Friday, July 13, 2018

Enough is Enough: Treliving Finally Repairs Hole in Line-up that has Existed for Seven Years

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Nearly six months later, it remains a sequence of events etched in the memory of Flames management.

Bad experiences do tend to linger that way.

The night was Monday, January 22, and the lowly Buffalo Sabres limped into the Saddledome tied with Arizona for the worst record in the league.

Calgary had been on a roll, taking a seven-game winning streak into its CBA-mandated bye week. But that was a week ago. In the first game back after the five-day layoff, the Flames lost 2-1 to the Winnipeg Jets in a shootout.

This was another close game. It was tied 1-1 late in the third when Mikael Backlund was sent off for holding the stick with 33 seconds remaining in regulation time.

With the team’s top penalty killing centre serving his two minutes, right winger Troy Brouwer was sent over the boards to handle face-off responsibilities. Brouwer would not leave the ice the rest of the game as four consecutive times he hunkered down and went helmet-to-helmet at the dot with Ryan O’Reilly. While he beat him the first time to help get the game to overtime, he would lose the next three, sealing Calgary's fate.

The last two draws came in the defensive zone to the right of goaltender Mike Smith. The first at 1:07, cleanly won by O'Reilly, led to a pair of Jack Eichel shots that were both blocked by Michael Stone. The lost face-off at 1:24 was the one that proved fatal. Winning it clean once again, O’Reilly pulled the puck back to Eichel who slid a pass to Rasmus Ristolainen, who promptly zipped it back and boom, his one-timer was in the back of the net. Just like that, game over.


Season Began to Slip Away

For Calgary, the losses kept piling up after that.

Next was a 4-3 overtime setback to Los Angeles, again on home ice. Following a 4-3 shootout loss in Edmonton, the Flames returned home where they lost two more times -- 4-2 to Vegas and 7-4 to Tampa Bay. By the time Calgary tasted victory again, snapping a stretch of six straight losses, the mortal wound had already been inflicted. The death spiral that would see the Flames eventually tumble well out of playoff contention had begun.

What went down in the closing stages of the game on that cold, wintery night against Buffalo highlighted a fundamental flaw in Calgary's roster construction -- not a single right-shot center.

O’Reilly is one of the league's best when it comes to face-offs -- he was 60.0 percent in 2017-18 -- and to oppose him in those critical moments, the only viable options were Sean Monahan, Mark Jankowski or Matt Stajan -- all of whom would be on their weak side -- or Brouwer, a winger by trade, who because he shoots right-handed, ends up taking face-offs more out of necessity.

"Oh, I remember it well. Lost it. Lost it. Lost it," recalls general manager Brad Treliving. "Ends of periods, ends of games, you look at all those game situations. That particular one, over my four years, I've got about seven of them.

"You want to be able to give the tools to your coach to say OK, what are all the different things that can happen in a game in all the different situations and do we have a weapon to be able to deal with those situations? That one right there is one that we've wanted."

While he acknowledges Brouwer, over his career, has done a "fairly decent job of being able to take faceoffs on his strong side", it's still not the same as having a natural center with a right shot.

This off-season, Treliving has clearly made remedying that situation a priority as he has brought in not one, not two, but three guys that shoot right and can play center in Derek Ryan, Elias Lindholm and Austin Czarnik.


Strong Side vs. Weak Side

How long has this void at centre existed? Consider this. The last right-shot center Calgary deployed in its top-nine was Craig Conroy, who retired in 2011. Now a Flames assistant GM, I asked Conroy to elaborate on the subtleties between strong side and weak side.

First thing he pointed out is it's the position of the official that matters most. Going back to those late-game face-offs against Buffalo, with the draw taking place to Smith's right in the defensive zone, the linesman dropping the puck is to the right of Brouwer. As a right shot, what makes Brouwer on his strong side is his ability to turn quickly (clockwise) as the puck is dropped and to be able to do so unimpeded by the official, who is standing on the opposite side of where he's turning. Of course, he's doing that while simultaneously trying to pull the puck back with his backhand.

“You feel so good on your strong side because the big thing is the ref isn't in your way. You can spin your body and you have more leverage,” explains Conroy. “If I go to push the other way, it doesn't give me as much strength and leverage. That's the thing that makes the difference."

Conroy was also in the building that night when Buffalo was in town and he also vividly recalls that fateful sequence.

“I remember sitting there, watching Brouw, and thinking to myself maybe slide your stick up a bit more, turn your body, but he knew he couldn't do anything,” said Conroy.

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The Art of Cheating

By saying he couldn't do anything, Conroy was alluding to Brouwer's inability to cheat in that particular game situation, given the only other two skaters on the ice were Stone and Mark Giordano.

Cheating is how you close the gap when you’re up against someone as good as O’Reilly. Conroy knows all about it as he and his old pal Jarome Iginla were often co-conspirators.

“Jarome was actually very good at taking faceoffs so he'd be like hey, you go for it, if you get kicked out, I can win it,” recalls Conroy. “So I would cheat a lot and sometimes you get kicked out, but it's different when you don't have that comfort level like Brouw.”

Already in a tough match-up as it is, if Brouwer gets tossed, now you have a defenceman taking the face-off against O'Reilly and Calgary is really in trouble.

The other thing that worked against Brouwer in those situations is he hadn’t been taking draws all night.

“By that time in the game, a big moment like that, when you're a centre and you've taken 15-20 draws a night, you get into a rhythm with the linesmen and you have a pretty good feel for how guys drop it," says Conroy. "When you're not a centre, it's not really fair."

In that particular game situation, Conroy says ideally you would have two right-shot centre options out there -- something that this year will finally be an option for the first time in a very long time.

“When you feel you don't have someone next to you who can win the draw, you're not cheating and you become a little more hesitant because your mindset is I can't get kicked out."

In a game comprised of split-second reactions, any hesitancy is a death sentence and it was on that night.

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It's Big Face-Offs that Matter

Face-offs are an interesting aspect of hockey. Many of them like neutral zone draws at five-on-five can be pretty nondescript events and can be fairly dismissed as having very little bearing on a game's outcome.

But why being a good face-off team matters is the better you are at face-offs in general, the more likely you will be able to win the important ones at those critical times in the game. As Treliving explains, sometimes those critical draws happen long before a goal actually goes in.

“Here's how it really works,” he says. “You get running around in your own end and you can't the puck out of your own end so what happens, you ice it. So now you're icing it and you've got your third or fourth line out there. They're dead tired, so who comes out? The other coach is throwing the big boys out there.

“Now you've got to win a faceoff to get out of the situation. You can't win the faceoff, you spend 40 seconds in your end and you take a penalty. So now you're on the penalty kill and you give up a power play goal. So then everybody says the penalty kill is no good, but six minutes ago, it was the initial icing, you couldn't win a draw and there's the chain of events that happened.

"So if you back the chain up and ask what's the root of the problem, some people see the end result, but when you really back it up and say what caused the problem, this is an area that seems to cause us some problems. So kill it at the source versus put a band-aid over it.”

The team's fortunes in the face-off circle certainly look substantially better now than a month ago. Ryan ranked ninth in the NHL last year at 56.5 percent. Lindholm was very good also, ranking 24th at 54.5 percent.

“We've been looking for a right-handed face-off guy," insists Conroy. "But when we try and trade for one, they're hard to find. They are really hard to find."

Not anymore. Bill Peters will just need to look down his bench to find options from both sides.


Makes Other Centers Better

Also worth noting is that with the addition of right-shot centers to shoulder more face-offs on their strong side, the face-off winning percentage for your left-shot centers is going to go up as they’ll be taking less face-offs on their weak side.

While he didn’t have the exact figures at his fingertips, Conroy suggests that if you take a guy like Monahan, who is typically between 48 and 50 percent, if you remove his weak-side draws, then he bumps up to around 58 percent.

It’s like a platoon in baseball, where left-handed batters see their batting average go up if they don't always have to bat against left-handed pitching.

“It gives you more options. I never really had a guy that took draws for me, but if you only had to take them on your strong side, you would have felt great. Sometimes on your weak side, the other guy just gets your number and it's tough,” says Conroy.

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Final Word

While the James Neal signing and the trade for Noah Hanifin and Lindholm are what has dominated the summer headlines, the Ryan signing as a free agent should not to be underestimated.

While Ryan's face-off prowess is an area in he will be relied upon heavily in 2018-19, there is a lot more to his overall game.

“One of the things we wanted to address this off-season was adding depth and versatility to our forward unit,” says Treliving. “At the end of the year I talked a little bit about us, as a team, relying on too few of guys to do too many things. To do too much of the heavy lifting. Derek provides us the ability to move up and down the line-up, able to play different positions. Touches both sides of special teams.”

Ryan is someone Calgary has liked and has been tracking for a year and a half and nearly had him at the trade deadline last year before the deal fell through when Carolina lost centre Jordan Staal.

“Steve Pleau, one of our scouts, who does Carolina. He said hey, this is a perfect fit for us. Can play anywhere in your line-up. Excellent on faceoffs, really good on the power play. Sees the ice well, makes plays cross-seam," Conroy says.

"There's flexibility with Derek too. He can play anywhere in your line-up because he's smart. He's not the fastest guy, but he's quick to pucks. He buys time with the puck, he finds guys, he creates and he's got a knack around the net."

Named MVP of the Swedish Hockey League in 2014-15, Ryan signed his first NHL deal the following summer at age 28.

Last year he set new career highs with 15 goals and 38 points.

While he's on the wrong side of 30, Treliving is confident that much like Giordano, another late bloomer, Ryan is a player whose career arc will be different than the norm, much like his path to the NHL that included four years at the University of Alberta and three years in Austria.
 
"There hasn't been a 31-year grind on him," says Treliving, who describes him as having low mileage. "The career path has been a long one, it's been a unique one, but there's been production and success everywhere. He's needed an opportunity and when he's gotten it, he's run with it."

It's earned him a three-year contract with Calgary in which he'll start earning his $3.125 million annual salary come that first defensive zone draw to Smith's right.

"He had a lot of interest, it wasn't just us, he had decisions, but thankfully he picked us to be the team," says Conroy. "With Lindholm too, now I'm looking forward to seeing how it all works. I'm hoping it works out like I think it will in my mind."

You and many others, Craig.



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About Flames From 80 Feet

You may have noticed that the volume of FF80F content has gone down significantly over the past nine months. For those that don't know, it's the result of my business model currently being broken. It's why the podcasts have stopped too. I used to have a site sponsor that was with me for 3-4 terrific years that provided the financial backing to be able to produce content on a regular basis. But that arrangement ended last October and the unfortunate reality in business is when the money stops coming in, the work stops going out.

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Darren
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