Expectations vs. reality: How the Flames’ forward depth failed them

At the start of the season, the Flames looked like they could have had a formidable top nine. The caveat: it relied on several players needing to meet, and in some cases exceed, career expectations, with little room for error.

There were a lot of errors.

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Jaromir Jagr’s signing was supposed to be a boon for the Flames. Yes, he was old; he was also coming off of a 46-point season in which he put up outstanding numbers with younger players. At the time, I forecasted a top nine that looked as such:

Johnny Gaudreau Sean Monahan Micheal Ferland
Matthew Tkachuk Mikael Backlund Michael Frolik
Kris Versteeg Sam Bennett Jaromir Jagr

So, what happened? Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk all had career years. That’s the major upside to this mess: the Flames’ best (and still rather young) players were their best players.

Mikael Backlund faltered some – he didn’t have another 20-goal year, but his points totals were roughly in line with what he scored the previous two seasons – and the 3M line wasn’t as impressive as it had been the season before. Michael Frolik got hit with a below career average shooting percentage, and a broken jaw probably didn’t help matters, either; that said, there’s reasonable expectation he could bounce back next season, as little as it means to this past season’s failures at forward.

Then, there’s everyone else. Micheal Ferland was outstanding until he wasn’t; he’s still a great player, but you want more out of a top line forward (see: Gaudreau, Monahan). Sam Bennett still has yet to take that next step forward, which impacted the third line pretty harshly: what could have been formidable based on Bennett’s original career projections has still yet to materialize.

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Kris Versteeg, who scored 37 points the previous year and was something of a powerplay specialist, got hurt. Jagr was hurt. And so, the Flames instead ended up with:

Johnny Gaudreau Sean Monahan Micheal Ferland
Matthew Tkachuk Mikael Backlund Michael Frolik
Sam Bennett Mark Jankowski Garnet Hathaway

Again: three guys lived up to their potential. Backlund didn’t fall too far from it, while Ferland was adequate, but not exceptional. If Frolik’s luck had swung the other way, that’s still a half decent top six group.

But the third line could never recover from its expected potential. Mark Jankowski had a solid rookie season, but not one good enough for a team already reeling with failed possibilities at forward. And Garnet Hathaway may be able to score in the AHL, but in the NHL, he simply does not belong on a third line. Replace him with Troy Brouwer, maybe, but Brouwer’s days of hovering around 40-point seasons are clearly over. The Flames’ depth was instantly decimated by a vastly underperforming and inadequate third line.

What happened was the Flames loaded up their defensive group, then crossed their fingers and prayed for the best at forward, their lone move being to sign a then-45-year-old man just before the season started for insurance. “Hoping everything turns out okay” and nothing more resulted in half of a top nine that did not turn out okay, and with it, one of the lowest scoring teams across the NHL.

The Flames led in a lot of offensive metrics, according to Natural Stat Trick: corsi for, shots for, scoring chances for, high danger corsi events for. Their worst was shots for, at sixth best in the league. But they didn’t have the shooting percentage to match: partly due to, yes, poor luck, but also partly due to a lower quality cast of supporting characters. And so, no goals.

The Flames had an answer when Bennett didn’t meet expectations: Jankowski. They had no answer when Versteeg went down. They had no answer when Jagr went down. Nobody in the fourth line group, from Brouwer to Curtis Lazar, was adequate enough to take another step forward and plug the holes forming.

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The last impact forward the Flames added probably would be Tkachuk, in the 2016 NHL draft.

If they hope things turn around for the 2018-19 season, they’ve got to bring in someone else. Maybe even two somebody elses, to prepare for all that could go wrong. Because they didn’t do that this past season, and look what happened. And while you hope this past year was an anomaly, and their shooting percentage will improve to at least average levels again next year, that isn’t something one can count on, and if the 2017-18 season taught us anything, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

  • Mike Kennelly

    Pathetic Special Teams and lack of accuracy shooting on net. Poor Fragile mental state when the times got tough. Probably a rotten apple or 2 in the dressing room.

  • Franko J

    Gaudreau and Tkachuk were the only forwards who impressed and surpassed expectations this past season. All the remaining forwards failed miserably. Other players had their moments throughout the season, but the team as Treliving mention relied to heavily on three to four players to carry the load on a nightly basis. When Smith and Tkachuk went down with injuries nobody on the team really elevated the level of their play. Bad coaching is partly to blame, but I just didn’t see enough compete, skill, execution, and speed in the Flames lineup to really challenge the opposition. With 20 or so games to go in the season, outside of say Buffalo, the Flames might have been the easiest team to play against. Good teams have a balance between youth and a veteran presence throughout their lineup. In the case of the Flames forward group the youth was not mature enough handle the grind and the up and downs of an 82 game schedule, while the so called veteran players lacked the necessary leadership and drive to move the team forward. If Treliving truly want to keep his job as GM of the Flames he must have a move or two up his sleeve that can get this team to level where it needs to be. I think the Flames have some good players in place in the forward ranks, just like the defense, the problem facing Treliving is finding the right chemistry and complimentary pieces to push the team.

  • freethe flames

    Just about finished discussing the Flames forwards who played a significant amount of time; just two left: Lazar and Hathaway. These two are basically interchangeable and the questions going is do you need both of them and does one of them have a higher ceiling. Based upon the variety of places they were slotted in and the teams needs I am going to give both of them the same grade a fail. Now is it their fault they failed? Hathaway was asked to be a third line forward and that line was expected to and needed to produce goals; his stats playing on that line were 4/9=13 but +3 not nearly good enough for a third line RW. Lazar’s numbers while being used all over the place and frequently being jerked around were 2/10=12 and a-8 again not good enough. IMO both of these guys are NHLer tweeners; good enough to be your 4th line energy checkers, play on the PK or be your 13/14 forwards but expecting much more than that is silly. The fact that we did not have the skill level to slot these two correctly tells me a lot about our team depth upfront. Hathaway is a RFA and I would be tempted to sign him to a 2 way deal and have him and Lazar battle it out for the RW 4th line checking job at camp and if he does not win the job send him back to the Heat. I would also look seriously at trying to upgrade this position the offseason.

  • freethe flames

    So here is my final summary of the Flames forwards this year. Those who got a passing grade: Tkachuk, Johhny, Monny, Ferland and Janko(a rookie pass) and those who got a conditional pass Foo and Mangiapne(inc). Those who failed Backs, Frolik, Bennett, Brouwer, Stajan, Lazar, Hathaway. Those who did not grade but would have likely gotten a fail; Jagr, Versteeg, and Glass. Guys who I did not grade b/c their body of work is clearly an inc Hrivik, Lomberg and Shore. Some of the guys who failed was IMO because they improperly slotted by the now gone coaching staff.

    BT needs to address the need for more skill in the top offensive groupings and this would allow the others to be better slotted. Going forward I see the foundations of 4 effective lines that can play specific roles. Offensive line 1 expected to score 70+ goals: Johnny/Monny/???, Offensive line 2 expected to score 60+ goals: Tkachuk/Janko/???. Ferland could be expected to fill one of the ??? marks but I think it BT’d job to see if he can upgrade this position. Foo is a long shot to fill one of these positions.
    Defensive line 1: expected to be a shut down line but also will produce 40+ goals: ???/Backs/Frolik. The question marks here could be filled by Ferland/Bennett/ or one of the kids(Dube, Mangiapane, Klimchuk).
    Defensive line 2: again a line expected to be defensive first but could also be a bit more in your face than defensive line 3 but still expected to score 20+goals: Bennett/Shore(although I would like to see BT sign someone to push this position)/Lazar or Hathaway(again if BT can find another upgrade). No room for a Brouwer in this lineup.

    • PrairieStew

      Those are some realistic numbers for each line. I agree that Ferland is a bit miscast as a number one line player. I’d actually like to see him with Janko on that secondary scoring unit. If we can’t find an upgrade for the first line – I’d be putting Tkachuk there. His distraction level will open up so much space for Gaudreau. I know people are worried about the post whistle scrums, but the likelihood of Johnny getting injured in one of those is pretty low. Tkachuk can handle himself. Gaudreau far more likely to be hurt during play – by a slash – regardless of who he plays with.
      I really think Bennett belongs with Backlund – I think he thrives there and gives that group enough offence. If we could only get those 2 guys to take a few less penalties. If Lazar/Shore/Mangy/Klimchuk/Dube is your 4th line – then what you are actually seeking is a second line RW to play with Janko and Ferland who is not named Brouwer.

      • freethe flames

        I would have no problem with Bennett with Backs but I would not be opposed to making the 2nd checking line as strong as possible and I think he could excell there.

  • Garry T

    The Leafs have not signed James Van Rymsdyke to date. They have a strong pipeline of forwards coming from the Marlies. Perhaps they and Van Rymsdyke would look at a sign and trade for one of our top D not named Hamilton or one of Bennett or someone else in our system futures like Fox. Van Rymsdyke adds 35-40 goals, Johnny and Monny are helped by JVR and could enter into the 35 to 40 goal range themselves. You are possibly talking a 100 goal grouping. If Bernier does go to free agency, then we need to put a push on to get him to work with Smith. We completely re-build the 3rd. and 4th. lines from within, perhaps adding two 20 goal scoring centers or wingers or any combination thereof. With the number of young guys coming up throughout the league, I can see 26-29 year old forwards coming available due to cap related issues with these bloody silly $ 8-12 million dollar contracts. With a good coach introducing a strong fore/back check and enhanced positional system, I see us doing much better. We are off-loading a bunch of contracts this year and should have the money to go forward. I would also suggest adding a supplementary position to the coaching staff in the form of a very good skills coach dedicated to working with each and every player. Focus on penalty minimization, create a power play and a penalty kill and we will be well ahead of the game. Each jersey is very valuable so you have to ensure when adding, we get quality people.