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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.

  • JoelOttosJock

    I’d like to see the line deployed a little different. I would like to see
    Gaudreau Bennett Monahan
    Tkchuck Lindholm Neal
    Janko Backlund Ryan
    Czarnik Lazar Brouwer

    That third line is all shut down. 3 guys that can take draws and play a 200 foot game. Great for defensive zone starts. Janko could learn to play center the right way. Would also allow for a line 1a and 1b scenario. Could mix and match the top 6 and find the right chemistry. Trading Frolik opens the the space for Hanifann’s contract.

    • TKO

      why would you move monahan out of center and replace hi with Bennett? Bennett has done nothing to earn a center position, let alone top line center. if you put him on the wing, at least there is the argument of, “give him a shot with legit linemates, but top line center? lofty

      • JoelOttosJock

        I am just not sold on Monahan as a center. If he plays a proper 200 foot game say lime Backlund, that will take away from his scoring. If he focuses on the defensive side of the game, it will take away from his scoring. So why not put him on the wing where he can focus on putting the puck in the net? Also, Sammy played center for a few games with Gaudreau and in my opinion they had the best chemistry with each other than with anyone else in a flames Jersey. When Bennett got most of his center assignment he was saying with lester players. Brouwer, Hathaway etc. I truly believe Monny could be in contentions for a rocket Richard trophy if he slid to wing.

        • Brian McGrattan's Salute

          I get the desire to move SM to the wing for the reasons you mentioned and others, but keep in mind a large portion of his goals come from short feeds from JG in the slot. That doesn’t happen, or at least would need to change if he’s on the RW.

          Not saying it can’t happen. But what it would be lovely, and what perhaps you’re getting at Jock, is if SM could score in a wider variety of ways.

          Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fantastic player, and I’m not in a position to critique him, but if he can diversify where he scores from, and make plays, zone enteries, and space for himself (and others), then he is an elite 1C, and then he is getting 40-50 goals.

          I’m hopeful for that this season, but even if he stays the same he’s still amazing.

  • oilcanboyd

    Depending on passing his team medical I would re-sign Versteeg to a reasonable 2 way contract, if he would accept. Good team guy and would be good in Stockton with the young guys. Useful depth player.

  • Jimmyhaggis

    Everyone is fantasizing about forward depth and defensive depth, but without good goaltending, all is for not.
    Smith is not going to last as a number one goaltender, and I don’t see a dependable backup. I don’t care what kind of offense and defense you have, if the goalie can’t stop the puck you’re in big trouble.

    • buts

      JimmyH people on this site don’t realize how important goaltending is. I agree with you. The best lineup means nothing without goaltending. BT has not addressed this and it will haunt the flames.

    • Rockmorton65

      Last year, with that roster, a league average pp and goaltending, they would have challenged for a playoff spot. With the additions to the lineup, a defensive minded coach, a pp and goaltending in the top half of the league, I think this team is contending for the division.

  • slyall41

    I would go with a deep lineup down the middle, its a bit more of a balanced attack.

    Gaudrea-Monahan-Neal
    Tkachuk-Lindholm-Czarnik
    Bennett-Backlund-Frolik
    ?(whoever earns it)-Jankowski-Ryan

  • Ktownhockey

    Gaudreau – lindholm – Neal
    Tkachuk – monahan – Bennet
    Mangi – backlund – Frolik
    Czarnik -Janks – ryan

    Think itd be cool to see a Monahan tkachuk line , almost looks like two fort lines with strong d players on the bottom 2 lines and scoring prowess

  • C-of-Dread

    I guess my mind I’d wrapped around this, so I’m just typing it out. I’ll do something on PK later, but for now here’s one on PP’s.
    I’ve gotta get my mind off hockey, I’m gonna drive to the lake to get my mind off of it. Here you go.

    Special teams

    The power play was a hot mess last year, especially when Versteeg wasn’t available. Let’s hope that hiring a coach that has a recent track record of success in this area proves fruitful.

    I’ve seen plenty of ideas floated here and think first and foremost they MUST what is working with regularity in the league. How many times do you watch a Lightning, Caps, or Jets game and her the Play-by-play guy say, “There’s (Stamkos, Ovechkin, I Lainne) set up in their spot” and think to yourself, “The penalty killers and goalie know that’s the plan, why can’t they stop it” ?

    What don’t have a super elite marksman like either of those 3, or do we? I’ve seen Lindholm snipe some pretty filthy goals from that side on one-timer’s. The other thing it does is open other opportunities when teams try and specifically defend against it.

    Which leads to the next point. Each of those teams have a guy at the point fully prepared to blast a slapper at any time. TJ Brodie shouldn’t be on the first power play unit. Gio and Stone should be manning the point.

    Gio is the ideal QB to get the puck to Lindholm on the left side, tee it up for Stone, wrist it to the slot for Monny to redirect, or cross seam to Johnny.

    This set up puts the other team’s focus on our most lethal offensive weapon, #13 to dipsy doodle on the half boards to the left of their goalie. He and Gio can control the play from opposite sides of the ice, one down low, one up high. And both can distribute to the most dangerous available player. Johnny is also a serious threat to score from this spot. (Provided Eric Staal or Ryan Suter aren’t on the ice to chop his hands off)

    The second unit would be the get in the goalies face, cycle and move unit. Which ever of the forwards find themselves near the slot when they set up takes up residence at the top of the blue paint. All three of Bennett, Tkachuk and Neal are good with in tight puck movement and short passes, working off the boards and strong on the puck. Hanifin and Brodie are offensively minded and are elite passers.

    PP1
    Lindholm – Monahan – Gaudreau
    Giordano – Stone

    PP2
    Neal – Bennett – Tkachuk
    Hanifin- Brodie

    • flames2015

      Hard no to stone on the first unit PP. He has a wicked shot yes, but his shots also miss the net 80% of the time, then the puck clears the zone. Tkachuk in my opinion needs to be on the first unit PP.

      Tkachuk – Monahan – Gaudreau
      Gio – Lindholm

      • flames2015

        also to add, Tkachuk lead the team in powerplay goals and finished 3rd in PP points just behind Monahan and Gaudreau, with only playing on that first unit the second half of the season. He belongs on the top unit.

        • Redleader

          Flames special teams will not be a weakness this season, more and more I look at this roster and the potential of a lot of players taking steps forward including (God)reau,Monahan still young too , Lindholm,TKACHUK,Jankowski,Bennett,Hanifin,Kulak,Anderson,Mangy,Dube Foo ,Valimaki, Gillies I still think Parsons is gonna be a no.1 goalie, Klington etc. I think Bennett s going to be tough to handle this year , once this kid gains traction he could be in the top 6 by end of season and be a force in the playoffs. He was playing with a rookie centre and Hathaway last season .

    • Redleader

      That depends if Jankowski takes a step up and Ryan a step down ,Jankowski has the potential to be secondline centre if he gets even bigger and stronger he will be a dominant force in front of the net he was hard to budge in his rookie season,Flames will win the division .

  • super6646

    Peters had an interview yesterday (2 days ago now) in which he stated that Lindholm will start on the top line, but that Neal and him could be swapped if the top line needs that extra scoring touch.

    Gaudreau-Monahan-Lindhom
    Tkachuk-Backlund-Neal
    Bennett-Ryan-Frolik
    Brouwer/Lazar/Mang-Jankowski-Czarnik

    Giordano-Brodie
    Hanifin-Hamonic
    Kulak-Andersson/Stone (could see Stone being shipped if Andersson proves he’s ready).

    Smith
    Rittich

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • Just.Visiting

    My starting point is that I’d like to have three balanced lines that make us difficult to defend. Recognizing that changes would need to be made if these didn’t work, I have one player on each line that I’m hoping to see get an uplift from the duo on the line.

    In this regard, my top three lines are:

    Monahan, JG and Lindholm getting the bump
    Byng, Neal and Janko getting the bump
    Backlund, Frolik and Bennett getting the bump, with Ryan potentially replacing Frolik if Frolik doesn’t return to prior form

    Having Janko and Bennett on the same line with Frolik requires Frolik to return to form and Janko and Bennett to bump each other, which I think makes us too easy to defend unless the third line is firing on all cylinders.

    Obviously, you drop Janko down in my approach if it doesn’t work. I think it’s a big mistake not to try it, though, because of the upside if those combinations worked.