With Troy Brouwer’s tenure in Calgary over, the Flames didn’t just get cap space: they gained a roster spot, too. And with only 11 forward spots really guaranteed, the door has opened for someone else to become a regular presence in the lineup.
The question of who that should be will become apparent over the course of training camp; the question of just where in the lineup he’ll ultimately end up could take a lot longer.
Once again, let’s kick things off with a mock lineup (including shot handedness):
|Gaudreau (L)||Monahan (L)||Neal (L)|
|Tkachuk (L)||Backlund (L)||Lindholm (R)|
|Bennett (L)||Ryan (R)||Frolik (L)|
|?||Jankowski (L)||Czarnik (R)|
|Lazar (R)||Hathaway (R)|
I’m counting Curtis Lazar and Garnet Hathaway as the team’s extras by default, as not only has the team sunk cost in them, but they also do have a fair bit of NHL experience, whether they can amount to much more than occasional fourth liners be damned. And especially because, should a prospect make the roster, you’re going to want someone who still has potential to actually get an opportunity, and that won’t come by watching games.
That leaves only three right shots who project to be regulars at this stage, all new to the team (though they’re of higher quality than the previous ones). Right-shot prospects who have a chance at establishing themselves in camp are Spencer Foo and Glenn Gawdin. Give the advantage to Foo as he’s coming in with a year’s worth of professional experience, including actual NHL games played (albeit meaningless ones at the end of the season).
Left-shot prospects who will likely push for a spot include Dillon Dube, Yasin Ehliz, Andrew Mangiapane, Morgan Klimchuk, and Hunter Shinkaruk. There are more left shots with professional experience – particularly Ehliz, Shinkaruk, and Klimchuk – but ultimately, none of these seven potential regulars have much in the way of actual NHL experience.
And it’s the kids without as much professional play – Mangiapane, Foo, and Dube – who are perhaps the most exciting.
Also exciting: the fourth line is no longer automatically a spot for low-offence players to grind away by default. Matt Stajan was solid in a defensive role as his contract played out, but also a player the team couldn’t exactly count on to set up or score, particularly this past season. So when, say, Mangiapane was called up to play 10 games in the NHL, and he spent most of his time playing alongside Stajan and Lazar, it wasn’t surprising he failed to put up any points: who was he supposed to rely on to help him score?
By adding Derek Ryan to the mix, best case scenario, the Flames have completely removed any semblance of a grinding line. That only comes back if three regular forwards not only fail to hit career averages, but completely bottom out to career-worst seasons (and if Czarnik doesn’t pan out). It’s not a guarantee things will go well this season, but not only has the team built up their forward depth to decrease their chances of another collapse, but they’ve built it up so that whichever prospect makes the team actually has a chance to make an impact. Every line should have enough talent to score.
Let’s note there’s potential for upward mobility for a prospect, as well. If, say, Bennett can’t find his footing while the prospect takes off, then Bennett could find himself on the fourth line and the prospect up to the third line. If the prospect proves to be extremely adept defensively, maybe he gets a shot on Mikael Backlund’s line. If, say, James Neal sputters while the prospect is heating up, maybe he gets a shot on the top line.
There are a lot of variables at play here that makes the future lineup difficult to predict – particularly the most pressing of all, just which prospect it is that should make the team and hopefully become a regular – but there’s a good chance that there isn’t just little deadweight amongst the 12 regular forwards, but it’ll be a group that can keep pushing one another to be better.
And, presumably, at least eight of those regulars will be 25 years old or younger to start the season. It’s a young group, most of which is already established, and one that no longer seems to be relying on multiple players to have career seasons in order to have success. Seven predicted regulars will also be homegrown; eight if we include Hathaway.
And while one can never predict injuries, the Flames also may have helped themselves with such a young group. This past season Flames fell apart when Kris Versteeg, a player with an extensive injury history (who just recently signed in the KHL), was lost, and were hurt further when Jaromir Jagr’s body finally gave out. It’s still probable someone in the lineup will get hurt and the Flames’ depth will be tested, but that likelihood may have lessened now.
We’ll see how things actually end up shaking out, especially once the optimism of the offseason fades and actual results start to come in within the next two months. But this time around, there’s good reason for optimism. This forward group doesn’t just have potential to be exciting for 2018-19, but for well beyond that.