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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski / USA Today Sports

A look at Calgary Flames matchups for 2017-18

The Calgary Flames had a difficult bench to manage last season.

Glen Gulutzan was lucky to find and leverage the now famous 3M line with Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk. That trio actually became one of the best hard minutes combinations in the league. Gulutzan was also able to lean on the Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton pairing to handle tough matchups at even strength.

After those guys, though, things got dicey in a hurry. Because of certain limitations and liabilities scattered throughout the rest of the roster, the Flames were often exposed by teams with quality depth or by opposing coaches on the road.

The good news for Glen Gulutzan is he should have better matchup options in 2017-18.

Top heavy

Before we start, let’s look at how matchups shook out for Calgary last year (chart courtesy @CrowdScoutSprts):

This graph shows the difficulty of opposition at home and on the road for each player in question. Further right means stronger opposition at the ‘Dome, while further up on the graph means tougher minutes elsewhere.

Let’s go through some of the key points.

  1. GG sensibly relied on 3M and the Giordano pairing at home, although Michael Stone and T.J. Brodie weren’t too far behind. No other pairing or forward unit really comes close in terms of having the coach’s trust on home ice.
  2. On the road, however, we can see just how much the Sean Monahan/Johnny Gaudreau line was targeted. This makes sense for a couple of reasons: that duo isn’t known to be defensively capable and most coaches like to send out the big guns against players they consider the biggest threat. Matching your stars against Monahan’s line gives opposing coaches the dual benefit of targeting the Flames’ best offensive players while also keeping their big guns away from Backlund and company.
  3. Troy Brouwer inches up closer to the top on the road as well. I don’t know if this is a blend of GG’s decision making or the bad guys targeting Brouwer, but hopefully, the bench boss can better shelter the big man moving forward because he’s a huge liability against quality opposition.
  4. As you can see, GG did what he could to keep everyone else out of the firing line. Everyone from Deryk Engelland to Matt Stajan was limited to third and fourth line competition as much as possible. That’s not uncommon for the bottom end of the rotation, of course, but there were… complications we’ll get into shortly.

Negative chemistry

Every good team in the NHL is top heavy to one degree or another. After all, It makes sense to lean heavily on your stars. Usually having heavy hitters winning their battles at the top of the rotation causes a ripple effect through the rest of the roster. A high tide raises all ships and all that.

To whit, one of the big benefits of having a line like 3M taking all the own zone draws and facing top competition should have been to make everyone else’s life easier.

Instead, most of Calgary’s depth players got smoked from a possession and scoring chance perspective. Sam Bennett, Troy Brouwer, Lance Bouma, Kris Versteeg, Deryk Engelland, Dennis Wideman, and Jyrki Jokipakka – they were all well underwater, despite mostly playing against other team’s depth guys.

Even the Monahan line was only able to barely inch up over 50% by these metrics, and that was with GG giving them as many offensive zone draws as possible. Again, the benefit of having a line like Backlund’s to take on more of the grunt work.

As a result of all this ineffective depth, GG had to engage in a sort of Sophie’s Choice when it came to matchups, especially on the road and specifically when it came to constructing five-man units: although he could combine 3M with Gio and Hamilton to send out against the big guns, it would leave the rest of the lineup extremely susceptible to attack. Calgary was especially exposed when a combination of their bottom six and bottom three defenders were ever on the ice together. In addition, the bottom three blueliners also tended to undermine the Monahan and Gaudreau duo.

For example, Gaudreau and Monahan had a 53.3% CF% together last season. That’s pretty good! However, that numbers drops to 47.3% when they skated with Engelland. If we add in Bartkowski, that number drops to a putrid 41.5%.

Things get pretty ugly if we start looking at just depth combinations as well. Brouwer plus Engelland and Bouma resulted in a CF% of 31% (albeit in limited minutes). If we take a look at just Bouma or Brouwer with Engelland, we get possession rates of 43.3% (Bouma + Engelland) and 43.0% (Brouwer + Engelland).

Similar things happen if we look at Sam Bennett. Overall, he was a 50% possession player last year. With Engelland? 47.3%. If we add in Brouwer, who was one of Bennett’s most frequent linemates, the trio’s combined CF% is just 40.4%.

You can go to Puckalytics and try this exercise yourself, but what you’ll find is almost any combo of certain bottom-rotation Flames results in a cratering of the team’s possession numbers.

It’s one thing for the support players to have less than impressive chance and shot results. That’s usually why they aren’t playing with the stars anyways. That said, ideally you need guys who can at least tread water in easier minutes, especially when you are absolutely burying one of your top two lines like GG did with Backlund.

Instead line matchups became a game of whack-a-mole for Gulutzan. Whenever Backlund’s line wasn’t on the ice, or when any other trio wasn’t supported by the Giordano pairing, it was generally panic time.

What’s changed?

A couple of things will be different this year.

First, Troy Brouwer (hopefully) won’t spend three-quarters of the season undermining anyone in the top nine rotation. By the end of the year GG had banished Brouwer to the fourth line, which is where he should more or less stay for the duration.

Second, and more importantly, the Flames should have at least two defense pairings capable of handling harder minutes. With T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic, GG should in theory have another unit that can drive better than average results against top competition. This should make it much easier to send effective man units over the boards at even strength.

In addition, Stone and Brett Kulak (assuming Bartkowski is the club’s seventh defender) should also be able handle clean up duty from the third pairing, especially if Kulak’s limited results so far are indicative of the kind of player he can be in a support role (i.e. he was the only player to partner with Engelland over the last two season to manage a CF% above 50%).

Conclusion

The Calgary Flames were a dominant team whenever Giordano and Hamilton skated with the Backlund or Monahan line’s last year. Unfortunately, they tended to be well below average whenever their depth players skated together (or with any of the stars).

As a result, the Flames were an unfortunately unbalanced and top heavy club, leaving the head coach fruitlessly juggling lines and matchups to try to limit the damage of the bottom end of his roster as much as possible. Especially away from the Dome.

Although the forward ranks haven’t changed much, the complete overhaul of the blueline should make Gulutzan’s life much easier next year. If he can limit Brouwer to fourth line minutes, and if Hamonic, Stone, and Kulak can stabilize things from the backend, Calgary should be a much better even strength club in 2017-18.

  • flames2015

    If our roster remains as is with no more additions, I’d like to see this line up. Seeing those D pairings already has me excited for better matchups.

    Gaudreau – Monahan – Tkachuk
    Jankowski – Backlund – Frolik
    Ferlund – Bennett – Versteeg
    Stajan – Lazar – Brouwer

    Gio – Hamilton
    Brodie – Hamonic
    Kulak – Stone

    Janko and Lazar could also be swapped if they wanted Janko to start as a centre.

    • Ven0m

      I do hope they do at least try Tkachuk out on the first line this season. See how it goes in preseason and go from there. I think it would be best for Janko to start out on the Backs/Frolic like as well. Another potential solid option (maybe later in the season if players aren’t finding the right chemistry) would be to keep the 3M line together, shift Bennett to 1RW, and get Janko to center the third line. Gives Bennett a chance to play with our top players and get his confidence up to finally get him that breakout season. Both of these options give us 3 solid lines.

      Gaudreau – Monahan – Bennett
      Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik
      Ferland – Jankowski – Versteeg
      Stajan – Lazar – Brouwer

    • oilcanboyd

      Why do most of you commenters want to break up the 3M Line? Most effective line on the Flames starting the majority of D-zone faceoffs.
      It would make more sense to me to leave Ferland on the top line, keep 3M together, Jankowksi-Bennett-Versteeg, and whatever for the fourth, could be Gazdic-Stajan-Brouwer to start the season. Lazar still needs to earn a spot.

      • flames2015

        I definitely agree with the 3M line being one of our best and most effective lines. I would have no issues with them staying together, however backlund and frolik have shown they can be effective regardless of who their LW is. Moving Tkachuk brings a different element to whichever line hes on. I can see him being effective with Monahan/Gaudreau or paired up with Bennett. Ferlund was okay on the top line, but hes not a permanent solution to being the first line RW. Ferlund is a finisher and not playmaker. You add Tkachuk to that line, and it makes that first line tougher to play against, he can make plays with johnny, helps posession and battles hard in front of the net. And he’ll be a nussiance to the other teams top lines. The on going conversation every summer it seems is that we need a first line RW. Why not try Tkachuk? Kid has a huge ceiling. If it fails, than move him back to 3M.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      I have been pumping the same lines now for awhile. It makes sense on so many fronts… which scares me because GG was always on a different page. I get why some people may be reluctant to break up the 3M line but you do it because MT has way more offense in him and Mike and Mike provide the best platform for new high potential players to break into the NHL.

  • Ole YELLEr

    I’m sorry I just do not agree that a guy who consistently scored about 20 goals and 40 points a year for 7 years is suddenly a 4th line plug at best after 1 bad season. I think Brouwer can have a bounce back season.

    • Ole YELLEr

      Edit “for 7 years in a row” is what I meant to say
      Here’s my resurgent Brower F lines
      Gaudreau Monahan Brouwer
      Ferland Backlund Frolik
      Tkachuk Bennett Versteeg
      Stajan Jankowski Lazar

      • Nick24

        Brouwer didn’t just have “one bad season” he had his worst season as an NHLer. Don’t get your hopes up that he’ll turn it around. He dragged down every player he was matched with, and he’s been declining for a few seasons. As players age they decline, and Brouwer is in free fall.

      • Ven0m

        If Brouwer comes to camp swinging and playing his ass off, he’ll get his chance to move up the line up. And ideally, yes, he will bounce back and have a much better season than last year. I just don’t think it’s given or something we should be expecting.

      • Toofun

        Call me crazy but I wouldn’t break up the 3M line. Tkachuk and Backlund were two of the biggest positive surprises for Calgary last year and wasn’t Frolik injured for the last part of the season? They complement each other, have synergy and eat up the toughest minutes every night.

        The Flames might have had some holes in the line up last year but that line wasn’t one of them.

      • Jessemadnote

        I would actually agree. Looking at Brouwer’s corsi relative from 2013 on: 3.5, 5.9, 4.0, -3.0, -2.4.
        I doubt that he turned 30 and magically disappeared. I think those numbers could ‘regress’ to the mean and he could have a bounce-back season. Overall the contract is not looking too hot right now though.

      • OYYC

        Troy Brouwer can’t keep up with the speed of any line, plays without passion, and has the Hockey IQ of a carrot. He was truly pathetic all year, and he pulled down everyone he played with. Apart from that he had a good season.

  • Thunder1

    Monahan and Johnny dragged that anchor Brouwer around for half the season and played with our worst defense pairs and still finished above water… imagine what they can do with a decent winger and a regular turn with the top four next year. I bet they are both in the top 25 for points and possession metrics and the Flames get past the first round of the dance at least.

  • jonahgo

    interesting! really brings into focus how improving the defence improves the forwards too. perhaps bt figured that it was most cost effective to stack the defence and be perhaps a top 9 winger short, instead of going big on someone to play with gaudreau and monahan (which is what i thought would have made more sense but am now rethinking).

  • Atomic Clown

    Much as I’d like Tkachuk on the top line, I wan Bennett to find his pair, and honestly Tkachuk would be the best option. They play a similar style of game, and I can’t imagine what a pestering force they would be.

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

    Switch Lazar and Jankowski around, so they both get to experience the Backlund bump, and get to play higher minutes.

  • Jessemadnote

    One huge area I see this could improve is Gio and Dougies offensive totals. They were relied upon as a shutdown force with 3M for most of last season. I think if 3M plus Brodie and Hamonic starts looking good as a shutdown group then Gio and Dougie could benefit with Gaudreau’s patented button hook drop passes.

  • buts

    Brouwer has to prove he’s more than a 4th line player from the get go. If GG starts the year with him on the PP, I will lose it. After last years Brouwer showing, there has been nothing earned and if PP time is givin to him I will call for a coaching change. By the way there were other player usage by GG that was very concerning that I won’t get into.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      I am still cheering for Brouwer, I believe he can shed some bulk and become leaner and quicker….players do it all the time. The ones that want to stay in the game latch on to new improved training techniques. They do this not because of the criticism the receive from fans in chat rooms but because of the personal and professional pride that drives them. I agree that some players play drops off significantly when they get around the 30 yr mark but it’s up to them to adapt to the game as it changes.

  • Skylardog

    The message I take from this article is that we really need a 3rd line that can play and be productive. Teams matched JG and Mony, especially on the road when they had last change and shut them down. Put a third line out that is a threat, and it means teams have to make decisions on who to match. It will get JG and Mony easier minutes, as teams will struggle to decide which line they match their best players against.

    That is why it is so important that Bennett and Tkachuk play together and become the third line that can make the difference. It not only gives us a third line threat, but will give JG and Mony better matchups as well.

    You could put anyone with Backlund and Frolik on LW and they will be fine. Tkachuks talent can be utilized to create that 3rd line we need, and Bennett cannot continue to play with guys that drag him down.

    • Thunder1

      Agreeing with Skylardog here. That’s what has me looking forward to next season…. the Flames are going to roll at least three lines that are better than all but a few teams. Not many will be able to match up against them. Spazdic, Stajan and Brouwer can clean up the crumbs with 8 minutes or less a night.

    • freethe flames

      Agree and the best prospect for this role is likely Janko although Klimchuk would be a candidate. This team could play a 4th line if they sit Brouwer in the press box.(Note: if Brouwer rebounds I would be happy with that but I am not holding my breath)

      Can the prospects push the pile and create a more effective 4th line?

  • hulkingloooooob

    Hey Kent, interesting stuff here, do you (or anyone else for that matter) feel that having a strong puck moving goalie (smith) could make a difference in terms of these numbers? And more importantly in terms of results?

  • BendingCorners

    Interesting proposals for line combinations and I think we’ll see most of them at some point in the year. But I doubt anybody will push Sam out of the 3C spots and I think we will start the year with the same top 6 that we ended with last year.
    Mark and Matt will share 4C and Curtis and Troy should share 4R.
    Unless they bring in somebody else, Kris Hunter and Freddie will fill the rest.

  • OYYC

    Gaudreau – Monahan – Ferland
    Jankowski – Backlund – Frolik
    Tkachuk – Bennett – Lazar
    Versteeg – Stajan – Brouwer

    Assuming that Jankowski makes the team, I think this line up is the most ideal for next year. Any combination of Versteeg not on the 4th line means Janko or Lazar playing with the Troy Brouwer. That would be a disaster, as this article shows.

    Tkachuk and Bennett should be a pairing with Lazar on that line. They didn’t give up a second rounder for Lazar to play minimal minutes, he needs decent playing time. Patience, rebuilding his confidence, and giving him an opportunity to succeed… that was the mantra when they brought him in. Bennett needs better linemates and this should be his opportunity to build on his playoff success.

    • Skylardog

      Yup – I could live with most of those lines. I think Brouwer ends up as 13 or 14 though, regardless of what we are paying him. It may take a few months for him to be put there, but the press box is where he should go. Lazar Tkachuk and Bennett will be the best line by season end.

      HOW MANY OF US REALIZE THE SEASON STARTS EXACTLY 3 MONTHS FROM TODAY! CAN’T WAIT!

  • Puckhead

    I think that Tre will be tasked with getting GG to try to find ways to get Brouwer going so that either he contributes or they can move him. Unfortunately, if they plunk him on the 4th line and roll him out 8 minutes a night I don’t think they’ll find any suitors at $4.5M per.

    Hopefully he proves us all wrong and has a great comeback year (or maybe I should say his best year ever). Otherwise, it will cost $9M to buy him out and the organization will be saddled with a $1.5M hit against the cap for 6 years. So unless he gets his act together, I guess the question will be: do we suffer for 3 years or will the pain be spread out over 6 years. Saying that, you should be able to find a pretty magnificent 4th liner for $3M or less over the next 6 years.

      • Puckhead

        Once he either picks up his play or gets moved we won’t have a whipping boy left (assuming the goalies play well). Stajan is overpaid but plays well and will be gone at the end of the season

    • Skylardog

      I agree that we need to get him important minutes to get his market value up. The problem is the early season schedule. We just can’t afford to have him taking valuable minutes and dragging players down with such a tough first 13 games. If we sit him, once the first 13 are over, all the other GMs will know he isn’t cutting it and his value will drop. This is a tough one.

    • OYYC

      It might sound overly dramatic, but is imperative to move Brouwer before the season starts. He has no showcase value on the 4th line, and if he doesn’t play on the 4th line he screws up the potential growth of other players and plays havoc with every other line. Plus the team has youngsters banging on the door.

      If we think he ends up in the press box at the end of the year, then you know you’ve got a real dud with 2 years left on his deal. I see no realistic scenario where Brouwer is on the team after this year.

      That will cost them $1.35 x 4 years in a buyout, barring a trade. Trying to move him now before teams have their rosters set and have cap room is the way to go. Hey, Montreal needs a right winger…

  • Puckhead

    The 4th line has to be solid if the plan is to make a playoff push this year. A good 4th line can be the difference between winning and losing big games. Hopefully no passengers this season.

    • freethe flames

      For a team to be legit contenders they need to be able to play 4 lines every night. They have to be able to produce and fulfill their roles.Johnny/Monny/Ferland Ozone starts , PP, scoring 70+ goals. ?(Janko)/Backs/Frolik Dzone PK starts 50+goals, Tkachuk/Bennett/Versteeg Ozone starts 2nd pp, some PK(Bennett) 50+goals, and a line that can play D, kill penalties, and needs to score 30+ goals. Who can that?

      • Puckhead

        Ideally, I would like to see a 4th line consisting of high energy, havoc-type, players like Hathaway and Lomberg. The type of line that is unrelenting and grinds other lines down, especially during the playoffs.

  • Craig

    Everyone is penciling in Jankowski, he had a fairly comparable first season to Poirier’s first season… I don’t think he makes the team, and I especially don’t think he gets put with Backlund and Frolik. Tkachuk was only put there once he proved that he could play, so why would Jankowski be gifted that spot. That line plays the best lines in the league. Jank if best will play limited minutes on the fourth line. Bennett will be fine, playing with Versteeg, as long as Brouwer isn’t on the other side.

    • oilcanboyd

      Jankowski would be better off with another year in the AHL than have limited playing time with the Flames. A good call up should they have an injury at Centre. This is all conjecture’ we haven’t even had the Young Stars tournament and fans have players in the lineup. Lazar, Jankowski, Foo have to strut their stff there and at training camp. Then we can better speculate who stays and who goes.