121
Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Is it realistic to expect Calgary’s forward group to improve on last season?

Over the offseason, the Calgary Flames have revamped their goaltending and shored up their blueline. The forward corps, on the other hand, is largely unchanged—and the changes that were made had more to do with subtracting pieces to make room for prospects, rather than adding proven talent.

It’s not a surprise then that when GM Brad Treliving spoke to TSN’s Bob McKenzie last week, goal-scoring was (outside of health) the area of greatest concern. In his comments, Treliving pointed to players coming off poor scoring seasons as one of the places the Flames were going to find more goals:

“When we do our math, I think we can get there,” he said. “In terms of guys that had down years last year. If we can keep it out of our net we don’t have to score as many, but getting enough each night always is a concern.”

Calgary had nine forwards last year who both have NHL track records and are back this season. Three basically performed at their career norms last season (Michael Frolik, Kris Versteeg, Matt Stajan). That leaves six other players.

The overachievers: Mikael Backlund, Micheal Ferland

Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports

The oddly spelled Michaels had good runs last season.

Backlund had a phenomenal year. He finished fourth in Selke Trophy voting, just ahead of Jonathan Toews. Not many players set career highs in goals, assists and points at the age of 28 while simultaneously anchoring a phenomenally successful shutdown line. If we’re looking for internal growth, we also need to be aware of the possibility of internal regression, and Backlund was just so good last year that he may not be able to repeat it perfectly.

Ferland jumped from four goals to 15 and from 18 points to 25. A big spike in shooting percentage (3.3 to 14.2 percent) is the direct cause, but that in turn was arguably driven by promotion to the top line with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. If he can hold that position, that kind of production seems realistic; if not, not. Ferland had a difficult transition to pro but in his last full year of junior he scored 47 goals in 68 games. He had 18 points in 25 games as an AHL rookie. There’s some real offensive ability there and he may well be able to hang on as a complementary player on a scoring line.

The top-end guys: Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau

Photo credit: Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports

This is the place growth is really expected, and it seems like a really good bet. Both players had slow starts last season, and given that Gaudreau started the year by missing training camp while his contract got hammered out, it isn’t hard to come up with an explanation for those early struggles.

The splits are remarkable. Feb. 1 is an easy dividing line:

  • Gaudreau, before: 42 games, 31 points (0.74 points/game)
  • Gaudreau, after: 30 games, 30 points (1.00 points/game)
    • Difference: 35 percent increase
  • Monahan, before: 52 games, 31 points (0.60 points/game)
  • Monahan, after: 30 games, 27 points (0.90 points/game)
    • Difference: 50 percent increase

If we compare the performance of that duo to what they had averaged the last two seasons, we’re talking about a decrease of 12 goals between them alone. Given that both are still on the upswings of their respective careers, the actual increase might be larger than that.

The question marks: Troy Brouwer, Sam Bennett

Sam Bennett
Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to defer to Kent Wilson on Brouwer. Here’s what he wrote back in July, in an article titled “Will Troy Brouwer rebound next year?”:

There’s a well-known media trope that any headline posed as a question can typically be answered with a “no”. That trope holds in this case.

No, Troy Brouwer is not a likely bounce back candidate in 2017-18. That seems to be a popular refrain in some corners this offseason, but in reality, there aren’t any signals that point to an imminent improvement in Brouwer’s play next year.

I don’t disagree with any of Wilson’s reasoning. There’s a little bit of hope for Brouwer in that he joined a new team and sometimes guys have tough debut seasons with their new clubs, but when a 32-year-old falls off a performance cliff he usually stays down.

Bennett is a very different story. Pat Steinberg scrolled through comparables for the 21-year-old  last month and found that most of them improved at this stage of their respective careers. Even without that context, we know that the vast majority of players improve from their age-20 to age-21 seasons. Given that Bennett was a better player at 19 than at 20, it’s reasonable to expect that he can at least get back to his previous level of performance.

It’s not crazy to think the improvement might be even more dramatic than that. This is the same player who had 91 points in his draft year, the same player that scouting service Red Line Report ranked as the best prospect in the 2014 Draft, ahead of people like Aaron Ekblad, Leon Draisaitl and Nikolaj Ehlers. Some players just don’t live up to their draft pedigree, but we’re nowhere near being able to make that determination with Bennett yet—he still has time.

If I were Treliving, the goal I’d be setting would be to try and mirror last year’s Western champions, the Nashville Predators. The Preds scored 238 and allowed 220 in the regular season last year; Calgary scored 222 and surrendered 219. It’s not crazy to think that the Flames could get 16 more goals out of the roster they have, though I still can’t help thinking that the odds of doing that would be improved if the team went out and signed Jaromir Jagr tomorrow.

  • oilcanboyd

    The NHL finally gets it!

    “The league’s department of player safety has instructed officials to crack down on slashes to the hands this season following several wrist, hand and finger injuries inflicted by such dangerous stick work.

    It’s unlikely any player in the league will benefit more from such a crackdown than Gaudreau, whose gifted mitts were targeted all season long, resulting in a broken finger last November that cost him 10 games of service after being surgically repaired.”

  • Hockeyfan6778

    Haha off topic but watching jay and dan. They are having burke on the show tomorrow. So they started making fun of him and how disheveled he is. They are going to wear their ties undone. Made my night.