There’s a very good chance the Calgary Flames will open the season with a new top-line centre.
No, not via free agency, but by moving Elias Lindholm to his natural position.
“I think we really want to explore whether or not we have a better lineup with Elias Lindholm at centre than right-wing,” said Flames coach Geoff Ward of his most versatile and complete forward, who has spent the bulk of his two years in Calgary roaming on the starboard side of the team’s top line with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.
“It certainly is an option. I think with the depth we’ve acquired in free agency we can take a look at that. We know how the other lineup fits together and are comfortable with that. But he was a really effective player for us in the middle. You saw how much life he had. I think he really does see himself as a centreman – always has. I think he got some energy playing the position he grew up playing. We’ve got to take a look at that for sure. It’s a natural position for him – he’s certainly shown that.”
In his first wide-ranging interview since the Flames added former Canucks Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, Josh Leivo and several other depth charges, Ward discussed everything from his team’s signings and potential line changes, to his conversation with David Rittich and the importance of internal growth if the Flames are to become serious contenders.
Lindholm up the middle would certainly have the sort of ripple effect bound to kickstart the team’s inevitable shift away from having to count on Monahan and Gaudreau as its offensive focal point.
Start the debate on whether the team would dare mess with its most important trio, featuring Mikael Backlund between Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane.
Would Dillon Dube get first crack as Lindholm’s linemate? And which of newbies Leivo and Dominik Simon might vie for a gig on Lindholm’s other side?
Does Sam Bennett get the plum assignment beside Gaudreau and Monahan for what might be the team’s third line? Or did his playoff brilliance earn him another crack up the middle, where he was drafted to play? If so, what to do with centre Derek Ryan?
“At some point in camp we’ll have some competition for sure -- we will navigate those waters,” said Ward, who will also have newcomer Joakim Nordstrom at his disposal for fourth-line duties.
“I’m not telling guys, ‘You’re starting in this hole or that hole.’ Guys see the signings and understand what the implications are. It’s a nice problem to have for sure. One thing I really think we need to be is a four-line team. I really get nervous when you’re listing them 1, 2, 3, 4. At the end of the day, if we get everybody their minutes, they don’t really care where they play, as long as they can play to their strengths. We felt we needed to add depth and some things and (GM Brad Treliving) has gone out and done that.”
One of those "things" was the addition of a Vezina-caliber goalie, which is where we’ll start with our Q&A with the man who has a little more freedom to experiment now that his interim tag has been lifted:
SN: How excited does a coach get to see Markstrom sign his six-year, $36 million deal with the Flames?
GW: It’s exciting for sure. We were all really happy for Talbs (Cam Talbot). He got what he wanted in terms of length of contract and value in Minnesota, so it’s good to see good people get rewarded for their efforts. After he signed there we needed a goalie, and anytime you can get a top-5 goalie to your team, you’re extremely excited about it. We’ve got some stability in goal for a long time and you need that in order to win championships.
SN: Will the addition of an elite goalie change the style of play you’ll employ?
GW: Maybe a little bit, but I don’t think it’s going to change it that much. We had a lot of confidence in our goalies last year. I’m not sure we’ll have time to play 82 games, and if we do it’s going to be really compressed. Our philosophy with the style of play will be the same because the guys are comfortable with it. We don’t have to overhaul an awful lot of stuff like we did going into the bubble.
As far as our goalies go, we still understand we’re going to need the tandem. The way it will be compressed, the energy you get from the goalies will be important, Everybody’s talking about Markie, but Ritter (David Rittich) is going to be an important piece for us as well. We’ll have to rely on a tandem. It’s important we sit down in camp to come up with a strategy on how we’re going to use those guys, so they are aware of it, can buy into it and can support each other as well.”
SN: What was the nature of your conversation with Rittich following the season-ending loss in which he was thrust into the midst of the team’s collapse?
GW: It was just an honest, back and forth between him and I. I apologized for putting him in that kind of position. He felt sorry for what happened. It’s one of those things.
Looking back at everything, if he would have come in and stood on his head the conversation maybe would have been different. My whole aim in talking to him afterwards was to make sure we’re OK, No. 1.
He understands how I feel about it. Moving forward he knows he’s still an important member of our team. And we value him an awful lot. He’s played some good hockey for us and we expect him to pick up where he left off, in terms of being an all-star goalie in the first half.
He’s important not just on the ice, but his personality in the locker room is really infectious and important. To me, he’s a lot like Anton Khudobin, who everyone was talking about in the playoffs. Dobby’s got a really outgoing personality and teammates love him – same with Ritter. Their personalities aren’t much different. The effect those guys have on a room is terrific. I want to make sure Ritter doesn’t change the way he conducts his business around the rink every day. We need his energy and his infectiousness and his personality and sense of humour in the room – it’s a big piece for us.
SN: Given how similar your roster of forwards is to last year, is the idea that the difference will come via internal growth for emerging guys like Dube and Mangiapane?
GW: For sure. And that’s going to be exciting to watch. Those guys are on the edge of breaking through and really having solid seasons this year, based on how we saw them progress last year. You want those guys taking on bigger roles for the team.
SN: I assume the same could be said for Juuso Valimaki and Rasmus Andersson on the back end?
GW: They’re going to be huge parts of it, and that’s where our leadership group has to bring those guys into the fold and they’ll be part of that group. Our group has to step up and take the lead so guys can step up and help them get there.
SN: Given your shortage of experienced right-handed defencemen, who is most likely going to play on the off-side?
GW: Valimaki is playing on his off-side now in Finland, so he may be a guy who is able to slip over. I really liked what I saw from Connor Mackey in the pause. I think he would be able to slide over. Same for Oliver Kylington. We’ve got some guys we can talk to.
I want to get a feel for what they are all about as players because I think that will make our decision easier in terms of who we’re going to ask to slide where and whatnot.
At the end of the day, you want to get your best players in places where they are comfortable.