When James Neal signed with the Calgary Flames this summer, mouths instantly watered in the city over the notion of the newcomer lining up with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to form a formidable top trio with plenty of playmaking and finish.
While that line of thinking made sense, others wondered what the team might look like with a guy like Neal — who has scored at least 20 goals in each of his 11 NHL seasons — anchoring a third line.
Forget the scoring prowess of a top six, if you can construct three solid offensive trios at even strength, mismatches will be much easier to create.
When it comes to the 2018-19 Flames forwards, we might be looking at a top 12 that is unrivaled in the Pacific Division and maybe even in the running for the class of the Western Conference.
It’s a quicker, more dynamic and exciting group than we’ve seen in decades in the Stampede City. Those making the final cut may not be heavy on the grit or the scales, but are teeming with speed and talent thanks to some offseason additions and prospects like Juuso Valimaki and Dillon Dube forcing their way into the opening-day lineup.
It takes the total package of goaltending, defence and offence to make a team a true contender, but for the purpose of this exploration, let’s forget the other two and just look at how well this team’s forward depth compares to those they’ll be battling in the Pacific this season.
Based on some late preseason combinations, new coach Bill Peters has been spreading the talent down the roster:
Legitimate established game-breakers on three of the four lines, and plenty of potential on that bottom trio with Mark Jankowski looking to improve on a 17-goal rookie season and Austin Czarnik intent on proving that his impressive AHL numbers can translate to the big league.
Meanwhile, all those echoes about Bennett needing to step up his game have faded completely. Anything he contributes now is just going to be considered a massive bonus as he and his linemates exploit matchups with teams short of the same sort of depth.
Their division rivals are ranked below.
San Jose Sharks
Considered a Stanley Cup favourite after a blockbuster addition to the blueline with a trade for Erik Karlsson, the San Jose Sharks may have the deadliest power play unit in the league. But their collection of forwards isn’t elite beyond the top six unless they move Evander Kane to a lower line to take advantage of their depth on the wings.
If they stay healthy, they might be as good a four-line group as the Flames up front.
An aging Joe Thornton remains one of the better passers in the game, and Kane may one day have the kind of season he’s capable of but it’s the younger Joonas Donskoi and Kevin Labanc who need to continue their progression to keep this group on top of the competition.
Weakness on the wings has been a perennial problem for the Oilers, but strong preseasons from Ty Rattie, Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi have given the Flames’ neighbours to the north more hope. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Strome and Kyle Brodziak provide nice depth down the middle but the flanks continue to be the great unknown.
Milan Lucic is in desperate need of a bounce-back season on the second line.
Tobias Rieder and Strome and whichever of Yamamoto and Puljujarvi join them most often can use their speed and skill to give most third lines a challenge on any given night, and a combination of size, grit and some skill highlights the final trio as a change-of-pace line.
Is that pace enough to compete with the Flames’ new puck-pursuit, roll-‘em-out philosophy? Probably not on most nights — and McDavid can’t play the whole game.
Losing Corey Perry to knee surgery was a huge blow for the Ducks, who are already without Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves indefinitely. Now they’ve lost Ondrej Kase — one of the guys who was likely to replace Perry’s production — to a concussion in the preseason finale.
Things are so bad for the Ducks, they had to pick up former Edmonton Oilers winger Pontus Aberg from waivers and plop him in Kase’s spot alongside Andrew Cogliano and rookie Sam Steel.
The pairings of Rickard Rakell and Ryan Getzlaf, Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg, and Cogliano and Kase (once healthy) should give them three stable and fairly productive lines in spite of the blows they’ve suffered, but until they get healthy, that fourth line is going to be a liability.
Vegas Golden Knights
Fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, the Golden Knights may be an even better team on paper than they were last year. Their top two lines rank right up there with the league’s best if newcomers Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty develop chemistry. Alex Tuch has major breakout potential after a 15-goal, 37-point season while averaging slightly more than 15 minutes a night.
That first line was one of the most impressive in the league last year. Can William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith do it again?
That fourth line, though, is right out of the NHL’s Dark Ages with William Carrier, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan Reaves sure to be victims of the speed and skill of a team like the Flames. Bennett and Jankowski trump Bellemare and Reaves every time.
Los Angeles Kings
Once the model of depth in the Western Conference, the Kings’ best days are behind them up front.
They still have a stellar top six, even with an injury to former captain Dustin Brown. But that bumps Alex Iafollo up from the third line and weakens that depth by breaking up his chemistry with Adrian Kempe.
This is going to be a very top-six-reliant scoring lineup for a team that has won its Stanley Cups with defence.
It says a lot when your best forwards are a sophomore coming off a season-ending injury (Brock Boeser) and a rookie (Elias Pettersson) who has never played professionally in North America.
Gone are the former faces of the franchise, the Sedin twins, with a complete rebuild underway. Although the third and fourth lines have some experience and defensive ability, their ability to counterpunch against the kind of skill they will face from some of their division rivals will be extremely limited.
Their fourth line may be the worst in the Pacific, which is saying a lot when you consider what Vegas and Edmonton are icing.
If you’re still trying to figure out the top line in the desert, you’re not alone.
Veterans Derek Stepan, Michael Grabner and journeyman Richard Panik are surrounded by many promising youngsters who could have long careers ahead of them.
But that road could be just as long, and barring a real surprise leap forward from the likes of Clayton Keller, Christian Fischer and Dylan Strome, there are going to be a lot of lessons learned along the way this year.
The bottom line
The Flames are better on paper than any other team in the division when it comes to the forward depth. It’s extremely rare to be able to boast 20-goal scorers on every line, but that’s a realistic possibility for the Flames with Neal getting time on the third line, Tkachuk becoming an elite winger on the second, and Jankowski taking his game to another level after falling just three shy last season as a rookie.
They can’t help Mike Smith stay healthy stopping the puck, but by making sure they have possession of it more often than not, they can do their part in getting the Flames back into the playoffs regardless of how the other positions shake out.