Thursday, August 21, 2014

Desperate For McDavid: 12 Things That (Mostly) Need to Happen for the Flames to Get Him

FF + CM

The initials are etched into picnic tables at Peter's Drive-In, carved into trees at Princess Island, and scribbled oh-so-eloquently on the bathroom walls of sports bars around town.

In each instance, they're in the centre of a heart.

Flames Fans love Connor McDavid.

The 2015 NHL Draft is still over 10 months away yet all of Calgary is smitten over the strapping young centre from the OHL's Erie Otters, who has been hyped by salivating draft pundits for over a decade. OK, it hasn't been quite that long, but it sure feels that way you hear his name so often.

After all, his credentials speak for themselves:
  • Granted Exceptional Player status to play in the OHL at age 15. He was just the third to receive such a distinction. John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad were the others. 
  • Stands 6-foot-0, 185 pounds, and is still growing
  • Last year went 28-71-99 to finish fourth in OHL scoring, doing so in just 56 games -- a dozen less than the three players ahead of him. 

All that and he was only 16 years old most of last season. Sixteen! Goodness.

The other day with the sun shining bright, birds chirping, kids laughing, I wrote a piece you can read here entitled "Dream a Little Dream". In it I identify 12 things that (mostly) need to happen for the Flames -- a playoff team over the final 34 games of last year, to be a playoff team over 82 games this season. It's not likely, but as you'll read, it's also not as inconceivable as you might think.

While the enthusiastic (Stanley) Cup-half-full audience roared its approval, saying yes -- this is possible, this can happen, the (Stanley) Cup-half-empty folks were chagrined. No way, they implored. Don't let it be. These are the guys and gals that have fallen for McDavid and fallen hard.

In fact, one person went as far as to declare: I don't care how the Flames could make the playoffs, just give me the 12 things that need to happen for us to get Connor McDavid, that would be something I'd read.

OK, here it goes.


12 Things That -- If They (Mostly) Happen, Should Result in the Flames drafting Connor McDavid  


1. Hiller Also Wins Just One Game in Regulation 

Jonas Hiller has yet to put on a Flames jersey yet he has just one fewer regulation win than his Swiss countryman Reto Berra chalked up with Calgary and he was here for four months before famously fetching a second round draft pick from the Avalanche at the trade deadline. Twenty-nine games, a 9-17-2 record, but just one win that didn't require overtime or a shootout.

It's unrealistic that Hiller will repeat that dubious feat considering he's here on a $4.5-million ticket and will play a lot, but if he doesn't end up with more than a handful of wins -- regulation or otherwise, that would be an indication Anaheim knew what they were doing last year when they eventually demoted him to be the back-up to the back-up. It will likely also mean the Flames aren't winning much either because while Karri Ramo was good at times last year, he also spent plenty of time behind Berra on the depth chart so expectations should be tempered.


2. Mason Raymond Leads the Flames With 23 Goals

Excluding the lockout-shortened season, Mike Cammalleri's 26 goals last year was the lowest total to lead the team in scoring since the Flames arrived in Calgary in 1980 -- and exactly half of them came in his torrid hot streak over the final six weeks. It also equalled the franchise record for futility set by former Calgary Cowboy Bob Leiter, whose 26 goals made him the top marksman for the Atlanta Flames in their expansion season in 1972-73.

Obviously this is a vastly different calibre of team and playing in a different era from the 1988-89 Stanley Cup-winning team, which had just as many 50-goal scorers as the Flames had 20-goal scorers last year, but my goodness, Calgary is going to have to find some more offence from somewhere.

Remaining from last year, the three top goal scorers are Sean Monahan (22), Mikael Backlund (18) and Jiri Hudler (17). Mason Raymond is here now but in seven seasons, he's broken 20 only once, and surpassed 15 only twice. If nobody reaches 25 this year, expect Calgary to be scraping the bottom of the league standings.


3. Adirondack wins the Calder Cup

A fantastic place to be watching hockey this season is the Civic Center in Glens Falls, New York. The new home of Calgary's American Hockey League affiliate, they've inherited a team that last year in Abbotsford was an impressive 43-25-8. That team should be even better this year, bolstered by the potential addition of Johnny Gaudreau and the probable additions of Emile Poirier, Brett Kulak, Kenny Agostino, Bill Arnold and David Wolf. The latter, who I wrote about recently right here, is one of Calgary's oldest (will soon turn 25) and most intriguing prospects.

With Markus Granlund and Max Reinhart both potentially returning also, Tyler Wotherspoon back after some NHL seasoning, maybe a re-focused Sven Baertschi and a full-season from Patrick Sieloff and Michael Ferland, that's one good-looking Adirondack team to be guided by newly-hired skipper Ryan Huska. The better the Jr. Flames line-up is, the worse off Calgary's line-up will be and that could mean some long, cold snaps coming up this winter as the Sr. Flames try but potentially struggle to get things done with a line-up chockful of guys merely keeping seats warm for the prospects that are on the way.


4. Chris Stewart is Right, Buffalo is Playoff-bound!

"I think on paper right now there's no doubt in my mind that we're a playoff-bound team."

Those words came from Buffalo Sabres forward Chris Stewart and no, he didn't utter them on April 1. He actually said it just last weekend in this story on NHL.com.

Well forget the playoffs, one doesn't need to be that delusional. For the Flames to have their best shot at McDavid, they merely need Buffalo to finish ahead of Calgary. Perhaps 29th spot for the Sabres accomplishes that feat.  But man, it's not going to be an easy task. The Sabres were 14 points back of 29th place Florida last year. That's not even in the same area code. And some would argue less Ryan Miller, they've gotten worse.

Calgary hockey fans didn't like him much when he single-handedly dismantled the Hitmen in last year's WHL playoffs but it's time to move on and get behind Sam Reinhart in hopes he steps into Buffalo's line-up and makes a huge impact. You'll also need Matt Moulson to score a ton, Cody Hodgson to keep getting better and Swedish goaltender Jhonas Enroth, age 26, to be the second coming of Henrik Lundqvist. Then maybe, just maybe, the Sabres will be good enough to climb out of the cellar and give up that spot to someone else. That 'someone else' could be the Flames.


5. Deryk Engelland is Calgary's Iron Man

One player played in all 82 games for the Flames last year. That was Chris Butler.

If that title is taken over by Deryk Engelland this year, that will be good news for Engelland and also good news for fans hoping for the worst as it means the rest of Calgary's roster -- aka the better half, were all injured at times and the more games missed by a team that isn't very deep, the harder it will obviously be for this team to win hockey games.

Calgary deployed 44 players last year during the regular season. By comparison, Los Angeles used just 28. Every player except TJ Brodie and Joe Colborne suffered a significant injury and in some cases -- see Curtis Glencross and Dennis Wideman, guys got hurt more than once.

Injuries are very much a luck thing. Does that puck hit you on that one particular place where it fractures your ankle, or just a half-inch away where it glances off the shin pad. McDavid seekers will hope the Flames are indeed lucky... by being unlucky.


6. Less People Return Than Depart on the 'Trade Deadline' Roadie

On Sunday, Feb. 22, the Flames will head to New York to begin a seven-game Eastern road trip. The number of players that pack a second bag just-in-case will say a lot about where this team is at in the NHL standings and if they're looking out the front window or into the rear-view mirror.

Why is that? Halfway through that trip will be the NHL trade deadline. Calgary will likely be in Philadelphia on that particular day.

The more players that don't end up returning to Calgary, the better the odds are that this team does not repeat last year's ill-timed hot stretch to close out the season but instead limps to the finish line.

Curtis Glencross and Karri Ramo are both pending UFAs so they're obviously two names that will be on the block. Glencross has a no-trade contract but if given a chance to join a Stanley Cup contender, those things have a way of working themselves out.

Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid, the list goes on and on of veterans who could end up being shipped away.

Remember, the failure to unload Mike Cammalleri last year nearly came back to bite the Flames. It was only Leon Draisatil's rise to prominence, Sam Bennett (Central Scouting's No. 1 ranked player) falling to No. 4, and the Flames just barely staying in that bottom pack of four teams that 'salvaged' would could have been a huge missed opportunity from a draft perspective.


7. Payroll Suddenly Goes Up

What is that old expression. One man's trash is another man's treasure?

The Flames are dead last in the NHL in payroll. They have plenty upon plenty of space to be creative and general manager Brad Treliving is trying to leverage that space and turn it into assets, he's told us that much multiple times already.

If he can grow Calgary's payroll but taking on a couple short-term but problematic contracts from other cap-crunched organizations, those hefty contracts likely won't be accompanied by players that will put the Flames over the top. More so, it may have the opposite effect. It would drop a couple overpaid veterans into Calgary's line-up, which in turn will keep two of the Flames top prospects suppressed in the AHL. While this scenario is not great for the season ticket holder, it could increase the odds that Calgary gets another great building piece -- and a monumental one at that, in the 2015 NHL Draft.


8. Flames Win the Lottery

This season is the 40th anniversary of the year the expansion Washington Capitals went a woeful 8-67-5. Oh my. That was 20 points worse than the second-last Kansas City Scouts and 30 points behind another franchise some of you will never have heard of called the California Golden Seals.

The problem is the Flames could repeat that dreadful Caps season or somehow even be worse -- heck, they could be last place in the NHL by 40 points, yet Calgary would still have an 80 percent chance of losing the lottery and falling to No. 2 pick.

This reduction in the odds of winning the lottery as the 30th place team from 25 percent to 20 percent was part of the changes the NHL announced on Tuesday. The teams impacted by the changes are the teams that finish in the bottom four spots overall as there is now a reduced chance for them of winning the lottery. To get McDavid, the Flames not only have to be bad and finish in last place to maximize their chances, they then have to be lucky and hope the 5-to-1 odds of winning the lottery come through.

Of course, finishing last would still guarantee Jack Eichel as a consolation prize and from all reports, he's right there in the McDavid conversation, but this story isn't about getting Eichel, it's about getting McDavid!


9. Bob Hartley is Fired

There were some great coaching performances in the NHL last year but given what he had to work with, the level of compete Bob Hartley got out of the Flames in his first full season behind the bench was nothing short of remarkable.

From game one to game 82, from minute one to minute 60 and often beyond, the blue collar Flames rolled up their sleeves and worked their tails off. Officially, Calgary played in 49 one-goal games. Unofficially, there were another dozen or so that would have been one-goal games if not for a late/empty net goal. The end result was a much better and far more entertaining season than anyone could have imagined as the fans rallied behind a team that was short on talent but long on heart.

But can he conjure up such magic again? If you've seen Hartley run his practices, you'll know he is a demanding coach. There is enough leadership on this team and prospects playing for job that tuning out the coach shouldn't be an issue already yet it seems to inevitably happen to every coach eventually, it's just a matter of when.

Further, circumstances are not ideal for Hartley in 2014-15. Despite the support voiced publicly by the Flames management regime, Hartley is a Jay Feaster hire, who is entering the final year of his three-year deal and that puts him in a precarious spot.

With just the tiniest bit of drop off, those shootout wins and overtime losses become regulation losses, those one-goal losses become two-goal losses, and talk of a contract extension becomes debate about whether he lasts the year. When that conversation starts occurring, it will be reflection of a team mired at or near the basement of the NHL standings and you know where patience ranks on Brian Burke's list.


10. Sophomore Slumps Strike

Former first round picks Sean Monahan and Joe Colborne were two important parts of the Flames success last year. We're not just talking about their proficiency in the shootout either.

Both rookies played pivotal roles in the Flames top nine. Monahan, 19, was second on the team with 22 goals in his first NHL season. Colborne, 23, turned into a real pleasant surprise, especially after shifting to the wing, finishing with 10 goals and 28 points.

For the Flames to be better or even tread water, both of these guys need to take another step forward. If one or both experience the ol' sophomore slump, that's going to big a big blow and would likely propel Calgary in the wrong direction in the standings.


11. Sam Bennett Wins the OHL Scoring Title

If Sam Bennett is leading the OHL in scoring, that means he's not in Calgary. That means the Flames ultimately are a worse-off team. Now that may not be the case initially. If everyone is healthy, does Bennett make the Flames a better team this October? Probably not. He's too young, too raw, and still a little too lean.

However, it's a long season. By the second half of the year, with three months of NHL experience under his belt, Bennett is now a better player and he is an upgrade over what Calgary might be deploying in the top nine. Mix in a month with Canada's World Junior team over Christmas, and that only further raises his confidence.

With Bennett settling in and leading the Flames with his Doug Gilmour-like qualities, now the Flames are winning games in February and March that maybe they wouldn't otherwise. Unexpected wins is not the formula for dropping in the standings and increasing your odds in the lottery.

If you want a shot at McDavid, you hope McDavid is in a scoring race against Bennett -- and that race is next year in the OHL. It should be a good one too. In similar number of games, Bennett was just eight points behind McDavid last year. Who knows, perhaps in a few years, they'll once again race each other for the scoring lead, only this time it will be the Flames scoring lead.


12. TJ Brodie Signs Another Bridge Contract

If the bridge contract conversation with TJ Brodie happens again next summer, you'll know things went south in 2014-15 after Brodie's excellent season last year alongside Mark Giordano.

As it stands, with a similar season to what he turned in last year, Brodie is in line for a long term contract offer from the Flames that could be north of $5-million per year. That will have been two-and-a-half seasons of excellence from the now 24-year-old and there would be no need to wait for a larger sample size, just a desire to get his name inked to a long term pact before he gets anywhere near PK Subban's expensive neighbourhood.

However, if both sides resort to a second bridge deal next summer, it means a sharp decline in his play -- as seen by our eyes and proven out by deeper analytics, has left the two sides unsure of what the future holds. There is no way that this team survives Brodie's play faltering. His role on that top defence pairing is critical and the Flames are in heaps of trouble if he falters. Although, their draft positioning would reap the benefits.


So How Does it End?

In this piece and in the preceding one, I've very much visited the two extremes of what could happen. Most likely, the actual truth will fall somewhere in the middle, which is familiar territory Calgary fans know all too well. In the last 25 years, the Flames have made it past the first round of the playoffs only once. They've also been bad enough to select in the top five of the NHL Draft just once. Mediocre, middling, so-so, average, unremarkable... what you get out of that is what you've got -- a franchise five years removed from the playoffs yet in the early stages of a rebuild.

The best chance for the Flames to get the No. 1 pick, draft McDavid and set this team up for a very, very bright future, may very well hinge on the fortunes and potential turnarounds of other teams. That, along with a healthy dose of luck come lottery time. We've already talked about Buffalo. But more so, what about the others that hung around the bottom of the standings last year?  Florida, Edmonton, New York Islanders, all of these teams should be better this year.

The ideal scenario for the Flames is to remain competitive and entertaining, and perhaps even improve, all while dropping a few notches in the standings thanks to even greater improvement by everyone else.

Considering what's at stake, even the most ardent of Flames fans would probably accept that outcome, knowing that in 2015-16 when the likes of Bennett, Poirier and maybe, just maybe McDavid also, all pull on a Calgary Flames jersey for good, the tone of that annual summer 'what if' conversation will very much change.

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Recent Flames Reading

  • Dream A Little Dream: Can the Flames be a Playoff Team? - How soon we forget that over the final half of the 2013-14 season, Calgary was a playoff team. They were a top eight team in the west over the final 34 games last year. That was better than Chicago and LA. Here are 12 things taht need to (mostly) happen to repeat that.
  • David Wolf: Hard Knuckles, Soft Hands - Get to know 24-year-old German winger David Wolf, who is known for being big and bad but is proud of the finesse part of his game also. What to expect in his first year in North America.
  • Sven Degrees of Separation: The Trials and Tribulations of Sven Baertschi - He came out of junior hockey with such acclaim. Yet after so much promise, what has happened to Baertschi. I look back at seven things that have gone wrong for Sven over the past couple years. 
  • Debut of the Stick TAP - My Q&A Mailbag - You guys submitted some great questions: How many NHL games this season will Sam Bennett play? How will playing time unfold for Calgary's goaltenders? In this new 'cleverly' named content feature, I responded to these and other reader-submitted questions by providing my own Thoughts, Analysis and Predictions.

2 comments:

  1. Well set out Darren. The Hiller, Setoguchi and Raymond signings are counterintuitive as they actually improve the team this year but hurt prospect development and our ability to draft high next year. The NHL also seems he'll bent on getting McDavid to a US franchise so I expect our "lottery" results to drop is out of the one spot even if we are the worst team. Remember Pittsburg got Crosby even though they were the 4 th worst team that year. Perhaps a bit paranoid but Bettman is anti -Canadian and as slippery as they come.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback. One thing I'd absolutely love to see is total transparency on the lottery. There is nothing wrong with the old system of multiple balls loaded into a machine and one of them is spit out. The fact the 'draw' happens backstage certainly lends itself to criticism. See, even I'm paranoid!

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