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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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3 comments:

  1. re: #5. Start calling #27 'Doug Hamilton'. Dougie is what you call a 5-year old.

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  2. The Flames defence scares the hell out of me. Gio and TJ ... Great
    The rest .... Fair to brutal. Russell,Engelland, Smid, Wideman ... 4 goals against four games straight! Ouch! My suggestion is get Kulak back along with Wilson. That is your second pairing. Do not resign Russell which the Flames are trying to do. I trade one or all three and try to find a match for Hamilton. Defence stabilized. I send Hiller or Ramo to Europe on loan and pay half their wages until you let them go in the Spring. I then bring in Cam Ward from Carolina to stabilize goaltending. If I can get Eric Stall in a trade at the same time, I try that. The rest is systems. If the players are starting to turn Hartley off, bring back Dave King on a consulting basis to sort them out.
    Belligerent is worth a draft pick. Trade him. Too much deadwood on this team and too many kids having their growth delayed. Bring in the moving truck Tre.

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