Now that the Calgary Flames 2020-21 training camp is in full swing, it’s time to look at who will be playing down the middle when the NHL season drops the puck on Jan. 13. Right now, the Flames find themselves with some wiggle room, with five legitimate options available to line up on the faceoff dot. Who head coach Geoff Ward ultimately picks as his starting four centers will definitely have a domino effect on how the forward lines shake out.
The Flames are fortunate they’ve got a couple of forwards on the roster who are capable of swapping positions between wing and center, so it’s very possible the four players who line up down the middle won’t be the four who finish the truncated 56-game season. However, let’s start things off with the three guys who are probably a lock to start the year at center.
Monahan, Backlund and Ryan All Likely to Remain Right Where They Are
In recent years, there has been a growing debate whether or not Sean Monahan is a true first-line center in this league. But like him or not, since debuting with the club in the 2013-14 season, nobody has taken more faceoffs for the Flames than the team’s sixth-overall draft pick of 2013.
He’s developed real chemistry with Johnny Gaudreau over the years while anchoring the team’s top offensive line, and it’s hard to argue with the success he had centering one of the NHL’s top lines in 2018-19. The real question heading into the 2020-21 season is whether Monahan can recapture that magic after a major down year. The 2019-20 season saw his lowest goal and point totals since his rookie season, so he could really use a bounce-back.
Mikael Backlund is the Flames’ longest-tenured centerman, and he’s only 10 games away from becoming the eighth Flame (and first center) to play 700 games for the club. He has turned into one of the NHL’s best two-way centers, so he’s a shoo-in to start the season playing up the middle. (from ‘Flames’ Backlund turning heads as one of NHL’s best two-way players,’ Calgary Herald, 10/04/2017)
There isn’t a forward the Flames’ coaches trust more to handle major shutdown minutes, so the only real question heading into the new season is, who will Backlund play with? For much of the second half of last season, the rebooted 3M line with Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane was the team’s most effective line, so will Ward really want to mess with that?
Probably the Flames’ most underrated player, Derek Ryan is a very efficient 5-on-5 player and a face-off ace who can really help with key draws. He has scored at least 10 goals and produced at a 35-point pace or better for four consecutive seasons.
Ryan has played up and down the lineup over the course of his two seasons with the Flames and I think there’s a great chance he will put up another 30 points and continue to provide dependable two-way hockey. Look for Ryan to anchor the Flames’ third or fourth lines, but don’t be surprised if you see him promoted to the top six if any of the team’s other centermen suffer a rough patch.
Geoff Ward Stated He Would Like to Try Lindholm or Bennett at Center
The Flames’ head coach indicated in the summer that we could see Elias Lindholm or Sam Bennett at center, which would lead to a dogfight among those two and Monahan, Backlund and Ryan for the four spots. The odd man out would obviously have to move to the wing. Given both Bennett and Lindholm spent a majority of their time last season as wingers, one of those two is the likely candidate.
But, let’s not forget the Flames did try Backlund as right winger last season, so I guess anything is possible. (from ‘Flames’ experiment with Mikael Backlund at wing appears to be over,’ Calgary Sun, 02/05/2020) When the Flames were struggling mightily during the first few weeks of the 2019-20 season, the club gave Lindholm a test drive at the center position.
The team’s most complete forward played down the middle in the Heritage Classic against Winnipeg and the very next game in Carolina. While it was a pretty small sample size, the hard-working Swede scored the only two goals the Flames could muster in those outings and looked very comfortable as a centerman. However, the experiment was extremely short-lived as Calgary shuffled their lineup again, and Lindholm reverted to his familiar place on right wing. Will he get an extended audition this season?
Bennett also showed some serious chops at center during the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Playoffs, anchoring the third line with Dillon Dube and Milan Lucic. The 24-year-old led the Flames in postseason scoring with a hard-fought five goals and three assists in 10 games.
Bennett’s excellent playoff performance followed his lowest regular season output since joining the team in 2015, so it’s hard to say which player will show up when the 2020-21 campaign starts in a little over a week from now and that could hamper his chances at securing one of the four available spots.
Moving a Winger to Center Would Shake Up the Flames’ Lineup
Over the past couple of seasons, the Flames top six has consistently featured the trio of Monahan-Gaudreau-Lindholm and some form of the 3M line, with Backlund-Tkachuk-Mangiapane being the most recent incarnation. We can fully expect this roster formation to be tossed out the window at the start of the 2020-21 season. General manager Brad Treliving has stated that the addition of wingers Josh Leivo, Joakim Nordstrom and Dominik Simon to the roster gives the coaching staff the flexibility to use Lindholm up the middle.
While we really shouldn’t read too much into Ward’s early line combinations at training camp, it was interesting to see Gaudreau and Monahan start off skating with former Penguins forward Simon, while Lindholm was centering a line with Tkachuk and newcomer Leivo. The Flames coaching staff has since swapped Simon and Leivo’s positions, but have left Monahan and Lindholm as the respective centers.
Looking at a potential bottom six, Backlund was originally slotted alongside wingers Mangiapane and Bennett, while Ryan had Lucic and Dube as his linemates. That configuration only lasted a couple of days, as Ward then swapped Ryan out for Bennett down the middle, and shifted Ryan to play the wing on the Backlund line.
This would suggest that so far, either Bennett or Ryan could be the odd man out in the battle for the four center spots. This potential roster shake-up also means that the team is without a bona fide number one center, with Lindholm, Monahan and even Backlund all getting the opportunity to play the most minutes 5-on-5. The door is wide open for all five of these candidates, and the final week of training camp will show us who wants it the most.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and Facebook.