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.

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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1 comment:

  1. Really hoping we are the third Canadian team to beat the Habs tonight. This is the exact kind of game that I see as a "must win". Winning against the best current team is a great confidence booster for us and the Habs are surely coming in to this one thinking they have a guaranteed win against one of the bottom teams and looking to avoid a 3rd straight loss.