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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dream a Little Dream: What Will it Take for the Flames to Make the Playoffs in 2014-15?

This season, the Calgary Flames will finish ahead of the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.

It's an outlandish statement and is the type of claim that might get one committed to the nearest mental institution. To be clear, it's also not a prediction. But I lead with it for a different reason than just testing your sobriety.

Consider the following: For the final 34 games last year -- that's over 40 percent of the regular season, the Flames were a better team in the standings than both of those aforementioned Western Conference finalists. That's right, Calgary had a better record over that span than the eventual Stanley Cup champions. 

Don't believe me? Go ahead, check for yourself.

 

With many of the residents of Flames nation more consumed at the moment on whether or not Calgary will finish in the bottom two this year to potentially get a shot at drafting the uber-hyped Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, what seemingly has been forgotten is one hell-of-a run this club went on in the second half last year. Beginning the night of that infamous line brawl in Vancouver on Jan. 18 that ended in a 3-2 shootout loss, Calgary was in the top half of the NHL's 30 teams over the final three months.

So, while it may be preposterous to think that over a full 82 games, Calgary can stay ahead of the deep and talented Kings and Blackhawks, it is not out of the realm of possibility that this team could finish eighth in the Western Conference, just like they did over the final 34 games last year.

Then once you get in, of course, anything can happen in that first round. Heck, the Kings won the Stanley Cup three years ago after slipping into the playoffs as the West's No. 8 seed. Lest we forget the charm of the 2003-04 Flames, who won over the city as well as the entire country with their Cinderella post-season run in which they entered every series as the underdog.

So, what will it take for Calgary to crack the top eight? I know a few of you just uttered, "a miracle"' and I get that and yes, a lot of things need to go right and by that, I mean a lot. But that said, nothing I'm about to mention is inconceivable.

12 Things That (Mostly) Need to Happen for the Flames to Make the Playoffs in 2014-15:


1. Ramo Plays Out of his Mind

Looking strictly at their price tags, your first conclusion would be that Jonas Hiller is now the guy in Calgary. Set to haul in a hefty $4.5-million next season, the team's second-highest paid player behind Dennis Wideman, surely Hiller was not given that type of coin on July 1 to merely sit on the bench in a baseball cap and open the defencemen gate.

That said, he's also not the guy that gets this team into the playoffs. Hiller turns 33 in February, his usage (or lack of) by Anaheim in last year's playoffs spoke volumes about where they think he is on the career arc. He'll be good, dependable, and if things fall right, he could backstop the Flames to 12th place in the West. However, that type of mediocrity doesn't get you much other than a lengthy wait before your first pick come the next NHL draft.

For this team to climb at least four more rungs higher, they don't need good goaltending, they'll need great goaltending and of the current candidates, Karri Ramo is the most likely to conjure up such sustained magic. He's older at 28 but given his many years in Russia prior to last year, his ceiling is still very much shroud in mystery. If Ramo can play 55-60 games, win 30-35, and place in the top 10 in the NHL in save percentage, then the Flames will be onto something. Of the extra victories Calgary has got to pick up this year to hang with the big boys in the West, the goalies are going to have to steal a few of them on their own.


2. 'Same Old, Same Old' From Johnny Hockey

Johnny Gaudreau  has done nothing but prove people wrong at every level, throughout his career. That can happen when at five-foot-eight, you look like more like a child sitcom star than a budding pro hockey player. His most recent successes:
  • He dominated US college hockey. In his third and final year at Boston College, he won the Hobey Baker by going an unconscious 36-44-80 in 40 games.
  • He joined the Flames for the final game of the NHL season and just like that, he scored Calgary's only goal. Easy.
  • He went to the IIHF World Championships along with a bunch of seasoned pros and was just fine going 2-8-10 in eight games against a decent calibre of international competition. 

Conventional thinking including my own -- the many reasons for such I outlined here back in April, is that Gaudreau will at least start this season with Adirondack in the AHL. In so many ways, this seems to be the wise and prudent thing to do. Plus, every time the topic is raised with Flames management, you get the sense they will be ultra conservative with their diminutive but talented left winger.

That said, his sublime offensive skill set is unlike many others. If he shows in training camp that the NHL is, indeed, where he should be honing his craft, then he may just very well stick around Calgary and what a boon that would be for the team offensively. A rookie season of at least 20 goals and 35 assists doesn't seem out of reach with regular power play duty and a spot in the top six and if that's how it unfolds, the presence of No. 53 (or more likely, No. 13 by that point) instantly makes the Flames better and more competitive.


3. No Sophomore Jinx for Monahan 

With 22 goals last year in his rookie season, Sean Monahan had the best year offensively a teenager has ever had in a Calgary Flames uniform.
  • Sean Monahan, age 19, 22 goals in 2013-14
  • Jarome Iginla, age 19, 21 goals in  1996-97
  • Dan Quinn, age 19, 20 goals in 1984-85
  • Dan Quinn, age 18, 19 goals in 1983-84
  • Robert Reichel, age 19, 19 goals in 1990-91

So now what? What's the next level for Monahan? This is as far as you can possibly get from an advanced stats analysis but it seemed to me with a few of his goals, Monahan was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. Expecting him this year to take a giant step forward from his 22 goals last year would be a tad optimistic. On the other hand, his assist total of just 12 was one less than TJ Galiardi and only three ahead of Sven Baertschi. That just seems flat-out unlucky and I'd expect that number to climb significantly.

Monahan suffered a fractured foot in November that cost him seven games. Then he returned to the line-up and didn't play a whole lot for a while as coach Bob Hartley took a cautious approach while he finished mending and worked his way back. For the Flames to be in the chase, Monahan will need to take on more responsibility in the form of more ice time, more power play time, and even more penalty kill duty, which he started to receive late in the season. If he can put up 20 goals and 30 assists and become a real force on the ice defensively, Calgary becomes a more dangerous team.


4. More of the Same from Giordano and Brodie

Together, this defence pairing was dynamite. They drew most of the tough assignments and handled them impressively. Giordano nearly made the Canadian Olympic team, he was in the Norris Trophy conversation and that's all conventional evaluation-driven -- the so-called 'eyeball test' and traditional statistics. Digging into their advanced stats reveals these accomplishments came under challenging conditions -- often sent onto the ice for face-offs in their own zone and consistently matched up against the opposition's No. 1 line.

For Calgary to play into late April this season, this pairing will need to be everything they were last year and a little bit more. That's logging 25 minutes a night as the No. 1 unit. They'll have to be steady and reliable with no room for regression. Also, staying healthy will be a must. Brodie has been an iron man, missing just two games in the last two years -- and one was as a healthy scratch (while Derek Smith played) in the season opener in 2012-13. Early last year, Giordano missed 18 games with a broken ankle, a stretch in which the team went 5-11-2, this after the the Flames new captain had helped guide the club to a superb 4-2-2 start.


5. Backlund Earns that $5-Million Contract

Sam Bennett is too young, Sean Monahan is not quite ready and Matt Stajan is not the right guy. For the Flames to have a chance at being playoff-relevant this year, Mikael Backlund needs to seize the job as Calgary's No. 1 centre and play at the same level, if not higher, than he played at over the final two-thirds of last season when he established himself as one of the league's better two-way centres.

Playing out the final year of a two-year deal that will pay him a modest $1.5-million this season, Backlund is due for a massive pay hike in the summer of 2015 if he repeats his performance from last year. In this in-depth analysis piece I wrote earlier this summer, I examined his performance last year in several facets of the game and my findings is he was right up there with many of the NHL's stars. I made the case that Backlund could very well be a $5-million player when his current deal expires next summer. And for the Flames to have a realistic shot at the post-season this year, they'll need him to play like a $5-million player and not just for 50 or 60 games either, they'll need that level of performance consistently from him for all 82 games and that is a big ask considering his history of not being able to stay healthy. He has missed time in recent years with finger, arm, knee and hand injuries.


6. Raymond Replaces Cammalleri's Offence

The goal total last year for veteran Mike Cammalleri ended up pretty gaudy when all was said and done. But much of it came while the the Flames were playing out the string in April. An educated conclusion you'd draw from Cammalleri not being dealt at last year's trade deadline was the pending UFA's trade value at that point was not very good. That's understandable considering he was in the midst of an ice-cold stretch of three goals and six points in 24 games. Then all-of-a-sudden his fortunes changed and he had a ridiculously good April that ultimately earned him an eyebrow-raising $5-million, five-year deal with the New Jersey Devils this summer.

Cammalleri's offence will be missed, no question. His 26 goals have to come from somewhere if the team is going to challenge for a playoff spot. When the team is playing in all those close games this year, perhaps the guy that will step up and deliver the clutch goal will be newly inked free agent Mason Raymond.

He's not on that same level as Cammalleri, especially not the April version, but can he match the production the Flames got from Cammalleri from December through March? Why not. We know as a visiting player the Cochrane native enjoys playing in Calgary. His eight goals in 14 career games at the Saddledome includes a pair of hat tricks while he was with the Vancouver Canucks.

We'll have to wait and see what Calgary ultimately gets from Raymond but what they need from him to be a playoff threat is for him to match his career-high of 25 goals and if they do, don't be surprised if that's in the neighbourhood of what Cammalleri ends up with in New Jersey -- and that from a younger guy making $2-million less per year.


7. Must Stay Healthy

The hard-hitting, never-say-die, throw-yourself-in-front-of-shots style that coach Bob Hartley had the blue collar Flames playing last year does take its toll physically. The only player to appear in all 82 games was Chris Butler.

It's going to be difficult and will take some incredible good fortune but Calgary needs to have a far healthier year if they're going to stay in the mix for a playoff spot this year. They just don't have the type of depth that is NHL-ready right now to overcome long term injuries to key players.

Take for example, the blueline. It's not a great defensive corps overall with a huge drop-off after the top pairing. But if Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell can play a decent 18-22 minutes nightly and Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid can be serviceable at 14-16 minutes, they'll be OK. Tyler Wotherspoon showed last year he's capable of stepping in and can backfill a number of different roles so there's a tiny bit of wiggle room if someone goes out long term. But multiple injuries would result in them summoning additional bodies from the minors and considering where the other blue-line prospects are at -- Patrick Sieloff and Brett Kulak are not quite ready yet, rushing them could hurt both the team and the player's development in the long run.

Up front, it's a similar situation. The future looks bright with the likes of Emile Poirier, Morgan Klimchuk and Sam Bennett but this is not their time yet. Even older college guys like Bill Arnold, Kenny Agostino, Bryce van Brabant and Corban Knight need to adjust first to the AHL. If any bottom-six forwards go down, there are some viable options in Ben Hanowski and David Wolf but if the Flames were to lose Monahan, Jiri Hudler, or Raymond for extended periods, then they're in deeper trouble.


8. Baertschi Bounces Back

He's gone from my pick last year to lead the Flames in scoring to being just one of many Flames prospects that 'hopefully' pan out. A star coming out of junior, I recently examined the trials and tribulations of Sven Baertchi over the past couple years and identified seven key events that have happened that have contributed to where Baertschi is today, which feels in a way like he's become estranged from the franchise he was drafted by three years ago.

We need to remind ourselves repeatedly that Baertschi is only 21 years old and if he figures it out, talk about found money. Here's a first rounder you likely weren't counting on to contribute this year and if he can step up and play a big role on the team, this team is instantly better. As a bonus, his return to form could elevate the games of other on the team also. It was only in glimpses we saw them last year but personally, I'd like to see Monahan and Baertschi re-united on the same line for another trial this season.


9. Shootout Prowess Continues

Last year was an epiphany for the Flames when it came to the shootout, especially on home ice. Consider Calgary's shootout record at the Saddledome was a feeble 6-21 prior to last season. Then last year, they were a perfect 5-0. In one season, they nearly matched the number of shootout wins on home ice they had over the previous eight seasons. Just think about that for a minute. Wow.

So why the sudden turnaround in shootout success? Two reasons: 1. Better goaltending from Karri Ramo (and Reto Berra). 2. Greater individual success, particularly by newcomers Joe Colborne and Sean Monahan.

Colborne, who turned into Hartley's 'lead-off hitter' in the skills contest, was a tidy 4-for-9. Monahan was even more clutch going 5-for-8 with four game-deciding goals -- second in the NHL behind TJ Oshie and Anze Kopitar, who each had five. Remember Jarome Iginla's struggles with the shootout? Those nine combined goals on 17 shots for Colborne and Monahan match the nine goals Iginla had for the Flames on 36 shots over his eight seasons.

Overall, Calgary was 7-3 in the shootout last year and they'll have to be just as good this year to stay in the hunt because they're not going to be blowing anybody out. Just like last year, I'd expect a bunch of nail-biting one-goal games once again. Last season the Flames played in 49 one-goal games going 25-17-7, tying them with the 2010-11 Florida Panthers for the second most one-goal games in NHL history. The only team to play in more was New Jersey, who last year played in 50.


10. Glencross Bounces Back

There's this thing in hockey. It's a little bit weird but I also understand and appreciate the premise. It's that when players are injured, they're kept away from the team. They come to the rink early to get their treatment. If they skate, they do so early, often before the others arrive. They typically don't travel with the team on the road. They just aren't seen around the team all that often.

The idea is since that player is not available to help the team anyway, keeping them at a distance is a message to the healthy players that they have to suck it up and go on and try to win without them, no excuses, etc.

Considering Curtis Glencross missed 44 games last year -- 29 with an ankle injury and 15 due to a sprained knee, he has very much become a bit of a forgotten man. With those long interruptions, you got the sense his season last year never really got going. But let's not forget, this guy can flat-out score.

Add up his scoring stats from the past four seasons and Glencross averages 28 goals for every 82 games. That's good. Scoring at that clip would put him in the top 30 in the NHL. The advanced stats community will look at his shooting percentage and contest that such production is unsustainable. However, it's also been four years at that rate, not four weeks, so if it is an anomaly, who's to say he can't have another anomaly season this year and score another 30 goals.

If you can get a healthy and productive season out of Glencross, who enters the year motivated to have a good year as he's a pending UFA, you have a real nice addition to a team's forward group that played much of last season without him.


11. Start Fast and Sustain It

Last year, Calgary got off to a splendid start. They busted out of the gate 4-2-2 and had some early momentum going behind rookie sensation Sean Monahan. But then Mark Giordano got hurt and that put the team in a hole they never were able to fully dig themselves out of.

Huge this season is not just having a good opening week, or a great October, but they need to stay in the playoff chase through the end of December and then find their second wind in successfully navigating through the dog days of January and February. Then we'll see where they are come March.

If they can remain near striking distance of the top eight, that puts the season and the NHL Trade deadline in a whole different light. Now, instead of shopping pending UFAs like Ramo and Glencross -- assuming both have turned into pivotal figures, perhaps the Flames decide to add bodies instead. Calgary has plenty of cap space so we know that's certainly not a concern should they be close enough that the decision is to go for it.


12. Need Help From Both Sides of the Continent

This may sound odd but for the Flames to have a shot at the playoffs this year, they need Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg to be much improved also. If the conference turns into a hierarchy of have's and have not's where the Canucks and/or Oilers and/or Jets become the whipping boys for their American peers, then it's very unlikely the Flames will be able to win enough to hang with that upper echelon.

Calgary needs the Western Conference to turn into a 14-horse race (or more plausible, a ten-team race for the final four playoff spots) in which Canada is no longer a pawn shop to pick up cheap wins. That will flatten out the next tier beyond the heavyweights -- Anaheim, LA, Chicago, San Jose. With these second-tier teams beating up on each other all year, the point total for making the top eight in the West could come down to around 90 points and every bit helps.

In that same vain, the East will also wield some influence on the West race. In those interconference games, every East regulation win over a West contender is a bonus for the Flames and conversely, if Calgary can rack up points when playing Eastern opponents, that will help them stay within reach of the peloton -- or even be at the front of it.


Peering into the Crystal Ball

To make the playoffs, the Flames will probably need to be 15 points better this year. That's everything they achieved last year plus a couple more bonus points and six or seven more victories. That's asking a lot. I mean, A LOT.

However, if this exercise has taught us anything, it's a reminder that there are some really nice pieces in place with this Flames hockey team with Giordano and Brodie anchoring the blue-line, Backlund and Monahan up the middle. While the odds of making the playoffs this season are steep, I'd argue the odds of finishing in the bottom two are even more extreme.

Of the dozen possible scenarios outlined above, none of them are inconceivable. Even if only half of them occur, the Flames will still be a better team and will hang around the Western Conference cut line a lot longer than people expect.

While the Buffalo Sabres look like a safe bet to be in the NHL's cellar once again this year, the saving grace for Flames fans focused on the 2015 draft is the teams around Calgary have gotten noticeably better. While I realistically expect the Flames to come in at around 80 points (last year they had 77), that likely isn't enough to finish ahead of the improved Panthers, Islanders and Oilers.

Short of making the post-season for the first time in six years, surely the ultimate goal for this playoff-starved city, the back-up goal would be be playing a competitive and entertaining season, seeing overall improvement from the team as well as from its young players, yet still finishing 29th. In terms of what's most realistic, that would be an excellent outcome for Calgary.

I'm just not sure it's going to happen. The pride and fight-to-the-finish attitude that made this team as likeable as it was last year is not going to allow them to plummet to the very bottom -- unless the team's core players end up spending long stretches on the IR.

While missing out on the 'big two' next draft would be disappointing for some, there is a positive to be gleaned from an improved record this season that keeps the rebuild needle pointing in the right direction. Accomplish that, while integrating youth into the line-up, and that will only mean good things for 2015-16 when a playoff spot becomes an expectation, not just a hope.


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Recent Flames Reading

  • 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 - A Q&A Mailbag - You guys submitted some great questions: How many NHL games this season will Sam Bennett play? Will the Flames be in the running for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel? In this new content feature, I responded to these and other reader-submitted questions by providing my own Thoughts, Analysis and Predictions.
  • The Polarizing Selection of Goaltender Mason McDonald - Selecting a goaltender with pick No. 34 infuriated a lot of Flames fans. Why take a goalie so early? Well, I've done the homework and I will explain to you why it was the smart choice for Calgary at that point in the draft. 

3 comments:

  1. Not like you haven't done enough research already, but how did the Flames Shots for and Against stack up in that 34 game stretch?

    I enjoyed the article, and while it's nice to dream about another high pick, you certainly brought up some interesting points with compelling arguments.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment. I did go and check out the shots for and against and over that span, Calgary outshot the opponent 17 times, got outshot 14 times, and the shots were even for 3 games.

      Further, of the 14 times they were outshot, it was by a margin of four or fewer in six of those games. So there you go.

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