Monday, March 24, 2014

Flames Round-Up: Random Monday Morning Musings

It's been a pretty entertaining and eventful week around the Calgary Flames. Here are some random notes and observations that you may have read on Twitter although so often, 140 characters just isn't enough space to fully flush out a point.

Gaudreau/Arnold Watch – The draw for the NCAA College Hockey tournament took place yesterday morning. This 16-team tournament begins next Friday and just like the March Madness basketball tournament going on, it is a single knock-out format. Six Flames prospects are represented:

  • Boston College (Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold)
  • Providence College (Jon Gillies, Mark Jankowski, John Gilmour)
  • Colgate (Tim Harrison)

A handy printable schedule with dates and times can be found here.

For those wondering, BC plays its opening game on Saturday, Mar. 29, at 2 pm MT against Joe Colborne’s old school, the University of Denver.  If the #1 seed Eagles get knocked off -- either Saturday in the opening game or Sunday in their second game, that’s it for Arnold’s college career and that could potentially be it for Gaudreau also if he chooses to bypass his fourth year of school and turn pro by signing with Calgary. It’s certainly something we will all continue to monitor closely. Conveniently, Calgary will be out East in Ottawa next weekend so not that far away.

Hobey Baker Award Ceremony Clash? – The Hobey Baker Award will be announced at 4 pm MT on Friday, April 11, from Philadelphia where the Frozen Four will be played this year. It is expected that Gaudreau will win it.  The unveiling of the Hobey Baker winner takes place on the day between the semi-finals on Apr. 10 and the final on Apr. 12.  Now, it is very likely Gaudreau will be in Philadelphia for that weekend as Boston College, considered the No. 2 school in the country, is the favourite to win both its games this weekend and reach the Frozen Four. Then again, it’s entirely possible Gaudreau will be in Calgary that day getting ready for the Flames final home date of the season against the Winnipeg Jets on that Friday night.

Hot Start for Poirier - For 48 teams across Canada, Major Junior playoffs opened up this past weekend  with the first two games in all 24 series taking place. Tied for the lead in playoff goals is Flames prospect Emile Poirier, who scored once in the opener and three more times in game two as Gatineau opened up with convincing 7-2 and 8-2 victories at home over Cape Breton. Poirier is one of three players in the country with four playoff goals so far.  The Olympiques play game three on Tuesday.  Poirier had 43 goals and 87 points in 63 regular season games.

One Month or One Year Too Late - Last year due to the late start and lockout-shortened 48-game NHL season, the trade deadline was on April 3.  Can you imagine the trade offers Flames interim GM Brian Burke would be fielding right now if the trade deadline day for this year had been April 3? It might very well have been a first round pick that is being offered the way he's scoring right now. Unfortunately, the scoring binge from No. 13 has come at the wrong time from the perspective of building up trade value.  The contrast in the 'right before' compared to the 'after' for Cammalleri in terms of the trade deadline is absolutely ridiculous.

  • Before trade deadline: 15 gm, 2-0-2
  • Since trade deadline: 10 gm, 9-6-15

The nine goals ties Cammalleri with Jarome Iginla for the most goals since March 5, one ahead of red-hot Gustav Nyquist.  His 15 points ties him with Tyler Seguin for the most posts since the trade deadline, two better than Claude Giroux and Mark Giordano.

Can’t help but wonder how many teams are regretting they didn’t ante up a little bit more back when they had the chance. Meanwhile, you sure have to wonder what the market actually was for Cammalleri three weeks ago. Considering he’s still in a Flames uniform, it couldn’t have been very good.

Defense: Wins Championships and Hastens Rebuilds – Watching the Flames rout the Oilers on Saturday night, a huge difference in comparing rebuild templates is Edmonton has no answer to Calgary’s top blue-line pairing of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie.  These two -- a salty veteran and an established up-and-comer, who both finished the evening with career high +5’s, give the Flames a solid core to (re)build around and you get the sense that having these two integral pieces in place could expedite things in Calgary and get them back to being playoff-relevant a lot sooner than you might think.

Giordano's Amazing Run - The plus-minus rating has it’s detractors and I get that and there are advanced statistics that go much, much deeper into this type of analysis.  Nonetheless, no one can deny that if your team scores while you’re on the ice, that’s a good sign and if you're giving up goals when you’re on the ice, that’s not good.  We're now 70 games into the season so anomalies that do come up along the way have evened out by now. So, I'm going to go ahead and say it -- Giordano’s plus-11 is remarkable.

Compare that to others regularly mentioned in the top five NHL defencemen discussion like Shea Weber (minus-11) and Erik Karlsson (minus-20). Against Edmonton, Giordano also set a new career high for goals (12) and equaled his career high for points (43) -- which have come in 53 games compared to the 82 it took in 2010-11 when he first reached 43 points.

And how about the sensational month of March for the Flames captain?  Here are the NHL's scoring leaders for this month. It's absolutely stunning to think that Giordano went undrafted.

NHL Scoring Leaders - For March

1. Claude Giroux, Phi, 5-12-17
2. Mike Cammalleri, Cal, 10-6-16
2. Tyler Seguin, Dal, 6-10-16
4. Mark Giordano, Cal, 3-12-15
5. Jarome Iginla, Bos, 11-3-14
5. Sidney Crosby, Pit, 5-9-14
5. Ondrej Palat, TB, 5-9-14
5. Derek Stepan, NYR, 5-9-14
5. Matt Duchene, Col, 3-11-14

Evolution of TJ Brodie - Meanwhile, Giordano's defense partner, TJ Brodie, continues to rack up big minutes against top lines and do so very effectively and very quietly. For a glimpse into his past month, here are the NHL plus-minus leaders since the Olympic break. Would I use plus/minus alone to measure a player's worth? No. But in this case, it validates what we've been seeing with our eyes for a long time now.

1. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, SJ +17
2. TJ Brodie, Cal +13
2. Zdeno Chara, Bos +13
2. Kevan Miller, Bos +13
5. Patrice Bergeron, Bos +11

So far, the Brodie we’re seeing is the same Brodie that we saw last April and if he continues to elevate his game, he can expect to get a very nice long term deal next summer when his two-year bridge contract expires. In fact, might there even be a temptation to lock him up by offering him an extension right now?

Spoiler Week - These next 11 days for the Flames will provide a very nice test for the guys trying to raise their stock for next season. These are guys like Joe Colborne, Paul Byron, Lance Bouma, Sean MonahanKenny Agostino, Tyler Wotherspoon -- all still trying to establish exactly the type of player they are and how they may fit it into the organization moving forward.  Five of Calgary's next six opponents are currently in a playoff position so the Flames will be up against tough, motivated hockey clubs and at this point, I don’t think Calgary is going to sneak up on anybody – teams should know what to expect from the energetic, never-say-die Flames outfit.  This week at home in particular with the Sharks, Ducks and Rangers will be especially intriguing.

While I do subscribe to the theory of winning games now contributes to a “winning culture”, there are other bigger gains to be had from beating the NHL’s top teams down the stretch.  For one, it generates more positive building blocks for the aforementioned young players, as well as slightly older but still developing guys like Mikael Backlund and Brodie. You can’t bypass the development curve that all young players must go through before they become NHL stars but you can shorten it.  The better these players improve this season, the better players they’ll be to start next season, and the even better players they’ll be the season after.

Thoughts Around 'Burning' the First Year of a Contract - When Agostino signed his two-year entry level contract, negotiating that his contract begin this year instead of next year -- even though there’s only one month left in the season, is a bargaining ploy frequently pursued by the player. For one, that gets them into the NHL right away as CBA rules state that a player signing after the NHL trade deadline cannot be sent to the AHL. That also gives them an NHL salary through the end of the season (say good-bye to those student loans!).  It also ‘burns’ that first year of the CBA-mandated two-year entry level contract (ELC) getting them onto their next standard player’s contract (SPC) one year sooner and presumably -- in the player's eyes, at least -- into a bigger salary sooner.

While that’s a scenario that generally is viewed as an advantage for the players, a member of the Flames front office explained to me the other day that it also is an arrangement that works well for the teams. He pointed out that college players being older and further along developmentally – Agostino soon turns 22, you can usually get a sense after only one year of what those players are and if they are legitimate NHL prospects. If not, not being on the hook for two full seasons contract-wise is good as the team can move on from that player sooner if they wish, rather than keeping the player around for an extra year.

It is this precise situation that the club is currently in with winger Ben Hanowski, who signed a two-year deal at the end of last season. He’s now in the final year of that contract and is an RFA at the end of the season. The Flames have the option of resigning him but if they feel they’ve seen enough, they can also choose to move on and simply release him.

As long as the Flames still have at least one regular season game left this season, a college player can sign a contract that begins this year. Here's why I point that out. If, for example, Boston College gets knocked out on Apr. 10 in the Frozen Four semi-final, the Flames have two games left – Apr. 11 and Apr. 13. The desire by the player to burn that first year could expedite contract talks as they'd need to sign it right away.

Mark Messier Connection to Saturday Night - That Flames bashing of the Oilers on Saturday was not the biggest blowout in the Battle of Alberta.  The Oilers once defeated the Flames 10-1 on Nov. 26, 1996.  But, the seven-goal margin did equal the Flames biggest win over the Oilers, which had happened once before.  On Oct. 4, 1991, the Flames beat Edmonton 9-2 at the Saddledome. Calgary was led by Theoren Fleury’s two goals and two assists. Al MacInnis and Gary Suter had four-point games also.  Interesting about that game was it came on the day the Oilers traded Mark Messier to the New York Rangers in exchange for Bernie Nicholls, Louie DeBrusk and Steven Rice.

Joni Ortio's Friday Distraction – Had to feel sorry for Joni Ortio on Friday night against Nashville.  He didn’t look himself in giving up goals on the first two shots he faced, and eventually getting pulled after the fourth Predators goal in the second period.  I later learned that he had found out prior to the game that he was going to be going back to Abbotsford with Karri Ramo’s return and you have to wonder how much that played into it. Apparently, he wasn’t supposed to be told about the roster move until after the game. That said, I'd expect Ramo to play almost all, if not all of the Flames final games so having Ortio back in the AHL and be the No. 1 guy there is probably best in the long run and then the AHL playoffs after that will be another good opportunity for the 22-year-old Finn.

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