Will Micheal Ferland Breakout This Season?

If there is one player on the Calgary Flames roster that hockey people look at with a combination of excitement and confusion, it’s forward Micheal Ferland.

On paper, Ferland is a scout’s dream come true. He’s 6’2″ and 200 pounds. He’s built like an oak, and moves around the ice much better than you would expect from a player of his size and relative inexperience – he only began playing high-end organized hockey in midget as a teenager. After an impressive Western Hockey League career that included trips to the Memorial Cup with the Brandon Wheat Kings and Saskatoon Blades, Ferland turned pro three seasons ago in the Flames organization. After 161 pro games in the NHL and the American League, progressing from an AHLer to a bubble NHLer to a full-fledged NHLer, the jury is still out on Ferland. Is he going to be a skill player in the NHL or merely a bodyguard who uses his physical tools to succeed? If he’s destined to be a skill guy, is the 2016-17 season where he finally breaks out offensively?

Is He a Skill Guy?

The challenge of figuring out what Ferland is at the NHL level is that we don’t have a whole lot of history from him to go on. He played a few years in lower, less-organized levels of hockey and was really effective. He was thrown into the proverbial deep end a few times and showcased his ability to adapt and thrive: first in two years of Manitoba midget, then over three seasons and change in the deep waters of the WHL. In the vocabulary of hockey, Ferland has shown a fluency in getting to the net and making life miserable for defenders and goalkeepers alike. He’s a big body that knows he’s a big body, but he’s also able to get the puck to the net.

Ryan Wilson
Ferland tangles with Avalanche defenseman Ryan Wilson. (Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports)

If you want to be a pessimist, you could point to Ferland’s stature and note that his physical gifts give him an advantage – and likely played a big part in his success at lower levels. But there are plenty of big-bodied players that never scored 47 goals in the WHL and weren’t sought out by teams looking for a Memorial Cup edge. The challenge for Ferland at the NHL level has been to take the tools that allowed him to thrive in his previous hockey experiences and translate them to an NHL world where everybody is either big or talented (and many are both).

Ferland had a pair of multi-point games in 2015-16, several games where he got a lot of puck touches and scoring opportunities, and ended the season with a four-game assist streak. His repeated stints on the top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and his apprenticeship over the past two NHL seasons with veteran center Matt Stajan, both suggest that the Flames see him as a potential “skill guy.”

Is He a Bodyguard?

Let’s get this out of the way right away: the term “bodyguard” is not meant to be derogatory. It merely refers to the potential that Ferland’s value to the Flames may be more in his physical prowess than any fancy dekes or dangles. Case in point? Ferland was superb in the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs against Vancouver, causing Canucks defenders and forwards alike to constantly look over their shoulders, lest they get clobbered by a big hit.

Both Ferland’s professional hockey history and his usage by the Flames suggests that he may be reaching the end of his development curve and could become cemented as a primarily physical presence. First, he’s lost a fair bit of development time due to injury and other issues:

  • In 2012-13, he bounced between the AHL, ECHL and WHL due to a lockout-related minor-league roster logjam.
  • In 2013-14, he suffered a knee injury and missed the majority of the season.
  • In 2014-15, he suffered a concussion in his first NHL game.
  • In 2015-16, he suffered a knee strain and missed a chunk of the season.

In perhaps a related note, Ferland’s play away from the puck lacks some consistency, as he hasn’t quite been able to piece together long enough stretches of good play to cement good habits (and thus he frequently needs to rebuild those habits). In addition, his effectiveness as an offensive player could be impacted by his injury history given that his effectiveness is in the so-called “dirty areas” of the ice like in the front of the net or the corners.

Will He Break out Offensively?

Ferland was a really effective hockey player in junior. There are certain things about the game that he just seems to get. While he might not have the high-end skill-set of teammates like Gaudreau, Monahan or Sam Bennett, he’s a burlier physical presence and can arguably be a highly-effective player alongside those players when he makes the other team worry about his physicality rather than his skilled linemates. Case in point? Ferland, Stajan and David Jones were highly effective against Vancouver in the 2015 playoffs because the opposition was worrying about Ferland rather than covering the others. He’s also been quietly effective when paired with Gaudreau and Monahan for similar reasons.

Moreover, while Ferland was able to dramatically improve his point production during his time in midget and major-junior, his progress during his pro career has been more sporadic and full of fits and starts, but he’s still made progress. His points-per-game have bumped from 0.19 as a rookie to 0.25 as a sophomore, which allows him a lot of room to grow should he find his consistency. Furthermore, his shot attempts per game (his pucks thrown towards the net) have decreased slightly from year-to-year, but he’s become better at getting pucks on net, which is a nice sign.

In some ways, Ferland’s rough-and-tumble style is a throwback, but he’s far from the one-dimensional physical player that used to populate the league. He’s a good enough skater and talented enough hockey player to be able to play with the Flames’ best players and be part of their success. That said, he’s now into his mid-20s, and he might be running out of time to establish himself as an offensive contributor for his team. If he doesn’t break out offensively in 2016-17, he might not ever.