Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Flames Rookies Rubbing Off on the Club's Veterans

One game shy of the one-third mark of the NHL season, the Calgary Flames have a lot of reasons to smile.
  • They're sitting one point behind the Western Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks.
  • At 16-8-2 for 34 points, they're off to the second-fastest start since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989 (were 17-6-3 for 37 points in 2009-10).
  • They've won seven of their last nine games with the only blemishes being one-goal setbacks to Anaheim and Chicago.
  • They've only had one losing 'streak' all year and that was a mere two games in length -- and one of the losses was in a shootout so they still earned a point.

From the clutch goaltending to the production from the defencemen to this uncanny third period domination (now outscoring opponents a ridiculous 37-14) -- and all the furious comeback victories that have come along the way, you could make a case for any one of those things to be the primary narrative thus far in the Calgary Flames 2014-15 season.

Yet, there's one thing that trumps them all. That would have to be the impact that youth has had on this hockey club -- offensively, defensively and subconsciously.

Rookies Johnny Gaudreau, Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund have not only made the club better through their significant contributions individually, they're also making everybody else on the club better through their infectious and youthful exuberance. New to riding on charters and five star hotels, visiting NHL cities and arenas for the first time, there's an energy that naturally flows with kids in their first year in the NHL and the whole team has come to embody that.

In notching his first NHL hat-trick Tuesday night and his first three-goal game since the first game of his freshman year at Union College over four years ago, Jooris was the game's offensive star. Co-starring was Gaudreau, his linemate, with two assists. You can read about their night and hear their perspectives on the 5-2 win in my game story right here for The Canadian Press.

What I'm focusing on here is the the ripple effect their inspired play has had on Calgary's older players.

Two Forgotten Players a Year Ago 

Dennis Wideman, 31, is the Flames highest paid player at a cap hit of $5.25 million for two more seasons after the current one. The former Capitals and Bruins defenceman is coming off a disappointing year in which injuries limited him to 46 games and seemingly indifferent play limited him to four goals and 21 assists.

This season, however, after picking up two helpers against Arizona, Wideman already has eight goals and 15 points. He looks and sounds like a completely different player from a year ago.

"This year has been exciting for all of us. Young guys are coming in, obviously they're excited because it's their first year. For us, it's a fun team to play on," said Wideman, with a smile. "We're having a lot of fun, we're playing the right way and we're playing hard and for the older guys, it makes it exciting to come to the rink."

Wideman is impressed at the way the Flames rookies are contributing.

"I was asked today what the difference is between this year and last year and why we're winning so much more and I think it's guys like Jooris and Johnny Hockey and the other young guys are contributing this year," said Wideman, rather matter-of-factly. "We're still working hard like we did last year but we're getting goals from these guys and they've added a secondary scoring punch to Mony and Huds and make us a little more dangerous."

How much more dangerous? A lot. Consider that Calgary's 16th win last season didn't happen until January 13, which is 41 days away. This year's edition of the Flames is 12 points up on where they were on this same date one year ago.

"We're getting real good efforts from the young guys," said Wideman. "They've stepped in and they're playing great. They definitely don't seem like they're rookies, that's for sure."

Developing a Bit of a Swagger

David Jones, 30, is another example of a Flames veteran that looks rejuvenated.

After missing a bunch of time due to three different injuries last year, Jones was hampered by an injury this year in October and then suffered another injury in November. Jones may just be settling back into the line-up but he has begun to play the type of power forward style that fans have been yearning for and dreaming about since the big 6-foot-2 right-winger was acquired by Calgary two summers ago.

Jones, who has four goals on the season -- all coming in the last seven games, is also having a bounce-back year after scoring nine goals in 48 contests a year ago.

"We've got a good thing going here. We're playing good hockey," said Jones, who along with Curtis Glencross has formed the Flames top line with super sophomore Sean Monahan as the centre. "Our team is working hard and all the guys are buying in and it's great to see a guy like Josh get a hat-trick tonight. All the young guys are chipping in. It's been great."

The result as exhibited on Tuesday night is a new-found confidence emanating from that dressing room that hasn't been felt around Calgary in quite a while. For example against the Coyotes, despite seeing a 1-0 lead erased and then a 2-1 lead evaporate also, the Flames didn't change their game and kept playing that high tempo, aggressive forecheck style and sure enough they got that all-important next goal, which put them ahead for good.

"It comes with winning. We're developing a little bit of an identity and a little bit of swagger," said Jones. "Not to get too far ahead of ourselves but these points are so important. We've just got to keep it going."

Despite admitting he didn't like Jooris much at first -- "He went to Union and I went to Dartmouth so we're big rivals", he's a big fan now.

"He's on a torrid pace right now with goals," Jones said. "Since he's been with our team, he's been playing great and that's awesome."

Impact Has Been Palpable

Monahan's birth certificate may say he's 20 but he's got the demeanor of a salty vet. Yet even 'boring' Monahan cracks a little smile when talking about the team's rookies -- Jooris in particular.

“That’s always good to see. Josh is a hard-working guy and it’s something he earned and we’re all happy for him," Monahan said. "You go on those streaks and that’s what good teams have got to do. Right now we have a good feeling in the dressing room. We’re starting to roll and really coming together as a team.”

They're on a roll alright and Flames coach Bob Hartley says as long as they stay focused on the task at hand, they should be able to keep it going.

“It comes by waves. Your penalty killing's going to get on a good wave, your power play's going to get on a good wave or a bad wave. You're going to get scored on first for a while. The most important thing we're focusing on now is to win some hockey games," said Hartley. "Whether we come back from two goals behind or we're entering the third period with a one-goal lead, our approach is slightly different, but the guys are so focused on their job."

Calgary will try to keep this improbable run going on Thursday night when former Flames Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay come calling to the Saddledome.


Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Eight From 80 Feet: The Latest Random Musings About the Calgary FlamesComprised of a blend of anecdotes -- sometimes quirky, recaps, statistics, analysis and with some opinions or predictions sprinkled in as well, it's a round-up of random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames. In this edition, you'll learn at least two things you didn't know before.
  • Two Ways To Look at "It's Not Sustainable" The analytics experts are out in full force these days. In their cross-hairs is the explanation-defying Calgary Flames, the should-be Connor McDavid contenders, who instead are contending for first place in the Western Conference. I explain that Calgary can't keep up it's current pace, but nor does it need to.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks, Right Side of the Standings - If the 2014-15 NHL season was an 80s movie, the Flames with Byron, Bouma and Jooris would be cast as the poor kids, up against the rich kids in Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins. So far, the poor kids are dating the gorgeous cheerleader.
  • 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. 

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