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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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  • 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.

  • JMK

    This is a little experimental and maybe it doesn’t work all that good but wouldn’t mind seeing a variation in pre-season:

    • Kzak

      Thank you, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying. If anyone thinks that Jankowski should centre a second line or that we can win with the Backlund line being our second line, has clearly never paid attention to a winning team. It’s imperative that the Backlund line is our third line and our second line is a legitimate scoring line, and the only person who could centre that second line is Lindholm.

      • oilcanboyd

        Numbers don’t matter as to first, second or third lines. Two seasons ago the 3M line was carrying the load on offense as well in spite of majority of defensive zone starts. Whoever is going on any given night becomes the first line and deserves the most ice time that night.

        • Kzak

          Again, if we have to rely on the Backlund line to be a second scoring line, we’ll end up no better than we did last season. He should be a line that shuts down the other team’s top line and kicks in some offence. We need two scoring lines and unless there’s a huge turnaround, a line centred by Jankowski is not the answer.

        • Kzak

          EVERY team that has won has a good shut down line that score, THAT’s what we need Backlund to be. But, one scoring line, the shutdown line and two fourth lines won’t cut it. Unless the Janko is significantly better than last season, we will likely end up where we did last year. Thankfully, we don’t need to rely on that because have an obvious second scoring line centre in Lindholm.

          • Still no edit button?

            Didn’t realize scoring 20 plus goals in 2 of last 3 years and 45 plus points in just three years doesn’t equate to a player who can shutdown and get points.

        • Kzak

          “Didn’t realize scoring 20 plus goals in 2 of last 3 years and 45 plus points in just three years doesn’t equate to a player who can shutdown and get points.”
          Did you even read my comment? I said exactly what you just said. Backlund is exactly that player but we need a second scoring line. We won’t win without one.

  • super6646




      • Korcan

        Everything is good but Backlund’s line. We know Peters will rely on it as his shutdown line, but Neal is weak defensively. Either of Frolik or especially Lindholm would make it much more effective (Lindholm could make it an elite trio alongside Tkachuk and Backlund) . Neal, if not on 1st line would probably fit best on 3rd, IMO.

  • Flaming moe

    I finally get what WW meant when he said we way overpaid Backlund. Now we will be forced to overpay Lindholm, Hanifin and Tkachuk.
    Michael Backlund averages 41 points per season. Elias Lindhold averages 44 points per season. Matty Tkachuk is averaging 48 points per season.

    Michael Backlund salary for the next 6 years———– 5.35 million /year

    No way the 3 names mentioned above take less money than Backs.

    • Still no edit button?

      Well backs is known league wide as a top shutdown 2 way centre man. You need to pay for those. I know some people dobt understand the importance of other then points but good thing gms do

      • SgtRoadBlock

        Nazem Kadri is Know as a top shutdown Center he got 30 goals, so why not and try to get Backland better line mates to see if he can crack 25? 3m line old news . Dare and try some thing new like having 2 real lines that care score…Jonny Back,LinHolm would do it…Like i said we need to see what Linholm can do and we need backland to be more Jonny fix that,
        Then Matty, Sean, Neal would be one Tough line that can rack points and pm lol

        • Still no edit button?

          Hmmm kadri a shutdown center? Never heard that before. He has never been in the running for a selke. This year they showed the votes and out of 25 centers he was not on there. Yet backlund was 11th. If it wasn’t for his extremely bad luck of a season which should natural even out this season he would of been top 5 yet again.

        • Korcan

          SgtRoadBlock, are you suggesting Johnny can play as a shutdown winger against other team’s top offensive lines? Sorry, I just can’t see it. So not only has that move made Backlund’s line less effective in its shutdown role, but the top line (without Johnny) as well.

          • SgtRoadBlock

            BT said the team has to do more we ask some people to do to much last season..
            The main goal is to have 2 lines that can score.. Matty and Jonny can’t be on the same line… Cause matty like to play when the puck dead , Jonny can’t back him up, Plus we like to see what Linholm can do Jonny, back and Lindholm not a bad line..
            side note: maybe a change up for Jonny cherry picking could be a upgrade to his skill level …

    • SgtRoadBlock

      That why we need Backland to score more so Jonny could help out big time and add Lindholm on that line too we can see what we got with him…
      The Leafs have 3 30 Goal Centers now, and Nazem Kadri is a shut down center like Backland…

      This Season should be trying to put out the best 3 lines, and mixing up it cause we seen in the last 4 years that has not work out we would go weeks with score less game lines, and only trusting on line 1

        • SgtRoadBlock

          Jonny would help more on the 2nd.. and matty and Neal will make Sean become a man… Plus other teams would have to think who do we send r checking out to matty,Sean ,Neal or Jonny, Back,Lindholm
          we need to try new stuff the old has failed…

    • Seabass

      Backlund is one of the best defensive centres in the league and was going to the open market as a UFA. Lindholm we will be paying for potential, but will still come in around 5 imo. I think Hanifin around 4.75. RFA signings is where Tre does his best work. We are still a year away from Byng, but I wouldn’t group him in with these guys in terms of money at all. I hope we can get him for less, but I think he will be our highest payed player after he is signed.

  • 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

  • everton fc

    This from the article itself, will be what most agree with, “me thinks”;

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

    Here’s my opinion;

    Czarnik is going to get a full look – he’s the next “Lazar experiment”. He’s two years older than Lazar, has yet to break into the lineup in Boston full time. Lazar was basically an everyday player here, and can’t score. I don’t see either guy pencilled in, though BT and Peters are both talking that way, about Czarnik (I do like this signing – low cost/low risk).

    I still like Hathaway as and everyday pain in the bum, who can draw penalties. There’s value in this role, as there is w/his ability to PK. And he’s shown just as much offence, as Lazar and Czarnik.

    I don’t think we move Frolik. There’s no need – yet. If we need to make cap space, Stone has to go. If we can somehow get Kapanen from the Leafs, and slot in him the lineup somehow, I’d be more prone to consider moving Frolik. But again, not just yet. He’s an ideal 3rd line RW.

    Jankowski as 4C seems more likely, than Ryan as 4C. Bennett/Ryan/Frolik is a very good 3rd line.

    So… If Jankowski is 4C… Czarnik’s the RW. Which leaves 4th line LW, in play, and nothing more, unless they move Czarnik to LW, which gives Lazar more of a chance. I still see Brouwer gone. So the last three forward positions are up for grabs between Hathaway, Brouwer, Lazar, Quine, Foo, Mangiapane, maybe Klimchuk, maybe Shinkaruk, and maybe Graovac. Of this group, I’d keep Hathaway, for certain. I’d take Foo at the moment, over Mangiapane. Lazar or Quine would round out the forwards, and I’d see if Mangiapane has recovered from shoulder surgery, in the “A”. And I actually like Bennett-Jankowski-Frolik better than Bennett-Ryan-Frolik. And I bet that’s how it end up, as we approach Christmas.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • SgtRoadBlock

    Just for fun to start the click bait
    Matty Sean Neal
    Hobbit. Backland.Lindholm
    Fro ,Ryan ,Bennett
    Lazer,Hathaway Cause they r on One way Contracts

    • X Man

      Johnny is one of the best passers/set up guys in the history of hockey, and you want to take him off the top line with our two best shooters? And put him with Backlund and Lindholm!? Two guys who’s biggest flaws is that they can’t finish!?

      • SgtRoadBlock

        Then why did we resign Backland for so much and trade a top Dman for Lindholm if they can’t Finish as u say ??…So best way to fix that would put Jonny on them make them rank up points for $$ we paying them…

        • withachance

          Read the article. Ignore how much you’re paying players and slot them with linemates that will allow them to do their jobs, be it shutting down other team or scoring goals. You can’t just base your entire player usage on how much you’re paying someone

        • X Man

          Backlund is getting that money to be a shutdown guy.. So you want Johnny starting in the defensive zone all the time too?.. Your face will be black and blue from all the facepalms after Backs and Lindholm wiff on all Johnnys beautiful setups…

    • cjc

      Gaudreau will still be with Sean both b/c they’ve had historic success and b/c Backlund will continue to see heavy d-zone starts. If it aint broke, don’t fix it.

      • SgtRoadBlock

        if it aint broke don’t fix it ? could say that about Gio and the Deer or Backland and Fro, some say Fro may be gone…this Season is about heart and new lines, and we just trying to have fun here,..

    • SgtRoadBlock

      Backland would get more goals with this line and for what we paying him we need it, and Matty and Neal don’t like getting push around and that may rub of to Sean and make him more Brave :)…
      And Ryan can show Sam how to win/take faceoffs on the 3rd line

    • SgtRoadBlock

      Horse Blinders R on about 64% people on here..This about Fun it not even Hockey Season yet..
      it not like the news i was saying 9 weeks ago about the Locker room and the Deer need to be trade, and wow people got mad saying no way lol sorry but it happen he gone now.. move on.. 1 more player in the locker room that need to change from reports…
      Leaf trade Matt Martin so we can move on that talk now too. 🙂

  • Burnward

    After learning Johnny and Buddy were high school teammates and FOR FUNSIES:

  • Parallex

    What this essentially boils down to is the RW situation…

    Bennett- Jankowski-???

    So we need to plug three of Lindholm, Neal, Ryan, and Frolik into those three spots. So… what do each of those lines need? The only one of the four that’s shown he can handle hard defensive responsibility is Frolik (So I kind of want him on Line 3 to push the needle forward on Bennett and Jankowski).

  • Cheeky

    I’m going out on a limb here but what about:

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

  • Mitchell

    Assuming mangiapane doesn’t make the team:
    *If mangiapane makes the team replace czarnik on the Ryan line with him (Neal goes to RW and mangiapane goes to LW), and czarnik slots in on jankowski RW.
    *Ryan and jankowski can switch if the latter outperforms Ryan.
    I think this lineup distributes the skill throughout the lineup.

  • RU63

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

  • 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.