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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Preseason is Upon Us: Six Observations From the Flames 3-1 loss to Edmonton

There was no band playing. There was no tailgate party either. The density of home jerseys in the 'C of Red' wasn't quite as thick and the Calgary line-up featured more numbers in the 60s and 70s than in single digits. Monday night's trip to the Saddledome bared little resemblance to my last trip in May but that's OK, just being back in the cozy confines of seat 15 in the east press box meant hockey was back and the fun is just getting started.

On this night, the victory would go to the Edmonton Oilers, who got a go-ahead goal from Benoit Pouliot with 2:52 remaining in the third period then added an empty netter for a 3-1 victory.

However, while the Flames insist that whenever they step on the ice, they want to win, with that loss last night at the Dome, just like the 4-2 loss by the in the other split squad up the highway in Edmonton and just like the loss to the Oilers in Penticton two weeks ago, it's ultimately the performance that matters at this time of year and while mistakes were made, the Flames came away from their first of eight preseason tilts relatively pleased.

Here are some of my observations:

1. Czech Out Frolik

You can tell after just a few minutes of watching him play that free agent signing Michael Frolik does a lot of things well. Very strong on his skates, he is noticeable both offensively and defensively and showed that he will be a very valuable member of the Flames hockey team this season.

"Michael is a great two-way player. A very underrated player. We saw speed, we saw hockey sense tonight and he can score goals," said Calgary coach Bob Hartley. "He's going to be a big, big part of this hockey club. He can fill in in so many roles and in so many responsibilities, he's going to give us some nice options."

He showed an ability to finish 6:07 into the second period, scoring the first goal on a slick set-up from Johnny Gaudreau, taking a puck and whipping a shot past Ben Scrivens.

“Johnny made a great pass onto my stick and I just tried to shoot it and it went in. It was a great play by those two guys.”

He demonstrated his speed later in the period when he earned a penalty shot by winning a race for a loose puck and pulling away from an Oilers defender, who resorted to hooking him from behind. Now it was No. 84 Joey Laleggia, who he pulled away from and not No. 77 Paul Coffey, but it was impressive nonetheless impressive. Once he gets going, he's like a bull on his skates.

“Before the game I was excited for sure,” Frolik said. “It was a long summer and I was waiting for this time. It was a good debut and it felt pretty good.”

He failed to score on the penalty shot but it wasn't weight too heavily on the 27-year-old's mind afterwards.

"Scoring two would have been nice, but one is enough. Save it for the season," he said with a smile.


2. Auditions for Kully, Spooner and Naks

While the Flames blue-line boasted the big three of Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton, it also featured three others in Tyler Wotherspoon, Jakub Nakladal and Brett Kulak, who are in a mix of five or six guys jockeying for position on the depth chart behind Calgary's entrenched top six. It's a battle with an attractive reward lying in wait for the winner -- a spot on Calgary's opening night roster with Ladislav Smid expected to begin the season on the IR.

Asked about the play of the three competing for a spot, Hartley said his staff had the Flames as having given up nine scoring chances, a quantity he seemed relatively pleased with considering Calgary spent 10 minutes of the game shorthanded.

"They played very well. They showed good composure on the blue-line," said Hartley. "They were sharp, they were alert, they moved pucks out of our zone. I thought they had a good game."

All three saw around the same ice time at even-strength as well as short handed. Nakladal also logged nearly four minutes of power play time to bump him over 20 minutes.

Total ice time:
  • Nakladal, 20:52 (3:40 PP, 4:04 PK)
  • Wotherspoon, 17:02 (0:00 PP, 3:12 PK)
  • Kulak, 16:44 (0:00 PP, 3:58)

Nakladal is the most seasoned of the trio. After several seasons playing in his home country of the Czech Republic, the 27-year-old went to the KHL for three seasons before playing last year in Finland. You notice that experience as he looks poised with the puck and doesn't panic.

"Moves the puck well and has a big shot," assessed Giordano, who played with Nakladal in the third period. "He was good. He's in good position a lot. He's easy to play with, easy to read. You can tell he has that experience under his belt."

Nakladal, a sturdy 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, had two shots on goal and could have had more. However, with the puck on his stick a lot on the power play, instead of trying to force shots through and show off his heavy shot, he was quick to dish off the puck instead, which was the smarter play given the shooting lane wasn't open.


Solid Game for All Three

Giordano also had good things to say about the the other two.

"The two young kids both played solid. They didn't make too many mistakes out there. Good decisions with the puck," said the captain. "It was a good showing for all of them."

Hamilton was also complimentary.

"They all played great. I didn't really notice anyone and as a D, when you don't notice them, it's a good thing," said Hamilton. "They all made really good plays and solid plays and played with poise. It shows the depth in the organization."

Hartley was asked specifically about Kulak.

"He's been at our camps, he's been around us. He knows what's expected," he said. "As a young defenceman, sometimes you need time. The maturation process for a defenceman and a goalie can be longer than for a forward because of the nature of the game. You're more exposed. you make a mistake and everything is magnified out there.

"As a forward, you can make a few mistakes, and the d-men and goalies are there to repair it but as a defenceman, you make a mistake, sometimes you're going to give a breakaway or a 2-on-1 and the puck's in your net. I felt that Kullie and Spooner are growing very well."


3. Same Old, Same Old From the Captain 

Seriously, does Giordano have the slightest clue what month it is?

Having not played a regular season game since February, you'd think Hartley would want to wrap up his club's most important player in bubble wrap and preserve him for the regular season. But that's not how No. 5 rolls, nor the coach for that matter, who trotted him out there for nearly nine minutes of ice time in the first period.

"I enjoyed it," said Giordano. "I need to get these games under my belt. Overall, I didn't feel too great with the puck so I'd like to sharpen that up and get that going."

While there may have been some rust around his hands, there's nothing wrong with his heart. In one sequence, Giordano dove to throw his body in the way of one shot, taking it up high. Later that same shift, he launched himself in front of another. He finished the night with a game-high four blocked shots -- this in the first game of the preseason.

"That's why he's our captain. I see him block shots. He took one in the ribs then slid on that same shift. I'd like to tell him not to do it but it's part of our DNA. That's why he's our captain," said Hartley. "He's fully 100 percent, he leads the charge and we know Mark, it's all about the team, it's all about pain and sacrifices and doing what's best for the hockey club."

Even in mid-September.


4. Dougie's Debut

Pulling on a red sweater for the first time, it wasn't a game that will go on Hamilton's career highlight reel but it's easy to see that he's going to be an impact player, who is always involved in the action at both ends of the ice.

In the first period on an early power play, he showcased a heavy wrist shot firing the puck off the mask of Scrivens, which sent his helmet flying.

“It's a fun team to play on, that's the biggest thing," said Hamilton. "A lot of skilled players, guys doing the little things and all that stuff. I'm really looking forward to being a Flame and playing with these guys.”

On a night where D partners changed each period, Hamilton spent the second period with Giordano, although it didn't go as well as hoped.

"We spent a lot in our own end in the second period, so it could have been better,” he said with a smile. “Playing power play and stuff with him was a lot of fun.”

Hamilton recognizes it will take a while to get acclimatized to new teammates and a new system.

"There's a lot of things I already know I can improve on and, I guess, it's good for me to recognize it right away. It's a good first step. A lot of things to do better, but I felt OK and I guess that's a positive.”

There are still over two weeks to go before the season gets going for real, plenty of time to settle into his new surroundings. Hamilton was acquired in the summer in exchange for three draft picks after the 22-year-old played his first three NHL seasons with the Boston Bruins.

“We were chasing the puck a lot. We need to get the puck quicker and move it up quicker and play with the puck instead of chasing it, me included," said Hamilton, who is entering year one of a six-year/$34.5 million deal. "Other than that, it's about building chemistry with guys. You're not really sure what's going to happen, but that'll come.”


5. Lines in a Blender

All that time spent during the day on Monday analyzing the lines and D pairings and boom, just like that, everything changed in the second period. In the third period, Hartley had the blender going once again.

"With the addition of Dougie, with the addition of Micheal Frolik up front, we have some options but at the same time, we have some decisions to make," said Hartley. "The best way to make those decisions and they might change game-to-game is if I can at least get a taste of what certain players can do playing in certain roles with different players, it's going to be a good investment for the regular season."

Hartley said he was pleased with what he saw from his club on Monday, including the intensity displayed.

Here's how the lines shook down for some notable Flames.

Frolik

Began the night with Sam Bennett and Mason Raymond. In the second, Jiri Hudler replaced Raymond. In the third, Frolik saw time with Sean Monahan and Gaudreau.

He was asked about his two periods playing with Bennett.

"With Benny, he’s a young guy, so I try to talk to him and calm him down and just get him to play his game, " Frolik said. "When you’ve got a couple years in the league, you try to talk to the younger guys, especially when they are on the same line with you. You want to make sure that you’re on the same page."

Hamilton/Giordano

Defence pairings have been a hot topic so far in camp and it's safe to say nothing was solved on this night. Giordano, for example, went through three partners -- Brodie in the first, Hamilton in the second and Nakladal in the third. Hamilton's period-by-period dance card was Wotherspoon, Giordano then Brodie.

Monahan and Gaudreau

While there wasn't the same dominance, you saw plenty of flashes of what make Monahan and Gaudreau such good linemates. They began the night with Hudler, who was their regular right winger last year. Micheal Ferland got a chance to audition in that spot in the second period and as mentioned, Frolik was in that spot in the third.

"Try some experiments. As you saw, we changed our lines, we changed our D pairings basically every period and that was the plan," said Hartley.

Expect much of the same through the next few games before experiments come to an end and the focus switches to building chemistry.


6. Other Random Observations 

Hunter Smith - He's certainly far from NHL-ready and not sure his skating will ever get there but good on the 6-foot-7 winger for tangling in the second period with Darnell Nurse, who famously laid a beating on Rasmus Andersson in Penticton 10 days ago. It was a good scrap with a lot of heavy punches landed.

Mason Raymond - If he doesn't crack the starting 12 on October 7, he can't complain about a lack of opportunity as he lined up alongside Bennett and Frolik to start the game. Did he leverage that opportunity? He didn't stand out. He later saw time with Matt Stajan and Emile Poirier. He also saw time on the PK although that didn't go so well.

Micheal Ferland - You got what you wanted as he brought intensity and nastiness from the drop of the puck and had a team-high three body checks. Included was a heavy albeit borderline blindside hit on Rob Klinkhammer. Ferland also sent Jordan Eberle flying in another thundering hit. He was also first into the mix to chat with Greg Chase after he drove Poirier into the boards from behind.

Emile Poirier - His best shift came in the second period. First, he drove the net on an odd-man rush and bowled over the goalie in the process. Shortly after that scrum dissipated, he was at the edge of the crease to jab his stick into the goalie's pads, fishing for a puck that wasn't visible. Again, another skirmish ensued. It's that that kind of agitator-like play that Poirier needs to display more.

Sean Monahan - The chemistry with Gaudreau is still there and it may even be better this season. They just seem to know where each other is on the ice at all times. He also went 15-5 at the face-off dot so that's a positive and perhaps is foreshadowing further progression in that area. After winning 45.9% of his face-offs his rookie season, he improved to 49.3% last year.

Joni Ortio - Was very good. Showed off his athleticism in making some sharp saves early when he entered the game for Jonas Hiller midway through the second period. He had no chance on the game-winner, which came on a perfectly executed 2-on-1. Finished with 12 saves.



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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