kick off part one of a
five part series that
looks at the Calgary
Flames team this year
(as it stands) position
Thursday, look for the
next chapter in the
We'll look at the position's strengths and weaknesses, look at changes from this year to last, and provide an organizational depth chart.
focus? Center Ice.
Room for Improvement
Last year around this time, esteemed Calgarypuck.com writers
wrote about two centers who needed to take a step forward in
order for the team to make the playoffs and a third pivot that
would provide a stability on the penalty kill and the third
line. As we now know, it was the 'stable' center, Craig Conroy,
who shocked everyone with his breakthrough season and
outstanding leadership. That was a tough one to predict, but a pleasant
surprise nonetheless. However the writers were bang on about
Marc Savard and Rob Niedermayer, both of whom actually took
steps backward as the Flames missed the playoffs for the sixth
The bottom line isn't much different this summer. The Flames
cannot be carried by one solid line. Ideally, they need three
lines that can score and three centers that can lead the lines
both offensively and defensively. It's the same story that we've
heard for past half-decade, except now the Flames actually have
players who may be capable of performing. But the question is...
Craig Conroy's season may have been overshadowed by the
emergence of Jarome Iginla, but with 75 points, and at plus 24,
his numbers were among the best for all NHL centers including
the likes of Mike Modano, Mats Sundin, and Joe Sakic. An
exceptional skater, Conroy was Calgary's top pivot in both
offensive and defensive situations, and he earned his third
career Selke trophy nomination. However, even the biggest
optimist has to question whether another 75 point season is
within reach. Realistically, a 20 goal, 60 point season would be a
reasonable expectation, especially if Conroy can continue to be
an on-ice leader and a dominant defensive player.
Marc Savard's season can be characterized by one word -
disappointment. An early-season injury got the diminutive 25
year-old off to a rough start, and after stints on the 2nd, 3rd,
and 4th lines, as well as on the wing and in the pressbox,
Savard ended the season with a career low 33 points. The good
news for Savard is that he's still a member of the Flames,
signifying that management is likely prepared to give him
another shot - although you can bet that it won't be along side
Jarome Iginla. While he may be hard pressed to match his career
high of 65 points on the 2nd or 3rd line, a target of 20 goals
and 50 points should not be out of his reach.
Speaking of disappointment, two more Calgary pivots were also
coming off their worst NHL seasons. Rob Niedermayer and Jeff
Shantz both missed time to injury and neither were able to
contribute significantly to the team's offensive woes.
Niedermayer may never return to his 1996 form where he tallied
61 points, but the Flames would likely be happy with 10-15 goals
and 30-35 points... and a notable improvement defensively.
Shantz is lucky to still have NHL employment, and even that
remains to be seen, but he is capable of being a decent checking
center that can tally 5-10 goals and 20 points. Remember, this
is a guy that was once penciled in as the Flames' #2 center not
too long ago. At least those days are over...
Two players that should challenge for roster spots are rookie
Blair Betts and journeyman Scott Nichol. The latter played his
way on to last year's squad with tenacious style of play and a
surprising bursts of offense. Nichol is a valuable depth player,
but he'll still need to have another impressive training camp to
return to the Flames this fall. The 22 year-old Betts led the
Saint John Flames in scoring last season and even tallied his
first NHL goal on his first shot on goal. Betts is a very
well-rounded and intelligent hockey player and he'll be given
every opportunity to showcase his talents in camp.
On the farm, Jason Morgan and Matthew Lombardi will lead the
Baby Flames this season. Morgan is a gritty two-way center with
14 games of NHL experience, while Lombardi is a gifted, yet raw
rookie from the QMJHL. Neither should challenge for a NHL roster
spot at this time.
1. Craig Conroy
2. Marc Savard
3. Rob Niedermayer
4. Jeff Shantz
5. Scott Nichol
6. Blair Betts
7. Jason Morgan
8. Andrei Taratukhin
9. Egor Shastin
10. Mathew Lombardi
Organizational Grade: B-.
Based on potential, the group gets a B-. The fact is, it's hard
to predict what the Flames will see from the center ice position
this season. Conroy may be hard-pressed to repeat his 75-point
season, but Savard, Niedermayer, and Shantz are all coming off
"career-worst" seasons, and should improve upon their
respective point totals. Betts and Nichol give the Flames some
extra options, but neither can be expected to contribute more
than 10-20 points. Aside from Conroy, every other center needs
to take a step forward and concentrate on improving their
respective lines, and not trying to 'benefit' from their
wingers. This group is good enough to get the Flames into the
playoffs... if they play up to their potential.
So many questions, and so few answers is one way to describe the centre ice position for the Calgary Flames this year. On paper, it looks almost exactly the same as last season but its dynamics have changed radically.
Last season it was Marc Savard pencilled in to be the number one pivot coming off a 65-point season. At age 24 it was thought that he had nowhere to go but up. But now, after a 14 goal, 33 point season it looks as if Savard has plateaued. His performance over each of the last three seasons has been very similar, with the only discrepancy really being in the assist column.
Savard's totals pro-rated over an 82 game season:
Even factoring in a full 82-game schedule, last season was a drop-off for Savard but keep in mind he was playing mainly with the likes of Clark and Lowry rather than Iginla and Stillman. He also had a four-goal game at the end of the 2000-01 season that inflated those totals somewhat as well.
What does all this mean? Essentially, production from Savard on the goal side of things isn't going to improve all that much even if he has a better season. He'll get 20 goals regardless and anywhere from 30 to 45 assists depending on his linemates. Where Savard has to be better is defensively. As of right now the plan by Flames management and coaching staff is rumoured to be the pairing of Niedermayer with Gelinas on the second line and that makes sense when you consider:
Savard is likely to get 20 goals no matter who he's playing with
Chuck Kobasew and Savard together would be a huge defensive liability.
For those reasons, Marc Savard is third on the depth chart and quite likely playing with Mathias Johansson and Chris Clark. If he improved his defensive play he'd likely earn a chance on the second line but it's Niedermayer's spot to lose.
And speaking of Rob Niedermayer, he is coming off by far the worst season of his career. At age 27 is all hope lost of him even returning to his 1998-99 form of 18 goals and 51 points? The answer to that is quite likely yes. He's down to his last chance after signing a one-year-plus-an-option contract. Niedermayer showed no signs of being the player he once was last season, which is a shame because the Flames could sure use a consistent 20 goal and 40-50 point centre with his size and speed. From 1995 through 1999, Niedermayer achieved those totals (per 82 games) on a regular basis but he hasn't been able to since. At this point, the Flames would probably be ecstatic if he had 15 goals and 35 points and was responsible at both ends of the ice.
The true enigma of the Flames centres is that collectively they could potentially be one of the best in the league, or ... one of the worst. If Conroy can stay near his 75-point total of last season, Savard can return to 65 points and Niedermayer chips in with 45 to 50 it's as deep as anyone in the league. On the flipside, if Savard continues to be a defensive liability to the tune of minus-18, Niedermayer has another six-goal season and Conroy returns to his career average of 40 points Calgary could be in deep trouble.
Further down the depth chart, as of right now Jeff Shantz, if he stays, likely has the inside track on the fourth centre position simply because his contract indicates he will play regularly or be moved. The team is very likely to unload him either via trade or waivers before the start of the regular season, however, and that would open up competition somewhat. The other two players battling for the position include Steve Begin and Blair Betts. If Betts makes the team, he would likely slip ahead of Begin and Shantz on the depth chart simply because it makes sense for his development to have him playing a regular shift. Begin is a strong candidate for the 13th forward on the team, along with Scott Nichol (who I consider a right wing).
C+ Are the Flames deep at centre this year? We may not know for certain until December or January and by then it might be too late. As mentioned above, it really depends on how the players perform. I could imagine the mid-season grade for this position being anywhere from an A to an F.
Stuck in the Middle
Last August Calgarypuck.com handicapped each position, and ranked the players from the top to the bottom.
All three writers had Marc Savard at the top of the list and Craig Conroy sitting in the third spot. This summer, the two literally swap positions.
Craig Conroy altered the hockey world's perception of him by almost doubling his career marks for goals and points, making a mockery of a deadline deal for Cory Stillman in March of 2001.
Marc Savard on the other hand had his fortunes cruelly twist in the other direction, dropping in production, suffering injuries, and demanding a trade.
Is it safe to guess where things will settle this season?
The Big Club
When Craig Button was named the general manager of the Calgary Flames he inherited a center ice core that included Marc Savard, Jeff Shantz, Jason Wiemer and Clarke Wilm.
Two plus years later has the top two in tenuous positions with the club and the bottom two on to other pastures.
But are they better?
Craig Conroy - At least I wasn't alone in underestimating Craig Conroy last summer. When the amiable pivot was acquired from the St. Louis Blues there appeared to be a better than average chance it would turn out to be a successful deal. Accountability, experience and size are all valuable qualities, even if youth and offence were sacrificed in acquiring such. When the dust settled, Conroy and his 75 points ended up leaving Cory Stillman and his 43 points in his dust making the swap a runaway in Calgary's favour. Now a co-captain of the Flames, the pressure will be on Conroy to repeat or best those numbers, I personally wouldn't underestimate him again.
Marc Savard - Make or break season for Savard in Calgary, or has this disgruntled ship already set sail? Hard to say. The fact that he is still here bodes well for his redemption chances, though one has to wonder if trade return or lack there of is the only thing that has him still wearing the Flaming "C". A quick start to the season may go a long way to forgive past transgressions, and re-launch his career in Calgary, just as another slow start may seal his fate. The Flames may have two scoring lines this season with the addition of Martin Gelinas and the hope that surrounds rookie Chuck Kobasew. Savard has the talent to center that line should he put up some good numbers in the preseason.
Rob Niedermayer - Rob Niedermayer has all the tools to be a dominant force for the Calgary Flames. Now he just needs to use them. Blessed with good size and great speed, the oft-injured pivot had a terribly disappointing season in Calgary, his first with the Flames. The solace for Niedermayer may be the fact that he can't help but improve on last year's statistics, a fact that might help both he and his team take a step forward this season. He'll be in a battle with Marc Savard to gain control of the Flames second line in camp. With his career in shambles, the pivot should be well motivated to make amends.
Jeff Shantz - Jeff Shantz's fate with the Calgary Flames will likely boil down to one of two scenarios. He'll either become a very well paid fourth line center, or find himself on another roster through a trade or waiver wire pick up. The onus of what course is followed may lie in the feet of rookie center Blair Betts; a player many feel is ready to assume a defensive center position with the big club. Shantz lacks the size to fill a dominant defensive role at center, and the hands to make the club in an offensive role. With that said, the largest detriment to Jeff Shantz is likely his contract in excess of a million American dollars.
Blair Betts - Blair Betts was a late season call up by the Calgary Flames in late March, and acquitted himself quite well. Betts was selected by the Flames in the second round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft but had his development hampered by two knee injuries in 12 months time. A combination of potential, size and economics make Blair Betts a good bet to take over the fourth line center role.
Additional part time centers like Steve Begin and Scott Nichol may also factor into the final lineup, but are more suited for the wing.
On the Farm
For the second straight summer Craig Button has greatly altered the Flames farm system through free agent signings.
This summer didn't feature the prospect clearing trades of last year (Roman Turek for Sergei Varlamov and Daniel Tkaczuk), but the Saint John Flames look to have a very different look when they drop the puck in October.
Button added feisty center Darcy Verot from the Pittsburgh Penguins system, and there is a possibility that third round choice Mathew Lombardi may get his professional start in the AHL.
The team will be severely weakened should Blair Betts make the club, as their only other returning center may turn out to be plugger, Jason Morgan.
C+ The Flames center brigade looks good on paper, especially considering last year's consensus third center had a break out season, but their grade drops due to hugely disappointing seasons from both Niedermayer and Savard. Rebound seasons from both make the Flames center ice core one of the deepest in hockey.
A Big Flaming "C"
Centre ice figured to be a real strength for the Flames last season but ended up being a muddled combination of astonishing and disappointing performances.
Craig Conroy emerged from a career of obscurity to display the offensive gifts which had characterized his minor league statistics, taking advantage of a Marc Savard injury to grab a stranglehold on the number one centre job beside emerging superstar Jarome Iginla.
In fact, both Iginla and Flames coach Greg Gilbert credit Conroy with unleashing Iginla's ample skills.
"Jarome has definitely benefited from playing with Connie (Craig Conroy)," Gilbert told the Calgary SUN late in the year. "He's elevated his game to the speed that Craig plays at. That's just added to Jarome's game."
For that reason alone you can pencil in Conroy as Calgary's number one centre this year, moving him up two spots on the depth chart from last summer with the Flames hoping for more of the same from the Selke Trophy finalist.
When Savard finally re-emerged from his time in the infirmary last season there was no more Iginla but plenty of Chris Clark and Scott Nichol. From that moment on it was all downhill for the still youngish Savard.
Call it pouting or call it confusion, but Savard rapidly found his way into Gilbert's doghouse, chastised for one-dimensional play which frequently cost the team dearly on the defensive side of the puck.
But it's not as though Gilbert hadn't offered Savard a prescient warning, having this to say in training camp of September 2001.
"Savvy's a multi-talented player," said Gilbert last summer. "He possesses assets that a lot of people don't have. He knows how to use his wingers, knows how to create those options for them. But he's also got to understand that there's times where you have to cut your losses. You can't always make a play out of a tough situation; you've got to make the safe play, regroup and go back at it again."
Needless to say, as the season wore on, the inability of Savard to cut and run ultimately led to his downfall. And it's not like the coach hadn't warned him. A minus 18 rating by the end of the season - minus 25 if rated over 82 games - ranked him among the worst defensive players in the NHL.
Savard at first demanded, then withdrew, a request to be traded but it still seems remarkable that the calendar may flip over enough times to give him a second chance in a Flames uniform. If that's the case then Savard is at a turning point in his career, having the ability to be an elite centre in the NHL but needing to come to terms with the fact that virtually every elite centre takes pride in his two way game. It's a hard lesson that some - Vinny Lecavalier comes to mind - struggle to learn while others, like Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and Mike Modano, eventually meld into their overall game.
Newly acquired Rob Niedermayer also found himself floundering after being pencilled in as Calgary's number two centre last fall. Instead of soaring, however, Niedermayer went on to post what was perhaps the worst season of his career, hampered by injuries and largely indifferent play. The same qualities that caused Florida fans to chill on Niedermayer were much in evidence in Calgary as well - an obvious physical package that includes ample skill, speed and size but either a lack of hockey sense or an inability to bring intensity to an NHL level.
Niedermayer, along with Savard, will also be given a somewhat miraculous second chance. If the Flames hadn't surrendered such a hefty package to acquire him, Niedermayer may have seen his $2 million + contract cut loose over the summer. As it is, he has apparently been promised newly acquired Martin Gelinas as a winger.
Savard and Niedermayer will probably start the season in the manner they finished it last year - essentially 2A and 2B on the depth chart, each with roughly an equal amount of ice time. As with last season, the Flames desperately need both to elevate their games several levels in order for the team to be successful.
After the top three centres the situation becomes somewhat murky, with a number of interchangeable parts capable of playing all three forward positions probably being spotted as Gilbert sees fit. It's my call that Blair Betts will probably be the number four centre on opening night with Jeff Shantz, whom you might have figured to be in that slot, working as a winger.
Most observers felt that Shantz would probably be gone by now, his salary too much for the Flames to carry for essentially a fourth liner. But Shantz might survive until training camp or at least until Jarome Iginla is under contract, serving as something of an experienced warm body should the Flames have to start the year without Iginla's presence.
Scott Nichol is also capable of playing the middle of the ice in a pinch with Jason Morgan likely to be the number one centre in Saint John.