Flames Positional Analysis: Center
Calgarypuck.com takes a look up the middle.
Training camp varies in intrigue from season to season.
Some camps feature numerous individual battles for spots, and a roster largely up in the air until late September. In other years the team appears to be pretty much set, with camp more an exercise in finding a team's rhythm.
Camp for the Flames in 2001 will be a meet and greet with as many as six new faces expected to be in the lineup on opening night against the Oilers.
With training camp around the corner, Calgarypuck takes a look at the Calgary Flames, position by position.
To be an effective center in the NHL, you have to be able to win face-offs, score goals, pass to your wingers, and be a 'third' defenseman. In the past few years, the Flames' centers have generally been unable to fulfill all of these responsibilities, and this part of the reason that Calgary fans haven't seen a post season game in over five years.
In the last six months, Calgary Flames' GM Craig Button has traded away two of the team's offensive stars in exchange for two new centers. While the addition of Craig Conroy and Rob Niedermayer still leaves the Flames without a "true #1 center", the team now has four experienced pivots that are capable of being complete centers. If these centers perform up to expectations, Craig Button's team will be a playoff contender. If not, Button may be looking for another job.
The Flames quartet of centers is lead by Marc Savard. The 24 year-old isn't a prototypical top line centre, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in skill and determination. One of the top agitators in the game, Savard has increased his point totals in each of his four NHL seasons, a trend that the Flames hope continues for at least another year. If he stays healthy, Savard is capable of 25 goals and 70 points.
Rob Niedermayer is the pre-season favorite to become the team's #2 center. Niedermayer comes to the Flames after an up and down career with the Florida Panthers. As a 21 year-old, Niedermayer notched 61 points. Five seasons later, he has yet to come close to matching that total again. Calgary will give Niedermayer a fresh start, but it remains to be seen whether he can re-establish himself as a major scoring threat.
Craig Conroy came to the Flames in mid-March and proved himself to be a consistent and reliable 3rd line center. Conroy, actually had identical numbers to Cory Stillman after the trade (3 goals, 4 assists), which proves that he is capable of putting some points on the board. Conroy will be expected to lead the penalty-killing unit and to take key face-offs late in the game. Ideally, he'll also notch 15 goals and 40 points for the team.
With Jeff Shantz sidelined until the New Year, Clarke Wilm will be the team's 4th line center to open the season. Wilm is a tough-nosed, hard-working pivot with surprisingly soft hands.
While Wilm struggled a bit last season, he can usually be counted on a 10 goal, 20 point season. If he's not on pace for these numbers by January, Shantz will probably take his job.
The Flames' system is fairly deep at center. 34 year-old Rob Murray has over 100 NHL games to his credit. Murray is the AHL's all-time penalty minute leader, and is extremely popular among fans and former teammates. Murray will likely be named the captain of the Saint John Flames. Blair Betts improved significantly throughout his rookie season in Saint John, but is probably another year away from competing for a NHL job. Jason Morgan was in training camp last season with the Edmonton Oilers, and after seeing duty in Hamilton and Springfield, he found himself centering a checking line for the Calder Cup champs in Saint John. Morgan has 14 games of NHL experience with the LA Kings, but is a longshot to make the Calgary Squad. Scott Nichol also has NHL experience (5 games), but at 5'8, he will likely remain a career minor leaguer.
Calgary has three recent draftees that will figure into their future plans. Jarret Stoll had a 100-point season with the Kootenay Ice and was impressive on the Canadian National Junior team. Andrei Taratukhin and Egor Shastin are both excellent playmakers that will continue to develop in Russia and the Ukraine.
Organizational Grade: B. The Flames have a well-rounded group of centers that are above average in the face-off circle and very responsible defensively. This should be one of the best group of defensive centers in the league. However, only Marc Savard was a consistent scoring threat last season, and that won't be enough for the Flames to make the playoffs this season. If Niedermayer is able to find his scoring touch and pot 50-60 points, and if Conroy can notch 35-40 points, and if Wilm or Shantz can contribute 20-25 for the 4th line, then the Flames just might have enough offense to squeeze into the playoffs.
NHL teams have always been built around center ice.
The champion Colorado Avalanche have Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. The Wings had Sergei Federov and Steve Yzerman. The Stars had Mike Modano and Joe Niewendyk when they captured the cup three years ago.
You can't win without strength up the middle.
Historically the Flames have always been strong up the middle. When they captured their only Stanley Cup they had the likes of Doug Gilmour, Joe Niewendyk and Joel Otto patrolling the middle of the ice.
The pipeline, however, ran dry in the more recent history.
In the last few years the Flames have tried to make do at the center ice position, inserting such towering forces as Jeff Shantz and Marty Murray to center the second line.
This summer Craig Button finally addressed the position.
The Big Club
This season's center ice brigade may lack the glitz of the Flames '89 group, but in relative terms they represent a huge step forward for the organization.
Marc Savard - Savard doesn't have the traditional size and strength of a true number one center, but his production is starting to enter that area. Savard's 23 goals and 65 points were good for second on the Flames. The key for Savard this season is to take his game to yet another level, both in terms of production and consistency. Once again he will likely line up along side Jarome Iginla.
Rob Niedermayer - At 6'2" and over 200 pounds, Rob Niedermayer is already an upgrade in terms of second line centers, at least in stature. The lanky pivot is one of the most important factors in determining success for the Flames this season; is he the 32 point third line player of a year ago, or the 50 plus point player of the preceding year? A 20-goal, 50-point season will help fill the void left by the departure of Val Bure. Less will likely mean the Flames will struggle to score on a nightly basis.
Craig Conroy - Conroy was acquired at the trade deadline last season, and arrived just in time to see a coach fired, and a season fall apart. This season marks the true beginning of Conroy's career in Calgary. Blessed with good size, and quickness, Conroy will anchor the team's checking line this season. However, the Flames need goals from all sources, and are likely hoping Conroy can improve on his perennial 15-goal average.
Clarke Wilm - The forgotten man, Clarke Wilm just continues to do his job. With limited ice time and a checking, fourth line role, Wilm seems to chip in eight or so goals every season, and play a key role in killing penalties. Bubble players are never safe, but Wilm has earned some degree of job security, and will likely line up in his familiar position again this fall.
Jeff Shantz - Shantz will be out of the Flame's lineup until at least Christmas with a torn ligament in his knee. When he comes back he may find his job has been filled by another, younger player, and may have to move on. The southern Alberta native is a good team player, but lacks the size to take over a permanent position at center.
On the Farm
The Flames "system" was altered greatly over the summer.
One of the Flames top center ice prospects, Daniel Tkaczuk, was moved to St. Louis in the Roman Turek trade. Another top center, captain Marty Murray was lost to free agency when he signed with Philadelphia.
The Saint John Flames are now made up of three off-season signings, and second year pro Blair Betts.
Betts put up some good numbers in Prince George of the WHL, but seemed to be injured more often than not. Last season Betts played 75 games, the most in any hockey season since he was 15, playing a defensive role for the Baby Flames. He'll be looking to expand his role offensively this season.
Rob Murray is a grizzled veteran, and will likely take over the leadership reigns from Marty Murray. Scott Nichol and Jason Morgan are career minor leaguers filling depth positions in Saint John.
Organizational Grade: B- Off-season moves make center ice a position of strength. The group has some question marks offensively past Marc Savard, but should play a key role in shedding goals against.
You can blow negative at a lot of what the Calgary Flames are putting forward this year but center ice is likely to be a real strength this season, probably for the first time in many a year.
While some have accused Flames GM Craig Button of engaging in a mindless slaughter of his starting lineup this summer, Button in fact appears to have had a very clear idea of what he wanted his team to look like this coming season.
Being strong down the middle was obviously a priority.
Button certainly believes the defence mantra as God willing and if the creek don't rise this group of centermen seems tailor-made - finally - to lend a hand to a maturing group of young defenceman and the number one goaltender the team has been after for years.
But, as Scotty Bowman noted after the Wings signed Brett Hull, "you have to have players that can score because defense is taking over the league."
Can a center ice crew of Marc Savard, Rob Niedermayer, Craig Conroy and Clark Wilm generate enough offence to carry this team?
More often than not in today's NHL, teams - particularly those with slim budgets – find the easiest and cheapest route to competitiveness is through defence, leaving many franchises with the dubious priority of preventing offence, playing not to lose as opposed to going for the win.
Only the elite teams seem capable of playing both sides of the red line.
Savard will be a given as the Flames number one centre, providing the creativity necessary to supplement the prolific skills of the emerging Jarome Iginla at right wing. The criticism of Savard in the past has been his less than enthusiastic pursuit of the conditioning he needs to be an elite centre in the NHL. He's a little full of himself and maybe a little crazy to be picking on guys like Gary Roberts but he's also undeniably gutty and possessing excellent skills should he decide to apply himself and strive for a goal of being an elite NHL centre.
In hindsight, Niedermayer should not have been placed in the NHL as an 18 year-old with the pressure attendant to that precarious position. A more relaxed development pace might have resulted in a different Niedermayer than the one joining the Flames for the coming season. But at only 26 years of age, Niedermayer can still be rescued. By giving him second line responsibilities Button is handing Niedermayer the keys to a rare second chance. With developing rookie Oleg Saprykin and latecomer Jukka Hentunen, however, has Button given Niedermayer keys to a Porsche or a 1960 Volkswagon? Having better scoring depth at wing might be a priority before opening day for Button, if nothing else to give Niedermayer the selection of tools he needs to make the most of his opportunity. However, the addition of Niedermayer gives the Flames a second line physical presence they haven't had in many years. Niedermayer is one of the league leaders in hits the last few years running.
Conroy is a quintessential third line checking centre, ample speed, a physical presence and some skill to ensure opposing forwards don't take him for granted. The Flames have been so dismal killing penalties the last few years – with a team of pluggers – that there ought to be an investigation. But Conroy will be the centerpiece in trying to turn that situation around while teamed with speedy wingers Dean McAmmond and probably Chris Clark five on five.
Wilm has been often used as a poster boy when critics launch into anything negative they can think of about the Flames. If a team has to employ a player like Wilm, say the pundits, how good can they possibly be? Strangely though, Wilm often turns up in trade requests from other teams, suggesting his moment of respectability has finally arrived. He's nothing more than a fourth line centre but he's as good at the job as most in the league. Tough, tenacious and possessing some skills, the Flames could do worse than having Wilm as their part time agitator down the middle.
There is no Sakic, Forsberg or Modano among the top four Flames centermen but there is quality depth and more than in prior years seems tailor made to the ascribed defense first mantra of the GM and his new coach, Greg Gilbert.
The key here might be a resurgent offensive season from Niedermayer. If that happens, then all the rest should fall into place quite nicely.
Somewhere, lost in space through a debilitating injury, is Jeff Shantz, his job now taken and only a winger position still open to him or perhaps he finds himself needed again should one of the top four go down. Most likely, however, he's trade bait when he does reappear.
Waiting on the farm but still needing another year is Blair Betts, the eventual replacement for Conroy. On the way is Jarrett Stoll, who may well replace Niedermayer someday while Andrei Tarathukin is taking the place organizationally for the departed Daniel Tkazcuk.
Emergency replacements in time of desperate need would be Murray, Nichol and Morgan. Like goaltender Kay Whitmore, unlikely to see ice time in Calgary unless something desperately wrong should occur.
Organizational Grade: B If this team will be all about preventing goals this season then this group of centremen is tailor made for the task.