Monday, July 27, 2015

StickTAP July 2015: Your Questions Answered in the Form of a Thought, Analysis or Prediction

Here we go with the first StickTAP of the off-season. I experimented with this mailbag-like content feature last summer but my attempt to answer each reader question with a Thought, Analysis and Prediction proved too time-consuming.

So, this time around, each response will be in the form of one of them, not all of them.

That said, when I put out the call for questions on Saturday, I received approximately 60 so compiling this 2015 debut hasn't been any less time consuming!

A couple notes before we begin. Firstly, thanks for the engagement. Secondly, a disclaimer. Unfortunately I will not be able to get to all the questions today but I've answered a bunch. If I didn't get to yours, my apologies. Time permitting, I'll try to do a part two later on.

Also, there were some recurring themes in which many similar questions were asked. So some of you may not see your exact question below, but you may see one similar to it. Hopefully the answer provided answers your question too.

Let's get started.

What makes Mark Giordano such an effective captain is he is not only an excellent leader off the ice, but he is the team's best player on the ice. That's a powerful combination. I think too often the team's best player is made the captain when they may not have what it takes away from the ice, which is a big component of it. It's no different than a mistake many companies make in taking the top sales person and making him or her the sales manager. Some people may be good at selling, but are not good at managing people. It's just not their forte.

My guess is Sam Bennett will be Giordano's eventual successor. We've already started to see Bennett exposed to leadership scenarios such as coming to development camp and being expected to take charge as the veteran in terms of NHL experience. Included was him heading up the group when they all went to the Stampede one night, an evening that included Bennett being the spokesman up on stage before the Chuckwagons.

We're still just getting to know Bennett but my impression in the first 14 months is he is very comfortable in front of the media, he has a swagger to him, an intensity, and he seems to be well-liked off the ice. Combine that with his skill set on the ice and he would be my prediction as the next-in-line for the 'C' assuming that's several years away still.

There has been a lot of hype around Oliver Kylington and that's for a few reasons. For one, it's because he was once considered as high as a top five pick yet fell to 60. Speculation about why is an intriguing story in itself (and one I documented recently right here). Secondly, he truly is a very gifted skater so that NHL-ready element to his game has also attracted a lot of attention.

However, the Flames are very high on Rasmus Andersson and did have him ranked above Kylington on their list and also had him "much higher" than where they drafted him. What they like about Andersson is he fits what they want in a defenceman in that he's a dynamic player, good skater, jumps up in the rush, is a good puck distributor and has a hard shot.

Last year, I would suggest it was Jiri Hudler who "stirred the drink" on the top line. He had a real mentor-like relationship with those guys on and off the ice, especially Johnny Gaudreau. However, last year Sean Monahan was still only 20 years old and Gaudreau, 21, was a NHL rookie. Meanwhile, Hudler was 30. As Monahan and Gaudreau get older and mature, they will take on a larger role and of the two of them, I'd suggest Gaudreau is always going to be the guy that makes his line click, whoever his linemates are.

What was unique about that trio last year was that they were an actual line. Finding chemistry like that for an entire line is not all that common any more. Often in today's NHL, teams have winger-centre pairings that stick together but not often is it a full line that remains intact for so long. In that regard, if Hudler is traded this summer, it would be a temporary step back but Monahan and Gaudreau are both too good of players for that to last too long and should they stay together, they'd make it work with whomever ends up playing right wing.

I don't think they will although if you held a gun to my head and demanded me to say one name as most likely, it would be Mason Raymond. Raymond did not have a great season last year. He admitted that much. He bumped around various lines and also took some turns as a healthy scratch. It's not clear where he fits into this year's roster either.

If he doesn't fit into the current mix, the better route is retaining some salary if you need to and trying to trade him. If you can retain $1 million and deal him, then you're only on the books for that $1 million for two seasons. If you buy him out, you do reduce your cap hit for the next two seasons but as part of how the buyout process works, you'll be stuck with a $1 million cap hit penalty for the two years beyond that and that type of wasted precious cap space for 2017-18 and 2018-19 would be a real concern.

It's no sure thing Lance Bouma scores 16 goals in any of the next three years and if I was a betting man, I would say he doesn't. However, that would not make his three-year contract a mistake as he is on this team for more reasons than just goal production. One of the perspectives I shared in this Bouma piece the other day is that players that scored 15 or 16 goals last year in the NHL (who are no longer on their entry-level contracts), will make an average salary of over $4.3 million this season, which is nearly twice what Bouma is making. In short, although they'd love it if he did, he's not being paid with the expectation that he puts up 16 goals again each of the next three seasons.

I think Bouma has an excellent shot and has some 'sneaky good' offensive abilities for a guy in his role. Plus he continues to work at that side of his game in the off-season with shooting and skills coach Tim Turk. I think he will settle in at around 10 goals although if he gets 12 or 13, that would not surprise me. It's just going to be awfully difficult to repeat 16 again considering the team's improved forward depth. Bouma's shooting percentage of 15.4 will also inevitably regress at least a little bit.

At this time, I see him spending time on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik and that will come with some defensive responsibility. As a result, I see him having a better year points-wise than Monahan but not as good as Gaudreau. Put him down for 22 goals and 30 assists for 52 points.

I'm certain either Jonas Hiller or Karri Ramo will get traded in the next couple months and Joni Ortio will get an extended chance to prove himself at the NHL level this season. Given his age (24), his strong play in both the AHL last year and in the NHL in his two-week stint in January when he won four straight starts on the road, there's too much invested in Ortio in terms of development time to risk exposing him on waivers to try and demote him to Stockton. 

Heck, if they can't find any interest in either Ramo or Hiller, I could even see the Flames assigning one of them to Stockton and potentially losing them on waivers for nothing before they risk losing a  young asset like Ortio.

Carrying on the goaltender conversation. Trade values are going to be pretty similar. Both will be a UFA at the end of the season so they're essentially one-year rentals. While Hiller (.918) had a better save percentage than Ramo (.912), it was the by-product of having fewer blow-up games.

Over the course of the season, Ramo's performances were more volatile -- his best games were better but his worse games were worse. I dug into this a couple months back and if you trim away something like the worst 15% of their starts for the season, their save percentages become identical. While I think Calgary would prefer to keep Ramo and trade Hiller, perhaps the Flames approach will be to trade the goalie they get the most calls about and/or the one that gets them the best return. If you look at it that way, I think that could be Ramo. He's younger so a team that trades for him is more likely to potentially want to extend him, plus he's got a higher upside if you put stock in the 'his good games are better' theory. His lower price tag compared to Hiller would be an additional attraction.

As for destinations, it's difficult to say right now as Calgary may be waiting and hoping for a goalie need to emerge. Perhaps a starter gets injured, or a potential contending team like the Penguins, the Rangers or the Bruins decide they're not comfortable enough with their current back-up goalie situation. The other factor though is teams tight to the cap would have a hard time absorbing either Ramo or Hiller and that's where Calgary has potentially painted themselves into a corner. As for value, if the Flames retain salary and a market for goaltenders develops, a second round pick is possible. However, a third round pick is more likely and it could even be lower if they get in a situation where they're just looking to unload one.

For me, the obvious spot is at goalie. As mentioned above, I see Ortio getting a full season to show what he can do.

The other area where you could see a fresh face is on the blue-line. When we spoke at the conclusion of development camp, Brad Treliving was very excited about Czech blue-liner Jakub Nakladal, who came to Calgary for development camp. Treliving said he was impressed by his attitude, his fitness, the poise he showed on the ice, and his whole approach to the week.

At age 27, Nakladal was brought to town mostly to get acclimatized to the city, meet the coaching staff and management team, etc. as he had never been to North America before. The intention was to have him go on the ice maybe once or twice if he wanted. Instead, he came in and insisted on skating at all three skills development sessions and going through the full week's program with the other prospects. He's on a two-way deal so it would make sense for him to start off in Stockton to adjust to the smaller rink and North American game but now I'm wondering if he doesn't stay up, or at least get recalled fairly quickly.

At forward, I don't expect there to be any room at the inn other than for guys like Bennett and Micheal Ferland and maybe Drew Shore. They weren't in Calgary most of last season but not sure the "new" label applies to any of them either.

He definitely has a chance. Gaudreau finished in the top 30 with his 64 points as a rookie and if he had scored at the same rate over those first six games (when he had no points and missed one game as a healthy scratch) as he did over the rest of the season, he would have finished close to the top 20. Calgary is trending in the right direction and as Gaudreau gets surrounded by additional offensive support and as the Flames continue to be one of the top scoring teams in the NHL, I would expect him to crack the top 10 in the not-to-distant future and for sure he could be top five some day too.

Giordano for a full season and the addition of Dougie Hamilton will definitely cut into Dennis Wideman's ice time and opportunity. That could create a bit of a drag on Wideman's numbers from this year, which were career bests for goals (14) and points (56).

However, there's a bright side too. There's a chance Wideman ends up playing alongside TJ Brodie in the Flames top four and in that scenario, Wideman's peripherals could improve playing alongside a rising star like Brodie so that could mitigate some of the drop-off offensively.

Also, the closer he gets to the end of his expensive 5-year/$26.25 million contract -- he currently has two years remaining -- that will make him easier to move also. My hunch is a Wideman trade -- should it happen -- may not happen until next summer when Calgary will hope to have some defence prospects ready to step in and play.

Yes, the Flames should offer that but only to hear Lou Lamoriello chuckle and then hang up the phone. I do not fathom why Toronto would want to make that deal. They're not close enough to contending this year in my eyes so why would the Leafs want to add two pending UFAs while giving up a goalie with upside and a first round pick that could end up being a top five pick or maybe even first overall via the lottery.

Hudler definitely is a guy that would have good trade value so I like what you're thinking but the catch -- should Calgary explore that avenue -- will be finding the right situation and I just don't feel like it would be the Leafs.

That's a great question because it involves a lot of considerations. Are you talking about the players at the ages they are at right now? If that was the case, I'd probably go with Bennett because he has such a long career ahead of him still. Plus, I see him turning into a superstar in the league as well as being captain material. As a centre, he would be the backbone of a new franchise for a very long time.

If your question was more philosophical and it could be any player and they could be at whatever age you want, then I'd have to go with Giordano as the Flames have essentially just re-built the franchise around him and done so successfully, so he and all the qualities we're well familiar with would be a perfect starting point. Stick him on the blue-line and play him 25-30 minutes a night for the next decade and you can't go wrong. Building from the defence out is also a pretty good formula for success.

I think he is, for sure. Ferland is now waiver eligible so to be sent down to Stockton, he would have to be exposed on waivers to the 29 other NHL teams. The playoffs were certainly a small sample size but it would be more than a big enough sample size for some team -- heck, even Vancouver now that Kevin Bieksa has moved on -- would surely take a chance on a 'relevant' 23-year-old winger, who can be menacing physically, is a former 50-goal scorer in junior and was someone Bob Hartley lauded last year for his high hockey IQ.

This isn't to say Ferland is a sure thing yet to have a long and successful NHL career, it's still too early to declare that, but he'll be on the Flames opening roster.

This year there are a few players that could make their pro debut. Making the jump for sure will be RW Austin Carroll and D Kenney Morrison -- the latter playing 10 games on a try-out last year after his NCAA season concluded.

D Keegan Kanzig and RW Hunter Smith are two big dudes both hoping to turn pro. Each could return to major junior for their overage season but I strongly suspect both will end up in Stockton. LW Morgan Klimchuk is another in that category although I'm less certain about his status. He's declared himself ready to head to that next level but time will tell if the Flames think that's the best place for him to continue his development.

I feel there is still movement to come with the Flames big forward group but if not, a few bodies may end up back down. C Markus Granlund is a leading candidate if for no other reason that on my updated Flames roster breakdown (available here), he's the only one of 17 forwards that can be sent down without clearing waivers. Shore might be the next in line to be sent down although he might not slip through waivers. I'm 50/50 on whether he would be claimed although if they send him down at the time when all teams are getting down to their 23-man rosters, you might be able to slip him through.

The biggest and most intriguing question mark is D Oliver Kylington. It's clear that Calgary's preferred next step for him would be to play in North America this season but assuming he does not make the Flames, that could only be possible if Calgary can negotiate him away from AIK in Sweden, who has Kylington under contract. If they can, it comes down to Stockton or Brandon, which holds his major junior rights after having taken him in the CHL import draft last month.

While Kylington has played against men for parts of the last two seasons in Sweden, whether or not he has thrived is another question. He just turned 18 and if it was my decision, I'd send him to the Wheat Kings for a season to get him around his age group and let him thrive there under Kelly McCrimmon. Brandon is a solid organization and isn't that far away. You can bet if this happens, Calgary will still be keeping a close eye on his development.

So that all said, here's a look at what the Stockton Heat roster could look like:

F (14) - Kenny Agostino, Bill Arnold, Austin Carroll, Turner Elson, Markus Granlund, Derek Grant, Garnet Hathaway, Mitchell Heard*, Morgan Klimchuk (maybe), Louick Marcotte*, Emile Poirier, Drew Shore, Hunter Smith, Bryce Van Brabant

D (9) - Ryan Culkin, Keegan Kanzig, Brett Kulak, Oliver Kylington (maybe), Kenney Morrison, Jakub Nakladal, Patrick Sieloff, Dustin Stevenson*, Tyler Wotherspoon (maybe)

G (2) - Jon Gillies, Kent Simpson*

* On an AHL contract

That 1989 Calgary Flames team was a special collection of talent. They didn't go 54-17-9 by accident. No disrespect to last year's team but they would get whooped. While Giordano-Brodie is not a bad answer to Al MacInnis and Gary Suter, Kris Russell and Wideman -- while more talented offensively than Jamie Macoun and Brad McCrimmon -- do not have nearly the same defensive cachet. Although the gap would narrow if the game was played in 2015 versus 1989 given the emphasis on skating in today's game.

It's the depth up front of that 1989 team that would make the biggest difference. Terry Crisp's top nine included the likes of Doug Gilmour, Hakan Loob, Joe Mullen, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Theoren Fleury, Joel Otto, Colin Patterson and Jiri Hrdina. Last year's team would have to get spectacular goaltending from Ramo or Hiller to keep them in the game and while they could maybe steal one game, I'd call a 4-1 series victory for the 1989 Flames.

Joe Colborne is never going to be a wrecking ball on the ice like Ferland or Bouma but size doesn't have to be used only for that purpose. If Colborne can continue to fill-out his lanky frame and get stronger, he could become a very useful player in the bottom six. He has mentioned David Backes as someone he'd like to pattern his game off.

Colborne continues to improve and while I'm not prepared yet to say he'll be a fixture in the NHL for years to come, there are certainly some alluring tools in the toolbox with him. He's got excellent hands and if he can use his size effectively to control the puck along the boards, win those important battles, and still rub guys out and up his physicality a little bit, there is plenty of potential there that I wouldn't be ready to give up on quite yet.

Last month in this story, I ranked from 1 to 10 the players that saw time in Adirondack last year that are most likely to graduate to the NHL this season. As you'll see, the top of the list is littered with guys with some NHL experience but not much. If you're talking about guys that could break through with absolutely no NHL experience, the two dark horses for me are winger Garnet Hathaway and d-man Ryan Culkin.

A late bloomer cut out of the same fabric in many ways to Josh Jooris, Hathaway was on a minor league deal last year and for that reason flew under the radar of many yet at the end of the year, he had 19 goals and 36 points in his first pro season. I talked to AHL coach Ryan Huska about him at development camp and Huska could not stop gushing about how much he enjoyed having Hathaway on his team. Versatile player, who can play different roles, play physical but can score also, eager to learn, a real consummate pro. When you speak to Hathaway, you get why the team is high on his character also. Self-driven, determined and very engaging. I'll have more on Hathaway later this summer as I've got a feature in the works.

It's a similar story with Culkin. Here's a guy that has really started to get himself noticed. Longtime NHL blue-liner Todd Gill was the assistant coach at Adirondack last year and at development camp, he talked about the increasingly important role Culkin took on over the course of the season to the point where he was a top pairing guy taking on the toughest opposition match-ups and was thriving when he had his season-ending wrist injury in February. Again with Culkin, look for more later this summer when I unveil a more in-depth piece.

Getting back to the AHL graduate story, you'll see I did have David Wolf at No. 7. Whoops. With him re-signing recently in Hamburg in Germany, you can scratch him off the list. The modification I would make is to move Hathaway, Culkin and Arnold up one spot and add Patrick Sieloff at No. 10.

My prediction is Bennett plays left wing this season. With Monahan, Backlund and Matt Stajan locking up three centre spots, I think the Flames are interested to know if Granlund, Shore or Jooris could be candidates to play up the middle and I expect they'll get a chance to earn a fourth line centre spot during training camp. In that scenario, I see Bennett playing left wing with Backlund on the second line. Frolik would be my guess for the right winger.

Wideman still has two years to go but it doesn't change the fact that his value right now -- coming off career highs in goals and points -- is probably as high as it's ever been. Also, with Hamilton's arrival, it will be harder for Wideman to repeat those numbers so this is the summer to sell high. The challenge is Hamilton was brought in to add depth to the blue-line. Trading away Wideman as a result leaves you back where you started, which is a top four injury away from potentially elevating Deryk Engelland to 18-20 minutes again. I suspect they hang on to Wideman for one more year or depending on how the season plays out and some of the newcomers on the blue-line fare in the AHL, maybe look at moving him at the trade deadline.

Hudler is a tremendous fit for the Flames. His role with Gaudreau and Monahan both on the ice and off it has been beneficial for both of them and at the same time he's enjoyed his best years of his NHL career. However, the kind of money he's in line for (especially right now when extension conversations would happen, coming off the massive year he just had when he led the NHL in even-strength points), it's going to be very difficult for Calgary to be able to fit him in and where he'd be age-wise (32) when an extension would kick in, should also be a concern.

The best time to move him would be this summer. Once you get into the season and he becomes an invaluable member of your top line again, if you're sitting there in second place in the Pacific, peddling Hudler at the trade deadline would become an awfully contentious deal to make.

But that's also why trading him right now isn't as easy as you think either as Calgary looks like a legit playoff team right now after its busy off-season and subtracting No. 24 from the line-up would be a blow.

It hasn't hurt them so far. While his signing last summer was for more money than most could comprehend, the Flames were far away from the salary cap last season so dollars were a non-factor. Plus, they were desperately looking to address a couple needs -- getting bigger and getting deeper on the blue-line. I don't see the contract being a factor this season either as most importantly, there is still a lack of NHL-ready blue-line depth in the organization and Engelland demonstrated last year that he is a serviceable third pairing guy -- with an ability to play more minutes in a pinch -- that also provides protection for your smaller, skilled players when you get into a game or a playoff series that turns into a war.

However, fast forward the final year of his three-year deal in 2016-17 when you're tight up against the salary cap and a couple of Nakladal, Morrison, Tyler Wotherspoon, Culkin and maybe even Kylington are ideally ready for full-time NHL employment -- and at a more palatable price point than Engelland. At that time, Calgary would definitely want to be paying far less for Engelland in a 6/7 type of role. Come that time, there's a good chance his contract is going to sting. However, without him stepping up into the top four and turning in some yeoman's work last year, the Flames likely don't make the playoffs at all so sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.

After scoring 24 goals as a rookie last year, I predict Gaudreau makes a modest improvement to 27 goals this season.

This typically is the premise for a more in-depth standalone piece that I'll prepare as we approach September. For now, off the top of my head, I'll say five keys are:
  1. Get Good Goaltending - Whichever pairing they go with, they must be as good as last year if not better.
  2. Stay Healthy - Losing one or two core pieces like Giordano/Brodie/Hamilton or Monahan/Gaudreau/Hudler for an extended period would leave a big void.
  3. Maintain Work Ethic - This was key last year. Calgary's superior fitness and never-say-die attitude contributed to its strong third periods and all those comeback victories, which helped get them into the post-season.
  4. Play Well Within Own Division - Calgary doesn't come close to making the playoffs last year if not for its 22-6-1 record against the Pacific. With the Central looking very strong, path to the playoffs is likely through a top three finish in their division and that could hinge on how well they fare against their Pacific rivals.
  5. Play Better in the First Period - Calgary isn't going to be able to come back in games this year with the frequency it did last year. It just won't happen. So, make it not need to happen by having better starts, something that was a chronic issue last year.

With Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton all likely here long term, Wideman for potentially a couple more years, I don't think the Flames can afford to bring in Cody Franson for long term also and that's surely the type of deal he's looking for. He'd be a nice addition to the line-up, for sure, as he would be to any NHL team's line-up, but that's tying up too much money on the back end in my opinion.

I think Calgary wants to see if Morrison or Nakladal could be shorter term solutions or if Wotherspoon or Culkin might be ready soon. With Andersson and Kylington taken in the second round of the draft on the way, those are two more potential internal solutions being developed and all of these alternative solutions would keep money way more in the bank for spending on core players than paying a bunch of dough to Franson.

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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1 comment:

  1. There is no doubt in my mind David Schlemko had far more to do with the Flames making the playoffs than Deryk Engelland did. Given the choice between Schlemko and Engelland, I'd deep-six Engelland in a heartbeat. He cannot pass, he cannot shoot, and he drags down everyone he plays with. I know there are "intangibles" but . . . the facts are, any way you look at his contributions on the ice, the Flames were better off when he wasn't on it.