Welcome to Hot Take Tuesdays, the weekly feature where we take a look at a hot topic surrounding the Calgary Flames, dissect and discuss the issue, and see whether or not it’s actually valid. Have a ‘hot take’ you want us to tackle? Let us know and you may see the topic appear down the road!
The Calgary Flames have turned around their special teams mightily since last season. Currently as it stands, the team ranks ninth in the NHL in terms of power-play percentage at 21.9%. This is a ridiculously vast improvement from last season’s 29th showing at 16.0%. A lot of this can be attributed to both the addition of Elias Lindholm and the work done by Geoff Ward.
Of course, lately the power play units have not been operating at its highest potential. Since the dreaded all-star break, the Flames have been operating at just 16.9%, good for 19th in the NHL over that stretch, and only have produced 10 goals. It’s not necessarily a massive red flag, but being able to capitalize on those man advantages come playoffs will be the difference maker the team needs.
Lay of the land
This season, 13 players have registered a point on the man advantage. These 13 will be used as a pool of skaters to reconfigure the current units. As they currently stand, the units deployed are:
As you can see by the power play points in parentheses, the first unit has been the primary drivers of power play offence. The first unit has combined for 41 goals, while the second unit combined is only at 10. It’s virtually night and day. If it were possible, the Flames might be best off just using the first unit for two straight minutes. The team needs to find a way to balance both of these units so they are legitimate threats for the full two minutes, regardless of who is on the ice.
First Unit: Gaudreau – Monahan – Lindholm – Neal – Giordano
Before the pitchforks come out, take a second to think about this. It is evidently clear that Neal has had a disastrous first season with the Flames. With only five goals and 10 assists, Neal has been unable to generate any consistent production. In the first year of a five year deal, paying him $5.75M per season, some are already ready to cut ties. I take a different perspective: an underutilized weapon.
When Neal has played this season, he has normally been seen deployed in the bottom six or on the second power play unit. If his career statistics show anything, it is that Neal benefits significantly when being used in a complimentary role rather than a generator role. In Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Vegas, he was given ample opportunity to play with those teams’ best players. In Calgary he has yet to have that opportunity for an extended period of time.
Neal is a power play specialist, his career number show it. 72 of his 268 career goals have come on the man advantage (26.9%). A prime example of him capitalizing with high quality players on the power play is in Pittsburgh. When playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the top unit, the Real Deal put up 38 goals in 199 games played over four seasons. To put that in perspective, Monahan has the most power play goals at 49, but over 462 games played.
He clearly has the credentials to continue the noise on the top unit. By taking Tkachuk off the top unit, you are able to park Neal right in front and around the crease. He can provide a similar edge to the unit like Tkachuk does, but he also would be able to generate time and space to give the other players another option. Monahan and Neal would be able to alternate positions based on what the others can create.
This move might make a lot of sense when you see it in action.
Second Unit: Tkachuk – Backlund – Bennett – Ryan – Andersson
Moving Neal to the top unit also provides a huge addition to the second unit in Tkachuk. Addition by addition, if you will. The biggest problem with the second unit is that outside of Backlund there isn’t really a secondary threat to opponents. That is not meant to be disrespectful towards the rotating forwards that we have seen this season, but Tkachuk is in a league of his own compared to the remaining options.
People spend a lot of time focusing on the Monahan – Gaudreau duo, but the argument could be made that the Backlund-Tkachuk duo is better. As we saw on Sunday against the Golden Knights, the two have incredible chemistry and can both make highly skilled offensive plays. Tkachuk definitely has chemistry with the top power play unit, but based on the potential alone, Tkachuk fits the bill for running the second unit with Backlund.
Bennett and Ryan have also been a pleasant surprise on the second unit this year, with the former having four goals on the season. Austin Czarnik has definitely earned a shot on the man advantage, but he simply is the odd man out if things play out this way. He could be the odd man out of the lineup as well once Neal returns.
When it comes to the defence, while Hanifin and Brodie have been solid options, Andersson presents the most upside. Despite a small sample size to work with, Andersson appears to have the skill set to be an effective power play quarterback in this league. Following Giordano’s lead, a similar style of power play deployment is better for both units. Consistency is key, and going with a 4F-1D on both units allows for fluidity should things need to change further.
How hot of a take?
Moving Neal up to the top unit is probably one of the hottest takes you could make, but when contrasting that with a little dash of realism; it makes a lot of sense. He can remain on the third line, but giving him the additional time to play on the power play could make a huge impact come playoff time. Plus, moving Tkachuk to the second unit provides much more stability to a unit looking for more offence.
What are your thoughts? How hot of a take is this? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @wincolumnblog.
Featured photo by Al Charest/Postmedia