One word comes to mind when looking at Calgary’s revamped group of forwards: depth. The Flames have transformed their forward unit over the last month and, at least on paper, it looks like the team’s biggest strength entering the season.
While Calgary has upgraded their top end, the most significant improvement comes further down the depth chart. An absolute wasteland last year, the team’s bottom six now looks markedly better, mainly because players are set to be slotted properly.
As a refresher, here’s a look at the forward changes made by the Flames since June’s blockbuster trade with Carolina.
|James Neal||Micheal Ferland|
|Elias Lindholm||Kris Versteeg|
|Derek Ryan||Matt Stajan|
The group of players entering the fold is certainly an upgrade on those departing, so let’s take a look at how things might trickle down in all situations.
From a player in, player out perspective, the Flames look to be better in their top six than they were for the majority of last season. With Neal and Lindholm likely replacing Ferland and Michael Frolik in the top two right wing slots, the top part of the depth chart should look something like this:
There’s some intrigue about where Neal and Lindholm are going to play, however. While there’s a good chance Calgary will roll with the above alignment, there’s also the possibility to swap, which creates interesting possibilities. Regardless, I think it’s fair to say a right wing duo of Lindholm and Neal is an upgrade on what Ferland and Frolik brought.
That’s no knock on either player, because both were relatively solid last season. The departed Ferland had a career year with 21 goals, but also did so with a 14.6 shooting percentage and a significant dip in the final third of the season. Frolik, on the other hand, had his worst offensive year with the Flames (70 GP, 10 G, 15 A, 25 PTS), but was still strong analytically as a part of the 3M Line.
Ferland and Frolik filled top six roles in admirable fashion last year, but it’s tough to definitively call them top six players. Neal and Lindholm don’t have that issue; the former has never scored fewer than 21 goals in his 10-year career while the latter has posted 45 and 44 points the last two seasons.
But as much as the top two lines look better for the Flames, the downhill effect looks to be even more significant. When you compare Calgary’s bottom six depth chart year over year, the difference is staggering.
While the team’s lines might not look exactly as depicted, this gives you a pretty good idea of what the Flames will be working with. All of a sudden Frolik looks in a much better spot as a third line winger, while the additions of Ryan and Czarnik add more depth and, just as crucially, more competition.
It was an abyss at the bottom of Calgary’s depth chart last year. The group provided negligible offence and, to make matters worse, there were virtually no other options. But with recent additions, bottom six incumbents Troy Brouwer, Garnet Hathaway, and Curtis Lazar will have to battle for playing time. Furthermore, if someone like Spencer Foo takes a big step forward, the competition increases even more and so does the team’s depth.
As a fan, how many times did you utter a four letter word watching the Flames on the powerplay last year? There are never any guarantees, but you can feel somewhat confident your potty mouth can take a breather this season.
I’m fascinated to see how Bill Peters and Geoff Ward structure their powerplay units, but it’s a solid bet we’ll see at least one grouping deployed in the ‘1-3-1’ format. We’ve seen Calgary deploy in that fashion over the last two seasons with moderate success using a unit that looked mostly like this:
Here’s where things get fun, though. The Flames’ top powerplay unit got stagnant last year following Versteeg’s injury. Part of that was opposing penalty kills wising up. With or without Versteeg, Calgary lacked a dangerous shot from either flank; that area is probably Gaudreau’s weakest attribute, for instance. With Neal in the fold, though, that instantly changes and we could be looking at a first unit assembled like this:
Neal is a straight up sniper with one of the league’s most dangerous shots from the circle. Seeing him line up on the weak side (Neal has a left shot) ala Alex Ovechkin has some really intriguing possibilities.
Alternatively, as Mr. Pike analyzed last month, the Flames could use a strong side shot on the right flank, and that’s where Lindholm comes into play. Possessing a right shot, Lindholm could be an ideal fit on Gaudreau’s opposite side, even if his shot isn’t quite as terrifying as Neal’s. Regardless, a more dangerous shot from the half boards should make the team’s powerplay much more difficult to defend.
The options for the second unit are interesting, too. Calgary has spoken openly about their early desire to use Czarnik on the powerplay, so we’ll add him to the mix of potential forwards. That group will also include one of Neal or Lindhom, Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett, among others.
Finally, the Flames look to have more forward options when playing shorthanded. The most important addition here is Lindholm, as Neal, Ryan, and Czarnik have seen very limited penalty kill time during their careers. Even still, Calgary’s top PK forwards will look different this year as opposed to 2017-18.
Lindholm averaged 1:21 of shorthanded time last year and will likely see his usage increased with Calgary. With Backlund and Frolik entrenched as PK mainstays, Lindholm’s addition should push Brouwer out of the frequent category. That leaves an opening for a second centre, which could open the door for Mark Jankowski, Bennett, or possibly Ryan.
Regardless, the shorthanded options follow suit with how things look on the powerplay and even strength. At least on paper, the Flames should have better, and more ideal, choices to make on the penalty kill.