Sunday, May 24, 2015

Recapping the 2014-15 Season (Part 2): Ten Storylines That Defined the Year

As documented right here in Part 1 of my 2014-15 season recap, there were plenty of impactful individual performances by Flames players this season.

There were a lot of terrific hockey games also. The biggest of the bunch came on December 22. Trailing 3-0 to the Kings and well on their way to a ninth straight loss, Calgary got the game back to even on a natural hat-trick by Johnny Gaudreau, the latter two coming with the goalie pulled late in the third period. Then, Mark Giordano scored the dramatic overtime goal to win it.

While that stood out as the most important road win during the regular season on my list of the 12 most impactful games, the terrific spell of hockey fans saw at the Saddledome late in the year was some of the best of the last decade. First came the playoff spot-clinching win against the Kings in the final home game on April 9. Then, making it two of the best home games of the past 10 years in a span of 10 days, Calgary came back from down 3-0 to defeat the Canucks in game 6 and win the first round series.

It was quite a season. Here is a summary of what fans will remember about this season.

Ten Storylines from the 2014-15 Flames Season

1. So Many Third Period Comebacks

In the end, the Flames finished with 13 wins in games in which they trailed after two periods -- pulling it off a team-record 10 times in the regular season and then three more times in the post-season. To put the playoff number in context, Calgary was 3-3 in games in which they trailed after two periods this season. In the previous 19 years (dating back to 1996), Calgary was 1-23 when facing that scenario.

Further, over the last four regular seasons, Calgary has only come back to win when trailing after two periods a total of 14 times. There was a never-quit attitude that was a trademark of this year's team and it made each and every one of their games something you had to watch until the very end.

The greatest example of this wasn't even a game they won. Back on March 8 in Ottawa, at the tail end of a gruelling seven-game road trip in which they had lost their captain for the season, down 4-0 with less than 14 minutes left, the Flames stormed back to tie it before losing in OT.

2. Return of the 'C of Red'

By this, I'm not just talking about the incredible spectacle that was the Saddledome on game night, row after row of fans outfitted in authentic red Flames jerseys, but all over the city -- in office towers, in restaurants, on Stephen Avenue, there were jerseys everywhere. Flames car flags returned, productivity in work places sagged on game days, it was a rallying point for a city that embraced this blue collar team and supported them with pride.

Also, the Red Mile became a thing again and as a tribute to Calgarians, was a a well-behaved thing with plenty to celebrate over their three weeks of playoff action. You get the sense this year was almost like a dress rehearsal for all this becoming once again a rite of spring around Calgary, just like it was in the glory days of the late 80s.

3. Hartley Presses All the Right Buttons

It's why Bob Hartley should be a slam-dunk for the Jack Adams for NHL coach of the year. To put things in the context of baseball, Hartley isn't an American League manager, just idly sitting back with his hands in his lap, watching his team roll four lines. He's more like a National League manager, always involved, always tinkering to find the right mix prior to each game and then further adjusting mid-game as we'd see ice times rise or fall depending on who was going that particular night.

Hartley wasn't afraid to bounce back and forth between his 1a and 1b (in some order) job-sharing goalies nor was he shy about pulling either one of them and doing so early when he felt the team needed a spark. In fact, Hartley was especially good at knowing just the right time to insert his back-up into a game. Remarkably, three times during the season including game 6 against Vancouver, Calgary rallied back to win a game that the Flames were losing when Hartley inserted his back-up goalie.

In a year where the Flames had five rookies play significant roles, Hartley set them up for success rather than failure. He waited until the right time to play them and when he did, he put them in the line-up in a spot where they could succeed. The number of players that had career seasons also reflects favourably on Hartley, whose confidence on the bench never seemed to waver nor did his support and confidence in his team off the ice.

4. Overcoming the Loss of Giordano

At the time of the injury in late February, Mark Giordano led all defencemen in scoring and was a leading candidate for the Norris trophy for NHL's best defenceman. At the time, the Flames weren't even in a playoff spot. Losing the heart and sole of their hockey club was supposed to be a death sentence.

Instead, the Flames went a remarkable 12-6-3 to finish the regular season and ended up 17-11-4 overall with No. 5 absent from the line-up. Extrapolate that over 82 games and you have a 97-point pace (and with a harder-than-normal schedule), which is absolutely stunning considering they basically did that playing only five defencemen.

With Giordano on the blue-line, the Ducks are still a better team than Calgary on paper. However, so often this season it was not so much about who was the better team, but it was about the Flames ability to find a way to win.

We'll never know but it's not that outlandish to think that the series with Anaheim might well have gone back to Honda Centre for game six if Calgary was able to get Giordano back in that series. Instead, expect a seriously motivated Giordano next season.

You sure do feel back for Giordano though. With only four playoff games in his NHL career, he deserved to be in the line-up this post-season as the team's transformation came under his reign as captain and by all accounts, he was instrumental in how quickly it happened.

As Hartley often said, the team had Giordano the captain, they just didn't have Giordano the player. Well, they needed the player. The remaining big three turned in a yeoman's efforts and Deryk Engelland gave all he could and more, but you simply don't replace a player of his value.

5. Brad Treliving Standing Pat

The first impressions weren't terrific. Trading a third round pick at the 2014 draft for Brandon Bollig, the gigantic free agent contract issued to bottom pair defenceman in Engelland, the signing of Devin Setoguchi. But, give GM Brad Treliving the benefit of actually getting to know his team personally and reserving judgement until after he's actually making moves based on his own assessment rather than the suggestions of others (and computer reports) and his body of work gets significantly better.

There was the willingness to ship Brian McGrattan to the minors upon realizing that the NHL game had suddenly evolved into a much faster game in 2014-15. He got some terrific work done early in the year, realizing what he had and re-signing both TJ Brodie and Hartley to extensions. Some shrewd negotiating got him a second and third round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft for Curtis Glencross, who disappointed in Washington, as well as a second round pick for an unhappy Sven Baertschi, who declared he wasn't going to re-sign with Calgary anyway. The non-move of not mortgaging the future for a quick fix for Giordano, a move unlikely to have gotten Calgary any further anyway, may turn out to shrewdest move of all.

With some interesting RFA situations to deal with and six draft picks in the top 90, more exams are coming up for Treliving but I'd assess it as a good rookie season.

6. A Playoff Series Win

Let's face it, it hasn't happened often. Since Terry Crisp coached the Flames to the Stanley Cup in 1989, this season was only the second time Calgary has made it beyond the first round. That's in a span of 26 years.

To put that in context, Hartley is the 11th different coach during that period (and that's excluding interim coaches). The importance of that achievement, as nominal as it may have felt after a five-game exit to Anaheim, cannot be overstated. Just like how the 22 games without a win in Anaheim is a streak that transcends generations of players yet still seems to cast a shadow over the team whenever they play at Honda Center, the futility of this organization when it comes to playoffs has also been very well documented and had put a tremendous burden on the team. Getting over that hump this season will bode very well for the future.

Maybe a win in Anaheim will be next.

7. The Anti-Analytics Team

All season it was essentially a gang war between the advanced stats community and a loyal Flames fan base. The stats guys, armed with charts and scads of historical data, adamantly told fans that Calgary won't keep winning, they can't, what they're doing is unsustainable. Meanwhile, Calgary's fans defiantly pointed towards the scoreboard/wins column, saying 'oh yeah?'

Was there a winner? Reaching the final eight in a 30-team league can hardly be construed as a failure so that's where I would lean. Was there a lot of luck along the way? Sure. But did the team's refusal to ever quit in a game also play a role? For sure.

There's also something to be said about Calgary's quick transition game and defence-led offensive attack. Designing a game plan for the personnel they had -- quick forwards, puck-distributing defencemen, and coming up with a playing style that's not that prevalent, the Flames found a way to scrap out goals and wins, both of which are the metrics the NHL uses for success. While not saying it won't happen, it would be naive and premature with a young, growing team with an evolving roster to automatically pencil them in for a regression next season. Mind you, such a slight may be the best thing for Calgary, who seemed to thrive on the fact nobody expected them to do anything this season.

8. Unsung Heroes

While so much was made all year, especially in the second half, of the line of Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler, it was a season in which so many others stepped up and took a turn in the spotlight. Who will forget David Schlemko'spectacular shootout goal in Boston in his first game in a Flames uniform. Then there was Raphael Diaz notching a beautiful go-ahead goal in a pivotal win late in the year in Dallas. Fast forward to the playoffs and you had Engelland surviving his epic 3:32 shift-from-hell in the clinching win against the Canucks. Then you had Brandon Bollig and Joe Colborne with clutch goals in game 3 against Anaheim.

Arriving out of nowhere, Josh Jooris was a key contributor all season including a hat-trick versus Arizona on December 2. Joni Ortio arrived rather suddenly also and promptly won four straight starts in January.

It seems cliché to say every single person contributed along the way but in this instance, if you look down the Flames roster, it's true. Every role player delivered in the clutch at some point in the season.

9. Youth Movement All Year Long

The season was 1996-97, the year after Sam Bennett was born. That was the last time the Flames had a cast of rookies that collaborated to score as many goals during the regular season as this year's rookies did. And that's not including the contributions from sophomores Monahan and Colborne. The youth getting things done was definitely a recurring theme all year.

Calgary finished the season with 46 goals from first-year players, the most since since 1996-97 when the Flames got 50 -- Jarome Iginla 21, Jonas Hoglund 19, Joel Bouchard 4, Chris O'Sullivan 2, Todd Simpson 1, Cale Hulse 1, Dale McTavish 1 and Hnat Domenichelli 1.

However, if you're familiar with Calgary's history, you'll know that wasn't a playoff year for the Flames so 50 was the net total. Not the case for this year's group. With five of the team's 12 forwards opening night of the playoffs being rookies -- which is flat-out ridiculous -- the contributions continued into late April and May with 10 more goals for a full-season total of 56.

That's the most regular season and playoffs combined since 1987-88 when the Flames got 84 -- Joe Nieuwendyk 54, Brett Hull 26 (before being traded to St. Louis), Brian Glynn 2 and Shane Churla 1.

To put the post-season success in context, Calgary had only deployed four rookie forwards in the playoffs total since Iginla's debut in 1996 and those four -- Eric Nystrom, David Moss, Matthew Lombardi and Chuck Kobasew -- had combined for one goal.

10. Good Goaltending Despite Not Having a No. 1 

The goaltending situation for the Flames is one of the most fascinating stories to follow this off-season. The two guys under contract for 2015-16 are Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio. Hiller has one year left on his two-year, $9-million deal signed last summer and Ortio's contract for next season converts to a one-way deal in which he's also now waiver-eligible. Essentially the Flames must keep him in the NHL or they'll probably be claimed by another team if they try to demote him.

But the guy, who finished both playoff series and turned in a magnificent performance against the Ducks in particular was Karri Ramo, who at age 28 is also four-and-a-half years younger than Hiller. There's a lot to like with Ramo's athleticism and while neither he or Hiller may ultimately turn out to be the goaltender of the future, Ramo sure looks like the better of the two in terms of goaltender of the current. But to be that in Calgary, the pending unrestricted free agent will need to sign here and that would seemingly only make sense for all parties if Hiller is then peddled.

Two starters, two back-ups, however you want to view it, Hartley flipped back and forth between the two of them often and it seemed to work out just fine as to the team's benefit, when a goalie got hot, so did the Flames.

Final Thoughts

While there may be particular elements of Calgary's game that are unsustainable -- the third period comebacks, for one, the getting grossly outshot on some nights but still winning is another, there are reasons to believe the rebuild is still progressing nicely. First, you look at the impact on the playoffs of Ferland and Bennett, who were not a meaningful part of the regular season at all, especially Bennett, who didn't draw in until the season's final game in Winnipeg.

The future does look promising. 2014 second round pick Mason McDonald had a good year going until he got injured in the playoffs. Highly-touted Jon Gillies won the NCAA championship and promptly turned pro by signing with Calgary. Joining him in Stockton of the American Hockey League next year will be Austin Carroll, a seventh round draft pick, who has an attractive upside. Also up front you have Markus Granlund and Emile Poirier. Don't forget about Morgan Klimchuk either, the third of the Flames three first round picks in 2013, who finished the season strongly with Brandon. The recent re-signing but this time to an NHL entry-level contract of Garnet Hathaway also bodes well. He is a big guy, who is a banger, and you can bet on him making some noise next training camp.

On the blue-line, Calgary successfully wooed free agent Kenney Morrison. Newly inked 27-year-old Czech blue-liner Jakub Nakladal is an intriguing situation also and Tyler Wotherspoon, despite his inability to gain Hartley's confidence this season, remains very much on the radar. Looking a couple years down the road, Brandon Hickey at Boston University is progressing very nicely, the exorbitant ice time he got as a freshman -- and on a good team -- speaks volumes.

It was a compelling season from start to finish and there's more to come. I'd even suggest the best is still to come.

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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