Calgary Flames fans have now watched a full month Bill Peters hockey. And boy, is it ever different from Glen Gulutzan hockey. Opinions about Peters and his coaching style are varied, as they have been since his hiring, but one element stands out that fans haven’t really been talking about.
Before I get into it, I want to make one thing very clear: I do not want to accuse Bill Peters of not knowing what he’s doing. He’s closer to the Calgary Flames, and more aware of each player’s strengths and weaknesses, than any of us could dream of being. Obvious statement of the year: He knows things the rest of us don’t.
Another caveat to be aware of is that when I say “fans”, I’m mostly referring to the 100 or so Flames fans that I follow on Twitter. Small sample size, yes, but it’s my only way to gauge sentiment.
Lines in a Blender
Perhaps the biggest source of praise and admiration for Bill Peters thus far has been his willingness to “shake things up.” Every game brings new line combinations, and some lines don’t even last a full game before being broken up, again.
Maybe the reason why Calgary Flames fans, and even media personnel, have reacted to favourably to that, is because we’re still recovering from Gulutzan trauma. The trauma of repeatedly kicking a brick wall, by using line combinations that any human with functioning eyes could see weren’t working.
Last season, it seemed like the only option for mobility within the lineup was to move a player up or down. Third line right wing isn’t playing well? Move him to fourth. Second line left wing got injured? Move the third guy up.
Now, everything is on the table. Only 11 games into the season, we have seen the following:
- Michael Frolik at both LW and RW,
- Sam Bennett at both LW and RW,
- Derek Ryan at both C and LW,
- Garnet Hathaway at both LW and RW,
- Austin Czarnik at both LW and RW,
- Elias Lindholm at both C and RW,
- Matthew Tkachuk at both LW and RW, and my personal favourite,
- Rookie Dillon Dube at C, LW and RW.
My assumption is, when Peters got hired, he had a meeting or at least a one-on-one chat with every Calgary Flames player. And in that conversation, each player told their new head coach what position he is most comfortable playing.
Well, if the above list is any indication, then Peters doesn’t really care where you’re most comfortable.
It’s no secret that playing on your off-wing (meaning your stick blade is towards the centre ice instead of the boards) is very different than playing on your natural side. It impacts your motion and vision. There are advantages and disadvantages to playing on the off-wing, with the consensus being that it can enable more options and better shots, but also requires more skill.
For example, Frolik is a left shot and played last season on the right wing. The off-wing is his comfortable position. Meanwhile, Bennett and Tkachuk played the left wing with a left shot, and Hathaway played the right wing as a right shot. Which means they are all accustomed to playing on their natural side.
Between natural and off-wing, neither option is inherently better than the other. But switching between the two is a big adjustment.
What I’m Wondering
Every game day, projected lineups are released for the upcoming matchup. Because the Flames essentially have one more forward than they have roster space for (two if you include Anthony Peluso), and one more defenceman than they have room for, some players are going to be scratched on any given night.
Calgary Flames fans don’t hesitate for a second to voice their opinion on who deserves to get scratched and who does not. But nobody really speaks up about which forwards have been moved out of their normal position, and why.
These line shake-ups raise some questions for me.
First, how does the coach decide which forwards are “movable” and which are not?
With all of the line arrangements that have been tried, one can’t help but feel that some forwards will just never move. Sean Monahan has struggled somewhat to start the season, but somehow I don’t get the feeling that Peters is entertaining the idea of trying him on the wing. The same goes for Mikael Backlund.
Imagine how fans would react if Johnny Gaudreau got moved to the right side. It would be bedlam. The idea of him playing anywhere besides his usual left wing seems crazy.
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And yet, fans didn’t seem to bat an eye when Michael Frolik got moved to the left wing. Or when Sam Bennett got moved to top line right despite his strong play on the left side. Why is it that the idea of some forwards changing positions seems unacceptable, while others can be placed anywhere?
For some reason, it seems to be the less-skilled forwards that get moved to an unnatural position the most.
But it doesn’t appear to be a strictly a matter of performance, meaning those who underperform in their regular position get moved somewhere else, or those who play well maintain their spots. If that was Peters’ mindset, we would probably have seen James Neal playing left wing by now. Or Mark Jankowski on the wing. And we probably wouldn’t have seen Sam Bennett moved away from left wing.
It doesn’t appear to be about training either. Matthew Tkachuk is the only forward that we know of that actually practiced playing on his opposite wing this summer. Placing him on the right isn’t a shocker. And moving from C to the wing isn’t unheard of throughout the league, so Derek Ryan and Elias Lindholm changing positions isn’t that surprising either.
But have the others – Czarnik, Hathaway, Frolik, Bennett and Dube – adequately trained on both wings?
Again, I’m asking these questions out of genuine curiosity, not accusation. And I’m a little surprised that not more fans are asking them.
I’ve taken a little bit of heat for my somewhat conservative position on rearranging lines. I’ve written before that one should wait a few games before deciding whether or not a certain combination “works”.
Apparently Peters doesn’t read my hot takes. And that’s okay, because I still trust him as the expert. Hopefully his methods, which I don’t fully understand, pay off in the end.
Also, why are Flames goalies cursed?