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Monday, September 30, 2013

A Roll of the Dice - How the Calgary Flames Can Make the 2014 Playoffs

Pick up a dice or a 'die' to use proper English, choose a number and give it a roll. If you picked '6' and it comes up with as a '6', congratulations, the Calgary Flames have made the playoffs.

See, that was simple. And no -- all you cynics, I wasn't implying that you roll a 20-sided die.

On the eve of the 2013-14 NHL season, sports betting website Bovada has listed the odds of the Calgary making the playoffs as 9-to-2. In decimal form, that's 4.5-to-1 or essentially, a roll of a six-sided die.

Much has been made about how the Flames aren't supposed to make the playoffs this season. Heck, I've looked, and looked, and then looked some more and to be quite honest, I struggle to find one team in the newly reorged Western Conference that Calgary can finish ahead of, never mind six. But the first week of October in hockey, akin to the first week of April in baseball, is all about hope, optimism, and steadfastly clinging to the greatest sporting cliché of them all -- anything can happen.

So sitting here today, with the Flames in a 30-way tie for first place overall and in a 14-way logjam for top spot in the West, here are a dozen variables that if they unfold, could very well result in Calgary remaining in the mix and come mid-April being part of the post-season for the first time in five years. Yes, George Costanza, I'm saying there's a chance.

12 Factors for the Flames to Return to the Playoffs

1. Culture Change - No one can argue what Jarome Iginla meant to the city of Calgary or the vital role he played on this team the past decade-and-a-half. But what has been debated the last few years is how good of a captain he actually was. His style was very much one of lead by example and while you can't fault his body of work on the ice, called into question more than once was the state of the Flames off the ice. It was Jarome's team and in the sanctuary of the home dressing room, did that prevent fresh and badly needed voices from rising up when things went south?

There's a new guy with a 'C' now and Mark Giordano, by all accounts, is a popular choice and in my opinion an excellent choice for the role. He will not influence a game offensively in the same way as Iginla could but his heart and desire is everything you can ask. Never underestimate what 23 men pulling the rope in the same direction can accomplish and if this shot in the arm, if this influx of enthusiasm and vigor from a leadership perspective can foster an aligned group off the ice, the Flames will be a better team for it.

2. Value of the Euro - It's frightening to think back at how poor this club would have finished the last few years if not for the miracles turned in on a seemingly nightly basis by Miikka Kiprusoff. Now the Flames greatest goaltender of all-time is gone and left behind is a humongous chasm. For this club to have any shot at all of making the post-season, two average goalies isn't going to cut it -- nor is 33-year-old journeyman Joey MacDonald -- he of the 323 career minor league games. Whether it's Karri Ramo -- who will get the first shot or Reto Berra, it doesn't much matter, the Flames need one of them to rise up and seize the reins as the starter, play upwards of 60 games, and take a regular post-game twirl at centre ice as one of the three stars.

3. The Real Deal - Since day one when he was plucked with the sixth overall selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Sean Monahan has impressed the Flames. The past three months have included the development camp, rookie tournament and main camp and every time the 6-foot-2 centre has put on the Flaming 'C' -- practice jersey or the real sweater, he has gotten better. He's smart, he's strong, he's skilled and he has entrenched himself as one of the Flames top centres to start the season. The big question is will Monahan stay beyond the allowed nine games and become the first Flames draft pick to make the jump straight to the NHL since Rico Fata, Calgary's sixth overall selection in 1998.

He seems ready and if that is the case -- both physically and mentally, practising with and playing against the best players in the world is certainly the best next step for this mature young man, who turns 19 in two weeks and has already played in over 200 OHL games. And if he sticks around, he makes the Calgary Flames a better team, no argument there.

4. Local Passion Burns Deep - During the Flames magical 2004 Stanley Cup run, TJ Galiardi and recently acquired Joe Colborne were living in Calgary and part of the city-wide sea of red. Galiardi had just turned 16 and Colborne was 14. Now, each with something to prove, they're back in the city in which they were raised and about to play for the team they grew up cheering for -- both calling it a dream come true.

As a rookie, Galiardi scored 15 goals with the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10. He had seven goals the next year, nine the year after that and just five last year in the lockout-shortened season. Galiardi got some significant playing time in the playoffs last year with San Jose operating alongside Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. With such a favourable finish to the year, now he wants to build on that and establish himself as key member of this team, taking on more responsibility than has ever been asked of him before.

Colborne's story has been well documented since he was acquired Saturday from Toronto. A first round draft pick by Boston in 2008, he's played in only 16 games so far but will get the best opportunity he's had yet in Calgary. What Colborne has to overcome is the premise he's no longer a prospect, which is certainly what the optics suggest when a team trades you for a fourth round draft pick. On paper, Colborne -- a 6-foot-5 skilled centre and Galiardi -- who can play multiple positions and be effective at both ends of the ice, have a lot to offer and could really provide the club with a boost. As Calgary kids, they're also none too pleased about how many people are writing off the Flames for this year so know that for them, it's personal and they're motivated.

5. The B's Take Another Forward Stride - Six months ago when we last saw the Flames, Sven Baertschi was leading the offence and TJ Brodie was quarterbacking the defence. Both players were at their best last April as the Flames played out the final month. Last year was also a bounce-back year for centre Mikael Backlund, who finally began to show the two-way game that made him the Flames first round pick in 2007.

Baertschi is just turning 21, Brodie is 23 and Backlund is 24. If these three can pick up where they left off last season and continue to improve along that same tangent, they are three significant pieces that will only help the Flames stay in the mix in the Western Conference. But the key is to pick up where they left off. To do so, Baertschi in particular has a longer way to travel coming off a less than stellar camp, which could even land him in the minors to begin the year.

6. Reinforcements Must Be Ready Soon - Over the length of an 82-game season, injuries will happen. It's inevitable and the Flames are not all that deep in terms of talent that is NHL-ready right now.  How an NHL team handles the turbulence of losing a couple of key players goes a long way to whether they're a contender for a playoff spot at year's end or not.

While the Flames may not have an abundance of guys ready to step in and contribute today, that may change as soon as a couple months from now. The Flames have an abundance of talent at Abbotsford this year, arguably one of the finest groups they've ever assembled at the minor league level. However, the likes of smooth and steady Tyler Wotherspoon, rock'em sock'em Patrick Sieloff, college grad John Ramage -- all those guys are playing pro hockey for the first time and don't kid yourself, even the minor leagues is still a significant jump up from playing WHL or NCAA. They've all got loads of talent but will they be ready in time for when re-inforcements are needed? Can young forwards like Roman Horak, Markus Granlund, Michael Ferland, Ben Hanowski and Corban Knight get themselves ready so if inserted into the Flames line-up, Calgary doesn't miss a beat? That's the challenge. What's going to be a key is avoiding injuries to begin with, then surviving them when they do occur.

7. Special Teams are Vital - Goalie pads are a little shorter this year, the nets are not as deep. These are tiny changes that have been made to try and increase scoring in the NHL. But more important than anything -- and it's the same thing we say each and every year, special teams will be key. When you get the power play, can you take advantage and scoring that key goal to break a tie or open up that pivotal two-goal cushion. Without Jarome Iginla on the power play and Jay Bouwmeester logging all those minutes shorthanded, it will be a challenge for both of the Flames special team units not to fall off from where they were a year ago yet they cannot afford for that to happen.

Last year, the Flames were a respectable 9th with the man advantage and 14th shorthanded and you know where that got them in the West -- third from the bottom in the conference standings. They'll need to be just as good if not better to crack the top eight this year.

8. Home Ice Advantage - All in all, the Flames were okay at home last year going 13-9-2 -- although perhaps more telling was the fact they were outscored 80-78 at the Scotiabank Saddledome. To contend, Calgary needs to establish an identity as a team and live that identity on home ice and make the Dome an awfully hard place for opposing teams to play in. That used to be its reputation, but it's not so much any more.

With Brian Burke at the helm of hockey operations, he'll expect a team that's belligerent, pugnacious, nasty and all things truculent. Play that way consistently and you'll get the added bonus of the extra man in the form of the Saddledome's 'sea of red' which can be as intimidating of a home ice advantage as there is in the league. However, attendance has tapered off of late, more and more seats last season were empty and that's got to be a concerning trend. But with a shot of youthful enthusiasm, a display of passion and a never-say-die work ethic, the crowd will get behind this team and stay with them and the wins will come. The Calgary Flames won over the city of Calgary in 2004 as the underdog that everyone adored. Nothing was expected and that was part of the charm. In a season in which expectations are even lower, maybe the city can fall in love with this club all over again.

9. Motivated UFAs - The best forward line all training camp has been the rejuvenated Matt Stajan between Curtis Glencross and Lee Stempniak. That trio has been together more than any other unit and their chemistry has shown with three veterans creating the bulk of the Flames scoring chances. Coincidentally, two-thirds of that line -- Stajan and Stempniak, are in the final year of their contracts and and will be unrestricted free agents next summer. There are certainly plenty of examples in the NHL over the years of how guys playing for their next contract tend to add a little extra giddy-up to their game. A career year from Stajan and Stempniak will be a double dip for the Flames. Not only will it make the Flames a much more competitive team, but it will also improve the draft pick(s) they might fetch in return if they're traded.

If you do subscribe to the theory that contract years provide extra motivation, Calgary is in good stead this year. Other notable pending UFAs include Mike Cammalleri, Chris Butler, Kris Russell and Tim Jackman. Add in Joey MacDonald and Derek Smith and a whopping one-third of the roster is without a contract for next season and should be looking to make an impression on not just Flames management but on other GMs around the league.

10. Get Plenty of Help - Well a lot of things need to fall Calgary's way in order for them to be competitive in the Western Conference, the Flames will also need at least six teams around them to disappoint. In the ideal scenario:
  • Edmonton continues to struggle defensively and Devan Dubnyk, trusted one more years with the keys, demonstrates that he is not a bona fide starter.
  • Colorado, while getting plenty of goals from its top notch offence, struggles in a similar way to the Oilers and can't keep the puck out of its own net.
  • Dallas misses Mike Ribeiro more than they realize. Valeri Nichushkin isn't ready to be counted on yet and the offence doesn't score enough for Kari Lehtonen in net.
  • The reduced travel of finally being in the West doesn't lead to increased victories for Winnipeg, nor a playoff spot for the once again post-season deprived Olli Jokinen.
  • Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Seth Jones anchor a nice blue-line and Pekka Rinne gives Nashville top notch goaltending but the forward group, badly in need of a brand name, can't light the lamp enough.
  • Cal Clutterbuck's absence turns out to be a bigger void than expected and no matter how much Minnesota plays Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the Wild don't get enough from the supporting cast. 
  • Shane Doan finally starts to show his age and Mike Smith returns to being the Mike Smith of a few years ago. Phoenix leans heavily on those two pieces and its playoff hopes hang in the balance with them.

11. Avoid Long, Scarring Slumps -- It seemed like it went on forever yet last year in winning the Stanley Cup, the Chicago Blackhawks played a total of just 70 games. That gives you a sense of how long the NHL's 82-game grind really is. The key for the Flames is to be able to avoid prolonged slumps.

In the natural ebb and flow of a six month regular season, three-game losing streaks will happen -- but can be mitigated greatly by mixing in single points along the way via an overtime or shootout loss. The key will be avoiding those long five or six-game skids which is not only a punch to the kidneys in terms of the conference standings but also negatively impacts the psyche of a team that most experts are expecting to be bad anyway. As well, the home fans may be quick to start rooting for draft position in no time once it becomes clear to them that the team is headed the wrong direction -- even if such occurs in November.

Can the Flames stem the tide when the water starts getting choppy, that will be key and where Giordano as captain, aforementioned veterans like Stempniak, Glencross, Stajan and Cammalleri, as well as seasoned pros like Shane O'Brien and David Jones have to play a pivotal role.

12. Olympic R&R - One concern Calgary shouldn't face is Olympic fatigue. Jiri Hudler (Czech), Sven Baertschi (Swiss) and Reto Berra (Swiss) will quite possibly be the only three Flames representatives taking part in Olympic Men's Hockey. With the impact on the Flames from a wear-and-tear perspective being less than most other teams, the additional rest allowing bumps and bruises to heal and batteries to be re-charged should help the Flames for a late season push. Of course, that's only pertinent if they can find a way to stay close to the pack through the first week of February when the 17-day break begins.


Conclusion

Back in April, the odds of winning the World Series for both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians were 66-to-1. Meanwhile, the odds for the Washington Nationals -- the team I'm a passionate supporter of, were 7-to-1. The Major League post-season began today and in the mix and still very much alive and a candidate to win baseball's championship are both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Meanwhile in Washington, the lockers have already been cleaned out.

If the unexpected can happen over baseball's 162 game season, the unexpected can most certainly happen over a schedule that is half that length and in a league in which comparably, 50% more teams make the playoffs.

The Sports Network will telecast 10 Flames games nationally this season. Four of them will be in October. Reading between the lines, it suggests TSN scheduled things that way so they would get a bulk of the Flames national telecasts out of the way before they become irrelevant. The TV networks, the hockey pundits, mostly everyone is betting against the Flames being anywhere near a playoff berth this year. Now it's time to see if they can call a 'six' and sure enough, roll a 'six' -- that type of wager should it happen, would pay out a lot and benefit this hockey club in many ways.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Darren. Thanks for this write-up. Any thoughts on which of the Abbotsford crew when called up has the best chance to stay up? Granlund? One of the D?

    ReplyDelete