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