SUN Hockey Pool

Centre position is centre stage for Flames

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

Centre stage in the bid for the playoffs is the centre situation for the Calgary Flames.

Signing Matt Stajan to a long-term extension last year and bringing back Olli Jokinen in the off-season, the hope was that strength down the middle would help the team bounce back from a bad year.

Depth would only be bolstered by the addition of Brendan Morrison, the expected growth of rookie Mikael Backlund, and capable fourth-liners on two-way deals like Craig Conroy, Stefan Meyer, Brett Sutter and Ryan Stone rounding out the pivots.

Ideally, Daymond Langkow would factor into the equation, too.

But with Langkow unlikely to return this year, what you see is what you get down the middle of the Flames lineup: An inconsistent group of centres head coach Brent Sutter wants to see more from.

A group still lacking a true No. 1.

Jokinen has had his shot at proving he could produce like the point-per-game player he was in his prime. He’s mostly disappointed.

Stajan has been anointed to the prime position, almost by default.

And while he someday may grow into that top role, he’s struggled to string together strong appearances since a three-point outing in mid-October when teamed with Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay for the first time this season.

Behind them, Backlund has been hot and cold everywhere but in the faceoff dots — where he’s been consistently beatable on draws — and too often, guys like Conroy and Meyer have been the hardest-working men in the middle.

Morrison is the team’s leading scorer right now. A 35-year-old who didn’t even have a contract until days before the puck dropped on the season opener.

And he’s not even playing his natural position.

If things don’t improve for those ahead of him on the depth chart, maybe it’s time to give Morrison a shot with Iginla.

“I think we’ve had inconsistency there. I think our centre group, we need to get consistent with what we do on a nightly basis, and how we play,” the Flames’ head coach said Monday after practice when asked to assess his pivots.

“We’ve had some guys who’ve had great games and then their games drop off. Some guys, it’s been there some nights and some nights not as good as it needs to be.

“The guys down the middle, it’s such an important position as far as support throughout the ice, as far as responsibilities.”

Goaltending is obviously important.

The Flames defensive corps is full of players with meaty salaries.

But when it comes to the forwards, Darryl Sutter has always put an emphasis on trying to build strength down the middle.

He’s just been unable to find the right mix of men at the position.

Most thought Jokinen would be the guy when he got to town the first time around. Maybe he still can.

And maybe Stajan will start living up to the potential that last season earned him four years at $3.5-million a year from the Flames.

Although the former Toronto Maple Leaf has seven assists and eight points in nine games so far, the contributions have been quiet ones.

The Flames need someone to make some noise in the middle.

Jokinen has scored in two straight games, but both came in losing causes.

Stajan was deafeningly silent during the 7-2 decimation at the hands of the Washington Capitals Saturday night.

While some teams have the luxury of a clear-cut top gun at centre, the Flames will be forced to continue to mix and match and hope for the best.

Just getting the best out of their centres would be a nice start.

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/MacfarlaneSteve

GRAPHICS

WOULDN’T IT BE NICE? Some of the top one-two punches at centre in the NHL

Pittsburgh Penguins

Sidney Crosby

Evgeni Malkin

Philadelphia Flyers

Mike Richards

Jeff Carter

San Jose Sharks

Joe Thornton

Joe Pavelski

Colorado Avalanche

Paul Stastny

Matt Duchene

Dallas Stars

Brad Richards

Mike Ribeiro

Detroit Red Wings

Pavel Datsyuk

Valtteri Filppula

COULD BE WORSE: At least the Flames are better off than these guys.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Derrick Brassard

Antoine Vermette

Nashville Predators

Matthew Lombardi

David Legwand

Phoenix Coyotes

Eric Belanger

Kyle Turris

Toronto Maple Leafs

Tyler Bozak

Mikhail Grabovski


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