Monday, November 17, 2014

Wrong Side of the Tracks, Right Side of the Standings

If the 2014-15 NHL season was an 80s movie, it would be cast something like this:

The rich kids would be played by first round picks Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. With their perfectly-styled blond hair and driving their Camaros and Mustangs, they're always wearing a polo shirt, argyle sweater and Tommy Hilfiger jeans.

The poor kids would be played by third round pick Lance Bouma, sixth round pick Paul Byron and undrafted Josh Jooris. Driving their Pinto or their parent's station wagon, they're decked out in a concert t-shirt, faded jean jacket and orange tab (not red tab) Levi's.

And right now, just like John Hughes would have scripted it, the poor kids are the ones dating the gorgeous cheerleaders. Calgary -- very much the have-nots when it comes to high draft picks, is off to a terrific start this season while its provincial rival three hours up the highway -- loaded with a bevy of top notch talent, continues to scuffle.

Seems unfathomable but there is a very real possibility that the Flames could reach the 20-game mark and be in first place in the NHL's Western Conference, while at the same time the Oilers would be mired in last.

Stunning Isn't a Strong Enough Word

Here's a scenario that could play out on Tuesday: If Calgary beats Anaheim at the Saddledome and St. Louis (at Boston) and Nashville (at Toronto) both lose in regulation, the Flames would wake up Wednesday morning in top spot, or the polar opposite position to where many people thought they would be this year.

Now this isn't to suggest that will happen -- the Ducks just got Corey Perry back and are angry after a 6-2 spanking at home by Florida. Nor is it to suggest what has happened with the Flames so far this season will continue to happen for another 62 games. However, the mere possibility that this could happen says all you need to know about the fight in this club, which wasn't supposed to be very good to begin with, never mind all the injuries the club has sustained to key forwards.

“It shows the amount of character we have as a team in the dressing room," said Paul Byron after scoring his third goal in his last two games in Saturday night's 4-2 win over Ottawa. "With how many injuries we've had, the team just keeps finding ways to win hockey games."

Calgary has won six of its last eight, a stretch that has come without the services of Mikael Backlund, Mason Raymond, Joe Colborne and Matt Stajan, who all continue to be on injured reserve.

"Guys have done a great job of stepping up," said left-winger Lance Bouma, who tied his career-high with his fifth goal against the Senators. "We've had some young guys come in and they've played awesome, they've given us some great minutes. Guys are rolling and feeling good about themselves."

One of those "young guys" although not so young in comparison to some of the others has been 24-year-old Josh Jooris, who played his first NHL game on October 17. He's played a dozen games with the Flames and put up some impressive numbers with four goals and three assists. This coming after scoring only 11 goals and 27 points in a full season in Abbotsford last year, his first year as a pro.

"It's unbelievable and it's a dream but it's a long year and things can change quickly," said Jooris, when asked about his personal success. "Next week, things could go south real quick, that's just the nature of this game. I'm doing my best to stay even keel and try not to pinch myself. I just want to keep moving forward and getting better every day."

As you can see, the production Calgary is getting out of its supporting cast is off the charts right now:
  • Calgary: Byron, Bouma and Jooris have an average age of just over 24. For their combined annual salary of $2.4-million, they have scored 13 goals.
  • Edmonton: Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins have an average age of just under 23. For their combined annual salary of $18.0-million, they have scored 16 goals.

Lots of Bang for the Buck

Part of Calgary's charm is the construction of its roster. There are not a lot of fancy resumes. Most players have gotten to where they have through hard work and determination, which is not unlike how the team plays.

With Mikael Backlund injured and playing hurt when he was playing earlier in the year, the only homegrown first round draft pick, who has played a significant role on the Flames from the start of the year up until right now, has been sophomore centre Sean Monahan.

First round pick from 2011 Sven Baertschi started the season in the minors and just recently strung together a couple solid games. Acquired first round pick Joe Colborne was having a excellent season until he got hurt. Former Oilers first round pick Ladislav Smid is a third pairing defenceman.

Most of Calgary's premier talent are guys that came from the 'other side of the tracks':
  • D Mark Giordano - Undrafted
  • LW Curtis Glencross - Undrafted
  • G Jonas Hiller - Undrafted
  • D TJ Brodie - 4th round pick
  • LW Johnny Gaudreau - 4th round pick
  • G Karri Ramo - 6th round pick
  • D Dennis Wideman - 8th round pick

Even right-winger David Jones, a ninth round pick by Colorado, has been contributing. Last week, he matched his career high with a three-game goal streak.

Analysis: The NHL's 'Rich' vs. 'Poor' 

Going into games on November 17, here are some lists I compiled that help paint the picture of how Calgary's roster is built and where the offensive production this season is coming from (and not coming from):

Fewest Games Played by 1st Round Picks

1. Detroit, 71
2. Calgary, 75
2. Boston, 75
4. Chicago, 81
5. Dallas, 101

Fewest Goals Scored by 1st Round Picks

1. Boston, 5
2. Calgary, 8
3. Detroit, 10
4. Nashville, 12
5. New Jersey, 16

Fewest Points from 1st Round Picks

1. Boston, 14
2. Detroit, 27
3. Calgary, 28
4. New Jersey, 35
5. Nashville, 41

Most games played by 4th Round Picks or Later

1. Calgary, 200
2. Vancouver, 186
3. San Jose, 184
4. Montreal, 169
5. NY Rangers, 166

Most goals scored by 4th Round Picks or Later

1. Calgary, 31
2. Vancouver, 30
3. Tampa Bay, 26
4. Pittsburgh, 24
5. Montreal, 20

Most points from 4th Round Picks or Later

1. Calgary, 91
2. Tampa Bay, 75
3. Vancouver, 68
4. Montreal, 59
4. Detroit, 59

Don't Worry, Be Happy

As I've stated before, this remains only a fast start for the Flames and nothing more. There is still four-and-a-half months of regular season left. If things go south and head that direction quickly, Calgary could be in last place by Christmas.

However, considering Calgary's penchant under coach Bob Hartley for bouncing back from a loss, an impressive 7-0-1 record this year. Plus, add in the fact the Flames have gone longer without a three-game losing streak than any other NHL team -- it's been over 50 games dating back to mid-January of last year, it's not very likely things will fall off the tracks suddenly. There's just too much character in that dressing room under Giordano's leadership.

While you whistle some Bobby McFerrin, I leave you with three cautionary viewpoints to take into consideration:
  • Analytics Guys - They will argue Calgary's winning record has included a lot of luck that is unsustainable. They point to unusually high shooting percentages and save percentages to name just a couple of areas. They predict a regress to 'the norm' any time now.
  • Schedule Realists - They will point to a relatively soft schedule so far in terms of tough conference opponents. Calgary has played only two games against the eight teams that made the playoffs in the West last year. They have yet to meet up with any of the California teams, which has become the NHL's measuring stick. 
  • Jaded Historians - The Flames are off to their third-fastest start in the last 21 years. The only two seasons over that period that they started off better were 2001-02 and 2009-10. However, as I nostalgically (albeit tragically) documented in this piece a week ago, they ended up missing the playoffs in both of those other two seasons. 

What has made the first seven weeks of the season so intriguing for me and so enjoyable for Flames fans is starting off 11-6-2 was completely unexpected. Calgary entered this season five years removed from the post-season and a huge underdog. Because of that and their easy-to-root-for blue collar work ethic, an affinity for this team has developed that isn't unlike the appeal that set in with the 2003-04 squad as they started to string wins together.

What you need to keep in mind is this team will be viewed differently in a couple years. As more 'rich kids' graduate to the NHL like first round picks Emile Poirier and Sam Bennett -- both likely to become fixtures on this club in 2015-16, there becomes a greater expectation to win and that changes things. The pressure rises, fan expectations rise and things aren't quite as loose and fun any more. When teams expected to win don't win, it's not 'thank you for your hard work' from applauding fans as we see in Calgary today, it's furious booing (and sometimes jersey-throwing) from fans like we've observed lately in Edmonton where they rightfully have much higher expectations for their hockey team because of all that elite talent.

I've stated it before and I'll say it again. Enjoy the moment. There still may not be playoff hockey this spring in Calgary so treat the next couple months as a playoff "starter kit". The team is playing some really entertaining hockey. Enjoy it!


Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Strike up the Polka Band: Sven is Happy, Happy, Happy - Baertschi is back. Or, at least he sure is playing that way. After picking up his first NHL points in over 11 months, I caught him with him one-on-one to discuss his need to be a part of -- and feel a part of -- the offence and the swagger he draws from being on the ice for Flames goals.
  • 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. 
  • Flames on a Roll: Buckle Up, Hang on Tight and Enjoy the Ride - Calgary is playing exciting, competitive and winning hockey. As a fan, isn't that what you signed up for? My examination of the Flames fast start includes reason for optimism, but mixed with realism. 
  • A Different Kind of New Era in Flames Hockey: Wave Bye Bye to 19,289 - It happened quietly and without any fanfare during the last home-stand. A stretch of 392 consecutive sell-out crowds at the Saddledome, which dated back over 10 years, is now over. I took a look back at the streak and ponder what's next?
  • Reality Check: No McDavid? No Eichel? No Problem - It's only been a couple weeks but from what I've seen, it's time for Flames fans to give up on the McDavid/Eichel watch and just enjoy this hockey season. Wherever the Flames end up drafting, that's where they'll draft.


  1. Love the 80's film reference. Here is my take....

    Karate Kid (1980's version of course)
    Kevin Lowe = Kreese
    Mactavish = Johnny
    (I pick on mgmt b/c, for the most part their players are good and not necessarily to blame)
    Miyagi = Hartley
    Daniel-san = Monahan, Gaudreau.... you pick
    Ali = Elisabeth Shue..... can't change any of that... she was and is still a hottie

  2. Great article. I hate being an Oilers fan. I've tried to quit watching them so many times over the last few years, but the heart wants what the heart wants. I love seeing the flames winning and battling so hard. Makes me wish they were called the Alberta Flames.

    I will always be an Oilers fan, and hope to see playoff hockey sometime in the next 10 years. My Dad and I are huge oilers fans and we always got together for every playoff game in the past. I was 23 when the oilers went on their '06 cup run and it was amazing. This useless organization has robbed my dad and I of what could have been an amazing 9 years of hockey watching. Hockey is a really small part of life for most, but for my dad and I, the oilers are like a religion. I'm 31, he's 69. The years are going by way to fast and Klowe and MacT can't be fired soon enough.

    Happy for Flames fans, just wish both AB teams were good. FML.