Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau have been absolutely feeling it as of late. In their past 14 games, Monahan has 15 points and Gaudreau has 18. Those are numbers you expect to see out of two of your highest-paid players, and after a season’s worth of adjustments, they’re in the midst of hitting their stride once again.
Why count back to 14 games? Because 14 games ago, Micheal Ferland got a second chance and joined their line. Undeservedly maligned to the fourth line for much of the season, his ice time immediately shot up, and he’s scored six goals playing alongside them on 25 shots: a shooting percentage of 24%.
And that’s where you have to pump the breaks, because that’s obscenely high. That’s not to say Ferland is a bad player, but between Lance Bouma and Joe Colborne, we – and the team especially, I would hope – should be aware of how abnormally high or low shooting percentages can completely skew perceptions.
Even Ferland himself has been a victim of that. He got his first chance to play with Monahan and Gaudreau in the 2015-16 season, and his 3.3% shooting percentage meant he produced next to nothing actually tangible on that line. This season, however, his overall shooting percentage is 15.5%, as he’s set a new career high in goals by 10 (and counting?).
The real Ferland is likely somewhere in between those numbers. But it does beg the question: is he a long-term fit on the team’s top line?
Who is Micheal Ferland?
Let’s establish a couple of things. Ferland is a good player, and he should, without question, be one of the Flames’ seven protected forwards in the upcoming expansion draft. He’s 24 years old – will be 25 soon – so he fits right into the age group of this team’s core. He’s 6’2 and 208 lbs., so he’s got the requisite size many in hockey are so fond of. He’s functionally tough, in that he can beat people up, but he won’t be a liability on his line (this isn’t like putting Brandon Bollig with Gaudreau. Remember when that happened?), and he actually has the talent to drive play north and put up points.
Absolutely nobody in their right mind would suggest letting him go in any capacity, unless it was for a steal of a deal.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Ferland is cut out to be a top line winger. He’s scored six goals while playing with Gaudreau and Monahan, and no assists. Malign Alex Chiasson all you want – and he’s definitely more suited for a bottom six role – but in the two games he’s had to fill in on the top line, he has two assists. That’s not to say Chiasson is clearly better than Ferland or more suited for the role of top line forward, but it is enough to at least pause for a moment and wonder how it is in 12 games Ferland has somehow been completely unable to pick up so much as a single assist.
Does that make him a bad player? Of course not. What else is he supposed to do when Gaudreau keeps feeding him but score? (Gaudreau has the primary assist on four of Ferland’s six goals since the 10-game win streak.) But it is an odd little blip, and it’s worth seeing how it plays out.
Ferland vs. Chiasson
This season, both Ferland and Chiasson have spent substantial time on a line with Gaudreau and Monahan. Via Puckalytics’ SuperWOWY tool, here’s how they compare with those two as linemates (all numbers at 5v5):
|Micheal Ferland||Alex Chiasson|
There are a couple of takeaways here.
First off: Ferland has been good on the top line, but probably not as good as his numbers would suggest. We talked about his unsustainable shooting percentage up above; it’s translated into a great goals for ratio and a sky high PDO for Gaudreau and Monahan’s line when he’s on it. It’s fun, but it’s probably not going to last. Chiasson, meanwhile, could be providing a bit more offence, but his numbers are a bit more in line with what you could likely expect out of him long term.
Both lines drive play north, though, which is crucial. If Mikael Backlund’s line is shutting down top players, then this is the main line one would expect to score (and with Gaudreau and Monahan now one and two in team scoring, they’re fulfilling those expectations). And even more importantly: Chiasson’s CF is a bit better, but that’s with significantly better offensive zone starts. When Ferland has been on that line, it’s still been given the high ground, but it hasn’t been sheltered nearly as much as it has with Chiasson, and it’s still producing good results, even when you ignore the PDO spike.
As much as some of Ferland’s numbers promote scepticism, they’re also encouraging. Maybe he’s not going to score a goal every two games, but he’s not going to sink the line, either.
The numbers from when Ferland played with Gaudreau and Monahan in the 2015-16 support this, too:
They weren’t scoring, but they weren’t getting outshot, either. Their 2015-16 numbers hinted towards the success they’re experiencing in 2016-17 – but probably not to quite this extreme.
Who’s the best linemate?
Unfortunately for the Flames this season, it’s kind of slim pickings up front. Troy Brouwer was previously an option – and his underlying numbers alongside the two young stars aren’t unreasonable – but that ship may have already sailed. (On the other hand, if you’re stuck with that contract and this line has the potential to salvage it, do you do it?) Kris Versteeg started the season with them, and their line had a PDO of 90.0 – well below what could be expected, and with potential to provide better results. Michael Frolik spent a game with them and was great, but do you really want to split him up from Backlund?
The Flames may already have in-house options that could compete with Ferland (and are better than Chiasson), but there’s no immediate rush to try to fix something that’s clearly working, even if at an elevated rate. Besides, Ferland has one advantage over every other possible internal solution: he’s approximately the same age as his linemates. Out of all possibilities, he’s probably the one that has the best, or at lengthiest, future on this team.
But what about for the long term? Say the Flames are able to swing a deal for another young forward with potential (perhaps via expansion draft fodder); do you trust Ferland to keep things going on a line with Gaudreau and Monahan, or do you give the role to the new guy? What about free agency?
Ferland has been working great as of late, and will probably go back to working great as soon as he’s cleared to return to play. But his offensive numbers do give reason for pause – and reason to think that there still may yet be a better linemate out there for Gaudreau and Monahan; one who can help increase their scoring output even more.
Either way, though, if the Flames can acquire another guy, then whether he bumps Ferland or not, it’s a win: because it really helps the Flames’ depth, and no matter what, Sam Bennett will probably be especially happy with that as he has the most to gain, whether it’s Ferland being bumped to his line or a new player all together.
We know the Flames need at least another impact forward. Their third line needs help. But could they be doing better with their top line – or should we be satisfied with the current status quo?