Since the 2018–19 season, the philosophy behind the makeup of the Calgary Flames’ fourth line has shifted greatly. In 2018–19, the Flames were the best team in the Western Conference and also had the best fourth line in the entire league. That line was the Andrew Mangiapane – Derek Ryan – Garnet Hathaway line.
That trio absolutely carried in terms of on-ice impact for a significant part of the year and they were undoubtedly the best trio in that 2019 postseason. What made Mangiapane, Ryan and Hathaway so good as a unit was the ideology that placing three strong two-way players with excellent impact leads to massive value upside in terms of speed and skill. Not to mention they were also very cheap. The team essentially deterred from this ideology months later over the course of the following summer.
Deterring from speed, skill, and upside
Reiterating for emphasis, the Flames’ organizational philosophy has very much changed in regards to how they take a look at the usage of their fourth line. Following the unbelievable success that stemmed from the 2018–19 line, the Flames shifted their focus away from the essence of having a fourth line built around the elements of speed and skill just months later.
After that 2019 first round disappointment as a result of the Colorado Avalanche’s coming out party into the championship level threat they are today, the Flames enacted wholesale changes to their fourth line outlook.
For instance, the club deterred away from having a fourth line that breeds speed, skill and upside and rather shifted their focus towards the basis of size, experience, reliability, and veteran leadership. These attributes at face value are far from a bad thing—but it’s the overall message that was sent out internally that was perplexing: having roles for veteran players came at the cost of any measurable impact on future prospects.
Calgary lacks in internal promotions
For instance, the club hasn’t seen a full-time internal NHL promotion at the forward position since Mangiapane and Dillon Dube made themselves mainstays, throughout the course of 2018–19 and into the 2019–20 season.
Most recently, 2017 fourth-round pick (109th overall) Adam Ruzicka made a name for himself during his 28-game sample size last season, scoring five goals and putting up a total of 10 points. This was done over the course of being deployed for just an average of over 10 minutes of ice time a night.
However, the logic behind the first year of his new deal being of the two-way nature likely means he doesn’t make the opening night roster over other veteran fourth line options at the team’s disposal. If that ends up being the case, there’s no reason as to why that would make sense—contractual politics aside.
Ruzicka fit within the system pretty swiftly and impressed both fans and the executive brass with his impact last season. Sutter preaches a strong possession game and that’s exactly the target area Ruzicka thrived in, where he held a 5v5 score- and venue-adjusted CF% of 57.5%.
I think we can all bank on the fact that he will 100% be a call-up option throughout the year if he does indeed start the 2022–23 season with the Wranglers.
Lastly, on Ruzicka’s small sample of games, when he was on a line with Mangiapane and Tyler Toffoli, they were an effective and fun trio to watch within the brief span of time in which they were deployed together.
Another missed Flames promotion
For the most recent example of a player with speed, skill, and upside that didn’t get an NHL look, Matthew Phillips somehow seems like his supporting brass comes only from Flames fans and less so anywhere else. This is echoed loudly in the league as he passed waivers earlier in the preseason and will be starting his season with the Wranglers. For the 2016 sixth-round pick (166th overall), Phillips is a highly ranked prospect that seems to be perpetually on the cusp of making the NHL.
Phillips is one of the best offensive right wingers inside the Flames organization and one of the best right-wingers in the game at the American Hockey League level—period. His smaller stature of 5’8″ and 165 lbs seems to be a major turnoff to every market league-wide but the skill, talent and upside are all evidently still there. The identity of the Flames’ fourth line—again, beginning at the start of the 2019–20 season—is essentially why Phillips hasn’t had a real and honest look with the big club.
Newsflash, he also won’t be getting it anytime soon.
It would be more than fair to state that Phillips could’ve provided the Flames more value in terms of scoring and future upside inside their bottom-six than the following long list of players who’ve come through the organization the last few number of years (as well as current mainstays such as): Milan Lucic, Brett Ritchie, Trevor Lewis, Kevin Rooney, Joakim Nordstrom, Josh Leivo, Dominik Simon, Tobias Rieder, Tyler Pitlick, Brad Richardson, Byron Froese, Buddy Robinson, Zac Rinaldo, etc.
With all due respect to the names I listed—and as much as I love and respect plenty of those names wholeheartedly—it’s my belief that in order to properly grow and develop players within an organization, the primary focus should always be honing in on up and coming talent and making sure that young players are pulling towards sheer positive impact both on the scoresheet and via underlying metrics.
Optimizing for talent should be the forefront
When the primary focus is centred around growing talent, that focus alone should immediately halt any sort of logical backup to any ideology surrounding a role player. However, the caveat is that under some coaches (read: Darryl Sutter) this philosophy of bottom-six checkers and rolling four lines can work. More on that below.
The same sort of logic of growing talent should be applied when scouting and making a selection at the draft. If the best player available happens to coincide with an organizational need, then you’ve struck gold, but NHL general managers should always be putting their best foot forward towards drafting the best player available when it’s their turn to head to the podium, not on the basis of positional or role need.
The same methodology should theoretically be applied to icing the best possible roster available and whether or not a player’s contractual structure gets in the way of that method of thinking. However, reality trumps theory more often than not.
How Sutter gets the best out of his lineup
It’s almost like implementing a system based on the philosophy of high pace elite-checking hockey only works when you have an elite head coach to actually show you how to play high pace elite-checking hockey. This was—in my view—the biggest problem with the organizational switch in ideology initially as neither Bill Peters nor Geoff Ward knew how on earth to manage, deploy, or ultimately execute anything related to a defensively-laden, high-pace, elite-checking style of play.
Even though they had glaringly obvious faults at the time, the roster was built by the organization and handed to Sutter coming in. The difference now is that it’s Sutter and implementing and executing this style of play at an elite level and solidifying it into the franchise’s true identity, is his bread and butter.
Darryl Sutter is just that guy and one of the smartest hockey minds on planet earth.
At this point, anyone who closely follows the team understands that there is a very clear reason as to why Sutter deploys a heavy fourth line night in and night out. Sutter labels the sole goal of the team’s fourth line to be a collective checking nightmare for the opposition. They’re used as a line to absolutely check the daylights out of any and every opponent to make it easier on the stars to hopefully feast on tired and bruised guys as the game progresses and it’s provided a real value to the style of checking hockey that is now entrenched into the Flames’ identity.
Strengthening the Flames’ identity
As much as we can complain about the organization’s lack of internal promotion and prospects not being given a chance to show their worth, nothing is ever granted—it’s always going to have to be earned. The Flames saw this with Oliver Kylington out of camp and Adam Ruzicka midway through last season.
As long as Sutter is here and the Flames are winning games while being labelled as a contender, I don’t see how you can’t give this now entrenched and solidified shift in philosophy over the last four years a pass, as long as the results stay at a high level.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire