Mikael Backlund is close to returning to action, which is great news for the Flames. The 25-year-old Swedish centre is one of their best forwards, and part of the reason the Flames have had such disastrous possession numbers this season - they're 29th in the league at 44.1%, just a few decimal points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche, but a far cry from anything good - can be attributed to his loss. Backlund has only played 11 games this season, and due to his pre-season abdominal strain and subsequent surgery in November, we can assume he wasn't at 100% for any of them.
Long story short, when Backlund comes back, the Flames should improve by default. He's a less heralded player, mostly because he doesn't necessarily put up major points, but he plays an effective, if not-flashy style.
And when he returns, the Flames will have to send someone down. The question is, who should that someone be?
The way I see it, the Flames are down to two choices: Markus Granlund and Brian McGrattan. Granlund because he's the only remaining waiver-exempt player the team will entertain sending down (he, along with Josh Jooris, are the only players that were not on the Flames to start the season, but Jooris has been told he's made the team full-time; Granlund has not), and McGrattan because of 40 games so far this season, he's only dressed for eight of them, and has yet to reach an allotted ice time of 10 minutes. The last time McGrattan played was on Dec. 6, 2014, and before then, just two games in November. After playing a career-high 76 games in the 2013-14 season, he appears to no longer be in the Flames' plans.
Nobody else on the Flames seems like a choice to be sent down in lieu of Backlund's return: they all either require waivers, have been a relatively regular presence in the lineup, or both.
So, who should be sent down: Granlund or McGrattan?
The case to send down Markus Granlund
Granlund has had a pretty good showing thus far in his young career. Over 36 games, he's scored seven goals and put up 16 points (for comparison's sake, his much more heralded brother, Mikael Granlund, scored four goals and 14 points over the same number of games). He's proven he's talented, and has helped the team win a number of games. At the same time, he doesn't seem to be NHL ready just yet. This season, is corsi relative to the Flames is negative: a value of -4.3% 29 games into the current season, the fifth worst out of all regulars.
- Granlund doesn't appear to be a regular NHLer just yet. He's only 21 years old, so it's not like a demotion to the AHL is a death sentence for his career. This is only his second season playing hockey in North America. There's lots of time for him. In the meantime, playing in the AHL against competition more suited for him at this stage of his development is probably better for him overall.
- To add on to that point: while Granlund has certainly had some excellent showings in some games this season, more recently, he's been getting destroyed. Over the past seven games, his CF% values have been below 50%. His last showing was his worst yet, as he only managed 11.8% CF against the Islanders. It could be a sign that he's reached his current limit for playing against NHL competition, and is starting to burn out.
- To add to that note, his ice time and assignments have been going down lately. While once he was a staple on the second line with Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler, Jooris has since replaced him. And while his average ice time for the season is currently 14:52, in his most recent 10 games, he's only exceeded that amount three times (and only by four seconds one of those times).
- Gaudreau and Hudler are great players to get to play with, but that isn't an opportunity afforded to him anymore. The Adirondack Flames, however, are starting to post much better games. They're current led by the Sven Baertschi - Bill Arnold - Emile Poirier line. Not to say that line should be broken up, but if the team falters and coach Ryan Huska decided he needs to shake things up, how great could Baertschi - Granlund - Poirier be? Certainly better than playing with Lance Bouma and Paul Byron, as he did most recently.
- When both Backlund and Matt Stajan went down, the Flames needed to recall centres. Granlund is a centre. He seems to be Backlund's fill-in. So when Backlund returns, doesn't it make the most sense to demote the replacement? It would certainly cause the least disruption to the lineup.
- Granlund did score a game-winning goal just three games ago, in a tight 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Sending him down so soon after that may not be the best message.
- He's more deserving of a spot than some other players on the team. Going by corsi, for example, he's posting better numbers than Brandon Bollig, Joe Colborne, and Bouma, and he's played against tougher competition than everyone other than Colborne. He's also outscoring seven of the forwards currently on the roster.
- The Flames are a rebuilding team. Having prospects in the lineup is ultimately a good thing. If Granlund goes, that's one fewer prospect in the NHL.
The case to send down Brian McGrattan
McGrattan and players of his ilk are going out of style. You can attribute this to two different factors: one being the crackdown on fighting, especially considering what we now know about head injuries and the horrific effects they have on players, especially enforcers; and two, the fact that as we enter a new age of analytics, we discover that enforcers just aren't as useful as they once were. While the Flames picked up both Bollig and Deryk Engelland in the off-season, indicating they still place great value on toughness, they've subsequently stopped playing McGrattan, almost completely entirely. He's only played 20% of the Flames' games so far this season. The only players who have played fewer? Max Reinhart and Corban Knight, two call-ups who only joined the team due to a massive rush of injuries. McGrattan is a 33-year-old enforcer on the last year of his contract. Is he really in a rebuilding team's future plans?
- McGrattan is no longer an NHLer. Why would you keep a non-NHLer on an NHL roster? What's the logic in that?
- He's been a healthy scratch for the last 12 games. He's only played three times since October. When he does play, his shifts are few, and his minutes limited. He's almost never trusted to even play in the third period. And he's a fighter who has yet to have a single fight this season.
- McGrattan is subject to waivers, meaning there's always a chance another team could claim him. If that happens, then he gets another chance at staying, and actually playing, in the NHL.
- Currently, McGrattan isn't taking up a roster spot. He mostly sits in the pressbox as an extra forward. This means he isn't taking ice time away from anybody on the team, skilled veteran or developing prospect. This also means he isn't taking any ice time away from anybody on the AHL team, which is primarily used to develop prospects. He isn't a factor at all, really. Why disrupt that? If he remains in the NHL, the status quo, which seems to be going pretty okay for the Flames so far, is maintained.
- I don't know him personally, but by all accounts, he seems like a great guy who is well-liked by his teammates. Hell, just look at his friendship with Sean Monahan. A happy team is better than a sad, angry, or frustrated team, and if he's a friendly presence in the room, he's one of the guys keeping the team happy. Especially in the case of a rebuilding team, which tends to lose a lot. The Flames haven't so far this season, but there's always the chance they fall into another massive losing skid, and don't break out of it. If McGrattan is someone who helps make coming to work more fun, why send him away?
- While the NHL is a business, and players understand that their lives can change at a whim, there's something to be said for teams exhibiting good will towards their employees. After all, if you're a free agent and a number of teams are courting you, you aren't likely to choose one that has a history of mistreating their players, are you? McGrattan's going to become a father soon. Compared to other NHL players, he doesn't make much, and his career looks to be ending. It'd probably be much easier on him and his family to not have to move or be separated from one another, even if it is just for a few months. And again, if his presence isn't hurting anybody - he isn't playing, and teammates and fans alike love him - why disrupt that, especially at a busy time in his life?
Verdict: send down Granlund
I wrote way more in favour of sending Granlund down as opposed to waiving McGrattan, so it should be pretty obvious which direction I was leaning in. That said, I feel sending Granlund is the best move for both players, as well as the team in general. Sending Granlund back to the AHL provides the least amount of disruption to the Flames. Granlund is still young and developing, and he's been struggling recently. At this point in time, the AHL is the league for him.
Meanwhile, McGrattan has built up a lot of good will within the Flames organization, and all sending him down would do is force a capable player - maybe even Granlund himself - to become a healthy scratch. The only benefit to this move is ensuring McGrattan never dresses as a Flame again. We're talking about a team that called up a prospect just before the final game of a five-game road trip to ensure McGrattan stayed in the pressbox. It's already pretty likely he has played his final game for the Calgary Flames.
All in all, sending Granlund down ensures a young player gets more ice time in a league he's better suited for at this point in his development, and a well-liked veteran remains with his team for the rest of his soon-to-be-over contract.
Besides, injuries can happen at any time, and should another Flame have to go to the injured reserve, there's a good chance Granlund is one of the first call ups.