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Seemingly endless line combination possibilities should be boon to Flames’ lineup

One of the biggest problems with the Flames’ 2017-18 season was the lack of depth at forward. Possibly what could be the Flames’ biggest strength of the 2018-19 season: great forward depth that will give new head coach Bill Peters tons of choices as to how to construct his lineup.

While we don’t know if the additions of James Neal, Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan, Austin Czarnik, and whichever prospects are able to make the team will actually work out for the Flames, we do know for a fact that Peters is seriously going to be able to do a lot with his group.

How many options will he have, though? Let’s dive into them here – within reason.

Basically, we can probably expect Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to stay paired together, but after that, all bets are likely off. So let’s get wild with it – though for the sake of not having a ton of tables following, some of these top and bottom six combos can mix and match.

(When I say “Prospect” I’m both including any forward prospects who may make the team out of training camp, as well as forwards such as Curtis Lazar, Garnet Hathaway, or Anthony Peluso: players who are unlikely to be dressing for 82 games due to increased options and forward depth. Czarnik isn’t getting that same treatment because management seems to be enthusiastic about him, though.)

Gaudreau Monahan Neal
Tkachuk Backlund Lindholm
Bennett Ryan Frolik
Prospect Jankowski Czarnik

 

Gaudreau Monahan Lindholm
Tkachuk Backlund Neal
Bennett Jankowski Ryan
Prospect Czarnik Frolik

 

Gaudreau Monahan Tkachuk
Neal Jankowski Lindholm
Bennett Backlund Frolik
Prospect Ryan Czarnik

 

Gaudreau Monahan Neal
Bennett Lindholm Tkachuk
Prospect Backlund Czarnik
Jankowski Ryan Frolik

 

And, of course, the very first practice lines the group has had together, via Wes Gilbertson:

Gaudreau Monahan Lindholm
Tkachuk Backlund Neal
Frolik Ryan Czarnik
Bennett Jankowski Hathaway
Klimchuk Lazar Peluso

 

There are at least three forwards we can instantly identify to potentially be pretty good fits on the top line with Gaudreau and Monahan: Neal (a prolific scorer for years), Lindholm (Monahan’s draft class counterpart, with strong offensive potential), and Matthew Tkachuk (already high level with the best yet to come). That trickles down through the rest of the lineup, already filling up the second line with two other potential first liners.

But it goes beyond that. The team has a lot of centres, as well, which can allow for some outside the box combinations – not to mention centres playing on the wing, and the possibility for a line composed entirely of centres. Between Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Lindholm, Ryan, Mark Jankowski, Czarnik, and maybe even Sam Bennett and a prospect, the Flames could have up to eight options down the middle, at least three of whom are right shots, allowing for a lot of flexibility depending on the situation (such as, say, an overtime penalty kill with your best defensive forward in the box so you keep going to a right winger for the faceoff. Is that too specific?).

While Gaudreau and Monahan seem almost guaranteed to play together, another longstanding forward pair – Backlund and Michael Frolik – seem destined to be split up. Backlund is, at this time, easily the Flames’ second best centre, while Frolik looks like he’ll find himself in the bottom six (mind, this should shake out to a pretty talented bottom six).

The line configurations should also allow for mixing and matching based on players’ individual strengths. For example, Backlund may be the Flames’ second best centre, but if Neal isn’t on Monahan’s line, then maybe it would make more sense to give him the high ground alongside Jankowski than defensive zone starts with Backlund. Or maybe he’ll work out well with Backlund, after all, and adapt to being initially used in a more defensive role, as Tkachuk has early on in his career. (For that matter, maybe this is the year Tkachuk starts consistently getting the high ground.)

Fact of the matter is: even after camp shakes out, Peters will likely have a lot of different combinations available to him throughout the season, each and every one with its own strengths available on hand. For a noted line juggler, the Flames’ new forward group could be perfect for him – and its depth and versatility could lead to a lot of success for the team overall.

  • oilcanboyd

    The first practise lineup looks good to me. Interesting to see how these lines actually work in the first game. Looking forward to the game! Will Peters keep them together for a period or the whole game?

    • Eggs Bennett

      That proposed line actually was the most refreshing one that I saw above. What a gritty skilled and great second scoring line.
      Gaudreau – Monahan – Neal
      Bennett – Lindholm – Tkachuk
      Jankowski – Backlund – Frolik
      Mango – Ryan – Czarnik/Foo
      Lazar/Hathaway
      Swap Jankowski with Ryan or Lindholm if you want him at C.

      • Skylardog

        He is not. Corsica ranks him 66th among centres in the NHL. As for lines, they rank Backs line 24th among 2nd lines (only 7 worse 2nd lines in the NHL) when he is with Tkachuk and Lindholm.

        He only had 9 goals at 5v5 last season, no where near good enough for a 2nd line centre, and only 10 at even strength. His career high is 21 if I remember in a season. Not a good second line centres numbers

        • Heeeeeere's Johnny!

          Recency bias. Last year’s PDO would say Backs’ line was tremendously unlucky. If the stats are given a three year average what do they say then?

  • Raffydog

    I’ve been one of the loudest Treliving critics, but am still amazed at the moves he made this offseason. No draft picks, and it didn’t seem possible to make a trade that would have helped one position while taking away from another. Yet somehow he managed to bring in more depth than I’ve seen on this team in years, and this is the most excited I’ve been for a new season in the last few years.

    • Cfan in Van

      I honestly thought he’d be pretty handcuffed going into this season, and didn’t expect a lot of change despite Tre’s season ending press conference. Most excited I’ve been for the start of the season since… I’m not even sure.

      • BlueMoonNigel

        Since last season. Too many here swallowed the Kool-Aid last fall thinking that the playoff disaster that happened a few months earlier was all on Elliot and that Lazar and Bennett were both going to make noticeable impacts during the 2017-18 campaign.

        • HOCKEY83

          I didn’t think that was all on Elliot. He gave the Flames a great chance to win both games in Anaheim. I felt bad for him having to play with such a crap team in front of him.

        • Cfan in Van

          Yeah maybe some were last season. I was extremely cautious wtih my optimism last year (optimism seems to be my default at the start of the year). I knew with GG at the helm, and some of the roster choices, it was looking like it may be a rough ride. And it certainly was.

    • Flaming moe

      Yes and no Raffy. Hanifin for Dougie was a trade BT lost. Ferland for Lindholm is an even deal and only time will tell who produces more. Even tho ferly brought more to the plate than Lindy imo. Neal is a good deal now. But he only averages 40 points a season and the decline will begin in the next couple years at his age. Then that contract will be painful.

      Long story short the Defence has not improved since last season.
      Forwards are up for debate until we see what the bottom six brings as in Czarnik, Ryan etc
      Goaltending is the scariest one of all. BT did not address the biggest issue this team has had for a longggggg time.

      • Al Rain

        Time will tell, but I’m strongly disagreeing with your assessment of Ferland being equal in any way to Lindholm. Ferland had the best of situations last season but Lindholm has true skill. My over/under on points spread this season would be Lindholm +20.

      • BlueMoonNigel

        One thing about Hanifin is that how many here would be overjoyed if Hanifin’s ceiling is where Dougie is at now?

        Lindholm is a better player than Ferland. Not much debate here.

        Where Tre lost the deal was tossing in Foxy. So Foxy was not going to sign here. No reason to ditch him because if reports are true that he wants to play for a New York area team, he’s a long way off in Carolina. Further, I would argue that the New York area clubs–Rangers, Islanders, Devils and Flyers–would all engage in a bidding war for the upwardly trending Foxy.

        Disagree on Neal. He was exactly the kind of player the Flames needed to bring in this offseason, no more evident in the last couple of days with King and Patches coming out west. Neal is a stud and there is no reason to think he will be an excellent player for most or all of his time as a Flame.

        I think Tre badly overpaid in the deal with Carolina but he belted it out of the park with the Jimmy Neal signing.

        • deantheraven

          Agree/disagree with you here, Nige. You can’t say Tre lost that deal until Fox plays in the NHL, wherever that may be. I’m in the Hanifin believers’ camp and I think we have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about his ceiling. Let’s see how he compares with Dearly Departed Dougie in March.
          Neal is a great fit- a sniper that plays with an edge. Apparently, Lindholm plays big, too and isn’t afraid of traffic in the corners.
          There’s a lot to like about the added depth this year- speed, scoring and yes, grit chart are all ticked boxes!

          • BlueMoonNigel

            Disagree. If Tre could have held onto Foxy and the kid kept getting better, you know the bidding war between the 4 clubs I mentioned plus the Bruins and Capitals would all have worked in Tre’s favour. Don’t underestimate hype.

            Furthermore, as Dougie was the best player in the deal, losing him was a clear loss right now. Ask me in another couple of years and I might give you a different answer, but I treat an overpay as a loss.

          • Al Rain

            Mentioned this in a previous post regarding including Fox in the trade: it’s not so much how good a player will become, but how good they are when the team needs them. Fox is years away from NHL service; Lindholm and Hanifin are in their prime when Gaudreau and Monahan are in their prime. Big difference.

            As for the argument to include someone else in his place, we don’t know what the negotiation looked like. It could be that Carolina valued Fox more than the Flames did. In which case, good deal.

            As for Fox turning into the amazing player everyone expects, I’m reminded of the bird-in-the-hand example of Tim Erixon…

      • HOCKEY83

        If you think Ferly is anywhere near the same league as Lindholm you are clueless. Going to Carolina is the beginning of Ferland career in the AHL. He was gifted the spot along side Johnny and Monny and will never play with that talent level again.

    • Derzie

      Biggest changes this year are the coach swap (nice non-winning coach for tough non-winning coach) & Dougie gone (premier offensive defenseman for players with some unrealized potential up front and on D). The forward depth has been bolstered with some “potential” positives for sure but no is talking about the real biggest changes. They will make or break the season.

  • Al Rain

    I’d love to see 4 lines rolling with more balanced ice time. Ditch the old mindset of low expectations for the 4th line. We have the players.

    Maybe:

    Monahan and Gaudreau on the first line with true high ground.

    Backlund and Frolik together on a true shutdown line that can also score.

    Neal and Tkachuk away from the top line (but not necessarily together) to spread out the threat. Find some chemistry with Bennett, Ryan, Czarnik, Lindholm, Jankowski and the hottest prospect(s). Lazar and Hathaway have had their shot.

    Every night we’d have a potent line on the ice up against some grunts.

    • deantheraven

      I hear that, Al! 4 lines that can move the puck, and scoring spread around to make it harder to match against us.
      If guys like Janko and Ryan at ‘C’ and Czar and Lindy RW’s can play better two-way hockey, maybe we can finally stop calling Backs’ line the ‘shut down line.

    • Al Rain

      Here’s an example of what 4 balanced lines could look like:

      Gaudreau – Monahan – Czarnik
      Tkachuk – Jankowski – Ryan
      Bennett – Lindholm – Neal
      Dube – Backlund – Frolik
      Foo/Mangiapane

      Multiple centres on each line, threats to score every shift.

  • HAL MacInnis

    As a fan, I’m almost overwhelmed with all the possibilities for this season. I can only imagine how the players feel. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for a season to start. Thanks for the article, Ari!

  • deantheraven

    We see a lot of stats here and take the numbers as black and white, ie zone starts (high ground). Puck possession begins with winning draws. After that, it’s puck pursuit and ‘sticks in lanes’ that get the puck on your stick and pushing north. If your best centres are winning draws in the O zone, you get scoring chances. If your best centres win draws in the D zone, you have a chance to break out.
    Peters is a draw guy. You can talk “High ground” all you want, but If a guy like Byng is playing with a good centre, most nights it doesn’t matter where he starts, the puck goes north.
    I’m with Rebar and his first line up, although I am wont to break up Backs and Fro.
    Can’t wait to see who plays where against Boston this weekend!

    • oilcanboyd

      I was uncertain of breaking up Backs and Frolik too, but this is pre-season so why not give it a shot! I would have liked them to stay together and see if they can restore the magic they had before last season.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    5/6th is how I see the Flames top 2 lines. They have five players who are offensively gifted in their top 6, and then there is Backlund. Won’t argue that he is the club’s second best centre, but to have him centre the second scoring line might be a stretch for him and an anchor for his mates. I still want to see Lindolm centring the 2nd line but does such a move suddenly catapult the still-struggling Sam Bennett into 2nd line minutes? Seems Backs in that role is the lesser of two evils.

    As much as Tre has done this offseason to add scoring, the top two lines are really just 5/6th for there is not a true sixth top six forward on the team. I can only hope that someone will accept the golden opportunity that is this void and step up his game and own the position.

      • deantheraven

        Ok, that last one looks like a 4th line…
        And Benny/Backs/Fro looks like a shut down line…
        Maybe there is some high ground for Byng/Janko/ Neal, too.
        Damn, this is hard, but good fun!

    • Handy andy

      …………. the blind hatred for backlund is getting old. Even in a year with extremely bad luck and a abnormally low shooting percentage he still put up decent points. Only gonna be better this year. Also well known by unbiased sports analysts as a top shutdown center. I mean he shut out McDavid 2 games in a row during his goal scoring tear. But I guess that’s what anchors do.

      • Derzie

        It’s blind worship. The criticism is based on facts. Look it up. Backlund is a great PK & shutdown player. To expect him to score above average is bad usage. 3rd line shutdown center. And very good at that job. He’s not a sniper. Pretending he is won’t make it so.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    One thing that still doesn’t fit for me is the placement of Neal. He is built to play with Johnny and Monny offensively but how good would that line be defensively. If he is on the second line with Backlund and Tkachuk then he has to be defensively sound. So, does it makes sense to move him to the third line with Janko and Bennett who will be sheltered.

    I can’t see Ryan bumping Janko to the fourth line for long but I can see Bennett settling there with Ryan and Frolik as a strong defensive line with occasional scoring. This would move Czarnik and Mangi/Dube to the third line. Dube is making a believer out of me and Mangi will be in for a dog fight.

    • mrroonie

      With Mony coming off surgery and BP saying he’s holding back some on him taking faceoffs right now, having Johnny and Neal on his wings when they were a combined 1 for 7 in faceoffs last season isn’t very practical. Neal will likely play with them on the 1st PP in a 4F 1D situation with someone else who can take faceoffs.

      I don’t necessarily see them using Backlund and Tkachuk as the shutdown line, with Neal on the right side they could become a second scoring line if BP feels that the bottom six are able to take on more of the defensive responsibilities. It’s possible that the Frolik-Ryan-Czarnik combo they were using today might be who he thinks could be able to take on that role.

  • Mickey O'Reaves

    Not really understanding the rationale for the bottom six configuration as reported by Wes Gilbertson at practice:

    Ryan and Czarnik are both RHS who can play either centre or wing, and take face-offs.
    Bennett and Jankowski are both LHS who can take face-offs.

    Thought the game plan was to have some kind of lefty/righty matchup for taking draws on at least 3 of the lines. It is pre-season afterall, but curious to see how things shake out.

  • Squishin

    Thank god for Flamesnation. 13584394 articles about the Leafs on Sportsnet, but the only thing you can find under “Flames” from the last day is some biased Eric Francis garbage about the arena saga.
    Read Friedman’s 31 thoughts. Let’s see…he mentioned Horvat and Boeser of the Canucks, McDavid and Draisaitl of the Oilers, the Jets as legitimate contenders, obviously the whole Ottawa saga as it relates to various players, the seeming bromance of Matthews/Tavares, along with the Nylander negotiations for the Leafs, and the Canadiens dipping into Russia for free agency. Hmmmmmmm I wonder… WHO COULD POSSIBLY BE the one Canadian team not mentioned in the whole article?? FFS, we’re not asking for 13584394 articles about the Flames, but can we try to acknowledge that Calgary is a hockey market too? With a real NHL team? F*^k you, Sportsnet.

  • MDG1600

    I am seeing a bizarre line of thinking in some posts that goes along the lines of “I agree Backlund is our 2nd best centre but I don’t want him playing in the top 6 because while he is good defensively I think we will get more offence some someone else “ News flash, the number 1 requirement of your top 2 centres is that they have to be able to handle the defensive responsibility of playing against the oppositions top 2 lines. If Jankowski or Ryan spend most of their shifts starting in the defensive end against the oppositions best line like Backlund did last year they might be too busy fishing the puck out of our net to score themselves. You can’t just say send a 3rd Line out that is a defensive line centred by Backlund to a take those face offs and shut down the other teams top lines. If you do that your “checking” line is probably going to finish with the 2nd most icetime at which point it really isn’t your 3rd line anymore is it.

    • Baalzamon

      Yup.

      The funniest part is the thing everyone complains about with Backlund, his offensive production (which is by far the worst part of his game) is still second-line tier.

      There is literally no argument for Backlund not being a top six forward.

  • 左翼二

    I think I expect the combo you listed first, and would be happy with that, but I’d also be interested in seeing the 3rd combo. Its got the high danger offence of Johnny-Monny-Byng, then the easy minutes offence of Neal-Janko-Lindy, the shut down line of SB-2M, and a decent 4th line.
    Not to mention that I’ve got Johnny and Byng in my pool, so I’ve got that going for me.

  • Jimmyhaggis

    To early to predict line combos. I can see any possible line combination, Monahan and Gaudreau could be split up, don’t forget we had to rely on our 2 best players to produce offence, now there are more options available.

  • Skylardog

    Like all the line combo options available, but the ones we see practicing are about the least imaginative combo that is possible with this lineup. This will get trashed but with what I am seeing, I have slight questions creeping into my mind over Peters.

    Case in point. Last year, Bennett, Janko, Hath were together and part of an underwhelming bottom six. If anyone thinks putting them together is going to make a difference, then you are crazy. Most here don’t even think Hath should be in the top 12, so how does this lineup make any sense?

    The definition of crazy is doing the same thing as what failed in the past, and thinking the outcome will change.

    That goes for Backs staying with Tkachuk as well. Those 2 need to be separated.

    Czarnik is totally unproven but being gifted a great chance. Boston knew what they had. They let him go for nothing. They never even qualified him. His on ice GF/60 is worse than Hath, Bennett, Janko, and Lazar. It is worse than the Lazar, Stajan, Brouwer line. And he got time with Pasternak, producing just a 1.32 GF/60.

    As for Klim getting a shot, you should have left him with the prospects. Gonna get a real good idea of what he can do with Peluso and Lazar. That’s sarcasm people.