Sunday, May 31, 2015

Lightning-Quick Rebuild: Could the Calgary Flames Become What Tampa Bay is?

Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning got more games, goals and points from rookies than of any of the other 29 NHL teams. One year later, here they are in the Stanley Cup final.

If you're a Flames supporter, this may have you thinking 'hang on, what about us?'

After all, Calgary is coming off a season in 2014-15 in which they got huge contributions from rookies. Is there a chance the Flames could also experience a similar step forward next season?

To begin, let's look at similarities between the two organizations:

2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning (excluding playoffs)
  • 1st with 504 rookie games (2nd was NYI with 336) 
  • 1st with 73 rookie goals (2nd was NYI with 55)
  • 1st with 201 rookie points (2nd was NYI with 98)
  • Jumped 33 points in the standings, going from 68 points* in 2012-13 to 101 points
  • Made playoffs after missing in five of the previous six seasons
  • Lost in 1st round
* Estimated 82-game total based on team's record over the lockout-shortened 48-game season.

Leading the way for Tampa Bay was Ondrej Palat (23-36-59) and Tyler Johnson (24-26-50), who finished second and third respectively in the voting for the Calder. Others playing 40-plus games included Radko Gudas, JT Brown, Nikita Kucherov, Richard Panik, Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr.

2014-15 Calgary Flames (excluding playoffs)
  • 4th with 235 rookie games (Behind CAR 250, OTT 242, TB 241)
  • 2nd with 46 rookie goals (1st was OTT with 61)
  • 2nd with 113 rookie points (1st was OTT with 131)
  • Jumped 20 points in the standings, going from 77 points in 2013-14 to 97 points
  • Made playoffs after missing the previous five seasons
  • Lost in 2nd round

Calder finalist Johnny Gaudreau (24-40-64) led the way with Josh Jooris (12-12-24) playing a full season also. Markus Granlund (8-10-18) played nearly 50 games as well. Of course, you also have to factor in the playoffs with Calgary given the late season impact had by Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett.

It's Not That Simple

But, what else?

Did Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman just sit back and trot out the same 23-man roster in reaching 50 wins this season?

Did coach Jon Cooper get the same performances from players in seeing the Lightning surge from 101 to 108 points?

The answer is no and no, and that's why merely comparing rookie contributions then crossing your fingers and hoping is fun and all, but is an overly simplistic way of viewing it.

To enjoy similar success, Calgary GM Brad Treliving will need to have a good off-season too, as the Lightning did last summer. Also, coach Bob Hartley will need many of his players to take a stride forward in terms of individual performance once again next season.  

Revisiting What Yzerman Did

1. Overhauled the Blueline

The upgrading began at last year's NHL Draft when Jason Garrison was acquired in a trade with Vancouver.

A few days later on July 1, the Lightning signed unrestricted free agent Anton Stralman to a five-year/$22-million deal. The Stralman signing has worked out terrific as he's established himself as a very good NHL defenceman playing on Tampa Bay's top pairing with Victor Hedman.

Lastly, completing a 75 percent makeover of the Lightning's top four compared to a year ago, youngster Radko Gudas was shipped to Philadelphia at the trade deadline to get Braydon Coburn, who promptly got hurt but returned in time for the post-season and has cemented the second pairing.

By making those moves, it has allowed Tampa Bay to drop Matt Carle and Sustr down to the third pairing. That has resulted in a much more formidable D group from top to bottom.

> What Treliving Could do

Calgary's top four of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie, Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell, are better than where Tampa Bay was a year ago. However, the drop-off beyond them is severe. The lack of depth on the blueline is an organizational need and one GM Brad Treliving has said he is focused on trying to address this summer. However, one shouldn't expect the volume of upgrades Tampa Bay made.

Bringing in someone to play in the top four and potentially bump Russell or Wideman to the third pairing when everyone is healthy would be in the spirit of what Tampa Bay did and what happened with Carle.

If you look at UFAs, Cody Franson is one that is talked about a lot. Calgary-born Mike Green is set to leave Washington after 10 seasons in the Capitals organization so he's another possibility. Other defencemen that could be available via free agency include Andrej Sekera, Jeff Petry, Christian Ehrhoff, Zbynek Michalek and Johnny Oduya.

Recently signed Jakub Nakladal, 27, a solid stay-at-home defenceman signed out of the Czech Republic, provides some depth and perhaps he surprises. College signing Kenney Morrison is another unknown although presumably he's further down the list. David Schlemko is a pending UFA but he expressed interest in returning after being a useful player down the stretch.

The D prospect people are waiting for is Tyler Wotherspoon but he won't be penciled in, he'll have to come into camp and forge his way onto the roster.

2. Improved the Veteran Group

In terms of that ingredient of veteran leadership, Yzerman used a compliance buyout to move on from 34-year-old Ryan Malone. He then brought in character and a bunch of playoff experience in the form of 35-year-old Brenden Morrow, who he inked as a free agent.

Also, by unloading a bunch of committed money by trading away Teddy Purcell and creating a roster spot at centre by dealing Nate Thompson, Yzerman brought in size in 6-foot-7 centre Brian Boyle, who he signed as a free agent after Boyle was very good for the Rangers in their run to the Stanley Cup final in 2014.

> What Treliving Could Do

Calgary has already moved on from its two oldest forwards lastseason, who were Brian McGrattan and Curtis Glencross. That leaves Matt Stajan and Jiri Hudler, both 31, as the senior members of the forward group.

Pending UFA right-winger Joel Ward, given his size, rugged style of play and penchant for being at his best in big games -- and as a right-winger, could be an attractive player short term for Treliving. At 34, his age doesn't make him ideal, but he strikes me as a guy that would fit in really well with the culture Hartley and this team has established.

3. Created Opportunity

With the exit of Purcell, the trading away of BJ Crombeen, and the departure of free agent Sami Salo, Yzerman created opportunity for the organization's young prospects and a few of them stepped up and gave the club a nice boost.

Taking advantage and playing their first full season was scrappy forward Cedric Paquette, 21, who made the jump from the AHL and hotshot major junior star Jonathan Drouin, who has been brought along very slowly -- a luxury the organization had.

Vladislav Namestnikov, 22, also had a nice season for Tampa Bay notching nine goals and 16 points in 43 games with the big club. He split the season between the AHL and NHL.

On the blue-line, Nikita Nesterov has gotten in 14 playoff games after joining the Lightning after Christmas and playing 27 regular season games.

> What Treliving Could Do

As is the mantra around Calgary, NHL opportunities are going to be earned, not given. However, looking beyond Ferland and Bennett, who will surely secure roster spots, 2013 first round pick Emile Poirier is someone that could win a job out of training camp.

Sidelined to begin the year by off-season shoulder surgery, Poirier spent most of his first pro season in the AHL going 19-23-42 in 55 games. He got in six games with Calgary just to get his feet wet but was used sparingly. While a left-hand shot, he loves playing the right-wing and has some spice to his game that would be welcomed. A good camp could mean good things for the 20-year-old.

Also up front, rugged 6-foot-2 right-winger Garnet Hathaway is a player to watch. The Brown University grad impressed in his first pro season (19-17-36) in Adirondack. At 6-foot-3, late-blooming Austin Carroll, also a right-hand shooter, is another player to watch after wrapping up his junior career with Victoria with his best WHL season (38-39-77). Carroll is likely bound for the AHL but management does think very highly of the physical 21-year-old, who like Ferland also has some nice offensive skill.

Revisiting What Cooper Got

1. Superb Sophomore Seasons

It's one thing to shine as a rookie. But can that player elevate their game even more in year two? In the case of the famed 'triplet line' as they've become known, Palat, Johnson and Kucherov have responded with a resounding yes. All three improved offensively compared to their rookie season.
  • Kucherov, +47 pts. Went from 52 gm, 9-9-18 to 82 gm, 29-36-65
  • Johnson, + 22 pts. Went from 82 gm, 24-26-50 to 77 gm, 29-43-72
  • Palat, + 4 pts. Went from 81 gm, 23-36-59 to 75 gm, 16-47-63

Plus, they continue to get better. Their play in the post-season thus far has been nothing short of phenomenal combining for 28 goals and 55 points in 20 games.

> What Hartley Could Get

I'd expect another stellar year from Gaudreau, who was 24-40-64 in 80 regular season games and then led the team in the post-season with nine points in 11 games. I'd suggest 75-80 points is a possibility in year two. I'm less certain Jooris (12-12-24 in 60 gm) will be able to take another step forward offensively. He brings a lot to the team -- decent size, speed, strong forecheck, solid on the PK, but the offensive bar may have been set a little high. He only scored 11 goals the previous season in the AHL so merely repeating this past year would be a more realistic target.

For late season additions Ferland and Bennett, there is lots to like with both of them and they should each be in line for a great season. Bennett, in particular, is a guy to watch. The way he arrived on the scene, it's easy to forget next year isn't a sophomore season for Bennett as he's still considered a rookie and he has the abilities to be right there in the conversation for the Calder, which promises to be hotly contested given the likes of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

2. Solid Goaltending

Ben Bishop was a Vezina finalist in 2013-14 and was a big reason why with an average defence group, the Lightning had as good of a year as they did. While Bishop didn't have as good of a regular season this year, seeing his save percentage fall from .924 to .916, he has stepped up and delivered some clutch performances so far in the playoffs.

In particular, in Tampa Bay's three clinching games, the 28-year-old has allowed only one goal and stopped 71 of 72 shots.

Off the bench, rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy posted a .918 save percentage in winning seven of his 13 starts, which was a nice complement to Bishop.

> What Hartley Could Get

The cast is likely to change next season. Pending UFA Karri Ramo probably moves on with 24-year-old Joni Ortio getting a turn to work in tandem with veteran Jonas Hiller. The Flames are hopeful Ortio will emerge as the No. 1 given Hiller is entering the final season of his two-year deal.

In reeling off four straight road wins in January, Ortio demonstrated that he is capable of delivering the type of consistent goaltending that Bishop has provided. Mind you, Hiller has shone at times also -- see the playoff series versus the Canucks.

However, good in spurts doesn't get teams into Stanley Cup finals. There is potential for the Flames to get even bettter goaltending in 2014-15 but there are no assurances. When he was on, Ramo turned in some spectacular performances over the course of the year.

3. Great Supporting Performances

Five players come to mind.

Coming off a broken leg, Stamkos didn't have quite the same burden on him to carry the offence given the emergence of the other Lightning forwards but he still notched 43 goals, second in the NHL behind Alex Ovechkin (51).

Hedman, 2nd overall pick in the 2009 Draft, continues to establish himeslf as one of the NHL's premier young defencemen and will be a Norris candidate in no time.

Third-year forward Alex Killorn had similar regular season totals to his second year but has made a nice impact this post-season going 7-9-16.

While the offensive totals for veteran centre Valtteri Filppula went down with Johnson's emergence as a top six centre, the production has come back in the playoffs as Stamkos shifted to the wing and Filppula returned to being second line centre.

After a couple injury-marred sub-standard years, Ryan Callahan equalled his career high with 54 points. That included 24 goals.

> What Hartley Could Get

Sorry Bob, but you're out of luck when it comes to Stamkos. Calgary does not have a player of Stamkos' ilk, they simply don't. Bennett might one day be a guy that has similar impact on a game but it would be different type of impact and won't be the same gaudy goal totals. Monahan is not built out of the Stamkos mold either. There just is no stud offensive player of this high calibre in the organization and Calgary won't be adding one anytime soon.

Brodie's career arc is climbing rapidly towards being in the NHL elite, just like Hedman. Getting Giordano back as the veteran that makes him that much better, like the role Stralman plays with Hedman, will see Brodie's game take off once again after being Deryk Engelland's custodian the final two months of 2014-15.  Brodie is darn good and it won't be long before he'll surpass Giordano as the club's top defender.

While they're very different players with Killorn having much more natural offensive skill, could Lance Bouma provide something similar what Killorn provides? Bouma's 16 goals this season would suggest that's possible but not many are expecting Bouma to be able to repeat that. But in terms of age and overall impact, Killorn is not a bad comparable and like Killorn has done, Bouma is someone that could thrive in the post-season.

In many ways, Mikael Backlund's role and what it will evolve into over the next couple years, reminds me of where Filppula was at this season. Staying healthy is key for Backlund, who was at his best in the playoffs. A strong regular season from Backlund where he's ready from the start would give Calgary a boost.

David Jones is probably Calgary's best match for Callahan. Jones had a bad start to the season but came on strong in the second half and had a good playoffs. If he could ever stay healthy for a full season, the playoffs gave you a glimpse of the impact he could have given his size and skill.

Realistic Expectations

While there are similarities between the two teams, the reality is the Lightning and Flames are not in identical positions -- as much as fans may hope. Tampa Bay was further along heading into this season than Calgary will be to start next season.

An example of this is at centre and I broached this topic in some depth last weekend in this piece that examined the Flames history at the centre position. There are definitely similarities between Calgary's young core at centre in Monahan, Bennett and Backlund compared to the Lightning with Johnson, Stamkos and Filppula. However, that Lightning trio are collectively five years older and have the experience to show for it. The Flames will get there but they're just not there yet.

That same theme applies to the entire forward group where Calgary doesn't have the same depth as what the Lightning deployed in leading the NHL in goals scored this season. That showed up in the analytics where Tampa Bay was one of the NHL's top teams and the Flames were one of the worst.

This is an area Treliving specifically addressed at year end too, recognizing Calgary needs to possess the puck more and that's not something that is going to happen over night. However, the Flames are on the right track and should be at least a little better in that area next year just naturally as their young players return stronger and more experienced.

Good For Now or Great Forever

What the Lightning's success does re-inforce is that the NHL is a young man's game now. With Stamkos, Johnson, Hedman, Killorn and Palat all in that 'sweet spot' of being 24 or 25 years old, it shows what could be possible for the Flames in a few years with their young core of Ferland, Gaudreau, Bennett, Monahan and Brodie.

By turning over a portion of the roster every off-season, building up a solid supporting cast, strengthening the back-end, continually injecting youth, Yzerman has built a Lightning team that looks poised to be good for many years to come.

It's not to say the Flames won't be able to accomplish next season what Tampa Bay is doing right now, just don't expect it.

What you should be hoping for instead is that Calgary stays the course on its rebuild and eventually gets to where the Lightning are at. Being a perennial Stanley Cup threat in which deep playoff runs become the norm, not the exception, should be the real goal here.

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.


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