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.

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.

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.

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.

    • BlueMoonNigel

      While I see Backlund as having more value than you do, I concur fully that the extension was a baddie–too long and too much dough for a third-line centre on any respectable playoff team.

      Tre doled out this lemon of a contract no doubt thinking that he (Tre) would be long removed from these parts before the contract dies, so his radioactive waste becomes the worry and misery of the next GM just as Sutter’s Stajan deal has handcuffed Tre.

    • withachance

      Seriously don’t know what you want from this guy. He’s shown he’s worthy to be in a top 10 Selke winner, consistently elevates lesser players (see Ferland, Bennett, Colbourne, Bouma), and probably the best 3C in the league (and a decent 2C). No, he’s not going to get you 60 points, and he’s not going to contain McDavid and Crosby on a nightly basis but he does it about as well as anyone in the league that’s not a legit superstar. Everytime you slam on this guy it’s like you want him to be like Bergeron or Kopitar… that’s not him, and no one should think he can get to that height, but he’s a hell of a lot better than anyone else we have (including Janko and Dube)

      He’s a valuable player on the team and would leave a pretty big hole if the Flames trade him. So yeah, the new contract wasnt amazing but definitely not overvalued for what he is: a responsible, Selke ballot 2/3C that will continue to help in the development of the prospect for the next 5 years.

      • Raffydog

        I guarantee you will never hear Backlunds name and Selke brought up in the same sentence for the rest of his career. The guy rode a rookie to his best season ever, cashed in then promptly checked out. Can’t wait for that clown to be somebody else’s problem.

        • withachance

          I’ll take you up on that bet honestly. Which Selke winner and serious candidate doesn’t have good linemates? The moment that he had 2 good, smart wingers he was immediately in the Selke conversation. So yeah, I think as long as his linemates are better than Colborne and Bouma he’ll be up there in Selke contenders.

      • T&A4Flames

        And to boot, he’s (still) not getting the $10 mil or $6.9ish mil that Kopitar or Bergeron are getting. It’s a decent contract for a valuable player.

      • Fat Tony

        I just want to get this out here since we are talking about Backlund. The guy is a good player on both ends of the ice but the fact remains that he is better suited as a third line center and not a second. We are always talking about filling the wing positions but if we create more depth at center and build around them, then the wing positions wouldn’t be as much as an issue. Backlund is a defensive center and has proven to be a good mentor and team mate for young players so his value would be better utilized on the third line. Given that it only took a roster Dman to pry a player like Adam Henrique from NJ, its not crazy to think that we could have made that deal or one similar to it. our forward group could look like:
        Gaudreau Monahan Ferland
        Tkachuk Henrique Foo
        Bennett Backlund Frolik
        Dube Jankowski Hathaway

    • Professor M

      The Flames chemistry crash that was once the envy of the league is the real culprit. The team caught fire when dollars paid and ice time reflected earned value to the team -resulting in total team buy in – synergy, mojo rising! Now there are 2 high priced players who can’t or won’t compete in all situations, yet get continued support from management who erred in the signings – bingo – no more mojo. The room is lost. Players are not stupid. Justice rules the hockey room mentality. If the rewards system is not just players will not step into the fire where excellence is found.

    • What are you smoking?

      That’s because only in Flamers land are third line shut down players also the secondary scoring and even primary sometimes! It had nothing to do with bad puck luck, There is a reason why third and fourth liners get the lower end of the playing time and salaries, they don’t score! Flames have at least 12 of these types!

    • FlamesFan27

      I think the Backlund contract is a little long, but he’s a good player. He’s not the problem right now. The problem is the 3rd (should be 2nd) scoring line. There is NO ONE on this team that can score outside of the first line.

      • What are you smoking?

        Backlund and Frolik are not top six players ANYWHERE else but here. So is it really any surprise the team lacked secondary scoring? SB, MJ have yet to prove that they are anything outside a third line, so, there seems to be an over abundance of players who are all fighting for the two bottom six line spots, throw in Ferland with them. Outside of JG, SM and KT2.0, what does this team got for punch?

  • Hockeyfan

    useless = stajan, brouwer, jagr
    semi useless = backlund, frolik, hathaway
    kinda useful but at least tried = Ferland(big if going forward), Janko, Lazar, Sam, Versteeg
    woulda been worse w/out = JG, Sean, Byng
    are the Flames the kind of team that rewards sweet swededs for being oh so sweet? You bet they are. Look at Backs new deal, given for getting worse. That instills a winning culture, NO? Flames coulds got a lot for backs and fro at deadline, throw in TJ and stone and they would be laughing going into the draft if not still playing.

  • Intercourse the Penguins

    I think most people on this site expect (and want) Bartkowski to move on elsewhere. I would like to see him in Stockton as a forward if at all possible as he is an asset too good to lose. Give him a second chance if he will accept it: even at a big league salary. When the cupboard is near empty and you can’t afford to dine out that can of succotash may someday hit the spot.

  • What are you smoking?

    Yeah our shutdown line is also our 2nd offensive line. Wonder where it went wrong? JG+SM and whoever not ever considered as a first liner is it in terms of offensive punch. Frolik, MB, SB, TB, these are names that should never be synonymous with top six. At least they wouldn’t be on pretty much 25 other teams. BT needs not just a top sick RW but TWO plus a bonifide 2nd line center. How anyone thinks otherwise have their heads up their a$$.