Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reasons for Optimism: TJ Brodie's Return and the Chain Reaction of Positivity That Results

Call it the domino effect or the ripple effect, it doesn't really matter, the point is there is lots of positive effect for the Calgary Flames that goes hand-in-hand with the return to the line-up of stalwart defenceman TJ Brodie.

We already started to see evidence of this Wednesday night in the Flames 5-4 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators in his first game back from a broken hand.

Sure, the 25-year-old is just one player on a team that dresses a line-up of 20 players every night, but the impact of getting this particular player back in uniform has far greater implications beyond what Brodie himself contributes.

For a team trying to navigate some awfully choppy waters these days, Brodie's much-anticipated return provided stability and also set off a chain reaction of good things that did and should continue unfold for the Flames in upcoming games.

Here are five ramifications of having No. 7 back in uniform:

1. You Get a Better Giordano

They tried and they tried and they tried some more but as good of a duo as it looked on paper with the right-shooting Dougie Hamilton and the left-shooting Mark Giordano, it just didn't work out as a pairing.

Chemistry is a difficult concept to explain yet you can't deny it is a concept that is real and exists. Sometimes two guys have it, sometimes they don't. Often without explanation. These two didn't. Like growing out of allergies, maybe down the road the pair will develop some chemistry if another chance to play together arises, but right now, it just wasn't a fit.

You could tell watching him play that it was a frustrating start to the year for Giordano, but since the break-up with Hamilton, he's been much better. Now getting his old partner back, I fully expect his game to improve even more. The Flames captain came into the season as a Norris candidate and he wasn't anywhere near that the first two weeks. But with over five months to go in the season still and back in a comfortable spot alongside Brodie, expect his calibre of play to return to that high level we saw the last couple years and that's really good news for Calgary.

2. Easier Minutes for the Rest of the Defence

By gobbling up 25 minutes in ice time last night and a lot of those minutes being the difficult kind such as defensive zone face-offs, that lightens the load considerably on what's expected out of Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell. Subsequently, as the dominos tumble, that further lightens the load on Dougie Hamilton and Deryk Engelland, who were the third pairing.

What you get as a result is what we saw last night. Hamilton saw his lowest ice time of the season at 15:36, yet he had his best game by far. He scored a nice goal, had a career-high seven shots (twice before he has had six) and it was just the second time this season he wasn't on the ice for a goal against. Heck, even Engelland had a great night and that was in less than 12 minutes of ice time. Engelland tied a career high with five shots, which he hadn't done in four years.

A fair question is did they sign Hamilton to a six-year deal at a $5.75 million average annual value to play him on the third pairing? Obviously not. But if he ends up there for a while as he settles into Calgary's system, finds his game, grows his confidence, that is just fine and it's depth for the Flames that is a good problem to have.

3. Better Goaltending

The goaltenders have taken a lot of heat this year and it's an interesting situation. On most goals, there are others at fault along the way. For example, last night it was Kris Russell backing in too far and letting Zack Smith cut to the slot and whip a shot past Jonas Hiller to tie it 1-1. It was Mikael Backlund not tying up Bobby Ryan's stick giving him an easy tap-in for the go-ahead goal with 14 seconds left in the second. There was more loose defensive coverage on Ottawa's third and fourth goals.

While you could argue all of those goals weren't necessarily Hiller's fault -- at least, not alone, at some point at this level of hockey, teams need their goaltender to come up with the big save and that's exactly what the Flames have yet to get this season.

However, as Brodie settles back in and he and Giordano find their groove, and they return to shutting down opposition top lines, Calgary's defensive zone match-ups for the other pairings start getting more favourable and the quantity of grade 'a' chances should come down. As that happens, the Flames goaltending will suddenly get better because staring down fewer dangerous chances, facing shots from the perimeter instead of the slot, not facing as many rebounds because they're being cleared, that all adds up to more saves and the illusion of better goaltending. Less goals leads to more wins and suddenly the issues in net aren't as pronounced as they are right now.

Up until now, the Flames have needed Carey Price-calibre goaltending. They don't have that and they won't be getting that. But limit the dangerous chances and average goaltending can become above-average goaltending and that would carry this team a long way.

4. More Scoring

This happens in three ways.

First, Brodie himself is going to help the offence because he's a great passer and distributor of the puck. He has phenomenal vision on the ice and an innate ability to spring guys on breakaways and odd-man rushes. He's also great at joining the rush himself as part of Calgary's patented second wave of attack. He scored 11 goals last year after never before scoring more than four. That part of his game will only continue to improve and you'll see his scoring touch return as his hand heals.

When that hand feels better, then there's the boost he'll provide to a power play, which has looked listless lately. Special teams are key and often can be the difference between winning a game and losing a game.

Lastly and more indirectly, less time in the defensive zone as I just documented by all the defensive pairings being in more favourable match-ups, means more time for the team in the offensive zone and more time with the puck inside the opposition blue-line leads to more shots. More shots lead to better shots, which leads to more goals.

5. Improved Frame of Mind

There's been a lot of doom and gloom around this team lately. The bad goals, the blown leads. Then Lance Bouma gets injured. Then Micheal Ferland gets injured.

What I've observed is a fragile bunch that is walking (skating) on eggshells and wondering what will be the next thing that will go wrong.

Finally, Brodie's return is a some positive news for a change. It's a good news story as Calgary gets a key cog back in the line-up. It's light at the end of the tunnel that gives everybody a little bit of extra giddy-up in their step and this game is such a mental game at times.

If the Flames can get back feeling good about themselves, that will lead to a win. One win then leads to two wins and soon you're on a winning streak and you're right back playing the calibre of hockey you expected to be playing prior to the season. All because of the return of one player but a very important one.

Final Word

The saving grace in all this is the Flames play in the Pacific Division. If you're a team in the Pacific, you're going to need to finish in top three in the division because it's very likely that both wild card spots in the Western Conference will be gobbled up by those very tough Central Division teams.

Heck, as of this morning, the Winnipeg Jets (5-3-1) are sixth in the Central and out of a playoff spot altogether, yet if they were in the Pacific, they'd be second place and would have home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

While being limited to only chasing those three divisional spots sounds like a negative, having three spots to shoot for is actually huge in a division that is comparably not very good.

It's inevitable that the Arizona Coyotes will come down to earth and they're currently occupying third spot in the division.

Even if you were to still pencil in the Anaheim Ducks into the Pacific playoff mix despite their dreadful start, and slot the LA Kings in that top three also, that leaves you chasing Vancouver and San Jose and you're just six and five points back respectively of the Canucks and Sharks. All things considered, that's not bad considering what the gap could have been. Calgary still has San Jose five times and heck, not even factoring that in, they could be ahead of them by this time next week.

One thing for certain. If you thought that Brodie's five-year extension at $4.65 million AAV was good value when he signed it last season, it's looking like a real steal of a deal right now with his value to the team never more apparent than after watching the club flounder in his absence the last three weeks.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Miserable Start: Through Nine Games, Eight Stats that Tell the Flames Story

With four points through nine games, the Flames are off to their worst start in franchise history.

Sort of.

Well, probably.

OK, let me explain.

In 1995-96, Calgary only had only three points after nine games but one of the six losses in a 0-6-3 record came in overtime. That was before the NHL introduced the consolation point for overtime losses so by today's three-point system, adding in that point gets you to four.

Further, that was also before the advent of the shootout. So had there been a shootout and if the Flames would have won at least one of the three games that had ended in a tie, then they would have had at least five points by today's point system.

Similar situation in 1997-98. The record after nine games was 1-6-2 but one of those six losses was in OT so that year Calgary would have also been at five points by today's model.

Regardless, whether it's the worst start, second-worst, tied-for-worst, it's a small quibble compared to the reality that this team simply isn't anywhere near where they thought they would be at this juncture of the season.

Eight Stats That Tell the Story

1. 1-3-0 When Leading After One Period

In three weeks, the Flames have already blown more first period leads then they did all last season. A year ago, only the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks (26-3-0, .897) had a better winning percentage when leading after one period, compared to Calgary (16-2-0, .889).

This year, the Flames haven't demonstrated any ability to lock down a lead. When ahead after the first period, they're 1-3-0 with the one victory coming in Vancouver, where they blew that early lead but were fortunate to come back and win in overtime.

Going hand-in-hand with that stat is Calgary's 1-4-0 record when scoring first. No other NHL team has lost that many games when striking first. One of the storylines last year was the Flames awful starts in that they rarely had a first period lead. Now that awfulness has shifted to the second period and has become an even bigger issue.

2. 0 Regulation Victories

Going nine games to open the season without a regulation win is the longest such stretch of futility for this club since the aforementioned late 90s. In some forgettable years from 1995 to 1999, where fixtures on the team included Cory Stillman, Phil Housley and Tommy Albelin, this type of thing became quite a habit as they had three abysmal starts in alternating years over a five-year span.

Longest stretches without a regulation win to start the season:
  • 20 games - 1999-00
  • 12 games - 1997-98
  • 11 games - 1995-96
  • 9 games - 2015-16

The interesting thing about 1999-00 is Calgary won five times over those 20 games -- all of them coming in overtime. What a weird start to the season that year as the Flames went 5-0-2 in extra time. For the nostalgic, scoring those OT goals were Valeri Bure, Derek Morris, Jeff Shantz, Albelin and Stillman.

3. 22 Points for Top Line, Same for Everybody Else

This is not breaking news that the Flames rely heavily on their top line. Led by 10 points for sophomore sensation Johnny Gaudreau, that line with Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan have accounted for 22 points combined. Add up all other players on the roster, you also get 22 points.

It's been over 12 periods since the Flames last got a goal from a non-Gaudreau line. That was David Jones' power play goal halfway through the third period in a 5-2 loss ten days ago to the Edmonton Oilers.

In fact, Calgary has only gotten four even-strength goals from the other three lines all season.
  • Oct. 17 vs Edm, Jones scores (with Stajan, Ferland)
  • Oct. 16 at Wpg, Backlund scores (with Bennett, Frolik)
  • Oct. 13 vs Stl, Raymond scores (with Bennett, Frolik)
  • Oct. 13 vs Stl, Jones scores (with Stajan, Frolik) 

With Ottawa next up, it's interesting to note that it was a 4-2 victory over the Senators on November 14, 2014 that was the last time the Flames won a game in which they didn't get a single point from the top line. Scoring that night were Paul Byron, Markus Granlund, Josh Jooris and Lance Bouma. Including playoffs, Calgary has played 83 games since.

Right now, the formula for opposition teams is simple. Blank the top line and you'll beat the Flames. Limit the top line and you'll probably beat them.

4. Russell (-12) and Hamilton (-11), Both Bottom Two

You mean bottom two on the team? Nope, not just the team. We're talking about the bottom two in the entire NHL.

641. Nick Foligno CBJ, -9
641. Dalton Prout CBJ, -9
641. Cam Fowler ANA, -9
644. Dougie Hamilton, CGY, -11
645. Kris Russell CGY, -12

Plus/minus is not the be all and end all of stats, for sure. It can sometimes be misleading. Shot attempt percentage (SAT) factors in more than just goals and is ultimately a much better metric. That said, when you boil it down, being on the ice repeatedly for goals against is bad and this is happening a lot to these two players.

Over the last three games, Calgary has surrendered seven even-strength goals:
  • Russell has been on the ice for six
  • Hamilton has been on the ice for five

As the Flames highest paid player at $5.75 million, obviously more is expected out of Hamilton, whose tenure in Calgary has gotten off to an inauspicious start.

Note: Getting back to SAT, of 532 skaters with five or more games, Hamilton (45.82) ranks No. 400 in SAT% while Russell (42.26) ranks No. 485. So they're both better, but not that much better.

5. Sub .880 Save Percentages

The club's woes in net have been well documented to the point of ad nauseum. In the competition to be the Flames starter, it could be argued that nobody won the job and instead, in dispatching Karri Ramo to the AHL, they chose the least worst of the two in keeping Jonas Hiller.

Hiller responded with a great game against Detroit Friday, only to follow it up with more subpar goaltending against the Rangers on Sunday, which got him pulled in the third period.

There are 42 goalies with enough starts to qualify in NHL save percentage. Both of the veterans rank in the bottom seven.

35. Karri Ramo, .879
39. Jonas Hiller, .872

Enter Joni Ortio.

In his first start in 25 days, the Finnish rookie started off spectacularly Monday with 16 first period saves. He was finally beaten with six minutes left in the second period on shot No. 21 and that was a no-chancer from Mikhail Grabovski, set-up alone in the low slot for a one-timer. But the shine came off Ortio's game in the third as he surrendered three goals on 11 shots.

That said, add in his relief work the previous night and four goals on 40 shots for Ortio -- a .900 SV% -- while far from ideal, is not that bad in comparison to the other two, especially considering he was coming off such a long stretch of inactivity.

6. Goal Differential of -19

Two numbers that speak volumes -- 16 goals for, 35 goals against. Nothing is more unsustainable than giving up twice as many goals as you're scoring.

The woes for the Blue Jackets are well documented. Off to a 1-8-0 start, sorted by winning percentage they're the only team below Calgary in the NHL's overall standings. Columbus is also the only team worse than the Flames in goal differential but with Calgary closing fast.

Bottom three:

28. Anaheim, -14 (6 GF, 20 GA)
29. Calgary, -19 (16 GF, 35 GA)
30. Columbus, -21 (19 GF, 40 GA)

What's going on in Anaheim is even more bizarre than what's unfolding in Calgary. Who knew in the Pacific Division final last year that these two teams were destined to be the cellar dwellers in the Western Conference this season.

You know what they say, misery loves company.

7. 25th on the power play

When the offence is slumping, you need to take advantage of power plays to kick-start the offence. Unfortunately for the Flames, that isn't happening either. Sitting at 3-for-24 on the season, Calgary has gone 0-for-10 the last four games with the man advantage, only producing 10 shots on goal during that time.

It's these recent woes with the extra man that makes it all that much more puzzling why coach Bob Hartley chose to keep Jakub Nakladal in the press box on Monday night. On the second night of back-to-backs, with Ladislav Smid coming back from a stretch of nine months between games, that seemed like the perfect opportunity to insert Nakladal, who has looked very good quarterbacking the power play in the AHL. But instead, the Czech sat for the third straight game since his recall. Call it the Tyler Wotherspoon treatment.

Regular readers will be aware of how badly the Flames second power play unit in particular has struggled. It has now produced one goal in the last 47 games and that was the aforementioned Jones goal against the Oilers. Obviously that's not even close to good enough.

8. Backlund: 1 goal, 0 assists

Mikael Backlund has always been a polarizing player during his time with the Flames, and that was back when he was making less than a million and then $1.5 million each of the past two seasons.

Now, armed with a three-year deal that makes him the Flames fourth-highest paid forward at $3.6 million, the scrutiny of Backlund has increased and fairly.

With just one goal and one point on the season, Calgary needs more out of the veteran centre, who has only been on the ice for one Flames goal total and that was his goal on Oct. 16.

While he hasn't been gifted with the most talented of linemates for some games -- there are nights where you shrug your shoulders at the line combinations, he also has seen time in recent games with Michael Frolik and Sam Bennett and outside the top line, that's as top six-ish as it gets around here for linemates.

There is more to Backlund's game than his point total but for where he slots up the middle, especially when Bennett is on the wing and he's the clear No. 2 centre, there needs to be more production coming from him.

But he's far from alone. Mason Raymond, Joe Colborne, Micheal Ferland and Bennett also have just one point each. Regulars Matt Stajan, Josh Jooris and Brandon Bollig have yet to pick up a point. Frolik is still looking for his first goal.

Final Word

The one stat that really matters for this team is they're six points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Second and third spot in the Pacific Division belong to San Jose and LA with 10 points each. The Sharks and Kings each have a game in hand as well. Things are far from over yet, but the ascent does get steeper with every loss so Calgary needs to fix what's wrong fast and start producing more positive stats for us to reflect on.

If not, they'll tumble further the other direction and that leads to a different conversation. For example, if the season ended today, Calgary would have a 13.5 percent chance in the lottery of drafting first overall. I trust you've heard of Auston Matthews.

Again, it's far too early for that talk but seeing the impact Connor McDavid is already having up the highway, it's a discussion that will arrive sooner than later, especially if this team finds itself in the same dire situation come American Thanksgiving.

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    Sunday, October 25, 2015

    Johnny Gaudreau = Johnny Dominant: Little Guy Playing Big Role in Flames Offence

    The Flames offence is off to a sleepy start.

    Calgary ranks 26th in the NHL averaging exactly 2.00 goals per game. That's down from last season when they finished 6th at 2.89.

    Mind you, you could say all facets of Calgary's game was in a deep slumber the first two weeks before stirring awake Friday night against the Detroit Red Wings. In the most inspired effort of the season by far, Flames fired 40 shots on goal in a thrilling 3-2 comeback victory.

    But then, like hitting the snooze button, the club drifted back asleep Sunday night scoring only once in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers.

    While there are many players that have been staggering around with sleep in their eyes. Johnny Gaudreau is certainly not among them.

    Last year, it wasn't until Calgary's seventh game of the season that the rookie found the scoresheet for the first time. Fast forward to today and after eight games, the 22-year-old already has 10 points (1 goal, 9 assists), which ties him for 11th in NHL scoring.

    What's most impressive is he's racked up all those points despite Calgary's inability to produce many goals. The Flames have scored just 16 goals.

    Here's a closer look at Johnny Hockey's eye-popping start to the season, in which he continues to establish himself as the straw that stirs the drink when it comes to Calgary's offence.

    Point Percentage of Team Goals

    How big a factor has Gaudreau been? He's either scored or set up 62.5 percent of the Flames goals. That's first in the NHL heading into Monday's action, just ahead of a guy in Chicago you may have heard of, who interestingly enough is a fellow American that Gaudreau's creativity is sometimes compared to.

    Top Five Point Percentage

    1. Johnny Gaudreau Cgy, 1-9-10, 62.5%
    2. Patrick Kane Chi, 5-6-11, 61.1%
    3. Mike Cammalleri NJ, 3-8-11, 57.9%
    4. Evgeni Malkin Pit, 3-4-7, 53.8%
    5. Henrik Zetterberg Det, 2-9-11, 52.4%

    For comparison, Gaudreau had points on 27.0 percent of Calgary's goals last year. The team's scoring leader a year ago was Jiri Hudler, who was in on 32.1 percent.

    In Calgary Flames history, 34 players have finished at 30 percent or higher in a season. Hudler's season last year ranks 20th.

    Top Five Point Percentage - Calgary All-time

    1. Jarome Iginla, 2001-02, 96 pts on 201 g, 47.8%
    2. Jarome Iginla, 2007-08, 98 pts on 226 g, 43.4%
    3. Theoren Fleury, 1995-96, 96 pts on 241 g, 39.83%
    4. Kent Nilsson, 1980-81, 131 pts on 329 g, 39.82%
    5. Craig Conroy, 2001-02, 75 pts on 201 g, 37.3%

    It should come as no surprise considering how long he was this team's star player -- and often doing it on his own -- that Iginla accounts for six of the top 10 seasons.

    Surprisingly at first, although not so surprising once you consider how deep those teams were, is in that mid-80s to late-80s period when the Flames were among the NHL's best teams and most prolific scoring teams, the top individual season was Joe Mullen in 1988-89 at 31.1 percent. His 110 points on 354 goals ranks him 24th all-time.

    Others that might surprise you include Valeri Bure at 13th (35.5% in 1999-00), Marc Savard at 17th (33.0% in 2000-01) and Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow tied for 33rd (both were at 30.2% in 2006-07).

    More About Gaudreau

    Getting back to this season, here are a few more factoids about Gaudreau's start.

    Best Set-Up Man: Percentage of Goals Assisted On

    For this, I subtracted the goals scored by the player himself and then calculated what percentage of the team's other goals that player assisted on. Looked at in this way, remove his one goal and Gaudreau is the NHL's No. 1 playmaker, having set up nine of the Flames other 15 goals.

    1. Johnny Gaudreau Cgy, 9a on 15g, 60.0%
    2. Mike Cammalleri NJ, 8a on 16g, 50.0%
    3. Henrik Zetterberg Det, 9a on 19g, 47.4%
    4. Patrick Kane Chi, 6a on 13g, 46.2%
    5. Evgeni Malkin Pit, 4a on 10g, 40.0%

    Some pretty good company on that list. Interesting to see former Flame Mike Cammalleri as high as he is. Still plenty left in his tank, apparently.

    Most Assists Per Game

    Getting away from percentages and just looking at raw counting numbers but on a per-game basis to even the playing field, Gaudreau is in a tie for third.

    1. Evgeny Kuznetsov Wsh, 8a in 7 gm, 1.14
    1. John Carlson Wsh, 8a in 7 gm, 1.14
    3. Johnny Gaudreau Cgy, 9a in 8 gm, 1.12
    3. Henrik Zetterberg Det, 9a in 8 gm, 1.12
    3. Victor Hedman TB, 9a in 8 gm, 1.12
    3. Martin Hanzal Ari, 9a in 8 gm, 1.12

    Most Primary Assists-Per-Game

    The NHL's enhanced stats now include a split of primary and secondary assists. In theory, the more primary assists, the better one's playmaking ability as that is the last person to touch the puck before a goal is scored and is often the principal person responsible for creating that scoring chance. Gaudreau's slick set-up to Jiri Hudler for Sunday's only goal is an example of this.

    Here's how the top five looks counting primary assists only. Gaudreau tied in quantity with Montreal's P.K. Subban, but has played one fewer game than the Canadiens defenceman.

    1. Johnny Gaudreau Cgy, 7a in 8 gm, 0.88
    2. Evgeny Kuznetsov Wsh, 6a in 7 gm, 0.86
    3. P.K. Subban Mtl, 7a in 9 gm, 0.78
    4. Henrik Zetterberg Det, 6a in 8 gm, 0.75
    4. Max Domi Ari, 6a in 8 gm, 0.75

    Final Thought

    Obviously these numbers will come down for Gaudreau as it will for all players. I'm more curious if his ranking versus the rest of the NHL will come down. That won't necessarily be the case. Everything we've seen in his young career is that his skills are off the charts and he's capable of executing those same sublime passes we saw him pull off at Boston College at the NHL level too, no problem.

    Gaudreau may be small in stature, but he possesses an innate ability to create space for himself on the ice with his shiftiness when carrying the puck. The kid is the genuine article.

    Something to watch for this week is can Gaudreau have a similar impact on the road? Five of the eight games so far have been at home where match-ups can be more favourable. Life always gets more difficult in opposition buildings. But to start off their three-game road trip, Gaudreau did get free to set up that beautiful first period goal at Madison Square Garden. The next two games are away games also -- Monday against the Islanders and Wednesday versus Ottawa.

    One thing for certain, it's clear Gaudreau is going to be an impact player in the NHL for a very long time and Flames fans should be thankful to be able to watch a player of his talents every game.

    Not bad for a fourth round pick.

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    Saturday, October 24, 2015

    Hop in the DeLorean: Eight Keys to Victory as the Flames Go Back to the Past

    How many guys can you stuff into a DeLorean?

    Twenty-one, it seems.

    On Wednesday, all the talk was about the future as October 21, 2015 was the date Marty McFly and his friend "Doc" Brown travelled forward in time in the popular 80s movie Back to the Future Part II.

    On Friday night at the Saddledome, all the talk was about the past as Bob Hartley and the Flames crammed into a time machine and travelled back in time to December 22, 2014.

    In a 3-2 overtime win over Detroit, Calgary turned in the type of desperate effort that fans grew so accustomed to watching last season. In particular, the victory over the Red Wings was very reminiscent of the Flames 4-3 win over Los Angeles right before Christmas last year.

    • Last Year - Had lost eight in a row (including three straight at home)
    • Last Night - Had lost four in a row (including four straight at home)

    • Last Year - Trailed after first (2-0) and second periods (3-1)
    • Last Night - Trailed after first (2-1) and second periods (2-1)

    Late Game Heroics
    • Last Year - Scored tying goal at 19:01 with Hiller pulled
    • Last Night - Scored tying goal at 18:48 with Hiller pulled

    • Last Year - Giordano wins it at 4:07
    • Last Night - Giordano wins it at 3:12

    After falling behind 2-1 on a pair of power play goals, Calgary played its two best periods of the season in the second and third, eventually winning it in overtime on Mark Giordano's second goal of the night. Coming on the Flames 40th shot, the deciding goal was an absolute beauty.

    "Wides was in the zone for about 30-40 seconds and made a good change coming to the bench. And Mony, I don't know how many minutes he played tonight but to win that battle -- it was almost a one-on-two down low -- after being out there for so long was huge," Giordano said. "When I got the puck from Johnny, my first instinct was to shoot. But the goalie charged out and raced over and I surprised myself, I guess."

    Calgary got the game to 3-on-3 thanks to Joe Colborne's tip-in goal with 1:12 remaining. First, Colborne came on the ice for goaltender Jonas Hiller. Next, he carried the puck in deep. Next, he zipped a backhand pass to Giordano at the point and drove to the front of the net. Lastly, he deflected Giordano's shot.

    Reduced to being a spectator at that point, Hiller experienced the rare thrill of being part of the bedlam at the Flames bench when the critical goal went in.

    "In those situations, you just keep your fingers crossed. Sometimes you don't even want to watch it," said Hiller, with a smile. "You try to look on the jumbotron and every time you see a scoring chance developing, you go 'please, please, please.' I saw the shot and I didn't know where it went and then I looked up and I heard the crowd being loud and I was like, 'yes!'".

    So how did they do it?

    Eight Keys to Victory

    1. Got Back to Playing Flames Hockey

    Those final 40 minutes in getting the game to overtime was vintage Calgary hockey from a year ago. Every line that jumped over the boards went to the attack. They came at the Red Wings wave after wave.

    “That was us. I thought that was our game," said Giordano. "We were relentless on the forecheck, we created a lot, we held the puck more in the neutral zone, which was a big key tonight. We didn’t just throw it up and give it away."

    Forgetting about the team's current plight and just going out with a clear head and playing was huge.

    "We let go a bit of the tension. We just went out there and played," said the captain.

    2. Got Timely Saves

    Calgary outshot Detroit 32-16 over the final two periods and OT. While a majority of the play was in the Red Wings end, the visitors did have some great chances. However, unlike what's been happening so far, Hiller was able to make the clutch save to keep the game within reach.

    "When you're down, the other team always gets odd-man rushes because you're pushing and things happen," said Hiller. "In the end, that's part of my job. Tonight, I felt good out there."

    Halfway through the third, he robbed Dylan Larkin on a two-on-one. Three minutes later, Hiller acrobatically sprawled across to deny Tomas Tatar as he pounced on a rebound off the end boards.

    "Hills kept us in the game at 2-1. That's huge. You need those saves. He was great," said Flames coach Bob Hartley.

    In overtime, Hiller racked up another couple dandies with game-saving stops off Tatar again and Teemu Pulkkinen from in-close.

    "I can't say enough about Hills. Stepping up and having a huge game," said Colborne.

    3. Vintage Performance From the Captain

    On this night, Flames fans did not see the player that signed a six-year extension in the summer for $6.75 million per year. Nope, on this night they saw the Norris Trophy-caliber player that many thought would command a contract with an annual average value in the $8 million range.

    "It was an incredible," said Colborne. "That was the best game, I think, I've ever seen him play and I've seen him play some good games."

    In on all three goals, a plus-3, a game-high seven shots on goal, all coming in 26:04 of ice time in which No. 5 was constantly streaking up the ice, back again, then back up the ice once more. He was back being that dynamic game-breaking presence that he's been the last few years.

    "Gio, he's our captain, that's not a surprise," said Hartley of his performance.

    For the season's first six games, Giordano was paired with Dougie Hamilton, but it hadn't been working. Giordano had just one goal and was a minus-six. Both totals were very uncharacteristic.

    On Friday, Giordano partnered with Dennis Wideman, who was solid as well in logging a game-high 31:41 in ice time.

    It was Giordano's first two-goal game since October 14, 2006. That night in Toronto he scored his first two NHL goals. That was career game No. 12. Last night was career game No. 517.

    "It was positive tonight. You would expect a lot more frustration, you think, not being able to score and put pucks in the net because we had so many chances. The guys stuck with it. At the end of the day we got a big two points,” said Giordano.

    4. Relentless Forecheck, Familiar Swagger

    A characteristic of Calgary's game absent so far this year was the forecheck. It was not missing on this night.

    "We just got back to our game," said Josh Jooris. "We didn't take our foot off the pedal. Line after line, we were coming in waves. We were controlling the play tonight in the second and third. That's the way we want to play and it's nice to know that we're capable of that now and we just have to keep building on it."

    The dominating effort also helps Calgary restore some of its swagger from a year ago that had not yet been seen.

    "Gives us confidence," said Sean Monahan. "We all believe in each other in this room. When you fight back in games like that and come out with a win, it gives you that much more confidence and you want to win more."

    5. Emotionally Invested

    A missing ingredient in the first six games was the emotion that the Flames invested into last night's game and it made a difference. A big difference.

    "We wanted it and we were hungry for it. We told everybody in this room, we talked about it, we weren't going to leave here without the two points," said Monahan. "Obviously we are frustrated, we started the season off not playing too well. We came together as a group and we know we have to be better. When frustration kicks in, you find a way to use that as momentum."

    When you don't have the most skilled team in the league, passion, energy and determination can carry a team a long way.

    "Everyone stepped up. We had some real gutsy efforts out there," said Hartley.

    One of the sparks was Jooris, who nearly dropped the gloves twice and almost notched the tying goal on a third period breakaway. He admitted it was his best game.

    "I got a hit in early and that got me into the game," said Jooris, whose heavy hit on Mike Green in the first period was a tone-setter. "That's the way I want to play. A lot of energy. When you get a hit like that and you get into the game emotionally like that, it makes me, personally, get into the game a lot more and play a lot better."

    6. Carried the Play at Even-Strength

    Calgary's 5-on-5 game has been particularly poor in the first couple weeks, having been outshot at even-strength in all but one of the six games.

    "I felt we were more playing on our toes than our heels. We weren't worried about making a mistake and being just half-way in," said Hiller, describing what he saw Friday from his team. "Everybody went into the battle with the want and desire to get that puck back."

    During its four-game losing streak, Calgary was limited to 15, 18, 16 and 17 even-strength shots. On Friday, they piled up 36.

    “We were just relentless. I mean, what did we have — 35 to 40 shots on net tonight? That's a big difference from 15 or 20. We got pucks to the net, we paid the price in front of the net. Just some simple hockey and got the job done,” said Jooris.

    7. Never-Quit Attitude

    The refusal to give up in picking up their second third period comeback of the season was exactly what the Flames were known for last year when they came from behind to win 10 games.

    “You could just feel it from the bench, and the crowd got into it. That was just back to our M.O., our game,” said Jooris.

    Colborne said they were pouring on the pressure over that final 40 minutes, he knew it was just a matter of time.

    "We came out of that second period feeling good in here. We were down a goal but when you have that effort, when you have those chances coming, you know sooner or later it's going to break for you," he said.

    Mikael Backlund, who had six shots on goal including a great chance to win in OT, said up and down the line-up, everybody was giving their all.

    "A lot of hunger," Backlund said. "Everybody wanted to have the puck, everybody wanted to do the dirty work and take the pucks to the net. We took the game over in the second and third."

    Eventually, they got it back to even.

    "It seemed like it was going to be a tough one. With two minutes left, you look up at the clock and you were down. That looked a lot like our team from last year tonight, that’s for sure.” said Giordano.

    8. Resilience

    Considering the way the season had gone, losing a game in which they finally deserved better would have been fitting.

    "Definitely huge for the confidence," said Jooris "You wouldn't want to play that well and not get rewarded. That certainly could have been the case just the way the season has been going. It was nice that Colby was able to step up and get a big goal and Hills played a great game and we were able to cap it off in overtime."

    It's to the Flames credit that they weren't content with a moral victory only and kept pushing.

    "Very happy for the guys, they deserve it. We got spanked a few times but we never quit. We had two good days of practice and today they responded with a very good effort," said Hartley.

    A home ice win after a franchise worst start, that's huge too.

    "It was great to see the Scotiabank Saddledome rocking at the end there again. The fans were right behind us. That's such a great relationship," said Hartley. "We're going back home tonight happy. They're driving home happy. That's why we play this game."

    Heading out on the Road

    The win puts Calgary in a way different state of mind as they fly out this morning for New York City and a date with the Rangers on Sunday night. It begins a three-game road trip that also includes games against the Islanders and Senators.

    "Especially with the long road trip, that would have been a long and quiet plane ride if we don't get this one," said Colborne.

    Hiller figures Friday's game will serve as a big confidence booster.

    "On the road, it won’t be easier but I think there’s a lot of hockey played in just a few days. With a game like tonight, going on the road definitely helps," said Hiller. "If we play like that every night we always have a chance to win and that’s what we need.”

     Backlund says it's about keeping the momentum going now.

    "We're going to play some good teams, both New York teams and Ottawa are playing well so it's going to be tough. But coming in with a win feels a lot better than going out on the road with a loss," said Backlund.

    Getting Back to Having Fun Again

    More important than maybe anything is Calgary got back to having fun again.

    "We have a great team spirit. I don't know how many times last year I said that we're fortunate to coach those guys. They're together, they're very united," said Hartley. "It was a great feeling. Hills gave a couple of good saves and guys were talking on the bench. Then, when we scored that winning goal, guys were jumping on the bench. It was great to see some smiles at that point. We were on a mission."

    The mission continues at Madison Square Garden where they'll try for a couple firsts. They've yet to win multiple games in a row and are still seeking their first regulation win.

    "That was Calgary Flames hockey right there. That's what we were so proud of and what we spent a year-and-a-half to two years building towards. That's our team, right there," Colborne said.

    Last season, that win in LA before Christmas was arguably the most important game of the season for Calgary as it turned the Flames season around. In six months time, will Friday's victory be looked back on in the same way? That's up to the Flames to determine but following it up with a good road trip would go a long way in helping that be the case.

    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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    Wednesday, October 21, 2015

    Eight Ways I Would Fix the Calgary Flames Right Now, or at Least are Things I'd Try

    It's been 10 years since the Calgary Flames last had one person in the dual role of general manager and head coach. Darryl Sutter put away his whistle to concentrate solely on his front office responsibilities after the 2005-06 season.

    That is, until now.

    In the middle of the night last night, while everybody was sound asleep except for Pat Steinberg and the dozen gluttons for punishment still listening to the third hour of his Overtime call-in show, I named myself the Flames interim GM and head coach.

    No, I didn't fire Bob Hartley or Brad Treliving. I'm not foolish enough to want to do either of those jobs full-time, but I am taking over their jobs for the duration of this article to share with you some of the moves I'd be pondering as an attempt to remedy Calgary's miserable 1-5-0 start.

    The latest blow was a 6-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, which runs Calgary's record at the Saddledome to an ugly 0-4-0. Never before in franchise history have they opened with four straight setbacks on home ice.

    Heck, in 1988-89, they only lost four times at home all season. That's right, they went 32-4-4 that Stanley Cup year. You can imagine how enjoyable it was for fans going to the Saddledome that season. That, plus 'trumpet guy' and add in some some classic John Denver and Johnny Horton tracks being spun, many good times indeed.

    But that was then and this is now. For more on the latest debacle including some candid reaction from Mark Giordano, Matt Stajan and Bob Hartley, here's my story from Tuesday for The Canadian Press.

    Meanwhile, here are eight GM/coaching moves I'd strongly consider making ASAP.

    1. Guarantee Ortio the Next Two Starts

    Joni Ortio has not played a meaningful hockey game in over eight months. While everybody is focused on the lack of activity the young Finn has received in October while Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller continue to flounder, we forget the 24-year-old also missed seven weeks at the end of last season with a high ankle sprain.

    The last time Ortio played the full 60 minutes in a meaningful hockey game was way back on Feb. 13, 2015.  Since then:
    • It was 7:16 into Adirondack's game on Feb. 20 that he got injured. He returned from injury to start in Calgary's 5-1 loss to Winnipeg in the regular season finale on Apr. 10, a game in which numerous Flames regulars were rested. He went back out East and with the baby Flames already eliminated from playoff contention, he started twice on the final weekend -- Apr. 17 and 18.
    • This pre-season, he stopped 12 of 13 in a half-game against the Oilers on Sept. 21. He stopped all 35 shots in a 1-0 win over the Avs on Sept. 24. Then in his most recent appearance, he was beaten three times on 26 shots in a 3-1 loss in Winnipeg on Oct. 1.

    Considering the Flames deplorable defensive play these days, you could say that not starting him after such a long period of inactivity has actually been the right thing to do. It comes down to a human rights/working conditions issue! Yet it's time.

    What I would do in starting Ortio against Detroit on Friday, which you have to do at this point, is tell him from the outset that no matter what, he's also starting Sunday night at Madison Square Garden as Calgary kicks off its three-game road trip with back-to-backs with the Rangers and Islanders. Knowing that it's not a one-game do-or-die appearance would hopefully allow Ortio to put less pressure on himself in that first game.

    Hiller and Ramo received three regular season games each for their audition, Ortio surely deserves at least a couple games in succession to get on track -- especially considering the long lay-off. He hasn't even dressed as a back-up in three weeks.

    2. Demote Hiller or Ramo to the Minors

    Before chartering out East this weekend, I'll resort to closing my eyes and pointing if I have to but I'd pick one of Hiller and Ramo and put them on waivers. With the portfolios they've put together this season, you're crazy if you think another NHL team is going to claim either given their exorbitant price tag of $4.5 and $3.8 million respectively.

    Just for the sake of argument and because I think his trade value is higher, I'm going to demote Hiller. Meanwhile, I continue on with trade conversations where I tell teams I will retain up to $2.25 million of Hiller's salary -- the maximum permitted in the CBA -- in an attempt to move the Swiss veteran to another NHL team. Also, I don't get greedy, I get what I can, likely a middle round draft pick at best, and I move on.

    Some argue that risking losing an asset for nothing by putting either veteran on waivers is bad management. My counterpoint to that is not doing anything means continuing this three-goalie headache and considering the distraction it's become and the negative impact it's had, I'd call the collateral cost of doing nothing even greater. 

    Remember that Calgary was about to let Ramo walk away for nothing as a UFA last spring anyway before urgently re-signing him on July 1 just prior to free agency beginning. Losing him now for nothing is the exact same thing.

    Same thing for Hiller. He's only worth something if there's another GM interested in acquiring him. I'd argue a team would rather give up a draft pick to get Hiller at $2.25 million then claim him for nothing but pay him his full $4.5 million ticket. Most teams just don't have that kind of cap space.

    Update: An hour after this article was published Wednesday morning, it was reported that Ramo had been placed on waivers as of 10 am.

    3. Demote Raymond

    How many more chances does Mason Raymond get to to establish himself as a guy that can be a meaningful contributor to this team. One sure doesn't get the impression that he fits into this club or Hartley's plans and that's not just an assessment of games 1-6. That's taking all of last season into consideration also. Just over two weeks ago he was put on waivers and 29 other NHL teams passed on him. He got a stay of execution that time. But is his number finally up?

    It's his inconsistency that must drive the Flames brass mad. He was scratched for the opener, plays a terrific game in his debut in game No. 2. He gets elevated onto a line with Sam Bennett and Michael Frolik for game No. 3 against St. Louis and scores on his first shift. Everything is good for a fleeting moment.

    But by the third period, Raymond is seeing time with other lines and come game No. 4, he's back on the fourth unit again beside Brandon Bollig and Josh Jooris. Saturday against the Oilers, Raymond was slated for fourth line duty once again but instead bumps up to the top six to replace injured Sam Bennett, but it's another miserable night for the team and all 12 forwards and last night Raymond is back in the press box again, his spot taken by Joe Colborne, just returning from injury. 

    With Curtis Glencross a shining example of how quickly the NHL game can suddenly pass a guy by, is Raymond encountering a similar situation? That shouldn't be the case, his knees are still good and he's two years younger. But, how much patience can you have with him at the NHL level? It's come time to consider sending him to Stockton, where you hope he rediscovers his game. If not, there's the option next summer of buying out the final year of his contract.

    4. Call Up Two Fresh Forwards

    Calgary is coming up on a stretch of six games in nine nights, which includes two sets of back-to-backs. You want to have a couple sets of fresh forward legs to plug in along the way and/or have on stand-by in case of minor injuries. Sometimes a guy needs a couple days to get over something, but you don't want to lose him for a week by placing him on the IR.

    The first guy I'd summon is Garnet Hathaway.

    This team badly needs a spark and Hathaway, the mature 6-foot-2 right winger, is a popular guy off the ice and a rambunctious player on it. He also has some offensive pop with 19 goals in his first pro campaign. He would be the perfect tonic. The 23-year-old grad of Brown University has never played an NHL game so you know the excitement and energy that accompanies that. Plus, as a physical right-shooting winger, you'd hope his presence as a line-up option for Hartley lights a fire under guys like Jooris, Colborne, Micheal Ferland and Brandon Bollig.

    For my second call-up, I'm going to go off the radar a bit and recall centre Derek Grant.

    Grant is new to the organization and was a relative unknown at training camp but I know for a fact he caught the eye of Treliving. All he's done in the first two AHL games is go down and score three goals including this highlight reel effort in the Heat's most recent game. If you're looking to reinforce 'always earned, never given', the right message would be sent by bringing up this 25-year-old, who does have NHL experience with 25 games on his resume from his time with the Ottawa Senators.

    5. Break up the Top D Pairing

    Some say chemistry amongst defence partners is overrated but what can't be overstated is how dysfunctional the pairing of Giordano and Dougie Hamilton has looked to this point. It's hard to explain why but sometimes it just doesn't work between certain players and that has been my first impression with these two. Giordano appears frustrated and looks nothing like the player we saw a year ago. 

    If I'm in charge, TJ Brodie is back with Giordano the second he's healthy as those two have been excellent together and there's no reason to think they won't pick up where they left off.

    I'm sure the adjustment to a new team, a new system and a new partner isn't easy but Hamilton has underwhelmed so far. Removing him from the intense scrutiny that comes with being on the top pairing feels like the smart thing to do.

    Plus, the second pairing of Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell hasn't been very good either so taking time to play with other people might be the best thing for their relationship also.

    For the short term, I would pair Giordano and Wideman and go with Russell and Hamilton on the second pairing. This is the easiest adjustment to make as it keeps both pairings lefty-righty. But that's only until the anxiously-awaited return of No. 7, whose value to the hockey team has really become obvious over these past few weeks.

    6. Trade a Defenceman 

    Everything I'm hearing is that the return of Ladislav Smid is imminent. Brodie's already been out four weeks so he should be back within the next couple of weeks also. Unless another injury arises, you're not going to have enough roster spots for both of them without either demoting a defenceman or dealing a defenceman. 

    Of course, then there's Czech veteran Jakub Nakladal, who had a solid camp and has looked very good in his first two AHL games. Let's be honest, organizations don't bring 27-year-old Europeans over to North America on one-year deals to play in the American Hockey League.

    The two defencemen most likely to get traded would be Russell, a pending UFA at season's end, who Calgary may not have the cap space to retain anyway, and Wideman, who has one more season left beyond this one on his current deal. Wideman is also a guy you don't see fitting into this team's long term picture given their financial commitment to Giordano, Hamilton and Brodie. Coming off a terrific offensive season and with a good start points-wise to this one, this might be the time to pull the trigger.

    Failing to make a movie, rookie Brett Kulak is the logical and pretty much only choice to demote, but if I'm the coach, I'd rather keep him in that third pairing/5-6-7 mix with Engelland and Smid as I like his mobility. Plus, the more NHL time he accrues this year, the better prepared he'll be moving forward to shoulder more responsibility.

    7. Re-Unite the Top Line

    Frolik has been one of Calgary's most consistent players in the early going. Maybe the most consistent. I have no doubt his presence on the top line beside Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau would work out just fine. However, I like the idea of him playing alongside Mikael Backlund better.

    I don't fault Hartley for splitting up the top line last night. Lord knows this team needed some sort of shake-up and that line has not been going all that well being blanked in two straight games. But ultimately whether it's Friday or later on in this upcoming road trip, I go right back to them.

    As a history lesson, last year after being together all of February, the Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler line was broken up for two games -- March 3 and 5. Well, you know what happened when they were re-united after that. They went on an absolute tear over the final five weeks of the season with Hudler named the NHL's Player of the Month for March. They were unstoppable. 

    With the top line re-united and the aforementioned roster moves made, here's how my 12 forwards would look against the Red Wings on Friday:

    Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
    Bennett - Backlund - Frolik
    Ferland - Stajan - Jones
    Colborne - Jooris - Hathaway

    Extra - Grant, Bollig

    8. Get Back to Line Matching

    Maybe I'm stuck in my ways and an old-school thinker but I'm not a fan of the top line versus top line approach that Hartley tends to prefer. In my eyes, when you have last change and you're playing on home ice, that's a chance to get your offensive players into favourable match-ups and a chance to get your better defensive players out against your opponent's biggest threat.

    For me, I'm more focused on getting Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler away from Detroit's top line than trying to make sure they each play 20-22 minutes. I'd rather deploy Backlund-Frolik against the Red Wings most dangerous trio of Henrik Zetterberg, Justin Abdelkader and Dylan Larkin

    Don't get me wrong, there's an extreme level of line matching we've seen over the years where players are continually going on/off the ice as the coach tries to line match on the fly and I'm not suggesting going that route, which can be counter-productive. But whenever possible, get your defensive guys/checkers out against their best offensive guys and get out your top line against their secondary lines. 

    Same thing applies to the defencemen too. Get Giordano out against the top line. Spot Hamilton and Russell in more favourable match-ups.

    Final Thoughts

    The start to the year has been an unmitigated disaster for Calgary. There is no other way to describe it.

    But let's get this straight, this is not an 'I told you so' moment for the hardcore analytics crowd and Flames skeptics. This is not a team that has been unlucky, whose good luck from last year is starting to even out. That may happen eventually and at that point, that crowd can fist-pump all they want.

    What we've seen in six games is a team that is flat-out playing awful. The lines look dysfunctional, the defensive play has been abysmal and there is a real lack of cohesion up and down the line-up. But what's missing more than anything is that patented Hartley insatiable work ethic that made up for many of the Flames shortcomings talent-wise last year and carried Calgary much further than anyone could have expected.

    While there's no shortage of changes I'd consider if I was actually at the helm, none of that makes a difference if the team doesn't start playing better. Making crisper passes, making smarter decisions and just being more engaged.

    We're heading into a hectic stretch, which could be a golden opportunity for the club to get momentum back on its side. When you're playing frequently, if you're playing well, you can rack up some W's pretty fast. However, things can just as easily unravel and continue to go spiralling the other direction. 

    With this year being an important one for so many -- some are UFAs looking for new deals, others are RFAs looking for big raises, there is plenty of personal incentive to get back on track, never mind a burning desire to get back to the playoffs and once again enjoy the taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

    But this club better not dawdle for much longer on their way to finding their game again because they're five points back of a playoff spot already and the gap continues to grow.

    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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    Monday, October 19, 2015

    Last in the West: A Glass Half-Full and Glass Half-Empty Look at the Flames 1-4-0 Start

    The last place Calgary Flames.

    Well, it wasn't supposed to go like this. But hitting the team and its fans Monday morning like a glass of icy cold water thrown in their face is the stark reality that Calgary is now alone in last in the Western Conference. Behind the Coyotes. Behind the Oilers. Behind everyone.

    Two points through five games equals the Flames worst start in their 35 years in Calgary. They also had two points after five games in 1997-98, a season in which they started out 0-3-2.

    The result has been a divided fan base. Some are shrugging it off as a slow start -- season isn't even two weeks old yet, relax, no big deal. For others, the sky is falling and faster than a two ton anvil hurtling towards the earth.

    Here, in a variation of my regular Eight From 80 Feet feature, I look at both sides. Eight reasons to sleep soundly and eight reasons to be fearful that the night terrors will continue.

    Eight Reasons to be Optimistic:

    1. The Season is 12 Days Old

    With an NHL season 186 days in duration, we've played just 6.5 percent of the games so far. That's a drop in the bucket and there is plenty of time to recover. Last year, the Winnipeg Jets started off an identical 1-4-0 yet finished the season at 99 points to make the playoffs. In 2013-14, the New York Rangers also began 1-4-0 but finished the season with 96 points and not only made the playoffs, they went all the way to the Stanley Cup final before losing to Los Angeles.

    2. Not Far Behind the Teams That Matter

    Two weeks ago, the consensus in many circles was that Calgary had a very good shot at finishing top three in the Pacific Division. Most had the Ducks first with the Kings and Flames -- in some order -- in second and third. Well, you may have noticed that it hasn't exactly been a sizzling start for Anaheim or Los Angeles either. They were sitting at two and one points respectively until each won Sunday night. So despite the slow start, the Flames can take solace in the fact that they have barely lost any ground to two of the Pacific's big dogs.

    3. Defence Will Come Around

    The Flames have to be pleased with what they're getting from the team's third D pairing of Deryk Engelland and Brett Kulak. For all six Calgary blue-liners, here's a look at their individual SAT% (aka Corsi) as of Monday morning, which is a measurement of shot attempts for/against. If you're above 50, that means your team is generating more shot attempts than they're yielding when that player is on the ice. The higher above 50, the better.

    17. Deryk Engelland, 58.25
    21. Brett Kulak, 57.73
    129. Mark Giordano, 46.91
    147. Dougie Hamilton, 43.86
    149. Dennis Wideman, 43.68
    175. Kris Russell, 39.44

    You know Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton will get it going pretty soon. They are both proven top defenders. Last year, Hamilton (54.93) was 15th in the NHL and Giordano (48.36) led the Flames. With TJ Brodie coming back in the next couple weeks, Calgary's top four will get that much better and with the higher-than-expected calibre of play already coming from the third pairing, that bodes well for Calgary getting its vaunted defense corps back playing at the level everyone expected them to be at to start the year.

    4. Ramo Getting Better, Ortio Yet to Lose

    While in the early going, neither Jonas Hiller or Karri Ramo have been able to deliver the type of consistency coach Bob Hartley is looking for, this would be a worse problem if they were the team's only two goaltenders. That's not the case this year as Hartley still has Joni Ortio as a card up his sleeve so if things continue how they've been going or even if they don't, surely we will see the 24-year-old Finn soon.

    As you may recall, it was with the team scuffling last year -- having lost three straight games on home ice (sounds familiar), the last being an ugly 6-5 loss to Florida with Hiller in net (also sounds familiar) -- that Ortio got his chance in Vancouver to open a five-game road trip and he promptly rattled off four consecutive wins.

    Meanwhile, despite surrendering that awful go-ahead goal on Saturday (which he talked about in my piece on Ramo on the weekend), Ramo was excellent and virtually perfect for 58-and-a-half minutes prior to that. He said Saturday's game was the best he felt yet and he's settling in and finding his game after a tough opening night that was followed by not playing for eight days.

    5. Just A Matter of Time for Top Line

    Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler made up the best line in the NHL for the final two months of last season. You sense it's just a matter of time before they revert to that form -- assuming they get that chance. Monday morning at practice, Michael Frolik replaced Hudler on the top unit.

    Regardless of the composition of the top six -- Hudler joined Sam Bennett and Mikael Backlund on the second unit -- there is plenty of talent there and Bennett and Backlund together is something to watch. They were good in the playoffs last year and also looked good together Friday night in Winnipeg when they were reunited (Bennett did not play Saturday due to a minor upper body injury).

    Meanwhile, Gaudreau is already flying with five points compared to the bagel he was sitting at this same point a year ago.

    Mix in red-hot David Jones if can keep contributing offensively and the Flames should have a more balanced attack that ultimately will make them a better team than a year ago when they were so reliant on the No. 1 line.

    Also of note, Jones' power play goal on Saturday was the first time in 43 games (dating back to Feb. 12 versus Los Angeles) that the Flames got a goal from the second power play unit. Getting over that huge mental hurdle is big and it should lead to more production from that group going forward.

    6. Better First Periods

    Calgary has played better first periods this year and that's good news. Last year, Calgary led after one period only 18 times, which was only more than Detroit and Buffalo. This season, three times already they've headed to the first intermission in front.

    Last year, the Flames showed an impressive ability to lock down first period leads. Only the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks were better at it. If that trend continues, that means far less reliance on third period comebacks and would be a sign of a team winning games more conventionally and in a fashion that is more sustainable.

    7. Playing Well on the Road

    The Flames have played twice on the road so far and have looked good. They picked up a win in Vancouver and they were 88 seconds away from getting at least a point in a very difficult MTS Centre in Winnipeg on Friday before succumbing to the Jets. After tying a franchise record with 22 road wins a year ago, the early indications are that the Flames will once again thrive in opposition arenas this year using their aggressive forecheck to bottle up teams in their own end and get them off their game. Combine with better first periods and Calgary has the ability to take the crowd out of it early and that's the path to road success.

    8. Schedule Has Been Difficult

    While there is plenty of consternation about the Flames record, it hasn't been an easy schedule so far so that's a consideration. Opening night was a stinker, for sure, but heading back to Vancouver was no gimme. The Jets and Blues are two of the top teams in the Central Division and the Oilers were a motivated group and let's be honest, are a much better team than a year ago with Connor McDavid among the many changes.

    Eight Reasons to be Worried

    1. Slow Starts Can be Crippling

    While the Jets were one slow starter from a year ago, the other three teams that had two or fewer points at this point in the season were Carolina, Buffalo and Edmonton, whom never climbed out of that early hole and finished in the bottom five overall.

    Meanwhile, I mentioned that 1997-98 Flames team that also had two points after five games. As it turned out, that very much foreshadowed how that season was going to go for Brian Sutter's crew as it ended up being the Flames worst season in Calgary finishing 26-41-15 for 67 points. It did earn them No. 6 draft pick that following summer but they used it on Rico Fata and what followed was some very lean years for the organization.

    2. Chasing the Teams That Really Matter

    The pessimist will be very concerned after a glance of the league standings today. You know Anaheim and Los Angeles are going to get on a roll soon so the Flames have blown a golden chance to create some separation on them. Meanwhile, Pacific rivals Vancouver and San Jose are already six points clear of the Flames. As two of the bubble teams expected to battle for a top three spot, that leaves Calgary in a significant hole already.

    3. Concerns About Hamilton

    The whispers have already begun. Perhaps Hamilton was a bigger benefactor of playing alongside Zdeno Chara last year in Boston than everybody thought. The Hamilton-Giordano pairing has struggled to the point where it shouldn't surprise anyone if Brodie is reunited with Giordano shortly after his return. Of course, that leaves the question of what next for Hamilton.

    If the 6-foot-5 defender is struggling with Giordano, it's hard to see him faring better in a pairing with Kris Russell or Dennis Wideman. Meanwhile, Ladislav Smid's pending return could leave the Flames with eight defencemen meaning someone heads back to the minors. To the disappointment of many, that probably means Kulak would go, despite the fact he's been a bright spot.

    The other concern with Giordano is he's at zero points. That's not how you measure his value but he was the engine of the Flames offence last season and they do need him to contribute. He's coming back from a major injury but we've yet to see that dynamic game from the captain we got so accustomed to last season when he was fourth man in the rush constantly and always a scoring threat.

    4. More Questions Than Answers in Net

    Of 42 goalies that have made at least two starts, here is where the Flames goaltenders rank:

    Overall Save Percentage:

    29. Karri Ramo, .904
    37. Jonas Hiller, .872

    Even-Strength Save Percentage:

    36. Jonas Hiller, .889
    37. Karri Ramo, .885

    It's the type of goaltending that isn't going to get this team into the playoffs and you wonder how it might be affecting the team's overall play. For years in this city, we saw how the Flames would play very poor whenever Miikka Kiprusoff's back-up got a start. Almost as if they were expecting to lose. The mental drain on the psyche of players when you start almost expecting a bad goal against is one theory on what is happening.

    Meanwhile, given the reluctance to play Ortio so far, what does that say about the team's confidence in the 24-year-old Finn, who would be in the minors if not for his contract situation. Ortio has not even dressed for a game since he faced Winnipeg in a pre-season game on October 1. The earliest he could get in now would be Friday and that would be over three weeks after his last game. In that scenario, what could one realistically expect from him anyway? Further, what if he struggles when he does get a chance, then where is this team at?

    Three good goalies is a good problem to have. Three below average goalies is not.

    5. Overreliance on the Top Line

    Being blanked on the scoresheet two games in a row does not happen very often for the trio of Gaudreau, Monahan and Hudler. It happened once last year in the playoffs (games 1 and 2 against Anaheim) and just once over the final three months of the regular season (March 14 and 17).

    But that's where the Flames find themselves right now with all three blanked Friday in Winnipeg and again on Saturday against the Oilers. Most troubling is history suggests that if that line is not scoring, then the team's not winning. You have to go back to November 15, 2014, a 4-2 win over Ottawa in game No. 19 of last season to find the last time Calgary won a game in which they got no points from either Monahan, Gaudreau or Hudler.

    6. Miserable Second Periods

    While it's been good news that the Flames have taken three first period leads this season, they've blown all three with not one of them making it to the third period. One of these blown leads they did get away with. It happened in the game in Vancouver with Calgary coming back to win in overtime, but their 1-2-0 record when leading after one period is a bad trend.

    The undoing has been some awful second periods. In the middle 20 minutes, the Flames have been outscored 8-2 and outshot 54-27. They're simply not giving themselves a chance playing that poorly in the middle frame.

    7.  Dreadful on Home Ice

    Calgary has lost its first three games at the Scotiabank Saddledome for the first time since 2000-01. They've been outscored 14-6 and been outshot all three games by a combined total of 100-72. Not winning on home ice should be a concern as you cannot count on the team thriving on the road once again like they did last season. The Flames are a team that is no longer sneaking up on opponents. Teams are geared up to play Calgary and are determined to outwork them and basically do what they did to other teams last year. Edmonton's Taylor Hall said pretty much exactly this after Saturday night's game.

    If the Flames cannot play at the same level at home as they did last year, the tiniest of slips on the road will result in this team watching the playoffs on TV.

    8. Schedule Getting Increasingly Difficult

    The Flames schedule hasn't been easy so far and it's not getting any easier anytime soon. Following this stretch of four of five games coming against playoff teams from a year ago, Calgary's next six games are also against teams that are coming off trips to the post-season.

    The tough Capitals play at the Saddledome on Tuesday and then starting on Friday, the Flames begin a hectic stretch of six games in nine nights. There aren't any pushovers in that mix either -- The Red Wings, back-to-back against the Rangers and Islanders, Ottawa and Montreal after that and the improved Oilers at Rexall Place on Halloween. If they manage only a couple victories in that stretch, Calgary would enter November 3-9-0 and that's leaving an awful lot of ground to make up.

    Looking Ahead

    In these final two weeks of October, we're going to learn a lot about the Flames.

    Will they be able to remedy their goalie situation? Once the schedule gets busier, you want to have extra skaters on the roster so when players are banged up, they can miss a game here or there without having to be parked on injured reserve for a week to free up a roster spot to call-up somebody from Stockton. Having a third goalie tying up one of your roster spots makes navigating through busy stretches of the schedule far more difficult.

    What about the health of the team? Is Bennett's injury going to linger? How close is Joe Colborne? How quickly can Brodie make it back and a bigger question, how quickly can he get back to the high level he played at a year ago, which is what this team needs? Brodie won't be the saviour but in his absence, his value to the team has certainly become much more appreciated these last couple weeks.

    The Flames were a fascinating story last season for their ability to defy the odds. They've become a fascinating story once again this year for their inability so far to meet heightened expectations.

    Making the second round of the playoffs early in a rebuild as was the case last season does comes with its traps and we're in the midst of one of them. Higher expectations have been set -- arguably unrealistically high given the youth on the team and where this team was at just two summers ago -- but that's how it goes in this business.

    One thing we do know for sure is with 93.5 percent of the season still remaining, there are many more chapters to be written and like with all books, it's how the story ends that most people will remember, not how it began.

    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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