Flames’ revival under Ward means tough roster decisions loom

Eric Francis and Ryan Leslie discuss how Geoff Ward has got some players on the Flames bouncing back as Calgary continues to roll.

Mere weeks ago, the debate was whether Mark Jankowski would benefit from some time in the AHL.

The eve of having to make tough roster decisions for the Calgary Flames is ever closer and one wondered if the man with a single point this season was on the verge of being exposed on waivers for the purposes of demotion.

But now the discussion is whether he’s the ultimate poster boy for what Geoff Ward is all about – empowerment, ownership and resilience.

Despite the fact he wasn’t even on the ice for a single Flames goal until last week, Jankowski was given an important assignment the first night Ward was thrust behind the bench.

"Right from the very beginning of the game in Buffalo was an opportunity to look at some different things, so we played (Jankowski’s fourth unit) against the top six in Buffalo quite a bit just to see if they were able to do it," said Ward, whose refreshing mantra revolves around making sure every player feels they have a voice and a significant opportunity to contribute.

"Because if it does work, it gives us a lot more things we can do with our lines in terms of matchups. We felt coming out of that game they did a good job. We tried it again the next game and they were still very good."

Fast forward to the Flames’ biggest statement game of the season in Denver on Monday night where one of Ward’s latest reclamation projects was on the ice against Nathan MacKinnon so often that in the final minute of play Jankowski’s line was out trying to preserve the tie.

"We felt really confident in that game the times they were on the ice with MacKinnon they had real good shifts against him. They actually played in the o-zone against them quite a bit. So, (with the game on the line) we sent them out there."

Ditto for Thursday night’s win against the Leafs where Ward put Jankowski out against John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman with some regularity.

For the third straight night, Jankowski finished as a plus-player, was relevant throughout the evening and continued to be the effective penalty killer he’s always been. A player re-born.

"I feel better," said Jankowski, 25, who had scored 31 times over his last two seasons.

"Wardo showed a lot of confidence in our line and we proved ourselves and gave him that confidence that he could trust us against everyone. I definitely would have liked to have a little more opportunity (under Bill Peters) – a little more trust from the coaching staff to go out there and do what we’re doing now. It has just maybe breathed a little new life into the locker room. We realized we needed to be better and we were able to do that."

His linemates Thursday also played crucial roles, as Tobias Rieder made a great play before dishing the puck to Michael Frolik, whose snipe was his third in as many games.

“With the coaching staff, we feel like we are more part of the group," confirmed Frolik.

"Wardo wants to keep rolling four lines and have a little bit of depth."

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Unlike the Leafs’ turnaround under a new coach who has emboldened its stars, the Flames turnaround under Ward has evolved largely through the team’s depth charges.

Less time for stars and more time for everyone else has translated into seven straight wins and 17 of 18 points to get within two of the division lead.

"We talked about wanting to get balance throughout our four lines and over the last few hockey games we’re starting to see the benefits of some of that," said Ward.

"Guys are getting opportunities to chip in. We tell everybody you have to try and score. That’s just the way it is. We’re not sending guys out just to be straight checkers. We’re seeing some guys freed up now. That comes with a little bit of confidence – guys are willing to make plays and hold onto the puck a lot more. It’s been good for us and key in our wins."

With Austin Czarnik back in Calgary following his successful rehab stint in Stockton (he scored the OT winner his last game) and Sam Bennett on the verge of returning from injury, it will be fascinating to see what roster moves the cap-strapped team will make.

Because he doesn’t have to clear waivers, Dillon Dube may have to go back down to the minors despite scoring three goals and adding four assists his last eight.

It’s an unpleasant possibility as Dube, Derek Ryan and Milan Lucic have been the Flames’ best line the last three weeks.

Dube’s Stockton roomie, Zac Rinaldo, is certainly expected to be returned to the AHL despite scoring big goals in each of his last two outings. Rieder is a risk to expose on waivers due to his speed, recent mojo and penalty-killing prowess. Perhaps Oliver Kylington could go down again if the Flames are comfortable with just six defenders on their roster.

"We’ve got some tough decisions to make in terms of our lineup now with everyone back," said Ward, whose coaching approach has unquestionably created some delicious problems for the team.

"But that’s a good thing for us. When you’re sitting here as a coaching staff and you don’t have hard decisions to make in terms of who is going in, you probably don’t have the depth you want in your lineup."

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