Perilous Pivot Projections

Do you guys remember October? Sean Monahan looked like re-heated meatloaf on skates, Sam Bennett was taking 11 stick infractions a period, we all mourned the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej (geez, read a book), Matt Stajan was skating through jello, and Mikael Backlund… well, he’s always been good.

Well who even cares about October hockey?! It’s the worst anyway. The only thing that matters now is that the Flames, and their corps of centreicemen, are tickety-boo. Totally fine. Nothing to see here.

Except, I am the type to worry. I like to worry about things that aren’t even really a problem yet. That’s just me: a Fun Person. So lately, I have been wondering what the Flames’ centre depth was looking like in the event of a, god forbid, serious injury in this season and in terms of the club’s long-term future.

Let’s have a look after the jump!

The Flames seem to have decided, at least for the near future, to commit to Bennett as a centre. If that is the case moving forward, then essentially the Flames have three of their four centre slots spoken for with Monahan, Backlund, and Bennett. Stajan, with one year left on his contract, is ideally placed as a fourth line centre.

I acknowledge that at least at surface level, these are champagne problems for the Flames. It’s been a while (see: not in my living memory) since centremen have been a position of strength for the Flames. However, this strength, if we are comfortable calling it that, only really exists with those three slots. Beyond that, it’s a bit of a mess.

Let’s imagine, and I don’t even like this appearing on my screen as I’m typing it, something was to happen to one of the Flames’ top-three centremen. Oi. Stajan, currently on track for one of his three best counting-number seasons as a Flame by the way (low bar alert), would be forced to move into a more central role.

Furthermore, ” target=”_blank”>as Pat articulated a few weeks back, this hasn’t exactly been a great year for Bennett as a centre in a number of different ways. Now, at least to me, Bennett is still roughly 10 years old, so I know there is some time yet before we pronounce him a failure as a centremen and watching him play with Kris Versteeg has me longing for a decent right wing option for that line.

Currently, the Flames would use Freddie Hamilton, newly-acquired Curtis Lazar, or Mark Jankowski to fill holes in their lineup at centre and, though Jankowski is leading Stockton in scoring, it isn’t exactly a definite answer to the Flames’ centre question this season or in the seasons to come.

Lazar seems the obvious fit, but given his NHL production it seems unlikely that he would be able to shoulder the responsibility of playing centre in the top nine of an NHL lineup, at least barring some drastic change.

With all of that in mind, I think it’s useful to evaluate the rather dire situation facing the Flames’ pivots throughout the system.

WHO’S THERE?

Mark Jankowski – 48 GP: 20-19-39 

The most obvious answer beyond Hamilton and Lazar, currently with the Flames, is everyone’s favourite topic of conversation: Mark Jankowski. In terms of counting numbers, Jankowski is having himself a great rookie year with the Heat (though clearly riding some great luck with a SH% of 18.7, tops on the Heat). For reference, Jankowski is on pace to outscore Hamilton’s AHL production from last year (62 GP: 18-25-43) and that was Hamilton’s fourth year as a pro.

 

The viability of Jankowski as a centremen for the Flames is certainly an open question and the Heat have toyed with using him as a winger at times as well. Certainly, Jankowski has puck skills and, at least in my limited viewings, has impressed me with his ability to control the puck below the dots. However, sky-high PDO or not, I would not have pegged him for scoring 20 this year in the AHL and yet, here we are. So Mark Jankowski, candidate one for centre of the (near) future.

Dillon Dube – 34 GP: 15-30-45

 

As Christian Tiberi pointed out in his awesome prospect updates that you’ve all already read, Dillon Dube has been on a tear of late and, despite a season of interruptions from injury and the WJC, is on pace for a very, very good year numbers-wise in Kelowna. Certainly a prospect of note Dube, one of the Flames’ second rounders in 2016, garnered a lot of excitement during the World Juniors, namely for his tenacious forecheck and ability to create energy for Team Canada.

Dube has most recently been centring a line with former Hitmen Carsen Twarnynski and former Flames and Oilers prospect tournament player Thomas Soustal and clearly has a knack for distributing the puck, given his assist totals. Given his size, I am not so sure about Dube’s long-term future at centre and perhaps that is my own bias. Though he isn’t tiny (listed at 5’11, 186 lbs by Hockeydb) his skill set seems ideal for a winger, with great speed and an ability to move the puck well along the wall. At this point, Dube is still a couple years away from truly challenging for an NHL roster spot so he’s firmly in the more distant future category of potential Flames centremen.

The Rest

Here’s where things get kinda ugly. In the 2016 draft, the Flames selected four centremen: the aforementioned Dube in the second round, Linus Lindstrom in the fourth round (currently 50 GP: 2-4-6 in the SHL), Mitchell Mattson in the sixth round (currently 47 GP: 12-14-26 in the USHL), and pint-sized wunderkind Matthew Phillips in the sixth round as well (currently 63 GP: 40-40-86 in the WHL).

We’ve already discussed Dube, Lindstrom and Mattson are certainly more long-term projects, and Phillips, though we all love him to death, is probably not cut out to be a centremen given his size (though who knows? He’s really, really good).

After that the Flames’ draft history for centremen who aren’t currently in the NHL and are still in the Flames organization, looks like this:                                        . Yup. No one. Playing centre for them currently in the AHL are players like: Linden Vey, Mike Angelidis, Matt Bailey (no longer with the Heat), Daniel Pribyl (plays on the wing a great deal as well), and Mikkel Aagaard.

Beyond that Brett Pollock, acquired in the Kris Russell deal with Dallas, played centre in junior but has been playing wing in the ECHL with Adirondack where he has 28 points in 53 games (one less point in six more games than Stepan Falkovsky by the way).

It’s not exactly a great sign that Aagaard is one of the more intriguing centre options in the Flames system at the moment and that is no slight to him, only that the Flames may want to address this problem in order to start adequately servicing their more reputable prospects on the wing like Hunter Shinkaruk.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, BASIL?

Again, I must reiterate, this isn’t exactly a five-alarm problem for the Flames at the NHL level. For once, the Flames have viable centre options at the top of their roster and Flames fans are rejoicing. However, it seemed that not so long ago, the Flames always had centres in the system. Whether it was Bill Arnold (remember him?!), Derek Grant, Max Reinhart, Markus Granlund, Drew Shore, Corban Knight, or Turner Elson, there was always a call-up option, though many of those players were, well as it turned out, not any good.

Right now, if nothing else, a deeper look into the Flames’ centre depth gives a fuller explanation of the Lazar deal, especially given that Jankowski is the only viable centre call-up option if a rash of injuries was to occur. There are always ways of acquiring serviceable NHL centremen, including via waivers, but the purpose of our little talk today was to illustrate the fact that it may well have to come from outside the organization.