Once upon a time, the Calgary Flames had a blessing and a curse. The blessing was the presence of Jarome Iginla, one of the most naturally-talented players of his generation, on the team’s roster. The curse was their continual inability to match Iginla up with a centerman of comparable talent. For the vast majority of his 16 seasons with the Flames, Iginla was a Butch Cassidy without a Sundance Kid or a Batman without a Robin. It’s that inability to find a suitable complementary piece for Iginla that gradually saw the runway on Iginla’s window at a Stanley Cup in Calgary fritter away, and resulted in the Flames cashing out and sending Iginla to Pittsburgh in the spring of 2013.
Then, all of a sudden, the Flames found themselves with a bounty of centers. Three years from Iginla’s departure from Cowtown, his former club finds themselves with an exciting problem: they have shocking depth at the toughest position in hockey to accumulate depth at, and have a bevy of options at their disposal heading into this summer.
Drafted by the Flames at sixth overall at the 2013 NHL Draft – three months after cutting bait with Iginla – Monahan ironically is the type of center Flames general managers went mad trying to find to play with Iginla. Defensively sound and offensively talented, Monahan has occasionally struggled to shut down top-line opposition this season but has developed a reputation as a reliable offensive contributor throughout his first three seasons in the NHL.
Consider this: playing on a rebuilding Flames team, Monahan already has 80 career goals. As the club’s supporting cast matures, Monahan should find himself getting easier opposition match-ups and could increase his production from the 25-goal, 60-point level of his first few years in the NHL.
Monahan’s a restricted free agent this summer and is expected to get a big, big payday and a very lengthy new deal (along with linemate and best buddy Johnny Gaudreau).
While Monahan entered the NHL as an early first round selection with a great deal of ballyhoo, Backlund took the more scenic route. Calgary’s first round selection (24th overall) in the 2007 Draft, the Swedish pivot yo-yoed between the NHL and the American Hockey League through his first few seasons as a pro before finally establishing himself as an everyday NHLer in his early 20s. From there Backlund has quietly cemented himself as one of the most reliable two-way centers in the league, relied upon by his coaches to shut down the other team’s top lines.
While the Flames had to be really patient with Backlund’s development – he wasn’t instantly physically mature enough to play the game at the NHL level the way Monahan was – he’s become just as integral to the team’s success as anybody else on the roster. He has two seasons remaining on a three-year contract that he signed last summer.
The third Flames-drafted centerman on this list, the fourth overall selection in the 2014 NHL Draft also plays the left wing. A product of the Kingston Frontenacs that grew up playing alongside future Edmonton Oiler Connor McDavid, Bennett isn’t quite the 200-foot presence of Backlund and doesn’t yet have the physical maturity or scoring touch of Monahan but he brings a physical aggression to the ice that the other two lack. Equally likely to crash the net or score a finesse goal, Bennett split time between left wing and center this season. He’s not excellent as a pivot yet, but he’s shown some promise.
Bennett has one more year remaining on his entry-level contract.
The steely veteran and locker room leader of the team’s centers, Stajan has been a steadying presence on the fourth line this season. He’s faced the challenge of getting more challenging deployments than the younger centers – who usually get more offensive zone starts – and much more infrequent ice time. Despite all this, Stajan’s remained a consistent and constant source of energy, penalty-killing and face-off prowess on the team’s least-used line. And while not wearing a letter in games, he remains an important on-and-off-ice leader for the club.
Of the team’s four established centers, Stajan is the oldest at 32, has played the least (averaging 12:40 per game) and is signed for the longest (two more seasons) at a hefty $3.125 million cap hit. It will be interesting to see how he’s deployed next season, and whether or not the skills that brought him to the NHL – his defensive awareness and face-off skills – can keep him there as younger options become available to the Flames.
The Flames may have tipped their hand regarding how they feel about their center depth prior to the 2016 trade deadline, sending Markus Granlund to the Vancouver Canucks for some offensive help on the wing in the form of Hunter Shinkaruk. The organization has a few interesting prospects in the pipeline – including Derek Grant, Mark Jankowski, Bill Arnold, Drew Shore and Brett Pollock – and their progression coupled with impending raises to Monahan (this summer) and Bennett (next summer) could trigger some personnel changes. Grant was capable in a pair of NHL stints this season and could be an inexpensive bottom-six option, for example.
That said, a lot of their future moves up the middle are dependent on what happens this spring with the draft lottery and on June’s draft. The Flames are a lock to draft in the top 10, and quite likely to draft in the top five, and the majority of the highest-rated prospects are likely to be forwards. This is where Bennett’s dual-positioning comes in handy: if the Flames draft a high-end center they can flop Bennett to the wing and if they nab a winger they can keep him at center.
There are a lot of moving pieces at play, including several expiring contracts, but just a few years removed from going crazy trying to find a center for Iginla to play with the Flames have quietly amassed much-needed depth up the middle. That depth will give them many exciting options for moves this summer and going forward.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.