Sunday, August 23, 2015

Line Combo Conundrums: The Ramifications of Playing Sam Bennett at Centre

Bob Hartley sent some ripples through Flames nation last week when he noted in this short interview with Glen Schiller on the TSN show That's Hockey that he plans to play Sam Bennett at centre this season.

"Our plan today is to start him at centre and see how he does," said Hartley, speaking from what appears to be a golf tournament in Terrebonne, Quebec. "I'm not a big fan of moving young centres to the wing and hopefully we can keep him all year at centre."

In 12 NHL games last season, Bennett spent almost all of his time on left wing. While he's a natural centre and that's where I fully expect him to spend a majority of his career (see my unabridged list of the Flames top three centres for every season since 1980), I was one of those people with the mindset that this move may not come for another year. Here are a few reasons behind why I thought that:

1. Strengthens the Top Six

He may only be 19 years old and he's only played in one NHL regular season game but make no mistake, Bennett was selected fourth overall in the 2014 draft (and was considered No. 1 for a while) for a reason -- he's a very talented player already.

Assess the forward depth on the Flames and and a case could be made that he's already one of their best six forwards. However, that short list also includes two others in Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund that are already locks at centre. Bennett's chemistry with Backlund in their short time together last season made pairing them together again this season seem like a smart plan.

2. Maximizing Matt

Matt Stajan is destined to be the Flames fourth line centre at some point but he's not necessarily at that point yet. An underrated player, Stajan in a third line role behind Monahan and Backlund is an excellent fit for where the 31-year-old is at in his career and for the type of game he plays and the responsibilities he shoulders.

3. Creates Competition at Centre

This configuration with Monahan, Backlund, Stajan as the club's top three up the middle leaves an opening on the fourth line and there is no shortage of guys with centre on their resume that we'd see on stage if this September Calgary was to hold American Idol-like auditions for that role.
  • Markus Granlund
  • Drew Shore
  • Josh Jooris
  • Joe Colborne
  • Paul Byron
  • Bill Arnold

For Markus Granlund and Drew Shore, are they NHL players? It's time to find out. For Josh Jooris and Joe Colborne, what are they exactly? I think we're still figuring that out -- best role, best position, etc. While utilized mainly on the wing in recent years, could this be an ideal fit for Paul Byron? This isn't the same NHL as it was a few years back when you filled your fourth line with six-minutes-a-game tough guys. Also, don't sleep on Bill Arnold, who is 23 already. Entering his second pro season, Gaudreau's centre when he won the Hobey Baker Award at Boston College may not be that far away.


This Changes Everything

If you slot Bennett at centre, there are suddenly no vacancies at that position so while that does provide closure as to who the four centres will be, it also raises plenty of questions about how the forward group breaks down. The biggest of the questions is how would Bennett even be deployed? Given there are four lines, you could say there are four different roles he could be cast in for the 2015-16 season. Let's examine each.


1. Bennett on Line No. 1

There's a good chance Bennett ends up as Calgary's No. 1 centre eventually so why not this season? It's not to say he's going to overtake Monahan on the depth chart already, but what it could mean is Calgary moves away from its model last year of having one elite top line and instead tries to balance out the top two lines with Bennett and Monahan cast in different roles.  For example:

Gaudreau - Bennett - Hudler
Ferland - Monahan - Frolik
Bouma - Backlund - Jones
Colborne - Stajan - Jooris


Long term, I see Monahan doing a lot of the heavy-lifting when it comes to line match-ups for the Flames but I don't see that as Gaudreau's forte. Getting the diminutive winger away from the opposition's top line would make more sense.

So while last year's Monahan-Gaudreau partnership worked out nicely and was certainly effective, pairing Bennett and Gaudreau might make more sense and by doing that, you could insert Monahan between a couple players that are stronger defensively, giving Hartley a trusted unit to send over the boards to protect a one-goal lead late in the game.


2. Bennett on Line No. 2

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Who could blame Hartley if he chose to keep his top unit together again this season. While their production fell off in the playoffs, the Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler line was the best and most productive trio in the NHL for a lot of last season. Also, if you subscribe to the notion that Backlund is ultimately built to be an ideal third line centre, your configurations could come out looking like this:

Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
Ferland - Bennett - Frolik
Bouma - Backlund - Jones
Colborne - Stajan - Jooris


A fair question though is does this ask too much of Micheal Ferland? After all, he's only played 26 regular season games in the NHL. As an alternate set-up, you could move Frolik to the left side as he does shoot left (he told me in the summer he's comfortable at all three forward positions) and then elevate veteran David Jones to the second line. Your top six would then turn out like this:

Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
Frolik - Bennett - Jones


That leaves several options for your bottom six. Here are a few configurations to ponder:

Bouma - Backlund - Ferland
Colborne - Stajan - Jooris

or

Bouma - Backlund - Colborne
Ferland - Stajan - Jooris

or

Ferland - Backlund - Colborne
Bouma - Stajan - Jooris


3. Bennett on Line No. 3

While Bennett's ceiling is very high, he's still only 19 and both Monahan and Backlund are better players right now. By keeping Monahan and Backlund 1-2 in the top six, that also protects Bennett for his first season and lessens the expectations and pressure put on him. In this scenario, your line combinations could come out like this:

Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
Ferland -  Backlund - Frolik
Bouma - Bennett - Jones
Colborne - Stajan - Jooris


Given the edge Bennett plays with, putting him between two big bodied crash-and-bang wingers like Bouma and Jones could result in an effective third unit that could put up some decent offence while being used to wear down an opponent.


4. Bennett on Line No. 4

While the likeliness of this happening seems far-fetched, if you really want to go to the extreme in sheltering Bennett in his rookie season, one could use him on the fourth line at even-strength while finding him some extra ice time on the power play. It seems like a ludicrous way to use a 19-year-old kid as talented as he is but hey, you never know what Hartley is thinking. Such an approach could result in this breakdown:

Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
Ferland -  Backlund - Frolik
Bouma - Stajan - Jones
Colborne - Bennett - Jooris


Of course, it's Stajan's effectiveness in a defensive role with Bouma and Jones -- as we've seen plenty of before -- that makes this configuration a possibility. Intriguing here is Colborne has some soft hands too and as a pass-first guy, that could result in Bennett getting a lot of looks to the point where his suppressed offensive totals could end up featuring more goals than assists.


Final Thoughts

Getting out the napkin at lunch and scribbling out possible line combinations is one of the best ways for hockey fans in a hockey-mad market to pass the time in the summer and admittedly, that's exactly what I've done today. But this commitment to use Bennett at centre is a very notable development that does get one thinking about the ramifications.

Lost in the above combinations is a guy like Mason Raymond. You'll notice he's not listed anywhere on the mocked-up lines as I have him, Drew Shore, Brandon Bollig, Markus Granlund and Paul Byron as the extras. That said, Raymond is a guy the Flames brought in last summer to score goals and while he's coming off a poor and inconsistent season, the veteran left winger could be the biggest benefactor of moving Bennett to centre.

If Raymond comes in and has a good camp and gets back into the good books with Hartley, perhaps he ends up being that missing piece from the top six, allowing Ferland to play in a third or fourth line role likely better suited to where he's at in his career.

The bottom line is with main training camp less than a month away, this is yet another storyline to follow with the Flames, never mind the possibility that there is still movement to come -- maybe via a trade -- to alleviate the logjam of forwards and that could change everything yet again.

We'll have to wait and see although we won't have to wait very long as training camp gets going in just a few weeks. In the meantime, just like Hartley, it's time to go back outside and get in some golf while we still can.



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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7 comments:

  1. Thanks for another great post. How about Colborne-Bennett-Frolik on line 2? You are right about Colbourne's soft hands...

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    1. Yep, Colborne is another option. As a past first round pick, he has the pedigree to play top six and he's a decent playmaker. This camp could be a big opportunity for him, for sure.

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  2. Great preview Darren. I like the idea of keeping Sean Monahan and Gaudreau together but love the possibilities here. One question, do you think Frolik is a lock in the top six? He's new here and I wonder if there isn't an adjustment period for him.

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    1. We are all guilty of too often using the words "top six" when really, Brad Treliving has said often in the past he sees his forward group as a collective top nine with a functional fourth line. On that note, Frolik is a lock for top nine and his ability to play more offensively or more defensively means he could play with Backlund or Bennett or Monahan. I would consider him above David Jones so that pretty much puts him in top six territory for me. For what it's worth, Hartley also said in the video that they want Frolik to score more so that tells me they see him as a guy that should get a lot of ice time worthy of one of their top two RW's.

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  3. Thanks Darren for the response. I am also looking forward to Josh Jooris' camp and 2nd season.

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  4. Having just recently discovered your blog I have to say I really am enjoying your posts. I find myself checking back daily for anything new you may have written.
    For this particular article I particularly like your number one option for Sam Bennett. I think that Sam and Johnny had instant chemistry in last year's Young Stars tournament. Hudler is the ultimate mentor and will fit in nicely with the two youngsters. Monahan will be complemented by the 200 foot game of Frolik and the physicality of Ferland.
    The options for the 3rd and 4th lines are so varied that it will be very difficult to predict who slots in where. What to do with Bouma, Jooris, Colborne, Jones, Poirier, Raymond, Granlund, Byron, Bollig, etc., etc.?
    I strongly suspect a blockbuster trade before the puck drops on this season, hopefully producing some wiggle room for next year's contract negotiations.

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    Replies
    1. Just found me? Well, I'm glad you did. Ferland's placement on line No. 2 has garnered a lot of feedback. Some are in your camp but most thinking no way, he should be on the fourth line instead. This all speaks to the situation that there is an opening for someone to play a significant role on this team on line No. 2 and it could be Ferland, Jones (via Frolik shuffling to LW), Colborne, Raymond, Jooris.... It's going to be an interesting story line to follow this September. Cheers.

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