Sunday, October 04, 2015

Unveiling the Season-Opening Roster for the Calgary Flames, or at Least as I See It

The pre-season is done, the auditions are closed, now it's time to wait and wonder what final moves Flames general manager Brad Treliving makes in order to whittle Calgary's roster down to the 23-man maximum set by the NHL by the 3 pm MT deadline on Tuesday.

With 28 players left in camp as of this morning (16 forwards, 9 defencemen, 3 goaltenders), there are two cuts to go as three players will open the season on injured reserve.

Here is a position-by-position look at who remains and my thoughts on what could unfold.

Forward (16)

Locks (12)
  • C Mikael Backlund
  • C Sam Bennett
  • LW Brandon Bollig
  • RW Josh Jooris
  • LW Lance Bouma
  • LW/RW Micheal Ferland
  • LW/RW Michael Frolik
  • LW Johnny Gaudreau
  • RW Jiri Hudler
  • RW David Jones
  • C Sean Monahan
  • C Matt Stajan

IR (1)
  • Joe Colborne (broken thumb)

Bubble (3 players for 2 spots)
  1. LW Paul Byron
  2. LW Mason Raymond
  3. C Markus Granlund

I really think Mason Raymond's immediate future with this club changed significantly in the span of two-and-a-half hours Thursday night in Winnipeg. Not only did he play the best game I've seen him play in a long time, he also obviously impressed coach Bob Hartley, who kept sending him over the boards. In the end, he played 24:50, which is more ice time than he's ever logged in 513 career regular season games.

Nightly, ice time is how Hartley rewards the players he feels are playing well so clearly he liked what he saw from the enigmatic winger on that night, which came after a mostly meh pre-season up until that point.

Combine that with the injury that night to Joe Colborne that means one less cut is required and Raymond, owed $3.15 million over each of the next two seasons, should be safe -- at least for now. He may not be in the starting dozen on Wednesday night, as hinted at by Hartley's forward configuration against the Jets on Saturday, but he should at least be on the roster.

As for Markus Granlund, an off-night in Winnipeg on Thursday in the second-last game didn't help his case. His waiver status in which he can be sent down without being exposed to waivers also makes him an easy guy to assign to Stockton.

The other thing that works against Granlund is he's a centre. For 17 of 18 periods in the pre-season, centre is also where Sam Bennett has been deployed. Add in veteran Matt Stajan -- who has had a great camp -- and Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund and there are no vacancies up the middle. Keeping Granlund would make no sense at all.

I wouldn't rule out Bennett eventually being shifted back to left wing later in the season but until that happens or there is an injury, Granlund doesn't have anywhere to play so he best be playing big minutes in the AHL and continuing to work on his face-offs, which is one glaring weakness in his game.

Defence (9)

Locks (5)
  • Deryk Engelland
  • Mark Giordano
  • Dougie Hamilton
  • Kris Russell
  • Dennis Wideman

IR (2)
  • TJ Brodie
  • Ladislav Smid

Bubble (2 players for 1 or 2 spots)
  • Brett Kulak
  • Ryan Wilson

Brett Kulak has become the story of training camp. After a year spent mostly in the ECHL, which is a long, long way away from the NHL, he's completely turned things around for himself and in my eyes has earned the right to play opening night.

What did Hartley think of the 21-year-old's final audition Saturday night against the Jets? I wrote about that earlier this morning. As I see it, you don't play him in your final game, give him a rave review afterwards about how he performed, then cut him the next day. I would be shocked if Kulak is not in the starting six on the blue-line Wednesday night against the Vancouver Canucks.

As for Ryan Wilson, the decision for the Flames is do they offer him a contract and keep him around also, or do they says 'thanks, but no thanks' and release the 28-year-old.

From what I had seen for the first part of camp and granted it was a limited sample as I did not see all his pre-season appearances, I liked his poise and his physicality and I figured he was well on his way to earning a modest one-year deal and an opportunity to resurrect a career that was looking pretty good until injuries limited him to 43 games over the last three seasons.

Reversal of Fortune

However, Thursday night was a game-changer for me and in the opposite way of how it went for Raymond. In his stiffest test yet but also against a line-up that most resembled what he'll face nightly in the regular season, Wilson had a rough night. He spent a lot of time in his own end, looked a step behind the speedy Jets and paired with Deryk Engelland, no speed skater himself, the two struggled.

For me, Kulak is a much better complement to Engelland as he's someone that is a great skater and can be the guy that carries the puck out, distributes the puck up ice, etc.

Another factor is the injury situation with TJ Brodie. While there has been no further update on his recovery timeline -- originally called 3-to-6 weeks -- he should be back within a month and when that time comes, you no longer have a spot for Kulak if Wilson is also on the team on a one-way contract.

Ladislav Smid's potential return too, while still uncertain in terms of timeline, further crowds the blue-line.

With Jakub Nakladal and Tyler Wotherspoon at Stockton as injury insurance in the short term, I would lean against Wilson getting a contract unless it's a two-way and still, you would have to question -- unless there is fear Smid is not anywhere close -- whether you should use up one of your precious 50 contracts on Wilson given what else is in the system.

Also, by keeping six defencemen instead of seven, which the team could get away with briefly given the light schedule to begin the year, you then give yourself the ability to begin the season with all three goaltenders on the roster, while management tries to resolve that mess.

Goaltender (3)

Locks (2)
  • Karri Ramo
  • Joni Ortio

Bubble (1 player for 0 or 1 spot)
  • Jonas Hiller

After Saturday's game, as captured in my game story Saturday night for The Canadian Press, Hartley was asked if he knew who his starter was going to be now that the pre-season was over. He said, "I think it's pretty clear in our mind but I don't know yet on which day we're going to come out with it, but I don't think it will be a big surprise."

For as long as I can remember and I've been traipsing to the Saddledome with my laptop for over 25 years, a team's starting goaltender in the final pre-season game is almost always the starting goaltender when the regular season begins.

So count on Karri Ramo getting the nod against the Canucks.

As for Joni Ortio, whether or not he would be claimed on waivers is impossible to know for sure, but at his very economical price tag of $600,000 and with just one year of term left on his contract, I'd say there's a good chance some team would take a chance on him so I can't envision the Flames rolling the dice on the youngest of their three goalies and the one still under team control as he's still an RFA after this season. Hiller and Ramo are both unrestricted free agents at year's end.

While there are many proponents of Jonas Hiller, who will point out his superior statistics, here are few reasons why I think Ramo ends up being the goalie that stays.

  • Ramo Has a Higher Upside - Whether or not he'll ever turn into a star, it's fair to be skeptical as he is already 29 years old. However, he's four-and-a-half years younger than Hiller so of the two, Ramo would have a better chance. It comes down to regrets. Given where they're at in their careers, it's less likely you'll end up regretting moving Hiller. With Ramo and Ortio, there is still some unknown.
  • Ortio's Presence - If the Flames were looking for a goalie to play 65 games, Hiller would be a better choice as he's more consistent than Ramo. However, if you feel Ortio is the guy to play 30-35 games or as many as 50 games if he plays like he did in his call-up last year, then Ramo's inconsistency you can live with. Ride his hot streaks than turn to Ortio when he goes cold. Call this the 'catch lightning in a bottle' type of goaltender rotation and Hartley was quite good at it last year.
  • Hiller's History - Fair or not fair, the bottom line is Hiller got pulled from the team's most important game last year -- game 6 in the playoffs against Vancouver -- in which Calgary came back to win. He then watched the second round from the bench. That hurts Hiller's case. Let's not forget things unfolded for him similarly in Anaheim the year prior.

For me, the pecking order is pretty much set and with a light start to the schedule, it's hard to see Hiller getting an opportunity to get back in there anytime soon. His last full game was back on September 25.

For me, the question is do they put him on waivers -- and I can't envision him being claimed at $4.5 million -- and assign him to Stockton until they can work out a trade. Or, do they keep him on the roster for a couple weeks while Treliving continues to work the phone lines.

My sense is if he's not going to play, it's only going to be a distraction so he's sent to the AHL where a lot of 30-something goaltenders plied their trade on a full-time basis last season:
  • Scott Clemmensen, 37 
  • Dan Ellis, 34
  • Joey MacDonald, 34
  • Jason Labarbera, 34
  • Michael Leighton, 33
  • Yann Danis, 33

Although I can't see Hiller being there for long. The Flames have Jon Gillies down there and they'll want him to play. Demand in the goalie marketplace should emerge eventually and even if Calgary has to retain up to $2 million of Hiller's salary, they'll be able to find him an NHL home with a team that is looking for an injury replacement or a more experienced back-up.

Final Thoughts

Interestingly enough, there's a possibility the Flames could open the season with less than 23 players, which would be pretty wild considering all the tough decisions that were touted throughout training camp. If they don't sign Wilson and they go with two goalies and they send Granlund back, that leaves them at 22. You don't have to carry 23. Or, maybe that opens the door to Nakladal being brought back.

We'll find out soon enough as the final cuts should come Monday at the latest and could be announced on Sunday. Then we can finally move on from the pre-season and get things going for real. I'm sure the one thing everyone can agree on is Wednesday can't come soon enough.

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. So, what you are saying is, the Flames hands are tied to an immobile defenseman who can't make a pass out of his own end, in Engelland (I appreciate, as a journalist you need to be somewhat politically correct). I hate to continually bash Engelland, because I am sure he's a great person, but he really is messing up the Flames' defensive pairings.