Thursday, April 16, 2015

High-Five: Flames Rookies Getting it Done

Five rookie forwards out of 12.


Johnny Gaudreau. Josh Jooris. Markus Granlund. Michael Ferland. Sam Bennett.

All of them were in the line-up Calgary coach Bob Hartley rolled out in Vancouver last night in game one of the Stanley Cup playoffs and they collectively got it done as the Flames got third period goals from David Jones and Kris Russell -- both set up by rookies, to win 2-1.

Add in sophomores Sean Monahan and Joe Colborne and 58 percent of Calgary's forward group were not in the NHL two years ago when the Flames parted ways -- and in a variety of ways, with the old guard of Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Jay Bouwmeester and Miikka Kiprusoff, and officially began the rebuild.

To have that much youth in the line-up during the playoffs is absurd. That's typically the formula for how you compete for draft lottery positioning, not compete in the post-season.

To put that number in perspective, the other 15 NHL teams in their first game on had 22 rookie forwards combined.

You may recall when similar to Bennett, 18-year-old Jarome Iginla joined the Flames when his junior season ended in 1996. As soon as Kamloops was eliminated in the WHL playoffs, Iginla headed to Calgary, put on jersey No. 24, and played in games three and four of the first round series against Chicago, which ended up a sweep for the Blackhawks.

Since then, only four rookie forwards have gotten into a playoff game for Calgary:

  • 2007-08 - Eric Nystrom, 7 gm, 0-0-0
  • 2006-07 - David Moss, 6 gm, 0-1-1
  • 2003-04 - Matthew Lombardi, 13 gm, 1-5-6
  • 2003-04 - Chuck Kobasew, 26 gm, 0-1-1

That's four rookie forwards in 18 years. Last night, Calgary played five in one game and expect it to be five once again on Friday night in game two because other than lingering questions about Monahan's health, they all deserve to be right back in there.

Sam Bennett -- What more can you say. The 18-year-old was a dynamic presence on every shift, skating on the wing with Mikael Backlund and Colborne. It was just NHL game No. 2 for the 2014 4th overall pick but you never would have known it as he played 15 minutes and tied for the team-lead with four shots on goal. On Tuesday, I made a case in this piece that playing Bennett was an absolute must as he would make the Flames better. Well, he sure did. I also suggested once he got in the line-up, he'll likely never come out again and that is also looking like a safe assumption considering he was one of the best players against Vancouver.

Johnny Gaudreau - He took a while to get going in game one. In fact, all night the line of Gaudreau, Jiri Hudler and Monahan were a mere shadow of what they've been the past two months when they've been the best line in hockey. Monahan, looking like he's possibly nursing a minor injury, played a role in that. However, Gaudreau got better individually as the game went on and was carrying that puck, dipsy-doodling, and making plays like always. By the third period, he stood out as the best player on that line.

Michael Ferland - He took an early penalty that put Calgary on the penalty kill. Derek Dorsett took out Russell heavily along the sideboards and Ferland -- as you want and expect him to do, rushed in to remind Dorsett that hits like that will not be tolerated. Ferland drops the gloves, Dorsett -- in a veteran move, does not. Ferland gets the only two minutes. While some described it as a dumb play by the rookie, I'd instead call it a better play by Dorsett to shy away.

Meanwhile, Ferland was terrific the rest of the night. He gets in the offensize zone with pace, finishes his checks with a lot of ferocity that will leave Canucks blueliners looking over their shoulder the rest of the series. Then, showcasing the alluring offensive skills that go with Ferland's size and tenacity, he makes a nice pass to Jones on the tying goal.

Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund - Neither were flashy but they certainly didn't hurt the team. Paired together on the fourth line with veteran winger Brandon Bollig, they did what they were asked to do, get in some cycles along the end boards in the offensize zone and limit the amount of damage in the defensize zone. In particular, the energy that Jooris effuses every shift provides a constant spark to this team.

It's the presence of so much impressive youth on this hockey club that has so many gushing optimism about the future -- both immediate and long term.

Debunking the 'Just Like the Avs' Myth

Critics love to compare the Flames to the Colorado Avalanche and point to how the Avalanche made the playoffs in 2013-14 but then regressed this season.

But for me, it's the personnel where this comparison unravels.

Firstly, which Avs defencemen compare with Calgary's top four? Maybe Tyson Barrie slots in on the second pairing. That's about it.

More pertinent to today's topic, Colorado had only one rookie in the line-up last year -- forward Nathan MacKinnon. Up front, they had no sophomores. Overall, Barrie was their only second-year player. This year, the Avalanche added only one rookie regular and that was right winger Dennis Everberg. Not exactly a high-impact player.

Compare that situation to the Flames -- seven rookies/sophomores in the line-up right now and ready to join the club next year are 2013 first round pick Emile Poirier and Tyler Wotherspoon on the back-end.

The dots on the advanced stats line charts may be similar if you overlay Calgary's high shooting percentage and low possession this year on top of Colorado's similar numbers from last season, but there is way more to the equation than that. The Flames are full of young kids that are only going to get better. That line chart is changing every day and heck, Bennett was not even with the team to contribute to those so-called unsustainable numbers so it would be overly presumptuous to paint him with the same brush.

Setting Up the Kids for Success

So, how it is that these young and inexperienced players on the Flames are handling the enormity of the moment of first being in a playoff race and now being in the playoffs, yet staying so poised and continuing to look like seasoned veterans?

For one, part of it is in their make-up as players. We all know how calm, cool and methodical Monahan is. He's got the presence of a 30-year-old, not a 20-year-old. Some are just more naturally able to handle the pressures than others.

Age is another factor. Other than Bennett, the other four rookies are 21 or older with Jooris a relative 'old man' at age 24. With age comes more experience in similar high-stakes situations at different levels -- college, junior, international.

Lastly, credit to general manager Brad Treliving and Hartley. While in this day and age, so many get caught up on on-ice performance and a player's raw analytics, underrated are the intangibles like experience, veteran presence, and leadership that can be critically important at this time of year and is an ingredient all successful teams must have.

In the visiting dressing room in Rogers Arena, Bennett's dressing room stall is beside Bollig's. This wasn't done accidentally. While Mason Raymond or Drew Shore are both better players, it's Bollig that is playing on a line with Jooris and Granlund.

While fans hate it, what Bollig brings to the line-up and dressing room is a calming influence. As Hartley likes to say, he's a pro. Plus, he has experience of playing in these types of big games. He has a Stanley Cup ring.

Hartley takes heat for his usage of Bollig in particular but it's hard to argue with the results. It's these decisions and how Hartley manages the personnel on his roster -- from inserting a rookie like Bennett right into the fire when no one expects it, to also playing a veteran like Bollig when nobody understands it. But it's these decisions and how successful they've turned out that is why he's a coach in the NHL it's why he'll quite likely win the Jack Adams in June as the best coach in the NHL.

It's also why Hartley and his hockey club hold a 1-0 lead in the series against Vancouuer.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


Recent Related Flames Reading
  • The Time for Sam Bennett is Right NowWhat's better than having an ace up your sleeve? Having an ace in your hand. There is a time to be patient with young players and there's a time to be loyal with veteran players. But now it's time for Bob Hartley to ice the line-up he can to beat the Vancouver Canucks four times in the next seven games. That line-up should include Sam Bennett,
  • The Decisive Dozen: 12 Games That Made the Difference in 2014-15 - It wasn't easy but here is my carefully curated list of the 12 most important games of the regular season, a year in which the Flames did the improbable in making the Stanley Cup playoffs. Included are links to the highlights of each game. 
  • 20 Compelling Reasons Why Sam Bennett Should Join Calgary Right Now - It was a fascinating situation and before Brad Treliving made his decision, I made mine by coming up with several very good reasons why bringing Sam Bennett to Calgary made the most sense. 
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Hudler No. 1 in the NHL, Bouma Better Than Crosby and More - A bunch of interesting topics this week as I dig into Jiri Hudler's perch atop the NHL's even-scoring leaders. I also look at Bouma's success at even-strength -- more goals that Crosby. Other topics include Flames tie-breaker updates and a list of highest point totals to ever miss the playoffs. 


  1. No comments on such an informative and well written piece? Sorry I had to step up and give you props Darren ... very well said. Will the Flames be able to withstand the likely 1st period onslaught? In some 12 hours or so, we will know. BTW: I was more nervy/engaged before the Kings game (game 81) than Game 1 .... all this is so much of a bonus. Perhaps the Flames are in that boat as well? Staying loose and really pushing every shift. If our #1 line even ups it a bit ... the Canucks could be in trouble (if they're not already!). Again, well done Darren and continued success!

    1. Thanks for reading and for the kind words, much appreciated. And no, the Flames weren't able to survive the first period onslaught!

      But you're right, this year is a bonus so enjoy for as long as the journey lasts.