Saturday, February 14, 2015

Eight from 80 Feet: Glencross Debate, Raymond's Resurgence, Tie-break Scenarios and more...

It's edition six of a new content feature I cobble together every couple of weeks called Eight from 80 Feet.

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

1. Suffocatingly Close Standings

To the eye, it's seven teams within six points. Yet it's even closer than that. Put them on a level playing field and remove Vancouver from the top end and it gets that much more stifling at six teams within 3.8 points.

There are seven teams battling for four playoff spots in the West. Those four openings are second and third in the Pacific Division behind Anaheim and two wild card spots. (Note that I'm excluding the Colorado Avalanche as I view them as too far back, at least for now.)

On Thursday I did some analysis and wrote this piece explaining why I think it will take 95 points to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. Perhaps I should have added the words "at least".

Bringing the seven bubble teams up to the common denominator of 57 games, here's what you get for standings going into Saturday's games:
  • Vancouver, 68.6 pts (projected based on 65 pts in 54 gm)
  • San Jose, 66 pts
  • Winnipeg, 66 pts
  • Calgary, 65.3 pts (projected based on 63 pts in 55 gm)
  • Minnesota, 64.4 pts (projected based on 61 pts in 54 gm)
  • Los Angeles, 63.3 pts (projected based on 60 pts in 54 gm)
  • Dallas, 62.2 pts (projected based on 60 pts in 55 gm)

Yes, the Flames are currently in a playoff spot but barely -- just 0.9 points ahead of Minnesota.

The Stars are the furthest out, sitting 11th in the West, but can they be two wins better than Calgary over the next 27 games? Absolutely. Heck, they could be two wins better than the Flames this weekend.

The scoreboard watching the last four nights has been agonizing for anyone bleeding Flames allegiances. Going back to Tuesday, the six teams surrounding Calgary have picked up 18 of 21 possible points. The only blemishes were a Winnipeg loss to Nashville and the Sharks losing in OT to Washington.

Take nothing away from what Calgary has accomplished this season already, the exciting brand of hockey they've played, but reset everyone to zero points, which is essentially the case, can the Flames beat out three of these teams over the next two months? That's going to be a big, big ask and as I wrote on Thursday will probably require (at least) a 15-10-2 finish.

2. The 'How' on the NHL Tie-Breaker System

With the standings as close as they are, it's time to get a good grasp on what the NHL tie-breaker system is in the event that more than one team ends up with the same point total at year's end. Here is the tie-breaker criteria that is applied and how the Flames are looking at this point.

1. Regulation or Overtime Wins

This is that ROW column that you see in the standings now. It refers to wins in regulation or overtime. In a change introduced by the league a few years ago in an attempt to de-emphasize the value of shootout wins, it's only games decided in regulation or overtime that contribute to the win total that is used as the first tie-breaker.

Calgary's Situation - Good. As things stand today, the Flames have the upper hand on everyone except for Vancouver. Here are the ROW totals as of now.
  • San Jose (66 pts), 27
  • Winnipeg (66 pts), 24
  • Vancouver (65 pts), 29
  • Calgary (63 pts), 27
  • Minnesota (61 pts), 25
  • Dallas (60 pts), 24
  • Los Angeles (60 pts), 23

2. Season Series

If the point total is tied and so is the ROW total, you then look at the team's head-to-head record and which team has earned more points in that season series. However, there's a caveat. If the teams play an odd number of head-to-head games (e.g. three or five), the first result in the city that got the extra game is excluded. This balances out the home/road games and makes it more fair.

Calgary's Situation - Here is the state of the season series with the other six teams. As noted would be the case, I've excluded that first (extra) home game in scenarios where the season series is an odd number of games.
  • San Jose - Calgary won 6-3 in points.
  • Winnipeg - Calgary leads 2-0 in points, final game in Winnipeg on Apr. 11 (season finale).
  • Vancouver - Canucks lead 4-3 in points, final game is tonight.
  • Minnesota - TBD. Two games that count will be Feb. 18 in Calgary, Mar. 27 in Minnesota.
  • Dallas - TBD. Two games that count will be Mar. 25 in Calgary, Mar. 30 in Dallas.
  • Los Angeles - Flames lead 4-3 in points, final game in Calgary on Apr. 9.

Given how close the Flames and Canucks are in ROW, it could be the season series that decides it come year-end if the teams are tied. This adds a little bit of extra importance to tonight's game. Calgary needs a regulation win to take the season series or an OT/shootout win to leave it tied.

3. Goal Differential

The final criteria is easy, it's the difference between goals for and goals against. For the purpose of calculating this, a victory in a shootout counts as a goal for. Meanwhile, a loss in a shootout counts as a goal against.

Calgary's Situation - The Flames (+17) are in good shape at the moment with the Canucks (+11) the nearest threat, followed by Winnipeg (+6).

3. Unsustainable First Period Blahs

No team in the NHL -- not the Sabres, not the Oilers, nobody has held fewer first period leads than the Flames. Calgary has taken a lead to the first intermission only 10 times in 55 games. Here's the leader along with the bottom five in that category:

1. Pittsburgh, 27
26. Detroit, 13
      Edmonton, 13
28. Montreal, 11
      Buffalo, 11
30. Calgary, 10

Yet when the Flames do lead after one period, their winning percentage is excellent as they rank third in the league.

1. Detroit, 12-1-0, .923 pct
2. Chicago, 19-2-0, .905 pct
3. Calgary, 9-1-0, .900 pct
4. San Jose, 14-1-1, .875 pct
5. NY Rangers, 19-1-2, .864 pct

Coming from behind and winning games in the third period has been one of the storylines of the Flames season. Their nine wins when trailing after two periods leads the NHL. But it's not something they can count on continuing to be able to do over the final two months. Winnipeg, for example, has yet to come from behind to win a hockey game all season when trailing after two periods.

Where the Flames can make up for a decline in the quantity of comeback victories over the final two months is by winning games more conventionally. By that, I mean score first and play from in front more often. When they do that, they've proven that they're very good at protecting a lead.

In fact, when leading a game after two periods, Calgary is one of two teams with a perfect record.

1. Chicago, 17-0-0, 1.000 pct
1. Calgary, 14-0-0, 1.000 pct
3. NY Rangers, 24-0-1, .960 pct
4. Tampa Bay, 23-0-2, .920 pct
5. Anaheim, 22-0-2, .917 pct

Be better early in games and then continue to lock them down as they've been able to do so far and making the post-season becomes much more realistic.

4. Will They Trade Curtis Glencross?

The Curtis Glencross situation is an intriguing one. He's the Flames most valuable trade chip in terms of their pending unrestricted free agents yet if Calgary has designs on making the post-season, Glencross is the exact type of steady, veteran presence, who can score but also play a shut-down role, that Calgary could use in its line-up every night.

Complicating the situation is Glencross has a no-trade clause so he holds all the cards. Does this mean Calgary won't be able trade him? No. At 32 years old and having only played six career playoff games, I'm certain Glencross -- given his competitive nature -- would be open to a move to a top contender. However, it does mean the Flames are probably looking at a very short list of teams he would agree to be dealt to and that makes it that much harder to get the best possible return -- see Jarome Iginla.

There are seven games before the NHL's March 2 trade deadline. How this upcoming stretch goes could influence what Flames general manager Brad Treliving decides to do.

They've played OK without Glencross going 6-3-0 when he missed nine games recently. That said, you're kidding yourself if you feel the club is just as good without him.

If the organization is to be honest with itself about where Calgary sits in the playoff race this year, where they are at in its rebuild -- i.e. the early stages, trading Glencross should be the priority. Losing assets for nothing like what happened last year with Mike Cammalleri is bad management.

That said, while they blew it with Cammalleri, keeping Glencross this season and then seeing him leave as a free agent in the summer would at least be more forgivable this year given Calgary has a legitimate shot at the playoffs.

However, I just don't see the 50/50 possibility of making the post-season as enough of a reason to trump the importance at this stage of getting an asset in return for Glencross, which could become an important piece of the hockey team's future.

5.  Top Four Iron Core


That's the number of man-games the Flames top four defencemen have lost to injury this season. Both were Kris Russell on Nov. 18 and 20. Calgary relies a ton on it's top two defence pairings of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie, Dennis Wideman and Russell. They average a combined 48-plus minutes per night, They have been the engine of this hockey club all season and Calgary would not be where it is today without them.

Compare to a year ago when at this same 55-game mark of the season, that same group of four had lost 48 games to injury (Russell 14, Wideman 16, Giordano 18).

Their health this season has been a big reason why Calgary is where they are in the standings compared to a year ago -- 10 more wins and in a playoff spot.

In August, I wrote this piece -- 12 things that mostly needed to happen for the Flames to make the playoffs in 2014-15.
  • No. 4 on the list was more of the same from Giordano and Brodie. Check. 
  • No. 7 on the list was stay healthy. Check.

This needs to continue to be the case for this heavily-worked top four if Calgary wants to get back into the post-season for the first time in six years. However, can it?

Given the amount of shot blocking that goes on every game from this group -- Calgary's team total of 1,007 blocked shots ranks second in the NHL behind Buffalo (1,034) and is nearly 100 more than third place Montreal (915), it's going to take a lot of good luck to get through the final two months unscathed.

6. Raymond's Resurgence

Mason Raymond was signed to a three-year contract last summer and brought to Calgary to produce offence. Period. With Cammalleri gone, that left only one player on the Flames roster that scored 20 goals last year and that was then Sean Monahan, this year entering his sophomore season.

At the start of the year, goal scoring is exactly what Raymond provided. But after a fast start -- five goals in seven games for the Cochrane native, he got hurt. Then the offence dried up and so did his effectiveness. Soon he started taking a turn as a healthy scratch, four times watching the game from the press box.

However, suddenly he's found his scoring touch again. Raymond has five goals in his last five games and is tied for third in the NHL in goals in February behind Marian Hossa (7) and Joe Pavelski (6).

With 11 goals in 33 games, that's a pace of 27 goals over an 82-game season. Raymond's career high for goals in a season is 25.

He is playing with much more assertiveness these days, carrying the puck with confidence and he's also shooting more, which is a good thing as he possesses a dangerous shot. Raymond is averaging nearly three shots/game in the last few weeks compared to an average of less than two prior to that.

After scoring once in the span of three-and-a-half months due to injury and ineffective play, the club needs this rejuvenated version of Raymond to continue. He won't stay as scorching hot as he's been but if he can settle in somewhere around 'warm', that would help Calgary's chance a lot.

7. Lady Byng Flames

Thirty-two goals. Just two penalties.

That's what it adds up to for the Flames young stars Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau's last penalty was in Belarus last May at the IIHF World Championships. This season, not one trip to the penalty box in 54 games. Monahan's last visit to the sin bin was back on Dec. 27.

That, in a nutshell, has been the theme all season for Calgary, which is the NHL's least penalized team and has spent the least amount of time shorthanded.

NHL - Fewest Times Shorthanded:

1. Calgary, 130
2. Carolina, 134
3. Chicago, 147
4. NY Islanders, 151
5. Edmonton, 154

The Flames propensity to stay out of the box is a good thing. Despite being perfect on the penalty kill over the last seven games (15-for-15), Calgary still ranks just 23rd on the PK.

How about this one. Only once in the last 18 games was Calgary shorthanded more often than they were on the power play. Just once.

Here's another one. Calgary has spent 213 minutes and 54 seconds on the penalty kill this season. Winnipeg has been shorthanded the most at 398:23. Try and wrap your head around those figures. That's over 184 minutes difference or the equivalent of spending an additional three full games on the penalty kill for the Jets. Holy snap!

Given the desire for truculence in these parts, I find these figures to be quite bizarre. Given the team's aggressive forecheck style of play, I find it quite remarkable also.

8. What's the Decision on Bennett?

Earlier in the month in this piece, I outlined all the scenarios open to the Flames when it comes to Sam Bennett and also predicted what I think will happen. With the team back at home but only for a week before heading out East on a long seven-game road trip, one senses the decision on what's next for Bennett will be coming very, very soon.

At practice last Sunday before the Flames departed to San Jose, Bennett was very involved. He still wore a yellow non-contact jersey but he participated in all the same drills as the other players and it sure looks like he's getting close to being ready.

Update: For today's morning skate in advance of the Flames game against Vancouver, Bennett is no longer wearing a non-contact jersey. So things are, indeed, progressing. Afterwards, coach Bob Hartley told the media that Bennett had been cleared for contact and that he will continue to practice with Calgary for now with a decision on what's next to be made soon.

I had predicted Adirondack's two games against Oklahoma City on Feb. 20 and 21 might be about the ideal timing for him to go down to the AHL on a conditioning stint. What are the Flames thinking? We are about to find out.

While Calgary is fully healthy at forward right now, who knows if that will be the case still in two or three weeks -- injuries tend to come in waves. If they do decide to send him to the AHL briefly, that at least buys them some more time to see if there's a desire or need to get him at least a sample of NHL action this season.

Meanwhile, I've received a couple questions since I wrote that Bennett piece and thought I'd share the answers for everyone's benefit.

Q. Is Bennett being paid right now?

A. Not by the Flames. Per the CBA, when a player is injured in the off-season, his salary while he's on the IR is what he made the previous year. That could be an NHL salary, it could be an AHL salary or for a player that saw time in both leagues the previous year, it would be a blended figure based on how much NHL time he saw. Bennett played in the OHL last year so he's not getting paid.

However, since Calgary has chosen to have Bennett do his injury rehab in Calgary, the Flames do look after his accommodations and that sort of thing.

Q. Will Bennett get paid when if he's sent on a conditioning loan to the AHL?

A. Yes. To go to the AHL on a conditioning loan for up to two weeks as permitted, Bennett needs to be activated and part of the NHL roster. When that happens, he starts earning his NHL salary on a pro-rated basis for the time he's on the NHL roster. If he then is assigned to the OHL, he stops getting paid at that point.


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