How will the Flames use their forwards this season?

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.

Line combination OSZ% CF%
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.


Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Centre OZS% CF%
Sean Monahan 59.3 52.6
Mikael Backlund 41.1 55.5
Derek Ryan 59.8 54.3
Mark Jankowski 59.1 51.2

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.

  • Skylardog

    If Backlund is the second line centre this team is in trouble again this season. He is one of the worst 2nd line centres in the league. He may be the best 3C.

    This team needs to score with 3 lines, not just one. Backlunds line must be a shut down line, and they could be the best in the NHL. That means no Tkachuk on it.

    Put your best non-scoring defensive guy on LW with Backs and Fro to leave the scorers on the other 3 lines. For me that means Lazar (or Klimchuk, who suits that role perfectly). Then assemble 3 scoring lines out of the 11 remaining guys.

    JG, Tkachuk, Bennett, Mony, Janko, Ryan, Neal Lindholm, Hathaway, Czarnik, and your top prospect – choose one for now.

    Bennett is the weak link, and must rebound. If he can, there are 3 strong scoring lines in those 11. Just up to the guys to figure it out (and earn the spots).

      • JoelOttosJock

        I like the start of that make up..but no Bennett? Mango shouldnt be on a fourth line. I’d prefer to see something like this

        JG SM JN
        MT SB EL
        AM MB MF
        CL DR Czarnik (couldn’t remember his first name dammit)
        MG TB 39% icetime
        NH RA 37% icetime
        MS TH 24% ice time

        MG TH
        NH MS PK

        NH TB
        RA MG PP

      • Hockeysense9393

        May be a little crazy, but reading between the lines this off season with some interviews…it sounds like they are hoping Czarnik is going to “pop” so loud, that he may actually be on the second line. Sharing the faceoff circle with Lindholm maybe? That would probably put Tkachuk on the left side with Neal on the top line. 3rd line is Backs still with Frolik and maybe Bennett? 4th line is Janko and Ryan sharing the face-offs with the rookie that shows the most promise, on their other wing.

        • Skylardog

          Not convinced Czarnik is going to be as good as they hope, but I will admit that the Flames had guys in the rinks. They must have seen something.

          This is a guy that was only 21st in TOI among forwards on the Bruins. They let him walk, without even a qualifying offer. They saw no trade value in him.

          He played only 10 games in 2017-18, down from 49 in 2016-17. They saw him as a declining interest.

          I point out why I see a problem above, but, I believe that if I and the Bruins are wrong, we have a guy that could help give us 4 balanced strong lines.

      • Skylardog

        Mangi is not going to be a regular on this team and will only get icetime if we run into the injury bug. He may get an opportunity out of camp, but that is all.

    • Porcupine at a balloon party

      This is really nothing more than opinion (and a poor one in my opinion).

      While I agree for the Flames to be in elite company (contenders), Backlund should be the third line centre, he in no way is a “worst 2c in league”. He’s not even the worst first line centre (Stepan, Aho?, Pierre Luc Dubois, Larkin, zibanajed, hischier?) He is what he is. He puts up above average second line scoring numbers while facing top competition, shuts down opposition scoring and gets buried in the defensive zone. He does exactly what you want him to do. I don’t agree he should be complimented with players that can’t score, that’s wasting potential. Bergeron and Marchand don’t make one of the best shutdown pairs because all they do is defend. They are two way players, like Backlund. Does tkachuck belong on that line??? Probably until he gets his new contract lol and then you can see if you want him on the scoring lines. But I’m not sure that’s really necessary. He’s going to find ways to drive plays wherever he is.

      Now that said, we do need a high end 2nd scoring line to be considered “Elite”. So maybe I’m arguing semantics here, but I think what you are saying is we need two strong scoring lines, plus Backlund shutdown line (that still scores and drives play) and a 4th line that can drive play and chip in some offense. In that regard, yes, I fully agree. But easier said than done if you don’t land a Tavares in the offseason.

      But to your point about them being in trouble if he’s the second line centre, well, if your definition of it is “second best centre”, well, he is. I know some here would argue he’s the best, and some will say he’s garbage (WW) and I would disagree with both. Truth is though he is the second best centre on this team by a country mile. Janko, Lindholm, Bennett, Ryan… None of them have proven they can drive play against top (or second line) competition and none have even put up more points than he has (45,53,47 last 3 years). Lindholm is the closest (44, 45,39).

      I know there’s a lot of over-hype for Backlund on this site (and plenty of haters too), and I try to temper that a bit because it is just that, hype. But truth is, he is an above average second line scoring center, despite being put against first line competition and buried defensively. There’s value in that.

  • Off the wall

    For me the biggest question I have is Ryan.

    He’s going to get at least 3rd line minutes, perhaps even 2nd line.
    No way do I foresee him playing a 4th line role.

    Treliving remarks;
    “Elite hockey sense. Thinks the game extremely well. And just touches a lot of the parts of the game. Great face-off guy. Can play up and down your lineup. Can play the wing. Can play the middle. Can play on the power play. Can kill penalties … didn’t do that a lot in Carolina but has the ability to do that.”

    Does this sound like a 4th line guy?

    • withachance

      Sounds like an all situations guy. Can play anywhere from 11 – 15 minutes a night, depending on penalties, FO zone % etc etc. We need to stop thinking in terms of numerical lines and more in terms of players playing in positions/situations that allow them to succeed in their role (be it scoring, shutdown, controlling the tempo etc)

      • Skylardog

        Yes – no numerical lines. Rolling 4 lines most of the game, with the guys that are going playing at the end of the night when the game is on the line. Only thing I do want to see in the Backlund line getting most of the defensive zone starts against the oppositions top line or lines whenever possible.

    • MDG1600

      Also – already 31, smallish, not particularly fast and had 60% of his starts in the offensive zone. I am reserving judgement until I see him play but his resume looks more like a guy who should be playing on the 3rd or 4th line.

      • Off the wall

        I’m not wrapped up in numerical lines, just making an observation.
        He has better numbers overall than Backlund with at least 300 minutes less ice time per season. And with players not as gifted as Tkachuk.

        When you compare the ‘point shares’, Ryan drives play better than Backlund.

        Perhaps it’s a small sample size for Ryan, due to only playing 3 years in the league. But telling nonetheless.

        Everyone thinks Ryan is a utility guy. Just watch how Peters utilizes him…

    • fumanchu1968

      I think that with the ‘new NHL’ we need to start rethinking the 4th line role. The goon is out, so maybe we should have a young, talented and fast 4th line?

    • Hockeysense9393

      Yeah…it sounds like a great 4th liner + special teams (both). Depending on the games, he could be playing quite a few minutes. Plus he will be moved up any given night to change things up. He is also perfect depth in place of injuries. Flames are a very interesting team this year with this much potential to play with.

  • herringchoker

    Its a another beautiful hot day her in Haifax. I’m heading out for a kayak but, my mind is always flames. So here’s my crack at the lineup. First of all….i don’t see Foo, mangiapane, Klimchuk etc making this team out of camp. Although I think they will all push very hard. Lazar, Hathaway
    My roster:
    Gaudreau Monahan Neal (easy to predict line)
    2a line Tkuchuk Jankowski Lindholm (Janko is the surprise here right. Janko gets better every year. There’s no reason not to believe Janko will break out with these two)
    Line 2b Bennett Backlund Frolik (theres no better line for Bennett to take the next step with)
    Line 3 Lazar Ryan Czarnik ( I think Lazar will need to win this spot out of camp or he’s waived.

    • herringchoker

      This is just me……I truely believe Lazar has alot more to give. He’s defensively responsible, he’s quick, he’s got pedigree as a 1st round pick and he’s a right shot. I would love to see them try out Lazar with Bennett and Backlund. Move Frolik to 3rd line LW. That would be a balanced attack

      • freethe flames

        Many say this, BT must have hoped this when he traded for him but he has yet to deliver this. At some point it either will happen or he will go away; I’m not sure which it will be.

        Reading all of the various line ups presented here makes me rather optimistic; BP has lots of options as there is more depth and perceived talent than we have had for years. The success of this team will not be determined by the play of the Johnny/Monny/Tkachuk Backs/Neil/Lindholm but by guys like Bennett/Janko/Lazar taking huge steps in their development as well as bounce back years from guys lime Frolik and on D TJ and Hamonic. It should be fun to watch and it will be interesting to see how BP starts with his line up and how it shakes down during the year.

        • Redleader

          I’m thinking BT saves a roster spot to pick up an emergency back up goalie if Smith goes down and either gillies and or rittich turn into Swiss cheese like hiller lol

          • Redleader

            How about special teams:
            Pp1 Jonhhy Mony TKACHUK
            Pp2. Bennett Lindholm Neal
            Pk1 Backlund/Frolik
            Pk 2 Ryan / Bennett/Lazar/Klimchuck?
            Does anyone know if Neal or Lindholm are decent on pk as well ? Also I like stone on pk . I believe Hanifin will be an overall upgrade right away compared to Hamilton and if Anderson makes the team we will have some good options for defenceman on the pp.

      • KootenayFlamesFan

        This lineup looks great! The only change I might make is swapping Neal and Lindholm. Gives the first line the best option of possession off the draw and gives the second line even more nasty!!!!

    • Getpucksdeep

      Lies, dam lies and statistics. We are now constantly told +- is “meaningless”. Now were hearing Corsi isn’t as important as first thought. I think some GMs use the data to keep tabs on other teams players for potential trades but you can’t tell me a single coach in the NHL gives a rats patootie about fancy stats, after the puck drops, the clock is running and the game starts. In practice and in the GMs rooms sure but when the game is actually being played the coaches better have an eyeball on things.