Flames general manager Brad Treliving made a concerted effort heading into this season to improve his team’s depth, specifically at forward. At least on paper, it’s safe to say he’s accomplished that goal. Not only does Calgary look like a deeper group up front, they also boast a number of interchangeable parts. It’s that potential versatility that could form a central theme if this season is going to be ultimately successful.
I know, I know, things didn’t go according to plan on night one in Vancouver, and it looks like there is still lots of work to do. In saying that, though, I do appreciate the balance Calgary has struck early on with their four line combinations.
Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Elias Lindholm
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Michael Frolik
Dillon Dube-Derek Ryan-James Neal
Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski-Austin Czarnik
Above is how the Flames started on opening night against the Canucks, but it didn’t take long for things to start changing. By the second period, Czarnik and Frolik had swapped spots, while Neal and Lindholm changed places early in the third period. With so many NHL quality forwards, head coach Bill Peters has those types of options available to him.
Unlike last year, Peters has myriad options to juggle things up if the team were to go into a significant slump. Because Calgary is as seemingly deep as they are, it would be easy to mix and match from one game to the next if things aren’t clicking. It’s something last year’s team didn’t have the luxury of, mainly because things dropped off so much after the top two lines.
Similarly, Peters has some really interesting in-game options available to him. Peters was not shy on Wednesday to throw things into the blender, and you can understand why. Sure, Calgary wasn’t playing all that well, but I think it goes beyond frustration. Because the Flames have so many plug-and-play options, Peters has the luxury of mixing things up earlier what was afforded to Glen Gulutzan a season ago.
Troy Brouwer and Curtis Lazar were not viable options to elevate on the depth chart, mainly because they couldn’t cut it in top six roles. With the current combinations, though, Peters can move a guy like Neal up without a moment’s hesitation. That’s a nice luxury to have, especially if things aren’t working in the early stages of a game.
It looks like the Flames are going to keep Neal with Ryan and Dube to start Saturday’s home opener against the Canucks. On the other hand, it also appears Czarnik will start on Backlund’s right side, which would put Frolik on the right flank of Jankowski’s line.
Balance like that is something I enjoy seeing. To have a perennial 20-goal scorer like Neal on a “third line” isn’t sacrilege as it has been suggested in some quarters. Instead, it’s aimed at creating mismatches on the ice.
Remember the HBK line a few years ago for the Penguins? Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel were legitimately Pittsburgh’s third line and yet put up huge numbers en route to a Stanley Cup title. The idea is much the same with Calgary’s third trio: get out against other third lines and dominate. It didn’t work in Vancouver, but the thinking is sound.
And don’t forget how reversible a lot of these things are, too. For instance, if Czarnik proves to be over his head with Backlund and Tkachuk over a longer period of time, the Frolik contingency plan is easy and familiar. We know Frolik can contribute in that spot, which means Peters can always fall back on the tried and true.
STACKING THE DECK
There’s another school of thought to explore, though. Yes, the Flames have taken huge potential strides in the depth/versatility category, but there’s still something to be said about loading up. In that scenario, the team’s lines would look a little more like the ones below.
Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-James Neal
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Austin Czarnik
Dillon Dube-Derek Ryan-Elias Lindholm
Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski-Michael Frolik
Calgary went out and signed Neal for a reason: to score. The guy has never tallied fewer than 21 goals in an NHL season, so putting him with the team’s two best offensive players is something that makes a great deal of sense.
Similarly, a guy like Frolik doesn’t seem to have the type of offensive punch you’d want in a true top six role. While still very strong defensively, Frolik is coming off his worst offensive season in years. Moving a player like Frolik down the depth chart makes a whole lot more sense now than it did last year.
The problem with all of this, of course, is what we actually see on the ice. I agree, Neal probably looks better on paper to play on the team’s top line. However, through the preseason and even parts of the regular season opener, Lindholm looks to be more of a natural fit. These are the things we can never really account for and why mixing and matching is sometimes necessary.
What’s really nice is how Calgary’s versatility doesn’t just end at the 12 forwards we’ve been talking about. Garnet Hathaway, on the roster right now, is fully capable of stepping in to a bottom six role and not missing a beat. There are options outside of the NHL, too.
If the Flames were to run into injury issues, or if it was time to really shake things up, there are solid options lurking in Stockton. Andrew Mangiapane leads a group of forwards that also includes Alan Quine and Buddy Robinson that could easily jump in without issue.
And, despite our focus on forwards, the same is true on the back end, too. Rasmus Andersson is ready for the NHL right now and we’re all expecting him to get a shot very soon. Oliver Kylington is in the same category and would likely be the first choice in the event of an open hole on the left side.
At this stage we have no idea what the most effective combinations are going to end up being. We’re one game into a new season, which means there’s plenty of time to feel things out. In saying that, though, Peters might have some hard decisions to make as the season goes on. For conversations like this, tough decisions need to be embraced.