FN Mailbag – January 23, 2017


ATB 2016 Sponsor Banner

Mailbag

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.

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. 

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

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. 

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. 

Story 1-28

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). 

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. 

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:

CGY_CF

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:

CGY_XGF

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.

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.

CELEBRATE HOCKEY WITH ATB FINANCIAL

At ATB, we hear you: being a hockey fan is expensive. We want to make it cheaper for you. Tell us how you and your squad celebrate hockey and you could win $1,000! Learn more at ATB.com/yycfans
  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I’ve been thinking we should try those suggested lines for a little while now, although I have Brouwer up on the 3rd and Ferland on the 4th line, just cuz GG won’t put Brouwer on the 4th line, even though he should be.

    I would like Tkachuk on Johnny and Monny’s wing. I think he can handle it and would dig out pucks for those two, Chuck digs it out, dishes to Gaudreau who sneaks it to Monny for the finish.

  • Backburner

    Thanks Kent

    The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of Matt Duchene as a possible target for Calgary, especially to get Monahan and Gaudreau going.

    Is there any trade scenario that does not involve any of our top D or Bennett? (e.g. 1st round pick, Kylington, Mangiapagne) that you think would work?

  • ChinookArchYYC

    The 3M line is a great to watch, but as is well documented on this site it’s been the Flames one and only consistent line. With great regret GG has to break it up.

    I could get behind the next 3 road games for Kents top 6 suggest to work:

    Gaudreau – Monahan – Tkachuk.

    Bennett – Backlund – Frolik

    • Kevin R

      Not that I’m against this top 6 but isn’t Tkachuk a LW as well? So if we could move him to RW & see how he does, why don’t we just leave him where it works & try Bennett on the RW with Monahan & Gaudreau for these next 3 games? Especially because they are on an East Coast road trip.

  • Scary Gary

    This is unrelated to the above mailbag but I’d like to see a more rigorous recreational drug testing program. Only 1/3 of the urine samples collected annually are screened more closely for cocaine, etc.

    Thanks Kent.
    1) I’d be open to Sam on the wing with Backlund and Frolik, it’s worth trying again.

    2) Bennett is only 20 and is far from a finished product.

    3) Monahan needs to improve his skating this offseason; that could go a long way to helping his defensive coverage.

    4) Wideman is regressing by the day and Jokipakka has all the tools like Butler did but he just doesn’t seem to think the game very well.

    5) The flames have a newish coach, patience.

    6) We’ve got Backlund until the end of next season, lets see how that goes. This could be his career high year.

  • everton fc

    Bennett on LW w/Backlund and Frolik seems beyond reasonable. Tkachuk has played and is comfortable on RW. He’s shown he’s quite capable at playing in this league at a relatively high level. Gaudreau-Monahan-Tkachuk might be unstoppable. We’ve tried everyone else on RW w/these two…. Except Tkachuk.

    I say do it.

    As for Wideman and Jokipaaka. Wideman is a millstone for us. He’ll not go away. He’s a 5/6 defender, at best these days. Ditto Jokipaaka. Moving Jokipaaka before the deadline to a team in desperate need of a defender might get us a 2nd/3rd round pick. Play Kulak when this deal’s done and move on.

    On these line combos:

    Gaudreau – Monahan – Tkachuk
    Bennett – Backlund – Frolik
    Ferland – Stajan – Versteeg
    Bouma/Chiasson – Hamilton – Brouwer

    To me, Brouwer becomes another millstone. Big contract for too long a timeframe – has he played better than Chiasson? I’d say “nay”. They are level, at best. That 4th line should be Bouma-Hamilton-Hathaway, or Bouma-Hamilton-Chaisson. Note Bouma’s played centre, as well; could go with Chiasson-Bouma-Brouwer. But you’re paying 4.5mill/season to a 4th line RW. ??

    • PrairieStew

      I’m on board for this forward combination. Moving Bennett to the wing and sending Hamilton down in favour of Jankowski would also be on my to do list.

      I have to believe that if the Flames retain salary on Wideman – he ‘s more tradeable every day. I’m usually the guy advocating for the L-R balance on defence, but Brodie has not been better on the left. Moving him back to the right side if Wideman is gone makes so much sense. Kulak or Wotherspoon could pair with him. I know some people have given up on Wspoon but he continues to do well in AHL. +21 on a team that is only +14 overall. Only one other player double digit plus( Andersson). I know +/- has to be considered in context of quality of comp and deployment, but given who else is on that team – I have to think Wotherspoon is not being sheltered at all and probably fed the top competition.

  • Newbietwo

    Your comment of we are a few years away from the chase I agree but based on the moves management made I don’t think they thought the same.. signing the Elliot’s and brouwers of the worlds makes that clear..

    I have been happy with management for their draft pedigree for most part but Tre absolutely signs the wrong guys during FA and it has pinned us back..

      • Newbietwo

        The only exception is Frolik.. he was an absolute solid signing.. but yes included the others you mentioned.. statistically speaking he pulls the wrong triggers is my point!

        Let’s take Johnson.. we had no solid goalie tandems at the time and instead of pulling the big trigger to finally solidly the spot Tre decided to kick the can down the road and then asked the player to elevate his game above his average..

        That is bad decision making or at least circumstantial!! Versteeg is yet another kick the can down the road because I’m sorry to say he will not be here next year and nor should he be and yes nor does he createwhat this team truly needed.. so there is another stop gap!

        Then you have Engelland, Brouwer let’s not forget Raymond who is still hurting us!

  • Lucky 13

    One thing I noticed about Gaudreau on the HNIC after hours, is that he seems home sick. In other interviews you hear him saying the same. How close he is to his family and how difficult it is for him to be so far away from them. Not being able to see his brother more etc..

    I often wonder if this is affecting his performance, (not to mention being stuck with Chiasson?) Some kids are better at adapting to change.. maybe this might be the case with Johnny. I don’t know but I’m throwing this out there.

    We often forget these (kids) have there own personal struggles, eg: Brodie and his fiancé struggles with MS.

    Yes their professionals, but they are human and subject to the same feelings, frustration and thoughts that we may struggle with.

    Could our team (players) be distracted with personal issues that is affecting their play and why we see such inconsistency?

    • everton fc

      I remember when Primeau got traded here, and how he said the same. It was a moving interview. These guys, no matter what, and especially the family guys…

      It’s real. I agree with your post, to some extent.

    • BlueMoonNigel

      Johnny and the other highly-paid bums have no right to be distracted by their personal issues based on how much they are being paid. If he is letting his personal life affect his professional career, then the Flames need to try and find a way to void his contract ASAP. True pros never let off ice distractions make them lose focus on the ice. That is one of the huge reasons that separates a sports superstar from a stock clerk at Walmart.

      That being said, Johnny is all about family and if he had his druthers would love to play for an Atlantic seaboard team.

      Johnny and Hammy or Brodie for Tevaras and Hamonic. Blockbuster real hockey deal that will definitely shake the cobwebs off of two teams going nowhere fast.

      • Lucky 13

        Gee, thanks for the input… I wish I could trash it more than once..Good to see you have a heart of gold. Professionals shouldn’t be distracted? In what world does this make sense? I guess only in yours.

        Also real nice dig at Johnny being a bum. The thing that separates them from the rest of us is quite frankly.. talent… enviable talent.. otherwise we would be the ones being scrutinized.

        Thanks for making the worst comment of the day. Off looking for my happy place again.

        • BlueMoonNigel

          Real pros are not distracted by personal matters. I recall the great Moses Malone being concurrently sued by multiple women for paternity and child support and still scoring at a HOF clip year in and year out.

          Pete Rose was a notorious womanizer and gambler who on numerous occasions had enforcers looking for him to collect on unpaid gambling debts. It never stopped Petes from having what should have been a HOF career.

          Aaron Hernandez was murdering punks while still making receptions at an all-star clip.

          Do I need to remind you of Snake Stabler?

          Tiny Pinder was wanted for various felonies, including sexual assault of a minor and grand theft, on 3 continents but still put up HOF in the ABL.

          Remember Theo. His personal life was a disaster long before he stepped foot in the NHL, but that didn’t impede him from having a stellar career.

          Real pros call it being in the zone. It’s like a warhorse. When a warhorse smells powder of a cannon and hears shots fired in anger, it charges into battle. Try doing that with Ol’ Glue Factory.

          Real pros are paid the big bucks because they can deliver when they have to regardless of what personal crises might be tearing their private lives apart.

          As for Johnny being a bum, a bum is as a bum does, and if you can tell me that the Flames are getting a $6M+ season from Johnny, then you’re an even bigger crook than Hillary.

  • buts

    Too many players are having poor years to not directly blame GG. Also what’s wrong with sending Bennett to the minors? BT is in the last year of a contract where his drafting has been excellent but his f/a signings and contracts have been very questionable. Bt’s handling of wideman has been brutal because I believe the ref’s are stiffing us. If things don’t improve it could be Conroy as the next GM. It’s time to shake things up or it will be too late for this year.

  • Flaymin Frank

    I like some of these ideas. Trying to rehab Bennett with 3M and putting Chuk on the first line seems like a low risk high gain scenario so what have we to lose.

    I think our forwards and defense aren’t a huge problem for a clear thinking GM. He’s got a great core, he just needs to flesh out the bones with some decent talent. ie – Did we really need to bring/keep Versteeg – Chiasson – Brouwer? I’m sure that there’s gotta be somebody in Stockton that could bring similar strengths to the table given a chance over a reasonable amount of time.

    Anyways, all this means squat if your goalie lets in 3 goals on 5 shots against your provincial rivals. I was out of the country and unable to watch the game. Thank gawd.

    Our goaltending situation has been a stinking pile of dog doo doo for more seasons that I care to remember. Its time to quit putting bandaids on that problem every year.

    GFG

    • everton fc

      The only forwards on the farm that “may” be ready;

      Jankowski
      Vey (“Tweener”?)
      Maybe (“Maybe”) Shinkaruk

      Klimchuk’s play warrants minutes up here to see how he does. Mangiapane needs more seasoning. And let’s face it – Poirier can’t score at the AHL level.

      Versteeg was a sage pickup. Chiasson, when deployed appropriately, is earning his salary. Brouwer… He is way overpaid, perhaps showing first signs of aging career winger… Is he better than Versteeg? Is he even better/more vaulable right now than Chiasson? I think saying he’s been better than neither aforementioned forward would be a fair debate.

      And I wonder… Is it our goalies? Our goalie coach?? Our defence, forwards and backend??? I think it’s a combo of Questions 2 & 3, respectively. We have three decent defenders, Engelland, and two who are borderline dangerous to us, when on the ice (Wideman and at times, Jokipaaka). Kulak, who is better than both, sits… Wotherspoon may be a “tweener” like Vey.

      Our depth is questionable, in many areas.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Or…

    Johnny/Monny/Chuk

    Frolik/Backlund/Versteeg

    Bennett/Stajan/Brouwer

    Ferland/Hamilton/Chiasson

    Shelter the crap out of the Stajan line (I worry about Bennett against top comp… and Brouwer for that matter).

  • Pizanno

    It’s easy to equate non-productivity with wanting to be elsewhere. Johnny isn’t scoring. He must not like it here. But he sure liked it the two previous years, a finalist for the Calder and top 10 last year. I don’t want to buy in to the “Johnny wants to go home” hype. He may rather play at home but I think he is professional enough to give it is all for us for the duration of his contract.

    If all of our Flames who are currently not playing up to their potential wanted out, we would lose half of our team! Let’s go boys! Play like you want to stay!

  • Crakupov

    Gaudreau signed for 6.75 million. Is he worth it? Would you trade him and for whom?

    I’d unload him for an offensive Dman like Shattenkirk (if he would sign) and a 2nd round pick. Move wideman down to 5th, 6th dman, send down jokipakka to stockton.

    Thoughts…