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Not so fast: A way-too-early look at potential line combinations

You’re up, coach.

Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving was a busy man over the first couple of days of free agency, signing two forwards who are locks for the opening day roster, another wildcard who has the potential be a difference-maker in the bottom six, and a bunch of depth players likely to make their mark at the American Hockey League level.

And while Treliving has plenty of time left to tinker — exploring the trade market as it morphs based on other teams’ ability (or inability) to accomplish their goals through free agency — he has already made significant changes that his new head coach Bill Peters is salivating over as he scribbles down his potential line combinations.

In pencil, of course.

And he has likely already rubbed the eraser into a mere nub.

First it was the addition of Elias Lindholm at the draft, replacing Micheal Ferland both in body and position during the blockbuster Dougie Hamilton deal. Peters quickly noted he would slot the 23-year-old Swede, who can play the middle or the wing, right up alongside stars Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
The very next day, likely after friendly reminder from Treliving that Lindholm was still a restricted free agent in need of a contract who also has arbitration rights, Peters backtracked a bit and suggested he’d already told Matthew Tkachuk to start working on his off-wing for a run at top line duties in the fall.

Rub, rub, rub…

Then things got really messy when Treliving added the most coveted right winger on the open market in James Neal on Monday.

Rub, rub, rub…

So who will it be, Bill? The veteran who has scored at least 20 goals in 10 straight seasons? The up-and-comer looking to reach new career highs? The agitating and versatile third-year stud who can play either side?

It all starts at the top, and the trickle-down effect will be massive as Peters shakes the Etch A Sketch on a roster with a top six group of forwards that has effectively been anchored by two pairs — Gaudreau and Monahan, and Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik — for the past three seasons.

Last year, the majority of the offensive damage came from the Gaudreau line and top powerplay unit, with little production from the bottom six, prompting Treliving to utter the words, “We relied on too few to do too much,” during his public end-of-season evaluation.

That’s what pre-empted this offseason of change, at least from the on-ice standpoint.

Welcoming right-handed centres Derek Ryan (arguably the least-shocking inking of the entire first day) and Austin Czarnik, Treliving bolstered his bottom six considerably and put the likes of Curtis Lazar and Troy Brouwer on notice. With Spencer Foo and Andrew Mangiapane pushing for full-time NHL jobs, the competition on the third and fourth lines should be significant.

“You can never have too much depth. It’s gotta be a competitive environment and it’s gotta be one where the best (player) stays. There are players that are obviously going to be competing for jobs here,” Treliving told Postmedia’s Kristen Anderson.

“There’s certainly some options for Bill … what I try to do is get the coaches good players and options. I know Bill’s really excited.”

Translation: “I’ve done my job, now it’s up to the coaches to not screw it up.”

It’s a nice problem to have, but in an age when early season chemistry is critical to a strong start, starting from scratch isn’t always the best idea.

By doing the easy thing and putting the summer’s biggest acquisition on the top line just because the GM went out and spent $28 million to get him, Peters might be missing out on an opportunity to create some serious mismatches on the lower lines.

Here is the popular early approach at forward as most people would probably envision it:

Gaudreau – Monahan – Neal
Tkachuk – Backlund – Lindholm
Bennett – Ryan – Frolik
Mangiapane – Jankowski – Czarnik

In the running: Lazar, Foo, Brouwer, Hathaway

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it and on paper it looks a lot better than last year’s roster, doesn’t it? After spending months suggesting the team needed a true top line right winger, why wouldn’t you slot Neal, the prized free agent addition and consistent sniper right alongside Gaudreau and Monahan?

Here’s why Peters needs to consider avoiding exactly that.

Although the bottom six in the above looks much improved, that really depends on a few factors. We know the top line will do what the top line does and score a boatload of goals — Neal or not.

The second line has Tkachuk, one of the league’s most impressive scorers over the second half of last year, and Lindholm has the kind of smarts and skill that makes moving Frolik down the lineup palatable, but the third and fourth lines depend entirely on what kind of additional pop are provided by Ryan and Czarnik alongside Bennett and Mangiapane.

Sure, the depth is better, but all the reliable eggs are still lumped into the top two lines. Czarnik has potential but has yet to prove himself in the NHL, and the same can be said for Foo. So keep in mind that camp battles could still play out in favour of (shudder) Lazar and/or Brouwer.

A more outside the box approach

Instead, Peters should look to create a top nine group that can’t be easily countered. Think a happy and productive Phil Kessel creating massive mismatches on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ so-called third line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino a couple of springs ago.

Here is a look that has to be considered, addressing the need for both scoring and defensive awareness on every line:

Gaudreau – Monahan – Lindholm
Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik
Bennett – Ryan – Neal
Mangiapane – Jankowski – Czarnik

You have 20-goal scorers on the first three lines, with Monahan, Tkachuk and Neal proven finishers capable of potting 30. Lindholm offers accountability across 200 feet but also has untapped offensive ability that should flourish while playing alongside the most talented linemates of his young career.

Frolik could easily be bumped down, but he and Backlund have the potential to return to the the dynamic form they showed when fully healthy two seasons ago, especially with an ever-improving Tkachuk on their left side and the notion that Monahan’s line will start to take on some more responsibility against other teams’ top lines.

Neal doesn’t need elite players beside him to produce. He scored 25 times last year on an expansion club with Erik Haula as his pivot. Ryan seems to have some real offensive upside that could also benefit from playing with a legitimate sniper, with Bennett able to grow his confidence under the direct influence of a veteran who hates to lose and has some serious sandpaper to his game.

Bennett, Backlund and Frolik had a strong showing together in 2015-16 so you could even tweak this proposed lineup and re-unite that trio to move Tkachuk with Ryan and Neal.

There goes that eraser again …

Three out of four of these lines also gives you two natural centres, one righty and one lefty — that’s a nice plus to have on draws. And while Lindholm could also be considered down the middle in one of the seemingly endless combinations you can come up with, keep in mind that would mean moving a guy like Jankowski to the wing, which would stunt his development at the position they’ve been grooming him for.

The trick here is to forget everything you’ve been programmed to believe as a fan when it comes to the forward lines. There is no second and third line. Let the minutes they earn in any given game determine that. Forget salaries as a slotting system. Rely on some effective pairs that have historically had success — even if that success came at the AHL level in the case of Mangiapane and Jankowski — and sprinkle in the newcomers where they are most needed to create the most problems for opposing coaches to plan against. That’s how depth can work for teams.

Obviously the top line that will always be whichever one the dynamic Gaudreau is on, but beyond that, the focus should be on getting the most from every other trio.

The Flames have never had these kinds of options.

A nice problem to have. Except for that poor eraser.

So let’s hear it. What would you do with this collection of forwards?


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  • freethe flames

    I will say it again; it’s time to start rethinking how you define what role each of the 4 lines has. This team has the potential to roll 4 40+ goal lines with the top 2 offensive lines scoring 60+. BT still needs to move a D and I hope they are rethinking the idea of going with either Rittich/Gilles as the back up.

    • Jagrrrrr, baby. Yeah.

      You could think of it like this:
      Scoring Line 1 (somewhat sheltered)
      Scoring Line 2 (very sheltered and against lesser comp)
      Defensive Line 1 (buried in D Zone)
      Defensive Line 2 (buried but against lesser comp)

      This is what I like right now:
      S1: Jonny-Monny-Byng
      S2: Neal-Ryan-Lindholm
      D1: Benney-Backs-Fro
      D2: Mangi-Janko-Czarnik/other AHL promotion

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    “So who will it be, Bill? The veteran who has scored at least 20 goals in 10 straight seasons? The up-and-comer looking to reach new career highs? The agitating and versatile third-year stud who can play either side?”

    What fanTASTIC problems to have!!

    The only caution about not putting Neal with Mony is to remember that Mony can go cold for stretches. Maybe a veteran presence might prevent that?

  • Hakanloobies

    A week ago Bill Peters wanted to play Tkachuk on the top line with Mony and Gaudreau in the pre-season. I know a lot has changed since then, but it would open some interesting 2nd and 3rd combinations. Whoever it is, I hope they commit to it and allow them to gel because the revolving carousel on that right side needs to end.

    • Mickey O'Reaves

      Tkachuk is so good he doesn’t need a partner in a pairing. Peters raves about him to the point of tearing up.

      Byng is gonna be all over the line up helping out. Double shifted if needed. First PP forever. Hey, how’d he fall to #6 overall? Someone musta made a boo-boo.

  • Mickey O'Reaves

    Here FN members are trying to bang out lineups, but our chums to the North:

    RNH – McDavid – praying hard
    some – Drai – body
    Looch has to play somewhere – Strome – PoolParty, or on the farm
    Buncha – New – Guys

    Extras…lots o’ muscle

    Nurse (my god, gotta sign him) –
    Who Plays here again? – the trade is one for one Larsson
    Just call me NMC Russell – dunno

    Talbot
    The way overpaid backup fella I just got

    That Chiarelli boy, he’s got this puppy down to a science!

      • Mickey O'Reaves

        Thanks, it’s been up for 3 hours and the Oiler trolls are steering well clear. Even trolls need something to hang their collective hats upon.

        I swear that’s how Chiarelli operates. Hope and pray everyone has a career year. As for a salary cap, urr, what’s that? Does it have an Oil drop logo on it?

      • Mickey O'Reaves

        …and give them something to smile at, even if gallows humour. Nah, I read most of the stuff over there, I’m sure some of that lot have already seen it. Pretty funny that WWYDW on ON was about the same thing.

        I remember the Battle of Alberta way back in the day. They really were battles, great hockey. The Flames probably had the second best team in the league back then, but that Oilers team was so stacked. Calgary got one cup out of it anyway.

  • Raffydog

    Best part is it’s impossible to see where Brouwer fits into the lineup, and that alone gives Tre an A+ so far this off season. I’ve been tough on Treliving, but he’s getting me pumped for next season.

  • oddclod

    Bill believes in pairs.

    Gaudreau Monohan
    Tkachuk Neal
    Bennett Jankowski
    Backlund Frolik

    No harm in auditioning Lindholm, Ryan, Czar, and swap if nothing clicks. That said, Neal might get the go from the start but I think rebar can winch things with no morale sufferage if he has a hunch out of camp due to this depth. hard to miss the Dance with this roster.

  • Lazarus

    I see a lot of scribbles out there and most don’t have Brouwer suiting up, Ari did I noticed but, If you think Brouwer starts the year getting scratched night in and night out you are setting yourself up for dissappointment. He will be given minutes and a chance to play and bounce back yet again. You don’t bench that much money. At least not off the hop.
    That’s reality

  • Heeeeeere's Johnny!

    I like Steve’s lines.

    I’d make one change swapping Chucks and Sam. Chunky, Ryan and Neal would likely make a great 2nd line (and if it doesn’t work try Janko in the middle). Sam with 2M was good a few years back and might put down a tough to beat 3rd line.

  • RU63

    All winning teams roll 4 lines, here are ours:
    Gaudreau – Monahan – Lindholm
    Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik
    Neal – Jankowski – Czarnik
    Bennett – Ryan – Brouwer

  • Sterls

    What I would try first:

    Johnny-Monny-Lindholm (lindholm RH faceoff and +defensive)
    Byng-Janko-Neal (Grit and Skill, Janko fits best here IMO)
    Bennett-Backlund-Frolik (Bennett back on line he has performed best on)
    Ryan centering two best remaining wingers out of camp. (Dube, Mangia, Czarnik, Lazar, Foo) Hopefully not Brouwer

    • rusty_shakleforde

      Yep I love this. I think Janko will come to play. And those linemates are both leaders who will push him. If we want Janko to be in our top 6 for years to come, we gotta help him out rather than let him sink or swim (see Bemnett

    • freethe flames

      This is lineup that I could live with but I have Bennett with Ryan and Mangiapane with Backlund. This is b/c I think Bennett could elevate that line more than the others and still get his 15 goals. Lindholm helps Monny with face offs and adds a little more defensive help to that line. I like the idea of Janko and Tkachuk both high hockey IQ and at the end of the season I saw a little edge to Janko’s game and playing with these two would bring him into battle more. Mangiapane never had a chance to show his O with Stajan and Lazar last year but he skates well enough and has a bit of the pest in him that he could play with Backs/Frolik and add enough O. The natural fit with them is Bennett and if Mangiapane struggles with his role move Bennett there. Ryan wins face offs with Bennett there as well it could be a solid unit.

      Ultimately there is plenty of options for BP.

    • oddclod

      Not bad. Right wingers interchangeable til something clicks. Yet remember when Sam had the audition with Gaudreau in preseason, hit it out of the park to not get the chance again? I’d like to see him with high end players though you’re right he slots easy with Fro and Backs.

  • Joeyhere

    Thank you Steve. Outstanding article. Hopefully Peters can use this depth and be creative like you suggest

    Could you imagine how bad glen G would have messed this up “ ok I’ll put Brower on every wing and the pp, and Lazar in for Neal “

    • Sincity1976

      Ryan was relatively sheltered last season in Carolina. Meanwhile in Calgary Backlund saw his ice time go up due to a lack of other defensive options. We need another middle six defensive option, and I don’t think it is Ryan (certainly not with Neal and Bennett). The Flames will be much better off moving Lindholm to C.

      Gaudreau-Monahan, Tkachuk-Lindholm, Frolik-Backlund gives you a balanced top 6. Put Neal, Jankowski, Bennett, Czarnik, Mangiapane, Foo etc wherever they slot based on camp.

  • Cheeky

    I’m going out on a limb here but what about:
    Tkachuk-Monny-Lindholm
    Johnny-Janko-Neal
    Benny-Backlund-Frolik
    Czarnik/Mangi-Ryan-Lazar/Hath/Foo

    Spreads out the offense, leaves a true shut down line of Backs, 4th line needs speed and energy, hence the different options…

  • Vinnsanity12

    As long as Backland is considered a second line centre, then this team still has issues. Also, I’ll believe it when I see it that the best players will make this team out of camp. Every year management says it is about competition, but the final roster decisions end up being based on contract status and seniority. It would be a pleasure to be proven wrong.

    • freethe flames

      Define your role of a second line center. If your definition is that the 2nd line center should be you second leading scoring center then I hope that this year it will be either Janko or LIndholm(who may end up playing more RW than center).

      Here are my expectations of Backs(and by extension his line): defensively responsible(play against other teams top two offensive lines), drive possession, win 50% of faceoffs, play on the PK , occasionally play on the pp and score 15+ goals. (His line 40+ goals)

      I agree with you that the starting 12 should all be the guys who earn the job at camp not based upon reputation or contract status but the reality is that sometimes contract status plays a role in who gets sent down. Fear of losing a piece on waivers does have to factored in. The other factor of course is that coaches see guys differently than we do. Many of us don’t see anyway that Brouwer can make the top 12 this year but BP and his staff may see him doing the little things that someone does not do.