Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Bold Predictions for Calgary for the 2015-16 Season

It feels like it's lasted forever but it's really quite the opposite. The Calgary Flames are coming off their shortest summer in 26 years.

Since being eliminated in Anaheim on May 10 and leading up to Wednesday's season-opener, 149 days will have passed. That is the shortest length of time from season end to season start since that brief but oh-so-glorious summer of 1989 that lasted just 132 days.

As we get ready to kick off the six month roller-coaster that is the NHL regular season, which Flames fans hope will be followed up by a month or two of playoffs, here is a look ahead to what could unfold this season (emphasis on "could", these are intended to be bold predictions, folks. Keep that in mind. I'm under no illusion that I'm going to run the table and go 8-for-8.)

Eight Bold Predictions for the Calgary Flames

1. Gaudreau Finishes Top 10 in NHL Scoring

All this guy does is create offence and that isn't changing anytime soon. After a dominating three years at Boston College, it took him 11 days to acclimate to the NHL but once Johnny Gaudreau got his bearings, he ripped it up to the tune of 64 points (24 goals, 40 assists) over his final 75 games. Let's not forget, this coming after he'd been accustomed to playing 40-45 games per season at Boston College. The 22-year-old is a fixture on the top line -- the chemistry with Sean Monahan continues to get better and better, he's a mainstay on the power play, and 3-on-3 overtime and the acres of open ice that comes with it was built for a guy of his talents. After finishing tied for 29th in NHL scoring a year ago, expect a bump up to 75-80 points this season and a top 10 finish. You can expect him to remain in the top 10 for many years to come.

2. Ramo Wins 30 Games

When my phone buzzed early in the morning on July 1 with the announcement that Karri Ramo, just hours away from being an unrestricted free agent, had been re-signed by the Flames for $3.8 million, you knew right then and there that didn't happen for him to be waived and sent to the minors three months later. The urgency in bringing back the 29-year-old Finn suggests he's the one coach Bob Hartley trusts the most and sure enough, he'll be between the pipes for the season opener against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday. Ramo went 15-9-3 a year ago in 32 starts. With a stronger team in front of him and Jonas Hiller on his way out at some point, expect an additional 25 starts this year and 15 more victories as he spends the season as the team's No. 1 goalie.

3. Brodie Leads Team in Average Ice Time

Lost in the hype around Dougie Hamilton and the excitement of Mark Giordano being healthy again is the fact TJ Brodie could soon be the best of the three, even though his pay stipend won't reflect that. Brodie, 25, has been on a rapid ascent the past few seasons. Don't be surprised if the Hamilton-Giordano pairing -- that has looked less than scintillating so far -- does not last and Brodie ends up back in his familiar spot with Giordano shortly after he returns from his broken hand. Brodie was three seconds behind Giordano in average ice time at the time of his injury last year and his 25:12 by season's end ended up two seconds more than the captain and tops on the team. It still seems like a bold prediction given all the attention surrounding the other two but I wouldn't be surprised at all if No. 7 ends up pacing the team once again and makes his $4.65 million cap hit look like robbery.

4. Calgary Wins Twice in Anaheim

There's bold, there's extra bold, then there's uh-oh-better-call-an-ambulance type of bold. At first blush, this may sound like a case of the latter given the Flames dubious history in Southern California that we've heard about ad nauseam. Calgary hasn't won a regular season game in Anaheim in their last 20 visits (0-15-5) dating back to 2004 and have just once one win in their last 30 tries if you go back to 1999. Nonetheless, the Flames enter the year an improved team, they're a greatly motivated team after being dispatched by the Ducks in the playoffs and with three trips to Honda Center this season, expect a couple wins (one in the first meeting on Nov. 24 and once the jinx is broken, the next win will come far easier), one giant sigh of relief, and a Flames team with considerably less baggage should the two teams go on to meet in the Pacific Division final.

5. Ferland Ends up on the Top Line

Expect Hartley to start off as he left off last season with a top line of Gaudreau, Monahan and Jiri Hudler. However, expect to see big, rugged Micheal Ferland on that line before too long. Gaudreau is the key to the offence and knowing the threat he is every shift, expect opponents -- especially divisional foes -- to play him much harder this year with the volume of whacks on the wrists to increase. At 12 and 14 penalty minutes respectively, Monahan and Hudler are not the calibre of security detail Hartley may be content with. By slotting Ferland into Hudler's spot, which we saw the coach tinker with throughout September, you add some muscle and a shenanigans-deterrent to that line yet Ferland is still a guy with very good hands and a high hockey IQ. Meanwhile, Hudler with Bennett and Frolik if that is how the second line shakes out would be an effective trio also.

6. Bennett Notches 60 Points

The ramp-up will be slow as Hartley does the responsible thing with a 19-year-old player with just a dozen NHL games on his resume by giving him sheltered minutes on the third line. However, don't expect his linemates to be Josh Jooris and Micheal Ferland for very long. I fully expect Bennett will barge his way into the top six and play at a level that demands more ice time and expect the coach to oblige. I liked Bennett between Czech countrymen Jiri Hudler and Micheal Frolik in the pre-season and that trio reunited along with power play time on the second unit should get Bennett in the vicinity of 60 points by season's end. If you're looking for an exact split, I'll say 25 goals and 35 assists. His buddy Connor up the highway in Edmonton will be getting all the Calder hype, but know that a very driven and competitive Bennett will want to be in on that conversation also.

7. Russell is Traded at the Deadline

With over $17 million annually committed to Giordano, Hamilton and Brodie, the reality is it's going to be nearly impossible to retain Kris Russell given where his value is at. When Giordano went down last year, Russell logged a lot of vital minutes and really raised his profile. But deeper on the back end now thanks to a strong draft, developing youth and free agent signings, Russell will likely be a victim of Calgary needing to skimp salary-wise on remaining defencemen in order to keep all their core pieces up front. If Brodie's return reduces Russell's role and given the presence of Jakub Nakaladal, Tyler Wotherspoon, Ryan Culkin, and with Rasmus Andersson on the way, it gives Treliving the luxury of moving the pending UFA for assets, rather than lose him for nothing. Remember how important those two draft picks received for Curtis Glencross turned out to be.

8. Calgary wins 12 Times in OT

It sounds like a lot but Calgary won nine of the 13 games that were decided in 4-on-4 OT last year so it's not as out there as you think. Of the seven games that went to a shootout last year, if another four of those end up ending in OT now, which seems like a safe bet given our short sampling of 3-on-3 and how quickly the games tend to be decided, then a dozen victories isn't out of the question. While we'll have to see how it plays out, I think Calgary is a team built for the 3-on-3 format. With their mobile, good-skating defencemen so adept at jumping up in the play already, the Flames don't need to resort to the risky three forwards that some teams are considering, just link up their established forward pairings with one of Brodie, Giordano, Russell, Hamilton and it's game over.

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  1. I don't see them trading Russell at the deadline, even if he ends up the #5D on the depth chart he's still the kind of guy who could be the sliver of difference between winning and losing a playoff series.

    Jones, Hiller, or maybe, but this year the Flames going to go are ALL IN, maybe even a buyer at the deadline (Armia? Okposo?).

  2. I still think they have a bit of rebuild mindset going into this year, knowing that they arent a finished product yet. Trading expiring contracts for picks makes a lot of sense, unless that player is one of the core. I also believe Hiller and only part of his contract will be shipped out at some point.

    Fun write up Darren!