents relative to the last few years. Here’s a 10-game rolling average of their CF% (corsi for) going back to October 2014:
That’s the good news.
There’s a couple of pieces bad news though.
The first being that the big improvement seems to be in part due to the formation and dominance of the 3M line. That’s a great bonus, but guys like Monahan, Bennett and Gaudreau were expected to be the players driving the club’s ascension and they just… haven’t.
In addition, the Flames’ expected goals rate (what is this?) hasn’t improved to the same degree as their outshooting:
That’s not quite a straight line, but it’s close.
This suggests the Flames have had a hard time translating better outshooting to better expected goal differential. Whether you put this down to coaching, systems, the roster or the kids’ struggles this year (or some combination therein) is up to you.
The goal for the team now is to keep getting scoring chances and expected goals persistently above the 50% line. That will show they have become a legit playoff contender.
— Brad (@brad_1729) January 21, 2017
It’s a good question. If Mikael Backlund scores 50+ points over the next two seasons and finishes as a Selke candidate in one or both, he’ll be in line for a significant raise.
The closest comparable we have to Backlund is probably Frans Nielsen. The former New York Islander signed a six year, $5.25M deal with the Red Wings this past summer. He scored 25, 14 and 20 goals in the three seasons leading up to his deal as well as 58, 43 and 53 points respectively. In 2015-16, Nielsen appeared on a few ballots for the Selke, albeit finishing 17th.
Unless something catastrophic happens between now and Backlund’s next deal, we can assume the Nielsen $5.25M/year number will be a starting point for negotiations.
That said, I’ll be surprised if the ask climbs to six million per. That threshold is rarely breached by anyone without a solid history of above average scoring.