Who should play on Matthew Tkachuk’s line?

Matthew Tkachuk is an asset the Flames didn’t even know they had when the season started.

He was a question mark. Would he make the Flames out of camp? Evidently, yes; he had the size going for him, and the talent level, too. But would he be able to stick around past nine games?

Fifty-two games into the Flames’ season, he’s tied for third in team scoring. So apparently… yes.

Tkachuk isn’t just performing well; he’s one of the Flames’ best players already. And as someone who can play both wings, the Flames have a great opportunity with him. Now, it’s just a matter of where they end up putting him.

Breaking up 3M

The obvious answer for some time now has been to play Tkachuk on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. Under normal circumstances, those two are as good a pair of linemates as any rookie could ever ask for.

These aren’t normal circumstances, though, because Tkachuk has far and away exceeded all expectations of him. He isn’t just being helped along by Backlund and Frolik – he’s helping them in turn. They’re all boosting each other to be one of the best lines in the entire NHL.

An unfortunate side effect, then, considering both the Flames’ lack of depth and struggling stars, is that this has turned them into a one-line team. In their final game before the All-Star Break, Glen Gulutzan took a preliminary step towards rectifying that by taking Frolik and putting him on a line with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. The early returns from that one game? It worked.

So is there further meddling to be done here? Perhaps.

An all-in top line

Bless Frolik; he’s incredible at what he does. He is also, in an ideal world, not a top line forward. He’s almost 29 years old and his career high in points is 45; he’s on pace for 46 this season. He’s an extremely good complementary player – about half a point per game, excellent defensively – but if you’re relying on him for scoring, you’re probably screwed. (See: the Flames at the start of the season.)

Meanwhile, while Gaudreau and Monahan have generally been quite good in their own rights, things just haven’t been the same since Good Jiri Hudler left them. The magic died away, Hudler was traded, and Hudreaunahan has yet to find a new fitting incarnation.

Maybe Tkachuk can be that guy. Tkareaunahan? Gaunachuk? It’ll be a work in progress.

There are a couple of reasons to be in favour of this. For one thing, it’s pretty much a recreation of Tkachuk’s junior success; for all the handwringing about how much of his scoring was him and how much it was his linemates, Tkachuk had a lot of success with Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak in London last season. Granted, that was juniors and this is the NHL, but it’s not like Gaudreau and Monahan haven’t been a dynamic duo of their own in the recent past…

Also, Tkachuk is 19. This isn’t 33-year-old Hudler, this is someone who fits directly in to Gaudreau and Monahan’s age group. If that line clicks, then that could be the line to stick with for years.

Frolik started to get Gaudreau and Monahan going. Can Tkachuk rev them up even further? He’s just a rookie, but this season it’s not out of the question.

Help for Sam Bennett

Remember Brad Treliving’s affinity for forward pairs? Gaudreau and Monahan. Backlund and Frolik. And, going into this season, it was assumed Tkachuk and Sam Bennett would be one, too.

They’re close in age. They both have high offensive talent. They both play with an edge. From before they even took to the ice, it was presumably a match made in heaven.

And it started that way, too. Remember preseason? They played on the same line through the start of the season as well, but everything was already falling apart by then. And then fell even more apart for Bennett, who simply has not been able to get his game going at all.

Is it time to reunite Bennett with Tkachuk? Could Tkachuk fix Bennett?

Bennett and Tkachuk have played just 50:15 5v5 minutes together this season. That’s it; that’s hardly anything. Bennett has gotten more ice time alongside Monahan and Stajan – players who play his position – than he has along with Tkachuk. Bennett’s very best corsi numbers this season have come alongside him (56.5% CF!); we’re talking about a kid who has only gotten above 50% when sharing the ice with the Flames’ top defence pairing and when with Monahan (in much more sheltered zone starts than with Tkachuk).

Who needs Tkachuk the most?

There are a lot of different combinations we can go with here, but if the 3M line is going to be broken up, then Tkachuk should have at least one of Gaudreau, Monahan, or Bennett on his line. This is the age group he fits into; this is the young core of the Flames forwards.

Here’s one of the things with Tkachuk: he makes just about everyone he plays with better. Corsica visualization with his most frequent teammates:

tkachuk wowy

They don’t all necessarily make each other better – the only particularly strong cases for that are Backlund, Frolik, and a bit of Dougie Hamilton – but pretty much everyone is worse off without Tkachuk. You have to dig down into the more inconsequential minutes to find teammates who are better away from him.

Unfortunately, Gaudreau is one of those guys; fortunately, the two have played like six even strength minutes together, so that can’t even begin to be described as a concern.

But as enticing as a Gaudreau – Monahan – Tkachuk line sounds, if Frolik can respectably hold the fort, then it’s probably Bennett who needs Tkachuk the most. I’m not sure his struggles this season are quite entirely on him; his most common linemates have been Alex Chiasson and Troy Brouwer, after all. (Side note: Brouwer is one of the few Flames that can make Tkachuk a sub-50% CF player.) Give Bennett a good linemate – one his age who has proven he can not only drive play, but score as well – and the Flames might have that dream forward pairing on their hands, after all.

It’s filling out the rest of the lineup that’s a problem. That’s three forward pairings – or, presumably, a top six, if Backlund and Frolik stay split up – still with some major forward holes to be filled. 

And granted, Tkachuk could be one of those hole-fillers instead, but the Flames are still at least another impact forward away – and they only have one Tkachuk to work with, so they have to make a decision on which line he’ll best be of help to the team.

  • OKG

    Tkachuk-Bennett-Frolik
    Ferland-Backlund-Versteeg
    Gaudreau-Jankowski-Monahan
    Klimchuk-Stajan-Brouwer

    That is what I want to see. Three first lines. Each with speed, size, skill, smarts, hands. Monahan also gets to focus on offense. Brouwer is properly slotted. Versteeg and Backlund could have some very good chemistry with Ferland as the line-completer.

    • Jakethesnail

      Whether you like Sam or not he is on pace for 30 points and we need a guy with more than 30 points to be our #1 centre. Truth is as good as Backlund has been he is not a #1 centre either. We’re are resigned to this fact until we shed some contracts.

      • Avalain

        I’m not disagreeing with you, but if Backlund or Monahan can’t be our #1 center then we simply won’t have one. We can’t shed contacts and buy our way into a guy like that. Someone like Malkin isn’t available in free agency and trades for premium players like that are almost impossible.

  • Greg

    Bennet needs him the most. But I think Bennet needs the backlund bump even more.

    If Matthew can play right wing, I’d give him to monahan and Gaudreau, and let Bennet slide back onto backlund and frolik’s left side until he gets his mojo back.

    If and when he’s ever ready to attempt Center again, make sure you give him two good wingers to ease into it. Heck maybe even just switch him and backlund off and on until he’s comfortable.

  • Kevin R

    Personally, either one works for me, Backlund with the two young kids (Bennett/Tacks) seems like a fun line. Would also like to see MT with Gaudreau & Monahan as well. I’m torn. But at least try one of these & if it doesn’t work flip it around. What have we got to lose.

  • Brodano12

    Gaudreau-Monahan-Brouwer – 51.2 5v5 minutes played together, 55.65 CF%, 53.32 xGF%, 66.67 ScF%. They’ve had a lot of success on the powerplay together, but for some reason, despite seemingly being brought in to play on the top line, Brouwer has barely been used there all season. This should be our top line, and this way we don’t have to split up the dynamic defensive duo of Backlund-Frolik.

    As you mentioned in the article, Bennett and Tkachuk have a 56.5 CF% together. So that should be the third line. It would jumpstart Bennett’s game, and give us a scoring 3rd line. Frolik and Backlund showed last year that can carry even Joe Colborne to great numbers, so putting Shinkaruk or Ferland with them will probably still result in a solid 2nd line. That gives us a 4th line of Bouma-Stajan-Chiasson/Hathaway, which is respectable imo, especially since Stajan and Chiasson have great underlying numbers together.

    Gaudreau-Monahan-Brouwer (offensive zone starts against 2nd line competition)

    Ferland-Backlund-Frolik (defensive zone starts against top line competition)

    Tkachuk-Bennett-Versteeg (offensive zone starts against bottom 6 competition)

    Bouma-Stajan-Chiasson (defensive zone starts against bottom 6 competition)

    Gio-Hamilton (defensive zone starts against top line competition)

    Brodie-Wideman (offensive zone starts against top 6 competition)

    Kulak-Engelland (balanced zone starts against bottom 6 competition)

    If/When Wideman is traded, move Kulak to the 2nd pair, with Brodie on the right, and call up Wotherspoon to complete with Jokipakka for the 6th spot.

    As for goalies, just play whoever plays better until one of them consistently plays well, then ride that goalie to the playoffs (which are still well within reach once the top line, who are usually late season bloomers, pick it up).

      • everton fc

        Glad you see Engelland still has value.

        As for the forwards;

        I wish we could find minutes for Hathaway. Alas, his time will come when they don’t re-sign Chiasson. Hathaway will produce 10 goals/12 assists a year in that 4th line/RW role, in my opinion.

        As for goalies, I like GG’s current “plan”. Whoever is winning, keeps playing. With this tandem, makes most sense.

    • freethe flames

      Brouwer has been a huge disappointment no matter who he has played for. Interesting to me that the recent slide coincided with his return to the line up and Hathaways injury.

  • cunning_linguist

    Gaudreau-Monahan-Tkachuk
    Bennett-Backlund-Frolik

    It seems so simple, like a glaring solution to our “one line team” problem. I would call this a formidable top 6 any day, the only weakness is the bottom six, not enough depth up the middle:

    Versteeg-Stajan-Brouwer
    Ferland-Hamilton-Hathaway

    I don’t mind the wings, but we could really use a true 3C to bump stajan down to the 4th line where he seems to have found his role.

  • freethe flames

    The issue is if you move Sam to the wing you are a center short; Hamilton is not the answer. If you keep Sam at center then you are a couple of wingers short. I have been reluctant to support the move of Tkachuk to play with Johnny and Monny but am warming up to that. Sam playing with Backs and Frolik is fine but that then leaves us with a very weak 3rd line as IMO neither Versteeg and Brouwer have been good enough. I have suggested a Ferland/Sam/Hathaway line and just tell them to play and this could be one heck of an energy line; any offence they create would be a bonus. Until BT brings in an upgrade at center(or one develops and Janko is not there yet) and or an upgrade at RW then the problem remains the same; not enough talent in the top 9.

  • Just.Visiting

    We know three things to be true.

    Monahan and Gaudreau are not playing like they did previously.

    Everything they’ve tried on the right side other than Frolik with Backlund has not worked well.

    Sam needs a reset.

    Give Tkachuk top line minutes with SM and JG, move Sam to the wing with Backlund and Frolik for a while.

    I would have tried Tkachuk with them months ago with Ferland moving to the Mike line, but agree that it’s better if Bennett shifts there now.

  • BendingCorners

    I doubt the GM and coach read this blog, but it’s fun to blather on regardless. Sam seems to end up on the right side when he goes up ice so why not try him with Johnny and Mony and leave the 3M line as is? Speed to burn. The fourth line is pretty clear: Micheal and Matt and Garnet. The third line would be a mess with Alex and Kris and Troy. None of them are centers but maybe Troy could pretend and channel Phil Esposito and collect garbage goals in front of the net. Alex and Kris could feed him. All told I’d rather have one messy line than two or three. The Flames are better than they used to be and have a good GM and a good coach; next year they will probably show more improvement.

  • Flames fan since 83

    I liked how Mathew played with Sam and Troy at the end of the Montreal game. I know we were losing 5-0, but when GG changed the lines in the dying minutes, the Flames had some chemistry. We were pressing and Sam scored with 1 second left.

    The lines were:
    Sam between Mathew and Troy.
    Backlund between Frolik and Ferland.
    Money between Johnny and Versteeg.

    I really liked Versteeg on the Money line. To me Chris Versteeg is similar to good Hudler, but faster and stronger. I thought they were great.

    Fourth line was Stajan between Chiasson and Bouma.

  • Styxx

    Time to finally bring up Janks…he’s earned it. Why go after Hanzal at an astronomical price when our total cost for getting a 10-year newer model is 10-13 minutes of ice-time down the stretch

    Gaudreau-Monahan-Tkachuk

    Bennett-Backlund-Frolik

    Versteeg-Jankowski-Brouwer

    Ferland-Stajan-Chiasson

    Extras: Mangiapane, Poirier, Bouma

    If the above lines don’t work then Versteeg and Tkachuk can be switched for each other, bringing back Versteeg to weave more magic with Monny and also giving Tkachuk & Janks an opportunity to develop some chemistry.

    Janks is exactly what this team needs right now…a big 3rd line defensive centre with an offensive touch (who is having a great season in Stockton). Bennett is young and needs more seasoning on the wing before taking over C duties (like Galynchuk in Montreal did).

    Janks is a another glue guy to build the bottom 6 around like Hanzal, Boyle and Chimera. This also properly positions Brouwer and Versteeg in Top 9 support roles rather than Top 6 scoring roles.

    • everton fc

      Mangiapane’s not ready. Poirier doesn’t deserve is. Hathaway does.

      So may Vey, over Poirier.

      I think I’d go Versteeg-Stajan-Brouwer as my 3rd line, and Ferland-Jankowski (or Bouma, who can play centre) and Chiasson, though again, Hathaway’s earned minutes over every other guy we’ve recalled from Stockton.

      “Janks” is an unproven commodity. He deserves a chance, but not over Hathaway, in terms of an actual roster spot.

      Bennett-Backlund-Frolik makes so much sense. Then again, so does Ferland-Backlund-Frolik. Or Versteeg-Backlund-Frolik. Or even Bouma-Backlunf-Frolik. Anyone who can play LW will do well w/Backlund anf Frolik. Or so it seems…

  • freethe flames

    Juggling the lines is just so much window dressing; maybe we see a minor jump in production from Sam, Johnny and Monny but the problem is that we are still short 2 top 9 forwards. Some have suggested that Versteeg reminds them of Hudler; which one? The guy who struggled last year or the guy from two years ago; for me it is the guy who struggled last year. In Kent’s thread he compared Brouwer to Mason Raymond a comparison I made a couple of days a go; is he the solution?

    So let’s juggle the lines: Johnny/Monny/Versteeg(hopefully he catches fire so we can trade him at the deadline).

    Sam/Backs/Frolik production will basically stay the same. So what about Ferland/Backs/Frolik a line I have advocated all season.

    Tkachuk/Stajan/Brouwer (Tkachuk/Brouwer seemed to work preseason but faltered once the season started)so no thank you. Tkachuk/Sam/Brouwer again it struggled all season so again no thank you. The problem is unless Brouwer starts playing like the playoff Brouwer of last year he is not the answer anywhere in the top 9 and he is being paid like a top 6. I’m not even complaining about his production but his effort, passion, aggressiveness and leadership; they have all gone missing. Time to finish my rant about Brouwer.

    Others have suggested that we put Tkachuk on a line wit Johnny/Monny something I have resisted but I could live with as a test drive. Then what?

    (Sam/Ferland/Versteeg)/Backs/Frolik almost any of these combinations would be somewhat successful. Option 1 Sam regains his form from last year, option 2 Ferland gives the line the physical presence that Tkachuk brought but probably not as much production, 3rd option Verteeg is forced to play harder and finds his form and then we trade him at the deadline.

    Bouma/Stajan/Hathaway(Chiasson) keep doing what they have done all year. A solid 4th line with D zone starts.

    But what about the last line; if we move same to lW then who centers it? FHamilton no thanks, Janko (not yet ready),

    Ah!! Back to my original point; shuffling the deck chairs when a couple are broken will not solve the problem for all your needs.

    • Kevin R

      Cant agree with you. The 4th line has been going pretty decent all year. Expectations are low but they have met or exceeded them consistently. I have actually liked Stajans game for the most part on that 4th line.

      The 3rd line has been the problem. Trying to get a struggling Sam to anchor it when perhaps he’s not ready (he’s only 20). It has meant we have had to water down the other line. 3M line has been going great. So by doing these “deck chair” moves, we may discover that we actually do have our top 6, they may be young but the pedigree & talent is there.
      What we may find is that maybe Brouwer/Versteeg/Bouma/Ferland/Chaisson may not be up to the challenge of giving us what we need on that 3rd line. In fact some of those 4th line guys may push there way into their minutes & that group may find themselves getting 4th line minutes. Either that will light a spark under them or we have a terribly overpaid 4th line.

      If Ferland starts to play consistently like he did in the playoffs, then I would support him being on that 2nd line. Get Versteeg out of the top 6 please. But I see this as more than shuffling deck chairs.