There was a bit of troubling news out of today’s morning skate in the form of Matthew Tkachuk’s absence. The 19-year-old rookie winger didn’t skate with the rest of the team and Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan indicated that Tkachuk is a game-time decision with what was termed a “maintenance issue.”
Tkachuk’s absence from the lineup is doubly troubling in that he’s a big part of one of hockey’s most effective lines between himself, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. The 3M line is usually assigned the tough minutes, facing the other team’s top lines and often starting in the Calgary zone. Presuming that Backlund and Frolik stay together and that the line’s role stays the same, who should slot in on the left side of that trio if Tkachuk can’t dress tonight?
The veteran winger is a right shot that plays the left side and has easily been the most effective part of the current third line (with Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer). He’s shown that he can bring a nice mix of offense and physicality, and he’s a pretty savvy player in every situation. The reason he’s probably the guy I’d prefer for this gig the most is that he’s arguably the most adaptable player on the team, in the sense that he can play with anyone and in any situation, and he’s wily enough to be able to figure things out on the fly without being caught wide-eyed.
If this happens, presumably Curtis Lazar could slot into Versteeg’s place on the third line.
Bennett is a tremendously talented player, but at times that talent hasn’t shone through as a center. He’s fundamentally been Calgary’s number three pivot this season, which means he’s been centering the leftovers of the top six group rather than playing with high-end players who can keep up with him. Placing him with Backlund and Frolik would give him tougher matchups, but he’d get to play with better players and could probably benefit from a change of scenery.
If this happens, either Stajan gets bumped up to the third line and Lazar or Freddie Hamilton plays fourth line center, or they keep the existing fourth line together and drop Lazar or Hamilton between Versteeg and Brouwer.
Chiasson was dynamite against Pittsburgh, skating extremely well and generating a lot of offensive opportunities off the rush. The best of a pretty effective fourth line group over the last while, I’d describe Chiasson as a “poor man’s Versteeg.” He’s bigger physically, but is ultimately a slightly less good version of his teammate. Like Versteeg, Chiasson’s really adaptable and hasn’t dragged anyone down when playing on the top six earlier this season. He’ll do in a pinch, though it’s unclear how he’d fare against tougher competition.
If this happens, Lazar or Hamilton drops into his spot on the fourth line.
Beyond these three primary options there’s always the chance that the coaching staff decides to throw Lazar into the deep waters and place him on the Backlund line, but considering the rationale behind practicing Lazar so intensively since the trade deadline was to rebuild his confidence it would seem inadvisable to put him on the shutdown line against Patrice Bergeron right out of the gates.