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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Early Spring in Calgary: Playoff Hockey Has Already Arrived for the Flames

While fans debate whether or not Calgary will make the NHL post-season, Joe Colborne says for the Flames, the playoffs have essentially already begun.

"That game with the Kings on Monday night was a building block. Facing a team that you went and played just a few nights before -- just like in the playoffs, and we got a big win and now they want revenge and they come into our building and we stepped up to the plate," Colborne said after practice on Tuesday. "L.A. is a measuring stick for us and it was big for our confidence to be able to take two games from them."

While they may not have deserved to win both games -- one took a furious late third period comeback including two goals with the goalie pulled, the other they were outshot 27-15, yet they managed to get the job done and when you're playing in the real Stanley Cup playoffs in the spring, that's the only measurement that counts.

"You're not always going to have a great game but you have to find a way to win and I thought we did that (on Monday)," said David Jones. "It wasn't our best effort but we were skating pretty well and we held them to just the one goal, which is pretty good against that kind of team."

Lately, the Flames have been doing what it takes to be successful.

"It's the little things -- turnovers and blocking shots, paying the price and that kind of stuff.  Right now, we've been pretty good, especially in the last couple games," Curtis Glencross said. "We haven't turned the puck over a lot. A team like L.A., they strive off turnovers and odd-man rushes and we did a good job of not making too many turnovers. We played a pretty good game. Plus, when you get goaltending like we have with the way Hills has been playing for us lately, that's been great too."


Standings are Tightening Up

Calgary is currently sitting just outside the top eight in the Western Conference. Yet, they're just two points behind Vancouver for second spot in the Pacific Division.

"Lose a game and you could be ninth and on the outside. Win a game and you could be up to sixth. It's so tight right now," said Glencross, who has appeared in only six playoff games in eight NHL seasons. "The West always seems to be like that. It's always a grind. We were talking last night that as long as we keep doing what we're doing right now, the last couple games could be big, determining games for us."

Playing in meaningful games right now makes a huge difference says Jones.

"We have a long way to go but it's certainly nice to be real close," said Jones, whose only pro playoff experience came as a rookie with the Colorado Avalanche in 2007-08. "When you're out of it and you're playing for nothing, it's obviously tough, but we're right in the chase right now and it's a lot of fun."

As the Flames continue to pursue teams in front of them like San Jose, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Winnipeg, while also fending off Dallas, Minnesota and Colorado, who are nipping at their heels, they'll need to continue to be at their best each time the puck drops.

"Every game from now on is going to be more and more intense and more and more playoff-like," said Lance Bouma whose last playoff appearance came five years ago when he appeared in both the WHL playoffs and AHL playoffs. "These are fun games to play in and these are the games you want to play in as a player."


Difference a Year Makes

Going into the New Year's Eve game a year ago, the Flames 14-19-6 record had them 13 points out of the second wild card spot. They had no realistic chance of making the post-season. This year at 20-15-3, things are different. Calgary is legitimately in the playoff hunt and coach Bob Hartley says the atmosphere around the club reflects that.

"The fun of this game is to win. You don't win, it's quiet on the bus, it's quiet in the locker room, the next day at practice, the guys are forcing smiles. That's not what you play for," Hartley said.

"I'm sure after Monday's game, everyone left this building with big smiles. Even the cold weather wasn't that bad after that game," said Hartley with a chuckle. "Everyone from Harvey (the Hound) to the Zamboni driver to everyone -- even yourself, it's probably much more fun to write stories when things are going well and you don't have to rip into people and stuff like this."

Glencross admits the team got in a wee bit of a funk during its seven-game losing streak but that's in the past now.

"Right now, we're rolling again, we've won three in a row -- two at home, and we've got to keep it rolling like this," said Glencross. "When you're winning, it's always more fun coming to the rink."

Colborne says the team's success this year has been fueled by a change in mindset from a year ago.

"Last year was about beginning something, creating an identity. We tried to create an identity that teams don't want to play against us," said Colborne. "We came in this year and a lot of people outside of our team didn't really believe in us. They picked us to finish around the same spot.

"But the way we were playing at the end of last year gave us so much confidence and we believed we could hang with a lot of the top teams so we came in pretty confident and with a different mindset from last year that we're not going to accept what we did last year as being okay."


Focus is on Winning Hockey Games

It's with making the playoffs as the goal, that Hartley says will drive personnel decisions as the season continues. This will include what to do when the team eventually gets Mikael Backlund back and needs to create a roster spot for him.

"We're aiming at the playoffs and we're going to keep that mindset until the end so if you want to play, you have to contribute. You have to make sure you bring something. Whether you play 20 minutes or eight or nine minutes, it doesn't matter. Everyone has a role. Everyone has an importance and it's important that we keep everyone accountable."

More than anything, Hartley says it's the team's depth that has made the difference between this year and last.

"It's the progression of the players that we've been working with for the past few seasons," Hartley said. "We've added size, we've added speed, we've added grit. We have two goalies capable of winning us some hockey games so we're just growing as an organization."

And if they can keep winning -- looking to make it four wins in a row tonight against Edmonton, they'll keep enjoying the journey.

"It doesn't matter if you're scoring 100 goals, if you're losing every game, you're miserable," Colborne says. "We have a real tight-knit group in here. We don't have too many cliques. It's just a big group where everyone gets along and it's a fun atmosphere to be in."

Just imagine how fun that atmosphere will be around the entire city when the Flames finally do make that long-awaited return to the real Stanley Cup playoffs.


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Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Gaudreau Top of his Draft Class and More - Among the topics tackled in the latest installment of my eight Flames thoughts is a look at how Johnny Gaudreau ranks in his draft class for goals, assists and points-per-game, a deep dive into Calgary's prowess with the goalie pulled and Jonas Hiller's first period struggles/third period heroics.
  • Last Minute Shopping: Flames Players Gift List - From bubble wrap for Lance Bouma to a Yanic Perreault instructional video for Markus Granlund to salary secrecy for Deryk Engelland. It's a light-hearted look at the Christmas wish list for various Flames players.
  • Entertaining, Compelling, Unexpected: Enjoying the Flames Season For What It Is - Calgary's season has been a lot of things but boring hasn't been one of them. A hot start has been followed by a cold middle with what's next very much a mystery. Keep in mind that in 2004, the Flames nearly missed the playoffs yet went to the game seven of the Stanley Cup final. So you just never know.
  • Eight From 80 Feet: PK is Killin' It, Pre-Christmas Exam and More - Included topics in this week's eight thoughts is a rubric for their eight-game pre-Christmas exam and Mark Giordano's flirtation with NHL MVP.
  • Bennett Happy With How His Recovery is Going - The Saddledome has turned out to be a pretty exciting workout facility for injured prospect Sam Bennett, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. He spoke about how his rehab is going, his timeline, the excitement around how the Flames are playing and the club's bright future.
  • 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.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Eight From 80 Feet: Gaudreau Top of his Class, Hiller's First Period Misery, and More...

It's the third edition of a new content feature -- Eight from 80 Feet.


Comprised of a blend of anecdotes, recaps, statistics, analysis and maybe an opinion or prediction sprinkled in as well, it's a round-up of random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames.


1. Empty Net Magic 

In 16 games this season, Calgary has pulled its goalie late in the game in an attempt to tie the game -- and it's proving to be quite a successful tactic. In that scenario, which adds up to a combined playing time of 24:55, the Flames have scored six goals while only surrendering five. 

While going plus-one in that scenario is astounding, equally impressive if not more amazing is twice scoring two goals in the late going with the goalie pulled and going on to win. First they did it on Nov. 22 against New Jersey. As impressive as a feat as that was, it came at home against one of the NHL's poorer clubs (which yesterday fired its coach) and it came against the Devils back-up goaltender. When they did it a second time in the span of a month last Tuesday in Los Angeles against Jonathan Quick and the defending Stanley Cup champions, that was remarkable. Prior to this season, scoring twice with the goalie pulled had never happened in Flames franchise history. 

Flames Scoring Leaders - Extra Attacker Goals:

Jiri Hudler 2-2-4
Johnny Gaudreau 2-1-3
Mark Giordano 0-3-3
Curtis Glencross 1-1-2
Dennis Wideman 1-1-2
Lance Bouma 0-1-1
TJ Brodie 0-1-1
Kris Russell 0-1-1
Sean Monahan 0-1-1

Other interesting facts:
  • All six goals have come even strength (so 6 on 5)
  • Hudler is the only Flames player that has been on the ice for all six goals. Glencross and Giordano (5) are next, followed by Brodie and Monahan (4), and then Gaudreau (3)
  • Flames hold a 25-5 edge in shots
  • Flames hold a 43-13 edge in shots attempted (shots on goal + missed + blocked)


2. Twenty Minutes Changes Everything

The ebb and flow of sports can sure be something else. Watch the replay of Mark Giordano's overtime goal against Jonathan Quick and you can feel the emotion in your living room. The huge smile, the arms in the air in jubilation and the emphatic fist pump from Giordano. The celebratory hug from Johnny Gaudreau. The mob scene that immediately followed as players cleared off the bench. Bob Hartley's non-typical euphoria as he watched the goal go in, the hand shakes with his assistant coaches. (Of course, on the other side, you have Quick smashing his stick across the goal post in anger.)

It's amazing how in the span of about 20 minutes in real time, the whole mindset of where the Flames were at psychologically, heading into the break, changed 180 degrees. On the cusp of a nine-game winless skid and being five points back of the Kings, Calgary instead goes into the three-day Christmas layoff on a win and just two points back of Los Angeles and that final playoff spot.

Did that furious rally change the fact Calgary was outplayed much of the first two periods? No. But maybe, just maybe, a bit of good luck to balance out some of the bad luck experienced lately will turn out to be a pivotal point in this season and get the Flames back headed the right direction.


3. Johnny Gaudreau - Top of the Class

If you don't yet know the story of how Johnny Gaudreau -- ranked 193rd by Central Scouting, ended up being plucked by the Flames in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, 104th overall, now is the time. You can read it right here as wonderfully told by Scott Cruickshank of The Calgary Herald. It reads like a great mystery novel.

Meanwhile, Gaudreau continues to climb up the rankings in that draft class. His first NHL hat-trick against the Kings gives him career totals of 11-17-28 in 36 games. That moves him past Sven Baertschi among others into 17th in career points. Not bad for just 36 NHL games. Everyone ranked above him has played at least 70 games with 10 of the 16 having played in over 140 games.

If you even out the playing field for that 2011 draft class and sort on a per-game basis, he ranks first in goals, first in points and second in assists. Yes, safe to say the Flames have quite the steal on their hands. Take a bow Jay Feaster and Tod Button.

Points Per Game:

1. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 0.78 (4th round, 104th)
2. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins EDM, 0.72 (1st round, 1st)
3. Ondrej Palat TB, 0.67 (7th round, 208th)
4. Gabriel Landeskog COL, 0.67 (1st round, 2nd)
5. Brandon Saad CHI, 0.60 (2nd round, 43rd)
6. Nikita Kucherov TB, 0.58 (2nd round, 58th)
7. Ryan Strome NYI, 0.55 (1st round, 5th)
8. Mark Scheifele WPG, 0.50 (1st round, 7th)
9. Jonathan Huberdeau FLA, 0.49 (1st round, 3rd)
10. Vincent Trocheck FLA, 0.49 (3rd round, 64th)

Goals Per Game:

1. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 0.31
2. Gabriel Landeskog COL, 0.27
3. Ondrej Palat TB, 0.27
4. Nikita Kucherov TB, 0.26
5. Boone Jenner CBJ, 0.24

Assists Per Game:

1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins EDM, 0.48
2. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 0.47
3. Ondrej Palat TB, 0.41
4. Gabriel Landeskog COL, 0.38
5. Brandon Saad CHI, 0.37 


4. Tall Task Ahead - The Wild West

The good news for the Flames is despite that eight-game winless streak, they remain just two points back of the Los Angeles Kings, who hold the second and final wild card spot in the Western Conference. At Christmas a year ago, Calgary was 11 points back.

The bad news is the Kings are on a pace for 96 points, which makes that the current standard for what teams might need to achieve points-wise to get into the post-season dance -- and that's five points more than last year when St. Louis squeaked in with 91 points.

How do the Flames get to 96 points? Well, it ain't going to be easy. You're looking at picking up another 57 points over the final 46 games, which will require going 11 games above the NHL's fake .500 mark. e.g. 26-15-5. 

As I see it, Calgary has to catch at least one of:
  • San Jose (4 points up, 1 game in hand) 
  • Vancouver (3 points up, 3 games in hand) 
  • Winnipeg (4 points up, 1 game in hand) 
  • Los Angeles (2 points up, 1 game in hand) 

Meanwhile, the Flames need to stave off all of:
  • Minnesota (4 points back, 4 games in hand) 
  • Colorado (5 points back, 2 games in hand) 
  • Dallas (6 points back, 3 games in hand).

While it is possible, it is one very, very steep mountain to climb. If nothing else, Flames fans can take solace in the fact that as worked out by Brad Robertson (@BradRobertson29), if the Oilers continue to play at the pace they've been playing at for their first 35 games, Calgary would have to go 2-39-5 to end up below Edmonton in the standings.


5. Playing From Behind - Constantly

The Flames inability to score first and play from in front is making life awfully difficult on the club these days. In this recent stretch of nine games, Calgary has only scored first twice and during that stretch of over 540 minutes, the Flames have led for only 12:02. In fact, the Flames have not led in any of the games for longer than five minutes.

Calgary's three leads have been:
  • 3:01 versus San Jose on Nov. 26
  • 4:45 at Buffalo on Dec. 11
  • 4:16 at Chicago on Dec. 14

The Flames have led after the first period only five times all season, which is tied for second-last in the NHL with Edmonton. Only Montreal -- with four, have had fewer first period leads.

In a related stat, Calgary has scored the third-fewest first period goals with 17. That is ahead of only Buffalo (14) and Montreal (12).


6. Pillow Fight of Alberta - Potential Trap Games

These two upcoming games with the Oilers -- Dec. 27 and Dec. 31, set up to be tricky ones for the Flames as the pressure is all on them at this point. Edmonton is on a well-documented run of futility with just one win in their last 20 games. That 2-1 victory over San Jose has been sandwiched by an 11-game winless skid on the front end and most recently, an 8-game victory drought. How bad is it? Consider that since Remembrance Day, the Edmonton Eskimos have just as many wins as the Oilers.

However, with the exception of the most recent 5-1 spanking at home to Arizona, Edmonton appears to be a more emotionally invested team and I'd argue they're playing better hockey under interim coach Todd Nelson. Here's some proof of their improved play lately: The six games prior to the Coyotes loss on Dec. 23 were made up of two losses in extra time, and four losses that were each by a margin of only one goal if you exclude empty net goals that occurred in two of them.

The key for Calgary will be to get a lead on the Oilers as they haven't had nearly the same success as the Flames in coming from behind in the third period. While Calgary has gone a remarkable league-best 7-11-1, the Oilers are a meagre 0-17-1 in the 18 games in which they've trailed after two periods.


7. Avoiding the Post-Christmas Blahs

The win against the Kings was very reminiscent to the dramatic come-from-behind victory last season against St. Louis in the last game before Christmas. Described by many as the most exciting game at the Saddledome last year, Giordano scored the tying goal with five seconds remaining and in a shootout, Joe Colborne scored the deciding goal in the 4-3 win over the Blues.

However, the layoff over Christmas last year successfully killed any momentum from that game as the Flames proceeded to go on a dreadful and historic goal drought starting right after Christmas. During the four-game homestand that immediately followed, Calgary was outscored 10-1 with Sean Monahan the only player to hit the scoresheet. Here's a flashback to what I was writing a year ago during that rough patch.

It's hard to fathom another dry spell offensively like that one considering the opponent in two of the next three games is Edmonton, which has given up 15 goals in its last three games.

However, Calgary needs some of its slumping forwards to catch fire. During the last nine games, Gaudreau and Giordano have combined for 10 of Calgary's 17 goals. The rest of the team only has seven.


8. Jonas Hiller - First Period Misery

Lost in the win over Los Angeles was several clutch saves by Jonas Hiller in the third period, which kept the Flames within striking distance. Also, the Swiss veteran made another couple dandy stops in overtime, which kept the game going.

But it's not been the third period that's been the issue for Hiller lately, it's been his play in the first period as he's shown a problematic propensity to surrender an early goal. In fact, he's given up at least one first period goal in 11 of his last 13 starts. Tuesday, it was the first shot of the game that went in and he simply didn't look ready for the harmless-looking wrist shot from the sideboards that fluttered right past him. The deflating effect goals like that have on a team is palpable.

During Hiller's last 15 games, made up of 13 starts and two relief appearances, here is his save percentage by period:
  • First period, .883 (14 GA on 120 shots)
  • Second period, .879 (17 GA on 141 shots)
  • Third period, .946 (6 GA on 112 shots)

I fully expect Hiller to get the start again on Saturday against Edmonton. If he can address his first period jitters and if the Flames can score early, those two rare things of late could be the real key in getting a vital six-game, 14-day home-stand off to a good start. I would suggest Calgary needs to pick up a minimum of eight points and probably nine or 10 points to maintain a realistic shot at making the playoffs.

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Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Last Minute Shopping: Flames Players Gift List - From bubble wrap for Lance Bouma to a Yanic Perreault instructional video for Markus Granlund to salary secrecy for Deryk Engelland. It's my light-hearted look at the Christmas (or Boxing Day sale) wish list for various Flames players.
  • Entertaining, Compelling, Unexpected: Enjoying the Flames Season For What It Is - Calgary's season has been a lot of things but boring hasn't been one of them. A hot start has been followed by a cold middle with what's next very much a mystery. Keep in mind that in 2004, the Flames nearly missed the playoffs yet went to the game seven of the Stanley Cup final. So you just never know.
  • Eight From 80 Feet: PK is Killin' It, Pre-Christmas Exam and More - A round-up of eight thoughts on the Flames from the past week, including a rubric for their eight-game pre-Christmas exam, Giordano's flirtation with NHL MVP, and a close-up look at Calgary's bizarre success with their goalie pulled.
  • Bennett Happy With How His Recovery is Going - The Saddledome has turned out to be a pretty exciting workout facility for injured prospect Sam Bennett, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. He spoke about how his rehab is going, what his timeline is and the excitement around how the Flames are playing and the club's bright future.
  • 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.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Last Minute Shopping: What Some Calgary Flames Players Need for Christmas

As you race around the malls doing your last-minute Christmas shopping today, here are some gift ideas for some members of the Calgary Flames.

Keep your eyes open for sales and if you spot something on the list, pick it up and drop it off at the Saddledome.


Lance Bouma Bubble Wrap

In many ways, Lance Bouma is like those bumper cars at the Stampede that we've all driven or attempted to drive. They don't steer very well and you find yourself constantly ramming into things, often on purpose, but sometimes by accident.

Several times this year, I've been covering a game at the Saddledome when I hear a loud noise and a "oooh" reaction from the crowd. When I look up from my laptop, I've come to pretty much expect it to be some sort of incident related to Bouma. Most recently, I looked down to find him trying to climb out of the Dallas Stars bench after an awkward landing. There are nights where he seems to miss just as many body checks as he connects on.

Long ago as a little kid when Bouma strapped on his first set of skates and he did what all of us did at that age, glide around and crash into the boards as a way of stopping, who knew that would end up being his exact NHL playing style two decades later.

Between the bouncing off the boards and his penchant for blocking shots -- finished second in the NHL last year among forwards and is eighth so far this year, a little extra protection from head to toe -- like some bubble-wrap, might be the perfect gift.


Paul Byron - Private lessons with Pavel Bure.

Paul Byron needs help on breakaways. Not in getting them -- he's got that mastered, but on how to succeed at them, as he currently has a failing grade.

When it comes to who in NHL history has been the most dangerous player on breakaways, Mario Lemieux would get my vote. He could make goalies look ridiculous. However, I'm not sure he would make the best tutor for Byron given they're built so differently. Where Lemieux at a thick 6-foot-4 was a fire truck, Byron at a slim 5-foot-7 is more like a fire hydrant.

Thus, Pavel Bure might be the better choice if he's open for accepting new students. During his time in the NHL and especially with the Vancouver Canucks as longtime Flames fans can attest, Bure was lethal on breakaways. There are some similar qualities between the Bure and Byron too -- beyond their matching initials. Their speed is pretty similar. As we know, Byron can flat-out fly. Bure was also undersized at 5-foot-10.

Byron has zero points in his last 14 games, a drought that would not exist if only he could have finished off half or even one-third of his dozen or so breakaways he's squandered this year. In lieu of a new set of hands, a few new tricks to do with his current hands is the most practical solution.


Mikael Backlund Good health

Last summer, I touted Mikael Backlund as potentially being a $5-million player when it comes time in the summer of 2015 to sign a new contract after his current two-year deal expires.

For all the reasons I explained, which included him being the Flames best forward over the final two-thirds of last season, he was very much on track to become the impact NHL player Calgary was hoping for when he was drafted in the first round in 2007.

Instead, he's been hampered this season by an abdominal injury that occurred prior to training camp when he was working out back in Sweden. It resulted in him being shut down after just 11 mildly effective games and ultimately resulted in minor surgery last month. Somewhat a forgotten man, Backlund's absence has left a massive void for this team, bigger than anyone can imagine. A solid two-way player with an offensive game that was just starting to come around, he is a possession-driving advanced stats darling on a team that advanced stats people have come to hate.

If this minor medical procedure ends up working as hoped and Backlund is able to return to the line-up for the final few months of the season, what a boost he would bring to the face-off dot, to the PK, and to the line-up overall. However, should such a return happen, will it come too late?


Joe Colborne Happy Management classes

At 6-foot-5 and tipping the scale at 225 pounds, Joe Colborne looks -- on paper -- like everything you'd want in a power forward. Except for one thing, he doesn't have a mean streak at all. Voted last year by Calgary's travelling media as the winner of the Mr. Nice Guy award for his friendly nature off the ice, he could very well be recognized for the same reasons on-the-ice if there was such an award for opposing players to vote on.

Forget controlling his temper, for him it's controlling his smile. It's not managing his anger, it's managing his happiness. Colborne is a playmaker stuck in an enforcer's body. If only he could play with a bit more edge, hit guys with some tenacity rather than apologetically, add a little snarl to his demeanor. If he could do that, the former Boston Bruins first round pick that the Flames acquired for a fourth round pick could be a real asset because power forwards or anything mildly resembling them are coveted in this league and especially on this team and management's desire for team toughness.


Deryk Engelland - Salary Secrecy

If Deryk Engelland was making $575,000 like he made last year with the Pittsburgh Penguins -- just a smidgen above the NHL's minimum salary, a majority of fans would probably be OK with what you're getting these days from the 32-year-old Edmonton native. For a nominal investment, you get a seasoned pro, who plays physical, can kill penalties and while he isn't mobile and is certainly prone to making mistakes, he won't hurt you -- when spotted correctly -- much more than other third pairing guys around the league (especially teams in the bottom half) hurt their respective NHL teams.

In an interesting note, during the Flames eight-game losing streak, Engelland is the only Calgary player, who has been a plus player at plus-1. Now plus-minus is a stat that has some flaws, for sure, but bottom line, if you can continue to go on the ice, shift after shift, game after game, and not get scored upon, that's the whole point of the game and that shows something.

Looking even closer at his recent play, Engelland has not been on the ice for a goal against in the last five games. Given the increased ice time he's been seeing lately, that adds up to 65:30 in total ice time -- 5:59 of that coming shorthanded. Imagine Engelland not leaving the ice for an entire game, including a five minute overtime, and Calgary not giving up a single goal.

If he was putting up those results at an annual salary of $800,000, $900,000 or even $1 million, most would be just fine with that. Engelland would be serving as a capable interim defenceman while other more highly touted prospects like Tyler WotherspoonPatrick Sieloff and Ryan Culkin continue their development in the minors.

However, here's the rub. Engelland is making $3 million in salary this season in the first of a three-year/$8.9 million contract he signed on July 1. His salary this year is over five times what he made last year and he is being judged on his new wage, which is hurting him and driving fans crazy.

No, he's not a better player than TJ Brodie, who is at $2.1 million or Kris Russell, who is making $2.6 million. No, he's not even remotely close to being three-quarters of the player Mark Giordano is at $4 million.

But ask yourself this. It is Engelland's fault that Calgary general manager Brad Treliving offered him that contract? If you don't like the salary, fans should judge the GM, not the player. All he die was sign on the dotted line. Engelland is the same player he was a year ago, only he's 32 now and one year older. Lower your expectations and your satisfaction will go up.


Michael Ferland An injury to a Calgary forward

When the Flames veterans returned to the line-up -- first Matt Stajan, then Mason Raymond, then Joe Colborne, it was inevitable that it was going to be Ferland, who would end up being that last guy demoted to the American Hockey League when Calgary simply ran out of roster spots.

Sure enough, that happened two weeks ago. More AHL experience won't hurt Ferland, who has played less than 50 AHL games in his pro career. It's a league where he can play more and continue to make up for the time he lost last season when he missed the final 4-5 months of the year with a knee injury in early December.

Bob Hartley is a big Ferland fan. You can tell just from the glow he gets whenever he talks about "Ferly". You just sense that Ferland is a kid that Hartley sees a lot of promise in and that he's a project that Hartley would love to be personally responsible for. If it was up to Hartley, Ferland would still be in the NHL where the club can more closely monitor his conditioning, his nutrition, and continue to groom his game and help him evolve into the impact NHLer he could turn out to be.

Instead, he must bide his time in upstate New York, waiting for someone to get dinged up or a personnel move to take place once the Christmas roster freeze ends. When there's an opening with the big club, I have no doubt Ferland will be the first player recalled and inserted straight into the line-up where he can resume playing the type of emotional, crash-and-bang style that the Flames are desperately in need of right now.


Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie Some Sleep-Ins

Calgary's stellar top blue-line pairing of captain Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie have been playing a lot -- averaging nearly 25 minutes per game each. That's coming on a team that has been playing a lot -- no club in the NHL has played more games at this point in the season than the Flames.

During the last couple weeks, we're starting to see a few tiny cracks in what's been one of the NHL's very best defensive pairings. And considering all the wear-and-tear on those two chassis's, should anyone be at all surprised?

Constantly carrying around the weight of the team on their shoulders, constantly fending off the opposition's best players, constantly joining the offensive rush at one end of the ice than racing back to break up a rush the other direction. These two guys must be absolutely exhausted.

A few days away from the rink where they can sleep in without a wake-up call, and just lie on the couch and rest and reset, that's surely in order and fully deserved.


Markus Granlund - Yanic Perreault instructional video

Granlund is a solid two-way player but we're seeing far more of his defensive game right now than his alluring offensive game simply because he rarely begins a shift with the puck. Granlund has taken 341 face-offs and has lost 216 of them while only winning 125. Of the 83 players, who have taken enough draws to be included among the NHL's leaders, Granlund ranks dead last and there's quite a gap to the next guy.

Here are the bottom five going into games on Dec. 22:

79. Mike Ribeiro Nsh, 42.8%
80. Zemgus Girgensons Buf, 42.7%
81. Evgeni Malkin Pit, 41.2%
82. Patrik Elias NJ, 40.2%
83. Markus Granlund CGY, 36.6%

As he showed last year in the AHL in putting up 25 goals in 52 games and also in the NHL this year where he has 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) in 24 games, Granlund can be that offensive threat that is much needed these days but the Flames need to be in possession of the puck for that to happen.

Remember Yanic Perreault? He played a long time in the NHL starting in the 90s with his longest stops being with the Kings, Maple Leafs and Canadiens. Perreault's reputation was around his flat-out dominance at the face-off dot. How dominant? Wrap your head around this. Perreault led the NHL in face-off percentage for seven consecutive seasons from 1999-00 to 2006-07.

Even if Granlund could get his win-rate up 10 percent and closer to 46 or 47 percent, that would make a world of difference for both himself and the hockey club.


Brian McGrattan Clarity of Purpose

He has been healthy scratch 27 times in a season that's only 35 games old. Constantly, McGrattan has remained the extra forward as the Flames scrambled to bring up someone from Adirondack -- however many time zones away -- and insert them straight into the line-up instead.

McGrattan doesn't bring the quickness that the Flames have been deploying on the fourth line most of this year. No one will ever confuse McGrattan's game as high tempo. But he's also a popular figure in the dressing room and his class as a pro has been demonstrated in him not publicly voicing any unhappiness despite his diminishing role this year.

So what is the future for McGrattan? It seems like it's now or never if he's going to get in the line-up again. The Flames have gone eight games without a win and are badly in need of a spark, which is something McGrattan can very much provide.

A pending UFA at season's end, I would be surprised if he's brought back next year but right now, with the team reeling, why not try McGrattan, especially over someone like Brandon Bollig. You know he'll bring energy to the line-up, even if he only sees five or six minutes of ice time.

Going back to last year and including the playoffs, Bollig has gone 61 games since last scoring a goal back on March 6. McGrattan has scored three goals since then -- and in only 27 games. Goal scoring isn't what either player is on the team to provide, yet when the team is scuffling offensively like it is, even the occasional goal from Bollig might just have made a difference in some of these one-goal losses.

In many ways, McGrattan is the ideal scratch while players like Ferland and Sven Baertschi play every night in Adirondack. But at some point, there will surely be an enough-is-enough moment for McGrattan. He can't be happy with how it's going. No pro player wants to just sit and watch. Approaching the halfway point in the season, he's played just under 53 minutes this year, that's a cruel way to be used... or not used.


Karri Ramo - An appointment at Total Recall

It was less than four weeks ago when Ramo posted back-to-back road shutouts in San Jose and Arizona, becoming the first Flames goalie since Mike Vernon in December 1992 to string together consecutive blankings on the road.

But lately, Ramo has been brushing up against history of a far less-flattering kind. In losing 4-3 to Buffalo on Dec. 11, a game in which the Flames held a 45-19 edge in shots, Ramo was the first Calgary goalie to give up four or more goals on less than 20 shots in a start since Miikka Kiprusoff in November 2011.

But it got worse.

The 28-year-old pending UFA then went out and duplicated that dubious feat in his next start, surrendering four goals on 13 shots before getting yanked by coach Bob Hartley in the second period last Tuesday against the New York Rangers.

As a result of those two bad outings, Ramo's save percentage has tumbled down to .903, which ranks him 35th in the NHL out of 42 eligible goalies.

Ramo had been in a very good place. He had been playing well, looking poised and in control in net. And the team was winning. The Flames need to visit the Total Recall clinic from the science fiction movie of the same name, and erase these last few games from Ramo's memory bank and take him back to that happier place he was at just a month ago. If Calgary wants to get themselves back in the playoff hunt, they'll need both Hiller and Ramo, not one or the other.


Happy Holidays

Coming up immediately after Christmas is a six-game homestand that will be critical for Calgary. Included is two dates with the Edmonton Oilers -- Dec. 27 and Dec. 31, which certainly is four points they must have but won't be easy.

Can the Flames pick up 10 of 12 points in that crucial stretch of games, which will be pretty much a must in order to stay in the playoff race? It may just depend on how many of the Flames players listed above get what they want for Christmas.

We'll have to wait and see.


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  • Entertaining, Compelling, Unexpected: Enjoying the Flames Season For What It Is - Calgary's season has been a lot of things but boring hasn't been one of them. A hot start has been followed by a cold middle with what's next very much a mystery. Keep in mind that in 2004, the Flames nearly missed the playoffs yet went to the game seven of the Stanley Cup final. So you just never know.
  • Eight From 80 Feet: PK is Killin' It, Pre-Christmas Exam and More - A round-up of eight thoughts on the Flames from the past week, including a rubric for their eight-game pre-Christmas exam, Giordano's flirtation with NHL MVP, and a close-up look at Calgary's bizarre success with their goalie pulled.
  • Bennett Happy With How His Recovery is Going - The Saddledome has turned out to be a pretty exciting workout facility for injured prospect Sam Bennett, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. He spoke about how his rehab is going, what his timeline is and the excitement around how the Flames are playing and the club's bright future.
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  • 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.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Entertaining, Compelling, Unexpected: Enjoying the Calgary Flames Season For What It Is

When I buy a book, I don't flip straight to the final chapter to read what happens in the end.

When my favourite TV show is over and they say, "Stay tuned for scenes from next week", I don't stay tuned.

And those movie trailers -- especially the two-minute versions, which reveal way too much of what happens, no thank you. I'll either look away or leave the room.

Why?

Because for me, I love a good mystery. Reading, watching television and going to a movie, it's just entertainment and I find it most enjoyable when I don't know what's going to unfold next. I find it most compelling when I can strap myself in, invest myself emotionally and just savor the journey and all the twists and turns in the plot that I know are forthcoming -- some good, some maddening, some agonizing.


When Did Hockey Become So Serious?

Ten days ago, at the one-third mark in the season, the Calgary Flames were 17-8-2.

For the so-called common fan -- Flames jersey on, cold beverage in hand, riding the roller-coaster game by game, it's been as entertaining of a two-month stretch of regular season hockey as this team has played in over two decades.

The Saddledome does not get any louder than it does during a furious third period comeback. It can be deafening. In franchise history -- so we're talking 42 years and counting, seven is the most times in one season the Flames have won a game in which they trailed after two periods.

There's been six of these fantastic finishes already this year with four of them (Nashville, Anaheim, New Jersey, Colorado) happening on home ice before a frenzied crowd of over 18,000. If you were fortunate enough to be at those games, you won't soon forget them.

Then there's the refreshing style of hockey this team is playing. This is not the slow, plodding hockey that we've seen over the years from cap-ceiling editions of the Flames with much greater star power, this blue collar cap-floor group plays the game at high speed. They have a tenacious forecheck, they force turnovers, the defence are active all the time, jumping up into the rush. Is this just a clever way of masking a team's lack of high-end talent? Probably, but it's rarely boring.

That game a couple weeks ago against Colorado, when Calgary came from behind in the third period not just once but twice, was like the close of a chapter.

It's reaching that point in a book or a movie where you're completely satisfied with what's happened yet if you click 'info' on your PVR, you see that there is still over an hour left in the movie. Or you realize that there are still over 200 pages to go in your book.

It's a great start, but you know you're not anywhere near the ending yet so you press on, bracing for the worst, yet hopeful. After all, you've seen the movie Hoosiers, why can't there be a sequel.


Don't Have to be Good to Be Entertaining

You'll notice that no where have I said these first two months have been the "best" hockey the Flames have played in the last couple decades.
  • Entertaining? Yes. 
  • Compelling? Absolutely.
  • Surprising? Stunning is probably more appropriate.

Are even the common fans naive enough to expect the team to finish the year with 18 third-period comebacks? Was anyone really thinking Dennis Wideman was going to score 30 goals? If I asked you four months ago who Josh Jooris was, many would have said he was a clerk at 7-Eleven. Are people suddenly believing 25 goals is a realistic possibility?

My often-far-too-serious friends in the advanced stats community point out ad nauseam that Calgary's shooting percentage is unrealistically high and not sustainable, that the Vezina-worthy numbers early in the season from Jonas Hiller -- who the Ducks dismissed in favour of a rookie in the playoffs last year, wouldn't continue.

It's as if the breaking news is that the Flames rebuild -- less than a year-and-a-half in, isn't complete yet and they still have work to do. No kdding. Thanks for the reminder. These are all true things yet isn't that even more reason to enjoy the unexpected prosperity?


Nothing More Charming Than an Underdog

In 2003-04, Calgary finished 42-30-7-3 to make the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Just five points back was the ninth place Edmonton Oilers. That season the Flames went 4-0-1-1 in six tight games against their provincial rival. If Edmonton would have won the one game that ended in a tie. If just one of the three one-goal Calgary victories (1-0, 2-1, 2-1) would have been a one-goal loss instead, it's Edmonton that makes the playoffs that season instead of the Flames.

The margin was that razor thin yet Calgary got in and went all the way to game seven of the Stanley Cup final before losing to Tampa Bay -- and in the minds of many, they actually should have won the Stanley Cup in game six -- see Martin Gelinas.

As the lower seed in all four playoff series, was Calgary the best team in the NHL on paper that year? Nope. But do you think that mattered in the slightest to the thousands of people, who were celebrating on the Red Mile after every victory. Nope. They found a way and that's all most people cared about.  In fact, pulling it off with the odds stacked against them made it that much more satisfying.


One of the Better Losing Streaks in Club History

The Flames just accomplished something they haven't done in nearly 20 years. They lost four games in a row in regulation time while outshooting their opponent in all four games.

The last time that occurred was November 1995 -- back when Paul Kruse wore No. 12 for Calgary.
  • Nov. 17, 1995 - Lost 5-3 to Stephane Fiset and the Avalanche at the Saddledome, despite a 47-26 edge in shots. Trevor Kidd with the loss.
  • Nov. 18, 1995 - Lost 5-2 to Fiset again, this time in Colorado. Outshot the Avs 30-29. Rick Tabaracci with the loss.
  • Nov. 21, 1995 - Lost 3-2 at home to Guy Hebert and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, despite a 34-26 edge in shots. Kidd in net for Calgary.
  • Nov. 24, 1995 - Lost 5-2 to Bill Ranford and the Oilers at the Saddledome. Held a 42-24 edge in shots. Kidd, in relief of Tabaracci, with the loss.

Does this mean fans should be positive about what's now a five-game losing streak after Sunday's 2-1 loss in Chicago? Of course not. They're falling behind early -- they've led for only 11:52 during the past five games, they're being outplayed at even-strength, the goaltending has been shaky, the third defence pairing has been a point of constant consternation.

The shot clock can mask some bigger issues, that's absolutely true. The nature of when shots in a game come -- e.g. when trailing, can skew statistics. So can the quality of shots, etc. However, are there still positive things to take out of this losing streak? Absolutely.
  • They Didn't Give Up - Over the past 19 years, there have been plenty of long losing streaks in which they not only got outscored, they got out-shot also and sometimes badly. Instead of surrendering and passively cruising to the end of the game, they dug in instead and fought back and that's worth something. The result has been the same -- a 'L' and 0 points in the standings, but if you put any stock in the character of a team, you'll gladly takes the group that fights to the finish knowing those traits will benefit the team down the road.
  • They've Been in Every Game - San Jose - one-goal game, Toronto -- essentially a one-goal game. Buffalo - one-goal game. Pittsburgh -- one-goal game into the 18th minute of the third period. Chicago - one-goal game.
  • They've Played Red-Hot Opponents - Let's be honest, they're not exactly losing to the runts of the litter right now. Here is the recent record of the teams that handed them defeats: San Jose (7-1-0 in last eight), the road set backs to red-hot Toronto (9-1-1 in last 11), Buffalo (9-3-0 in last 12), Pittsburgh (6-2-2 in last 10), Chicago (9-1-0 in last 10).


What Comes Next

The rebuild isn't over and I don't know anyone that has made that declaration. People are enjoying the unexpected success and my god, why wouldn't you. It's not like Calgary's got a long rich history of winning that can make Flames fans so choosy. Besides, if you're not going to enjoy the victories, how are you going to be when the losses start stacking up?

Deserved or not deserved, the wins they have so far won't be confiscated, they're already in the books and two points is two points whether it was a Rembrandt in terms of its beauty or not.

Prior to this losing streak, I had elevated the Flames odds of making the playoffs to 25 percent -- and that was probably overly optimistic. I haven't changed my view. The post-season this year remains possible but not probable.

But through it all, take solace in the fact that Sam Bennett is still coming. So is Emile Poirier. So is Michael Ferland. So is Tyler Wotherspoon. Sean Monahan's had a great sophomore year and there's no reason to think that won't be the same a year from now for this year's rookies Johnny Gaudreau and Markus Granlund and maybe even for Jooris, who's unexpected success has epitomized this entire season for the Flames.

Why wallow in the numbers, the underlying stats, that suggest Calgary's not good right now. Instead, enjoy what's happening right now, realizing that this team is only going to get better.

When the Flames played in Chicago on Sunday night, there were graphs that suggested what should happen, spreadsheets that stated what will likely happen, but truth is, anything could have happened and nearly did. The winning goal late in the game comes on an off-man rush after Johnny Gaudreau loses an edge and turns the puck over. That's a pretty random and unlucky event.

You'll remember back on Oct. 15 when the Flames were out-shot 50-18 by the Blackhawks yet won 2-1. It was about as ugly of a way to win a hockey game, yet it was thoroughly entertaining. Last night's game was also fun to watch and this time the shot disparity was much closer at 28-24 in favor of Chicago.

Close, entertaining games should be the theme for this season. Just enjoy it for what it is.


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  • 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.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Eight From 80 Feet: PK is Killin' It, No Goalie, No Problem, Pre-Christmas Exam, and More

Welcome to the second edition of a new content feature -- Eight from 80 Feet.

Comprised of a blend of anecdotes, recaps, statistics, analysis and maybe an opinion or prediction sprinkled in as well, it's a round-up of random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames.

If you missed the first one from last week, which examined topics such as Calgary's NHL-best ability to avoid losing streaks, Sean Monahan's shootout prowess and his lofty ranking in the NHL all-time, and the American Thanksgiving myth, you can find it here. The content is still very much relevant.


1. Winning!

Full disclosure: This is about as far away as you can possibly get from advanced hockey analytics so if you're one of the extremists in that crowd, save your energy and your angry tweets, and just chill out for a minute. Trust me, I am not proposing this as a new way to evaluate players.

I've always found it interesting to see how the team fares with different players in the line-up so I decided to compile this rudimentary data. The impetus for doing this came with the scratching of Sven Baertschi on Saturday for the first time in 11 games, which also coincided with the Flames losing for just the third time in 11 games. In fact, the last time Baertschi was in the press box -- Nov. 10 in Carolina, Calgary also lost.

In what I'd classify as more coincidence than correlation, here is the Flames W-L record along with points percentage when various Flames players are in the line-up. This list is comprised of guys that have been in/out of the press box, were recalled from the minors, or have missed significant chunks of the season due to injury:

  • Sven Baertschi 11-3-0, .786
  • David Jones 11-3-1, .767
  • Markus Granlund 12-5-0, .706
  • Michael Ferland 6-3-0, .667
  • Raphael Diaz 7-4-0, .636
  • Josh Jooris, 12-7-2, .619
  • Mason Raymond 5-4-1, .550
  • Joe Colborne 5-4-2, .545
  • Matt Stajan 5-5-2, .500
  • Brian McGrattan 4-4-0, .500


Sometimes pairing up guys can result in even more extreme results -- one way or another, and in an example of that, the Flames are 1-4-0 in games in which both Stajan and McGrattan suit-up.


2. Pre-Christmas Exam

Thanks to a productive first two months in which Calgary has already stashed away 36 valuable points in the vault, the Flames have put themselves in a position where they will remain in the mix for a playoff spot if they can play .500 hockey for the remainder of the year. However, is that a reasonable expectation?

These next eight games leading up to Christmas could be a good indicator.

Given the calibre of opponent and the circumstances, eight points over the next eight games should be considered a pass on what I'm calling the Flames pre-Christmas exam.

Here's a closer look:
  • Segment 1 - Four-game road trip with stops in Toronto, Buffalo and Pittsburgh (back-to-back nights), and then wrapping up in Chicago. With all four teams on a roll lately (Maple Leafs 5-2-0, Sabres 6-3-0, Penguins 5-2-0, Blackhawks 6-0-0), Calgary should be very happy if it can net four points and three points would be acceptable also.
  • Segment 2 - Home games against the NY Rangers and Dallas. A couple tough match-ups as the Stars are one of the Western teams Calgary has to beat in order to make the playoffs. Winning both of these games won't be easy but depending on how the prior road trip goes, that might be necessary. A split, at minimum, is a must.
  • Segment 3 - The final two games before Christmas are road games in Vancouver and in Los Angeles. That game with the Kings is the first of five meetings this year with the defending Stanley Cup champions. A split would be very good but more than anything, at least one point and avoiding two regulation losses will be key.

The start of the season has been a nice story but if the Flames want to silence their many critics, who are blaring "lucky" and "unsustainable" from their megaphones, then these next two weeks is their chance to do just that. Otherwise, this same group will soon be chortling, "I told you so."

Here is the rubric on how I'll grade this pre-Christmas stretch of eight games:
  • 12 points or more - Change your late April/May vacation plans
  • 10 or 11 points - Time for the skeptics to shut-up
  • 8 or 9 points - Excellent
  • 6 or 7 points - Satisfactory
  • 4 or 5 points - Concern creeping in
  • 3 points or less - Uh-oh. Sound the alarm.


3. Keep Killin' It on the PK

As the analytics folks have been so kind to point once or twice, Calgary's scorching hot goal-scoring is off the charts right now and will level off eventually.

When that happens, whether it's an average of half-a-goal per game or whatever, they'll have to make up that difference in other areas if they hope to continue their success. One way to mitigate scoring less goals is by giving up less goals and the team's penalty killing, which has struggled much of the season, provides that opportunity.

Entering the game against Anaheim on Nov. 25, Calgary's penalty killing ranked 29th in the NHL. That's going to make this area of their game a serious liability over 82 games. However, things have been on the uptick since then with the Flames perfect on the PK in the last six games.

Sharing in the credit can be the remarkable discipline the club has shown. Over that span, Calgary has been shorthanded just eight times. Another positive is the return to the fold of Matt Stajan, who will help on face-offs and give the Flames more penalty killing depth.

Saturday night against San Jose and the NHL's third-best power play, a key kill of a 5-on-3 late in the third period is what turned the game's momentum around and allowed Calgary to nearly tie it up. It's not just about preventing the opponent from scoring, but it's about wrestling back the game's momentum and a clutch kill can be one of the most galvanizing rallying points in a hockey game.


4. No Goalie, No Problem

It's been a fascinating story line so I set out to take a closer look. Specifically in the circumstance of trailing late in the game and pulling the goalie for an extra attacker (as opposed to pulling the goalie during a delayed penalty), Calgary has played 15 minutes and 26 seconds with an empty net this year.

In what is the least sustainable of any of the Flames gaudy statistics at this point, it's Calgary's success in these scenarios that continues to astound.

Here's a full breakdown of how they've fared in this scenario:
  • Flames lead 4-2 in goals.
  • Three of the goals came in eventual wins (two against New Jersey, one against Colorado).
  • All four goals have been even-strength (so at 6-on-5).
  • Top scorers are Jiri Hudler (2-1-3), Curtis Glencross (1-1-2), Mark Giordano (0-2-2)
  • Hudler is the lone player to be on the ice for all four goals. Others: Glencross, Giordano, and TJ Brodie (3). Sean Monahan, Josh Jooris (2). 
  • Flames hold a 14-2 edge in shots on goal. They are led by Giordano (3), Wideman (3), Hudler (2) and Gaudreau (2).
  • Flames hold a 27-5 edge in shots attempted (includes shots blocked, and missed shots).
  • Monahan has been the go-to guy at the dot taking 11 of 16 face-offs, winning six of them.

If Calgary's stunning third period dominance (outscoring teams 39-16) are Playboy magazine, their furious last minute comebacks have been the centerfold.


5. MG4MVP

The trophy for the player voted the most valuable player in the NHL is called the Hart Memorial Trophy. Considering the importance of the position, it seems criminal that Chris Pronger (1999-00) is the only blue-liner to have won this trophy in over 40 years.

In fact, Bobby Orr (three times -- 1969-70, 1970-71, 1971-72) and Pronger are the only two defencemen to have won it in the last 70 years. It's hard to fathom considering the MVP went to a defenceman seven times in a 12-year span just prior to that, back in the 30s and early 40s.

The reason this is topical is last week, Mark Giordano was named the NHL's first star of the month for November. If you're the best NHL player for a month, you've pretty much won a miniature Hart Trophy. Since the NHL started naming its three stars of the month in 2006-07, a defenceman has never been named first star of the month until Giordano last week.

In chronolgical order beginning with the most recent, here is the full list of defencemen, who have been named one of the NHL's three stars of the month. While it may be a short list, it's a pretty impressive group:
  • Nov 2014 - Mark Giordano, CGY, 1st
  • Mar 2013 - PK Subban, MTL, 2nd
  • Feb 2012 - Erik Karlsson, OTT, 2nd
  • Jan 2011 - Keith Yandle PHX, 2nd
  • Dec 2010 - Niklas Lidstrom DET, 3rd
  • Feb 2009 - Mike Green WSH, 2nd
  • Jan 2009 - Scott Niedermayer, ANA, 2nd
  • Oct 2008 - Shea Weber, NSH, 3rd
  • Oct 2006 - Scott Niedermayer, ANA, 3rd

Giordano's announcement also came on the five-year anniversary of the last Flames player to be named one of the three stars for a month. For his performance during November 2009, Jarome Iginla was named the NHL's first star after a torrid month in which he went 13-7-20 in 14 games and helped Calgary go 10-2-2.

If not the Hart, the Norris Trophy for the league's top defenceman should definitely be a possibility for Giordano this season. If there was a Late Bloomer Award, that would be awarded to the undrafted Flames captain in a landslide.


6. Offensive Defensemen

I was remarking the other day as we watched the Flames play San Jose that it's absolutely amazing how many times you look up and see a Calgary defenceman behind the opposition net. Often, it's Brodie, but it's been Giordano also. Wideman or Wideman have been spotted there as well and even Smid has been spotted lumbering around behind enemy lines.

With this aggressive deployment of their blue-liners, it's no co-incidence that Calgary leads the NHL by far in goals and points from its defence. Plus, it's a style of play that teams are struggling to counter. Watch the Flames break out of their own end and with the speed of a Brodie, Giordano or Russell, they jump up into the rush to turn a harmless 2-on-2 into a 3-on-2 or a 3-on-2 into a dangerous 4-on-2. They provide an additional passing option that teams can't seem to defend.

It's a style of play that you need the right personnel to succeed at and Brodie is perfect for it as whenever he's the first player up the ice, he's usually one of the first two guys back if the puck turns over.

It makes you wonder how much more effective Jay Bouwmeester could have been in a Flames uniform all those years if the team played a similar style and he always had that green light. With his smooth skating and ability to go 200 feet in a handful of strides, he would be loving this style of game Calgary is playing and probably thriving in it too.


7. Oh Canada, No Calgary

Just twice in the last dozen years has Calgary's prospect cupboard been represented at the World Junior Hockey Championships in the form of a forward on Team Canada. Those two were Greg Nemisz (2010) and Dustin Boyd (2006). This year, Morgan Klimchuk has a chance.

The Flames 2013 first round pick, who plays for the Regina Pats (WHL), will attend the Team Canada World Junior selection camp in Toronto beginning on Dec. 11. The Calgary native is one of 17 forwards and 29 players invited to try and make the 22-player team. This year, the always popular event is on home turf, taking place in Toronto and Montreal.

Muddying the picture is not included on the invite roster are four additional eligible forwards playing in the NHL right now. Each of these players could be released by their team to attend -- Bo Horvat (Vancouver), Curtis Lazar (Ottawa), Jonathan Drouin (Tampa Bay) and Anthony Duclair (NY Rangers).

Unfortunately, due to his shoulder surgery, Flames prospect Sam Bennett - fourth overall pick in last year's draft, will not be able to participate. If you missed it, Bennett talked with the media for the first time on Friday since his operation. Here's my story on that as he discussed his rehab routine, what he has thought of the Flames season so far, and excitedly speculated about the club's bright future.

Here is the complete list of Flames prospects that have played for Team Canada at the World Juniors:

  • 2013 - Tyler Wotherspoon
  • 2010 (Silver) - Greg Nemisz
  • 2007 (Gold) - Leland Irving
  • 2006 (Gold) - Dustin Boyd
  • 2005 (Gold) - Dion Phaneuf
  • 2004 (Silver) - Dion Phaneuf
  • 2002 (Silver) - Chuck Kobasew
  • 2001 (Bronze) - Jarret Stoll*
  • 1999 (Silver) - Robyn Regehr^, Blair Betts, Rico Fata, Daniel Tkaczuk
  • 1998 - Daniel Tkaczuk
  • 1996 (Gold) - Denis Gauthier, Jarome Iginla
  • 1995 (Gold) - Marty Murray
  • 1994 (Gold) - Joel Bouchard, Marty Murray
  • 1993 (Gold) - Joel Bouchard
  • 1992 - Trevor Kidd
  • 1991 (Gold) - Trevor Kidd, Kent Manderville
  • 1990 (Gold) - Trevor Kidd, Kent Manderville
  • 1988 (Gold) - Theoren Fleury
  • 1987 - Theoren Fleury
  • 1986 (Silver) - Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts
  • 1985 (Gold) - Brian Bradley
  • 1983 (Bronze) - Mike Vernon
  • 1982 (Gold) - Bruce Eakin, Pierre Rioux^
  • 1981 - Denis Cyr
  • 1978 (Bronze) - Brad Marsh#
  • 1977 - Brad Marsh#

* Was a Calgary draft pick but never ended up signing.
^ Was not yet Calgary property but became so shortly after and made his NHL debut with the Flames
# Was an Atlanta Flames draft pick but made his NHL debut with Calgary


8. Looking Into the Goalie Pipeline 

Jon Gillies is putting together a pretty nice season in his third year at Providence College and you would have to think that unless he falters, the Flames will be very anxious to sign the 2012 third round pick this summer and get him into the organization where they can begin working with him more closely.

Since the beginning of November, Gillies has gone 6-3-0 with a stingy 1.01 goals-against average and a tidy .967 save percentage.

With Joni Ortio on a one-way contract for next year that will require him to pass through waivers in order to be sent to the AHL, that likely means he'll be in the NHL. Thus, Calgary would love to have Gillies, who turns 21 in January, become the new No. 1 for Adirondack in 2015-16.

Gillies is a long way away from being NHL-ready but if he keeps up how he's been playing, it will be important for his development to turn pro and bump up the level of competition and that comes with a jump to pro hockey and the AHL. He could be there for at least a couple seasons before he will legitimately compete for a job in Calgary. Also, signing him him after three years like Calgary did with Johnny Gaudreau eliminates any flight risk concerns that are associated with a player choosing to play his full four years at college.

Ortio got off to a shaky start to the season in Adirondack but as the baby Flames have heated up, so has he. In his last 10 starts, he is 8-2-0 with a 1.91 GAA and a .934 SV%.

You'll recall last year when the Flames controversially used their second round draft pick, 34th overall, to draft Mason McDonald. I still understand Calgary using that pick at that time for all the reasons I listed here.

Playing in the QMJHL for a middle-of-the-pack team in the Charlottetown Islanders, McDonald has had an up-and-down season statistically. In mid-November, he won three straight games while giving up just four goals on 86 shots. Along the way he was named one of the QMJHL stars of the week. However, in his six starts since, he's been scuffling. He's been pulled twice and has gone 2-4-0 with a 4.87 GAA and a .856 SV%.

I wouldn't expect to see McDonald turn pro for at least two more years so while it makes for great conversation, it's far, far too early to draw any conclusions just yet on where McDonald will fit in and what his timeline will be.


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