One of the biggest issues that has plagued the Calgary Flames for the better part of two seasons is the absence of a capable right winger to play with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan on the first line.
The right side has been an organizational weakness for several years, and efforts to fill this particular gap has been nothing short of a failure. Since Jiri Hudler‘s PDO-fest of a season, which saw him amass 78 points and finish eighth overall in league scoring, Monahan and Gaudreau have been flanked by a revolving door of mediocre wingers. From Troy Brouwer and Sam Bennett, to Micheal Ferland and Jaromir Jagr, many have auditioned for the role of first line right wing and many have failed to secure that coveted role. Even Ferland wasn’t able to find consistency despite scoring 20 goals.
In a season that has fallen short of lofty expectations, Brad Treliving will no doubt be on the hunt for a talented player to bring stability to the Flames’ lineup. This player will have to check off the following boxes:
- Shoots right
- Offensively talented
- Can play big minutes
- Powerplay prowess
- Not slow
However, with the free agent pool looking awfully thin, especially on the right wing, options appear to be limited barring a blockbuster trade. The top five pending UFA right shooting right wingers by points this season are:
- Alex Chiasson: 9G – 9A – 18P
- Chris Stewart: 10G – 6A – 16P
- Tommy Wingels: 8G – 8A – 16P
- Drew Stafford: 8G – 7A – 15P
- Radim Vrbata: 5G – 9A – 14P
These options are, in a word, horrible. Right wing isn’t an easy position to fill on any team, and more often than not, a fix in the top six will come internally. A small consolation for being without any high draft picks this year is what is undoubtedly a solid group of prospects. The Flames are lucky to have several high achieving junior players and even a few in AHL Stockton who look like they will be good NHLers. Unfortunately, very few of these players play right wing, and fewer are right shooting. The internal options for the Flames include:
- Spencer Foo: 20G – 17A – 37P, Stockton AHL
- Glenn Gawdin: 56G – 69A – 125P, Swift Current WHL
- Matthew Phillips: 48G – 64A – 112P, Victoria WHL
- Hunter Smith: 9G – 8A – 17P, Kansas City ECHL
- Austin Carroll: 5G – 2A – 7P, Stockton AHL
This list is even worse that the previous. Foo is the candidate most ready to play a key role at right wing on the NHL roster. Gawdin and Phillips are overagers in junior and will likely require AHL seasoning, and Smith and Carroll are likely on their way out of the organization after failing to establish themselves in the ECHL. Foo has just one NHL game under his belt (Saturday’s game against Edmonton) and despite having an excellent second half of the year, can’t be relied upon to provide consistent scoring on the right side in a top-six role.
Nothing has gone right this season. We don’t need to go into all the ways they underachieved, but in a year where “sticking to it” and “being due” didn’t work at all, it’s time to start thinking outside the box for solutions. Instead of following traditional, boring methods, something new should happen. The vacant spot on Monahan and Gaudreau’s right side should be filled by Dougie Hamilton.
Hear me out.
From Own The Puck, a prototypical first line winger should be able to contribute offensively, generate shots and scoring chances, and be able to shoulder 18-20 minutes a night. They don’t need to be excellent defensively, but around average in shot suppression. This is how Hamilton stacks up against this profile:
These hero charts don’t capture the full image, especially when comparing players out of position, but in less ice time than an average top line winger, Hamilton scores more goals, more assists, generates more shots, and is on par with shot suppression. He shoots right, is incredibly gifted offensively, plays on the powerplay, and averages 20 minutes of ice time per night. This chart is just one tool of many used to evaluate players, but it points to a potential fit on right wing. If anything, it’s worth a try.
The jump from defense to forward has been done before with varying degrees of success. One success story is Dustin Byfuglien in Chicago, who moved from right defense to right wing, a move that was instrumental in helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2010. Another is Brent Burns, who started subbing in for an injured player in practice, and ended up sticking as a forward for multiple seasons. Both players were formidable on the wing and have since moved back to defense – for the most part. The most interesting instance, though, comes out of the 1985 Entry Draft. Wendel Clark was drafted first overall as a defenseman by the Toronto Maple Leafs, but was converted to a forward. He became one of the best forwards in Leafs franchise history, and his number was raised to the rafters in 2016. There are many other example of players moving from defense to forward for a game or two including former Flame Jim Vandermeer, but Clark, Byfuglien, and Burns are the most well known success stories.
Clark was a generational talent who played in a different era that valued a different set of skills. Byfuglien has publicly stated that he is much more comfortable playing defense, and it’s believed the Winnipeg Jets moved him back to appease him in his contract year. Burns, on the other hand, is a surprising comparable for Hamilton.
Comparing Burns’ season prior to moving to forward and Hamilton’s current campaign is interesting.
In almost every category, Hamilton’s offensive totals this season are higher than Burns’ the season prior to his move to forward, both 5v5 and in all situations. Hamilton scores more, shoots more, converts at a higher rate, and generates more shot attempts than Burns did. Similarly, both Hamilton and Burns are/were scrutinized for their defensive play. Much of the criticism surrounding these players involves defensive lapses and play in their own zone. Burns’ move to the wing, which allowed him to focus on the offensive side of the game, worked well for the Sharks. His offensive totals jumped in almost every area, both at 5v5 and in all situations, despite playing nearly six minutes less each night.
If Hamilton was subject to just 50% of the positive regression Burns was when he moved to forward, his output would no doubt label the move a success:
This would result in a stat line at the end of a full season of 31G – 32A – 63P.
The numbers might not be actualized. In fact, they probably won’t be. It’s possible Hamilton is unfit to switch positions and would struggle in that role. Maybe his league leading 17 goals from the back end won’t translate to anything spectacular up front. But even from a purely logistical standpoint, why not try it out?
One of the biggest reasons why Burns moved to forward – and why he was moved back to defense – had to do with organizational depth. At the time, the Sharks were incredibly deep on the blueline and lacked offensive depth. Burns moving to forward allowed the Sharks to roll Justin Braun, Dan Boyle, and Jason Demers on the right side. Playing with premier playmaker in Joe Thornton and a skilled youngster in Tomas Hertl, Burns was placed in an ideal position to succeed. The Flames are in a similar situation. With several promising young prospects vying for an NHL role, moving Hamilton to the wing would open a spot for Rasmus Andersson and, in a year’s time, Adam Fox. Seeing what these young players can offer at the NHL level is important in evaluating the future success of the team. Playing with an elite playmaker in Gaudreau and bonafide sharpshooter in Monahan seems like the perfect place to slot in Hamilton.
After a disappointing season, this experiment is low risk. If Hamilton isn’t working out on the wing, move him back to defense. No harm, no foul. But if he turns out to be the missing link the Flames have been searching for, this could be the move that anchors the Flames’ offense and cements them as a perennial playoff team.