To say the Flames have overhauled their group of forwards this summer would be an understatement. Calgary has added James Neal, Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan, and Austin Czarnik to the mix while simultaneously saying goodbye to Micheal Ferland, Troy Brouwer, Matt Stajan, and Kris Versteeg. On paper, this looks like an improved bunch, but it leads to valid questions about how a new coaching staff will assemble, and more importantly, use this revamped group.
Whether you were a fan of Glen Gulutzan’s work as head coach or not, he was fairly consistent with his forward strategy. Last season saw the Flames bury two of their lines defensively, which allowed the other two units a ton of high ground as a result.
While nothing was totally static last year, Calgary’s most frequent line combinations are charted below. Included is each group’s combined five-on-five zone start ratio and shot rate, courtesy Corsica, and it paints a pretty clear picture.
|Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Micheal Ferland||58.9||53.9|
|Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Michael Frolik||47.6||59.2|
|Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski-Garnet Hathaway||59.6||54.8|
|Troy Brouwer-Matt Stajan-Curtis Lazar||37.5||52.3|
Gulutzan was deliberate in his usage of lines centred by Backlund and Stajan all year long. The “3M Line” saw a high ratio of defensive starts while also taking on the team’s toughest matchups. Stajan’s trio was buried more than any other on the Flames, but also saw far less difficult matchups; they were primarily deployed against opposing third and fourth lines.
It worked out well enough, specifically for Calgary’s top scoring line. Gulutzan put the team’s best offensive players in a position to succeed and all three of Monahan, Gaudreau, and Ferland had career seasons. Sometimes a high number of offensive starts leads to criticism, but in this case, it’s a classic example of playing to strength and there’s no reason to change that philosophy going forward.
The biggest issue at forward last season was the Jankowski line and their inability to pull their weight in the same scenario. Despite owning the team’s highest offensive draw ratio, the trio not only underperformed on the possession scale, but combined for just 25 five-on-five goals. Of course, both Jankowski and Bennett are young and developing, so the hope is a step forward is taken this year.
With all of the changes made this summer, it will be fascinating to see how new head coach Bill Peters platoons his lines. With the departure of Stajan, the Flames have just one centre with the proven ability to take a high number of defensive draws while also driving play.
The expectation is we’ll see Monahan, Backlund, Jankowski, and newcomer Ryan fill out Calgary’s depth chart down the middle. Charted below are aggregate zone start and possession numbers for those four centres over the last two years at five-on-five.
Only Backlund has any history of successfully tackling heavy defensive deployment, which means someone else will have to help carry the load. If the Flames are going to employ a similar philosophy as the last few seasons, that job would fall on either Ryan or Jankowski.
Knowing Jankowski is young and entering just his second NHL season, and considering his struggles at different times last year, I’m not sure that’s the best road to go down. With Ryan, we’re talking about a 31-year-old with far more professional experience under his belt, even if he’s entering just his third full NHL season. Even if he’s never done it before at the highest level, he’s a more well-rounded pro at this point and likely a better fit.
There’s also the possibility of adding a couple names to this conversation. Lindholm and Bennett were both high first round picks selected as centres, so giving one or both a shot down the middle isn’t out of the question. Neither have been used exclusively at centre, but both have been a whole lot closer to a 50% zone start ratio than either Ryan or Jankowski.
Finally, there’s no guarantee Peters plans to deploy his forwards in the same manner as Gulutzan. Perhaps the plan is to hammer Backlund’s line and have that group closer to 30% while balancing things out across the other three lines. That scenario would make offensive production more difficult for Backlund, Tkachuk, and whoever their winger is, but would also lessen the need for a second “defensive specialist” line.
Whatever the case, the myriad decisions regarding Calgary’s group of forwards is one of the most intriguing storylines heading into training camp. First we need to find out who’s going to make the team at forward. Then we get to determine how those forwards will be used.