Saturday, September 26, 2015

From Shades of Grey to Black and White: Calgary's Forward Picture Coming into Focus

As I wrote right here in my game story for The Canadian Press on Friday night, the big impact Micheal Ferland had in Calgary's 4-1 win over Vancouver is something we've seen before from the Flames rugged winger.

However, my gut says we may have also witnessed something else of significance last night at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Going back to the second period specifically, I would not be surprised if the top two lines as deployed by coach Bob Hartley over that 20 minutes isn't the same top six and in the same configuration that we see when Calgary opens the season against the Canucks on Wednesday, October 7.

Now Hartley is still very much in experimental mode. Through the first four preseason games, he's been methodically changing his forward line combinations and defence pairings every period, seeing what works and seeing what doesn't.

To refresh your memory, what worked in the middle period Friday night were these two trios:

Johnny Gaudreau - Sean Monahan - Micheal Ferland
Michael Frolik - Sam Bennett - Jiri Hudler

When Hartley made it known in early September that he planned to use Sam Bennett at centre, it created a top-six opening at winger. From what we've seen to this point, I'd suggest Ferland has put himself into the lead of all the candidates for that job.

There's certainly no denying that Hartley loves the kid.

"He is a force out there," Hartley said after Friday's game. "This kid is so strong and such a great skater and what we're missing with Ferly is he has unbelievable hockey sense. His reads are great, his hands are great. This kid can make plays."

Brings Useful Muscle to the Top Six

While enormously gifted, there is no physical side whatsoever to last year's No. 1 trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler. Monahan has the size to have that element in his game but we've yet to see a hint of a mean streak from him. The only 'fight' we saw out of those three last season was over the Lady Byng Trophy with the three racking up 14, 12 and 14 penalty minutes respectively.

While you can't argue their effectiveness, you'd expect the rest of the league to start defending them with a little more ferocity this season. More whacks on the wrists with sticks, more cross-checks, a variety of nastiness intended to intimidate and get them off their game.

At 6-foot-1 and a thick 210 pounds, Ferland inserted on right-wing for Hudler would be a nice influx of muscle beside the team's two prized kids and would help serve as a deterrent. The attractive part is Ferland's also got the skill to play with those two. His set-up to Monahan on that two-on-one to spree him for the Flames third goal was first-rate.

Remember this isn't the first time this camp we've seen these three together either. They were together last weekend during their two scrimmages also. You started to see the chemistry then and it's already growing.

New Line but Similar Role for Hudler

While moving Hudler off the top line might look like a demotion, that's not necessarily so. Slotting the veteran alongside Bennett and with his fellow countryman Michael Frolik on the opposite wing, that line would have the potential to be a very effective unit.

Hartley has raved about Frolik's versatility and ability to play in different roles and take on different responsibilities. This could be an ideal fit for the newcomer, who has looked very good in his first two games. Sound defensively, the 27-year-old's presence makes this a line that can be trusted at both ends of the ice.

Meanwhile, Frolik would still have plenty of opportunity to leverage the skill we've seen from him in his first two games in which he's picked up two goals, earned a penalty shot, and also chipped in an assist. Last night's goal was a thing of beauty as the Czech neatly kicked the puck up from his skate to his stick and fired it past Jacob Markstrom in the same motion.

Hudler was lauded last year for the valuable mentor-like role he played for Gaudreau and Monahan and he'd get that same opportunity once again with Bennett, who just turned 19.

Meanwhile, we know Hudler is a UFA at year's end and if his contract demands end up too rich for the Flames and he departs and signs elsewhere, at least he's bought enough time for the organization that with a second season in the AHL, maybe Emile Poirier is ready to slide into a top six spot if such a vacancy arises.

Fret Not Backlund Supporters

While media and fans love to number a team's lines and rank them from one to four in order of hierarchy, the truth is that Flames GM Brad Treliving doesn't see it that way. Treliving has spoken in the past about how he envisions Calgary's forward configuration not as a top six and bottom six but more so as a top nine complemented by a functional fourth line.

Sometimes the depth on a team up front doesn't cater to this but Calgary is certainly moving in the direction where there is credence to dividing the forwards in this fashion and separating out a clear top nine.

In this instance, rounding out your top three lines as I see it would be this trio:

Lance Bouma - Mikael Backlund - David Jones

Saddled with additional defensive responsibilities from the other two lines, that doesn't automatically mean they will get less minutes. On some nights against certain opponents, this could be the team's No. 1 line if you insist on putting them in an order.

We're all familiar with how far Backlund's game has developed the last couple years. He has become a very good two-way player. Bouma and Jones are two power forwards that can be tenacious with a heavy forecheck, are solid in their own end, but can also contribute offensively.

Making Sense of the Fourth Line

If I'm on the right track with what the team is thinking in regards to the top nine, this brings some clarity to what we're looking at with the remaining forwards and the much-discussed logjam that we've been dissecting all summer and into training camp.

Now it's simple. There is veteran Matt Stajan locked into centre on the fourth line and the Flames are looking for four others to surround him. Two will open the season as his wingers and the other two will make the season-opening roster but will observe the game from the press box.

As we reach the halfway point in training camp, here are the four that I suggest make it:

  • Josh Jooris - Scored a great goal Thursday in Denver. They love his speed. He does a lot of things well including killing penalties. Has the flexibility to be deployed in different roles when injuries arise. After a breakthrough season last year, his trajectory is pointing up as we don't know yet what his ceiling is. Also, the team doesn't switch him to jersey No. 16 in the summer if he wasn't a big part of their plans.
  • Joe Colborne - A first round draft pick, he continues to add muscle to his big frame that should make him even more effective when it comes to controlling the puck. A great playmaker, who has gotten better each year, he has the size to be an effective fourth line player even if he doesn't have an ornery side to go with it. A good guy to have around as he can elevate to a top nine role if needed.
  • Paul Byron - The NHL game is about speed and Byron packs plenty of that. Able to play multiple positions, he is an ideal depth player to have on the roster. He can be used to kill penalties, his blinding speed makes him a nice ace up the sleeve for Hartley come 3-on-3 overtime. This is no longer an era of fourth line thugs. Byron, an advanced stats darling, can give you an effective 10-12 minutes.
  • Brandon Bollig - He's one of the favorite targets of disdain for fans but the team loves his presence in the dressing room, he's worn an 'A' at times in the preseason to give you a hint of what Hartley thinks of him. Plus, he is someone who plays his best against big physical teams like the LA Kings with his effectiveness growing significantly in meaningful games like the playoffs. Considering Calgary plans to get back to the post-season, they'll want his presence around.

What are the names we're missing?

I'll save you doing the math. Here are the three that at this point, I don't envision opening the season with the team unless there are injuries up front.
  • Mason Raymond - Ferland's emergence is bad news for Raymond. If the Flames construct their top nine as I've suggested, that reduces Raymond's role to fourth liner and that isn't a great fit for him. The physicality, ability to kill penalties, be heavy on the fore-check, the elements the club wants to see from its fourth line isn't Raymond's forte. He's more built to be on a scoring line and I don't see an opening. You wonder about Raymond's relationship with Hartley too, which last year appeared strained. Doubtful you can trade him at his price tag, it would not surprise me if he is placed on waivers, goes unclaimed and ends up in Stockton.
  • Drew Shore - Had a tremendous night at the face-off dot Friday night going 9-1 but there isn't an opening at centre and I don't think he beats out any of the four players above. Perhaps Treliving is able to trade him for a fifth or sixth round pick. If not, expect him to be assigned to Stockton where he may or may not get claimed when he travels through waivers. My gut says he would make it through, especially at this time of year when all teams have their own Drew Shore's. However, even if he is claimed, Derek Grant has had a nice camp and would give Calgary that similarly aged experienced call-up option that can play centre or wing.
  • Markus Granlund - It's a different situation for Granlund, 22, who is someone I still envision having a successful NHL career. He's a smart player defensively and has some nice offensive tools too. It's his contract situation that could cost him this October as the team likely leverages their ability to demote him to the minors without exposing him to waivers. However, I fully expect Granlund to be the first guy called up when injuries set in. 

How the Goalie Conundrum Impacts This

The caveat to everything I've mentioned above is these decisions are all based on the so-called 'conventional' 23-man roster construction of two goalies, seven defencemen and 14 forwards.

The operative words there are "two goalies". As you know, there are currently three.

Ideally, Calgary will find a taker for one of their two veteran goalies prior to the start of the season but if not, they will face a decision. Do they open the season with all three or do they assign either Jonas Hiller or Karri Ramo to the minors?

I am highly skeptical the Flames would risk exposing Joni Ortio on waivers. His play so far this preseason along with his tiny $600,000 NHL salary would make him very attractive. On the other hand, at the exorbitant price tag for Hiller or Ramo, it's doubtful either of them would be claimed on waivers if the club chooses to go down that path. While I still believe Hiller is the guy that ultimately will go, even if it was Ramo and if a team did claim him off waivers, it's no big deal as Calgary was prepared to lose him last summer without compensation anyway when he became a UFA.

If Calgary instead opts to open the season with all three goalies on the roster, that means an additional forward from that list of four (Jooris, Colborne, Byron, Bollig) will need to be either traded or placed on waivers. 

However, I'm doubtful they open with three as other than managing egos, it doesn't make sense. Given there is no real risk to putting Hiller or Ramo on waivers and with the healthy situation of Jon Gillies uncertain at the moment and he is supposed to be Stockton's starter, assigning one of the veterans to the AHL seems like the logical way for this to unfold.

Meanwhile, Treliving would still patiently wait for the goaltender marketplace to switch from excess supply to excess demand and when that eventually happens, even if the team has to retain some salary, you'd expect they'll be able to move one of them.

Final Thought

There are still just under two weeks to go before the Flames open the season and plenty of opportunity for different players to raise or lower their stock. Heck, maybe Hartley decides one more year at left-wing is the right thing to do with Bennett and that changes everything.

But for now, from what I've seen and heard, this is how I see things unfolding when I look into my crystal ball and it's as formidable of a top nine that we've seen in Calgary in a long time. That's something Flames fans should be very excited about. Hang in there folks, just 11 more sleeps.

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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  1. If you have to move an older player, I would move Bolig or Jones.
    Jones has more skills and his size would be important for a team looking
    to protect smaller players. Edmonton and Toronto come to mind. Obtaining a second plus sending his cap hit away would help. Everyone talks about Monahan and Gudreau jumping to seven milion but I do not see that. I think their next contract is 3-3.5 mil for three to four years.

    On defence I see a couple of guys being moved , those being Engelland and Smid . It's time to give Wotherspoon a spot and there is a plethora of
    D that could come up. The more you see of the two Swedes, one of them is going to establish himself as a keeper either now or during the season.
    In addition I can see three to four more guys being ready to make the jump now. So,bring it on. We get a second for Engelland and probably a second or two picks in the form of a pair of threes or a three and a prospect for Smid. Hiller would bring you a second and a prospect. Or you might get a 2 and 3 for him.

    1. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment but I don't see much of what you suggested happening.

      1. I think you're significantly overestimating the return the Flames would get for Jones, Hiller, Smid and Engelland.
      2. The bridge deal as it's been called, that you're suggesting for Monahan and Gaudreau, has become rare. If it happens, it would not be for 3-4 years., it would be shorter like the 2-year deal Brodie signed prior to his big deal. It's also a dangerous way to proceed with players that are then in their prime next contract and then you are potentially looking at $8M deals. These are elite players, there is no doubt. There is some merit to locking them in on a long-term deal at $6M if you can.
      3. While there is optimism about the D in the system now, I'm not sure any are ready to make the jump yet, never mind 3 or 4. This is a position that's in a better state than it was, for sure, but more time in the AHL for Wotherspoon, Kulak, Morrison, would be the best move. I've liked Kulak the best of that group but last year was his first pro season. The maturation of a D-man is longer than for a forward.

      But it makes for good conversation always, so again, thanks for the thoughts.

  2. You are an absolute idiot

    1. Is that worse or better than being a 'stupid' idiot?

  3. Not sure when I last saw so much pie in the sky in one post. If even one of your predictions/suggestions were to come true, the Flames would be ecstatic.

    1. Seems to me you might be overthinking the purpose of the piece, which was really just a stab at how the lines could look to start the season based on what we've seen. In the spirit of 'showing my work', I've included some rationale around why the team might cast players in particular roles and what the potential upside is. This is similar to how I also included explanations around why certain guys may get cut. It's all just fodder for thought.

  4. I'm not sure Colborne deserves a roster spot. He is completely ineffective on the ice beyond the visual appeal of a guy who can protect the puck along the boards. He's just a glorified penalty killer basically.

    Shore has shown me much more hockey-playing ability in much less time.

    1. I respect your opinion and you're not alone in your assessment. For me, he's improved each season and the latter part of last year was a write-off due to a bad wrist in which he could barely shoot. His physical attributes and play-making ability are good enough that I'd give him one more year before moving on. We'll find out soon enough what the management team thinks.