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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski

Flames face interesting challenges in finalizing ideal playoff lineup

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.

UP FRONT

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.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

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

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

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.

CF% HDCF% OZS%
58.3 58.8 68.2

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.

    • Beer League Coach

      You must be kidding! Neal has had 3/4 of a season to show what he can do. He hasn’t earned it and it should not be given to him based on what he did for other teams in the past. He should be the team’s pop corn critic until injuries deplete the lineup enough to force the team to play him.
      I liked him at the start of the season but he has done nothing to earn a spot in the lineup with this team.

      • canadian1967

        It’s not about “has Neal earned it”, it’s about what a waste it would be if you don’t at least try it again because how much better will the Team be “IF the Real Deal James Neal” did finally show up?!
        Would make all our lines better.

        • MDG1600

          He has had all season to “show up” and the only that has showed up is:

          A) He has lost a step and can’t keep up to todays game. He makes Tkachuk look swift.
          b) His hands are shot. He handles the puck like it is a hand grenade thus screwing up most of the good scoring chances he might get.

          If he was 29 you might expect him to round back in to form but unfortunately he is in that age range where players start to decline. When considering the mileage of many long playoff runs (I know that is a plus) it seems very likely that he is simply in decline and will never return to form.

          • Beer League Coach

            Neal is not crucial to any success the Flames have realized or will realize in the future. The Flames have achieved their success so far in spite of the ball and chain that Neal has been. He has been a colossal failure and is a sunk cost that Flames will have to live with until his contract expires or they can find a sucker to take him off their hands.

        • LannyMac

          Good grief canadian there is no way in gods green earth at this pt he should be gifted anything if he wants PP1 or first line minutes maybe he should get off his LAZY A$$ and earn those spots because he hasn’t so far

    • cjc

      It’s an interesting but risky idea, but I see the merit. I don’t think it’s as much about getting him going as it is about trying to find an optimal lineup. Neal hasn’t had much of a run out with Gaudreau and Monahan, so it could work. That said, 3M has been money in the bank lately, so it leaves a question about where Lindholm plays.

    • Brian McGrattan's Salute

      If the top line was still in its slump you would have an argument there. But no way Neal gets in on the top line now. I could see Neal getting some PP1 time, but again, not the way the top line plus Chuck are playing right now.

  • PhillyWerg

    Not saying I want to mess with the first line, but if you think it is imparitive to get him going, how about:
    Johnny – Lindholm – Neal
    Tkachuk – Backs – Frolik
    Bennett – Mony – Czarnik
    Mangi – Ryan – Hath

    Gio – Ras
    Hanifin – Hamonic
    Fanta – Brodie

    Hate moving Mony down, but for everyone trying to get Neal going this is interesting.

  • Jobu

    Neal will replace Czarnik. Our fourth line is playing way to well to break up at this point. Leaving a hope that Neal can spurn Bennett and Jankowski on. Before he got hurt, he was playing with them and really starting to turn a corner.

      • Jessemadnote

        In each of Czarnik and Neal’s last 20 games:

        Neal has 8 points, Czarnik has 6; Neal has 47 shots, Czarnik has 25; Neal has 46 scoring chances Czarnik has 2. Neal has a 51% Corsi and Czarnik has a 57% corsi. Neal is shooting 4% and Czarnik is shooting 16%.

        I’d definitely say that Neal creates more chances but Czarnik has been much more successful at limiting chances.

        I would lean towards Neal with his track record and hope for his shooting percentage to normalise here.

    • Brian McGrattan's Salute

      Yeah, I also think it’ll be that simple. That line has also cooled off as of late, which gives more incentive for Neal to step in there. I agree tho, I think with Neal that line was starting to click, especially as games were starting to get heavier. Its a great grind and cycle line if nothing else, which is very valuable when the ice shrinks and games get tougher.

        • Joel Ottos Jock

          I wouldnt be opposed to trying something like this once Neal is good to go

          Gaudreau Monahan Bennett
          Tkachuk Lindholm Neal
          Janko Backlund Czarnik
          Frolik Ryan Hath

          Gio Hamonic
          Han Ras
          Fant Brodie/Stone

          • Vinnsanity0412

            Anything that reslots Backlund as the third line centre I’m down for! As I have said MANY times, as long as he is slotted as a 2C, this team will not go deep.

          • withachance

            @Vinnsanity: We need to stop putting numbers beside players names. Just because he’s the 2C doesnt mean he has to score 30 goals a season. He is the second best centre on this team full stop. Until Bennett or Lindholm can consistently do what he does as a centreman, he is the second best centre on this team.

            I cant name more than 7 or 8 better 2C than him right now in the NHL… but thats just me personally

          • withachance

            The elite 2C’s of the NHL: Kuznetsov, Point, Malkin, Matthews, Duchene (sucks defensively tho)

            The very goods: Schenn, Krejci, Statsny, Horvat, Hayes.

            Backs is definitely in the conversation of that second group there for sure, and i’d probably have him in the middle of the pack there.

          • Cfan in Van

            I’d just like to chime in to say, BP may like blender mode, but there’s no way in hell he’s going to completely shuffle every line on the team, in order to fit Neal in. Given the success this team has seen, a d the fact there’s only a dozen games left… Not going to happen unless we’re down 3-0 in the first round again.

    • Flamesfanforever

      I never got an add from this site till about two weeks ago. Was wondering what everyone was talking about. Now I get them everytime I come on to this site. It’s annoying, can’t back out of them so gotta close tap and revist site. S7 chrome is what I’m using.

    • Ralph Waldo Emerson

      No ad issues, no content issues, no posting issues; only one advertisement being visible: the Canadian version of America’s GrubHub/DoorDash/UberEats/Postmates named “SkipTheDishes”

      MacBook Pro, Chrome, utilizing a combo of AdBlock, UBlock Origin, and Anti-Ad-Block Killer (via TamperMonkey).

  • Beer League Coach

    I am firmly in favour of staying with the current lineup to start the playoffs. Like my daddy told me, “you dance with the one who brung ya”. Salary should not be a determining factor. Bottom line is what the players have done on the ice. I like Quine as insurance at C and Dube and Lazar who both can play either C or on the wing. Regarding Neal and his past playoff performance I defer to the advice I get from my financial advisor. Past results to not guarantee the future. Let him eat popcorn until injuries open a spot for him and pray that we don’t suffer such injuries.
    On the D I prefer to see Rasmus Andersson playing with Gio. Hanifin & Hamonic on the second pair. I see a lot of flexibility on the 3rd pair. Fantenberg with Stone or Brodie. Brodie with Stone. Or Fantenberg on the RD with Valimaki. Fantenberg is equally proficient on either side even though he is a LH shot. Kylington gets to watch with the black aces and would only be used in case of injuries.
    I would start with Rittich backed up by Smith. Gillies and Parsons as black aces ready to step in if one of our starting tandem is injured.

      • Mitchell

        Well beyond hamonic and gio I think andersons is the best defender defensively that the flames have. Beyond that I think he would complement gio pretty well in the offensive zone. Hes good at keeping the puck in, and he seems to have a good idea of when to jump into the play. He rarely goes deep in the offensive zone unless hes leading the rush, so that allows gio to pinch with a better safety net behind him than what brodie provides. I also think it allows brodie to maximize his offensive potential if he were paired with someone who is more defensively minded like stone or fantenberg.

    • CowboyBob

      The team has looked ‘small’ more than a few times over the last ten games, eg ineffective forecheck, losing puck battles etc. Neal does have size and the style will tighten up and likely slow down for the playoffs. While I haven’t been impressed with Neal so far, this recent rest do to injury coupled with playoff hockey may just be what Neal needs to finally contribute. I’d start by sitting Czar, put if Mangi is ineffective I’d rotate out the next game without hesitation, than on to Quine after that.

  • Korcan

    Personally, the last place i want Valimaki playing is next to Brodie. At this point, i have no faith in Brodie. My ideal starting six come playoffs would be:
    Gio & Andersson
    Hanafin & Hamonic
    Fantenburg & Stone (or Brodie depending on opponent)

      • Korcan

        The past few weeks, both Andersson and Hamonic have averaged better game scores (Andersson consistently so) than Brodie despite not having the advantage of playing with this year’s leading candidate for the Norris. IMO they are both superior to Brodie, especially in their own zone.

        As for Stone platooning with Brodie, he may not have the flash, but i consider him more reliable in his own end, something that is a priority with 3rd pairing d. Also, he can play the heavy playoff game much better than Brodie, which will be a factor vs. Any of Vegas, SanJose, St.Louis, Minnesota, Winnepeg, and Nashville.

        I’m curious to hear your counter argument.

        • withachance

          I’d like to make a counter argument here: the past few games, Andersson has also been making mistakes on the puck as well, they are less talked about because they didnt directly lead to high danger chances and the goalie has made the save afterward.

          Brodie is a different player – he is the de facto transition dman for this team. He brings outlet passing and a puck carrying option to the option, with good pinching instincts. He also for some reason mesh superbly with Gio, seen by the fact that the two career season he had he has been paired with Brodie for the majority of those seasons.

          Now Brodie do make mistakes, yes 100% and he needs to clean up his decision making in the run in. But his style of play really helps this team transition from defense to offense and help maintain that offensive zone. He has the puck A LOT on his stick, and turnovers are going to happen because of it. He is one of the top 4 defenceman on this team and suggesting he be scratched for the playoffs is honestly kind of ridiculous

          • Albertabeef

            Total Team Goals against(includes special teams)
            Giordano 85
            Hamonic 76
            Hanafin 71
            Brodie 71
            total Team Goals For(includes special teams)
            Giordano 129
            Brodie 84
            Hanafin 75
            Hamonic 70

            Brodie is not the weakest link.

        • The Beej

          quite a few posters criticized the move and the player right away without taking some obvious things into account. Many said what is the point of spending a 4th on an AHLer who wouldnt factor into the lineup before even seeing him play.

          Here are some obvious things they missed:
          1. Injuries happen and we have been kind of spoiled. Our call ups in 2004 were a part of our success when Gauthier and Lydman went down.

          2. Treliving said they have been scouting him for a while. Obviously they think his style of play fills a need. In the playoffs you need defensive players. Sure he doesnt have the offensive upside of Valimaki or Kylington but he is a decent option for the 3rd pair on a good team. I dont understand the automatic assumption that he is penciled in below those two or that he is an AHL scrub at best. Long term Valimaki and Kylington are higher on the depth chart for sure but today…

          3. Rookies. You just dont pin all your hopes on rookies. At least smart GMs dont. The oilers do and I dont understand how after everything that has happened in Edm how Flames fans can still actively advocate for a management style like the oilers.

          Do Valimaki and Kylington deserve opportunity? Absolutey. But the smart play is to not put crazy pressure on them right away. Let them figure out and develop their game first. Now you can put them in and work them in… but you always have Fantenburg to fall back on.

          Actually quite a good move by BT and I dont understand the criticism of it. It was smart. Proactive and pretty much the opposite of what the Edmonton oilers have been doing for over a decade. And it didnt break the bank.

          • Avalain

            Ok, so I never really said anything either way about Fantenberg, but I can understand a lot of the sentiment. First of all, let me say that coming from not knowing him at all, I’m immediately comfortable when he’s on the ice. He’s been fantastic for what he cost and what he makes and I expect him to make the team next year.

            However, there were two issues with his signing. First of all, Vegas had just picked up Stone and people (including me) were getting starry-eyed with the thought of an incredible right winger to play with Gaudreau and Monahan. Second, it seems that left D wasn’t the position that was at risk if injuries occurred. We had Valimaki and Prout as left-handed depth defenders. On the right side, however, we only had Stone and we didn’t even know how close he was to returning. On top of that, Brodie is playing on the right and could be moved to the left if required. However, moving someone like Valimaki to the right doesn’t seem like a good idea.

            Now, of course, I’d personally want to see Fantenberg on the 3rd pairing for the rest of the season. He’s been great! I’m more comfortable with him than any of the other options. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that fitting Stone in when he wants so much money would be very difficult, not to mention how it could affect the room.

  • Sploooosh

    Lots of people talking about neal on the pp. Here is my thought!

    pp1 -Johnny for entry/play making lw, moneyhands (monahan) in centre for the tight stuff in in the middle of the net. Tkachuk for net front presence/grease. Neal on the right side point for some board presence and grit, Gio holding fort on the d line.

    Gaudreau, monahan, tkachuk, neal, gio = pp1

    bennett, lindholm, frolik, anderson/hanafin = pp2

    Pp2 Move lindholm down for Ryan at Centre. bennet on the left for net presense/grease, frolik on the right for his shot/forechecking with Anderson and hanifin on the point

    The only issue i have really is that moving lindholm removes the second centreman/defensive responsibly from pp1/derek ryan’s faceoff skills get bumped off.

    • LannyMac

      Yes Yes and Yes so you making the assumption that scoring went down because Brodie went to the third par. Thank god you showed up I was searching for that revelation but couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

      • Albertabeef

        Can’t win games if you don’t score. Defense is as much a part of creating goals(even without pinching) as the forwards. Well two games back with gio and the team scores 15 goals!!! 15 freaking goals!!!!! Must be coincidence.

  • I like Mangi but he gets knocked down 4-10 times a game. Almost every shift he gets pushed off the puck. He needs to take a page out of JG’s book and avoid contact. Just use skill and speed. Obviously he will not be as good as JG in doing it but for his size he can’t crash and bang like a Bennett. He should sit and Neal in.

  • Justthateasy

    Would it be too disruptive if one guy was rotated in each night to get playing time and to give regulars a rest. A different guy each night it’s no different than a serious injury and the whole team needing to adjust. New guy will not be complacent.
    I would say Neal gets no priority because he has not proven anything this season. No time to experiment with the possibility of him being washed up. There will be an injury, likely during playoffs when the going gets tough, and that’s when he goes in on a more than one game trial basis.

    • Beer League Coach

      I would be OK with rotating the guys on the 3rd pairing. That would keep them fresh and reduce the probability of injury due to fatigue. With the addition of black aces from Stockton, Neal would drop to about 16th or lower on the fwd depth chart.

  • Vinnsanity0412

    Quine and Neal in, Czarnik and Mangi out. Playoff Hockey is a different beast! Really? A pop up appeared in the middle of typing this, so I apologize in advance for all of the errors!

    • everton fc

      Has Czarnik outplayed Mangiapane? Mangiapane certainly plays a more physical game, than Czarnik, which is why he is working out on the 4th line.

      Let’s not forget, that 3rd line w/Neal on the RW was playing well.

      • MontanaMan

        Mangiapane plays a more physical game? You’re kidding right? The kid has some finesse but no strength, no corner work and no grit. He spends half his shift sprawled out on the ice. Mangi will have a very difficult time finding ice time in the playoffs. He’s just not built for the grind.

        • Albertabeef

          Mangiapane 32 games 32 hits 12 blocks 6 Giveaways 11 takeaways 43 shots
          Czarnik 42 games, 4 hits, 19 blocks, 13 Giveaways, 16 takeaways 53 shots
          Quine 9 games 9 hits 1 block 5 giveaways 2 takeaways 6 shots

          Mangiapane looks as good or better than both Czar and Quine in almost every stat. He has a hit per game and generates more than a shot a game on the fourth line minutes. He has come out of a scrum with the puck many times that I’ve watched and I have not seen a lot of games out here on the coast. What I see impresses me, and I believe he is the exact kind of grinder type player we need come playoff time. His and Ryan’s tenacious forecheck work lead to Benny’s goal the other night as an example. It does not always show on the scoreboard how valuable this kid is to the team.

  • Lazarus

    No chance that Neal’s run of bad luck continues. 4% shooting? And in close most? No way..and the great thing about playoffs is it only take a couple big goals to forgive everything.
    I know he has that in him and more

  • cjc

    Neal will draw in, no question. In the playoffs, and assuming no injuries, Mangiapane will be the first to sit – he has seen fewer minutes than Czarnik, and was stapled to the bench in the third period of a blowout against New Jersey. And Peters will want Hathaway for toughness – it’s been a long time since he sat.

    As for D, Fantenberg in for the most part, Stone, Kylington and Valimaki will draw in depending on how the series is going and injuries.

  • Brian McGrattan's Salute

    There is just no way Neal doesn’t get it everyone. Its just the way ltll go. Plus, I think he will start to play better with (a) some good rest here, and (b) a slower, more tough brand of hockey. Like I said above, if he gets on the third line with Janko and Benny again, and if Janko starts playing a bit better, I think they could be a good grind and cycle line at the very least, wiith hopefully some goals, too.

  • withachance

    As most people have said, he’ll slot as the 3RW, with hopefully top PP time, moving Tkachuk down to PP2. That would hopefully also increase their scoring rate as well.

    BP will no doubt put on the blender in the playoffs when the team is down and that’s hopefully when we see the Real Deal pop off with Jonny and Monny or Tkachuk and Backs

  • Pizzaman

    BP will only be focused on winning first place. He has never been in the NHL playoffs. He will ice what he thinks is the lineup to get him first place. San Jose is thinking the same way. This race will go down to the last game of the season. Therefore BP wont make any changes to the lineup based on “needing to give somebody ice time” or “help develop a rookie”. There is no margin for error. You do not want to play Vegas and this team has to have a home ice advantage. BP will (and should) only ice the best lineup period. So Neal Stone Vallimakki or Kyllington are not guaranteed ice time. But as most posters acknowledge Neal will replace Czarnik or Mangi to make the best team. I think Neal is a huge mistake but he was improving slightly before his injury. I think you ride Fantenberg till he falters and Stone stays on the sidelines. BP may fool his though, he likes rookies!

  • SeanCharles

    Gaudreau-Monahan-Lindholm
    Tkachuk-Backlund-Frolik
    Bennett-Jankowski-Neal
    Mangiapane-Ryan-Hathaway

    Gio-Brodie
    Hanifin-Hamonic
    Fantenberg-Andersson

    Rittich

  • Oil consuming Flames

    So, the Flames Magic Number is 2 and the Flames can be the first Western Conference team to clinch a play-off spot with any combination of Flames winning one of next 2 games and Minnesota not winning on Saturday, or Flames winning both of next 2 games Rangers and Jets. Ideally, we just win those, but beating Rangers tonight the night before they play Minny and having them win there would be fantastic. However, if Flames beat Rangers, the Flames/Jets game starts an hour before the Rangers/Wild game on Saturday and Flames can do it without any help.

    GFG!!!

    • Oil consuming Flames

      Technically Colorado and Chicago are still within reach, but 2 Flames wins takes care of all. Should be clinched by Saturday regardless.

      So,
      If Arizona catches Vegas, Calgary could still get Vegas in the first round if they win the division. Vegas has a game in hand on Arizona, but Vegas plays SJ twice, both in SJ, and also play Dallas and StLouis, all on the road. They also play Winnipeg and heads-up against Arizona, but at home. Arizona only has TB, NYI, and Vegas on road, they do Finnish the season at home against Winnipeg. One wonders if Winnipeg might rest some players too for their final reg season game?

      Does Arizona catch Vegas?
      Is their head-to-head game April 4 for 3rd?
      Does Flames/Sharks March 31 game decide 1st?

      I love this time off year almost as much as play-offs. All the moving parts and possibilities!