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Steinberg’s Slant: The best of the best

by Pat Steinberg / Calgary Flames

The 2014-2015 campaign for the Calgary Flames has seen almost nothing but positives.

First and foremost, there's a very good chance they'll earn a playoff spot for the first time since 2009. Johnny Gaudreau's rookie season, the progression of players like TJ Brodie and Kris Russell -- and surprises like Lance Bouma -- are all extremely positive signs. However, if you ask me, the most encouraging thing we've seen this season comes from the progression of sophomore Sean Monahan.

For the first time in a long, long while, it looks like the Flames have a true number one center emerging in the organization.

So why does Monahan's progression take-the-cake for the best of the bunch of positives? For me it's simple: to win long term in this league, and to perennially contend deep in the playoffs, you need an elite player down the middle. From Anze Kopitar in LA to Jonathan Toews in Chicago and Boston's Patrice Bergeron (among others) the best teams in this league all possess that true top pivot. Monahan isn't there yet, but less than two years into his career, you don't have to squint to see him entering that echelon very soon.

The signs of improvement on the surface stare you right in the face. Through 77 games this season, Monahan has increased his total in goals (22 to 30), assists (12 to 29) and points (34 to 59) from one season to the next. Plain and simple, he's a more impactful offensive player by leaps and bounds. For instance, Monahan went from 140 shots on net in his rookie campaign to 182 so far this year. His shooting percentage has fluctuated by just 0.2%, so it isn't any coincidence he hit the 30-goal mark.

But it goes deeper than that.

Monahan has taken a massive step forward in his all-around game, too. In year one, head coach Bob Hartley made life very easy on his rookie forward. Monahan was given easier match-ups and less defensive responsibility with centres like Mikael Backlund and Matt Stajan handling the lion's share of the heavy-lifting. That hasn't been the case in year two, as Hartley let the reins off right from the get go. Backlund's early injury forced this in part, but so did Monahan's training camp and preseason. He looked noticeably more ready for the tough minutes in September.

Monahan went from being a middle of the pack possession player on the team in year one to one of the best this season. Last year, Monahan's -12.29 shot rate ranked ninth on the team among forwards. He's bumped that to sixth at -6.92, but those are just the raw shot numbers without situational context. His offensive zone start number have gone from 55% to 46.9%, which shows you he's out for far more defensive zone faceoffs than he was last year. On top of that, Monahan has improved in the faceoff dot, upping his total to 49.5% from 46.0%. Finally, the quality of who he's matched up against has gone up so much it's not even close. While Hartley went out of his way to put Monahan out against second and third lines last year, there is zero hesitation to have him out against top trios one year later.

In his sophomore season, Monahan stacks up fairly well in comparison to some other pretty impressive names in their second NHL campaign. The table below gives you a pretty good idea as we look at goals, assists, points, and faceoff percentage.

By no means is it a guarantee that Monahan is going to reach the heights of Toews, Kopitar, Bergeron, and Getzlaf. Let's not forget, these are Stanley Cup and Olympic Gold Medal winners with Hall of Fame credentials before the age of 30. But is it laughable to think Monahan might be able to be mentioned in the same breath in the relatively near future? I'm as pragmatic and measured as it gets, but even I think the answer to that question is no.

In fairness, though, it's only year two for Monahan. He has a long way to go until he reaches the high-ground of those aforementioned counterparts. But the massive steps Monahan has taken from his rookie campaign to his second NHL year give cause to wonder where this might go. He's trending in a positive direction with a rather steep incline. Some trial by fire in the pressure cooker that is the postseason would be a perfect way to finish this year out. The best news is that Monahan will be a central figure in making sure that happens. For that reason, and many others, Monahan's stellar sophomore season reigns supreme as the most important thing to happen in a year full of positivity.

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