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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski

How the Flames forwards give them an edge in the battle of the Pacific

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:

Gaudreau-Monahan-Lindholm
Tkachuk-Backlund-Frolik
Dube-Ryan-Neal
Bennett-Jankowski-Czarnik

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

Meier-Thornton-Pavelski
Hertl -Couture-Labanc
Kane-Suomela-Donskoi
Sorensen-Goodrow-Karlsson

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.

Edmonton Oilers

Nugent-Hopkins-McDavid-Rattie
Lucic-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Rieder-Strome-Puljujarvi
Khaira-Brodziak-Kassian

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.

Anaheim Ducks

Rakell-Getzlaf-Terry
Comtois-Henrique-Silfverberg
Cogliano-Steel-Aberg
Street-Rowney-Sherwood

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

Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith
Pacioretty-Stastny-Haula
Nosek-Lindberg-Tuch
Carrier-Bellemare-Reaves

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

Iafallo-Kopitar-Kovalchuk
Pearson-Carter-Toffoli
Wagner-Kempe-Lewis
Clifford-Amadio-Thompson

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.

Vancouver Canucks

Baertschi-Horvat-Boeser
Goldobin-Pettersson-Eriksson
Motte-Sutter-Virtanen
Schaller-Beagle-Granlund

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.

Arizona Coyotes

Perlini-Keller-Hinostroza
Panik-Stepan-Fischer
Crouse-Strome-Dauphin
Grabner-Richardson-Cousins

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.

  • SeanCharles

    It’s been awhile since the Flames have dressed 12 forwards all of which I like.

    They all have skill and the potential to put up points.

    The backend ain’t so bad either, hopefully Andersson finds his way into the lineup sooner rather than later – not that I’m hoping for an injury to any of the top 4 or Valimaki 🙂

    Pretty stoked for the season..

    Go Flames!

    • The Doctor

      I didn’t appreciate how much that Karlsson acquisition helped SJ until I saw them play the other day — at the time of the trade, I just didn’t think about the fact they already had Burns, Vlasic, Dillon and Braun.

  • MDG1600

    I know this is off topic but I need to vent my disdain for the Centre of the Hockey Universe. I just read the Shanahan thinks Toronto’s young star forwards should “sacrifice” financially so they can keep the team together and win Stanley Cups. The salary cap is supposed to be there to give teams like Calgary a chance to compete fairly against big market teams like Toronto who would otherwise buy up all the best players. I hope Nylander sits till Nov. 30 then they have to trade him to Arizona. I wonder if the players association will have anything to say about it.

    • Cfan in Van

      Interesting. I was reading a comparison of McDavids opinion on that subject in contrast to Matthews’. McDavid said that taking a small cut was basically his form of taking one for the team, and trying to show he’s willing to sacrifice some to succeed (not that 10.5 isn’t an enormous sum). Matthews just said something to the effect of “that’s my agents job, not mine”. Matthews is gonna make sure he gets every penny.

    • Bawcos

      So this comment is right up my ally. Literally, I live in the Toronto area. As soon as Tavares was signed I couldn’t wait to tell Leaf fans 2 things. 1- yes, Tavares is very good, but you just lost a 36 goal scorer and brought in a 37 goal scorer for a lot more $. 2- good luck icing a good team after this season. Nylander gets 6-7M, Matthews gets 11M and Marner will probably get 9M (based on Draisaitl’s contract). That’s 4 forwards making up almost half your cap. That’s a great top 4 – have fun being a 2 line team with no defence.
      To the point of Leaf fans suggesting “they’ll all take pay cuts”. I actually had a stranger at work join a conversation I was having about the Leafs cap structure – and he told me that he coached Marner when Mitch was 10years old. And that Marner would definitely take a lot less money – because he’s always been that kind of guy ( you know- when he was 10 freakin years old) Leaf fans are laughable.

  • TKO

    Edmonton’s 4th line is basically face punchers and crushers, they will try to make it a game if crash and bang instead of speed, be interesting to see if flames play Hathaway and Prout for edmonton’s goon team

    • bleedingcoppernblue

      I’m not a fan of Oilers 4th line and think the Flames have a better modern NHL version with speedy youngsters but since when is Brodziak and Khaira goons? Even Kassian will stick up for teammates much like Hamonic did the other day but not a goon in the least.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    “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.”

    Wow! Stevie Mac has really lowered the bar on the highest draft pick in Flames’ history! If he gets points now they are considered a bonus? Does he also get a “Good Sport” ribbon just for playing?

    Don’t see many posters here who will consider points by Bennett as cherries because of all the other valuable intangibles he brings.

    • SeanCharles

      Bennett is younger than Mangiapane – a prospect this website had ranked as the 3rd best prospect after Valimaki and Andersson and before Dube..

      I know he is approaching 250 games but he is by no means too old to still figure things out and reach some of that untapped potential he has.

    • Steve Macfarlane

      That’s a good point and I should probably expand and clarify what I was getting at. Anything Bennett does above what he’s done in previous seasons will be considered a bonus. But I fully expect him to improve his game with some of the spotlight and the pressure off. I think he’s his own worst enemy when it comes to the mental aspects of the game.

  • Mickey O'McGritty

    “Bennett and Jankowski trump Bellemare and Reaves every time.”

    Right on, ask Travis Hamonic how the ol’ Dark Ages mentality feels after he got his face broken in the first period of the first game. Brodie gets run over by Reaves for a concussion last year, no big deal. Lucic goes after Smith and pounds Tanner Glass in the ensuing ‘message-sending’ scrap.

    But we’ve got Hamonic as the default designated hitter, who isn’t going to intimidate any of the big boys. Uh oh, even he can’t fight now because he just took a monster shot against Vancouver’s tough guy. So when little Johnny gets slashed to bits, hey no worries. We’ll all just hope and wish it doesn’t happen.

    Not having an intimidator causes a ripple effect down the entire line-up. And that’s already played out less than five minutes into the season.

    • Beer_League_Ringer

      Agree 100% team toughness is still an important ingredient in today’s NHL. Think of it this way… If someone takes liberties with JG, what is the worst that will happen? Hamonic gets his jaw busted to send a message? If someone takes liberties with McDavid, that individual will have to face either Lucic, Kassian, Nurse, or JJ Khaira. All killers.

      • Mickey O'Reaves

        Ah, a real world comment. What everyone seems to want to do is go to the, “roll 4 lines, skill and speed trumps toughness” Vegas model. But Vegas also had Engelland to keep a lid on things. They also traded for, and kept, Ryan Reaves.

        Calgary doesn’t have a tough guy dressed, and it is a fundamental problem with this team.