When reshaping their roster over the offseason, the Flames cut a fair bit of deadweight. While that in and of itself is something to get excited about, even better is the door it’s opening up for other players.
A lot of Flames this season will be looking at bigger roles in the NHL than they’ve ever had before. While they won’t all succeed at them, it should still be interesting to see who’s able to rise to the challenge. That adage of wanting the puck on your stick? A lot of these players are going to get the chance to make that their new normal this year.
In this case, I’m not talking about players like Johnny Gaudreau (we already know he’s a top scorer), Sean Monahan (pretty established as the best centre on the team), Mikael Backlund (same, but defensively), or James Neal (a pretty consistent scoring line winger at absolute worst). No – it’ll be the kids and the younger newcomers who have yet to reach their peak that’ll be most exciting to see just how high they can go.
Tkachuk is well on his way towards establishing himself as one of the Flames’ best forwards, and it’ll only be his third season as a pro. Handily making the NHL as a full-timer in his first year of eligibility, Tkachuk immediately started thriving in a defensive role, all the while flirting with 50-point seasons. As a rookie he averaged 14:40 a game; as a sophomore, that jumped up to 17:15.
What’s most interesting regarding Tkachuk is just what his ceiling will end up being. He’s likely in line for an increase in ice time, he’ll probably end up breaking that 50-point threshold, but we’re still only at the very beginning of his career. There’s a lot more to come, and his third season will probably start speaking to just what he can truly do.
Hovering around 18 minutes a game for the past three seasons, it’s not quite clear if Lindholm will see a bump in ice time playing for the Flames. He’s got the exact same coach who gave him those minutes before in Bill Peters, but a new cast of (arguably higher quality) forwards to work with, all while being likely to play top six minutes at worst.
One of the main questions, however, is will he end up on a primo scoring line, or a strong defensive two-way line? No matter which it is, a key role is definitely going to be asked of Lindholm in his sixth NHL season – and that’s with a deeper lineup to play with, which could see him rise to new heights.
There is always something admirable about the guy who just never gave up on breaking into the highest level of sport. Ryan didn’t make the NHL until he was 30; then, once he started playing regularly there, it turned out he wasn’t half bad.
The main question with Ryan will essentially be: is this as good as it gets? Granted, a career high of 38 points certainly isn’t bad, and Ryan’s probable role will be that of bottom six centre. That doesn’t sound like much until you recall all of the depth problems the Flames had at forward throughout 2017-18, and then suddenly, you’re all the more aware of just how important it is to have quality depth that can step up: and that’ll probably be Ryan’s role.
Jankowski had a pretty solid, 25-point rookie season. Now, it’ll be up to him to do him one better. A sophomore slump would be unideal, as Jankowski enters a role similar to Ryan’s: quality depth that should be able to step up for the Flames throughout the year, particularly in case of injuries. (Ryan’s presence takes some of the pressure off of Jankowski as well, which can only help.)
Jankowski averaged 13:21 a game as a rookie. With him likely playing on the bottom six to start, that may not go up – but if he can force Peters’ hand, then the Flames’ forward group will be shaping out in exactly the manner Brad Treliving worked to correct from 2017-18. Something that remains to be seen, however, is if his 14.4 shooting percentage from 2017-18 will be the norm from him, or if he had a lucky rookie year.
There normally aren’t bidding wars for 25-year-olds with a grand total of 59 NHL games played, but in Czarnik’s case, there was one. Highly proficient at the AHL level, a lot of teams seem to believe he’s on the cusp of breaking out in the NHL: chief among them the Flames, who worked the hardest to court him, and were probably his best shot at getting a regular spot in the big league.
Czarnik’s career high is 49 games played in the 2016-17 season. He only played 10 NHL games in 2017-18. If he can perform at the level the Flames are hoping he’s able, then he’s going to have a much bigger role, and help round out a forward group that desperately needed it.
There’s a spot available for a forward prospect in the regular lineup, and perhaps one on the defence as well. Maybe it’ll go to Curtis Lazar. Maybe it’ll go to Garnet Hathaway. Maybe it’ll be for Dalton Prout. Or maybe it’ll go to a non-veteran who spent most of their 2017-18 in the AHL – or even a junior league.
If one of the Flames’ forward prospects is able to grab hold of a regular NHL spot, though, then you can guarantee that’ll be a step up from anything else he’s ever had in his hockey-playing career. The same goes for the defensive candidates.
It’s easy to forget that Hanifin won’t turn 22 until 2019, considering how he’s played three full NHL seasons already. That just helps show there’s a lot more room for him to grow, though, even after such a fine start to his career. His career ice time average is 18:14, but this past season he played 18:52, and now, for the Flames, he’s going to be counted on to regularly play top four minutes – especially after signing a six-year deal paying him just under $5 million each year.
There is something of a safety net regarding Hanifin: the Flames have three top tier defensive prospects in Juuso Valimaki, Rasmus Andersson, and Oliver Kylington to ensure he doesn’t get comfortable. There may also be an opening for a top spot down the line, considering future expiring contracts and the fact that Mark Giordano will be 35 years old come October.
The Flames lost a top pairing defenceman in Dougie Hamilton to acquire Hanifin’s services, though, so he’s going to have a lot to live up to. Especially considering the guy slated to take over the biggest minutes…
A bigger role isn’t new to Brodie. He was averaging over 25 minutes a game not too long ago; even as a supposed second pairing defenceman in 2017-18, he still averaged 23:41. He’s played in all situations and he’s been relied upon heavily throughout his career, particularly over the last handful of seasons.
But the Flames will be asking him to step back up to a role he hasn’t played in a few years, albeit alongside a partner he has noted chemistry with. This is after something of a decline the past little while, whether that be due to a natural playing curve or having to play with a different partner. Either way, though, the Flames are counting on him to be able to rebound – and Brodie’s performance could end up being one of the major deciders on if the team has a good season or not.