I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think Brett Ritchie would crack the Calgary Flames roster last season after coming to training camp on a PTO. I also didn’t think he’d get into 32 of 56 games in 2020-21 and then get re-signed to another one-year deal in the offseason. Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, I assumed he’d be the 14th forward and spend a vast majority of his time in the press box. However, before getting injured on Tuesday night, Ritchie had started all nine games and was doing just fine on a line with Dillon Dube and the red hot Andrew Mangiapane. So, with Ritchie down and out, what do the Flames do now?
The Flames Have Multiple Options to Reconfigure the Bottom-9
Before we dive into possible line combinations for the bottom nine forwards, it must be said that under no circumstances should the Flames mess with the top unit of Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. The terrific trio has combined for an impressive 28 points in the first nine contests, and if you combine that with the 51 points they chalked up in the 16 games they played last season, there is absolutely no doubt that this is an elite forward line.
With the Flames off to a very solid 6-1-2 start the season, it’s safe to say that the other three lines have been also been working well and contributing to the team’s overall success. So, that begs the question: does head coach Darryl Sutter simply tweak the roster and swap in a player to take Ritchie’s spot on the Dube line, or do we see the entire bottom nine go into the blender?
Richardson Could See His Flames Debut vs. the Stars
Before the season started, I wrote an article about the possibility that newcomer Brad Richardson would anchor the Flames’ fourth line, skating alongside a couple of other former Los Angeles Kings forwards in Milan Lucic and Trevor Lewis. While the trio did suit up early in the preseason, an injury to Richardson squashed any chance of this line actually becoming a thing, but with Ritchie out of the lineup, I think Sutter will revisit this combination. The head coach certainly had good things to say about these guys when he spoke to the media on the first day of training camp.
You could call this potential line the “L.A. Express,” or “All the King’s Men,” or even the more apt “Three Old Muckers.” Whatever you call it, all three skaters spent time with the two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach in Los Angeles. And before the season started, Sutter expected all three of them to add veteran leadership and accountability to the bottom-six.
Richardson was actually activated from injured reserve on Oct. 21, so he’s been a healthy scratch during much of the Flames’ hot start. There really wasn’t a huge need to trot out a different lineup during a winning streak, but if we do see the debut of the “All the King’s Men” line against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, that will definitely have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the roster.
A Newly Confident Monahan Could Get a Promotion
After going pointless in his first five games of the season, Sean Monahan now has four points in his last four games, including a nice power-play marker on Saturday night. While all of the former top-line center’s points have come on the power play, his head coach has been applauding his overall effort: “He’s been awesome. He’s got a great attitude and works hard,” said Sutter. “I’ve said it many times in the dressing room – it’s not a top-heavy lineup for us. You’ve got to spread it out and everyone’s got to accept their role and go from there.”
Has the former sniper spent enough time in purgatory playing on the fourth line with Lucic and Lewis? I’m going to say yes, and I’m expecting Monahan to be reunited with his early-season linemates of Mangiapane and Dube. I am well aware the 27-year-old is coming off of hip surgery in the offseason, but I think he could finally be up to speed and ready to take on a much bigger 5-on-5 role.
Does the Backlund-Coleman-Pitlick Line Stay Intact?
This is the last piece of the bottom-nine puzzle that needs finalizing. Newcomer Blake Coleman has been looking very good playing with the super-steady Mikael Backlund and the reliable Tyler Pitlick. But I think my theoretical shakeup to the Flames’ lineup should see one more major roster move. Before the season started, I looked at Calgary’s offseason signings and offered up potential line combinations. One of the most intriguing options had me slotting Mangiapane with Backlund and Coleman and creating a superline that features the team’s three best two-way players.
It’s no secret Mangiapane’s even-strength ice time has been near the bottom of the Flames’ forwards, so promoting him to the second line could really maximize his strong start and is kind of a no-brainer. By combining the trio’s shutdown ability with the play-driving skill of both wingers, this could make for a really dangerous line that would stack up well against any of the opposition’s top units. And, swapping out Pitlick for No. 88 should definitely increase the unit’s point production.
After all of my prognosticating, let’s not forget that the Flames’ coaching staff might take an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. There’s a strong possibility we see Sutter simply move Richardson to play wing with Dube and Mangiapane, or maybe even call up Glenn Gawdin from the Stockton Heat to play with them. This would definitely be the most boring option but given the Flames’ hot start and established chemistry in the current roster configuration. But it’s probably the right move.
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, parenting 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 all podcast outlets.