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The battle at the bottom of the depth chart

With so many significant changes made this summer, the Calgary Flames should have a few forward spots open to start the season. For the first time in quite a while, there’s a realistic chance we could see multiple young, fresh faces crack the roster out of training camp. Just as interesting is the number of bodies we could see in contention for those open spots. It all shapes up to be one of the hottest storylines when camp kicks off in a few weeks.

LAY OF THE LAND

If everybody is healthy at the end of training camp, and that’s a big if, it’s easy to project Calgary’s top group of forwards. Even with a tweak or two, it would be a bit of a shocker if the team’s top two lines didn’t look something like this:

Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Elias Lindholm
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-James Neal

It’s not to say the grouping above doesn’t have promise or isn’t exciting, because it does and it is. But, barring injury, there’s not a whole lot of intrigue in how the Flames will assemble their top six. The conversation gets far more interesting when you take a deeper look at the back half of the depth chart, though.

Since the beginning of July, we’ve seen Calgary use a buyout on Troy Brouwer while also parting ways with Kris Versteeg and Matt Stajan as free agents. All three players have been bottom six mainstays over the last two seasons and their departures open a few doors.

Of course a few of those openings will likely be spoken for by some of the team’s new additions, but not all of them. Again, assuming good health, here’s a rough sketch of the players you can likely pencil in for bottom six assignments:

Sam Bennett-Derek Ryan-Michael Frolik
???-Mark Jankowski-Austin Czarnik
???-???

Whether it’s Lindholm or Neal playing on Backlund’s right side, it’s a fairly good bet we’ll see Frolik bumped down the depth chart, which would be a great fit for him. Entering his fourth season with the Flames, Frolik remains a top notch two-way winger and excels on the penalty kill. I’m not sure you can count on a ton of offence from him at this stage, though, which is why he slots well as the team’s third right winger.

Czarnik is the other interesting name listed above, and I think there’s a strong chance he starts the season as a regular forward. Knowing how heavily Calgary pursued him, and knowing their stated desire to see him on the second powerplay unit, it would be a shock to see Czarnik start anywhere but in the opening day lineup.

So what about those pesky question marks? Yep, those are the projected open spots, and there are a number of candidates to consider.

THE FRONTRUNNERS

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Spencer Foo. I was really impressed with Foo’s rapid progression as a rookie pro last season and I came away with a solid impression in his four-game NHL stint at the end of the year. Foo has a high level shot, solid offensive instincts, and I think he’ll get a long look this fall. There’s one caveat with Foo, though: he needs to play. Don’t have him up with Calgary if he’s going to be the 13th or 14th forward, because he’s got far more to gain from playing regular minutes in Stockton.

Andrew Mangiapane. The same condition I submitted in Foo’s case applies to Mangiapane, because playing games is more important than an NHL salary at this point. That said, Mangiapane didn’t look out of place when he spent a few weeks with the Flames in January and February. Yes, he didn’t put up any points in 10 games, but his AHL production over two seasons can’t be ignored.

Garnet Hathaway. Here’s a guy who has turned into quite the polarizing figure: some fans love seeing Hathaway in the lineup, some don’t. Like it or not, though, Hathaway played 59 games in Calgary last season and will be in the mix for the opening night roster this year. Unlike Foo and Mangiapane, though, Hathaway’s development isn’t as much of a priority. He turns 27 in November and has likely entered into “is what he is” territory. As such, he’d be a much better fit as the 13th or 14th man.

Curtis Lazar. Much like Hathaway, Lazar seems like an ideal fit for an “extra” role on the Flames’ forward depth chart. Lazar has yet to prove he’s anything more than a replacement level forward and now has four full NHL seasons under his belt. While not an ideal everyday guy at this point, Lazar can step in for spot duty and it’s less of a worry seeing him sit for long stretches of time.

Anthony Peluso. WHAT?!? A 29-year-old forward with 14 points in 144 career NHL games makes the list of frontrunners??? Before you log off, hear me out; this isn’t necessarily what I would do, but it’s my read on the situation. Agree or not, Calgary wants more size and toughness on their roster and Peluso brings that. He’s a solid candidate to occupy space in the press box if need be, and I think he’ll be given heavy consideration for a roster spot.

THE DARK HORSES

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Of all the less likely candidates, 2016 second round pick Dillon Dube leads the pack for me. He got a long look last fall before the Flames ultimately opted to send him back to junior, and this year the Western League isn’t really in the picture. Dube is eligible for AHL work now and, even if he doesn’t push for a spot in camp, I think he’ll see at least a little time on the big club this season.

Who else might be in this mix is anyone’s guess. Could Morgan Klimchuk continue trending upward? What kind of impression will Glenn Gawdin make now that he has his first NHL contract? Do we know enough about newcomer Yasin Ehliz to form an informed opinion?

The best part about this whole conversation is how few answers we have to the myriad questions that exist. It should make for an extremely competitive, and fairly intriguing, edition of training camp.