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FlamesNation Mailbag: Goalies in focus

The Flames made moves on every front this offseason. They plugged holes in the forward lines by adding four fresh faces, brought in another big name defenceman (at the expense of another one), while still stockpiling plenty of helpful depth in the minors.

The one area left untouched was the goaltending, which is looking more and more like the team’s weak spot, and not just relative to outside of the net. The Flames have taken risks this offseason, but their biggest might just be remaining with the status quo in net. Last season quite clearly started falling apart when the situation in net did. The Flames have not resolved that.

Mike Smith has been a starter since the 2010-11 season, playing in at least 55 games every season (34 in the 48-game lockout shortened season) other than his injury-hampered 2015-16. The Flames acquired him to be a starter, and a starter he shall be.

The question is if he’s actually a starter or just nominally one. Smith has had injuries of varying severity in his past three seasons and he just turned 36; who knows how long he’ll hold up? Smith was an .921 goalie pre-injury and a .880 goalie post. Albeit, that’s comparing a 47-game sample to an eight-game sample, but there’s still cause for concern. It’s likely that he’s more of a .915+ goalie than a <.900 one next season, but they aren’t safe odds.

Smith is going to be a bit of a question mark next season, but so are his potential backups. David Rittich and Jon Gillies have been good in bursts, but nothing convincing enough that either of them have locked down a job. If one of them does, you probably can’t expect more than around average backup performances.

Basically: the goaltending situation is very shaky. You’re leaning heavily on a guy who seems ready to break any second now and your backup plan is two goalies who just may be fine backups, nevermind NHL starters. If everything is fine, I’d imagine that Smith gets about 50 starts. Still the lion’s share, but with 30 or so games to figure out what Rittich and Gillies are. If everything is not fine, throw it all out the window.

The battle is mostly between Rittich and Gillies. Tyler Parsons is still in need of development, while Nick Schneider and Mason McDonald are dead in the water.

The battle between Rittich and Gillies will mostly be solved this season, and I’m giving the inside edge to Gillies. Rittich has had some success at the North American level, but mostly in a backup role. He projects to be a backup if he sticks around in the NHL, and that’s a big if. Rittich could be unconvincing, it’s probably over for him in North America next season. If he isn’t good enough next season, that’ll mean it’s been two seasons of him teetering somewhere between the NHL and AHL at age 27. That’s not going to get him many jobs.

Gillies has always had a starter’s pedigree attached to his name, and to his credit, he’s been getting better as years go by. He’s not a UFA until he’s 27 and he’s not waiver-eligible until 2019-20. Gillies has a longer runway, which gives him a leg up on Rittich. The advantage Gillies has is his contract, which seems signed with the intention of him being a full-time NHLer with a one-way salary kicking in next season. If that doesn’t tip things in his favour, I’m not sure what does.

If nothing works, hopefully they have enough cap to throw at Sergei Bobrovsky.

Steve Mason is one of the bigger names left on the UFA market, if not the only one. He’s two years removed from some strong seasons with the Flyers and is probably at his lowest point in terms of value. He’ll be a cheap, no-risk pickup.

But he’s at that low value point for a very good reason. Mason has been a career below average goalie, getting hot for a few years in Philly and then dropping off again. Maybe you get that ~.920 stud again. The likely chance is that you don’t. The Flames took another risk on a goalie like that last season in Eddie Lack and it went about as well as you could have expected. Sometimes, goalies just don’t bounce back.

The team…

  • fired the coaching staff and replaced them before the playoffs were over
  • traded a top line winger, top pairing defenceman, and top prospect in one go
  • spent big bucks in free agency
  • did all of the above and may not be finished just yet

… all because they finished just about six wins out of a playoff spot.

If you’re going to overhaul the roster to the point where players with safe jobs last season could potentially be AHL-bound this season over what was, in hindsight, a below average season, you set the bar high.

I would personally expect a strong push for a top three spot in the division at the very minimum (I would personally say they finish second behind the Sharks) and an appearance in the second round. I wouldn’t think a first round exit (depending on opponent/how the series goes) is necessarily a failure, but at least disappointing.

I think it will look something like:

Gaudreau Monnahan Neal
Tkachuk Backlund Lindholm
Bennett Ryan Frolik
Brouwer Jankowski Czarnik
Hathaway Lazar
Giordano Brodie
Hanifin Hamonic
Kulak Andersson
Stone
Smith
Gillies

That’s the realistic option. I feel I would try Dillon Dube on the fourth line instead of Troy Brouwer, and either Juuso Valimaki or Oliver Kylington on the third pairing rotating with Brett Kulak.

Noah Hanifin has been in the process of making the leap:

Hanifin is only 21, too. He has space to get better and likely will. Another season under Bill Peters should help him, as will an all around talented team.

Sam Bennett is someone you can be less optimistic about. It’s convenient that the question asks about both Hanifin and Bennett, because they have very similar stat lines over their careers (Hanifin: 83 points in 239 games; Bennett: 89 in 241). You will recall that Hanifin is a defenceman.

Who knows how true it is, but the general thinking that forwards peak earlier than defencemen kind of puts Bennett in a negative light. He’s three full seasons into his NHL career and is still below mediocre, and the excuses are wearing thin. He’s played with good linemates, he’s not at centre anymore, he’s been sheltered etc, etc. Eventually, it might be time to admit that Bennett is just an okay player.

The caveat is that the Flames aren’t relying on Bennett to break out this year. They hoped he would be the third centre in 2016-17, and that fizzled out along with most of the Flames’ secondary scoring. They hoped lifting him to easier circumstances would help in 2017-18, and that was okay for a bit, but a lateral move on 2016-17 when it was all said and done. Through their summer additions, they’ve given him a new centre (likely Derek Ryan) and a new right winger (likely Michael Frolik), who at least are slight upgrades on his previous linemates. If Bennett doesn’t get something going this year, his linemates will survive with another option slotted in.

Hanifin, on the other hand, would be a more critical failure if things didn’t pan out. Part of the reason for moving Dougie Hamilton was to spread the wealth between the top two pairings. Gio-Hamilton was an elite pairing, but Brodie-Hamonic was a stylistic mismatch. The logic behind the trade from a hockey perspective was that Brodano was also an elite pairing, perhaps not to the same degree, but still elite, and Hanifin-Hamonic would be a solid second pairing. If that all fails, the Flames have a slightly worse version of what they had last year. Not great.

If we’re going by trajectory, TJ Brodie is far ahead of Kulak at this point in Kulak’s career. When Brodie was 23, as Kulak was last season, he was a bonafide top pair defender with Mark Giordano, anchoring one of the NHL’s low key best pairings for the 2013-14 season. So the trajectory is a bit off: Brodie was established by the time he was 23, and Kulak just finished his first full NHL season.

The contexts are way different too, so it’s kind of comparing apples and oranges. Brodie was a bit fortunate when he was coming through the system, as he broke onto some very bad Flames teams. Not to undermine the glory days of the Brodano pairing, but you have to admit that it’s much easier to stand out playing next to Norris-calibre Giordano with Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid, Deryk Engelland et al. playing behind you. For Kulak, he had to break onto a team that had Brodie, Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, and Travis Hamonic playing in front of him while he got Michael Stone as a partner.

So it’s also kind of hard to compare them on an underlyings basis. Kulak (perhaps unfairly) got the tag as a Brodie-lite when he stepped up in Brodie’s absence for the first few games of the 2015-16 season, when he posted some great numbers in a small sample size. Ditto last year, when he made an impact in the 21 games he played. But with 70 under his belt in these circumstances? He’s been mostly a negative by possession standards. He can hold his own, but he just doesn’t look that great relative to the production of everyone ahead of him.

I think they’re similar in narrative in that they’re both late round draft success stories, but I think that’s as far as the comparisons go. Brodie was an elite player (and might just still have it in him, or so the Flames hope) by the same time Kulak arrived in the NHL. Kulak is a handy bottom rotation guy, but he just doesn’t have what Brodie had at the same age.

He should be very worried!

I think waiving him ahead of arbitration was a pretty strong punch to the gut. Teams were unlikely to claim him on waivers (based on announced arbitration figures, any team claiming Kulak would probably have to pay over seven figures, which is more baggage than teams are willing to pick up on the waivers wire), so all this did was erode Kulak’s bargaining position while sending a strong message to him ahead of camp: we can get rid of you.

Kulak is a fine third pairing defencemen, but that is an expendable asset. He’s not a guy being held down by the circumstances, he’s just a guy. Kulak will play nice, safe hockey for ~15 minutes a night. That’s what he does, and he does a fine job of that, but there are others nearby that can do the same thing but better. You can’t keep talents like Kylington and Valimaki down forever. If he’s making six figures, he’s an easy contract to bury or stash in the press box. He should be scared.

  • Mickey O'Reaves

    Okay, quantum physics time. Had a bit of a brainwave (nobody ever seems to have a brain particle) a little while back. Depending on the situation (say after a PP or PK) and last change…what if the 3M remains together, with Lindholm on the top line.

    Then you’ve got something of a Pittsburgh model going where there are match-up nightmares for the opposing coach in trying to match the Flames’ top three lines.

    Bennett – Jankowski – Neal…you really want to play against that 3rd line every once in a while on the fly? No thanks.

    Peters and Treliving will have lots of options this year. Those two are a team, and will be bouncing ideas off each other all season. They’ve done a very decent job (on paper anyway) of addressing the lefty/righty imbalance; have wingers that can also play down the middle; and will have a very different look on face-offs.

    The Top 9 last year in a full line-up were all LHS at the end of the year, that simply wasn’t going to work long term.

    • Baalzamon

      They certainly do have a lot of options. One thing that I expect they’ll push though is a Tkachuk – Lindholm pair, since both those guys are guaranteed to be around for a while.

      Most likely that happens with Backlund at center, but it could be Lindholm. The only question then is who the other winger is, though. Bennett?

      • Mickey O'Reaves

        I think Bennett and Janko are a pairing that the team will want to stick with together. Just can’t see Lindholm being a centre on this squad until the inevitable injury bug hits somewhere.

        Tkachuk is so smart he can play with anyone. He kind of defaults to the 2LW position behind Johnny. Backlund is going to be the 2C until further notice, so that’s a pairing.

        Peters has already said he can’t see breaking up Gaudreau and Monahan, nor should he. Until Monahan goes on his 10 day swoon, which he seems to do every year where he seems to forget how to play hockey, those two will be a pairing as well.

        Tkachuk will get prime PP time this year, so not worried about his ice-time at all. Peters gushes about young Byng, and if he takes the creative shackles off of Bennett he’ll be potentially raving about young Sam as well.

        Rebar has the tough love gig down pat. If you play selfishly, stop moving your feet, and take lazy penalties, he’ll be your worst nightmare. I think that’s part of why Dougie Hamilton is gone – he would have driven Peters completely nuts.

      • Brian McGrattan's Salute

        I think this would be worth it if Neal plus another year and offseason of experience/training gets Janko and Bennett firing on all cylinders…that would be a monster line to contend with. The risk is Neal not being pushed enough by those two, and faltering on our expectations of him.

        The 3M line would be nice to have as an anchor for a team undergoing loads of transition(s), but would need to step it up this year.

        Overall, I like the Pittsburgh dangerous 3rd line idea, but wonder if this lineup would have too much underperforming baggage from the last two seasons–i.e. perhaps we ought to look towards switching players up for switching players up sake (as well as obviously for the best and most effective line combos).

        But this would certainly solve where Frolik goes.

      • Jeremy

        Jonny Money Lindholm
        Bing Jankow Neal
        Benny Backs Frolik
        Mangy/Czernik Neal Hathaway/Brouwer/Lazar
        Thats a lot of guys fighting at the bottom.

        I really like the possibilities of Jankow entering a talented sheltered second line and Backs running the shutdown 3rd.
        Bennett hasn’t shown enough Offensive talent to deserve second line consideration IMHO

    • Raffydog

      Hard no! Tkachuk has had to drag those two anchors around for two years now. Maybe the Flames could stop trying to groom one of their most offensively gifted players into a defensive specialist.

    • ALowry

      I’d love to be optimistic about a Bennett, Jankowski, Neal line, but it requires Bennett to gain chemistry with Neal, Jankowski to take another step forward and prove he can be a 3C for a whole year, with Neal being the anchor/picking up the slack. I like the looks of this line, just don’t think it’s a slam-dunk. But maybe this is year Bennett proves everyone wrong, and I’m hopeful Jankowski can continue his positive development!

  • The Doctor

    I call total bs on the statement that Bennett has played with good linemates. He played most of last season with one good linemate, Janko, who was a rookie. The other guy, Hathaway, can’t score to save his life. Bennett has never had two good scoring linemates in the NHL. Same thing happened to Backlund, and he looked like a draft bust. Then they gave him more ice time and better linemates. Funny how he got significantly better then.

    • Mickey O'Reaves

      The year before Hathaway, Bennett had the luxury of The Troy Brouwer bump! How can anyone say that Bennett has never had two good linemates?! [sarcasm meter pinned.]

    • LannyMac

      I love your use of the word most. Your right most of the time he played on the bottom 6 because when he did play with one of the top two lines he never contributed hence the word “most”. He mostly didn’t play on the PP either because he didn’t contribute their. Although anybody could make a stronger argument against you know who on the PP

    • MDG1600

      Lack of better linemates is entirely on Bennett. He needs to be better. If he quits trying for the highlight reel goal all the time and goes back to banging in his own rebound I think he can still be 20 goal scorer. Playing better defensively will help too.

  • Rudy27

    On a different note, I met with an Oilers fan this weekend, and of course hockey came into the conversation. He was pretty disappointed that our GM had been so active improving the team while their GM was basically sitting on his hands 😉

  • Sterls

    I still put Janko between Byng and Neal on the second line to start the season (with lindholm on the top line and backlund bennet and frolik on the third) and give him that spot until it is proven it doesn’t work. It is the best place for him developmentally, and I think his blend of grit/skill will work well with those two guys. If he is not up to the task swap him with Backlund, or drop him to the 4th to see if he has chemistry with any of the fringe guys (mangi, Czarnik, Foo etc). Keeping him with Bennett and slotting Frolik on his wing on the 3rd line doesn’t feel right to me. Bennett-Janko wasn’t an effective pair last year and I don’t see it being one this year even with the upgrade of Frolik. Bennett-Backlund-Frolik worked in the past, and can be a shut down 3rd line with some offensive ability.

    • Avalain

      Why would you want Janko on the 2nd line over Backlund? This seems to be a common thought this year but I really don’t see the point of it. I mean, considering that the 2nd line is often put up against the toughest competition, is that what we want for Janko? And even on a points basis Janko had 25 last year compared to 45 for Backlund. I don’t know, it just seems like people want to promote Jankowski into a position where he will fail.

      • Just.Visiting

        I would definitely try it to see if it worked. We need three strong lines to roll if we are to make a serious run. I see Backlund as the centrepiece of a great third line, and as a good (but not great) piece of a second line. To me, it’s about building a more balanced attack than a front end loaded attack.

      • Sterls

        Because we know that Backlund+Frolik work and that pair has had success with Bennett, and we know that Janko+Bennett was lackluster. If Backlund is on the 2nd line, it might click very well, but the 3rd just doesn’t look good being Bennett-Janko-Frolik. Like Just.Visiting says below this, it is about having the most balanced 3 line attack we can manage. I see all three potentially being very effective lines. Hypothetically, line 2 and 3 are actually 2 second lines. Janko’s line starts in the offensive zone, Backlund’s in the defensive. I don’t see the lines as a hard 1,2,3,4 setup. But, I agree, if Janko can’t step up to the task of centering those two offensive studs, he needs to be demoted and Backlund jumped up to the 2nd. It’s worth trying.

      • cberg

        Since I believe Jankowski has more offensive upside than Backlund, this would put him in the best position to grow and succeed, while maintaining Backlund in the role where he is already elite in the NHL.

    • Just.Visiting

      I agree totally for somewhat different reasons, subject to the qualification that Janko come into camp bulked up in the 220-225 range and that the training camp test drive shows chemistry. There are three reasons I prefer trying Janko on the notional number 2 line and trying Bennett with Backlund and Frolik.

      The first is that Janko showed inconsistent intensity last year, varying his performance from that skill and smarts looks really good to not noticing him. Playing with Byng and Neal would require Janko to bring intensity more consistently and the increased physical play would of his wingers would see him being more physically engaged too.

      The second is that having Bennett playing with Backlund potentially increases the probability that Bennett will play at a higher level and play a more disciplined game than if he were paired with Janko again. If Frolik plays to potential, that’s a dynamite third line. If he doesn’t, you can drop Frolik to the 4th line and move Ryan up.

      The third is that the model in which Lindholm is elevated by playing with Monahan, Janko by playing with Byng and Neal and Bennett by playing with Backlund and Frolik/Ryan gives three strong lines to roll. The other most frequently contemplated combination with Janko, Bennett and perhaps Frolik makes the Flames easier to defend against in the absence of parallel breakouts by Janko and Bennett.

      The added bonus is that the fourth line would be so much better than last season’s fourth line, where all players (Ryan, Czarnik and Dube/Mangi, etc) could potentially play up.

      In the interest of development for the go forward run, I do a buyout of Brouwer and rip the bandaid off if I can’t move him on a salary retained deal.

  • Just.Visiting

    On the goalie front, I’m comfortable with Smith and the backup of Rittich or Gillies. One of the big problems last year was GG’s strategy of riding Smith into the ground, which significantly increased the potential for injury and burnout. I’d sooner test (and grow) Rittich/Gillies under more controlled conditions to understand what we have and then decide whether we need to make a trade or not than to bring in a veteran who’s probably not much better based solely on the fact that they have “experience”. How would a goalie ever break into the league at all if everyone took that perspective?

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    I think Bennett has been give ample opportunity to play with good players. The reality is that the only impact ha made playing with Johnny was on Johnny’s teeth with a high stick.

    I like Bennett but I feel the offensive upside of Janko and Mangi is far greater. I have mentioned this before, but it needs repeating….Bennett does not score the type of goals that a bonafide goal scorer does. Of course, there is the exception of his 4 goal game. I have see him make amazing moves giving him an empty net only to see him make an extra move and cut back into traffic.

    These are not the moves you see a highly regarded player make. He does not seem to have a great shot but I feel his skating is elite kind of like Lazar.

    I think the team is making a mistake pushing Bennett up the ladder at the expense of more qualified player with more offensive upside…. like Janko.
    Bennett has what Janko needs which is more grit but Janko has more tools needed to succeed at the NHL level. The Janko we saw at the start of the season had 10 more pounds of muscle and was a force….I expect to see this player all next year.

  • FL🔥MES

    I would hesitate to put Janko on the 2nd line until he improves his face off percentage. Last year while playing a sheltered 3rd line role he averaged 48.8%. Winning face offs will be a heck of a lot tougher playing against 2nd line centremen. For this reason alone I think it is safe to say that Backlund will center the second line.