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How many spots are actually available at forward?

Training camp battles are never a bad thing. They raise the competition level on the ice and reinforce depth in the organization. For the Flames in 2019, most of their competition is at forward with multiple players battling for an NHL spot, or in a few cases, a contract. But what exactly are these players fighting for? And how many opportunities realistically exist in Calgary? The answers to those questions should only ramp the competition up another level.

Lay of the land

With the understanding Matthew Tkachuk has yet to sign, I count 12 forwards who I can safely put on the opening night roster. Some are obvious choices, with a couple notable inclusions and/or omissions to debate:

Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Elias Lindholm
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Michael Frolik
Milan Lucic-Derek Ryan-Andrew Mangiapane
Dillon Dube-Mark Jankowski-Sam Bennett

Please don’t take those combos as a projection for opening night, because that’s not what I’m illustrating. Instead, it’s a rough representation of the 12 forwards I believe should be on the roster on Oct. 1 when Calgary needs to finalize things.

The notable omission is Austin Czarnik, who spent all of last season with the Flames but dressed in only 54 games. While obviously in the mix to win a roster spot, I don’t think Czarnik is guaranteed a spot, specifically because most of his $1.25 million cap hit can be buried in the American League. I like Czarnik and he showed some flashes last season, but struggled to consistently impact the game in the bottom six.

As for Dube, I just can’t see him starting the season in Stockton. He’s been one of Calgary’s best players in 2019 camp and is coming off a very successful first full professional season. Right now, I think Dube brings more than a lot of older and more experienced bubble forwards fighting for spots. Sure, he doesn’t require waivers to be sent down, but that shouldn’t keep him from being in the lineup October 3rd.

So, if 12 forward spots are indeed spoken for, that leaves two open slots, right? Well, not necessarily, depending on a few factors. In fact, if the Flames can fit Tkachuk’s contract under the cap without moving someone out, there might only be one vacancy. With the team bumped up against the cap, carrying 13 forwards might be the way to go, as this would allow them to bank space for later in the season.

Calgary may not be able to sign Tkachuk without moving an active contract, though. Especially if the two sides agree on something longer term, a player may have to be dealt to make room. That would open up an additional spot, even if the Flames opted to carry 13 for most of the season. Regardless, though, there just aren’t a lot of spots open and cap space is tight. If you’re one of the players below, opportunities are definitely limited.

The contenders

The PTOs. Calgary invited four forwards to camp on tryout agreements with three of them realistically in the mix for an NHL job: Tobias Rieder, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Zac Rinaldo. All three bring something different to the table and all are in the mix for fourth line and/or 13th forward duties.

Of the three, Rieder is the most intriguing for me, mainly because of how he’d fit. I’m well aware he scored zero goals in 67 games with Edmonton last season, but signing him with an eye to offence wouldn’t be the goal. Instead, Rieder could help on the penalty kill while adding speed to a fourth line that could feature similarly quick forwards.

Austin Czarnik. Some might have him pencilled onto their roster, which is fine, but I think Czarnik is fighting to stay in the NHL to start the year. Czarnik was really good at times last season, but also had extended stretches of being invisible. He should have a leg up on some of the other competition, but if it came down to Czarnik or Dube, I’m taking the latter without hesitation.

Alan Quine. Quine has impressed more often than not since joining the organization just over a year ago. He was Stockton’s best player last season and held his own in 13 NHL games. Quine has taken things another step in this year’s camp; he was one of the team’s best players in Wednesday’s win over San Jose and was effective Monday in Victoria.

Quine has an added benefit, too: he plays centre. None of Czarnik, Rieder, Smith-Pelly, or Rinaldo play down the middle, which gives Quine versatility they don’t have. The ability to play Quine on the wing is nice, but he’s also an option at centre if injuries occur and/or a trade happens.

Conclusion

The best case for these bubble forwards is a trade to make room for Tkachuk, because that would open up two roster spots. Of course, that’s not necessarily ideal for the Flames, depending on who gets shipped out in the hypothetical scenario. Fortunately, that decision is independent of what happens with Quine, Czarnik, et al.

Competition is always a good thing in training camp, especially for a team looking to compete at a high level like Calgary. With competition comes tough decisions, though. With limited opportunity and cap space, the Flames will likely have to make a few of those between now and the start of the season.