It would seem that, after a couple of seasons of being underestimated by his own team, Micheal Ferland will finally be getting his chance – at least according to Brad Treliving, and at least to start the season.
Lineup decisions aren’t necessarily up to Treliving – that’s more Glen Gulutzan’s territory – but there was one quote of his when speaking to Kristen Odland back during Stampede that was of considerable interest.
#Flames GM Brad Treliving said that Micheal Ferland will start the year with Gaudreau and Monahan: "Then, we'll see"
— Kristen Odland (@Kristen_Odland) July 14, 2017
And when I say, "start the year" obviously I mean the 2017-18 #Flames training camp.
— Kristen Odland (@Kristen_Odland) July 14, 2017
This may hint that the Flames aren’t in pursuit of a top line right wing this offseason, because it seems to reason they think they may already have one in Ferland. If they do, then that provides an immediate internal solution to the one problem the team hasn’t really addressed this offseason, and may not even be able to due to both the cap and a decline of assets they’re willing to part with.
It’s an unprecedented sign of faith in the winger, who made his NHL debut in the 2014-15 season, but has only averaged 11:50 minutes over the 173 NHL games he has played thus far. Ferland has had bursts of exceptional play – in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, in the final quarter of the 2016-17 season – but they’ve been just that, bursts. Maybe because he isn’t capable of more, or maybe because he’s never gotten a regular chance.
It’s also a bet, to be sure. Is it the right one?
Top line candidates
Let’s call Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan’s line the top line. It seems unlikely they’ll be split up; over the course of their careers to date they’ve clicked, and they’ve been the top two scorers on the team the past two years (and both were in the top three during Gaudreau’s rookie year). Let’s also assume the Flames don’t add any new forwards.
Aside from, say, Spencer Foo or Emile Poirier coming out of nowhere, then there really aren’t that many options. Other than Ferland, there’s Matthew Tkachuk, Kris Versteeg, Michael Frolik, Troy Brouwer, and Curtis Lazar, to varying degrees. Lazar is included basically as a courtesy: he’s a right shot and the organization clearly believes in him, but probably not to quite that extent at this point.
Using numbers from Puckalytics’ SuperWOWY tool, we know that from 2014-17, Gaudreau and Ferland played 5v5 2,221:17 minutes together. They put together a 50.3% CF, a 54.9% GF, all with a 58.5% offensive zone start.
Tkachuk, who will be playing just his second season in the NHL, has played all of five even strength minutes with Gaudreau and Monahan, so his numbers won’t be included below. He’s more of a theoretical choice to be their linemate, but one with good reason to be excited: he had a 48-point rookie season (more than Monahan and Sam Bennett) all the while being a physical player and advanced stats darling, and he can play all three forward positions. We don’t have any real evidence that Tkachuk may work as the pair’s linemate, but it’s certainly an exciting prospect.
As for Ferland, Versteeg, Frolik, and Brouwer, keep in mind smaller sample sizes. All numbers below are 5v5, and with Gaudreau and Monahan:
Everyone has been relatively sheltered alongside Gaudreau and Monahan, which makes sense: they’re the team’s top scorers, they’re there to score, and as such, they should be expected to receive more offensive zone starts. That said, Brouwer’s were notably higher, and produced only marginally better corsi results; the tradeoff probably isn’t worth it, even if Brouwer stops sinking almost all of his linemates.
Ferland has had, by far, the most amount of playing time with Gaudreau and Monahan, which lends the most credence to his results, all of which are positive – especially the goals for. Versteeg suffers from a much smaller sample size – recall he played with Gaudreau and Monahan only at the start of the 2016-17 season, when none of the three had practiced together and the Flames were horrid to start – but his underlying numbers hint towards him being a good option as well.
Frolik has about as limited a sample size as Versteeg, and during those nearly 100 minutes, things clearly didn’t work out. He’s the only one of the four to have actually brought Gaudreau and Monahan’s CF own below 50. But why would you want to split him up from Mikael Backlund, anyway?
With Ferland you’ve got more evidence that he works with them, with the added bonus of being closer to them in age, and a much more physical presence. It’s possible someone else on the roster could be a better option, but why mess with something you’ve got very good reason to believe will work?
I want to revisit Ryan Stimson’s Playing Styles Tableau, which we previously took a look at regarding T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic’s potential compatibility. It’s not a surefire assessment, but it’s a nice, simplified way of looking at how players may work together based on their skill sets.
To get started, here’s Gaudreau (purple) and Monahan (teal), just by themselves:
Gaudreau and Monahan are both strong players. According to Stimson’s work, Gaudreau is better at dangerous shot contributions, while Monahan is better at transition play; both seem to be lacking at shot volume, though, so ideally their right wing will help out with that.
Let’s start with Ferland (blue).
Ferland is clearly a lesser player than the other two – which is to be expected – but he definitely looks to fill that shot volume requirement (and we saw some of that over the final quarter of the season. Both in how Ferland’s goal totals shot up, and how Monahan and Gaudreau both had 47 shots each, while Ferland had 39 – without the benefit of extra ice time [Ferland’s highest raw totals never even touched Gaudreau and Monahan’s averages] or powerplay time). At a glance, the fit is there.
Next up, let’s do Versteeg (yellow), who looks like a suitable enough option in his own right.
Versteeg is clearly a good player, but he doesn’t appear to fill anything Gaudreau and Monahan are missing. On the contrary, he looks quite a bit like Gaudreau already does. He’s probably not going to hurt that line, but nobody covers up for any weaknesses.
Frolik (red) is clearly right at home alongside Backlund, but let’s just take a look at how he may do on this theoretical line anyway.
This isn’t surprising at all. Frolik was second on the Flames in total shots with 202, behind Dougie Hamilton. He was the shooter on the 3M line (Backlund scored more goals, but he had a higher shooting percentage). Theoretically, they could work after all, but the results haven’t been present in nearly 100 minutes of even strength play. He looks like a stronger option than Ferland now – but that may be because Ferland hasn’t gotten a proper chance yet. It makes more sense to go with Ferland and hope he can develop further yet, all the while keeping Backlund and Frolik together.
Up next is Brouwer (red), who was signed for a much bigger role than what ended up happening…
Yeah, no. He’s hidden underneath the other two, and it doesn’t look like he’ll really add anything, certainly not in the way Ferland should. Maybe Brouwer won’t have as bad a season as he did in 2016-17, but it probably won’t be on Gaudreau and Monahan’s line – and it’s not worth trying to get a bounceback season out of him at the expense of the top two scorers.
Finally, let’s look at Tkachuk (orange), who only has one season of work to show thus far, but a ton of potential.
There absolutely could be something there. It’s very early yet in Tkachuk’s career, and he’ll almost certainly get better and have more to show – but unless there’s an appetite to get him off of the 3M line (or on Bennett’s line to give him a responsible partner a bit closer in age than Versteeg), then it’s hard to see this happening. (Though it might make sense to load up on a top powerplay unit, and see where things go from there.)
Who’s the best candidate?
I think there are two schools of thought here: do you want to load up the top of the lineup, or do you want to spread things out between the lines?
If you want the former, then Tkachuk and Ferland should probably swap spots. Tkachuk simply has more potential than Ferland (he’s matched Ferland’s career total in points in just his rookie season). Ferland’s no slouch, but he’s probably not as strong offensively as Tkachuk is, opportunity given or not. We know Ferland can perform well on a line not expected to score, at least, but playing alongside Backlund and Frolik is definitely a cut above wasting away on the fourth line.
If you want the latter, though, then Ferland on the top line makes sense. Taking away the potential Tkachuk has, none of the other options seem to match up to Ferland: not in fit with Gaudreau and Monahan, nor in underlying numbers.
So the idea that this is now Ferland’s moment makes a lot of sense. What he does with that chance remains to be seen, but he isn’t getting it undeservedly. And after three seasons of trudging away on the bottom lines, it’s about time.