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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