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Calgary’s forwards are finally slotted where they should be

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.

IN OUT
James Neal Micheal Ferland
Elias Lindholm Kris Versteeg
Derek Ryan Matt Stajan
Austin Czarnik

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.

FIVE-ON-FIVE

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:

2017-2018 2018-2019
LW C RW LW C RW
Gaudreau Monahan Ferland Gaudreau Monahan Neal
Tkachuk Backlund Frolik Tkachuk Backlund Lindholm

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.

2017-2018 2018-2019
LW C RW LW C RW
Bennett Jankowski Versteeg Bennett Ryan Frolik
Hathaway Stajan Brouwer Czarnik Jankowski Brouwer
Lazar Hathaway Lazar Foo/Mangiapane

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.

POWERPLAY

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:

Tkachuk
Gaudreau-Monahan-Versteeg
Brodie

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:

Tkachuk
Gaudreau-Monahan-Neal
Giordano

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.

PENALTY KILL

Elias Lindholm

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.

Player SH TOI/G
Mikael Backlund 2:22
Troy Brouwer 2:04
Michael Frolik 2:01
Matt Stajan 1:32

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.



  • Baalzamon

    Peters said in an interview recently that he intends to start with

    Gaudreau – Monahan – Lindholm
    Tkachuk – Backlund – Neal

    The thought of a sniper like Neal taking feeds from a playmaker of Tkachuk’s caliber is intriguing.

  • yomamen11

    My 2 cents according to offensive lineup for next season:
    Gaudreau – Monahan – Lindholm
    Tkachuk – Jankowski – Neal
    Bennet – Backlund – Frolik
    combination of Czarnik, Ryan, Lazar, Brouwer or some young body from farm

    • Kevin R

      Really really want to keep Janko & Bennett together.
      Gaudreau/Monahan/Lindholm
      Tkachuk/Backlund/Neal
      Bennett/Janko/Czarnik
      Frolik/Ryan/Brouwer (if he has to be on the team I guess here he goes) :-<

      • yomamen11

        He is strong on a skates and has soft hands, so his only mission will be winning a faceoffs and make place for himself in front of the net. Defence will focus on him and that will create space for Byng and Neil. They just need to shoot the puck and Janko will collect rebounds. Thats my humble idea

      • Korcan

        I agree with ‘Cfan in Van’. The issue i have in ‘experimenting’ with players like Jankowski and Bennett by putting them on lines with better teammates to see if they will “rise to the occasion” is this: the NHL is not a developmental league, it is a Win or You’re Fired league. So, you give Jankowski 10 games with Tkachuk and Neal to see if he has success and he doesn’t, meanwhile the team loses a majority of those games because of an ineffective second line. Now what do you do to make up those points you just lost by ‘experimenting’ with your line-up? You hurt your season for no reason but to try to develop your young players. It makes no sense.

        Last season, Mark Jankowski proved to be an effective (though less so as the season wore on) bottom six centerman. Does he have potential to be a #2 center? Sure. But do they play him in that role now in the hopes that he is ready when they already have a very good, and proven #2? Not a chance. The same things can be said for Bennett.

        This is the NHL where parity makes every point crucial. Slotting lesser players in positions where there are other players more suited is only going to result in games lost and people losing their jobs. If Bennett and Jankowski want to play in the top six they need to PROVE they are better than those currently slotted above them. To give them those opportunities without them earning it, in the hope that you will catch lightning in a bottle (a la William Karlson), is folly and will far more likely hurt the team’s success than help.

        • Just.Visiting

          Good points. That being said, training camp is a good time for an experiment, and there would be additional opportunities after Backlund had killed a penalty or in a one sided game.

          My overall concern is that the most common third one configuration is based on the hope that a Frolik returns to form and that Janko and Bennett elevate each other when they had more limited success last year than we had expected to see.

      • freethe flames

        Only one way to find out; give him a go at that spot. It could be a heck of a line. I would move Bennett and hope Mangiapane could play with Backs and Frolik. Bennett/Ryan/??? could very well be a heck of a 2nd Defensive line with it’s own offensive ability. The thing is that for the first time in a long time there is tremendous opportunity to mix and match lines.

  • Squishin

    My swear jar got full pretty quickly last season. It was to the point where they should have started declining powerplays to preserve everyone’s sanity.

    Here is a little powerplay scene from last year. Pick a game, any game. The parentheses are my loud expletives in between.
    Ope lost the faceoff, the other team cleared it down (Win the f***ing faceoff, son of a b****!) Okay, Brodie’s bringing it back up, drop pass to Johnny, Johnny skates it in, getting hacked and whacked at every turn (leave him alone, you a**wipes) …pass, pass … stickhandle (just SHOOT, you b****) , pass…ope they cleared it down again (F*************CK!)…Smith passes to Brodie (don’t do the exact same f***ing thing again, please), drop passes to Johnny (F***ING S***!) Johnny brings it in with difficulty…pass, pass, stickhandle, pass, pass (oh. my. god. shoot.) pass, pass, pass (*me crying*), risky pass gets picked off and cleared (SON OF A **** WITH A RUSTY **** THIS IS ****ING HORSE**** WHY THE **** DID YOU NOT ****ING SHOOT IT) and the penalty is over. I go get another beer and curse Glen Gulutzan and Dave Cameron for another 5 minutes under my breath.

    Sound familiar to anyone?

  • Mickey O'Reaves

    Bennett and Jankowski should continue to be a pairing on the 3rd line. To give Bennett a brand new centreman, and move Janko down to the 4th line seems like complete folly.

    If Brouwer is still around, nothing shatters a young player’s confidence by playing with Troy Brouwer. Janko has already signed a 2 year deal, no need to keep his numbers low.

    • Brian McGrattan's Salute

      1000%.

      Janko for second or third line. Bennett and him will make some progress this season. Thanks for your Janko highlight link the other day btw. There we’re a lot of plays with Bennett in them, and they looked real good together.

      Additionally, and again, I get the appeal of Neal on the first line, but I think he and Chuck will really gel. Like folk have said above and previously, they will grind out the opposition, and out hit guys. You need two strong lines at least. Tire the opposition out for a finesse top line to dominate type stuff. And then if we got a good third line in Janko and Bennett, and likely Ryan, we can ideally get a good cycle game going, or dump and chase, or whatever. Seems like a good three lines to me.

      I also like the idea of Lindholm getting 60 pts this season, and think his finesse, two way game, and overall utility (faceoffs) will fit perfectly with JG & SM.

      Gfg!

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    Looking at the PP possibilities, I can honestly say I hope to keep my curse words at a maximum, just with tweaks.

    “Ah [email protected]!” Becomes “Ah [email protected] yeah!”

    “This is sh!t!” Becomes “This is the sh!t”

    And finally, “you sonofab!tch!” (Brouwer, negative) becomes “you sonofab!tch!” (Neal, positive).

  • Heeeeeere's Johnny!

    Using Johnny on the wing on PP is the only place that makes sense. What didn’t make sense last year was how static he was required to be. I can’t recall seeing Johnny freewheeling with the puck with the advantage. So when he had to stand still the opposition could say just shoot it … we’ll take away the passing lanes. I hope Peters lets him get creative a la Patrick Kane. With JG spinning around in open space there has to be somebody open at the blue paint.

  • Baalzamon

    Tom Wilson just got 5.16 million per.

    Five million. For a guy who’s never had more than 35 points in spite of playing most of his career with Ovechkin and Backstom.

    And people think Backlund is overpaid. Good grief.

  • Off the wall

    My swear jar got very full last season. Thanks for the reminder
    Pat! Although I did save enough to buy a new tv, so I guess there’s a silver lining…

    PP and PK was a nightmare. So glad we have multiple options this season. Same goes for our bottom 6, it just feels so much better knowing we have more depth.

    Our faceoff percentage was 19th in the league and penalties taken was #2 overall.

    Just those two things should be much better under Rebar let alone our special teams.
    Maybe I won’t need a swear jar this season?

    But I’ll still put one out… cuz you never know!

  • Getpucksdeep

    I’ve been at work and my son’s wedding is coming up soon. I’ll post a couple to “catch up”. I have been reading guys though! 1st observation. It’s clear which Alberta team is pumped about the next season. Comments here are almost triple what you see on Oilersnation. They don’t actually seem that impressed up there LOL.