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FN Mailbag – Putting the pieces in place

With Brad Treliving rapidly re-signing all of his remaining RFAs, there’s not much left for the team to do this summer besides arranging the chess board. Although the team has said they’d like to add another quality forward before the summer is over, the chances of that happening dwindle as the offseason progresses. It’s possible another late training camp Kris Versteeg-type deal is consummated in late September, but… those tend to be rare.

Once Sam Bennett is finally re-inked, we’ll be thrust into the doldrums of summer where we spend weeks speculating on depth charts, line combinations, and PP set-ups. For now, let’s talk about Bennett’s future as a Flame and whether or not the team will finally get dependable goaltending this year.

I wouldn’t say the Flames are convinced that Micheal Ferland is a top line RWer. More that they are willing to give the experiment a longer look after good early returns.

That is the prudent move at this point in Ferland’s career given his mixed results so far. The kid is now 25 years old, has bounced around the lineup a bit, and only has a career high 15 goals and 25 points. His underlying numbers have been similarly mixed. With good players, Ferland is an above average possession guy. With middle-to-bad ones, he’s not.

So however much Brad Treliving might like the player and his package of skills, it doesn’t make sense to go all-in on him just yet. They simply need more information.

That said, if a top six RWer suddenly fell into their laps, I’m sure Calgary would have no qualms about bumping Ferland back down the rotation as well.

As mentioned in the WWYD last week, center is a more “valuable” position in the NHL, and teams often dream of having at least three high-quality Cs down the middle. Were Sam Bennett to take a real step forward and become a concern for opposing coaches, Calgary would have the ideal set-up in their top nine rotation: a scoring top line (Sean Monahan/Johnny Gaudreau), a dangerous second line (Bennett/Matthew Tkachuk?), and a tough minutes, checking third line (Mikael Backlund/Michael Frolik).

Although that is the theoretical ideal, sometimes having three good centers also means spreading the ice time a little too thin between all of them. It also becomes less optimal if the winger depth isn’t there.

The Sharks, for instance, had Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton as a dangerous one-two punch down the middle for years until Joe Pavelski arrived. They played “Little Joe” as a third line C for awhile, but eventually bumped Marleau to the wing so that all three guys could get ample top six ice time.

Of course, converting a center to a winger is always an option down the road, even if he is developed into a worthwhile pivot first. I think this is what the Flames are hoping can happen with Bennett – getting to the point where he can play either/or effectively.

The advantage this year is simply more information. Although Bennett has struggled at center so far, we’re relying on a small sample of data at the very start of the player’s career to base our evaluation on. It’s also data that is potentially skewed by a uniquely deleterious linemate in Troy Brouwer last year. So putting him back in the middle is something of a fact finding mission for Treliving and Glen Gulutzan.

The Flames potentially have to balance their interest in Bennett at center with their interest in competing this season. If they don’t sign another quality winger by the time the season starts, their top nine winger depth will be questionable. And if Bennett once again struggles to be an impact guy down the middle to start things off, one wonders how much longer they’ll stick to their commitment of developing him as a C.

In the end, if Bennett is a better winger than he is a center, then he is what he is. If that helps solve Calgary’s depth problems at wing, it’s a happy bonus. But I imagine the decision makers want to be sure first.

Sam Bennett was mediocre or worse across the board last year. That means the player has to take a step forward in at least one key area to break out. Be it goal scoring, puck distribution, driving possession – he needs to become above average at one (if not more than one) of these factors. Guys get more ice time and more opportunity when they either put up points or impact the flow of play (elite guys do both). Last year, Bennett mostly did neither.

What would also help give Bennett a leg up (and more ice time) is discipline. Through the early going in 2016-17, Bennett had one of the worst penalty differentials on the team (and maybe the league in terms of differential per 60 minutes of ice). He ended the season with the third highest PIMs on the team (75) and the second highest number of minors (30). That made it much harder for GG to play the kid consistently.

This doesn’t mean Bennett can’t be aggressive. It means he has to learn how to channel his aggression in a more useful fashion. Matthew Tkachuk, for instance, also took a ton of penalties – but he also drove play and drew even more penalties than he took. That’s useful aggression.

Better circumstances would also help of course – less Brouwer, more PP ice time, etc. Obviously, Bennett can’t control his linemates, but otherwise he has to make a case for himself to be bumped up the rotation.

I think it’s possible, although the field is a narrow one. If Calgary isn’t courting Jaromir Jagr, I’m not really sure who else is out that would be worth a damn, at least in terms of free agents. Drew Stafford? Thomas Vanek? P.A. Parenteau? The scratch and dent bin is getting thin.

Treliving has gone on record saying the roster is still a work in progress, but he might be running out of options.

I kind of did that two years ago in the Big Gainer series. The Hawks were one of the more extreme examples of a team moving from the basement to the executive suite in rapid succession. There are some surface similarities between the two clubs – the rapid ascent of a handful of young players (Monahan, Gaudreau vs. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews), the quality blueline (Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie vs. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nicklas Hjalmarsson), and emergence of organizational depth (Backlund, Tkachuk, Ferland, Bennett vs. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp, and a young Troy Brouwer).

That said, the two teams’ journeys are only nominally comparable. It’s tempting for Flames fans to compare Calgary to Chicago because we know how the Blackhawks journey ends. The truth is, Chicago is a unique case where a huge host of factors all converged to forge an elite, near dynastic group. We can hope – but not expect – the same happens here.

The problem with goaltenders is we haven’t really developed any truly predictive stats for them yet. It might be that this is impossible – at least in terms of being able to predict single season performances. A major roadblock in this endeavour is the fact that the difference between great goaltending and lousy goaltending in the NHL is minuscule: over a 100-shot sample, a .905 SV% goalies allows just three more goals than a .935 SV% goalie.

That difference has a big impact in the NHL because goals are so rare, but in absolute terms, differentiating between those two performances is extremely difficult. Layer on team effects, special teams, random bounces and, well… goalies are voodoo.

That’s my long way of saying there is some evidence we can dig up in favour of Mike Smith and Eddie Lack, but it won’t necessarily tell us they will be as good or better than Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson were.

Nevertheless, here’s the data:

This chart from Dispelling Voodoo (via @imfleming16) compares Elliott and Smith’s 2016-17. As you can see, Elliott had below average low danger and high danger save rates, giving him a slightly below average expected goals saved above average (xGSAA/60).

Smith, on the other hand, was above average in everything, including high danger shots and expected goals saved. Smith also saw a higher percentage of danger shots against than Elliott (8.45 to 6.52), making his season even more impressive.

If we draw back to a three-year sample, the two goalies are actually very similar. Of note is the fact that Elliott was well ahead of Smith by many of these measures around this time last year, but the two players’ divergent seasons has brought them much closer together:

As for Eddie Lack, there’s no hiding the fact that he’s been terrible for the last two years in Carolina. The weird thing is the Hurricanes traded for Lack as a putative starter because he had been excellent everywhere else prior to arriving there.

Lack was a well above average AHL goalie, managing an average SV% of about .925 during his time there. As a backup in Vancouver, he posted a .921 season before being traded to the Canes. This goalie progression chart shows just how steep Lack’s fall from grace was:

The stat in question here is adjusted goals saved above average/60 (developed by @NMercad), which is a method of adjusting for shot quality against which shows how many goals a player allowed or saved above or below what could be expected based on shots against.

As you can see, Lack was an above average puck stopper for his first couple of seasons for the Canucks before falling off a cliff. If you click the link above and play with the data yourself, you’ll see this is true for other measures as well, including both unadjusted and adjusted save percentage.

So for whatever reason, Lack stepped into an elevator shaft in Carolina. There are rumours that the coaching staff tried to completely alter his save style and rebuild his game, which actually had the reverse effect on the player. He also battled injury problems, including concussions.

The question for the Flames is if he’s redeemable or not.

  • freethe flames

    WinColumns belief that we have great depth at center makes me cringe. We have Monahan and Backlund that are quality proven NHL centers; that is it. After that we have Stajan a good veteran guy who can play but soon will be replaceable. Bennett is a work in the process(he may indeed be better at the wing but until someone proves to be better at center than him let’s continue the experiment) and we have now invested a year in him at center. Then the two guys with the most NHL experience are F Hamilton( a replacement level NHLer) and Lazar who is coming of a poor year. After that we have Janko who has 1 nhl game ( I am hopeful he will be an NHL center but to this date he has not proven to be one), Pribyl, Shinkaruk(LW?), Dube (2-3 years away) and guys who are lower on the food chain please don’t fool yourself about or depth at center.

    Let’s give Janko time to adjust to the NHL before we throw him to the wolves of the NHL center ice position. Let Lazar redeem himself and prove he is an NHL center here in Calgary. If BT is looking to add a forward it might be best to add a veteran center who can also play wing.

    • BurningSensation

      Yeah, no.

      Monahan – clear #1 goal scoring pivot
      Backlund – our #2 Selke guy
      Bennett – just get him away from Brouwer
      Stajan – the vet who makes the 4th line go
      Lazar – poised to make the team as a RW, but prefers C
      Jankowski – our long marinating prospect with size, speed, and solid even strength scoring ability in the AHL

      That is some pretty impressive depth. Especially compared to teams that dress a Letestu or Desharnais and who pray to not get killed for doing so.

      • freethe flames

        Monahan/Backlund we agree on. Bennett still is a work in progress other wise he would be able to carry Brouwer. The 4th line was garbage in the playoffs(large part b/c of Brouwer), Lazar a work in progress and Janko has one game. Really we said the same thing but you give credit where I ask questions. By the end of the season I am hopeful that Bennett/Lazar/Janko will all be good centers; then we can talk about depth at center.

        • Baalzamon

          Bennett still is a work in progress other wise he would be able to carry Brouwer

          Not true. Not only did Brouwer drag down Versteeg–a play driver in his own right–even worse than he did Bennett, but even Backlund wasn’t able to float Brouwer. Not that they spent much time together (barely any) but nevertheless: even Backlund couldn’t boost Brouwer.

          Bennett’s inability to float one of the worst players in the league does not, in any way, indict his ability to play center in the top 9.

          • freethe flames

            Cherry picking a conversation; the debate is how much depth we have at center my point is that we do not have the depth at center as some claim because we have a number of centers who are works in progress. Bennett has yet to prove he has developed into a high end center; I personally believe give the kid a chance and he could develop. The other discussion is whether or not Janko(who I have high hopes for) and Lazar(who the Flames seem to have high hopes for) constitute depth at center and my argument is they have not proven to be NHL centers. If and when they do then people can say we depth at center ice until then we have potential center ice depth.

      • Ryan68

        Still no legitimate number 1 guy there. I’d trade ALL of them for McDavid’s left skate. My God, our fans are delusional. If you’re talking about centre depth, our best guy is about as good as the Coilers 3rd guy. Start living in reality. This is going to keep biting us until it’s addressed.

  • Baalzamon

    Why do people constantly claim that Bennett is better as a winger? He’s not. I ran the numbers from his rookie year myself. Even if you include his time with Backlund, he was so bad with literally every other center on the team (including his small but abhorrent sample size playing with Gaudreau and Monahan, and the even worse and somehow much larger sample with Granlund) that his results were better–by a lot–as a center (in spite of generally having worse linemates; Center Bennett’s most common linemates were Ferland and Jooris). I don’t remember what the winger number actually was, but I do remember that he posted a 50% CF as a center and a 48.7% CF overall.

    I also remember that his CF% was FAR better at center before he was shunted to the wing than after, so there goes the common platitude that playing on the wing helps young centers develop.

    • Baalzamon

      I’m sure the difference is far less dramatic last season (his short stint on the wing while Gaudreau was hurt was actually not a complete disaster) but even so; there’s no reason to do it, so why do it?

      • The GREAT WW

        We may not have that long.
        We traded away our first round pick; if we miss the playoffs this year will be a disaster.
        A slow start should be the end of GG…..

        WW

        • Avalain

          Are you trying to get the Flames to be like the Oilers and switch up their coach every year? If it takes the team 15 games to get used to a new coach, switching the coach after a slow start tells everyone that they’re throwing away the season.

          Plus, who can they get as a good coach in the middle of the season?

        • Jumping Jack Flash

          It is pretty easy to criticize the organization for trading away our first and second round picks but the organization needs to balance its prospects with quality roster players. Too much of one and not enough of the other can hurt a team.

          It is pretty easy to see that trading our future 1st and 2 nd rounders was the cost of doing business and a necessary evil to challenge in our division.

          I believe Tree will make some trades at the deadline to re- coup some draft picks. Hamonic and Stone were 2 of the top defenders in the WHL with both suffering knee injuries which have taken awhile to heal.

          We have much needed size, but I am not sure if we have added any speed on the back end.

          • Ryan68

            If we’re contending, why would we get draft picks at the deadline? Wouldn’t we want to fill holes? Otherwise we gave up draft picks to get players, only to give up players to get draft picks. And who would we be willing to give up that’s worth a 1st rounder? Your comment makes no sense.

    • 😬

      Hey WW, I used to appreciate your posts but now your incessant grumblings about GG are now just as unoriginal as your profile name and pic. We get it you don’t like GG. Give it up on GG and give some useful posts like you used to. I promise if you turn out to be right about GG I will petition Kent to let you have your own one time blog exclaiming how you were right!

  • Fan the Flames

    Ferland has played well at times but we need to see consistency before you would be comfortable with a long contract. Tre has assembled some nice pieces and we will see if GG and his team can establish the systems and motivation in the ranks to meet or exceed the expectations . There are a lot of players that should be motivated by being on short term deals but this is also the year the coaching staff need to show they can deliver.

  • Catlord

    Bennett already is an above average possession driver he just got stapled to a guy that was arguably the worst player in the league for half the season.

    Bennett and Brouwer together 44.3 CF%
    Brouwer without Bennett 44.9 CF%
    Bennett without Brouwer 51.7 CF%

    To me that paints a pretty clear picture of Bennett’s season, on top of that his oish% (On Ice shooting percentage) was really low like below 6% at even strength. I think if he’d gotten a bit of puck luck he would’ve performed like an upper tier 3rd line center last year.

  • Kevin R

    Was thrilled to see Matt & Sam together down in Smashfest with that Ron Maclean interview on SportsNet. The sports psychologist in me says thats the first start of two players getting to know each other & form a bond/chemistry that could hopefully transfer to the ice, in my deep hopes they are on a line together.

    One comment about the goaltending stats you put out here Kent. Smith faced 2.0 more high danger scoring events per game compared to what Elliott did. The next thing rarer to goals in this league is high danger 10 bell chances. To me that is a significant stat worthy of giving me a little more confidence in Smith going into this season.

  • The Fall

    Ferland playing down the roster (2nd/3rd lines) may be a bad idea. Playing with two talented guys on a sheltered line has brought him some success. But, he has not been able to play at the same level with lesser players or with tougher starts.

    If he’s not on the first line: he’s on the fourth line.

    I think of a player like Versteeg who brings struggling players up as a cohort.

    • Puckhead

      One would assume that Versteeg will start on the 4th line. Seems like a bit of a waste of talent but someone decent has to play with Stajan to make it a functional and somewhat dangerous line.

          • Puckhead

            There is no way that they throw Lazar on the 4th line. The guy needs to build on his confidence. The BLT line be made of young guys who will feed off of each other. Lazar will be the second centre on the line and will get his chances down the middle.

            Also, I just can’t see Stajan spending much time in the press box. He had a solid year and brings stability to the 4th line. If the plan is to ‘go for it’ I can’t see them taking much risk.

          • The Fall

            so your BLT line is: two centre/wingers who have struggled their entire NHL careers, and one teenager who enjoyed a successful rookie, regular season while playing with two experienced vets in their prime…?

          • Baalzamon

            Yeah, I don’t get why people think 1) Lazar will be on the third line and 2) Versteeg will be on the fourth. IMO it’s a 100% guarantee that Versteeg and Bennett play together.

          • Puckhead

            I believe Lazar will be on the 3rd line because the Flames seem to believe that he has a lot of untapped potential I and can’t see how they will tap into this by letting him rot on the 4th line. Versteeg is a vet who has shown that he can play up and down the line. They can feed him time on special teams to top up his minutes and play him up when needed. I think he would be fine in that type of role.

            Versteeg is also a RHS who is good on his off-wing, leaving Lazar and Brouwer on the right side of the 3rd and 4th lines.

          • BurningSensation

            @The Fall

            A BLT line would:

            A. get Bennet away from Brouwer
            B. Give him a skill linemate to work with (MT)
            C. Get the gift of cherry zone starts vd 3rd parings to maximize success
            D. Be a giant pain in the keyster to play against

          • Baalzamon

            But Versteeg is just a far better choice than Lazar. The only thing Lazar has proven to this point in his career is that he’s basically the worst regular forward in the league. Might he be better than that after the change in scenery? Sure. But better than Versteeg? Not a chance.

          • HOCKEY83

            Stajan will be a 4th line mainstay. He’s the type of player that can turn a game around when he feels like it. Foo will be in the line up over Jank no matter how bad you want Jank on the team.

  • Jessemadnote

    Man I’d like to see Bennett get some strong wingers to help him gain confidence. The trouble is that Bennett – Versteeg and who? Brouwer, Lazar, Jank, Foo or anyone else available need their own confidence established…. Jagr has no confidence issues though…

  • Thunder1

    My own WOWY STATS… courtesy The Hockey News ranking of the 2013 draft class.

    1. Sean Monahan drafted 6th overall NHL games played 319 NHL points 217
    2. Nathan Mackinnon drafted 1st overall NHL games played 300 NHL points 206
    3. Alexander Barkov drafted 2nd overall NHL games played 252 NHL points 171
    4. Elias Lindholm drafted 5th overall NHL games played 293 NHL points 144
    5. Seth Jones drafted 4th overall NHL games played 315 NHL points 125
    6. Alex Wennberg drafted 14th overall NHL games played 217 NHL points 119
    7. Bo Horvat drafted 9th overall NHL games played 231 NHL points 117
    8. Rasmus Ristolainen drafted 8th overall NHL games played 273 NHL points 110
    9. Jonathan Drouin drafted 3rd overall NHL games played 164 NHL points 95
    10. Andre Burakovsky drafted 23rd overall NHL games played 196 NHL points 95

    Wowy.

  • Trevy

    I’m pretty sure we all agree that Brouwer’s value with the Flames has been somewhat of a tire fire, but we are either stuck with him or it will cost to cut the cord. Having said that, I’m just throwing this trade proposal out there. Brouwer and prospect to Vegas for James Neil. Neil is a proven winger with one year left at $5 mill and may be a good fit and if not, it’s only 1 yr. Money is almost a was although we may even have to retain a bit plus McPhee may still hold Brouwer at some value depending on the cost. We will have to lose a prospect and that would be the wildcard…who?

    • supra steve

      Or…McPhee could hold on to Neil till the trade deadline and actually reap something of considerable value for him without having to swallow 3 years of Troy Brouwer at $4.5 million per season. Which option would you pick?

      • Trevy

        Like I mentioned, this is based on McPhee holding some value for Brouwer based on the past, sure he could hold onto Neal till the trade deadline, but I’m not convinced he’ll receive a better offer if he doesn’t perform and we give a respectable prospect to sweeten the pot. As well, yes he could of taken him at the draft for free, but on his own was probably to risky and really, he could of taken Kulak but didn’t. He obviously had his own agenda at the time. Again, just spitballing here… maybe more like wishful thinking

    • Skylardog

      I have been proposing a deal with Vegas. Brouwer and a 4th round, for a Vegas 7th round. I think that is something Vegas would consider. Beats buying him out or eating half his salary for 3 years. Way ahead of keeping him for the next 3 as well.

    • Jessemadnote

      I don’t see any reason for McPhee to do that deal. Neal is the most dangerous scoring threat Vegas has, they did not select Brouwer in the draft, so clearly they don’t want him. The only way I could see that working is if the prospect was Parsons or Fox. No thanks.

      • Puckhead

        Agreed. From a cost/benefit analysis point of view, if Brouwer doesn’t ‘pull up his bootstraps’ it might be more valuable for the Flames to hold onto their blue chip prospects and simply buy Brouwer out, freeing up a roster spot and $3M for the next 2 or 3 seasons. To give up a great prospect just to dump Brouwer seems like a huge waste.

    • Ryan68

      Why would Vegas give Neal for Brouwer? And why would you give away a prospect to get rid of a guy? This is why the best teams hire REAL professionals to run their teams. As long as you’re asking for stuff, why don’t you ask for a unicorn too?

  • everton fc

    With regards to Eddie Lack; he could always be sent to the AHL if Rittich outplays him in training camp. Lack is not a lock in the #2 spot on this team. At least that’s how I see it. He’s been horrific the past two seasons, and if his training camp is a disaster, and Rittich does well…

    I still think Gillies need to be in the “A”.