Saturday, February 18, 2017

Making the Most of It: Gulutzan About to Deploy the Best Top Nine and Top Four He Can

Saturday is Hockey Day in Canada and for rabid fans of the game, that means three longstanding traditions:
  1. Watching hockey. It might be your kid's game, it might be your favourite NHL team.
  2. Bitching about the coach's line combinations and defence pairings.
  3. Repeat No. 2, but this time with more disgust.

Yet in Calgary, Flames coach Glen Gulutzan is expected to ice tonight in Vancouver what I would argue is the best configuration of top-nine forwards and top four defencemen that he can concoct given the ingredients he has at his disposal.

Up front, it's the first time since opening night that the top nine hasn't featured at least one of either Lance Bouma or Alex Chiasson.

Distinguishing the expected top four on defence against the Canucks tonight will be the lack of Dennis Wideman. Back on Oct. 12 as you'll recall, Wideman and Mark Giordano were a thing while Dougie Hamilton was paired with the late Nicklas Grossmann.

At practice on Friday, Gulutzan's line configurations were:

Tkachuk - Backlund - Frolik
Gaudreau - Monahan - Versteeg
Ferland - Bennett - Brouwer
Bouma - Stajan - Hamilton

Of the few noteworthy changes, the most significant change in an attempt to get the team's two highest paid forwards going is moving the skilled Kris Versteeg onto the right side with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

This move is long overdue.

Going Back in Time

Back in early October when Versteeg fled Oilers camp at the 11th hour and signed with Calgary one day before the season began, the thinking was that he would play in that spot on what was expected to be and should be the Flames top line.

That was where he was deployed for the first three games of the season. But after Calgary went 0-2-1 off the hop, Gulutzan changed things up. Versteeg, despite demonstrating all season that he is a higher skilled player than people realized, has not returned to that post.

What makes that a bit of a head scratcher is it's not as if Gaudreau-Monahan have this tremendous chemistry with someone else. Gulutzan has tried four other options there and has not found the right combination.

That duo of No. 13 and No. 23 have been together for 31 games. Here's the breakdown by right-winger:
  • Alex Chiasson, 18
  • Troy Brouwer, 7
  • Kris Versteeg, 3
  • Michael Frolik, 2
  • Matthew Tkachuk, 1

A right-hand shot, it's time to give Versteeg another chance on that line and commit to keeping them together to see if they can build some chemistry because you'd think that there should be something there.

As for the first three games, I'd argue if this was a trial, that is evidence that should be inadmissible. Remember, the situation.

Early Days Were a Struggle for Everyone

First, Calgary was very much trying to learn Gulutzan's new systems. At that early stage of the season, the team was collectively more familiar with Rick Astley song lyrics than where they should be on the ice and what they should be doing. 

Secondly, those three had virtually no time to get comfortable with each other. To recap:
  • Oct. 10 - Gaudreau signs
  • Oct. 11 - Versteeg signs, Gaudreau's first practice
  • Oct. 12 - Flames play in Edmonton, lose 7-4
  • Oct. 13 - Flames practice
  • Oct. 14 - Flames host Edmonton, lose 5-3
  • Oct. 15 - Flames play in Vancouver, lose 2-1

That was it. Just six days together, only two actual practices together -- both being the first two times on the ice for both Versteeg and Gaudreau -- and then that plan was abandoned. Versteeg was moved to a line with Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer and the carousel began with Gaudreau and Monahan -- Matthew Tkachuk for a game, then Michael Frolik for a game, then Chiasson for far too many games.

Get them back together, keep them together, and see if Versteeg can turn into Jiri Hudler 2.0, or at least Jiri Hudler lite. We've seen the skill from him. He's got some tenacity to his game to go get a puck. It seems like it could work.

3M Stays Intact

First put together as a line in game on Oct. 24 in Chicago -- after Tkachuk had spent the two previous games as a healthy scratch -- the 3M line of Mikael Backlund, Frolik and Tkachuk has been Calgary's top line by far. 

Not only have they been consistent, but they've been consistently great. Thriving in their defensive responsibilities of shutting down an opponent's top line, while also providing way more offence than was expected. Backlund leads the team in scoring with 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists) while Tkachuk sits second at 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists).

They've been kept together for that entire stretch other than three games. On Nov. 10 and 12 -- ugly home ice losses I'll point out to the Dallas Stars and New York Rangers, Micheal Ferland replaced Tkachuk for two games when the rookie was sidelined with a cut hand. Then in Ottawa on Jan. 26 in the last game before the NHL all-star break, Chiasson subbed in for Frolik, who was moved onto the Gaudreau-Monahan line in an attempt to get them going.

Other than that, they've been one of the best lines in the NHL all season and the biggest reason Calgary woke up this morning in a playoff spot.

Ferland Promoted, Chiasson Sits

Ferland has had a great season as a fourth liner. What he hasn't been able to do is sustain that level of play when he gets bumped up in the line-up, which has happened several times.

While Brouwer was out, he had a six-game run alongside Bennett and Versteeg, He's had a few games on the port side with Monahan and Brouwer. But those opportunities for more ice time haven't worked out and sooner than later, he finds himself back on the fourth line where he finds his game again.

It's a game that has been pretty good. Ferland's eight goals are double what he had last year. His 15 points are three off his career-high. His breakaway goal the other night in Pittsburgh that opened the scoring showcased his deceptive speed and skill.

Ferland-Bennett-Brouwer have not been a line yet this year, but again, it looks like it could work. If Bennett-Brouwer can find the groove that they appeared to be in early in the year and if Ferland can pretend he's on the fourth line and just play a simple game of being physical, driving the net and shooting pucks, they'll be another trio in the top nine for opposition to take note of.

While Bennett has had an off year in general, there have been signs of life lately so maybe, just maybe, Gulutzan has the right mix with two guys on either side that can play a physical, nasty game but also have the ability to finish.

As Good As It Gets on the Back End

Meanwhile, it looks like it will be Deryk Engelland deployed with TJ Brodie to round out the top four on defence, behind Giordano and Hamilton.

Let's face it, Wideman just doesn't have the speed to be able to play 20 minutes per night in the top four. He was being exposed and it was dragging down Brodie with him.

Engelland is not a long term solution by any means. Comparing the foot speed of Engelland versus Wideman is not the hare versus the tortoise but more so like comparing a tortoise to a tortoise with a bad wheel, but for now, it's the best option you have. 

For what it's worth, when Brodie-Engelland are a thing and it's been seven times this year, Calgary is 4-2-1.

Maybe Matt Bartkowski becomes a top four option, but caution with that hope. He was playing in the AHL all season so I don't think he's a slam dunk top four defenceman that was off the radar for 30 NHL teams.

Last game, Wideman's ice time dropped to 12:32, his lowest in nearly three years. It should probably stay at about that amount the rest of the way too. I don't think there's much more in the tank with this guy, who is in the final season of his five-year deal and becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Final Word

The Flames have six games before the trade deadline, five of them are against teams currently not in a playoff spot. For the most part, they're playing every other day so they have some practice time in there as well, despite being mainly on the road. 

Now's the time to keep these top three lines together for an extended period and see where they can take this team.

As for the fourth line, mix Chiasson back in for Freddie Hamilton, inject Garnet Hathaway now and then, mix and match, but make no mistake, if the Flames are going to get to the dance this season, it's on the back of the top nine. 

Now with great curiosity and in an important game at Rogers Arena that wraps up Hockey Day in Canada, we'll see if the new combos work.

If they do, fans will have to find something else to bitch about. Meanwhile, enjoy the silence.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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    1. Scoring lines still not doing much...

      1. I realize this was over a week ago but it's starting to come. Bennett creating more now, although still not being rewarded. Ferland has provided a spark to Gaudreau line. Backlund-Tkachuk-Frolik are still producing. The line configurations right now, if left alone, should be able to generate enough offence to get them into the post-season.