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Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

Is Micheal Ferland the best fit on the Flames’ top line?

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
TOI 164:59 225:26
CF% 50.5 54.9
GF% 70.6 52.6
PDO 107.9 98.3
OZone% 58.9 73.3

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:

Micheal Ferland
TOI 144:47
CF% 53.8
GF% 45.5
PDO 96.3
OZone% 50.4

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?

  • Eggs Bennett

    With all the talk about getting Bennett going on the wing and with better linemates, how about giving him some time on the top line? I can see no better options to help the kid’s confidence than top line minutes with competent linemates. Sure, they tried him at C with Johnny and maybe that didn’t work out earlier in the season, but keep in mind nothing was working for JH then either. If we’re talking about potential with the team, Bennett has to be above Ferland in the totem pole. I’d have Bennett there as an option before chiasson.

    • cberg

      While its likely a certainty that Bennett would benefit being with JH & Many, the team would not. We need Bennett to continue to improve and develop his own strong line going froward, to expand the scoring potential and depth. Ferland’s working great on the top line for now, he brings a physical presence that lessens the hacks on Gaudreau and opens up ice for the other two to shine. At his point continue to nurture Bennett at Centre and look for next Fall to introduce some new blood with Mangiapanne, Jankowski, Klimchuk, acquisitions etc… that can work with him.

      • Kevin R

        Absolutely. The impact of Ferlands presence with SM & JH was obvious. He opened up space for those two & got them playing how they should be. When SM & JH are in the zone, you can almost put anyone short term on that line & they would look good. Ferland is that element needed for that line. There was a reason guys like Semenko were put on a line with Gretz & Kurri. When Ferly is pasting players like Muzzin, the opposition players have to pay attention to where he is on the ice, even for a split second & that’s all that’s needed for lethal players like SM & JH to do what they do best. Ferland stays on that line, don’t care about the numbers, don’t care he only scores goals. He’s the profile of player that needs to be on that line. Now if Philly were to gift us Simmonds, I can see making the change for a player like him.

  • Cfan in Van

    I don’t see much of a need to compare Ferland’s presence on the top line with Chiasson’s. Between the two, Ferland is far more suited to the top six. Of course, if we had someone better to slot in with Johnny and Sean… It would be better. We don’t, so Ferland it is then.

    I think we have more pressing needs within the org at the moment than a replacement for Ferland. #6 D, or an additional bottom 6 center for example… Hopefully we can fill those from within.

  • Cheeky

    Ferland brings grit that Chiasson doesn’t. He may not have any assists on that line but he has created many of the goals and scoring chances. Gaudreau also has alot more room since Ferly joined him….

  • Newbietwo

    I say give Bennet time on that line.. I always believed Johnny should play on the right wing anyhow.. if you look for example on his pp goals and goals in general they come from the right side

  • Sanintarious

    On some positive news, Ferland is in Nashville and appears to be feeling way better. Likely a good indication he plays tonight.

    So lines become?

    Bennett-Backlund-Frolik
    Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland
    Versteeg-Stajan-Brouwer
    Laazar-Hamilton-Chiasson

    Sit Bouma? Or maybe playing Laazar at C and sit F.Hamilton? Will be interesting to see what GG goes with.

  • OKG

    This is one case where I go with the eye test over the analytics. Ferland simply looks like he belongs with Gaudreau and Monahan, Chiasson looks like a 3rd liner playing in over his head. The PDO, while probably inflated, shouldn’t be surprising as Johnny/Monny/Brodie are historically SH% drivers.

    The best solution though would be to put Monahan at wing so the team can defend better. Bennett is better defensively so a Gaudreau-Bennett-Monahan line could keep up the offense without Monahan’s defensive liability coming into the picture. That’s the next developmental step for this team – being able to incorporate Monahan as the “Jeff Carter” to Sam Bennett’s “Mike RIchards” and Backlund’s “Anze Kopitar”.

    • Burning Ring of Fire

      Makes sense to me, especially if we make the assumption that Janko will be ready to graduate to the NHL as a 3rd or 4th line centre next season.

    • Jessemadnote

      Monahan is actually progressing brilliantly in his defensive game this season. I have no idea why you would put the center who’s won the 15th most faceoffs in the NHL on the wing.

    • Thunder1

      Hey, guess what does work on the new site… going back to the last time you said something like this and copying my comment from that one

      You have said some dumb things before, but this one takes the cake. Lets bump our number one centre and leading goal scorer to the wing and replace him with a guy we are not sure will ever be a centre with only the playoff stretch drive remaining in our season. C’mon, you can’t really be that stupid.

    • flames2015

      My thoughts with you exactly Thunder1. I said the same thing on Benett as you Jesse and his response was well Monahan can still take offs. Yes, lets move benett to center but have Monahan take all the draws and then slide back over. Stupidest thing I have ever heard. Monahan’s defensive game has improved over the last few years whilst still putting up team leading scoring numbers. Benett has yet to show much, and your not going to help him develop by throwing him on the first line going up against the best.

  • OKG

    I just took my own look at the stats. The xGF% explain the PDO and may predict future shot metric stats.

    Three-Man Unit / xGF% @ 5v5 SZVA
    Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland / 55.21%
    Gaudreau-Monahan-Brouwer / 53.35%
    Gaudreau-Monahan-Chiasson / 48.59%
    Gaudreau-Monahan-Versteeg / 47.82%
    Versteeg-Monahan-Brouwer / 32.73%
    Versteeg-Bennett-Brouwer / 40.77%

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    I have always been a big proponent of having Ferland on the top line but he has not always delivered. IMO there is no comparison between Ferland on the top line and Chaisson on the top line. Chaisson is out of his pay grade where Ferland brings so much more. The point comparison is very misleading, Ferland has set Johnny up for a clear breakaway and a tap in which he was unable to finish. Both of Chaisson’s assists were secondary and came from great individual efforts by his line mates.

    Of considerable importance, Johnny and Monny have not had to deal with the cheap shots when Ferland patrols the wing. Last game, Johnny got flattened and that simply does not happen when Ferland is on the ice. Whether it is a simple chat to the perpetrator or the fear of being run over by Ferland, his presence is a great deterrent. Quite simply Johnny and Monny can concentrate on what the do best and play with a talented and gritty line mate. Ferland will be more valuable in the playoffs.

  • Fan the Flames

    Ferland has a great shot and Johnny can find him . I also like that teams like Anaheim,Edmonton and Minnesota need to be careful abusing Johnny with Ferlie on the ice

    • Jessemadnote

      I don’t know if the question is “Is Ferland the best?” But more “Does Ferland make Jonny his best?” This one I believe. Johnny seems to have a trust in Ferland that lacks with Chiasson. Versteeg I’m sure could have an impact on that line but then you open them up to taking some abuse that may not happen with Ferland there.

  • Stan

    You know, I think it’s kind of a question that really doesn’t need to be answered.

    Ferland is working extremely well there right now. You play him there until that lines play drops off for a stretch of games. At that point in time, you can experiment with different looks, whether that be Bennett, Versteeg or Chiasson.

    Additionally, as this article points out, this team is in need of another top forward regardless of who is playing first line RW. This should be a priority in the offseason, as it would:

    1) Provide another option for the first line

    2) Give Bennett an actual line mate (Ferland or new player)

    3) Provide depth in case of injury

  • cjc

    Are those possession numbers score and zone-adjusted? Ferland spent most of his time on the top line during The Streak, so I wonder if score effects are dragging him down (and, conversely, propping up Chiasson?)

    The video is interesting. Ferland played it well, but had his poke been unsuccessful it would have opened up a chance for Crosby and co. Until that point, Crosby’s line had been dominating the shift. It looked to me like Crosby just wasn’t expecting such an aggressive move. My point is that the best players aren’t fooled like that all the time, and if you rely solely on scoring off the rush you’ll lose more than you win. The Monahan line needs to be able to establish zone time against tough competition as well. That could also be why the line has better possession numbers with Chiasson – it has been suggested that he’s good along the boards, an asset in maintaining zone time.

    It would be interesting to see Gaudreau/Monahan’s rolling 5v5 adjusted CF% this season to see if they’ve shown progress, and whether there was a jump associated with Ferland joining the line. These two are still 2-3 years from entering their peak, so there is lots of room for improvement.

  • King Quong

    I’d give Ferland a chance he put up good numbers in junior despite fairly severe drinking and other personal problems that carried into his early professional career so I think he has more upside then many might think when you take all factors in his past into account. I can see him putting up Glencross like numbers on the top line. As early as even next season.

  • Zalapski

    Ferland is the only option other than Bennett at the moment. What the flames need to do is break up the struggling first PP and get Ferland on the ice. My solution is to move Brouwer off of it obviously and switch Versteeg with Stone. Let Stone blast some shots from the point because Brodie won’t and Versteeg’s shot isn’t nearly heavy enough.

    • HOFer_dirty30

      We need to be able to edit comments

      Keep Ferland on that line unless we pick up an all star in the off season.. he is developing a mean shot, and the chemistry has been good via eye test. Brings the grit to the line which neither johnny or Sean have. Definitely no changes this season

  • The Doctor

    The historical numbers do not lie, and are clear as a bell: Ferland is a much better and more gifted natural scorer than Alex Chaisson. In all other respects, it’s sort of a wash, although I think also that opposition players fear Ferland’s footsteps more than Chaisson’s.

  • FL@med

    Ferly and Chaser can play decent/good on any line, however Brow only played good(ish) on the top line.. Hence why Brow should play up top. Just give the line a lot of offensive zone starts.

  • RKD

    Brouwer is a best, while i like Ferly and Chiasson they are not top line Rws. Top line Rws produce well and consistently. What happens if Ferly’s sh% drops again? While Ferly fits well on that line it’s not a long term solution. We need a pure sniper.