Here’s a newsflash: the Flames are being led by their top two forward lines this season. While you peel yourself off the wall from that shocker, I’ll set up the premise of this article. Calgary’s top two lines have carried a lot of the weight this year and that becomes even more apparent when you dive a little deeper. It’s report card time as we run down the forward depth chart.
Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Micheal Ferland
Knowing what this trio is asked to do on a nightly basis, it’s tough to give them poor grades. Gaudreau has already set career totals in assists and points. Monahan has hit the 30-goal mark for the second time in his career and will likely eclipse his career bests in both goals and points. And everything Ferland does from here on out is gravy in that regard; he’s set new career totals in all three offensive categories.
The team’s top line has done what they’ve been asked to do: score. Gaudreau, Monahan, and Ferland have all been used in offensively slanted roles to play to their strengths and they’ve taken advantage. All three players sit near the top of the ledger when ranking their scoring rates in all situations.
Only Matthew Tkachuk has kept Monahan, Gaudreau, and Ferland from a clean sweep in both goals and points per 60. As such, you can’t really ask for much more from this trio; the Flames need them to lead the way offensively and they’ve done just that.
Grade: A. I know Calgary’s top line can be a bit of an adventure defensively and, yes, Monahan and Ferland have had issues with consistency. But for a team that has struggled to score at times, these guys have been offensive mainstays for a good chunk of the season. When an entire line puts up career numbers, an ‘A’ grade seems appropriate.
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Michael Frolik
This line undoubtedly would have led the way if we were doing these evaluations last season, but for me, they lag slightly behind the top line this year. That’s not a criticism of Calgary’s “3M Line” at all, because once again, they’ve been one of the NHL’s top shutdown lines.
It has become a familiar refrain the last two years, but here’s the refresher course: on a regular basis, this line takes on the toughest opposition matchups paired with a ton of defensive starts and comes out on top more often than not. The five-on-five outputs above underline why this group remains so important to the team’s success.
Because the Flames rely on them for so much in the shutdown game, the most impressive number above might be their even strength high danger scoring chance ratio. All three players are well in the black despite spending so much of their time on ice matched up against the top offensive players in the game.
Where this group has taken a slight step back is with their offensive outputs… other than Tkachuk, who has made huge leaps forward. Backlund’s numbers will likely finish slightly off last year’s pace and, thanks to a number of unfortunate factors, Frolik will probably post his worst counting numbers since signing with Calgary.
Grade: B+. Yeah, the offensive numbers will end up slightly behind last year’s totals, but the Flames aren’t in the playoff hunt without the 3M Line. Backlund, Tkachuk, and Frolik make up one of the league’s best two-way lines and they still deserve high grades for their work this season.
Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski-Garnet Hathaway
The evaluations become a little more difficult when we get to the bottom six, as things haven’t been quite as set in stone this season. For the most part, though, Bennett, Jankowski, and Hathaway have made up a fairly steady line, albeit with inconsistent results.
This group has shown flashes of brilliance but has also gone cold for extended periods of time, which I guess isn’t totally unexpected. Jankowski is in his first NHL season, Hathaway his second, and Bennett his third; it’s a young line, so up and down results are sometimes part of the package.
That said, Calgary’s third line really hasn’t been consistently effective, especially considering their usage. Jankowski, Bennett, and Hathaway have been fed a heavy dose of offensive zone starts (all three players are in the team’s top four at 5v5) without making a ton of hay from a possession or scoring standpoint.
Having all three players underperform compared to their five-on-five zone start ratio has stalled the team at times. To shelter this trio means hammering the second and fourth line with defensive responsibility, which is fine, but it becomes far less sensible when the offensive results aren’t there.
Grade: C-. I know that grade might seem harsh knowing how young this line is, but for the sake of this article, we’re going to grade on a level playing field. Guys like Jankowski and Bennett have lots of potential growth ahead of them, but based solely on this season, the Flames just haven’t gotten enough from their third line on a regular basis.
Troy Brouwer-Matt Stajan-Curtis Lazar
Truthfully, Calgary’s fourth line has been a revolving door, so truly analyzing it is the most difficult task of the four. By and large, though, we’ve seen Stajan and Brouwer reside here for the better part of the season with different permutations on the other wing.
Look, I know Stajan and Brouwer take a lot of heat for their performance relative to their contract, and that’s fair; having $8 million tied up in a pair of fourth liners isn’t great cap management. I also understand being frustrated seeing Brouwer constantly given heavy special teams time that doesn’t seem to fit his skillset.
But, let’s suspend reality for a few moments and pretend the Flames are only spending, say, $2.5 million combined on their fourth line. Under those circumstances, the performance of guys like Brouwer and Stajan would be far easier to swallow. As strict bottom three forwards, they’ve been okay this season.
Specifically in the cases of Stajan and Brouwer, this line has been buried defensively, typically matched against other third and fourth lines. While neither has done a ton offensively, they also haven’t been crushed in their own end; Stajan has a five-on-five goal differential of +4 while Brouwer sits at -2.
Grade: B-. For what this line is asked to do, I think they’ve generally been fine, specifically if we’re not factoring in special teams situations for individual players. Sure, this line isn’t going to scare the opposition offensively, but they’re also not getting grossly outscored, either. Knowing the type of defensive responsibility they take on, that’s really all you can ask for.