Sunday, October 15, 2017

How I'd Fix the Flames: Six Games In, What I'd do if I was Named GM and Coach for a Day

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Seeking stability.

That was the message from Glen Gulutzan after Saturday night's 5-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

"We're a little out of sync right now in a lot of areas," said the Flames coach in his post-game media scrum. "Just our lines, who is playing with who, our bench, power play -- who is on the power play, who is not on the power play.

"We have to sit back here in the next few days and get a little bit of stability. I really like stability and right now, even for myself on the bench, we're a little chaotic."

No kidding.

There's putting your lines in the blender, which all coaches will do, then there's what happened throughout the game last night where Gulutzan tossed his 12 forwards into the container, put on the lid, and hit puree.

"We've got guys coming in and out of the line-up and we've got different guys playing on the power play at different times. Taking some penalties too, trying to get guys back on the ice and shuffling. It's just not a rhythm feel that we have right now. I think we'll be OK once we get that rhythm but we have to find it."

How I'd Establish Stability

As Gulutzan alluded to, part of the issue is this team's propensity right now to continually take minor penalties, especially early in a game. Calgary was shorthanded five times in the first period alone on Saturday.

When the Flames are killing penalties, six important players aren't touching the ice: Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Dougie Hamilton, Jaromir Jagr, Kris Versteeg.

For one, that's far too much talent to be stapled to the pine. So Calgary needs to be far more disciplined. But beyond that, when they do get back to five-on-five, the lines themselves seem a bit discombobulated lately. Jagr is moving around. Lazar is moving around. Bennett is moving around.

In an attempt to provide more stability overall, I have three primary goals:
  1. Improve the Roster - There's one particular transaction I would do that would improve the 23-man roster.
  2. Tweak the Lines - Jagr is here now. His conditioning is coming. There are three practices before the next game. Time to settle on some line combinations.
  3. Align the PP/PK Units - By this, I'd try to lessen the impact of extended special teams time on the 5-on-5 flow by having the PP combos and PK pairings better align with the regular lines.

So with that groundwork laid, let's get after it. Here are the seven steps I'd take.

Step 1 - Waive Hamilton

Before putting on my coaching hat, I'm going to be the GM for a day. Shove over, Brad Treliving, I've got some paperwork to file.

The first thing I'm doing is putting Freddie Hamilton on waivers. I realize he's a big part of Dougie Hamilton's life and it seems like a bit of a package deal but sorry, improving the team trumps my sentimentality for their family bond. This is the move I need make to open up a roster spot for a recall from Stockton.

In his last pre-season appearance, Hamilton took a dumb penalty. In his first shift last night, he took a dumb penalty. Discipline is already a problem with this team, I need my fourth line players to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Hamilton isn't hurting the team as a 14th forward. He's a serviceable enough player capable of playing multiple positions who can be inserted in a pinch, but the team has a better option in the AHL and the time has come to make this move.

Step 2 - Recall Jankowski

Mark Jankowski is ready. We saw that in the preseason, we've seen that so far in the AHL regular season where he scored again last night giving him five points (4 goals, 1 assist) in Stockton's first three games.

When he was sent down, Treliving vowed that he would be back before too long. It's been two weeks, time to get this guy back to Calgary and for good.

Plus, I have top-nine plans for Jankowski so the sooner he gets here and he gets integrated into practice, the better.

Step 3 - Reset the Forward Lines

Here is how I'd set up my lines this week when the Flames return to practice:.

Gaudreau - Monahan - Jagr
Tkachuk - Backlund - Frolik
Bennett - Jankowski - Versteeg
Ferland - Lazar/Stajan - Brouwer

Extra: Glass, Lazar/Stajan

Line 1

While Jaromir Jagr takes a while to get to where he's going at age 45, Sean Monahan is no speed demon either. Jagr's ability to hold onto the puck and make plays, Monahan's ability to find the quiet ice and bury chances from the slot and then add in the raw skill of Johnny Gaudreau, let's put them together, keep them together for an extended period and see what they can do.

If that's too much ice time for the old man at times, a simple mid-game adjustment you could make as needed is flip-flop Jagr and Versteeg for a while.

Line 2

If it ain't broke, I ain't fixing it.

Matthew Tkachuk has come back this season bigger and stronger and he looks great, while Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik continue to form a reliable two-way duo. As a line, the advanced stats for all three are tremendous once again this year.

There are sufficient changes one can make up front without needing to mess at all with the 3M line.

Line 3

It feels to me like Sam Bennett is trying too hard -- his non-stop parade to the penalty box lately is perhaps an indication of that. It's as if he's frustrated and trying to make an impact in other ways since the offence isn't coming.

Bennett has been better this year, but he's still a guy that looks a bit lost and without a single point to show for his first six games, you wonder where that ever-elusive confidence is these days.

He still can be a centre down the road for this team and perhaps for a long time, but right here, right now, it feels like its time to move Bennett back to left wing and let him relax. Lessen his responsibilities, just let him zip up and down the wing and see if the offence comes back around again.

This is also where Jankowski slots in. Let's be clear, I don't call up the 23-year-old to play him on the fourth line or make him a scratch. He's here to play significant minutes and that comes as the centre on the third line.

Jankowski was good in the preseason, he was a good soldier by going down to the minors and not moping but instead showing that the team made the wrong decision. Time to bring him back.

Line 4

Curtis Lazar: 4C and Top-9 Extra
This is where opportunity lies. Micheal Ferland and Troy Brouwer on the wings, playing a simple bang-and-crash north-south game will give you energy and hopefully a little bit of offence now and then.

At centre, I've got a rotation. I'd start with Curtis Lazar there, but I'm very comfortable with Matt Stajan there and depending on the opponent, I'd even use Tanner Glass at centre (he could split draws with Brouwer, who also dabbles at the dot).

The key for me is stabilizing the top-nine and limiting the night-to-night line-up changes to interchangeable parts that come and go only on the fourth line.

Yes, Brouwer makes a lot of money to play down in the line-up like that, but to get your best bang for your investment in him at this point in time, you must find a way to maximize his contribution. Unfortunately, he hasn't worked out in the top-nine so abandon that and right now, I'd keep him on the fourth line where he has been effective in recent games. Lately, I've seen him more invested emotionally and playing more physical. That's a start to his reclamation and now is not the time to change anything.

I've liked Lazar in spurts in the top nine but I'd rather go with Jankowski there and then you run out of spots for Lazar. But Lazar with Ferland and Brouwer gives him a chance to make an impact with his speed and forecheck so that looks like the best spot for Lazar for now.

Meanwhile, if Bennett can't figure out the NHL's application of the rule book, he might even have to take a seat, in which case I'd elevate Lazar. Lazar remains my No. 10 when it comes to the top-nine. He's the guy I plug in wherever the hole is if there's a minor injury, etc.  That said, Ferland is a promotion candidate also.

Step 4 - Get Kulak in the Line-up

It's time to see Brett Kulak.

Matt Bartkowski has been OK but we know what the 29-year-old can do, let's see what the 23-year-old can do.

Given the limited role for that No. 6 D, this shouldn't be a line-up change that will cost you while at the same time, it could help you as you're bringing in a guy with some upside and who is hungry to show the calibre of player he can be with his skating and ability to make a good first pass.

There was an extended period last season where Kulak looked solid to the point where I wondered if he would ever come out of the line-up. Time to commit to getting his game back to that same point.

As for the top four, I don't change a thing.

Step 5 - Settling on PP Units

Here is how I'd deploy the power play:

PP1:  Brodie-Versteeg-Gaudreau-Monahan-Jagr
PP2: Hamilton-Giordano-Tkachuk-Backlund-Bennett

Power Play 1

There are four usual suspect here so we're not talking about massive changes, but we've seen Brouwer, Ferland and Jagr rotate through that RW forward spot.

For me, it has to be Jagr. Stop the rotation.

For one, it keeps that line intact for more stability overall. Secondly, this is where he should be able to thrive. Give him some space on the power play to show off  that hall-of-fame vision, hands and shot.

It wouldn't be in that same net-front role that the other two filled and it may require a tweak to the PP set-up but Dave Cameron, you're stuck with Jagr, find a way to make it work. There could be worse problems.

Power Play 2

The team needs to get Bennett going and he's got the skill to be a fixture on the power play and should be. So it's the 3M line, less Frolik, insert Bennett.

Tkachuk is a no-brainer for me. He's a talented kid and has the ability to create chaos in front. Plus, he's an elite passer.

I keep the D pairing of Mark Giordano and Hamilton the same.

Step 6 - Settling on PK Pairings

Here is how I'd deploy my PK combos.

PK1: Backlund-Frolik
PK2: Bennett-Jankowski
PK3: Lazar/Stajan/Glass-Brouwer

Again, what I'm going for here is keeping guys together that play together at even-strength. This limits the amount of shuffling the coach needs to do afterwards and should provide more of that rhythm Gulutzan is seeking.

While I labelled them PK1, PK2 and PK3, they need not roll out in this order. I feel this is where Brouwer picks up some ice time. I've liked his work on the PK so far. Last night on the 5-on-3, he and Backlund did a stellar job in sharing the high forward spot.

On the blueline, I'd go Giordano-Stone and Brodie-Hamonic as my two LR pairings.

Step 7 - Not Changing a Thing in Net

I continue to roll with Mike Smith. I like what I've seen from him so far and if I were the coach, he's my workhorse.

I get Eddie Lack into the second-half of the Oct. 24 and 25 back-to-backs on the road in Nashville and St. Louis but I see no need to use him before then.

As the season wears on, Lack will play more, but right now while it's early and Smith is fresh, locked in and on a roll, you ride that horse.

Final Word

The Flames woke up Sunday morning in first place in the Pacific Division. They're three points up on Anaheim and six clear of the Oilers.

So to be clear, this isn't exactly a crisis situation.

But if you've been watching closely, there is lots of room for improvement. What I'm proposing would not be drastic changes while at the same time would give the team the type of stability moving forward that Gulutzan is seeking.

Plus, it makes Calgary a better team instantly.

But in a disclaimer that should have been at the top, not here at the bottom, remember that I'm not the GM, nor am I the coach. This is just one man's opinion.

Now we sit back and see over the next few days what Gulutzan and Treliving have in mind. They're the guys whose opinions actually matter.

But with Sunday a day off for the team and then three days of practices coming up starting on Monday morning before Calgary is back in action Thursday night when the Carolina Hurricanes visit the Saddledome, the time is definitely right to make some tweaks.

Let's see what they do.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


Recent Flames Reading:

  • Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Random Flames Thoughts on a Cool, Fall Weekend - My assortment of random Flames-related musings include two prospects ripping it up in major junior, don't judge Mike Smith's book by the cover, Parsons and the ECHL. (Oct. 14, 2017) 
  • Good Omen? Smith's Thanksgiving Shutout in Anaheim Sparks Memories of 2004 - The start to the season for Mike Smith has conjured up memories of Miikka Kiprusoff, who was the guy the last time the Flames boasted at true No. 1 starter. (Oct. 10, 2017)
  • Podcast: Episode 20 with Pat Steinberg- In this season preview edition, the host of Sportsnet960's radio broadcasts joined me to look at the season ahead. We made a bunch of predictions, some bold, some not, and answered several listener questions. (Oct. 9, 2017)
  • Don't You Forget About Me: Simple Minds' Song Befits Impactful Night for Lazar - While TJ Brodie and Johnny Gaudreau were the headliners in Saturday's win over Winnipeg with four points each, don't overlook the really nice game by Curtis Lazar. (Oct. 8, 2017)
  • It Was Just One Game, People - Flames fans' overreaction game was certainly on point as the Flames 3-0 opening night loss to the Oilers set off widespread panic. Yes, it took one game. Five reasons to relax and not fret, posted via the FF80F facebook page. (Oct. 5, 2017)