Which forward should the Calgary Flames expose in the Expansion Draft?

With the Seattle expansion draft looming closer, discussions have started to heat up on what teams will do with their protection lists. We saw what overthinking the expansion draft can cause, so it comes as no surprise that the debates around player protection lists are heating up. Choosing the wrong player to expose or protect could set a franchise back years. (Looking at you, Florida).

For the Calgary Flames, it’s looking like they’ll have some very tough decisions to make when the time comes. With a much better roster than last time around when the Vegas Golden Knights joined the league, the Flames are set to lose a key piece of their roster in this expansion draft.

Add in the uncertainty of Milan Lucic’s NMC and the Flames will be an interesting team to watch going into the draft. Around the Internet lately we have seen a few different names suggested as the odd man out when the Flames submit their protection list. The four main names tossed out there seem to be Sam Bennett, Andrew Mangiapane, Dillon Dube, and Mikael Backlund.

Let’s assume Lucic waives his NMC and helps the Flames out, which is extremely likely to happen. With Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm as locks to be protected, the Flames have the four names listed above for the last three protection spots. Given the lesser options on defense and in net, it’s very likely that Seattle takes whichever forward the Flames leave exposed, unless they really like Oliver Kylington, who just signed a one-year deal.

Who should be the one left out and available for Seattle? Let’s take a deeper look from least likely to be exposed to most.

ANDREW MANGIAPANE

These are his numbers from the 2019-20 season, and in brackets the rank among Flames forwards with at least 500 5v5 minutes played.

CF%GF%xGF%ixGFTP/60CF% RelGF% RelxGF% Rel
53 (1)52.94 (2)53.40(1)11.48(5)2.02(1)3.79(1)7.44(2)4.23(1)

The first thing that jumps out when looking at these numbers is just how good Mangiapane was last year. He ranked first in almost every category among Flames forwards except GF% and ixGF which he ranks second and fifth respectively. It’s not a stretch to say he was elite at even strength last year and one of the Flames’ best forwards.

Did playing almost half of his minutes with Backlund and Tkachuk help his numbers? No double about it, but it’s not like he was attached at the hip with them all year. He played 353:03 of his 861:18 total 5v5 minutes with them last season, or about 41%. He actually started the year in the bottom six before being promoted into the top six around the end of November.

Add in the fact that his numbers were also very impressive during his rookie season the year prior while playing in the bottom six , and it’s clear he can hold his own regardless of his line mates. Take a look at how his numbers compare the last two years courtesy of mapleleafshotstove.com.

Although his point total of 32 isn’t super impressive, he scored just one of those 32 points on the powerplay. His 29 points at 5v5 put him tied for third on the team with Lindholm and Backlund and behind only Tkachuk and Gaudreau. He had the ninth most powerplay minutes among Flames forwards last year with only 37:39 minutes on the man advantage. Expect that number to increase this year and with it his point totals as well.

By every major underlying number, Mangiapane is a top six forward on the team. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say exposing Mangiapane would be a disastrous move by the Flames and it is highly unlikely to happen. It’s fair to say that Mangiapane should be grouped with Tkachuk, Lindholm, Gaudreau and Monahan as the locks at forward to be protected. He’s also signed to a very reasonable $2.45 million AAV for the next two years which is very good value for a top six forward. Losing him for nothing would be a massive mistake by the Flames.

There aren’t really any strong arguments for exposing Mangiapane, to be honest. Sure, his sample size is small at this point of his career, but his numbers at 5v5 are elite across the board. It’s not like he just had a good stretch for half a season, he has been borderline dominate at even strength for two full seasons regardless of who he has played with. At just 24 years old and entering his third season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mangiapane get even better. The Flames aren’t exposing him.

Mikael Backlund

Backlund’s numbers from 2019-20 are as follows:

CF%GF%xGF%ixGFTP/60CF% RelGF% RelxGF% Rel
51.11(3)52.13(3)50.68(5)11.51(4)1.77(4)1.22(3)6.72(3)0.49(5)

Also boasting some very impressive numbers across the board, second best among the four forwards listed is Backlund. He’s probably the most surprising name to see here as an option to be exposed, but there have been some suggestions that he could be exposed over the younger options almost solely due to his age.

Backlund ranks top five in every category listed above, which isn’t that surprising. Along with Mangiapane and Tkachuk, Backlund was part of the team’s best line last season. He has regularly been atop the Flames leaders in major stat categories for the past few years and is one of the better two-way centres in the league.

Backlund is regularly tasked with shutting down the other teams’ top players at even strength and on the number one PK. The Flames really don’t have any other centres capable of taking on the defensive tasks Backlund does. He’s no slouch on offense either as he’s a lock for 45-50 points every year.

He has been a staple in the Flames top six for the past few years, and a key cog to one of the best lines in hockey. He would leave a big hole to replace in the lineup if he were taken by Seattle. Add in the shaky play of Monahan recently and Backlund is even more important to holding down the fort at centre for the Flames.

The one factor that is working against Backlund, however, is his age. Compared to the other three options, Backlund is much older. Dube is 22, Mangiapane and Bennett are both 24, while Backlund is 31 and will be 32 by the time the expansion draft happens. He did have somewhat of a down year for his standards last season, which could be a sign of age. If the Flames want to keep the younger players and are worried age will catch up with him, Backlund could possibly be exposed.

Another negative factor compared to the others is his contract. He’s signed for four more seasons until he is 36 at a $5.35 million AAV. There is a risk that the last couple years of the contract will be an overpayment. With Tkachuk, Gaudreau, Monahan, Mangiapane, and Dube all having expiring contracts in that time frame, the Flames’ cap situation will be very tight.

It’s something they may need to consider going into the expansion draft but given his importance to the team not only on the ice but in the room as a leader I doubt they leave him exposed. He’s still a crucial part of the team and is well worth the cap hit for the time being. There simply isn’t anyone on the team right now that can fill his role.

Dillon Dube

Dube’s numbers from 2019-20 are as follows. Note, this doesn’t include the playoffs.

CF%GF%xGF%ixGFTP/60CF% RelGF% RelxGF% Rel
46.78(11)51.16(5)46.77(11)5.68(10)1.5(8)-3.51(11)2.51(6)-4.10(11)

The youngest of the group, Dube had an okay rookie season. Looking at the numbers above he clearly has the worst of the four players highlighted, and also some of the worst of any regular Flames forward. These should be taken with a grain of salt however as this was the 22-year old’s first full season in the league. He also spent most of the season in the bottom six on a line with Milan Lucic.

After starting the year in the AHL, Dube gradually earned more ice time as the year went on and was a key piece of the Flames bottom six by year’s end. This culminated in him having a great playoff run, proving himself to be one of the teams most important forwards in the playoffs.

Arguably their best player in the playoffs other than Cam Talbot, Dube showed flashes of the player he can become. He was second among Flames forwards in the playoffs for CF%, third in GF%, and first for xGF%. Showing that much progression in just his first season in the league is a great sign for Dube’s outlook and potential going forward. Drafted 56th overall in 2016, the team certainly expects Dube to be a key piece for them in the future.

Dube arguably has the highest ceiling of the four players highlighted and is also the youngest with the largest room to grow. Another factor working in his favour is that he’s still on his entry-level contract which is huge for the Flames who are very tight to the cap. If Dube continues to progress like he did last season, he could be a mainstay in the team’s top six for years. Letting a player go with his potential before we know just how good he can be probably isn’t a good idea if you’re the Flames.

I can’t see many reasons why the Flames would want to expose Dube. Perhaps they will value proven assets over potential when it comes to their protection list; Dube does still just have one season in the league that came with mixed results. If the Flames aren’t sold on his potential and would rather keep the other three who have proven themselves to be regular NHL players, they may expose Dube.

How he performs this upcoming season will certainly have a big impact on how the Flames view his future. However, given his potential, age, and contract status, I would be strongly against leaving Dube exposed. There is some major risk with letting Dube go. If he were left exposed and continued to progress and reach his full potential with Seattle, it would turn out to be a pretty sizeable mistake by the Flames.

Sam Bennett

Bennett’s numbers from the 2019-20 season are as follows.

CF%GF%xGF%ixGFTP/60CF% RelGF% RelxGF% Rel
49.65(7)48.57(8)52.29(3)7.29(8)1.11(9)-1.51(9)0.62(8)1.62(3)

Sam Bennett is one of the most divisive players on the Flames. Looking at his numbers above, they are pretty much where you would expect them to be. Average, but nothing special, and about what you would expect to see from a third line player on your team.

Losing him wouldn’t be a big loss to the current lineup but the one issue is the fact the team spent a fourth overall pick on him, the highest in franchise history. Letting a player go who was drafted so high and has such high potential is never easy. Just as they have been reluctant to trade him, the Flames will probably be reluctant to expose him as well.

Although he hasn’t reached anywhere near his potential yet, he was still a top five pick and is just 24 years old. He also always finds a way to draw you back in with flashes of his potential when you think it’s time to move on. Credit where it’s due, Bennett was spectacular in the playoffs last year, putting up eight points in 10 games. That total was just four fewer than his regular season total of 12 points in 52 games. Among Flames forwards in the playoffs, he ranked fourth in CF%, first in GF%, and second in xGF%.

Lining up at centre with Dube and Lucic, the team will likely give Bennett another full time shot at centre to see if he can finally build off his playoff success. If he can, it makes a player like Backlund more expendable. Losing Bennett to Seattle and watching him finally find his potential and become a top six centre after all these years of waiting would be a tough pill to swallow.

Here’s the issue though, we’ve seen this exact story from Bennett before. How many chances will he get before the team concludes that he just isn’t the player they thought they were getting at fourth overall. Bennett has played up and down the lineup more than any Flame over the past couple years and just can’t seem to find a fit. Whether it be at centre or the wing he never settles into a defined role long term. His results at both wing and centre, and in the bottom six or the top six are all subpar.

One of the main arguments in defence of Bennett is that he is never given a chance to play with top six players and is always stuck in the bottom six. That’s just not true. This past season he logged around 64 minutes of ice time with two of either Backlund, Monahan, Gaudreau, Tkachuk, or Lindholm. The year before he had around 244 minutes with any two of those players. He’s been given ample opportunity in the top six and at centre, and he can never stick there because his results just aren’t good enough to warrant a top six spot.

I understand the argument from some that he still has potential and a high ceiling that he could reach one day. The problem is the numbers don’t back up that claim. He’s only been a positive possession player twice in five seasons so far, and his CF% Rel has been negative every year of his career except his rookie season in 2015-16. He’s also held a GF% of 50 or over just once, also in his rookie season.

The points haven’t come either. Now going into his sixth year in the league, Bennett still has a career high of just 36 points achieved all the way back in 2015-16 during his rookie season. Since then the most he’s gotten in a season is 27. His career high in goals is 18, once again in his rookie season. Are you noticing a trend here? With each passing year the odds of Bennett suddenly breaking out get lower.

Simply put, Bennett has shown little to no signs of progression in the regular season since his impressive rookie year. He’s actually been worse every year since then. I get people wanting to be cautious considering where he was drafted and how high his ceiling once was, but the fact is outside of a couple short lived playoff runs, nothing points to him ever reaching that potential. At this point he is what he is, a bottom six forward who can get you 20-30 points a year.

Compared to the other three options, Bennett is either not as good right now, or has much less potential. I understand the worry from some fans that Bennett could finally reach his potential one day, but that’s a risk I’d be willing to take in order to keep the other three players around who offer much more value to the team.

Tough decisions lie ahead

Regardless of who you think the Flames should expose there’s no question they will have a tough decision to make come summer 2021. If the draft were to happen right now, I’d be comfortable in saying Bennett should be the one exposed. However, the upcoming season could have some major implications on who the team decides to leave available for Seattle.

If Bennett can finally convert his playoff success to the regular season with a full season at centre, it could make the decision much tougher. As for Dube and Mangiapane, if they continue to progress in 2020-21 it’s very unlikely the Flames would want to risk losing them. If Backlund takes a step back next season, could the Flames consider exposing him to clear his cap hit? No matter how you look at it, this will be no easy task for Treliving and Co. when it comes time to decide who to leave exposed.


All stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com and MoneyPuck.com

Photo credit: Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

2 thoughts on “Which forward should the Calgary Flames expose in the Expansion Draft?

  1. Bennett is versatile, his production would be higher if he played centre instead of wing. Bennett hits and is a good back-checker. Playoffs,Bennett was the hardest working Flame against Dallas. People who constantly knock Bennett only look at the scoresheet and ignore his contribution as a team-player. Exposing Bennett would be a mistake.

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