If you’ve been paying attention to the many, many moves made by Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving over the past few months, you’ve probably noticed that the Flames have more forwards with National Hockey League experience than they did awhile ago. And that depth has given the Flames some lineup options they didn’t have previously, particularly up the middle.
In 2019-20, the Flames used four guys as their primary centres: Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Derek Ryan and Mark Jankowski, with Sam Bennett and Elias Lindholm used here and there.
With wingers Josh Leivo, Joakim Nordstrom and Dominik Simon added to the roster, Treliving noted that part of the motivation behind these moves were to give them the flexibility to use Lindholm up the middle. During Sportsnet 960’s United by Community telethon, head coach Geoff Ward indicated that he sees Bennett as a centre for 2020-21.
Even with Jankowski off to Pittsburgh, the Flames have some options up the middle. So who should they be using at centre when games start?
This is a tap-in. Since he debuted with the club in 2013-14, nobody has taken (or won) more face-offs for the Flames than Monahan. He’s been used as a centre since the get-go and he’s pretty good at it, all things considered. He’s anchored the team’s top offensive line for awhile.
Again, tap-in. Backlund is the team’s longest-tenured centre and he’s 10 games away from becoming the eighth Flame in history – and the first centre – to play 700 games for the club. Even as he becomes nestled into his early 30s, Backlund is the team’s best two-way centre and can anchor the shutdown line.
Our pal Pat Steinberg has been banging this drum for awhile. Lindholm is young, a great scorer, and becoming quietly a really effective two-way centre. Part of using Lindholm at centre is appealing because he was good at it last season – he won 52.4% of his draws and was a really nice compliment when used with Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane. The other part of it is in creating some right shot centre depth. Lindholm is 25 and signed through 2023-24. The only other right shot pivot is Ryan, who’s 33 and entering the final year of his contract. It makes way too much sense for Lindholm to be a centre.
And with one full-time spot left, they have a decision to make…
Bear in mind, this isn’t Bennett by his damn self. It’s him with Ryan on his right side, as Ryan is a superb face-off ace who can really help with key draws. Bennett is the least experienced of the team’s full-time centres and has a super-small sample size of success at the position, but he’s 10 years younger than Ryan and he’s either (a) in his last season before Seattle claims him in the expansion draft or (b) about to displace someone else from the Flames’ expansion protection list. It’s the put up or shut up season for Bennett – and the Flames – and they need to know what they have in him.
Is Ryan a better centre? Well, right now he is. But the Flames need to play the long game here, and investing crucial ice time on a pending free agent would seem a bit wonky.
Beyond these four, five including Ryan, the depth tails off quite a bit. Glenn Gawdin and Byron Froese are depth options on the farm, but relatively untested at the NHL level. Dillon Dube hasn’t really played any centre at the NHL or AHL levels. Milan Lucic, Dominik Ryan and Joakim Nordstrom can take draws, but aren’t natural centres.
Who would you slot up the middle for the Flames? And how would you use them if you were Geoff Ward? Sound off in the comments!