It’s no secret that Troy Brouwer’s first season in Calgary was a disaster. The player’s scoring fell below expectations and he was essentially Typhoid Mary when it came to his impact on his linemates’ possession and scoring chance rates.
By the end of the season, Glen Gulutzan had demoted Brouwer to the team’s fourth line. In June, Calgary left Brouwer unprotected for the expansion draft. Alas, the Vegas Golden Knights opted to take pending free agent Deryk Engelland instead (yikes).
Calgary also had the option of buying Brouwer out this summer but chose instead to send the cheaper (but also grossly overpaid) Lance Bouma on his way.
Now here we are at the end of August and it looks like Brouwer will be spending at least one more season on the Flames. The player has three more seasons left at $4.5M per year and, at 32 years old, probably isn’t in line for big rebound. So what should the team do? Bury the player as much as possible, or try to find a way to reclaim the asset?
Option 1: The fourth line
The most obvious solution is to isolate Brouwer at the bottom of the rotation where he can do the least amount of damage. There’s a reason the fourth line is the dumping ground of rookies finding their legs, replacement level grinders, and veterans who can’t keep up at even strength after all.
By all accounts, this is where Brouwer rightfully belongs. Everything about his season last year was basically fringe or replacement level – his ES scoring rate (0.76 ESP/60), his relative CF% (-7.52%), his relative scoring chance SCF% (-7.31%) – all worst or near team worst numbers amongst forwards.
This is despite the fact that he spent almost three-quarters of the year with average or above average linemates, including Sean Monahan, Kris Versteeg, Sam Bennett, Micheal Ferland, and Johnny Gaudreau. In addition, the team buried the Backlund (3M) line with the toughest circumstances, so Brouwer wasn’t exactly facing an uphill battle.
The one issue with sticking Brouwer on the fourth line and forgetting about him is, it almost certainly tanks the asset for good. If Brouwer has another low impact (or negative impact) year, there is no chance of ever moving him in a trade. As a result, Calgary would have to let the player play out the rest of his contract as one of the most expensive fourth line wingers in the league, or buy him out before the deal expires.
Option 2: The Backlund line
If the objective is to pump up the player enough to revive his perceived value, playing Brouwer with Backlund might be the way to go. As players like Joe Colborne, Lance Bouma, and many others can attest, the “Backlund Bump” is a real thing. From experience, we know that almost anyone who plays with Backs at even strength will see his possession and expected goals improve.
The drawback to this scheme is obvious – the 3M line is Calgary’s tough matchup trio. In fact, they were one of the best defensive forward units in the entire league last year. If they are broken up in order to help Brouwer get out of his rut, it potentially hobbles the team’s matchup structure and undermines the performance of its best ES forward unit. That’s a big price to pay to maybe pump up Brouwer for a potential trade.
Option 3: The Monahan line
The only other potential option for rehabbing Brouwer’s value is putting him back on a line with Gaudreau and Monahan and hoping they can pump up the vet’s scoring. Last year, Brouwer skated with the two kids near the start of the season – when they were both playing well below average. By January, Monahan and Gaudreau had shaken off their early season yips and were fairly dominant for the rest of the season (albeit in a sheltered role thanks to the 3M line).
If Gulutzan tries this experiment again, it might bear more fruit given we can reasonably expect Monahan and Gaudreau to get off to a much better start this year, and the trio can be relatively hidden if the Backlund line is still intact. I don’t consider this trio the ideal scoring line for Calgary, but it is the type of move that could lead to a quick turnaround in the asset (and lead to a subsequent trade).
Of course, I only think the Flames should do this if they plan to move the player as quickly as possible. If this sounds outlandish, there is a precedent for this kind of scheme in the NHL – back in 2012, the Vancouver Canucks gifted Cody Hodgson some of the best circumstances available to goose his scoring stats (he managed 17 goals and 33 points in 63 games) and then flipped him near the trade deadline for Zack Kassian.
Of course, at the time Hodgson was still a young center with a top 10 draft pedigree, so the shine wasn’t completely off the player. Brouwer, at 32 years old and with a couple of years left on a $4.5M deal, may be irredeemable as a trade piece at this point.
Don’t do this – The Bennett line
The one option I consider verboten is skating Brouwer with Sam Bennett. On paper, a third line with a young, talented center playing against other bottom rotation players should be the ideal spot for a guy like Brouwer, which is partially why that is where he spent most of his time last year.
Except he tanked the line and horribly undermined Bennett’s sophomore season. Away from Brouwer, Bennett was an above 50% CF% player. With Brouwer, he sank to 45%. Both the team and the player need to find out what Bennett really is this year and to do that they can’t saddle him with Troy Brouwer again.
So what you do? Stick Brouwer on the fourth line and just hope you can limit the damage (scuttling the asset for good)? Or try to reinvigorate the player’s perceived value by playing him with either Mikael Backlund (killing the Flames’ top matchup unit) or the deadly duo of Monahan and Gaudreau (potentially harming the team’s most dangerous offensive line)?