Since Elias Lindholm turned out to be a natural fit alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, the Flames haven’t had any problems with their first line. Their second line, though, has featured a rotating cast of right wingers – one that Michael Frolik seems to have laid a claim to, however long that lasts.
Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund are the undisputed regulars of the second line, but so far this season, they’ve also spent extensive time alongside Frolik (172:21 5v5 minutes), Sam Bennett (161:22), James Neal (75:19), and Austin Czarnik (71:07).
None of the four forwards have been able to solidify the spot as their right winger: Frolik has spent much of the season playing further down the lineup (when he wasn’t injured for a month, at least); Bennett has bounced around the middle six; Neal has been unable to land a spot in the top six, even though that’s where most would have thought he’d end up after signing with the Flames in free agency; and Czarnik, the original choice, has had a tough time regularly dressing in games to begin with.
While that’s led to lineup inconsistencies, it’s also given the Flames a chance to try to figure out which forward works best with Tkachuk and Backlund to fill out the top six. Via Natural Stat Trick and at 5v5, through 48 games of the season to date, here are the current results:
Frolik continues to appear to be the best option of the bunch. It makes sense: he’s played the most with Tkachuk and Backlund in the past, and he’s generally regarded as a smart player who, while he may not necessarily live up to his contract offensively, is extremely capable defensively. The line has had some luck with Frolik on board – they have the highest PDO with him, which has likely partly resulted in an inflated goals for percentage – but the other stats are sound: the line largely controls both possession and high danger events when Frolik is a part of it.
Bennett, however, does appear to be the second best option. Frolik being unavailable due to injury for a month played a big part in Bennett getting a regular chance on that line, and though he doesn’t quite match up to the standards Frolik set, he hasn’t done poorly, either. The line did get a boost in offensive zone starts, but it still largely controlled corsi events for, including of a high danger nature. It’s been a less lucky line than with Frolik on it, but still a reasonably good one: that PDO is right within range to indicate the line wasn’t particularly seeing the bounces one way or the other, and the puck was still overall going the right way when Bennett was getting top six minutes.
That brings us to Neal and Czarnik. While their lines have still controlled overall corsi events, they’ve been outmatched when it comes to high danger events specifically. They’ve had worse luck than the other two options – and their goals for percentages match that drop in expectation – but fact of the matter is, the line just hasn’t been as strong compared to either Frolik or Bennett on it in their stead. Part of that could be due to them having gotten less of a chance (roughly 100 fewer 5v5 minutes than Frolik and Bennett have had to work with), but at the same time, giving them an extended look when there are, evidently, superior options wouldn’t make much sense.
Czarnik looks to be faring better than Neal on that line – Neal’s poor PDO aside (and the fact that he’s shooting roughly 7.6% below his career average, which was not foreseeable [not to mention an issue that plagued Frolik last year, albeit to a much less dramatic extent]), Czarnik has the better numbers across the board. Not enough to contend with Frolik, but enough to perhaps at least challenge Bennett, should that opportunity ever arise.
For the time being, though, it looks like Frolik is the answer to rounding out the Flames’ top six. Even considering the higher PDO, he’s had the better results across the board. And unless the Flames are able to acquire another forward to unquestionably make their top six better – say, at the trade deadline – it looks like it should be Frolik’s spot to lose.
Judging by his rising ice time over the past four games – during which six of his 10 points have come since his return to the lineup – Bill Peters seems to be in agreement, at least for however long this lasts.