Sunday, May 24, 2015

Homegrown Flames: Boasting Strength up the Middle for the First Time in a Long Time

It's been over 20 years since Calgary boasted a line-up in which their top three centres were all homegrown. Add drafted by the Flames to the criteria and you need to go back nearly 35 years.

But that could be on the verge of changing.

With Sean Monahan (1st round in 2013) and Mikael Backlund (1st round in 2007) already entrenched up the middle, as soon as Sam Bennett (1st round in 2014) is shifted back to his natural position of centre -- possibly at the start of next season, the Flames will brandish a top three all groomed by the organization for the first time since 1994-95.

Now that was a while ago so if you don't recall that lockout-shortened season, Calgary's depth chart at pivot consisted of Joe Nieuwendyk (2nd round pick in 1985), Robert Reichel (4th round pick in 1989) and Joel Otto (signed out of US college in 1984).

Now consider this. In the 20 years since, the Flames have made the playoffs just seven times. That speaks to the importance of the position and how badly Calgary has struggled to adequately stock it.

But before we explore that, let's begin with this unabridged historical listing of the Flames top three centres for every season going back to 1980. I needed to go back that far to find the last time all three were also Flames draft picks. It was in 1980-81 and 1981-82 and all three were Atlanta draft picks -- Kent Nilsson (4th round pick in 1976), Guy Chouinard (2nd round pick in 1974) and Jim Peplinski (4th round pick in 1979).

I will say that assembling such a list was not an easy undertaking and took quite a bit of research -- especially the early days. Rather than black and white, I found there is plenty of grey most years in trying to identify a top three. You have players coming and going via mid-season trades (e.g. Craig Conroy for Cory Stillman in March 2001), role changes due to significant injuries and players sometimes switching between centre and wing (e.g. German Titov). Nonetheless, this is what I've cobbled together so roll with it. (In yellow are playoff seasons.)






1

2

3

2014-15

Sean Monahan

Mikael Backlund

Matt Stajan

2013-14

Mikael Backlund

Matt Stajan

Sean Monahan

2012-13

Mike Cammalleri

Matt Stajan

Mikael Backlund

2011-12

Olli Jokinen

Mike Cammalleri

Matt Stajan

2010-11

Olli Jokinen

Brendan Morrison

Matt Stajan

2009-10

Daymond Langkow

Matt Stajan

Craig Conroy

2008-09

Olli Jokinen

Daymond Langkow

Craig Conroy

2007-08

Daymond Langkow

Craig Conroy

Matthew Lombardi

2006-07

Daymond Langkow

Craig Conroy

Matthew Lombardi

2005-06

Daymond Langkow

Matthew Lombardi

Stephane Yelle

2003-04

Craig Conroy

Matthew Lombardi

Stephane Yelle

2002-03

Craig Conroy

Chris Drury

Stephane Yelle

2001-02

Craig Conroy

Marc Savard

Rob Niedermayer

2000-01

Marc Savard

Cory Stillman

Jeff Shantz

1999-00

Marc Savard

Cory Stillman

Jeff Shantz

1998-99

Jeff Shantz

Cory Stillman

Andrew Cassels

1997-98

Andrew Cassels

Cory Stillman

Michael Nylander

1996-97

Dave Gagner

Robert Reichel

Cory Stillman

1995-96

Michael Nylander

German Titov

Cory Stillman

1994-95

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Joel Otto

1993-94

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Kelly Kisio

1992-93

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Joel Otto

1991-92

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Carey Wilson

1990-91

Joe Nieuwendyk

Doug Gilmour

Joel Otto

1989-90

Joe Nieuwendyk

Doug Gilmour

Joel Otto

1988-89

Doug Gilmour

Joe Nieuwendyk

Joel Otto

1987-88

Mike Bullard

Joe Nieuwendyk

Joel Otto

1986-87

Mike Bullard

Carey Wilson

Joel Otto

1985-86

Dan Quinn

Carey Wilson

Joel Otto

1984-85

Carey Wilson

Dan Quinn

Mike Eaves

1983-84

Kent Nilsson

Mike Eaves

Dan Quinn

1982-83

Kent Nilsson

Guy Chouinard

Doug Risebrough

1981-82

Kent Nilsson

Guy Chouinard

Jim Peplinski

1980-81

Kent Nilsson

Guy Chouinard

Jim Peplinski



Draft Disasters

Not surprisingly, failure at the draft table has played a prominent role in centre being such a thin position for this club for so long. A look back reveals numerous misses when it came to selecting potential incumbents via the NHL Draft. The following list are picks (along with their Flames NHL totals) expended on centres in rounds 1 and 2 from 1993 through 2010, which did not pan out -- at least in Calgary.
  • 2008, 2nd round, 48th overall - Mitch Wahl, Spokane, WHL
  • 2008, 1st round, 25th overall - Greg Nemisz, Windsor, OHL (15 gm, 0-1-1)
  • 2002, 2nd round, 39th overall - Brian McConnell, Boston U
  • 2001, 2nd round, 41st overall - Andrei Taratukhin, Russia
  • 2000, 2nd round, 46th overall - Jarret Stoll, Kootenay (didn't sign)
  • 1999, 2nd round, 38th overall - Dan Cavanaugh, Boston U
  • 1998, 2nd round, 33rd overall - Blair Betts, Prince George, WHL (35 gm, 3-5-8)
  • 1997, 1st round, 6th overall - Daniel Tkaczuk, Barrie, OHL (19 gm, 4-7-11)
  • 1995, 2nd round, 46th overall - Pavel Smirnov, Russia

Of 10 centres the Flames drafted in the top 50 picks over those 18 years, Backlund is the only one that worked out in Calgary. The other nine combined for just seven goals in 69 games in a Flames uniform.

Two of note that did enjoy NHL success, just not with the team that drafted them, were Stoll, who did not sign and went back into the draft and was selected two years later by Edmonton. The other was Betts, who went on to play 442 NHL games with the Rangers and Flyers after spending most of his three seasons with Calgary in the minors, Betts was traded to New York in 2004 as part of a package to acquire Chris Simon


Formidable Top Three

Backlund has played the best hockey of his career the last two seasons. In particular, the best part of his 2014-15 season came in the playoffs when he spend most of his time centring an effective line with Bennett and Joe Colborne. He led the Flames in shots on goal with 30 and was third among forwards in ice-time behind Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Backlund is a pending restricted free agent and what he re-signs for and how long, assuming that happens and he's not traded, is a fascinating situation to monitor this summer.

A year ago I wrote in this piece that Backlund, if he was able to play a full season this year like he finished up last year, could be in line to make as much as $5-million annually in his next deal. Instead, he suffered an abdominal injury while training in the summer -- something the Flames were not happy about -- and essentially missed the first three months after eventually succumbing to surgery.

Once he returned, he was a key part of the Flames top six forwards and presumably would be in line for similar responsibilities next season. Bennett is not yet 19 so I would not be surprised to see coach Bob Hartley either keep him on the wing for a while longer or, if he chooses to move him to centre, play him on the third line to give him sheltered minutes, similar to how he handled Monahan in his rookie season.

So while I'd expect Backlund to remain one of the top two centres for at least one more season, how will all his time missed affect his asking price this summer? It seems only a matter of time before Bennett wrestles away his spot and drops Backlund to the third line. But having Backlund as a third line centre given his solid all-round game would leave Calgary in great shape. Before long, those three would represent Calgary's most formidable centre trio since Doug Gilmour joined Nieuwendyk and Otto from 1989 to 1991.

While Backlund said quite bluntly on locker clean-out day that he wants to push to be the No. 1 centre and is not content with just being a second or third line guy, the third line is probably the career path he's on in Calgary given the pedigree of Monahan and Bennett. As I see it, should the Flames be able to sign Backlund for south of $4-million in annual average value and with four years of term, Calgary would be wise to do it and with a fist-pump as they'll be set up nicely up the middle for years to come.


Similar Model to Tampa Bay

One of the most exciting young and talented teams in the NHL these days are the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their quick-strike offence they've showcased against the New York Rangers has been mighty impressive. If you look at the age of their top three centres and compare it to the age of what Calgary's young trio will be as of October 1, 2015, see if you can spot the pattern.

Calgary
  • Sean Monahan, 20 
  • Sam Bennett, 19
  • Mikael Backlund. 26
Tampa Bay
  • Steven Stamkos, 25
  • Tyler Johnson, 24
  • Valtteri Filppula, 31

As you can see, the age gap is exactly the same between all three -- except Calgary's trio is collectively five years years younger across the board. This staggered age thing isn't the be-all and end-all, by any means, but I like the idea of two young stars in the top six and a solid veteran to complement them. I think those are pretty good ingredients for success.

Having a guy like Filppula or Backlund in that third line role gives the team a very good replacement when injuries strikes to the top two, or gives you options should you choose to move someone to the wing for a brief period as Tampa Bay has done these playoffs with Stamkos, elevating Filppula into the top six.


Backlund for Less Than $4M with Term is Ideal

Centres are expensive, that's just the reality, and it's not a position you want to skimp on. Monahan and Bennett are both going to earn hefty pay hikes with their next deals.

While a third line centre making $5-million becomes a little rich, if general manager Brad Treliving can lock up Backlund for several years at around $3.75-million, that gives the team time to come up with a succession plan as they'll need one for when Backlund's next deal expires or even prior to that if you end up in a cap crunch.

A look around at the other three teams still alive in the NHL playoffs gives you a sense of a few different ways that succession planning at centre tends to go and how salary constraints can force decisions.

New York Rangers
  • Top Two - Derek Stepan, 25. Derick Brassard, 27.
Dominic Moore, 34, has been playing third line minutes in the playoffs but with one year left on his deal before he would become a UFA, a replacement is in the pipeline in 22-year-old JT Miller. New York's 1st round pick in 2011, it appears Miller is being groomed to take over a top nine role.


Chicago Blackhawks
  • Top Two - Jonathan Toews, 27. Brad Richards, 35.
Toews will be a Blackhawk forever having signed a deal that runs through 2022-23. However, at a rich $10.5-million per season, a 2-3 of pending UFAs Richards and Antoine Vermette, 32 -- as is the case right now, is not feasible. Enter 20-year-old 2012 first round pick Teuvo Teravainen and maybe even Andrew Shaw, 23, as top nine incumbents.


Anaheim Ducks
  • Top Two - Ryan Getzlaf, 30. Ryan Kesler, 30.
With Getzlaf signed long term and Kesler with another season to go on his deal, the Ducks are in really good shape for next season. Big Nate Thompson, also 30, is a nice piece to complement them. However, keeping Kesler beyond 2015-16 could become too expensive. Thus, the Ducks have 2011 first round pick Rickard Rakell coming along nicely. He could be ready to be a top six centre for Anaheim in 2016-17.


First Build a Foundation, Then Patch Other Holes

There is a school of thought out there that between Markus Granlund, Josh Jooris, Drew Shore, and Joe Colborne that there could be a Backlund replacement in that mix and the Flames can afford to deal the Swede in a trade this summer. I just don't see it. Say Bennett re-injures his shoulder and misses three months. Without Backlund also, now you're looking at one of the above as your second line centre?

While I have no doubt Matt Stajan can give the Flames another season of decent top nine minutes as a poor man's alternative to Backlund, I feel going that route and dealing Backlund would be a gamble. What about the year after? And the year after that?

It's absurd to be so close to being locked and loaded at the centre position for the next several years and have one of the best trios in the league, to throw that all away and start searching once again for something you just had.

In missing the playoffs five straight times prior to last season, the Flames gave season-long auditions to eight different players to see if they could be that coveted top three centre. Contrast that with the stability at the position Calgary has enjoyed in the years they have made the playoffs and it's clear that centre is not a position to be constantly fiddling with.

Sign Backlund for four or more years and then turn your attention to addressing the team's other holes. A solid foundation up the middle like that can cover up a lot of blemishes and leave this team perennially dangerous for years to come, even while they work on addressing other positions such as the blue-line.



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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