With the departure of Dillon Dube, the collection of Calgary Flames centres got a little bit smaller. (Although the team technically got a little larger in terms of average size.)
The rookie pivot playing out of his natural position on the third line was part of a group that has given the Flames a relatively unique ability in the faceoff dot. They’ve fluctuated a little in the volatile statistical category, but as of Thursday afternoon, ranked eighth in the league winning 51.9% of the battles in the circles.
That doesn’t always translate into success, as the top two teams on that list prove — with the Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings playing abysmal hockey and experiencing major organizational personnel changes in the process.
For the Flames, however, the conversion rate has been obvious.
Among the top few possession teams in the league, they’ve turned their icing of a glut of natural centremen — a remarkable eight of their dozen forwards before Dube’s departure — into a considerable strength.
Only the diminutive and raw Dube was winning less than 40% of his draws at 39.5%. Understandable given his stature and experience level of just 20 NHL contests.
His mentors, however, have benefitted from a circumstantial strategy developed and employed by GM Brad Treliving and head coach Bill Peters: Bring in some right-handed natural centres to work the strong side and take some of the pressure off the incumbent regulars down the middle — Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund and Mark Jankowski — who all carry left-bladed composites.
The offseason saw them bring in a trio of righty forwards in Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan and Austin Czarnik. All of them versatile enough to play the wing but entering the league as centres.
Now with their middlemen taking the majority of their faceoffs on their strong side, the Flames are enjoying more success than they have had in a decade on the dot.
Seriously. The last time this team won more than half of its draws in a season was 2008-09 when they finished tied for eighth in the league at 51.3%.
- 2017-18 — 49.4% (19)
- 2016-17 — 48.9% (19)
- 2015-16 — 48.6% (27)
- 2014-15 — 47.4% (26)
- 2013-14 — 46.2% (30)
- 2012-13 — 46.6% (28)
- 2011-12 — 46.2% (30)
- 2010-11 — 48.1% (24)
- 2009-10 — 48.0% (28)
- 2008-09 — 51.3% (8)
Monahan was enjoying a strong start before a disastrous outing against the Stars on Wednesday night during which he and Backlund were dominated. But even after posting 29% and 23% performances, respectively, Monahan (49.3) and Backlund (49.1) are still hovering right at the 50% mark overall.
Let’s take a quick look at all the numbers for the remaining Flames who have taken more than 20 draws:
- Left-handed Sam Bennett (25 draws) is thriving at 63.4% albeit in a limited role;
- Right-handed Lindholm (318) is next at 56.3%, and second only to Backlund in number taken;
- Left-handed Jankowski (159) is doing well as a sophomore at 54.7%, combining technique with his size and strength;
- Right-handed Czarnik (24) has been a bit player so far but is successful when in the lineup, winning 54.2%;
- Right-handed Ryan (190) has been underwhelming offensively but a reliable 53.1% in the circles.
Bennett is really coming into his own, and now that he’s a regular on the second line with Matthew Tkachuk and Backlund, he could receive more opportunities (at least in the offensive zone) despite having the same strong side as Backlund.
Jankowski remains a project with loads of potential, but he’s quietly becoming a player who can be counted on in every area of the ice.
Czarnik and Ryan are doing those clichéd “little things” right more often than not, contributing in ways not sexy enough statistically to stand out.
And for anyone concerned about the sub-.500 performances by the top two centres, they’re getting it done in critical situations.
Backlund is 10th in the league in shorthanded winning percentage at 56.8% (among those who have won at least 10 draws on the penalty kill).
Monahan and Lindholm, who combined have taken 94 of the team’s 142 faceoffs on the man advantage, are clicking at 52.2% and 52.1% margins respectively.
More games on the wrong side of the ledger can spoil the early returns quickly, but a little more than a quarter of the way though, part of the franchise’s offseason vision is living up to its potential.