Monday, September 5, 2016

2016-17 Calgary Flames Season Preview | Part 1: Forwards

Despite multiple analysts' projections placing them near the bottom of the NHL's standings, the Calgary Flames enjoyed an unexpectedly-successful season in 2014-15, which culminated in a trip to the second round of the playoffs and resulted in high hopes for the future. Instead, the Flames lost a step in 2015-16, falling 20 points from 2014-15 to end with a lowly 77 points, 10 out of a playoff spot.

Now, entering the 2016-17 season, the Flames have many reasons both to hope for the future, and to draw doubt from the past. The team has been historically poor analytically under the tutelage of coach Bob Hartley -- now that he's been replaced by former Stars coach and Canucks assistant Glen Gulutzan, how will the Flames respond?

Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio, and Niklas Backstrom made up the Flames' goaltending tandem last season. None of these goaltenders hold NHL contracts for the 2016-17 season, which is indicative of their quality of play in 2015-16. Statistically, the Flames' goaltenders were the worst in the NHL last season, and Hiller was the worst player at his position. These four players have been replaced by Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson for the 2016-17 season, who both posted save percentages above .920% last year; however, neither have ever played more than 55 games in a season. Though they both have exemplary statistical records, will they be able to hold up over the regular season grind?

I'll attempt to answer these questions and more in this, my preview of the Calgary Flames' 2016-17 season.

Today, we cover the forwards. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the defence, on Wednesday, we’ll discuss goaltending, and lastly, on Thursday, we’ll discuss prospects and management.

A lack of offence was not the reason for the Flames' troubles last year. Calgary finished 10th in the NHL in goals scored last season, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise for the Flames to jump over the 250 goal mark in 2016-17. The Flames have loads of skill up front; it's their defence that needs work.

Here’s my projection (or best guess) for the Flames’ forward lines in 2016-17:

Johnny Gaudreau - Sean Monahan - Hunter Shinkaruk
Alex Chiasson - Sam Bennett - Troy Brouwer
Matthew Tkachuk - Mikael Backlund - Michael Frolik
Lance Bouma - Matt Stajan - Micheal Ferland
Linden Vey

No one can talk about the Flames' forwards corps without first mentioning their top offensive dynamo: Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau finished tied for sixth in league scoring last season, and at age 23, he's only improving. He has world-class skating, hockey IQ, and playmaking abilities, not to mention a quick release and elite puck control. He's a superstar in this league and will be a face of the NHL for years to come. Expect upwards of 35 goals and 85 points from Johnny Hockey this season -- assuming he's signed soon.
Projection: 36 goals, 55 assists, 91 points

Gaudreau's partner in crime? Centre Sean Monahan. One of the Flames' most consistent goal-scorers, Monahan is also a superb playmaker. Though Gaudreau is easily the highest producer on the Flames' first line, make no mistake -- Monahan is a star of his own, and there's a good reason why Flames' GM Brad Treliving recently re-signed #23 to a seven-year contract in August. The 21-year-old should easily top 30 goals and 60 points again this season, and may even reach the 35/70 marks.
Projection: 34 goals, 41 assists, 75 points

Troy Brouwer was the Flames' most high-profile free agent acquisition this offseason. The 31-year-old received a 4-year deal worth $4.5 million per season on July 1. Though some fans have called the deal an overpay, there's no dispute that Brouwer brings leadership capabilities and experience to a very young Flames team. Brouwer was an assistant captain during his time with the Washington Capitals, and was a member of the Stanley Cup-winning 2010 Chicago Blackhawks. Though Brouwer isn't an elite scorer, he's usually dependable for around 20 goals and 40 points. If he plays with Gaudreau and Monahan, those numbers could go up.
Projection: 21 goals, 24 assists, 45 points

If Brouwer doesn't play with Gaudreau and Monahan on the top line next season, expect rookie Hunter Shinkaruk to fill that void. The Calgary native impressed in his cup of coffee with the Flames last year, and he should only get better as he gets older. The 21-year-old was acquired from Vancouver in exchange for Markus Granlund last season, and while Granlund put up modest numbers with the Canucks following the trade, it's Shinkaruk who will likely be the better of the two players in the future.
Projection: 14 goals, 29 assists, 37 points

Matthew Tkachuk, the 6th overall pick in this past years' draft, could stick with the Flames after training camp and earn an everyday spot on the roster past the nine-game mark. The son of former St. Louis Blue and Winnipeg Jet Keith Tkachuk, Matthew possesses many of the traits which made his father a star: a great shot, good hockey sense, and hard-hitting physical play. He had a solid development camp, and once he improves his skating, he'll be a star in this league.
Projection: 13 goals, 18 assists, 31 points

My #1 fantasy dark horse for the 2016-17 season is Sam Bennett. Sometimes forgotten amongst the other young stars on the Flames, the #4 overall pick in 2014 is seemingly on the verge of a breakout season. He put up 18 goals in his rookie season last year, and if he continues to progress, he could hit 25 next year. More of a playmaker than Monahan, Bennett also has more tenacity and aggression in his game. He could usurp Monahan's position as the Flames' #1 centre in coming seasons.
Projection: 21 goals, 30 assists, 51 points

Sticking with centres, Mikael Backlund had a breakout season last year. The Flames’ 3rd-line pivot is a fantastic two-way player. He’s a premier possession player on the Flames, and he also put up 21 goals and 47 points in 2015-16. He makes up half of a great possession-and-scoring tandem in the Flames’ middle-six.
Projection: 16 goals, 30 assists, 46 points

Who makes up the other half of that tandem? Winger Michael Frolik. Brouwer’s teammate with Chicago in 2011, Frolik won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2013. After signing in Calgary after the 2014-15 season, Frolik was expected to provide scoring depth on the right wing for the Flames. He did just that, scoring at exactly a 0.5 PPG pace in 64 games in a 2015-16 season marred by injuries. Expect similar production in 2016-17.
Projection: 14 goals, 29 assists, 43 points

Staying on the trend of players with something to prove: Lance Bouma. Bouma enjoyed a career year in 2014-15, putting up 16 goals while establishing himself as one of the NHL’s premier shot-blockers. However, he suffered a nightmare season in 2015-16, as he was limited to only 44 games due to multiple injuries and dropped 14 goals to 2. Bouma’s entering the second year of his three-year, $6.6 million contract, and he still has a ton of potential (he’s only 26). If he stays healthy, he could hit 10 goals and 25 points.
Projection: 8 goals, 11 assists, 19 points

It’s easy to forget that Matt Stajan is entering his eighth season as a Flame, but he’s here for good reason. Acquired in the Dion Phaneuf blockbuster of January 2010, Stajan has never been a huge scorer in Calgary (his best full season came in 2013-14, when he put up 33 points in 63 games), but his leadership capabilities and heart have more than made up for that. Few memories of Flames teams from recent years stick out more than his penalty shot goal against the Oilers following the death of his son in 2014. He’s overpaid, yes, but there are few better fourth-line centres and mentors in the NHL.
Projection: 4 goals, 11 assists, 15 points

Following a spectacular playoff in 2015, during which his line with Stajan and David Jones constantly tormented the Vancouver Canucks, Micheal Ferland had high expectations put upon him for the 2015-16 season. However, Ferland was plagued by a season-long scoring slump, putting up only 4 goals and 18 points in 71 games, while leading the Flames with 207 hits. Ferland should receive increased playing time following the departures of Jones and Jiri Hudler, and in the right circumstances could recapture some of his playoff magic of two seasons ago.
Projection: 7 goals, 19 assists, 26 points

Alex Chiasson, acquired in June from Ottawa in exchange for defenceman Patrick Sieloff, also enters 2016-17 hoping to regain past magic. Chiasson played for the Flames’ new coach Glen Gulutzan in 2013 back when the latter was the Dallas Stars’ bench boss, and in seven games, he put up seven points. Chiasson followed it up with a strong 35-point sophomore season, but his point totals have steadily dropped since he was traded to Ottawa in 2014, falling to 26 (in 76 games) in 2014-15, before hitting an all-time low of 14 (in 77 games) in 2015-16. Like Ferland, Chiasson may thrive with expanded playing time in 2016-17, and could reach 35 points again with the right linemates and playing time.
Projection: 8 goals, 20 assists, 28 points

The Flames signed Linden Vey to a one-year deal in early July. Had you forgotten? Though not the Flames’ most high-profile acquisition this summer, the 25-year-old Vey still has potential, and actually put up decent numbers (15 points in 41 games) on a terrible Canucks team last year. He'll likely compete for a spot on the fourth line.
Projection: 5 goals, 9 assists, 14 points

Finally, enforcer Brandon Bollig is entering his third season as a Flame. What he lacks in scoring touch (he scored his 9th and 10th career goals in 54 games with the Flames last season), he makes up for with his truculence, but in a league where speed and skill wins you championships, does Bollig still have a role on the Flames next year? Brian Burke may say so, but as Bollig enters the final year of his contract, don’t expect him to play 54 games again next year, as Calgary makes room for their new acquisitions. At best, he'll be the 13th forward.
Projection: 0 goals, 2 assists, 2 points

(For those of you counting, that's 201 goals from the forwards. Yeah, I know that last year they only had 178. But last year, they were terrible, and in 2014-15, they had 192, only 9 fewer than my projections.)

Check back tomorrow afternoon as I preview the Calgary Flames' defence. I hope you enjoyed this, or at least have something new to talk about.

TL;DR -- The Flames have forwards who can skate, shoot, and hit -- some better than others.

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