A good chunk of Flames fans are waiting for another “shoe to drop” at forward. A potential Jack Eichel acquisition from Buffalo is the most frequent discussion topic these days, while the immediate futures of Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk are debated plenty. While a move involving any one of those names could very well happen, we’re also about seven weeks from training camp.
There’s no guarantee a forward facelift is coming, which means what you see now could be how Calgary opens the season Oct. 16 in Edmonton. If that’s the case, projecting how this forward group is set to come together is an interesting, but not easy, exercise.
The top line
The easiest projection, at least for me, is starting the season with Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk together on a top line. That trio was constructed in early April and stayed together for the vast majority of the team’s final 16 games. The results were promising and strong enough for head coach Darryl Sutter to roll them out again to start training camp.
The most encouraging part of that line’s play down the stretch was what we saw from Gaudreau and Tkachuk. Both players had their struggles during the season, but looked far more like themselves on Lindholm’s flank. Gaudreau had 22 points in that 16-game stretch, while Tkachuk rattled off six goals and 12 points in his final eight outings.
Also encouraging is the fact the Flames have added a number of new options on the right side. On paper, the acquisitions of Blake Coleman, Tyler Pitlick, and Trevor Lewis should be upgrades on right wing compared to last season. As such, continuing to use Lindholm down the middle likely won’t feel like as big a loss on the right as it did last year.
The rest of the depth chart
Here’s where things get interesting, especially knowing so much of Calgary’s success in their middle six will hinge on Sean Monahan. Coming off his worst NHL season, which was hampered by injury down the stretch, a resurgent Monahan would give the Flames some intriguing possibilities. Below is what they have on the roster to work with as it stands right now.
|Andrew Mangiapane||Sean Monahan||Blake Coleman|
|Dillon Dube||Mikael Backlund||Tyler Pitlick|
|Milan Lucic||Glenn Gawdin||Trevor Lewis|
|Adam Ruzicka||Brett Ritchie|
I’m making a few assumptions above, like putting Lewis at right wing. That’s where he’s played the last few years in LA and Winnipeg, but Lewis has also spent significant time down the middle during his career. I only listed players who suited up in multiple NHL games last year, so you don’t see Matthew Phillips, Connor Zary, and Jakob Pelletier. Any one of those gentlemen could be factors as early as training camp or later on in the season.
Having a proven play driver like Coleman is a great asset to have. Because of his versatility and ability to play up and down the lineup, Coleman’s addition gives Sutter some important flexibility when constructing his lines. One option is to put him with Backlund and Mangiapane to form a two-way powerhouse, which would have the overall group looking something like below.
In this scenario, Sutter could use Backlund’s unit as a second top line, capable of playing in any situation against top opposition. By then hammering the fourth line with a ton of defensive responsibility, Monahan’s line could theoretically be freed up for a ton of offensive high ground with favourable matchups. It’s an intriguing option that could help hide some of the limitations in Monahan’s game the last couple seasons.
This second approach has Monahan in more of a traditional 2C role with Backlund centering a true “shutdown” third line. In theory, the same ability would exist to feed Monahan’s trio plenty of offensively tailored situations, but with a pair of wingers able to finish in Dube and Coleman. In this scenario, Sutter would be counting on those two wingers to push the pace, potentially presenting Monahan scoring opportunities in open space.
The drawback here is Mangiapane’s usage. While he is beyond capable of playing strong shutdown hockey, Mangiapane seems poised for an offensive breakout season. As such, it would be tough to maximize his production using him in an “eraser” role. Defensively, though, a line of Backlund, Mangiapane, and Pitlick would be tough to score on.
The options above are just a couple ways the Flames could approach things if they don’t make any significant changes at forward prior to the season. If they do, well, this was fun exercise nonetheless.