The Flames have spent much of this season with Sean Monahan as their only veteran centre. While they started the season with Mikael Backlund, Joe Colborne, Matt Stajan, and Monahan down the middle, the first three all fell injured at the same time (Oct. 28, 2014 - the 2-1 shootout loss to the Habs), leaving the top centre position in the hands of a 20-year-old sophomore.
While Colborne - who doesn't even always play centre - and Stajan returned in December, Backlund was the only Flames centre who could actually challenge for the spot of number one centre, and he's only just returned. That means for much of the season so far Monahan, who was a heavily sheltered rookie last season, was the only option to play against other teams' top lines, all the while being expected to produce.
It's a tough task for any 20-year-old, and while not entirely successful, Monahan's growth from a sheltered rookie into a two-way centre has been outstanding.
The easiest stats to keep track of are goals and points. As a rookie, Monahan scored 22 goals and 34 points over the course of 75 games. He had 140 shots in those games, ending up with a shooting percentage of 15.7%. The average shooting percentage in the 2013-14 season was 8.89%, so Monahan was abnormally lucky with his goals, and didn't shoot at a rate we could realistically expect for his career.
This season? Over halfway into it, and he and Mark Giordano are the only Flames who have shot the puck on net more than 100 times. (To be exact: 102 times for Gio, 106 for Monahan.) On his 106 shots, he's scored 11 times for a shooting percentage of 10.4%. The league average shooting percentage so far this season is 9.2%. What this means is that Monahan is now scoring at a reasonable rate, and his numbers haven't dropped off because he's shooting the puck much more often than he did last season.
To add on to his goals, he also has 14 assists this season to give him 25 points over 43 games. This projects to 48 points on the season; or, if you want to compare his numbers to last season, where he only played 75 games thanks to a hairline fracture in his foot, 44 points. That's 10 points up on his rookie season, even if he projects to fewer goals.
Corsi, for those unaware, is a basic stat to track what is roughly a player's on-ice possession. It's a summation of shots on net, missed shots, and blocked shots. The reason for this is simple: it gives you more numbers to look at, which means a larger sample size (for example, last game, the Canucks outshot the Flames 36-23, but they out-corsied them 77-47: that's a difference of +13 for Vancouver compared to +30 when looking at more data, so while we know the Canucks outplayed the Flames, thanks to corsi, we can see they, uh, really outplayed them). After all, you can't try to shoot the puck if you don't have it, right?
Keeping in mind that Monahan is getting more shots on net this season than in his rookie year - he currently projects to have 189, nearly 50 more shots - and corsi values simply getting shot attempts, he's already trending in the right direction.
When we take corsi and measure it as a percentage, what we're doing is comparing the shot attempts the Flames generate when Monahan is on ice, and pit them against the shot attempts the opposition gets. Being above 50% is ideal here, because that means you're outshooting the other team.
We can compare Monahan's CF% (corsi for as a percentage) from his rookie season to this point in his sophomore year (click on the image to view it at full size):
The red line shows his stats from his rookie season, while the green line is from this season. The gap in the red line is due to his aforementioned injury that kept him out of the lineup for seven games, while the green line isn't yet completely because, well, the season's still in progress.
Basically, what we see here isn't a great improvement in his CF%. There's an improvement, alright - he's jumped from a 43.8% average in his rookie year to 45.6% so far in his sophomore - but it's not that big. He does, however, appear to be a more consistent player, his highs are more frequent, and his lows less extreme.
But what kind of proof is that for him to be developing into a two-way guy?
Corsi is a useful tool, but it's not the only tool. The circumstances in which Monahan plays are going to have an impact on his overall possession stats. Let's start with something really basic: time on ice (again, click on the chart to view it at full size).
This one is pretty clear: he's consistently playing much, much more than he did in his rookie season. This makes sense for a number of reasons: you don't want to throw your rookies straight into the fire (/coughEdmontonOilerscough/ oh sorry something in my throat there), and the fact that for a while this season, Monahan was the only veteran centre available.
The important takeaway from this is the fact that Monahan's possession statistics have improved while his ice time has gone up. He averaged 15:59 in his rookie year, and is currently averaging 19:31 in his sophomore season (including 21 games so far in which he has played more than 20 minutes). With more ice time, there's more chances for things to go right... or wrong. With Monahan, they're going right.
The frequency with which a player plays is just one part of the puzzle, though. Another is zone starts. While we're talking about getting shot attempts on your opposition's net, that's going to be much easier to do if you're starting in the offensive zone rather than the defensive zone, right? So if you start in the offensive zone - as you would want an inexperienced player to do - you're more likely to get more shots on the opponent's net than have them get shots on yours. And last season, Monahan was an inexperienced player...
... so last season, Monahan was 54.6% in offensive zone starts. He was heavily sheltered for much of the season, although he did face a dip at the very end.
This season, though, Monahan has not been sheltered. He starts more frequently in the defensive zone than offensive (currently, he's averaging 42.3%, which is quite a drop).
This is where his shooting and corsi stats get much more interesting. He's shooting much more often, but he's starting further from the opponent's net. His possession stats are marginally better, but he's starting from a place of disadvantage. That's where we're seeing his growth from: he's being asked to play in tougher circumstances, and he's putting on a better performance.
There's another area we can look at: the quality of competition Monahan faces. If you can control your match ups, you aren't going to send your young players out against the best; you're going to play them against weaker opposition, so they're more likely to succeed. As they grow as players, then they can start facing off against guys that trend more towards elite on the spectrum. And Monahan...
... is now doing that (last season he averaged 28.5%; this season, 29.7%). After all, the better players are going to play more minutes, right? And Monahan is now facing off against those guys.
So this is where Monahan's growth and development is really noticeable. His corsi stats have improved a little. His shooting stats have improved a lot. He's playing much more often, meaning more chances where things could go right, or wrong. He's starting from a position of disadvantage, as opposed to last season, when he started in an advantageous position. And he's playing against other team's top guys, not their second or third liners.
Basically: Monahan's basic stats have improved on every single level while his circumstances have gotten harder. That's how we can tell he's developing into a two-way centre. And at the rate he's going - he's playing on a very poor possession team, he's only 20, and this is only his second season - there's probably going to be a lot more to look forward to.
And what does this mean for the Flames? Well, they've already got Backlund. Backlund is only just now starting to get the minutes Monahan has been gifted (because he didn't open his first nine games shooting at a percentage of 30% like Monahan, and has had trouble putting points on the board, he's had to toil all the harder to finally get recognized). Meanwhile, up until this season, he has always been a positive possession player. Ever since the 2011-12 season, he's started primarily in the defensive zone, and he's generally faced high levels of competition.
The short on Backlund being: he may not be a big scorer, but he very sneakily drives possession, and has his entire career.
Throw Sam Bennett into the mix - because he was taken fourth overall, and ranked #1 by NHL Central Scouting for a reason - and can you say centre depth? Backlund is already an excellent possession centre who can play in the toughest circumstances. In just one and a half seasons, Monahan is already trending that way. And that still leaves Bennett, who has so, so much potential.
Forget a one-two punch at centre: how about a one-two-three punch? Really good teams tend to have really good centre depth. Cup contenders tend to have really good centre depth. Give it a couple of seasons, and the Flames could be a very formidable team down the middle. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusion from there.
But as it stands right now, Monahan is showing he's going to be a key piece to the puzzle.