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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Eight From 80 Feet: The New Backlund is Back, Johnny vs Theo, Next Call-up, and More...

It's the fourth edition of a recently-introduced content feature -- Eight from 80 Feet.


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

Previous editions can be found here: December 27, December 8, November 29


1. The New Backlund is Back

Last May I wrote a piece that raised some eyebrows. I suggested that if this season, Mikael Backlund could repeat how he played over the final two-thirds of last season, the pending restricted free agent would be in line for a hefty raise that could see him command as much as $5-million in annual salary in the latter year(s) of a long-term deal.

I won't repeat here what I feel is a well-constructed case because you can go and read that entire article. But in summary, six factors I considered were his age, inflation, leadership, ice time, skill set, and the Flames overall salary structure.

Backlund has played three games since returning from his abdominal injury, which sidelined him for 29 games, and all he's done is scored in all three games, racked up two assists for a total of five points, piled up 11 shots on goal and gone a plus-3, Also, he's gotten right back to what is one of his niche strengths and that is being the guy in possession of the puck, more often than not, whenever he's on the ice.

His goals have all been clutch too. One broke a 2-2 tie with Florida and temporarily gave Calgary the lead. Another drew the Flames within one of Detroit early in the third period, setting up a near-comeback if not for some bad luck. On Saturday, he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win in Vancouver.

Because Backlund, who turns 26 in March, has been gone for so long and with his 11 games at the start of the year an inaccurate portrayal of who he is given he was playing hurt, it seemed like we almost forgot how high a caliber of player the 2007 first round pick had finally developed into last season.

Bob Hartley shared his thoughts after he made his return against Detroit. "Backs is probably one of the most underrated two-way players in this league," said the Flames coach.

Backlund opened up his first game back between David Jones and Mason Raymond. In game two, he spent most of the night with Joe Colborne and Lance Bouma. Against the Canucks, he was flanked by Jones and Johnny Gaudreau. Clearly Hartley is searching for the right combination but from what we saw in Vancouver, I would like to see the Backlund-Gaudreau partnership kept together for a few games as they seemed to have some immediate chemistry.


2. Twenty-Six Years and Three Inches Apart

There is an adjustment period needed when you turn pro. It's inevitable.

Johnny Gaudreau did his adjusting at the NHL level and it took all of two weeks. Remember those five games without a point at the start of the season, which was followed by one game in the press box as a healthy scratch? Since then, Gaudreau has gone 13-19-32 in 37 games.

For comparison, let's wind back the clock over a quarter-century and compare those totals to Theoren Fleury, who did his adjusting in the minors with Salt Lake, Calgary's affiliate at the time. After a half-season down there, Fleury was recalled to the NHL for the remainder of the 1988-89 season and had very similar NHL totals going 14-20-34 in 36 games.

While their respective stat lines are similar, their situations were not. The 1988-89 Flames, who won the Stanley Cup, scored 354 goals in what was then an 80-game season. This year's team is on pace to score 223 times in the same number of games -- that's 131 fewer goals.

While the 1988-89 team could rely on the likes of Joe Mullen, Hakan Loob, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and Doug Gilmour to pace the offence, this year's team has been highly dependent on two guys so far to pace the offence up-front -- Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler -- his personal pizza delivery man.

In respect to Gaudreau's skill set, I've often described him as being the most compelling player in terms of raw skill and creativity that Flames fans have had to watch since maybe Fleury. Maybe. Point being it's been a long, long time so soak it up and enjoy.


3. Jiri Hudler: Pacific Division Killer

To be a true threat to make the playoffs in the NHL's current playoff format and to remain in the hunt this year, the Flames need to play well against teams in the Pacific Division. San Jose, Los Angeles and Vancouver in particular, those are the proverbial four-point games. Beat them in regulation and you pick up two valuable points while they get none. Lose and they get two points and you get none.

Going into NHL action on Tuesday night, Jiri Hudler is second in the NHL in points against divisional opponents with 21 points (7 goals, 14 assists) in 15 games. He only trails Patrick Kane. That's pretty lofty standing. For context, if you extrapolate those totals over 82 games, that's a 38-77-115 season. Heck, those kind of numbers would have won Hudler the league scoring title last year.

Here are the NHL leaders in division points, going into action on Tuesday:

1. Patrick Kane CHI, 17 gm, 8-15-23
2. Jiri Hudler CGY, 15 gm, 7-14-21
3. Nick Foligno CBJ, 12 gm, 12-5-17
3. Zach Parise MIN, 13 gm, 7-10-17
3. Filip Forsberg NSH, 17 gm, 7-10-17
3. Daniel Sedin VAN, 16 gm, 2-15-17

With difficult road games coming up against divisional foes Arizona, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim, Calgary is going to need this trend from Hudler to continue if they hope to return to the post-season for the first time in six years.


4. Accolades for Joni Ortio

It was quite a night for Joni Ortio on Saturday night, earning his first NHL shutout in his first start of the season.

Likely not even that game's starter if Jonas Hiller has a decent game the night before, the Swiss goaltender's 'indecent' performance in an ugly 6-5 loss to the Florida Panthers resulted in Hartley opting to go with Ortio instead, in hopes of snapping the club's three-game losing skid.

It wasn't exactly a plum assignment either. Calgary hadn't won in Vancouver since December 23, 2011. The Canucks would end up being the better team, peppering Ortio with 36 shots, but they couldn't solve the 23-year-old Finn and the Flames escaped with a 1-0 victory.

In the process, Ortio turned in one of the better goaltender performances in a shutout that Calgary has seen in team history.
  • 2nd-most saves by a rookie (Reggie Lemelin had 40 in 1980-81)
  • 10th-most saves in a shutout
  • 4th-most saves in a road shutout

If you add in the years in Atlanta, Ortio had the 4th-most saves by a rookie in franchise history. Dan Bouchard had 38 and 46-save shutouts in his rookie season in 1972-73.

Even league-wide, it was rarefied air for Ortio. In the last four years, only two rookie goaltenders have racked up more saves in a shutout -- and both were earlier this season.
  • Troy Grosenick, SJ, 45 saves at Carolina (Nov. 16, 2014)
  • John Gibson, Ana, 38 saves at Chicago (Oct. 28, 2014)

Despite the performance, I don't expect Ortio to be around for long. Hartley was keen to get Karri Ramo back in the net last week and was pleased with the way he was playing the night he got hurt. His stint on injured reserve is expected to be short. Meanwhile, Hiller remains entrenched as the team's No. 1 goalie, despite the ugly loss to the Panthers.

Hartley is not a fan of having three goalies around and it's pointless, especially right now when the team has so many days off -- are in a stretch of four games in 16 days.

However, what Ortio has done has reminded everyone that he's very much a legit candidate to be part of Calgary's goaltending future and while we know that will begin next season in some form as he'll be waiver-eligible and on a one-way contract, perhaps it begins even sooner than that once the team figures out what to do with one of the other two -- Ramo the most likely player to be dealt given he's a pending UFA at season's end.

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Most saves in a shutout in Calgary Flames history:

1.  Miikka Kiprusoff, 40, Nov. 27, 2009 in 3-0 win at Detroit
     Rejean Lemelin, 40, Jan. 8, 1981 in 6-0 win vs Washington

3.  Miikka Kiprusoff, 39, Feb. 20, 2011 in 4-0 win vs Montreal
     Miikka Kiprusoff, 39, Mar. 4, 2008 in 1-0 win vs Columbus
     Miikka Kiprusoff, 39, Mar. 9, 2006 in 1-0 win vs Dallas
     Mike Vernon, 39, Dec. 15, 1992 in 3-0 win at NY Rangers

7.  Miikka Kiprusoff, 38, Feb. 22, 2008 in 1-0 win vs Detroit
     Miikka Kiprusoff, 38, Mar. 27, 2007 in 1-0 win at Minnesota

9.  Miikka Kiprusoff, 37, Nov. 10, 2006 in 3-0 win vs Anaheim

10. Joni Ortio, 36, Jan. 10, 2015 in 1-0 win at Vancouver
      Miikka Kiprusoff, 36, Feb. 12, 2009 in 2-0 win at Los Angeles
      Jamie McLennan, 36, Jan. 5, 2004 in 5-0 win at NY Rangers
      Roman Turek, 36, Apr. 12, 2002 in 2-0 win at Edmonton
      Roman Turek, 36, Nov. 10, 2001 in 2-0 win vs Colorado



5. Who is Going to Get the Call?

There is no rule that mandates the Flames carry 23 players on their active roster. That simply is the maximum size it can be. But, because they often do carry 23 and right now they're at 22, there is much speculation around who could be the player recalled if Calgary chooses to bring up a prospect from Adirondack.

The assumption is they would recall a forward given the team already has seven defencemen. As a primer, here are the recent AHL totals for various Flames minor leaguers -- some of which are hot, some of which are not:
  • C Drew Shore, in last 22 gm, 9-14-23, plus-4, 55 shots (all coming with San Antonio)
  • LW Sven Baertschi, in last 15 gm, 5-9-14, plus-9, 32 shots (since his demotion)
  • RW Emile Poirier, in last 14 gm, 7-5-12, plus-8, 35 shots
  • LW Michael Ferland, in last 13 gm, 0-3-3, minus-3, 34 shots (since his demotion)
  • C Bill Arnold, in last 12 gm, 4-5-9, plus-10, 11 shots (injured last weekend) 
  • C Max Reinhart, in last 13 gm, 1-0-1, minus-6, 30 shots
  • RW Ben Hanowski, in last 13 gm, 1-3-4, plus-2, 22 shots
  • LW David Wolf, in last 11 gm, 4-1-5, plus-5, 21 shots

I would suggest the four leading candidates are Shore, Baertschi, Poirier and Ferland. What makes Shore the most likely option in my mind is:
  1. We know Flames GM Brad Treliving likes him. He stated in my get-to-know Drew Shore piece that he isn't concerned with Shore's waiver situation (once he's up, he's up for good as he's no longer waiver exempt after his next NHL game).
  2. Shore can play both centre and right wing, which would give the team legitimate options at centre including a chance to spell Markus Granlund for a game or two as they were about to do earlier when they dispatched him to Adirondack before he got a 'stay of demotion' when Josh Jooris ended up on the IR instead.

Of the other three, Baertschi is the next best bet given how well he's played lately, given his age/experience compared to Poirier, and that oh-so-familiar motto of 'always earned, never given'.

Then again, perhaps Calgary decides to keep three goalies instead for a short time and simply activates Ramo when he's ready. We'll just have to wait and see.


6. Justin Talking About Johnny

Talking to Gaudreau last summer, he spoke very highly of his experience at the World Championships last May when he had 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in eight games for Team USA. In particular, he mentioned Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader and the positive influence he was. Also a college kid having played his NCAA hockey at Michigan State, Abdelkader and Gaudreau played on the same line for much of the tournament.

Last week, Abdelkader -- in the midst of a career-season playing on a line with Henrik Zetterberg, was in town with the Red Wings and I took the opportunity to ask him about Gaudreau's rookie season, whether he was surprised or not, and what advice he had for him last spring.

"He's a heck of a player," said Abdelkader. "I told Johnny what potential he had. I think that World Championship really helped propel him into this season. He had such a good tournament over there. I knew that he would come in right away and produce."

Having played alongside some elite talents over the years in Pavel Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Nikolas Kronwall, he shared some of what he has learned with Gaudreau.

"I'm around some of the best players in this game each and every day. I told him you have to work hard every day. you have to work as hard as you can," Abdelkader said. "You have the skill but your work ethic has got to be there. I've watched Pav, Hank, Kronner and Lidstrom and those guys. A lot of people think if you're skilled, you don't have work as hard but these guys are working just as hard as anyone in the locker room.

"That's big for young guys to know and to realize that this league is a tough league and you have to constantly work to better yourself."


7. Patience Rewarded in Hockeytown

When a NHL team is rebuilding, fans, members of the media sometimes -- myself included, and even folks in a team's front office can all be guilty at times of wanting to hurry along prospects.

While some young players may not need much seasoning in the minors and other elite talents won't require any time, the reality is the vast majority will need two or three seasons in the AHL to complete the jump from college or major junior to pro hockey and become NHL-ready.

If patience isn't one of your strong suits, you wouldn't enjoy being a fan of the Red Wings, whose modus operandi is to leave their kids in the minors for a long, long time, until they're overripe. Yet it's hard to argue with that model given the success the organization has had. Detroit has made the Stanley Cup playoffs 23 consecutive years despite last year -- when they picked 15th -- being the first time since 1991 that Detroit has had a pick inside the top 18 in the NHL Draft.

They draft players, they groom them in the minors for one, two, three, even four years, then they bring them up where they step in and immediately contribute. If you look at the Grand Rapids team that won the AHL Calder Cup in 2013, nine members of that championship team are now in the NHL with Detroit.

Last week when Calgary was about to assign Granlund to Adirondack, I looked at his career AHL totals -- 28-23-51 in 60 games, and admittedly part of me was thinking he's been there, done that. Yet then you look at the sustained NHL success that a longtime minor league player like Gustav Nyquist is enjoying now after languishing in the AHL for more than twice-as-many games as Granlund has played, and you realize more time in the minors never hurts.

Here are some facts about the Red Wings that provide some perspective for where the Flames are at:

Construction of Detroit's roster:
  • 16 players spent at least 70 games in the AHL, specifically with Grand Rapids
  • 13 of those have played at least 100 games 
  • 10 of those have played at least 130 games

Home-grown Red Wings, who have played over 100 games in Grand Rapids
  • C Joakim Andersson, 189 games
  • C Darren Helm, 134 games
  • C Riley Sheahan, 110 games
  • LW Tomas Tatar, 207 games
  • RW Gustav Nyquist, 137 games
  • RW Tomas Jurco, 106 games
  • D Jakub Kindl, 234 gm
  • D Kyle Quincey, 201 games
  • D Jonathan Ericsson, 176 gm
  • D Brian Lashoff, 162 gm
  • D Brendan Smith, 152 gm
  • D Niklas Kronwall, 100 gm
  • G Jimmy Howard, 186 gm

In particular, look at the defencemen (in red) and how long some of them marinated in the AHL -- five were in the minors for over 150 games. Meanwhile in Calgary, fans are impatiently wondering when Tyler Wotherspoon will get promoted and he's only been in the AHL for 85 games.

It's a similar situation for Flames 2011 first round pick Sven Baertschi. It feels like he's been in the minors forever, yet he has played less than 100 games in the AHL. Just 22 years old, there is no reason to panic yet.

Calgary Flames prospects and AHL games accumulated so far:
  • C Drew Shore, 134 gm
  • C Markus Granlund, 60 gm
  • C Bill Arnold, 39 gm
  • LW Sven Baertschi, 98 gm
  • LW Michael Ferland, 54 gm
  • RW Emile Poirier, 33 gm
  • D Tyler Wotherspoon, 85 gm
  • D Ryan Culkin, 31 gm
  • G Joni Ortio, 74 gm

It's okay to wait. It's okay to bring in vets in the summer on short-term deals that allow the Flames the luxury of keeping their kids in the minor leagues to get better, grow their confidence, and be in a better position to step in and immediately contribute when they do get promoted to the NHL.

It's okay, but nobody said it's going to be easy.


8. Ladi Smid's Dubious Return

From what you should expect from a third defence pairing, Deryk Engelland and Raphael Diaz had been on a pretty good run. During their 10 games together while Ladislav Smid was on injured reserve, Engelland had been on the ice for a total of only three even-strength goals against.

On Friday night against Florida, Smid returned to the line-up and was once again reunited with Engelland. That duo promptly went minus-three and were on the ice for three goals against -- the same quantity Engelland/Diaz had surrendered over the previous 10 games.

Revert to Diaz/Engelland again on Saturday in Vancouver and the Flames pitch a shutout.

We all know plus-minus has flaws as a statistic but the disparity between those numbers is so big that it would suggest there's more to what's going on in terms of third pairing chemistry than just coincidence.

In this feature on Engelland I wrote recently, the former Pittsburgh Penguins defender admitted he felt like he spent the first 20 games of the season in his own zone almost every shift. He talked about the challenge of adjusting to a new team, a new coach and a new defensive system. But lately he says he's been playing way better.

Calgary is going to need even more of this 'better' Engelland and whoever he's paired with, if they have any hope of making the post-season. Three months of wear and tear on workhorses Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie has started to look on some nights like it's adding up. If the Flames can get 13-14 serviceable minutes from the third pairing instead of 8-9 minutes each and take a little bit of the onus off the top pairing, that will pay huge dividends down the stretch.


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