Sunday, November 09, 2014

Sweet 16: Sixteen Reasons for Flames Fans To Smile

Sixteen games into the season and the Calgary Flames are the talk of the NHL and so they should be with an improbable 9-5-2 record.

Here are 16 reasons for Flames fans to enjoy this season's early success.


1. Still Plenty in the Pipeline

Optimism abounds right now in Calgary and you can understand why. Not only are the Flames winning, but they're getting huge contributions from young players that will be the foundation for this club for many years to come. I'm talking about the 24-and-under crowd of TJ Brodie, Sean Monahan, Johnny GaudreauJoe Colborne and Lance Bouma. Add in in the contributions from recent arrivals Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund and the future looks bright.

Yet, that's just a sampling.

Michael Ferland has shown he's ready for prime time and brings a coveted blend of size, skill and tenacity. There's the speed and peskiness offered up by Gatineau graduate Emile Poirier, who scored 50 goals in 72 QMJHL games last season. Just back from shoulder surgery, the right-winger is off to terrific start in his rookie year at Adirondack. You can't forget about Tyler Wotherspoon either, biding his time in the AHL while he awaits a full-time opening on the Calgary blue-line. Also, there's arguably the most exciting prospect of them all in 2014 fourth overall pick Sam Bennett.

With the ETA for Poirier, Wotherspoon and Bennett likely being 2015-16, there is plenty of reason for Flames fans to be excited not just about who's here now, but who's on the way.


2. Better Draft Lottery Odds

Connor McDavid is an alluring talent, no doubt. He has 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists) in 17 OHL games, which is ridiculous. To put his start in context, it took Sidney Crosby 22 games to reach 50 points in his draft year.

When the NHL changed the draft lottery rules last summer, it was supposed to negatively impact the Flames with the crux of the changes being that the bottom four finishers in the overall standings saw their odds of winning the lottery go down. Now it seems the Flames could end up a benefactor of the new draft rules instead in which the odds of all the other higher placing teams winning the lottery increased -- and of course, if you win the lottery, you jump all the way to No. 1 pick.

In the end, there are a few reasons to be encouraged if you're one of those infatuated Flames fans, who goes to bed dreaming every night about Sam Bennett's former minor hockey linemate ending up in Calgary:
  • Once you crunch the numbers, there's only a one-in-three chance (33%) that the team finishing 29th or 30th will actually win the lottery. Thinking about you, Buffalo.
  • Obviously, this means the odds are twice as good (or 67%) that the lottery will instead be won by a team that finishes somewhere between 17th to 28th overall. 
  • If you look at the lottery percentages, you'll notice that they really flatten out quickly. For example, the difference in odds between finishing 23rd overall (5%) and 28th (11.5%) isn't all that big so if at the end of the year, the Flames fall in that range somewhere, you cross your fingers and see what happens.


3. No Sophomore Slump

Remember last year when Sean Monahan captivated the city by starting his NHL career with a scorching hot six goals in his first eight games? It seemed like every time he touched the puck, it went in the net.

Well, don't look now but after a quiet start to the year as he battled a stubborn, energy-sapping flu, the 20-year-old has suddenly put together the exact same streak from a year ago -- six goals in eight games. That's moved Monahan into the team-lead in goals and has him on pace for over 30 goals and nearly 60 points this season.

Also of note, his 28 career goals has him tied with first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon for the most of anyone from that 2013 draft class. Not bad for the guy Calgary grabbed at No. 6.


4. Comeback Kids

A great testament to the character and leadership on the Flames is the fact that Saturday marked the third time already this season that Calgary has trailed a game entering the third period and ended up winning, which ties them with Montreal and the New York Rangers for the most comeback wins. How good is that? Consider that last year, there were four teams (Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Toronto) that only came from behind in the third period to win twice -- and that was all season.

For additional context, here is what the Flames record has been in recent years when trailing to begin the third period:
  • 2014-15: 3-5-0
  • 2013-14: 4-27-2
  • 2012-13: 1-19-1
  • 2011-12: 4-22-6

The only thing negatively impacted by this is the revenues from Saddledome restaurants and bars that are now seeing patrons clear out of there before the second period intermission ends, so they can get back to their seats in time for the climactic final 20 minutes.


5. Johnny B. Great

Apparently, adjusting to the NHL took Gaudreau all of five games. The turnaround for Gaudreau since he was a healthy scratch on October 17 in Columbus has been astounding.

  • Before the Scratch: 5 games, 0-0-0, 1 shot, plus-2, 12:56 average TOI
  • After the Scratch: 10 games, 3-9-12, 23 shots, plus-7, 15:38 average TOI


Gaudreau has quickly climbed into second in rookie scoring behind Nashville's Filip Forsberg (6-9-15) and you sense it's only a matter of time before he takes over the No. 1 spot.  Of his nine assists this year, it's noteworthy that six have been the primary helper with Saturday's slick set-up of Monahan the latest exhibition of Gaudreau's sublime passing ability.

He is a game breaker unlike any other the Flames have had since maybe Theoren Fleury and while he may go unnoticed for parts of games, he can completely turn a game's momentum around with a single shift.


6. Giordano is Pretty Good

Consider this. Just 15 months ago, Giordano was viewed as no better than the 18th best Canadian-born defencemen in the NHL.

As a refresher, Hockey Canada executives met in the summer of 2013 and came up with this list of 17 possible defence options to invite to Canada's Olympic orientation camp. Marc Methot, Travis Hamonic -- both of them were there, but no Giordano. If that isn't astonishing enough, that August camp was held right here in Calgary in Giordano's backyard.

It's staggering to think about considering he's now in the conversation as one of the NHL's very best at the position. With 18 points (5 goals, 13 assists), Giordano leads defencemen in scoring and he also woke up Sunday morning tied for fifth overall behind Sidney Crosby (7-17-24), Jakub Voracek (6-16-22), Tyler Seguin (10-9-19) and Phil Kessel (8-11-19).

It's as if the Flames training staff not only stitched on the captain's 'C' last summer, but they also sewed a superhero's cape to the back of his jersey. In 80 games since being named captain of the Flames, Giordano has 65 points (19 goals, 46 assists) and is a plus-20. Mercy.

Giordano has one year left after this season on his contract, which is paying him a thrifty $4-million annually. You've got to think extending him will be Treliving's top priority next summer.


7. Lots of Love for Lance  

One of the last RFA's to sign last summer, inking a one-year $775,000 deal, Lance Bouma will get a raise next year and surely some well-deserved contract term too. He may not be the face of the franchise but more than anyone else, he epitomizes Calgary's blue collar work ethic.

Among NHL forwards, Bouma ranks third with 16 blocked shots (was second last year) and with those mostly coming on the penalty kill where the 24-year-old has excelled, they are badges (or bruises) of honour. He is also 16th among NHL forwards with 39 hits, which has him on pace for a team-leading 200.

But wait, there's more.

Bouma's first career game-winning goal on Saturday -- and a beauty at that, blasting a one-timer inside the goal post with 2:18 left in the third, gives him four goals already. He's on pace to score 20 after notching five a year ago. Add in his leadership qualities and ability to play both wings as well as centre and No. 17 is the type of player that all Stanley Cup contending teams need.


8. The Kids are Alright

I've already mentioned Gaudreau, but also filling in admirably with veterans on the sidelines have been unheralded right-winger Josh Jooris and centre Markus Granlund.

Bringing speed and an aggressive forecheck along with an unexpected dose of finesse, Jooris was the feel-good story of training camp and as the first player recalled from Adirondack, he continues to impress. In his first pro season a year ago, his third goal in the AHL didn't come until after Christmas -- December 27, to be exact. That was his 30th game. He already has three in the NHL in nine games and each one of them has been highlight reel-worthy

When Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan and Joe Colborne all went down, Granlund was the obvious choice to be brought up and now that he's here, he could very well be here to stay. He has four points (2 goals, 2 assists) in five games and Saturday he played a career-high 20:33. He's talented, he's dependable, he's the consummate 200-foot player and he badly wants to be better than his older brother Mikael, the ninth overall pick by Minnesota in 2010.


9. TJ Brodie is Locked Up

Getting TJ Brodie's name on a five-year contract extension (for just over $23-million) as early as he did may go down as one of general manager Brad Treliving's shrewdest moves.

The other half of the Flames vaunted top defence pairing, Brodie has been just as good as Giordano and that says a lot. Having already equalled his career high of four goals, he is now forging his way into discussions around the NHL's as one of the top rising stars on the blue-line.

Among NHL defencemen, he currently ranks fifth in goals (4), third in points (14), second in road points (12) and second in plus-minus (+11). He plays 25 minutes a night and there is a sense of calm that sets in for the team whenever he and Giordano are on the ice. What makes it all that much more impressive is he has achieved all that while often matched up against the opposition's best forwards. It's hard to believe he was a healthy scratch in the Flames season-opener just two years ago.

Last home game, I saw a fan wearing a No. 7 Bertuzzi jersey. Seriously dude, you already have the number and you've got four of the six letters required. Just grab an 'o' and a 'd' and a needle and thread and fix that that thing up properly.


10. Reinforcements are Waiting

The only thing more surprising than who the Flames are getting offensive contributions from during this fast start is who the Flames aren't getting contributions from. Curtis Glencross -- just two goals. Mikael Backlund -- only one goal before landing on injured reserve. David Jones -- just scored his first goal since last February. Free agent signing Devin Setoguchi, the 27-year-old former first round pick and one-time 31-goal scorer -- zero goals.

The biggest question entering the season after the departure of leading scorer Mike Cammalleri was would Calgary be able to score enough goals? Getting next-to-no contribution from Glencross, Jones, Backlund and Setoguchi was supposed to be a death sentence, but it hasn't been. Losing Joe Colborne -- tied with John Tavares and Ryan Getzlaf for the NHL lead in assists a couple weeks ago was supposed to hurt. It hasn't. Remember Mason Raymond? Scored five goals in the first 10 games to lead the team but then he landed on the sidelines. No worries.

When Glencross gets going, Colborne, Backlund and Raymond return, Calgary has shown that they have more depth than you think and when other injuries inevitably strike, they can keep going without missing a beat.


11. Casual Fans Can Watch Them Play

As I documented in this story last weekend, the Flames sellout streak of 392 consecutive regular season and playoff games came to an official end last home-stand. I say "officially" because there have been rows of empty seats in the third level of the Saddledome for most games for a couple years now with Sport Chek apparently unable to unload all of its tickets.

While the end of a sell-out streak that had lasted over 10 years is not good news for the club, it is great news for casual Flames fans without season tickets as it confirms that the ability to buy a ticket and go to the game exists and presumably that could mean sitting closer to the action than the nose bleeds if you so choose. Considering how exciting this team is playing, you might just want to go and check out Gaudreau and friends from the lower bowl if you haven't seem him up close yet.


12. Great Goaltending

The constant in net between last year and this year? Karri Ramo.

What has changed for the better this season is his running mate. Last year, it was split between Joey MacDonald and Reto Berra. Now it's proven veteran Jonas Hiller, who has been excellent in racking up a 7-3-1 record with a 2.07 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.

Ramo's first game in two weeks on Saturday didn't go great. A mixture of bad goals and bad luck resulted in him getting the hook halfway through the second period. It sparked the team, Hiller stopped all nine shots he faced and the Flames picked up another win.

That's how your goaltending partnership is supposed to work, one picking up the other. Ramo will get another chance in the near future to get back in a groove and undoubtedly he'll seize it as he showed in the latter half of last season and early this year that he is also a solid NHL goaltender. Plus, you know this city's penchant for Finnish puck stoppers.


13. All Thrills, All the Time

What more can you ask for if you're a hockey fan than your team being in pretty much every game. My definition of being 'in the game' for the purpose of this exercise is you're close enough near the end of the game (e.g. within one or two goals) that you pull your goaltender to try and tie it.

With that as the criteria, the Flames have been 'in' 15 of 16 games this year. The only decisive loss on the docket was that 4-1 setback to the Blues in the third game of the season. That said, that was far from a blowout, it came against a really good hockey team, and that game played in St. Louis was Calgary's third game in four nights.

As a Flames fan, if you can drive to the Saddledome or sit down in front of the TV to watch a game, knowing there's upwards of a 90 percent chance Calgary is going to either win or at least it will be a close, entertaining game, that's really all anyone can ask.

Calgary has played seven one-goal games so far and if you exclude empty net goals, that number would be nine. That's over half of the games they've played and a similar pace to a year ago when they had 49. As they say, come early and stay late.


14. They're Winning!

At 9-5-2, the Flames are enjoying the third fastest start in the last 21 years -- going back to the lockout shortened 1995-96 season.

Today, they woke up in in 7th place in NHL's overall standings.  Here is where Calgary sat on November 9 in recent years:
  • 2014-15: 7th
  • 2013-14: 24th
  • 2012-13: N/A (lock-out)
  • 2011-12: 23rd
  • 2010-11: 25th

While it's true they haven't played the three divisional heavyweights from California yet, they have beaten teams that are off to good starts.

Calgary has wins over Montreal (10-4-1), Nashville (9-3-2) -- twice, Winnipeg (8-5-2) and Chicago (7-6-1). On the flip-side, there is no shame in their regulation losses to Tampa Bay (10-3-1), St. Louis (9-4-1) and Vancouver (10-5-0).

In the summer when I wondered aloud if the playoffs could be possible, I pointed to the Flames record last season after the famous John Tortorella dust-up in Vancouver. Calgary played like (and accumulated the points of) a legitimate playoff team from that point until the end of the year. Add in the start to this season and in that stretch dating back to January 18 of last year, the Flames are now 28-19-3. At 50 games, that sample size is getting pretty big now too. That's a pace that over 82 games would extrapolate out to 97 points.


15. Trophy Chasing

In recent years, not only were there no Flames in the running for NHL hardware, there were no Flames even getting votes for NHL hardware. But it's looking like that's about to finally change.

Calder

The names of three Calgary Flames players are engraved on the NHL's Calder Memorial trophy for top rookie but it's been a while. All three won it over a five-year span in the late 80s:
  • Gary Suter (1985-86)
  • Joe Nieuwendyk (1987-88)
  • Sergei Makarov (1989-90)

Last year, Sean Monahan finished eighth in voting. The way Gaudreau's going right now, you have to expect him to be in the hunt this season.

James Norris

The award for top defenceman does have the name of one former Calgary player on it, but he didn't win it while playing for the Flames. Al MacInnis won it in 1998-99 as a member of the St. Louis Blues.

Last year, Giordano finished 10th in voting, which like the Calder, is done by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can guarantee Giordano will finish higher this year and he should be in the top five, for sure.

Jack Adams

Voted on by the NHL Broadcaster's Association, a Calgary Flames coach has never won the coach of the year.

Last year, Bob Hartley didn't even crack the top 10 in voting but with a higher finish from the team this year, especially considering the players on the IR right now and how Calgary is winning games, surely the recognition around the league he deserves will finally come.

For a guy in the final year of a three-year contract, winning the Jack Adams would be a nice bullet to add to the resume for Hartley, come negotiation time -- although surely he'll have been already extended by the time that award will ultimately be announced.


16. Pairing No. 2

Freshly anointed as alternate captain, Kris Russell is playing his finest hockey of his career and Dennis Wideman is playing his finest hockey since Calgary signed him to that enormous five-year, $26-million contract three years ago. Add what they're giving you to what the club is getting from Giordano and Brodie and make no mistake, the engine of the Calgary Flames right now that is making them go is this core group on defence. They have been leading the offence with a combined 14 goals and 34 assists and between the four of them, they are also playing upwards of 45 minutes per night.

As long as they stay healthy and can maintain the high level of play that we've seen, that group will single-handedly keep the Flames in the playoff conversation for a lot longer than anyone would have anticipated, maybe even into April.


In Conclusion

The Dallas Stars made the playoffs last season as the second wild-card team in the West with 91 points. Calgary can reach that total by playing five games above .500 for the duration of the season. That could be 32-27-7, or 33-28-5, or 34-29-3.

It's not necessarily a probable outcome yet the way they have opened the season, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility either. After all, they've already played the first 16 games at four games above the NHL's break-even mark.

Either way, regardless of how this season ends, the Flames are chalking up tons of experience right now that will serve them very well in the future. When it comes to expediting a rebuild, this is how you do it.


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