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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Calgary Flames are on a Roll: Buckle up, Hang on Tight and Enjoy the Ride

When you first became a Flames fan, this is what you signed up for.

Four weeks into the 2014-15 season, Calgary is playing exciting hockey, they're playing competitive hockey and for now anyway, they're playing winning hockey.

No clinically sane individual could have asked for a better start to the season so don't let these good times pass you by. Instead, embrace it, enjoy it and celebrate it.

If you're a Kings fan, or a Blackhawks fan, or a Bruins fan, I get it -- you enjoy November success in moderation. For you, it's not about the fall, it's about the spring, that's when the big party takes place and you know you will be invited. Flames fans don't have that same luxury.

The long awaited return of playoff hockey in Calgary -- Red Mile and all, is still far from a certainty so live in the moment and appreciate how the team is playing right now. Getting pumped up for hockey in November, December and January may be akin to seeing a Rolling Stones tribute band as opposed to Mick Jagger and the real thing. But if that's all you can get tickets for, then make the most of it and rock on!


Blazing Start

There is no arguing the Flames success so far:
  • At 8-4-2, Calgary woke up Wednesday in third place in the NHL's overall standings. That's rarefied air to say the least.
  • Starting off 6-2-0 away from home has been impressive. Win No. 6 on the road a year ago didn't come until December 7.
  • The Flames are four games above .500 for the first time in three years. The last time they were that far north of the NHL's break-even mark was when they finished 37-29-16 in 2011-12.
  • It is Calgary's third-fastest start in the last 21 years. Going back to 1994-95, only two other times have the Flames turned in a better first 14 games: 2001-02 (10-2-2) and 2009-10 (9-4-1). 

This unexpected early success has been terrific fun and made for engaging Flames talk around the city, not to mention some compelling viewing, but now the question being asked more and more every day -- is it sustainable? Is Calgary demonstrating that it is a legitimate playoff contender this season or is this just one of those hot stretches that all teams will enjoy over the course of an 82-game season, only for the Flames, it has come at the start of the year.

In response to that simple yet complicated question, I have good news and bad news... or as I prefer to say, an "optimistic" view and a "realistic" view.

I'll begin with the good news.


Plenty to be Optimistic About

There are things going on right now that are not fluke. There are elements in Calgary's games that are slump-proof and very much sustainable. For me, there are three main areas:

1. Top Four 'D' Core - Just imagine if this was an Olympic year. If that was the case, the hot debate around Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie right now would be whether or not they should be locks for Team Canada the way they're going (the answer is yes). We have moved way, way, way beyond a flash-in-the-pan sample size. We're seeing the same stellar play this year that we saw all last season -- only ratcheted up another couple levels. Brodie just signed a five-year contract extension that became a steal of a deal for the hockey club as soon as his pen touched the paper.

Also, not to be forgotten and rounding out a very solid top four is the second pairing of Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell. Wideman has found his game again, which abandoned him during an injury-riddled season last year. Russell, wearing an 'A' this year, continues to establish himself not just as a leader, but also as a smart puck distributor, who can be dependable defensively and plays bigger in his own end than you would expect from a guy that stands only 5-foot-10.

The Flames have been led offensively by this group all season. Given the green light to jump up into the rush any time, 13 goals from the blue-line leads the NHL by far. With 13 points each, Brodie and Giordano are tied with Brent Burns for the scoring lead for defencemen. Meanwhile, Wideman is also in the top ten and Russell is in the top 30. Yet, it's the stellar defensive play that sets Brodie and Giordano apart. Their ability to shut down top lines and bring a calmness to the defensive zone is invaluable, especially with so many young forwards in the line-up.

2. Prospects Proving They Can Play - Josh Jooris will not score 30 goals, Johnny Gaudreau won't end up with 70 assists and Markus Granlund won't finish with 60 points. But what you can take from what you've seen so far (or seen lately in the case of No. 13), is they can all play in this league. As an undrafted 24-year-old, Jooris may not have the same cachet as other prospects but what you can't deny is all three of his goals have been highlight reel-worthy. There's plenty of skill there and as a guy that can also play centre, kill penalties, and play an agitating checking role -- that's quite a package.

You would have thought injuries to Mason Raymond (top scorer this season), Mikael Backlund (top forward last season), Joe Colborne (breakout season this year) and veteran checking centre/face-off specialist/penalty killer Matt Stajan would have sunk this team. Instead, the kids have stepped up and the team hasn't missed a beat.

3. Great Goaltending - While Calgary ranks last in the NHL when it comes to their forwards payroll, they entered the season with the sixth-highest paid goalie tandem. Knowing that was a position he needed to strengthen, finding a proven veteran puck-stopper was one of general manager Brad Treliving's priorities on July 1 and sure enough, he shelled out $9-million over two seasons to land Jonas Hiller. So far, it's looking like a sound investment too.

After a rotation to start the season, Hiller has taken over as the No. 1 goalie and has chalked up a 6-2-1 record on the year with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. Last night, Calgary would have gotten zero points instead of two if not for this spectacular save-of-the-year candidate from Hiller as he stabbed out his pad to rob Tom Wilson in the final seconds of the third period. (Here it is from a different camera angle because it's worth watching at least twice.)

Not to be lost is that this remains a partnership and Karri Ramo has been good also. Ramo has played less but it's not a situation where he lost the job, it's that Hiller won it by getting blistering hot. I would not be surprised to see Ramo string together a few starts in a row himself next time he gets the tap on the shoulder.


How They're Doing It

1. Bob Hartley - If history is any indication, Bob Hartley as a coach has a shelf life. This is not a slight on him, it's the reality of the profession. Lasting forever in the same organization like the Mike Babcock's, Barry Trotz's and Lindy Ruff's of the coaching fraternity is the exception, the norm is a coaches voice/message eventually falls on deaf ears and you know what they say, you can't get rid of the players, so you get rid of the coach, and that's usually how it unfolds.

In Hartley's previous two coaching tours -- in Colorado (1998 to 2003) and Atlanta (2003 to 2008), he didn't make it through season five in either stop.

Should that be a concern? Absolutely not. In the final year of his three-year deal in Calgary, re-signing Hartley has to be a priority. Another three-year deal would be ideal and if he asks for four then be prepared to go there. What you can't deny is he has gotten more out of this lot than anyone could have expected.

2. Goals From the Unexpected - Calgary starting off 8-4-2 would be far more believable if they were being led offensively by Curtis Glencross, Mikael Backlund and David Jones. After all, goal scoring was an area of grave concern for Treliving during the summer and those veterans were going to be relied upon heavily.
  • Glencross has twice scored over twenty goals and in the two other seasons since, he was on pace to do so if not for the lockout/injuries.
  • Backlund had 18 goals last season and had become the team's top forward by season's end.
  • Jones has been continually hurt but he does have a 27-goal season and 20-goal season on his resume. His upside is reflected in his $4-million salary.

But, this hasn't been the case. Those three guys, viewed as key pieces, have combined for only two goals -- both by Glencross. Instead, Calgary has been led by its kids along with its active defence. Even consummate stay-at-home guy Ladislav Smid was spotted whirling around behind the Capitals net a couple times on Tuesday night.

3. Never, Ever Give Up - We saw this culture instilled in the club last year on their way to playing 49 one-goal games, equaling the most one-goal games that an NHL team had ever previously played in one season. Down one goal, down two, down three, it didn't much matter, last year taught us that you don't dare turn the channel or head to the Saddledome parking lot early because you just know these guys will fight to the finish every single night.

This year is playing out the exact same way. They've won eight games. Of the six they haven't won, they have been in it right until the end in five of them:
  • One loss was in overtime
  • One loss was in a shootout
  • One loss was by one goal
  • One loss was by two goals but it was a one-goal game until an empty netter
  • One loss was by two goals but Calgary was close enough to pull the goalie in hopes of tying it

The only decisive loss in those 14 games was a 4-1 setback in St. Louis on October 11, which was the Flames third game in four nights. But even that wasn't a blowout and in case you have haven't noticed, the Blues are a pretty good team.


Now, the bad news or as I said earlier, a dose of reality.


The Biggest Risk or Liability

The one area on the Flames that is most vulnerable is defence and here is why.

If the current crop of forward prospects cool off, there are others like Michael Ferland, Emile Poirier, Sven Baertschi or others waiting at Adirondack that can be plugged in. Plus, there are all those veterans on Injured Reserve, who will eventually be returning from injury and will need a spot.

In net, if Hiller goes cold, there is always Ramo. Calgary has a capable back-up plan there also.

However, the blue-line is a different situation entirely.

To be clear, it's not the level of play of that top four that is concerning. As long as they remain healthy, that group should be able to just keep on doing what they're doing. They certainly won't score at the ridiculous pace they're on right now but in terms of jumping into the rush and igniting the offence, that will still continue.

Where the risk enters the equation is if injuries strike on the back end.

Last year, Calgary lost 96 man-games to injury from just their defence. Among those that went down:
  • Wideman missed 36 games as a result of two separate injuries
  • Giordano was gone for 18 games
  • Russell was out for 14 games
  • Smid was sidelined for 9 games.

Now close your eyes and imagine where the Flames would be today and what the mood of the city would be if the four players currently residing on the IR were defencemen instead of forwards.

Subtract Giordano, Brodie, Wideman and Smid and insert Tyler Wotherspoon, Corey Potter, Nolan Yonkman and Mark Cundari and uh oh.

Suddenly, the Flames record today is 4-8-2 instead of 8-4-2. Heck, it might even be 2-8-4.


History Lesson No. 1: Revisiting 2001-02

As good as the Flames have been this year, they started off even better 13 years ago when they were 10-2-2 after 14 games. That team kept on winning also, reaching the quarter pole at 13-2-6. It was an explosive start for the team under the guidance of coach Greg Gilbert.

To refresh your memory, the line-up that season was led by 24-year-old Jarome Iginla and 30-year-old Craig Conroy but was bolstered by the addition of goaltender Roman Turek and centre Rob Niedermayer, acquired in separate trades that summer by second-year general manager Craig Button.

As you may recall, Turek was sensational to begin the year. Entrenched as the starter, he started out 13-2-2 and on November 19, he signed a four-year contract extension. At the time, Turek had a 1.62 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage and ranked among the NHL leaders in both categories.

Going into action on November 23, the Flames (13-2-6) held the second-best record in the NHL behind the sizzling hot Detroit Red Wings (19-3-1). Calgary was 10 points clear of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference and had games in hand.

However, things began to unravel that night starting with a 5-2 loss in Buffalo. After a sordid 3-11-3 stretch that lasted into late December, the Flames (16-13-9) found themselves clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, just two points up on Phoenix.

What followed was another bad stretch in early January in which they lost seven of eight. Now the Flames were five points behind Los Angeles and the final playoff spot in the West.

The final nail in the coffin came during a stretch March when Calgary went winless in eight (0-6-2) to complete its epic collapse. By the time the smoke cleared and the 2001-02 season ended, the Flames had missed the playoffs by a whopping 15 points.

It was an ugly outcome to what had been a terrific year individually for Iginla, who did everything he could. He won the Rocket Richard Trophy (52 goals), the Art Ross Trophy (96 points) and was also awarded the Lester B. Pearson award for most outstanding player. In a narrow finish, he finished second for the Hart Memorial Trophy for most valuable player, losing out to Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore. Oh, and he also went to Salt Lake City in February and won a gold medal for Canada.


History Lesson No. 2: Revisiting 2009-10

It was another good start to the season as the Flames, under coach Brent Sutter in his first year behind the Calgary bench, opened up 9-4-1. Considering how badly that last fast start had blown up, surely this start wouldn't be wasted, right? No such luck. Instead, history repeated itself although not quite as spectacularly as eight years earlier.

In 2009-10, Calgary eventually got its record to 17-6-3 and it looked like they were destined for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But again, the bottom fell out.

The big swoon this time came in January when the Flames went winless in nine straight. That skid was famous for being the stretch that culminated in general manager Darryl Sutter trading away  young defenceman Dion Phaneuf to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a eight-player blockbuster trade.

The shake-up did not work and Calgary finished the year five points out of eighth place in the West, missing the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. It also began the post-season drought the Flames are still in today that stands at five years and counting.


Keep Cheering and See What Happens

While making the playoffs in 2014-15 -- even with the fast start, is still going to be awfully hard to achieve, I'd argue it's a far more realistic possibility than finishing in the NHL's bottom two as was many people's thinking just a month ago. So, if you haven't yet, and I didn't convince you in this piece to abandon the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel watch, it's come time to once and for all change your focus. Seriously.

Even if the post-season is not the net outcome this year, the hot start has at least guaranteed that the Flames will play meaningful games a lot deeper into this season than anyone could have imagined so be prepared to watch lots of compelling hockey in the months to come. This will be a useful exercise too. Meaningful hockey games is what the playoffs are all about so regardless of whether they can remain in the top eight in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, this season -- at minimum, is going to serve as a valuable dress rehearsal for the future.

Along the way, the more games piled up by Gaudreau, Granlund, Jooris and Ferland when he gets back from his concussion, the further along each of them will have progressed on their own development arcs. This will only help the club next year when there's bound to be a couple more new faces to integrate into the line-up in centre Sam Bennett -- almost for sure, and right-winger Emile Poirier -- very likely.

Perhaps I'm bias having grown up in Calgary but I view the Flames as an easy team to root for. Especially right now, they are not laden with a lot of star power. This is very much a blue collar group that has to earn everything they get.

Notably, of the 20 players in uniform for Calgary in Tuesday night's come-from-behind win in Washington, exactly half were players either not-drafted or chosen in the sixth round or later in the NHL Draft.

Meanwhile, the only first round pick of note was Monahan. There were three total but Devin Setoguchi and Baertschi played limited minutes and were non-factors.

Contrast that with the Oilers, who have deployed 10 first round picks this season including eight that are fixtures in their line-up on an every-game basis.

It's this disparity in so-called 'star power' that differentiates the two Alberta teams where one team and it's impatient fan base is expecting to win, and the other and its appreciative fan base is hoping to win.

Looking at how far apart the two teams are in the standings today also says a lot about the weight or burden of expectations. For that reason, kick back and relax and enjoy the Flames current run while they're still that charming and adorable underdog, the pressure to win and the pitfalls that come with it will be arriving in Calgary soon enough.


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2 comments:

  1. @depoisdacurva: Excellent, I have nothing else to comment. I have been an optimistic since the beginning! I hate the tanking idea and I am loving to see this team winning.
    Because I am a hard worker in my area and it is awesome to know that there is return when you take your job seriously.

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    Replies
    1. It's amazing to see what a team of 20 can accomplish when they're all pulling on the rope the same direction. I give so much credit to Mark Giordano for how he's pulled this group together. There's been a real evident culture change since he got the 'C'.

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