As the Flames move closer to clinching a playoff spot and a top-two seed in the Pacific, most eyes are focused on this team’s postseason fortunes. Give or take tweaks here and there, Calgary has settled on a regular lineup over the last number of weeks. With additional options becoming available, though, the Flames have a few questions to answer before settling on an ideal playoff lineup.
While the coaching staff has experimented with different iterations, Calgary has generally rolled out the same 12 forwards since James Neal went down with a lower body injury in mid-February. The most frequent set of lines has looked like this:
Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Elias Lindholm
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Michael Frolik
Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski-Austin Czarnik
Andrew Mangiapane-Derek Ryan-Garnet Hathaway
Currently, I think it’s hard to find a natural slot for Neal upon his return, which is expected to be before the postseason begins. I can’t see how you’d want to mess with either of the team’s top two lines, while the Flames have gotten really good work from their bottom six forwards. As such, there’s no obvious candidate for Neal to replace.
Realistically, though, Calgary is going to find a way to get Neal back in. Whether we agree with the reasoning or not, the Flames signed him to a five-year contract at $5.75 million annually, so they have a vested interest in him playing. Plus, the “they signed him for the playoffs” angle is likely going to come into play, so I have a feeling Neal is going to find a way back in.
If that’s the case, then where does he slot best? Without injury factoring in, my best guess is the team tries a rotating group of forward scratches to keep Neal in the lineup. As much as I’ve liked the work Mangiapane, Czarnik, and Hathaway, they’re likely the ones that would selectively sit as Neal worked his way back into regular action.
It’s hard to make the argument Calgary’s ideal forward group isn’t the one outlined above, though. If I had any say, Neal wouldn’t immediately be returning to the lineup if the bottom two lines continue playing the way they have. That’s probably not the way it’ll go, though, so I’m adding a little reality to go with opinion.
It’s a pretty good bet Alan Quine will be with the Flames the rest of the season, but there are only two ways I see him getting into game action. If Calgary were to suffer an injury to one of their four regular centres, Quine would be the obvious choice to help fill that void, especially if the team is adamant about keeping Lindholm on the wing. Quine could also see action late in season if the Flames were locked into their playoff seed; that’s when you might see this coaching staff resting some of their regulars.
The other two options to keep an eye on are Curtis Lazar and Dillon Dube. The former recently spent about a month with the big team, but a good run of results prevented him from getting in the lineup. The latter has had an outstanding rookie season in the American League and could be looked to for his speed and smarts come playoff time.
ON THE BLUELINE
In recent weeks, a pair of regular defencemen from earlier in the season have become viable options once again. Juuso Valimaki is back up to speed and starting to excel in Stockton after working his way back from a high ankle sprain. In 16 AHL games, Valimaki has 12 points and has played huge minutes. I believe the Flames look at him as a playoff possibility, even on night one, so don’t be shocked if he sees NHL action before the end of the season.
Then there’s Michael Stone, who has traveled a long road back from a blood clot discovered back in November. Stone has returned to game action with a trio of games with the Heat, but an imminent return remains somewhat up in the air. For both Stone and Valimaki, they may have to wait a little longer before getting back in, for a couple reasons.
Calgary remains in an ultra-tight battle with San Jose for top spot in the Pacific Division. Whether either team will admit it, there is incentive to finishing first and avoiding an opening round series with Vegas. For two guys who haven’t played NHL games since November, now might not be the ideal time to be thrown back in.
The team’s lone trade deadline acquisition has complicated the matter further. Oscar Fantenberg has been nothing but solid in his five games since joining the Flames, which means he’s starting to fall out of the “rotating part” conversation. Fantenberg’s five-on-five metrics are impressive, courtesy Natural Stat Trick, and he’s done nothing to play himself out of the lineup thus far.
As Ari wrote earlier this week, Calgary has a few decisions to make when determining a postseason top six. Getting a look at both Valimaki and Stone is part of that evaluation process, but may not be realistic for the time being. While this division title battle plays out, the regular six will likely stay something like this:
Mark Giordano-TJ Brodie
Noah Hanifin-Travis Hamonic
Oscar Fantenberg-Rasmus Andersson
I’m an advocate of swapping Andersson and Brodie on a permanent basis. Brodie has really struggled in his top pairing role in recent weeks, while Andersson has looked steady in his appearances there. Moving Brodie down the depth chart takes some pressure off his shoulders, and also presents options if the Flames want to tinker.
An injury obviously opens the door for one of Stone or Valimaki to return, but let’s assume everyone stays healthy and Fantenberg continues to excel. Then, much like in the case of Quine and Dube, Calgary’s two returning defencemen will likely have to wait until playoff seeding is pretty much guaranteed.
If/when that does happen, though, I’d like to see both Valimaki and Stone play with Brodie for at least a game each. Brodie’s ability to play both the left and right side allows him to be an option with any of the team’s third pairing options, which adds some nice versatility to the equation.