Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Checking in on Stockton: Coach Ryan Huska Provides the 411 on Five Forward Prospects

After a quiet start to the season, things are suddenly getting very hectic for the Stockton Heat.

At the Christmas break, the Flames American Hockey League affiliate had played only 22 games. That was the fewest of all 30 teams. But they've already played twice since Christmas as part of a whirlwind stretch of eight games in 14 days.

During the short break the team did have, I had the opportunity to catch up with Stockton head coach Ryan Huska and get his assessment on how a few of Calgary's top prospects are faring.

For these players I saw a lot of during development camp in July, at the Penticton rookie tournament in September, then at Flames main training camp, it was an opportunity to hear how the season has gone for them since they headed south to California.

This is the second of a two-part special. I'm breaking this update into two parts:
  • Defence - Published Saturday. You can read it here.
  • Forwards - Today.

Assessing the Starting Dozen Up Front

As is always the case for AHL teams, the Stockton Heat have deployed numerous forwards this year. However, there is a core group that has been in California pretty much all season and that group is listed below.

Purposely excluded from the list are a handful of guys:
  • C Markus Granlund - Was recalled by the Flames in late November after a good start and is playing like he is in the NHL to stay.
  • RW Colton Orr - The 33-year-old veteran of 477 NHL games was signed for his leadership and experience, but he has only gotten into four games and none since mid-November.
  • C Mitchell Heard - A second round pick (41st overall) of the Colorado Avalanche in 2012, he's been with Adirondack in the ECHL all season until being recalled after Christmas.

That leaves the following 14 fighting for 12 jobs each night:

9 - RW Garnet Hathaway, 24 (R)
11 - C Freddie Hamilton, 23* (R)
13 - C Turner Elson, 23 (L)
15 - LW Kenny Agostino, 23 (L)
18 - LW Morgan Klimchuk, 20 (L)
20 - RW Austin Carroll, 21 (R)
21 - RW Emile Poirier, 21 (L)
23 - C Drew Shore, 24 (R)
25 - RW Blair Riley, 30 (R)
27 - C Derek Grant, 25 (L)
32 - LW Ryan Lomberg, 21 (L)
34 - RW Hunter Smith, 20 (R)
46 - C Bill Arnold, 23 (R)
48 - LW Bryce Van Brabant, 24 (L)

* Turns 24 on Jan. 1

Here's a closer look at five of them:

Klimchuk - 15 gm, 1-2-3, even, 21 shots

After four seasons in the WHL, Morgan Klimchuk made the jump to pro hockey this season although it took a while for him to hit the scoresheet. In his fourth game, he suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him for a month. When he returned in late November, it was another four weeks or so before he finally broke through with a goal and an assist on Dec. 20.

"If you're looking at his stats, you'd probably say it hasn't been a great start for him but Morgan's a detailed guy and structurally, he's very good," Huska said. "He understands the game very well and yes, he's been a little frustrated because he hasn't produced points but you look at a kid coming out of minor hockey that scores a ton of points and he gets to major junior and all of a sudden, things don't come easily anymore and maybe they have to change their game a little bit. Well, the same holds true for a lot of guys when they go from junior to professional hockey.

"Morgan's trying to find his way a little bit and if that means he has to change his style a touch, then that's something he's going to have to do."

As he settles in and lately has started to see time on both the power play and the penalty kill after being used mostly at five-on-five the first two months, Huska says he's seeing more assertiveness from Klimchuk, the third of the Flames three first round picks in 2013.

"We're now seeing a guy that has more confidence to hold onto the puck. Early in the season, he didn't want to make a mistake so he was very careful with how he was playing. Now, he's around the puck a lot more, he's creating a lot more and the last few games I've seen him play have been more the Morgan that we're expecting," continued Huska. "So it's taken him a little bit longer to get up to speed but I think we're starting to see it now."

Klimchuk's most frequent linemate from the start of the season has been Austin Carroll but in the first game after Christmas, he was bumped up in the line-up to play with Derek Grant and Emile Poirier. As he finds his way, one would expect to see him take on a more important role but patience will be a virtue for the 20-year-old, who has a long way to go.

Poirier - 21 gm, 4-5-9, minus-4, 55 shots

One of the disappointments this September at Flames training camp was the performance of Emile Poirier.

Drafted 22nd overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, Poirier was coming off a great first pro season. Injured to begin last year, he arrived in November with a bang scoring 19 goals and collecting 42 points in 55 AHL games. He also got called up by Calgary and got into six NHL games.

However, the highly thought-of right winger did not have the same spark nor have the impact many expected.

"He got off to a slower start in camp and then you're spending all that time trying to catch up and get yourself to the level you want to be at," said Huska. "But we're starting to see it more now from Emile. Over the last little bit, he's starting to put up some points and he's feeling better about things so he's starting to be more noticeable each and every night by using his speed and challenging defencemen wide and that's a real positive for him and us."

Poirier had two assists opening night then mustered just one assist in his next nine games. With his game rounding into form, he then suffered a minor injury that sidelined him for three games but he picked up where he left off with two goals in his first game back on Dec. 10 and two games later piled up nine shots on goal in a game against Bakersfield.

"For Emile, when he's playing his best, he's involved in the game. He's physical, he plays with some grit and because of that, things happen and he's around the puck. Then he can use his speed and use the shot that he has," Huska said. "What he has to learn how to do is make sure that he's consistent with it because there are some nights where he's too quiet on the ice."

I've always thought the player Poirier should pattern himself off is Boston's Brad Marchand, also a QMJHL grad. Huska agreed with that comparable.

"With Marchand, he's rarely quiet and one way or another, he gets himself involved in the game and then he gets himself going as well. That's what we look for out of Emile. He's got to be a guy that does play with some edge to his game because he's a much better player when he plays like that."

Arnold - 22 gm, 4-6-10, minus-8, 40 shots

The stat that jumps out at you with Bill Arnold, considered one of the best two-way players in college hockey when he graduated from Boston College, is his minus-8 rating. What stands out about how it got there is it's all come in the last three games. Up until the second last game before Christmas, he was an even player.

For the mature second year pro, it may just be one of those blips that can happen over the course of a season.

"We use Bill in a lot of different situations. For us, as coaches, he's a reliable, trusting guy," said Huska. "But he needs to continue to develop his all-round game. In order to get himself to the NHL, finding a little bit more grit in his game will be important for him in the role that he's going to have to fill."

Where opportunity lies for Arnold is as a guy that can win face-offs and kill penalties. The Flames are 28th in the NHL at the dot and last on the PK. Those are both areas in which Arnold is relied upon heavily in the AHL.

"Part of his rating is how he does at faceoffs so it's an important part of his game, like it is for all of our centremen. Bill is in our top two-pairing penalty kill group all the time," Huska said. "He has to do a good job in those areas in order for him to have success and that's our push with him. Those types of players are gritty, gritty guys and we need Bill to find a little more of that in order to get himself over the hump."

Hathaway - 18 gm, 4-5-9, minus-4, 37 shots

Garnet Hathaway, who went undrafted, was a pleasant surprise a year ago. After settling for an AHL-only deal, he put up 19 goals in his first pro season after graduating from Brown University.

Listed at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, the rugged and very interesting right winger from Kennebunkport, Maine, can play physical but also has some decent hands. After a nice training camp with the Flames, the 24-year-old was one of the final cuts.

"He's awesome. He's everything a coach would like to have in the line-up. He works his very best every day, he puts his body on the line every day and he can be a guy that can be used in a lot of different ways whether that's playing a top-six role or a bottom-six role," said Huska. "We're big fans of him and we're believers that he'll eventually find himself in the NHL."

Out week-to-week with an upper body injury that has sidelined him the last five games, Hathaway had seen a lot of time on the right side of the Heat's No. 1 line up until he got hurt. He's been a nice complementary piece to some of the more natural skill on that top unit.

"We trust him, I think that's the real big thing for us. He's got that trust and we know what we're getting from him all the time," Huska said.

In his last six games before the injury, Hathaway had put up two goals and four assists. Huska acknowledged they're anxious to get the big man back as his absence has left a void.

Agostino- 23 gm, 4-10-14, minus-1, 64 shots

After completing his full four years at Yale, Agostino -- part of the Jarome Iginla trade -- turned pro last season and led Adirondack in scoring with 43 points. His rookie campaign was a tale of two seasons with a quiet first half offensively (12 points in 38 games) and then he exploded in the second half with 31 points over his final 29 games.

Consistency remains the buzzword when assessing the 23-year-old, who is a fixture in the top six for Huska.

"It's not just your first month or two, in order to be an elite player and get yourself to the next level, you've got to find consistency when you come to the rink," said Huska. "You need to make sure that every day: 1. You're the hardest working guy and 2. You're making your game better."

Agostino's had some hot stretches this year but he's also had some extended cold stretches. The latter is what he needs to avoid or at least limit.

"With Kenny, they're stretches where he's not quite the player that we expect him to be and then there are stretches where he's making plays and he gets six or seven chances a night. Our big challenge with him is to make sure he's more consistent with how he plays the game because I do believe when he's sharp and when he's on, he's one of the, if not the most skilled guys we have down here."

The Final Word

With more time with the coach, I could have run over the entire roster and gotten into guys like Freddie Hamilton, Dougie's older brother, who is second on the team in scoring (7-8-15 in 24 games) and the guy atop that list -- Derek Grant (11-5-16 in 16 games) -- although we got a good sense of what the 25-year-old brings when he was up with Calgary earlier in the season.

First year pros like Hunter Smith and Austin Carroll and how they're developing is also of interest but that will have to wait for another day.

The Flames have no space for a call-up right now. With 14 healthy forwards and Michael Frolik on injured reserve, the only direction a player may be heading is from the NHL to the AHL if there are no injuries up front between now and when Frolik is ready to be activated.

Nonetheless, for the guys that are trying to find their way to Calgary, it's on them to pick it up or keep it going in the second half in order to get their names to the top of the call-up list for when injuries do strike (or trades happen) and there is a sudden need for a body.

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Arson Investigation: Revealing the Point of Origin of Johnny Gaudreau's Competitive Fire

It has been a common sight all season at 555 Saddledome Rise in the southeast end of downtown Calgary.

An emotional Johnny Gaudreau, the emphatic pumping of both arms, jubilant and displaying a steely look of intensity that could melt the ice.

Photo via The Canadian Press/Larry MacDougal

Strewn in his wake have been a long line of goalies that came up second best in a duel with the Flames diminutive sniper: Scott Darling, Antti Niemi, Tuukka Rask, Chad Johnson, Antti Raanta and Michael Hutchinson to name just a handful of No. 13's latest victims.

"His biggest asset: He wants to be a game changer. He wants to make a difference. He has such high expectations of himself," effused Flames coach Bob Hartley, earlier in December. "It makes him very special.”

With 20 points during the Flames current 10-game home winning streak including an incredible 13 goals -- three of them game-winners (add in a shootout-deciding goal too) -- the 22-year-old from New Jersey has been the buzz all around the city.

So where does that competitive fire come from anyway? That's what I set out to investigate on Saturday as the Flames returned to practice after three days off over Christmas.

Pinpointing the Point of Origin

"All my life, whether it's hockey or a board game at home, I just can't stand losing," says Gaudreau. "I’ll find a way to try to cheat. You can ask all my buddies. Playing mini hockey, we’ll be down by one goal and I’ll say it’s a tie game."

As it turns out, he hasn't had to endure much losing in his hockey career. A look back at his previous five years of hockey reveals five winning seasons (including two championships) and a combined win-loss record of 91 games above .500.
  • 2010-11 - Dubuque (USHL), 37-14-9, League Champions
  • 2011-12 - Boston College (NCAA), 33-10-1, National Champions
  • 2012-13 - Boston College, 22-12-4
  • 2013-14 - Boston College, 28-8-4
  • 2014-15 - Calgary (NHL), 45-30-7

"It's something I've had in my blood my whole life. I hate losing at whatever we're doing," says Gaudreau. "But I've been fortunate to be a part of some good teams so I haven't had to be a part of the losing side."

Gaudreau says he's had that competitive fire burning inside him for as long as he remembers. He doesn't attribute that quality as being inherited from anyone in particular in his family, saying more so that's just how he is wired.

"I’ve always had that drive," he says. "And being really competitive throughout my whole life has definitely helped me out a lot."

It's a quality he's had to flaunt his entire hockey career always being one of the shorter kids on his team and in his age group. It's even more important now when playing hockey at the highest level at barely five-foot-nine in a league filled with guys well north of six-foot.

Brotherly Influence

Gaudreau says his brother Matty, who was in Calgary for the first time just before Christmas and witnessed his brother's hat-trick against Winnipeg, has also played a key role in the development of his competitive edge.

Sixteen months younger than Johnny and in his third year of playing hockey at Boston College, it was their constant competing against each other that helped foster that insatiable will to win in the older brother.

"We would always battle no matter what we were doing. We played soccer, baseball, basketball, we played a ton of sports and we always played against each other and made each other better," says Gaudreau. "That really helped me out too, just having a brother to compete with every single day -- whether it was a board game, a sport, or who can run the fastest up the steps. I always had that drive and it pays off now."

As you can imagine, with his track record for success and his desire to win, sitting near or at the bottom of the NHL standings as was the case for much of the first two months of this hockey season didn't sit that well with him.

“Probably one of the toughest starts I’ve ever had playing on a hockey team," he says. "It was difficult, but there were a ton of guys in this locker room that stepped up and said we needed to turn this thing around.”

In It to Win It

When it comes to stringing victories together in the NHL, there's not a sneaky way to do it. You can't lie. You can't cheat. You have to score more goals, it's that simple. Hockey isn't a board game.

"It was a long time ago but I remember this one game, Chutes and Ladders it was called. Me, my brother and my two sisters used to play it constantly. You would go up and down and up and down and I used to always try to find a way to sneak my guy up one more level," says Gaudreau with a chuckle. "I'd always get caught but that's a good memory."

Meanwhile, he continues to pile up the good memories for himself and all Flames fans every time he takes to the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

As a bonus, if he leads Calgary to a victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday, it will be a memory that will also be etched in the Flames record book as it would be the Flames 11th straight win on home ice, breaking the old mark of 10 set Nov. 7 to Dec. 12, 2006.

"We play well with our fans behind us. We feel real comfortable playing in this rink," Gaudreau says. "I get excited scoring a goal here and seeing the fans go crazy, that gets me excited too."

With a win, Calgary would climb up the ladder in the Pacific Division too -- and without cheating.

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Saturday, December 26, 2015

Checking in on Stockton: Coach Ryan Huska Provides the 411 on Five Defence Prospects

For the Stockton Heat, the storm has hit.

At the Christmas break, the Flames American Hockey League affiliate had played only 22 games. That was the fewest of all 30 teams. But the calm that had been the first two-and-a-half months of the AHL season ended Saturday night when Stockton began a hectic stretch of eight games in 14 days.

During the handful of days off the team had for the holidays, I had the opportunity to catch up with Stockton head coach Ryan Huska and get his assessment on how a few of Calgary's top prospects are faring.

For these players I saw a lot of during development camp in July, at the Penticton rookie tournament in September, then at Flames main training camp, it was an opportunity to hear how the season has gone for them since they headed south to California.

I'm breaking this update into two parts:
  • Defence - Today
  • Forwards - Coming on Tuesday

Breaking Down the Blueline

In the off-season, trades, free agent signings and the 2015 NHL Draft collaborated to improve the depth on the Flames blueline. As you'll recall, this was an area general manager Brad Treliving had identified going into last summer as an organizational weakness he wanted to address.

There have been eight regular defencemen in Stockton. This excludes:
  • Keegan Kanzig - Was scratched five of six games before being returned to the Calgary Hitmen (WHL).
  • Ladislav Smid - Appeared in one game during a brief conditioning stint before returning to the Flames.
  • Ryan Culkin - After his gruesome season-ending wrist injury last February, he suffered another major injury when he hurt his shoulder in September at the rookie tournament. When finally healthy in mid-November, Culkin was assigned to Adirondack (ECHL) where he remains.

That leaves the following eight fighting for six spots on the blue-line:

2 - Brett Kulak, 21* (L)
4 - Oliver Kylington, 18 (L)
5 - Tyler Wotherspoon, 22 (L)
6 - Dustin Stevenson, 26 (L)
7 - Kenney Morrison, 23 (R)
10 - Patrick Sieloff, 21 (L)
33 - Jakub Nakladal, 27^ (R)
45 - Aaron Johnson, 32 (L)

* Turns 22 on Jan. 6
^ Turns 28 on Dec. 30

With Aaron Johnson, the veteran of over 700 AHL games, loaned to Canada's team at the Spengler Cup for the next couple weeks, that leaves the Heat with seven healthy defencemen.

While losing a team leader like Johnson -- Stockton's captain -- is never a good thing. It's also not necessarily a bad thing for Huska, forced to deal with having too many defencemen on the roster during both his seasons in the AHL.

"Hockey Canada wanted Aaron for the Spengler and it is such a terrific experience. We are excited for him about this cool opportunity," Huska said. "This will allow the other seven defencemen a little more playing time although Aaron was often the guy that was out of our line-up.

"We are busy after Christmas so we will really need to lean on the seven guys we currently have to play a lot of hockey in a short period of time."

Kulak - 19 gm, 0-4-4, minus-4, 26 shots

Brett Kulak was the Cinderella story of training camp when he came from well off the radar to make Calgary's season-opening roster. He played alright too before Ladislav Smid's return, more than his own performance, squeezed him out of his NHL job.

"Brett did a great job over the summer getting himself ready to get into a position to earn a spot on their opening roster and he was there for quite a while so there is some disappointment that comes with being sent down and that's something you can't deny," said Huska. "He went through a stretch when he first got sent down that his first couple games weren't the greatest but I've come to understand that usually when guys do get sent down, it takes a little bit of time to get their feet underneath them again."

Kulak has been used in all situations -- power plays, penalty kills and tons of five-on-five. Huska says consistency is what he needs to work on.

"He's had a stretch where we felt he's played very well and he's had a few nights too where he's trying to force things a little bit too much. The challenge for all players and Brett included is to make sure that they're doing everything every day on the ice to be consistent with their effort so when there is an injury or if there is a situation where Calgary needs someone, he's the first guy on the list."

Huska points out that the one thing you always get from Kulak is hard work.

"Brett's a very diligent guy. He works out very hard. He's always the first guy at the rink, he's always the last guy to leave, he was the same way last year. He's committed. He wants to play in the NHL."

Nakladal - 22 gm, 2-7-9, plus-3, 50 shots

Jakub Nakladal demonstrated his upstanding attitude in the summer when he was invited to development camp more to meet the Flames coaching staff and other personnel but he insisted on skating at each one of the ice times also.

"Personality-wise, character-wise, he's awesome," says Huska. "He fits in really well with our whole group. He works very hard every time he steps on the ice."

When you leave the KHL to come to North America, the dream isn't to play in the AHL. Then when he did get a brief call-up to the NHL in October, he never got into a single game. Yet he has kept his head high and his exemplary attitude off the ice goes nicely with his all-round skill set on it.

"He's been a breath of fresh air. When you look at a European, older player coming over, you're not sure what you're going to get but this young man is a terrific person," Huska says.

One area the 27-year-old has excelled in yet wasn't an area the Flames realized was such a strength when signing him has been the man advantage.
"He's one of the main guys on the power play and we're trying to put him in a spot where he can use his shot a little bit more often because he has cannon of a shot."

Nakladal leads all defencemen with 50 shots, which included nine in one game a couple weeks ago.

"He's played a long time in professional hockey in a very good league in the KHL and you can tell. He's got composure on the ice, he's confident on the ice, he's a good player," says Huska.

The second-oldest defencemen on the team, his defence partner the last few weeks has been the youngest player on the team in 18-year-old Oliver Kylington.

Kylington - 20 gm, 4-3-7, minus-4, 27 shots

Leading up to the 2015 NHL Draft, Sweden's Oliver Kylington was once projected to be a top-five draft pick. Instead, he slipped all the way to 60th.

His greatest attributes are his NHL-calibre skating and offensive abilities. Huska says those skills are very much still on display and it's not uncommon to see Kylington deep in the offensize zone. 

"You enjoy watching him play. He has that offensive confidence where he's got the feeling that he can create some offence for our group and be a difference on that side of his game," said Huska.

It's his defensive game that remains a work in progress although Huska notes that there has been progress.

"That's something he's going to have to work on for years, but we have seen him take steps in that department," said Huska. "He's typically been a guy that's really running our first power play for the most part and he's been getting bigger minutes five-on-five. For an 18-year-old to be able to do that, it shows a lot about how far he's come in a short period of time."

A decision the organization faced in training camp was whether to assign Kylington to the AHL or to Brandon in the WHL, who drafted his rights in the CHL Import Draft. Huska says that so far, he can't disgree with the path the team chose.

"If a player can handle it here, age shouldn't come into play," Huska says. "He showed early on that he's able skate here and his hockey sense allows him to get out of trouble from time to time."

Not an overly thick guy despite some moderate weight gain this season, Huska says Kylington has a knack for avoiding the big crunches.

"Even being a younger guy playing against bigger, heavier men, he's got the smarts to know where to put his body so he's not taking any big hits. I can't count too many occasions where he's been hit hard."

Wotherspoon - 22 gm, 0-3-3, plus-3, 15 shots

When describing Tyler Wotherspoon, Huska goes back to that same word he used with Kulak. 

"He's had a little inconsistency in his play," Huska says. "But that was more in the beginning portion of the season and whether or not that had to do with not being up at the beginning of the year, I'm not sure."

No doubt it weighed on his mind a bit. After getting in 14 games at the end of the 2013-14 season, bigger things were expected from the 2011 second round draft pick. Instead, last year was rife with disappointment for the young man, who was recalled multiple times by the Flames but only got into one regular season game.

While some discouraged fans are wanting to dismiss him, his 130 career AHL games is still equal to less than two full seasons and there are plenty of NHL defence regulars that played a lot longer in the AHL before arriving for good in the NHL.

Also, don't forget that he played six playoff games last year. While he didn't play a lot of minutes, suiting up for six games is indicative that he's still in the organization's plans.

"When he's 'engaged' I guess I can say, he's sharp with his details. When he moves the puck quickly, he's a very good defenceman and we've seen that out of him over the last number of games here," says Huska.

Engagement is an interesting choice of words considering Wotherspoon literally just got engaged over the Christmas break.

As a young man smitten over a young lady in his life, it's not a stretch to think that this can be a distraction. You wonder if one doesn't see further improvement in his play as the games get going again now that the ring is on her finger and no longer in his pocket.

Wotherspoon has been paired up recently with steady veteran Dustin Stevenson.

"If you look at his play now, he's been real consistent with his effort and he's defending well and at the end of the day, that's what you need out of him. To be a guy that you can trust on the ice in critical situations to play against top lines and he's done that for us over the last little while."

Morrison - 10 gm, 0-3-3, minus-5, 18 shots

The prospect most impacted by the excess number of bodies on defence has been Kenney Morrison, the free agent signing from last March.  

Contributing to the reason he's been scratched 13 times was a lackluster September.

"Kenney, unfortunately, has been one of the guys that's been hit the hardest when you look at the numbers situation," says Huska. "A lot of that has to do with him having a little bit of a slower start than he would have liked right from our camp in Penticton through training camp."

Huska is looking for the first-year pro, who played three NCAA seasons for Andy Murray at Western Michigan, to get himself more involved.

"His big challenge is to make sure that he's really engaged and prepared to play a little bit harder so he's a tougher guy to play against. Once you see that, then I think the offence and the ability that he does have -- his ability to shoot the puck, his ability to move it quickly, will come out a little bit more regularly," says Huska.

Johnson's temporary departure should result in more playing time for Morrison. Combined with the club's busy schedule and the 23-year-old's best chance to get in a groove is coming right up.

You know he's got talent as he was sought after by multiple NHL teams when he chose to leave school and sign with Calgary after three NCAA seasons.

Final Word

Huska is not a grizzled, longtime AHL coach. Having spent his coaching career in the WHL with Kelowna before jumping to the AHL last season, he admits his job is different now compared to when he was only coaching kids. He says part of the challenge is finding different ways to keep players spirits up and get them to play their best. 

"It's all part of the learning experience for me, for sure. It is a challenge but you have to find different ways to get to them because sometimes there are stretches where they get down on themselves a little bit," Huska says.

"The AHL is a great league but let's face it, it's not where the guys want to be. They want to be playing in the NHL. So really getting them to understand their strengths and how they have to bring a little bit more to the table in order to get themselves that opportunity, that's my job."

There hasn't been much opportunity in Calgary this season. But with Kris Russell a pending UFA, a trade over the next two months involving him is certainly possible. You also never know when injuries will strike either. Given their commitment to blocking shots, the Flames could suddenly lose a couple blueliners in the span of a week.

When that next call-up happens, you want to be the prospect that is playing the best because it's often that, and not your credentials, that will get you that visit to the coaches office and a plane ticket to Calgary.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Joe Who? After Adjusting for Era, Gaudreau Tops List of Best Career Starts in Team History

After his dramatic hat-trick against the Jets on Tuesday, make it 102 points in his first 115 NHL games for Johnny Gaudreau. If that is not impressive enough, what if I told you he actually surpassed the 100 point plateau in just 67 games?

Confused? Allow me to explain.

When it comes to gauging the impact the talented 22-year-old has had in his first season-and-a-half in Calgary, we've been operating under two rules:
  • Don't measure him by his size -- barely 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds with his skates on.
  • Don't assess him by how high he was drafted -- 103 players selected ahead of him in 2011.

It's time to add a third rule.
  • Don't compare his stats to guys that played in the 80s.

In racking up a ridiculous 20 points (13 goals, 7 assists) during this Flames franchise record-tying 10-game home winning streak (and becoming the first Calgary player to record two hat-tricks in the same season since Jarome Iginla in 2010-11), Gaudreau has repeatedly demonstrated his innate ability to come through with the big goal in the clutch.

However, despite the hype, he was not the fastest player to reach 100 points. Not even close. Dating back to when the Flames franchise relocated from Atlanta to Calgary in 1980, Joe Nieuwendyk -- also a former NCAA star -- owns that distinction by hitting the century mark in just 87 games. Doing it 115 games ties Gaudreau for fifth with Al MacInnis.

However, if you take a close look at this list, you'll notice a trend. Eleven of the top 12 played all or at least a large majority of their games in the high-scoring 80s where the 3-2 games of today finished 5-4. Add in four additional goals every game and what you get is a completely different era in the history of the NHL from what we're watching today. It's these significant differences that makes historical player comparisons difficult as you're not comparing apples to apples -- so-to-speak.

However, there are ways you can balance the eras and take away the advantage players in the 80s had and I've done so below. But first, let's begin with the easy stuff and the conventional numbers. 

Top 25 - Fastest to Reach 100 NHL Points in Team History

By "Team History" (versus "Franchise History"), this means since Calgary entered the NHL in 1980. The list excludes players that began their NHL career in Atlanta. In addition to the number of games each player took to record their 100th point, also listed for reference is the date on which that player recorded his milestone point. Current Flames are listed in red.

1. Joe Nieuwendyk (Oct. 10, 1988), 87
2. Sergei Makarov (Oct. 30, 1990), 93
3. Carey Wilson (Dec. 10, 1985), 113
4. Ed Beers (Mar. 20, 1984), 114
5. Johnny Gaudreau (Dec. 22, 2015), 115
5. Al MacInnis (Jan. 25, 1985), 115
7. Theoren Fleury (Apr. 1, 1990), 116
7. Dan Quinn (Mar. 7, 1985), 116
9. Gary Suter (Feb. 3, 1987), 124
10. Hakan Loob (Jan. 28, 1985), 127
11. Joel Otto (Dec. 28, 1986), 132
12. Jim Peplinski (Mar. 11, 1982), 149
13. Robert Reichel (Oct. 20, 1992), 150
14. Paul Ranheim (Dec. 7, 1991), 152
15. Kevin Lavallee (Oct. 21, 1982), 160
16. German Titov (Jan. 14, 1986), 161
17. Dion Phaneuf (Oct. 4, 2007), 162
18. Sean Monahan (Oct. 23, 2015), 163
19. Jarome Iginla (Dec. 3, 1998), 176
19. Colin Patterson (Oct. 11, 1986), 176
21. Gary Roberts (Nov. 6, 1989), 194
21. Cory Stillman (Mar. 3, 1998), 194
23. Matthew Lombardi (Mar. 25, 2007), 208
24. Jamie Macoun (Feb. 14, 1986), 217
25. Derek Morris (Apr. 5, 2000), 229
26. Mikael Backlund (Mar. 22, 2014), 240
27. TJ Brodie (Mar. 30, 2015), 262
29. Mark Giordano (Mar. 23, 2011), 271

Background: About Franchise History and Atlanta

There are two reasons why I'm using team history and not franchise history.

One is personal preference. For most fans in Calgary, 1980 and beyond is the only history they care about. Those eight seasons the team spent prior to that in Atlanta are rarely referenced.

Second is from a practical perspective. It's difficult enough to research and log this kind of stuff from the early 80s (e.g. You need to pour over newspaper archives). Once you get into the 70s, digging up game-by-game NHL stats is impossible.

Kent Nilsson
That said, in the spirit of filling out the whole picture as best I can and including the years in Atlanta for those that are curious, here are eight additional players that would factor into the above list. In red are players whose game totals are accurate. All three began their careers in Atlanta but reached the 100-point mark while playing for Calgary. For the others, the game total is estimated based on their points-per-game rate in the season they reached the milestone.

From a 'franchise history' perspective, you'll see that the fastest to 100 points was not Nieuwendyk but instead was the 'Magic Man' -- Kent Nilsson. After a 93-point rookie season in Atlanta in 1979-80, the then 24-year-old recorded his 100th NHL point in his fifth game wearing the Flaming 'C'. That first season in Calgary, Nilsson would amass 131 points to finish third in NHL scoring behind Wayne Gretzky (164) and Marcel Dionne (135).

Kent Nilsson (Oct. 16, 1980), 85
Tom Lysiak (1974-75, exact date n/a), ~113
Eric Vail (1975-76, exact date n/a), ~132
Paul Reinhart (Mar. 7, 1981), 141
Willi Plett (1978-79, exact date n/a), ~147
Guy Chouinard (1977-78, exact date n/a), ~149
Pekka Rautakallio (Nov. 20, 1980), 171
Ken Houston (1978-79, exact date n/a), ~201

Calculating the Differences in Era

As stated, my goal with this article was to balance out the different eras. Without boring you with all the technical mumbo jumbo, here's a brief overview of my thought process and the formulas that what went into the spreadsheet I created that for every player calculated the average goals scored per game by the Flames during the time period in which that player amassed their 100 points:
  • Each season was viewed separately and weighted based on the number of games the player appeared in that season. e.g. If the person played 10 games in a season in which the Flames averaged five goals per game and played 70 games in a season in which the Flames averaged three goals per game, then the average goals per game for the team during that player's era would be just above three.
  • Only Calgary's annual scoring totals were factored in and not league-wide scoring as this is strictly an exercise of comparing Flames players to Flames players. The intention is to not just put Gaudreau in the context of the 1988-89 NHL season, but to put him specifically on the 1988-89 Flames team.

Top 10 Players - Highest Scoring Era

This is the average goals per game scored by the Flames team during the time period (spanning at least two seasons in all cases) in which it took players to reach 100 NHL points.

1. Joe Nieuwendyk, 4.84
2. Gary Roberts, 4.55
3. Carey Wilson, 4.43
4. Theoren Fleury, 4.37
5. Paul Ranheim, 4.37
6. Sergei Makarov, 4.34
7. Joel Otto, 4.32
8. Colin Patterson, 4.29
9. Gary Suter, 4.27
10. Jamie Macoun, 4.24

The Flames team record for most goals was 397 in the 80-game 1987-88 season. That's nearly an average of five goals per game and is a mind-boggling number to today's standards. For Nieuwendyk, in getting to 100 points in 87 games, 75 of the games came that particular year when he had 92 points (51 goals, 41 assists) as a rookie. As a result, his goals-per-game is considerably higher than anybody else.

Top 10 Players - Lowest Scoring Era

At the opposite end of the spectrum is defenceman Derek Morris, whose first three seasons (of which it took him almost that entire time frame to reach 100 points) came during the Flames dead puck/Young Guns era in the late 90s where beginning in 1997-98, Calgary scored a meager 217, 211 and 211 goals respectively.

1. Derek Morris, 2.60
2. Jarome Iginla, 2.62
3. TJ Brodie, 2.62
4. Mikael Backlund, 2.63
5. Sean Monahan, 2.68
6. Matthew Lombardi, 2.73
7. Cory Stillman, 2.79
8. Johnny Gaudreau, 2.80
9. Mark Giordano, 2.84
10. David Moss, 2.86

It's no surprise that it's on this list that you find all five active members of the Flames.

Top 25 - Fastest to Reach 100 NHL Points in Team History

Now the fun part.

I took every player and inserted them into Nieuwendyk's era with the Flames so all the players would have a common denominator and one can more easily do a historical comparison.

The result is a much different but more fair list with more recent players climbing way up and bumping other players down. Now we can compare the impact players from different eras have had offensively.

In particular, you get a more true sense of how staggering the start to Gaudreau's career has been and you also get a new appreciation for what Sean Monahan has accomplished early in his career. Monahan hit the 100-point mark two months ago.

Listed is the spreadsheet-driven projected number of games it would have taken each player to reach 100 points had they joined the Flames for the 1987-88 season like Nieuwendyk did and enjoyed the luxury of being on a team that scored an average of 4.84 goals per game. 

1. Johnny Gaudreau, 67
2. Sergei Makarov, 83
3. Joe Nieuwendyk, 87
4. Sean Monahan, 90
5. Ed Beers, 93
6. Jarome Iginla, 95
7. Dion Phaneuf, 96
8. Al MacInnis, 99
9. Dan Quinn, 101
10. Carey Wilson, 103
11. Theoren Fleury, 105
12. Hakan Loob, 109
13. Gary Suter, 109
14. Cory Stillman, 112
15. German Titov, 112
16. Matthew Lombardi, 117
17. Joel Otto, 118
18. Derek Morris, 123
19. Robert Reichel, 123
20. Jim Peplinski, 127
21. Mikael Backlund, 130
22. Kevin Lavallee, 137
23. Paul Ranheim, 137
24. TJ Brodie, 142
25. David Moss, 155
28. Mark Giordano, 159

Adding in Franchise History and Atlanta

Again, make it 'franchise history' instead of 'team history' and the list changes including the name at the top. Insert Nilsson into Nieuwendyk's era and the crafty Swede climbs to the top of the list. Mind you, worth pointing out is Nilsson had already played two full seasons in the World Hockey Association prior to coming over to the NHL so he was older and more experienced than Gaudreau. Honourable mention also to Tom Lysiak and the 'Big Train' -- Eric Vail, who were both huge parts of those early Atlanta teams and rank high on this era-adjusted list.

Again, in red are players whose adjusted game totals are accurate per the same formula used in the era-adjusted numbers above. For the others, the projected adjusted game total is estimated based on their points-per-game rate in the season they reached the milestone.

Kent Nilsson, 62
Tom Lysiak, ~66
Eric Vail, ~83
Willi Plett, ~102
Guy Chouinard, ~103
Paul Reinhart, 110
Pekka Rautakallio, 136
Ken Houston, ~141

Final Word

The hot topic these days is Gaudreau's contract and what's it going to be worth and for how long. As you know, he is a restricted free agent at the end of the season.

One look at the historical comparisons above and where he fits in over the 36 years the Flames have been in Calgary tells you all you need to know about the kind of impact Gaudreau has had just a year-and-a-half into his NHL career. There's a whopping 16-game gap between him and the next guy on the list, Sergei Makarov, who came to Calgary when he was 31 years old and was already one of the best players in the world having played 11 seasons in Russia.

Of course, right after Makarov is Nieuwendyk, who is in the NHL Hall-of-Fame. That's pretty good company.

Gaudreau is going to get paid and he's going to make a lot of money and when it happens, it will also be one of the best investments this team has ever made and should be one of the safest also. He's competitive, he's driven, he's passionate and he's only getting better.

"He's pretty special. You look at that second goal. Pickpockets in New York City are not that quick," said Flames coach Bob Hartley after Tuesday's game. "He came from behind (in stealing the puck from Mark Scheifele) on two tries and never quit. He must have liked that wallet."

Hartley gets excited when he talks about Gaudreau's skill.

"He's so slick around the net and in tight areas. He's just like a magician out there," said Hartley. "I enjoy coaching him so much because not only he's skilled and a great scorer but he's a competitor. Second, third, fourth effort, it doesn't bother him. He gets on the ice, he's on a mission out there.

"He doesn't want free points. He doesn't want to float at the back and collect the easy goals. He's ready to pay the price, he's ready to go in the dirty areas to make plays and he's doing that."

Calgary has three more home games over the Christmas holidays. Do yourself a favour and get out and catch a glimpse of this kid live if you haven't yet had the chance. Sure, he's fun to watch on television but he's a real treat to see up close and and is well worth the price of admission.

Oh, and when you do head to the Saddledome, make sure you bring a hat and not one you're too attached to because the way it's going lately (Gaudreau is the first Flames player to record two hat-tricks in the same calendar month since Jarome Iginla in February 2003), you may be leaving the arena without it.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Question for the Flames Should Not Be Why Jonathan Bernier? It Should Be Why Not?

Rumblings have surfaced that the Flames have had internal discussions about taking on Jonathan Bernier’s contract, which has one year remaining at $4.15 million.

Given how poorly things have gone for him this season in Toronto – an 0-8-3 record and an .883 save percentage, it seems reasonable to assume the Leafs would be open to an opportunity to get out from underneath what’s left on that deal. And given how poorly things have gone between the pipes this season for Calgary, it also seems reasonable that the Flames should have some genuine interest in Bernier.

Here are eight reasons why acquiring the Leafs goaltender would be a smart thing to pursue:

1. Need a Goalie Next Year Anyway

College standout Jon Gillies will not be ready for the NHL next year. In fact, a conservative estimate would put him two years away. Most NCAA graduates in the NHL today spent three or more seasons in the minors.

Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo are both UFAs in the summer and with Calgary 30th in the NHL in goaltending, it's hard to imagine there’s much desire to bring either one of them back (although Ramo could change that with more performances like his 35-save victory over Dallas on Thursday.)

As for Joni Ortio, an RFA next summer, he can’t be all that enamored with how he’s been treated this year so will he even want to come back, should the Flames try to re-sign him? I don't think it's a slam-dunk.

So unless you include November desperation pick-up Kevin Poulin, you’re potentially talking about an empty nest for the organization next summer when it comes to established NHL goalies under contract.

So, what does the free agent market look like next summer? Well, it looks a lot like the contents of my fridge when it's time for a major cleaning. The 2016 UFA market is seriously underwhelming so you’ll probably end up paying a lot for not very much – James Reimer, Cam Ward, Anton Khudobin, Alex Stalock, Cam Talbot, Chad Johnson, Jhonas Enroth, Al Montoya, Justin Peters, Anders Lindback, Antti Raanta. Looking at that list, there's a lot of expired sour cream and stale pizza in there.

It means if the organization wants a legitimate No. 1 goaltender, they’re going to have to go the trade route to land one and that will cost one or more significant assets. When that time comes, the question becomes who are you willing to part with?

My contention is with a trade being the inevitable route you'll have to go anyway, why not bring in Bernier right now -- if you can get him for a reasonable price -- and try him out. If he doesn’t pan out, then you can go the trade route.

2. Still Young

Bernier is 27 years old. At that age, most goalies haven’t yet hit their prime.

For example, in the last 18 seasons, only three winners of the Vezina have been younger than 27 – Tuukka Rask (26, 2013-14), Sergei Bobrovsky (24, 2012-13) and Jose Theodore (25, 2001-02).

Two years ago, Bernier went 26-19-7 and was 10th in the NHL with a .922 save percentage. Last year, his puck stopping rate fell to .912 but that was still top 30. There's reason to believe there is still lots of potential to be untapped.

3. Contract Length Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

Most see the one year remaining as a financial burden and that is a fair concern. However, there’s an alternate way to view it. When you talk to GM Brad Treliving, he often uses the word runway when referring to prospects. He’ll talk about young players needing lots of runway (i.e. time) to develop before they take off. The runway in this context is that additional year that would give Bernier time to settle into the organization, a new goalie coach, new surroundings, and not be pressured to instantly be the No. 1 starter.

It also gives the Flames ample opportunity to evaluate Bernier and determine if he’s someone they want to move forward with and if it is, voila -- they have that option.

4. Could Come Cheap, Cheap

At the money Bernier is making and with the god-awful numbers he’s put up, the Leafs aren’t exactly in a position of power when it comes to asking price.

Could the Flames talk Toronto into retaining some salary? They would have to in some form -- that or take salary back in the form of a player with a hefty price tag like Mason Raymond, Ladislav Smid or Dennis Wideman as Calgary doesn’t have the cap space to just absorb Bernier for a draft pick.

On the other hand, the Leafs do have cap space so the makings of a deal are there.

5. Can't Be Much Worse

Considering the caliber of goaltending the Flames have received so far this season from Ramo (.907), Ortio (.868) and Hiller (.862), who have all been below average with the latter two well below average, it’s hard to imagine Bernier being much worse. His save percentage is quite a bit higher than Hiller and given the hot streak Ramo is on right now, that's probably the fit anyway, replacing Hiller as the No. 2. In such a scenario, Hiller would be waived and shipped to Stockton if he is not included in the deal and sent to Toronto.

For Bernier, reduced expectations as would be the case at this point could be the best thing for the native of Laval, Quebec. Assuming the price tag is minimal, it's a little-to-no risk gamble with a potential high reward and for the Flames, at least they're trying to address their season-long struggles at this critical position. That in itself would be applauded by a sympathetic and hungry-for-change fan base.

6. Alluring Pedigree

Bernier was selected by Los Angeles 11th overall in 2006. He was the first goalie off the board, much like Carey Price (5th overall) was in 2005. Going in the first dozen picks carries no guarantee of success as Al Montoya (6th overall in 2004) will attest but Kari Lehtonen (2nd overall in 2002) and Marc-Andre Fleury (1st overall in 2003) have worked out not bad.

More than anything, it means there was once a lot of potential there. Six years ago in the AHL, he dominated with a .936 save percentage, which propelled him to the NHL, where he ended up as the understudy to Jonathan Quick. So there's talent there, it’s just a matter of whether it can be extracted.

7. Suffocating in the Big Smoke

The scrutiny players face in an educated and passionate hockey market like Calgary may seem intense at times but former NHL players will tell you that it is nothing compared to the intensity of the spotlight when you’re playing in Toronto or Montreal.

Now being under that microscope can be a wonderful thing if you’re successful. You’ll get the star treatment everywhere you go. But if you struggle, it can be brutal.

Add in that Bernier plays hockey’s most important and most-critiqued position and you get a recipe for failure if things go sour. Getting called out publicly by the coach doesn’t help matters either. A change of scenery sometimes works for players and that seems like a very real possibility with Bernier.

Remember, he just reeled off three straight AHL shutouts two weeks ago when he was shipped to the AHL team on a conditioning stint. While that team still played in Toronto, the Marlies are no comparison to the Leafs and it supports the notion that maybe a fresh start in a new environment would make a difference.

8. Catching Dubnyk in a Bottle

Minnesota struck gold last year when they picked up Devan Dubnyk from Arizona in January for a third round draft pick and he went on a three-month tear where he played like one of the NHL’s elite goalies.

Dubnyk was 28 years old when the Wild acquired him and was coming off a 2013-14 season that was awful and included time in the AHL. One could argue that the depths to which Bernier has sunk is not unlike where Dubnyk's career had fallen to at the same age before he turned it around.

If you can make the money work and you can alleviate a bad contract of your own in the process, it sure seems like a worthwhile gamble to me.

Final Word

Treliving and Flames President of Hockey Operations, Brian Burke, were both in Toronto Tuesday night when Tampa Bay was in town and they watched Bernier -- fresh from his conditioning stint -- give up five goals on 27 shots in an overtime loss.

Did that sap their interest or did they see someone that perhaps could be picked up at a bargain price? Someone that may still have some game buried under that beaten-up exterior. We'll wait and see although after the lower body injury to Leafs goaltender Garrett Sparks on Thursday, it might be a longer wait now. With James Reimer (groin) also injured in Toronto, Bernier's availability probably has to wait until Reimer returns as he's now the No. 1 guy there.

Something to watch for now is does Bernier take advantage of this opportunity to bolster his value or does he does end up further diminishing it? His track record this year would suggest the latter but if he's still got game like we're speculating, don't rule out a turnaround either.

Either way, Ramo's .966 save percentage his past two starts suggests the urgency from Calgary's end might not be what it was a week ago. So if you were hoping to find a Bernier under your tree this Christmas, you may have to settle for Star Wars stuff instead.

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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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Eight From 80 Feet: Reflecting on a Sixth Straight Flames Victory

It hasn't been pretty, but it's been effective.

For the first time since Jan. 21 to Feb. 3, 2011, the Flames have won six games in a row.

How long ago was the last six-pack of victories? Consider this: Johnny Gaudreau was playing hockey in Iowa for the Dubuque Fighting Saints, 16-year-old Sean Monahan was a rookie for the Ottawa 67s and Sam Bennett was dominating the floor hockey module in grade 9 Phys Ed class.

The latest win in what's been a December to remember came Tuesday night in Nashville and it came after an opening 20 minutes that for Calgary was the equivalent of being driven over (and then backed over and driven over again) by a paving truck. In the first period, the Flames looked awful as they were completely out-hustled, out-muscled and out-everythinged by a dominant Predators team.

But to their credit, the visitors settled in, were the better team over the final 40 minutes, then won it in overtime per the usual script.

All of a sudden sitting one point out of second place in the Pacific Division, here are eight items to ponder.

1. The Brodie Supremacy

How big of an impact has TJ Brodie had upon his return? Here is the Flames record before and after, judge for yourself:
  • While Brodie on IR: 2-7-0 for 4 pts (pace of 36 pts over 82 games)
  • Since Brodie's Return: 12-7-2 for 26 pts (pace of 102 pts over 82 games)    

The dynamic 25-year-old, who plays like a forward trapped inside a defenceman's body, has been on a tear lately offensively. With Patrick Kane's 26-game point streak over, Brodie now owns the NHL's longest active points streak at seven games (2 goals, 6 assists) and he's actually not far off having the second-longest point streak overall with nobody except Kane having reached double digits.

Earlier in the year, David Krejci, Bobby Ryan and Erik Karlsson all reeled off nine-game point streaks. There have been another eight players that went eight games before being blanked.

The point streak is also a career-best for Brodie, who previously had never strung together a point streak any longer than five games.

2. Unlikely Unsung Hero

It's been a long and steady climb but Karri Ramo has his save percentage up to .903 now. It's not quite the high-water mark for the year but is darn cose. He was at .904 after his first two starts before giving up four goals on 18 shots against Washington on Oct. 20, which resulted in him promptly being put on waivers.

In starting 16 of Calgary's last 19 games, Ramo is proving to be the better choice between he and Jonas Hiller and now it's up to him to prove he's also a better choice than other goaltending options around the league potentially being considered by general manager Brad Treliving.

What's been most remarkable about Ramo's season has been his play in overtime. The unsung hero in the Flames 8-1 OT record has been the 29-year-old Finn as don't be fooled by Calgary's record, the shots on goal in extra time have been 23-23. While Calgary's goaltending has put up a .957 SV%, opposing goaltenders -- mind you, they need to stare down Gaudreau all the time -- are at a meager .652 SV%.  That's over .300 points lower. Whoa.

Individually, Ramo has a .941 SV% in overtime (16 saves on 17 shots), which in itself defies all conventional logic given the quantity of good scoring chances you typically see at 3-on-3. Mind you, Ramo seems to be at his best on the real dangerous chances. He's put together quite a highlight reel package this season alone. For him, it's the not-so-good scoring chances that end up in the net that has been his biggest issue.

3. Russell: Tale of Two Halves

It was after the Flames 6-3 drubbing in Denver on Nov. 3 that coach Bob Hartley decided it was time once again to shuffle up his defence pairings. This time, he tried something new by putting Kris Russell and Dougie Hamilton together. After a rough start in his new organization, Hamilton had seen his game stabilize just prior to that during a four-game tour of duty on the third pairing with the surprisingly steady Deryk Engelland.

Russell and Hamilton have been a tandem ever since, other than the three games Russell missed last week due to his hand injury, and it's worked out terrific for both.

A look at Russell's stats prior to and after being paired with Hamilton reveals two very different seasons for the 28-year-old from Carolina, Alberta.
  • Prior to Nov. 3 - 13 gm, 1-1-2, minus-15
  • Since Nov. 5 - 14 gm, 1-7-8, plus-10

Regardless of what stock you put in the plus/minus statistic, the difference between minus-15 and plus-10 is massive. Right across the board, Russell's numbers have gotten significantly better.

4. Hamilton: Tale of Two Halves, Part 2

Hamilton's turnaround has very much mirrored the Russell turnaround, only it started 10 days earlier.

As you'll recall at the start of the season, finding the right mate for Hamilton took a while. He started the year with Mark Giordano and that was a disaster. They had about as much chemistry together as Fez and Jackie from That 70s Show. Mind you, the first time Hamilton partnered with Russell wasn't a smashing success either with rock bottom being the game in Brooklyn on Oct. 26 when both players were a minus-3 in a lackluster 4-0 loss to the Islanders.

Hamilton was subsequently dropped to the third pairing with Engelland in an experiment that lasted four games and seemed to get the ex-Bruin on track. Since being re-connected with Russell after that, it has gone a lot better.

Here's a look at Hamilton's stats prior to being dropped to the third pairing on Oct. 28, which also coincided with Brodie's return to the Flames line-up after opening the year injured.

Like with Russell, it's been the tale of two seasons for the Hamilton.
  • Prior to Oct. 26 - 9 gm, 1-0-1, minus-11
  • Since Oct. 28 - 21 gm, 2-7-9, plus-11

Hamilton has found his game defensively and he has become more comfortable with the the Flames expectations of their defence and being that second wave of attack up the ice. The result is he's had an impact, is noticeable and in a good way and has more closely resembled the player Calgary thought they were getting when they traded three draft picks to get him in the summer.

5. Here's Johnny

With his perfect saucer pass to Russell for the game-winner on Tuesday at 1:23 of overtime, Gaudreau tied an NHL record with his seventh overtime point (3 goals, 4 assists) of the young season. Per Elias Sports, only two players since overtime was introduced in the NHL in 1983-84 have had seven points.
  • Markus Naslund VAN (2003-04), 4-3-7
  • Joe Thornton SJ (2005-06), 1-6-7

Also, the New Jersey kid is distancing himself from the pack in the NHL's overtime scoring race:
  • Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 3-4-7
  • Jakub Voracek PHI, 1-4-5
  • Lee Stempniak NJ, 1-3-4
  • Claude Giroux PHI, 1-3-4
  • Brent Seabrook CHI, 0-4-4

With seven points in 11:13 of 3-on-3 ice time, Gaudreau is basically creating a Flames goal every 96 seconds he's on the ice. If you widen the scope to dangerous chances created, those are probably being generated every 30 seconds. If you ask opposition goalies how often they're staring down No. 13 in all alone, they would tell you it feels like every 15 seconds. For a little guy, he's becoming a giant nightmare for opposing goalies.

6. Six Skaters are Better than Eight

How can the Flames be so lethal at 3-on-3 yet so awful at 5-on-3? So bizarre. Honestly, next time they get a two-man advantage, send Engelland and Matt Stajan over the boards with the sole purpose of circling behind the Calgary net and intentionally firing the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty.

First, let's be clear, I'm no power play coach. But one observation is that the power play doesn't seem dangerous when the players are stationary. Passing the puck around the perimeter while not actually changing one's position on the ice doesn't seem to accomplish anything other than taking time off the clock. When you're not moving, the penalty killers can remain in their same spot and can take away the shooting lanes more easily. By rotating around the outside or mixing in some other movement, you open up seams to pass the puck cross-ice, you open up shooting lanes and it forces the defenders to track you and that increases the opportunity for a mistake.

The man advantage has only one direction to go but goodness, the path back to respectability will take a while. The Flames would have to go 4-for-4 on the power play next game just to climb out of 30th and that would just barely get them to 29th.

7. Czech Down

With Michael Frolik heading back to Calgary, that means he's at least lost to the team for a while. One positive ramification of that is now the Flames won't have to make a roster decision when it comes time to activate Lance Bouma from injured reserve. It's not known how quickly that move will happen but it's simple now, Frolik onto the IR and Bouma comes off the IR.

What's interesting will be the repercussions on the Calgary starting 12 at forward as a result of Frolik's loss. We've seen Bouma and Mikael Backlund as a combination plenty before so that would be least disruptive to a team that has its four lines going pretty good these days. So my guess is when ready -- whether it's later this road trip or once the team returns home, Bouma inserts right into Frolik's spot but on left wing with Mason Raymond sliding over to his off-wing.

In the meantime, as was the configuration at Wednesday's practice in Dallas, it's Josh Jooris that gets another chance as the right-hand shooting sophomore was dropped straight into Frolik's spot. Jooris hasn't played in the past six games and it is on him to make the most of what may be a limited opportunity to get back into good standing with the coach before the time comes when Hartley must pull someone out of the line-up to find a spot for Bouma.

Frolik's loss is a tough blow as he's come as advertised after signing a long-term deal with Calgary in the off-season as a free agent. It's also a hit for the already-bad penalty kill, which like the PP is also ranked 30th in the NHL. Now we wait to see how long Frolik's absence will be. More on this later in the week once the Doctors check him out.

8. The Mythical NHL .500 Mark

One reference you will never hear me use audibly or in print is the NHL's version of the .500 mark because it's bogus. Saying the Flames are finally back at the .500 mark today is misleading. What they are is back to the NHL's fake .500 mark. There's a big difference.

Why fake?

If you haven't heard my rant on this before, here it goes. Every win, however you can get it is, is considered a 'regular' win by the NHL. They all go in the win column and that's fine. Where the inconsistency comes in is losses are treated differently. If you lose in overtime or a shootout, the NHL doesn't view that as a 'regular' loss and instead there's a separate column for that.

By doing this, the league creates this make-believe world where win-loss records across the league look better than they actually are. Apparently this is good for business. It's conceivable that all 30 NHL teams could be above the .500 mark at the same time, which underscores why the reference is so inaccurate. A true .500 mark is one in which roughly half of the teams are above it and half of the teams are below it.

Here's an example. As of Wednesday morning, the combined record for all 30 teams is 463-350-113. That's right, the league on the whole is 113 games above .500. It's ridiculous.  Calgary's true record if you treat wins and losses equally would be 14-16 instead of 14-14-2, so two games below .500.

That said, I'd suggest a more practical and telling .500 mark that the Flames should be striving to get back to is their win-loss record in regulation time and they're a long ways away from that. They're nine games under .500 when you view it with that lens with an NHL-low five regulation wins versus 14 regulation losses.

Final Word

Thursday night in Dallas represents the stiffest test on a difficult road trip. However the Flames enter that game with confidence and swagger not just because they've reeled off six wins in a row, but because they played the Stars tough when they met at the Saddledome two weeks ago.

While it took a three-goal third period comeback to get the victory that night, Calgary was the better team by far over the final 40 minutes of regulation with a 28-11 edge in shots.  It was a complete effort that if they can duplicate at American Airlines Center will give them a chance to make it seven wins in a row.

When is the last time they hit that number?

For that, you need to go all the way back to right after the 2004-05 lockout. From Nov. 1-16, 2005, the Flames reeled off eight straight victories.

I have no idea what to expect Thursday night but given how unpredictable the season has been, I won't be surprised whatever the result ends up being.

Looking at the bigger picture, the key is securing at least one more win out of the final three stops -- Dallas, St. Louis or Detroit, as given the caliber of opposition, four points on this roadie should be considered a success. Although, getting greedy for more -- like five or six points -- isn't a bad thing, even if it is Christmas. Just be polite about it.

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