Monday, October 20, 2014

Reality Check: No McDavid? No Eichel? No Problem

We've all been obsessed with someone at some point in our lives.

For me, back to the early 80s, it was all about Catherine Bach and Christie Brinkley. I was smitten. I had posters of both of them, photos cut from magazines. Both the same age, I always told myself I'd be happy to end up with either one of them.

But alas, I grew out of those delusional early teenage years and now it's time for you to move on also.

Starting now, I implore Calgary Flames fans to reach the same realization I reluctantly came to back in 1983 with Daisy Duke and the hot blonde in the red Ferrari from the movie Vacation. That is the cold, harsh reality that the two objects of fans' undying affection -- Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, are not going to end up in Calgary.

Oh, your heart will ache for the next few days, I've been there. But it's time to accept the situation and move on. Unlike Patrick Dempsey in Can't Buy Me Love and Ralph Macchio in Karate Kid, it's looking increasingly likely that the nerd isn't going to end up with the cheerleader in this movie.

This may seem rash. After all, the NHL season is less than two weeks old and the Flames have stepped foot on Scotiabank Saddledome ice only once. But I don't think it is.

The impressive 4-2-0 mark on the recently completed road trip -- Calgary's first four-win road junket in nearly five seasons (since going 4-2-0 from Nov. 27 to Dec. 7, 2009), demonstrated to me that like it or not, these Flames are not capable of being bad enough to be in the running to land (or at least be one of the lottery favorites to get) one of those aforementioned 17-year-old uber-prospects, who will go first and second in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Here are a few reasons why it's time to stop dreaming, stop getting frustrated with Flames wins and to start enjoying them instead.


1. Giordano and Brodie are Too Good

Captain Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie, the Flames dynamic top defense pairing, who log 25 minutes per night and typically do so against the most difficult of opposition forward lines, is as underrated as they come. This is no longer two guys you merely dismiss with a 'best of the rest' descriptor, they blew by that point some time ago. Now they're right up there among the best pairings in the NHL and are worthy of being mentioned in the same conversation as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Shea Weber and Roman Josi, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin, Zdeno Chara and Dougie Hamilton, etc.

With seven points (3 goals, 4 assists), Brodie is tied with Mason Raymond for the Flames scoring lead and is also tied for the NHL lead in points by a defenceman. With six points (1 goal, 5 assists), Giordano is right behind. Always threats in the attacking zone, they are even better in the defensive end where they anchor Calgary. They play the penalty kill, they're on the power play, they're two star players and no matter how bad the cast is around them, they're single-handedly going to keep Calgary from being in the NHL cellar. There's just no way with them playing at the level they are that the Flames can finish in the bottom two.


2. Goaltending is Too Good

It's one thing to have a good goalie -- someone you can rely upon every night to keep you in the game and who will sometimes steal you a win. It's quite another to have two of them.

When you only have one goalie that is proven, like the Colorado Avalanche with Semyon Varlamov and the Nashville Predators with Pekka Rinne, you can be in a heap of trouble when that goalie gets hurt. However, it appears the Flames are in really good shape between the pipes this season with two accomplished goaltenders in Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo, each of whom have gotten off to tremendous starts.

Let's face it, goaltender is the most important position on the ice. They can turn great teams into average teams as longtime Philadelphia Flyers fans can attest. They can also turn mediocre teams into good teams, which in this city we know about first-hand from the many seasons Miikka Kiprusoff was the Flames starting goaltender and savior.

Recognizing a need to upgrade in net, adding a proven veteran goalie was the modus operandi for Flames general manager Brad Treliving on July 1 and the mission was successful, signing Hiller, 32, to a two-year/$9-million deal.

Backstopped by Hiller and Ramo, who had a strong second half last season, the Flames enter this season with goaltending as one of their strengths and biggest areas of improvement and we've seen that play out so far. Hiller (.942) and Ramo (.920) have combined for a .934 team save percentage (excluding empty net goals) through Sunday's games, which ranks Calgary sixth in the NHL:
  1. Minnesota, .955
  2. Los Angeles, .954
  3. Detroit, .949
  4. Nashville, .948
  5. Ottawa, .944
  6. Calgary, .934

Based on what we've seen, this duo is just too strong for Calgary to finish at or near the cellar. And even if an injury was to occur, there's always Joni Ortio waiting in Adirondack. The 23-year-old Finn showed last season he's a capable NHL goalie also and while his first month this season was a bit rocky, he stopped 36 of 38 shots on Saturday night in Adirondack's win so he's returning to form.


3. Bob Hartley is Too Good

As you'll all remember, the Flames played 49 one-goal games last year, which equaled the most a NHL team had ever played prior to last season.

Early signs this year are that coach Bob Hartley will once again have his team competing to the final buzzer every single night.

On Sunday, it was overcoming a 1-0 first period deficit to storm back and defeat Winnipeg 4-1. On Friday night, after falling behind 2-0 less than six minutes into the game and trailing 3-0 after two periods, Calgary rolled up its sleeves, dug in, and started chipping away. Suddenly there they were, within one goal near the end of the game and absolutely pouring on the pressure. That puck was in the Blue Jackets end for the final two-and-a-half minutes and the Flames were extremely unlucky to not tie the game.

Even on nights when they get dominated territorially as they did earlier in the trip in Chicago, this club seems to always find a way to hang around and stay in it. It's a quality that will earn them extra points throughout this season via extra-time losses and shootout victories, many of which will come in games in which zero points was the expected outcome.


4. Flames Prospects are Too Good

The Flames dipped into the minors for the first time the other day and brought up Josh Jooris. The training camp sensation had an immediate impact in Columbus scoring a beautiful goal, generating three shots, had another two-on-one chance that could have also resulted in a goal. Hartley was so pleased with Jooris' game, he sent the 24-year-old in his first NHL game over the boards with 2:07 left in a one-goal game. That stuff rarely happens, especially under Hartley. But it nearly paid off too.

If Hartley and the organization continue to be true to the motto of 'always earned, never given', there is too much talent in the Flames farm system for them to lose at the pace they'll need to in order to finish in the NHL's bottom two. This is not the Flames organization of six years ago when your minor league options when injuries struck were guys like Brett Sutter, Warren Peters and Kyle Greentree.

Waiting in the wings this season, dying for a chance to come up and show they are NHL-ready (as they already showed in the pre-season) are talented players like Michael Ferland and Markus Granlund. I would also include Max Reinhart, who has looked really good with the baby Flames so far. On the weekend for Adirondack, the three of them played on the same line and were excellent, even dominating at times.

When the Flames need to call up someone from the AHL now, they may even end up improving their team, depending on who is being replaced.


5. A Bunch of Other Teams Are Not Too Good

While it's easy and amusing for folks in Calgary to pick on the last place Oilers while they can, I think Edmonton should eventually be fine. Surely. The real threat to secure 30th place and guarantee themselves one of McDavid or Eichel are the Buffalo Sabres. With 2014 second overall draft pick Sam Reinhart looking like he might be jettisoned back to the WHL soon, it has already been a tough start for Buffalo and I just can't see their fortunes turning around. Recapping the Sabres season so far:
  • In four home games, they've scored two goals
  • They've been outshot 227-141 so far, that's an average of 38 to 24
  • Their only win was a shootout win against a not-very-good Carolina team

In addition to Buffalo, other teams that are going to be awfully hard for the Flames to get under are the Jordan Staal-less Carolina Hurricanes. If they trade away older brother Eric Staal, that's going to make them even worse. In the West, there's Edmonton but perhaps an even bigger threat to the bottom three is Winnipeg, who did not look very good at all on Sunday night and have lost four straight. The Jets scored six times in their season opener but have scored only twice in four games since. They're missing Evander Kane and with goaltending a giant question mark, it wouldn't be a shock if the Jets are right in the thick of the 27th, 28th, 29th place mix.

Don't forget about Florida either. While they're better, they're still the Panthers and there's not exactly a culture of winning around that hockey club.


6. Draft Lottery Odds are Not Too Good

The way the draft lottery works now, after the NHL introduced changes this past summer, is even if the Flames were to finish in 29th place, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres, that still leaves Calgary with just a one-in-three chance of selecting in the top two.

It seems like funky math at first but it's true. Finish second-last and the odds of dropping a spot in the draft order are twice-as-good as staying at No. 2 or moving up.

Huh?

Allow me to explain. As you'll see in the chart below, the cumulative odds of a team ranked 17th to 28th in the overall standings winning the lottery is 66.5% and if that happened, that team would jump up to No. 1, knocking Buffalo to 2nd and Calgary to 3rd pick in this scenario.



Now it should be noted that third pick in 2015 isn't a bad spot to be in either, considering the Flames positional need. Giant Boston College blue-liner Noah Hanifin is highly touted and would make for a nice consolation prize. However, you're only assured of him as a worst-case scenario if you finish in 29th place and I just can't see that happening for Calgary.

It would only take one of the Hurricanes, Panthers, Jets or Oilers to finish below Calgary for the Flames to finish no lower than 28th. In this scenario, despite that bottom three placing, the odds of dropping to 4th pick are still greater than 50/50 at 55 percent to be exact.


Final Thoughts

If you're going to get frustrated every time the Flames lose this season or send a game to overtime, you've got a long, agonizing six months ahead of you. Just give up on that pipe dream right now and instead, sit back and enjoy watching Calgary begin to turn the corner. Soak up the entertainment of close games, the one-goal losses, the overtime victories, which are all building blocks towards an eventual return to the playoffs.

Continue to enjoy watching Brodie and Giordano shut opponents down. Just like seeing your own kids grow up and mature, fondly watch for continued improved play from youngsters like Joe Colborne, Lance Bouma and Sean Monahan. Enjoy seeing Mikael Backlund take another step. Be on the edge of your seat to see Johnny Gaudreau find his way. Revel in the scoring prowess of Mason Raymond, who will be here for at least three years and is looking like a real find with five goals already -- second in the NHL behind only Rick Nash. Get excited about Kris Russell, the Flames new alternate captain and a shifty little player, who is fun to watch.

Will Calgary be able to keep up the pace from this strong start to the season? Doubt it. Are some offensive droughts coming? Probably. Do the Flames have a realistic shot at making the playoffs? Not really.

But it's time to move past the infatuation with McDavid and Eichel and be prepared and happy to accept whoever the Flames get at wherever they end up picking -- just like the Flames ended up with Monahan two years ago and Bennett last season. (And who knows, maybe Calgary finishes 25th and wins the draft lottery. The odds of winning the lottery for teams that finish 17th to 26th have gone up with those changes made to the lottery.)

Let's not forget there is already plenty of talent in the pipeline already that I haven't yet mentioned in the likes of Sam Bennett, Emile Poirier, Morgan Klimchuk, Sven Baertschi, Bill Arnold, Hunter SmithTyler Wotherspoon, Patrick Sieloff and Jon Gillies. While also adding one of the two best prospects of the 2015 draft class would have been icing on the cake, we're still talking about a pretty good ice cream cake already in existence here.

With such a strong draft class at the very top for 2015, that inevitably means some pretty darn good players are going to be available at picks No. 4, 5, and 6 also. You may not know their names right now but you will and that player chosen will become yet another important piece. Heck, when I was 13, even I had a back-up plan I was more then content with: Elisabeth Shue, Heather Locklear, or Belinda Carlisle.

My best advice for this season is don't over-think it and just sit back and enjoy the moments... all 82 games of them.


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3 comments:

  1. I agree with most of your points Darren (Brodano and Goaltending being too good in particular), but it's way to early in the season to say the pipe dream is over, or at the very least, that it's any less possible than it was 2 weeks ago yet.

    For one thing, the Flames still sport the 2nd worst Corsi% in the league, and a PDO of 104+. They are simply getting killed most of the time (i.e. anytime Giordano or Brodie aren't on the ice), and the goaltending might continue to be great, but it won't possibly remain good enough to completely off set that kind of terrible play. Hiller and Ramo are combined for a .953 5-on-5 save percentage right now. The top team in the league last year was ~.940. So it's going to come down. Probably substantially.

    The Corsi is going to go up too of course, it's currently worse than Buffalo was all season last year so that's not sustainable either. But that 8 points in 7 games standings is nothing more than an early season sample size mirage, you can't let it skew perceptions. The underlying numbers are indicating the team is exactly what we expected on opening night... a bottom 5 team, with above average goaltending. They will still likely finish in the bottom 5, and for sure in the bottom 10.

    As for the lottery odds, virtually any finish this year actually gives us a better chance of landing McDavid or Eichel than we had at landing Reinhart. We very likely won't be dead last with a 100% chance of getting one of them, but:

    - if we falter back into 29th or 28th, we have a 33.5% or an 11.5% chance vs the 10.7% chance of last year.

    - if we improve to a 26 or above place, our odds of winning the lottery go up roughly 0.5 - 2.5 % vs what it would have been last year.

    It's still paltry odds... we're likely talking in the 6-10% range. But those are better than they were historically, and there's already been several cases of teams out of the bottom 4 getting the 1st ('95, '99, '07, '11).

    So yes, it's just a dream :) But it's a dream that hasn't decreased at all in the last 2 weeks.

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    Replies
    1. So you're saying there's still a chance? For me, also? Considering Catherine Bach is now 60 years old (which seems impossible to believe), I'd sure like to think my odds have gone up significantly!

      On a serious note, I appreciate you sharing some of the deeper numbers. I agree the sample size is certainly small and would suggest it's closer to microscopic -- less than two weeks into a six month season. So yes, I get what you're saying.

      My best advice for Flames fans and when I say that, I'm often referring to my mom in particular, is just roll with it and let whatever happens, happens. If it's meant to be, the Flames will get McDavid whether it be by winning the lottery after finishing 29th, or winning the lottery after finishing 24th.

      But scream as loud at the TV as you want, you're not influencing how the team plays -- they're going to keep doing what they do and trying to win so just take the victories when you can get them -- that's what being a fan is supposed to be all about, enjoy a pint or two in the process, and it will make for a far more enjoyable and less aggravating season. Cheers.

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  2. I have real problems to accept that a fan would like to see his team tanking.
    Really! I will always want wins! I don't have the numbers.... and I am not sure if I want to know about them.
    This is passion! I want to win every time.
    Of course I would like to have MacDavid, but I prefer to sit on my couch and truly support my team. Get angry and get happy.
    It is fun to find a way to win or get better without any helper and without have to give the pride away.
    Just to be clear I respect who thinks that is cool to be the worst for a better future. This is just the way a feel.

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