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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