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On June 24th the Flames got their consolation prize for having a brutal season, by drafting the talented Matthew Tkachuk at 6th overall. Nobody really thought that the Flames would have the chance to draft Tkachuk if they stayed picking at 6, but the series of events that played out in front of the team enabled them to snag the London Knight, coming off a season in which he was on the most prolific line of junior hockey, scoring 30 goals and 107 points in 57 regular season games, followed by 20 goals and 20 assists in 18 playoff games. Quite the impressive season for a draft eligible forward. A common criticism of Tkachuk is that he was playing with Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak, two very talented older forwards, but Tkachuk was definitely making an impact himself. Also, it is not like he will be without talented line mates whenever he joins the Calgary Flames line up. When Tkachuk was drafted, there was a lot of talk about how the Flames finally had a talented player to join Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau on the top line. While that is definitely a possibility, the pairing that most intrigues me is Matthew Tkachuk with Sam Bennett. Here are some thoughts on why I hold such a position.
The Rise of Pairings in Today's NHL
You may have heard an increasingly common rhetoric of late; the NHL is shifting to a league in which it is not so much about the full line, but rather about pairings. Throughout the league, there are many highly successful instances of this: Tyler Seguin with Jamie Benn, the Sedin twins, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. In these cases, you have two highly talented forwards that have games that mesh very well with each other, so you keep them together and try and slot in a third forward that can complement the pairing, based on how things are going. We saw this a lot this past season, Monahan and Gaudreau were able to successfully do their thing while playing with a wide range of Flames on their right side, like Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Joe Colborne, Micheal Ferland, Josh Jooris, Hunter Shinkaruk, among others. Ideally, you want to find a player that can nicely round out the line, but it is not like Monahan and Gaudreau were struggling to produce this season with their constant rotation of players on their right side.
If you look at the core of Flames forwards who are a part of the roster today and look to be a big part of the future, you can see 2 strong forward pairs that offer very different, yet valuable contributions to the team. Monahan and Gaudreau are the elite offensive forwards, relied upon for driving the offensive of the team, but not offering so much in terms of defense or physicality. Then there is the pairing of Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, who can drive possession to the right end of the ice, while taking on tough match ups and providing some complementary offense. After these 2 terrific pairings, there is this guy that people seem to still overlook at times, a non 18-year-old Sam Bennett.
Sam Bennett is Real Good, But He Needs a Running Mate
Sam Bennett arguably has the highest upside of any player in the entire Flames organization. Bennett was the highest ranked player in his draft year, slipping to the Flames at 4th overall after having some pull-up issues due to a shoulder injury. Bennett has the tools to be the complete package: he is gritty, a great skater, and possesses high-end skill. While he had a tougher rookie season than he probably would have liked, he still put up some very respectable numbers for a rookie with 18 goals and 18 assists in 77 games. This happened despite having "the scraps" of line mates for the majority of the season, other than his portion of time he spent on the wing of Backlund and Frolik. He was also under-utilized by Bob Hartley and was quite unlucky in a number of games where he should have been rewarded for some brilliant plays with goals. It feels as though Bennett has been around for a long time, but he really only had his 11 game stint in the playoffs last year and this past rookie season. He also missed almost an entire season of development in his first season post-draft after having shoulder surgery. Basically, Sam Bennett has a ton of potential and offers a mix of attributes that nobody else on the Flames roster possess today. However, the Flames just drafted a guy who looks to be the perfect compliment for Bennett's skill set.
Matthew Tkachuk Looks Like a Perfect Fit for Bennett's Wing
A lot of the great things that can be said about Sam Bennett's game can be said about Matthew Tkachuk. Tkachuk is a player with a high hockey IQ, offensive prowess, and a willingness to get involved in the grittier areas of the game. One of the big knocks on Matthew Tkachuk leading up to the draft was that his highly successful pre-draft season was accomplished alongside two prolific junior players in Marner and Dvorak. Well, the Flames happen to have a very talented centre that is looking for a line mate to grow with. Give these two players some time to grow together in sheltered minutes behind the Monahan and Backlund lines and see what they can do. In Glen Gulutzan's introductory press conference as coach, he mentioned how successful Sam Bennett is at getting under opposing players skin. Matthew Tkachuk is also known for getting in his opposition's face. A line of two highly talented, intelligent players that can agitate opponents while putting up points is exactly what this team needs to round out their top 9. It will also make Brian Burke very pleased.
The Pairings of the Flames Future Top 9
That has the makings of a top 9 that provides everything that you could want a contending team to have. An elite offensive line, a strong 2-way line that can take on the tough match ups, followed up by another highly talented offensive line that is willing to play physical and go to the tough areas. The Flames have so many players that they can give opportunities to slot in as the third person on these lines, but with the key pairings already established, it will be up to Gulutzan to figure out who goes where.
The Flames Have Many Players That Could Fit With Bennett and Tkachuk
In my opinion, there are four players in the Flames organization that could really help round out the Tkachuk-Bennett line. Here is a brief rundown:
Troy Brouwer: Regardless of whether Tkachuk makes the Flames this year or next year, I would not be surprised to see Brouwer play with Bennett. He plays a similar crash-the-net style as Bennett and Tkachuk, obviously with less skill, but he is a veteran that could help these young guys find their way in the NHL. He also has the ability to protect them should they cross the line with the opposition.
Micheal Ferland: Ferland did not have great success playing on his off-wing with Monahan and Gaudreau, but it may be worth giving him a look with Tkachuk and Bennett. If it worked, this line would have the potential to be an absolute menace, three young forwards with skill that can get under the opposition's skin.
Emile Poirier: A lot of the followers of the Flames are down on Poirier following his rough season this year in Stockton, but Poirier still has all the tools to be a solid NHLer and his game could work really well with Bennett and Tkachuk. He had some terrific seasons in junior and his AHL rookie season he posted 42 points in 55 games. He also likes to play the role of agitator. If Poirier can rebound and reclaim his position of being considered a part of the Flames future; this is a line where he could really help.
Daniel Pribyl: A recent free agent signing from the Czech Republic, Pribyl is a skilled, big right-winger coming off a season in the Czech League where he posted 45 points in 45 games. He will likely need some time to adjust to the North American game, but when he does, he could be an interesting complement to this pairing.
Just to be clear, these are my thoughts on something existing within the Flames organization that has the potential to be very special in the future. The key word is potential. Matthew Tkachuk has yet to play an NHL game, he may not play in the NHL this upcoming season. Sam Bennett has the tools to be an elite centre in the NHL, but he is not one yet and who knows how high he will actually fly. Maybe Gulutzan decides that he wants Tkachuk to post up with Monahan and Gaudreau. We do not know how this all shapes up, but the fact of the matter is that this long-winded rebuild the Flames have been going through is starting to have some light at the end of the tunnel. If things work out as it looks like they might, they could end up with a very strong top 9 forward core to go along with that dynamic defense. The idea of Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk teaming up is pretty exciting; lets see how it all plays out in the years to come. We may get a glimpse as soon as this year.