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Monday, December 07, 2015

Eight From 80 Feet: Random Ramblings on a Last Place Monday

If you're old like me, you'll fondly remember the days when the NHL's four divisions were the Smythe, Norris, Adams and Patrick.

It was the way it was from 1975 to 1993 when the NHL kicked those names to the curb in favour of the geography-themed names of Atlantic, Central, Northeast and Pacific.

This brief history lesson is important to give you some context for when people start referring to this year's Pacific Division as a throwback to the old Norris Division. When you hear that, understand that it's not a flattering comparison. Especially in the late 80s, the Norris was the laughing stock of the league.

Take the 1988-89 season for just one example.

Norris Division - Final Standings

1. Detroit, 34-34-12, 80 pts
2. St. Louis, 33-35-12, 78 pts
3. Minnesota, 27-37-16, 70 pts
4. Chicago, 27-41-12, 66 pts
5. Toronto, 28-46-6, 62 pts

Meanwhile, here's how things looked at the top of the Smythe Division, which made up the other side of the Clarence Campbell Conference (another great name lost in history, replaced by Western Conference).

Smythe Division - Final Standings

1. Calgary, 54-17-9, 117 pts
2. Los Angeles, 42-31-7, 91 pts
3. Edmonton, 38-34-8, 84 pts

Now this was back when the first two playoff rounds were within the division (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3, then winners met) so that season the Oilers had to open the playoffs on the road in LA even though had they played in the Norris, they would have won the division.


Fast Forward to Today

Getting back to the NHL of today and 30 teams instead of 21, here is how the Norris-esque Pacific (Kings being the obvious exception) looks as of Monday morning. Included in red is the projected season-ending point total.

1. Los Angeles, 26 gm, 17-8-1, 35 pts (110 pts)
2. San Jose, 26 gm, 14-12-0, 28 pts (88 pts)
3. Arizona, 27 gm, 13-13-1, 27 pts (82 pts)
-----------------
4. Anaheim, 28 gm, 11-12-5, 27 pts (79 pts)
5. Vancouver, 28 gm, 9-11-8, 26 pts (76 pts)
6. Edmonton, 28 gm, 11-15-2, 24 pts (70 pts)
7. Calgary, 26 gm, 10-14-2, 22 pts (69 pts)


The Flames woke up this morning in 30th place. With the league's worst goaltending and worst goal differential, it's not an aberration. Last place is where Calgary fully deserves to be at the one-third mark in the season.

However, they are also only six points back of second place and home-ice advantage in the playoffs and they can whittle that gap down to four points with a regulation win over the Sharks on Tuesday night.

Calgary's playoff aspirations should be buried by now but they're not because of the division they play in, it's that simple. Should they feel guilty about it? Sure, a little bit. But you could also chalk it up as life evening itself out after all those years in the Smythe when the Flames were stuck in the same division as the juggernaut Edmonton Oilers with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr.


Playoff Mathematics

Never mind what kind of win-loss record Calgary needs to get to 93, 95 or 97 points, the only pertinent math is this:
  • If the Flames beat San Jose on Tuesday, can they be five points better than the Sharks over the final 55 games?
  • A win Tuesday would also bring Calgary to within three points of the Coyotes. So same question, can the Flames be four points better than Arizona over the final 55 games? This is the same Coyotes team that many picked to finish a distant 30th overall and have crashed back to earth lately having lost four straight and given up 20 goals in that span.
  • As for the Canucks and Oilers, Calgary holds two games in hand on both so a couple wins this homestand and they're pretty much even making the question, can the Flames be one point better than both Edmonton and Vancouver over the final 54 games of the season?

If you can envision 'yes' as the answer to all three questions then as ridiculous as it may sound, it is still very plausible that Calgary can be a playoff team, still regardless of what the enigmatic Anaheim Ducks do over the final two-thirds of the season. 

So close to Auston Matthews, yet so close to home-ice advantage in the playoffs. Yep, welcome to life in the weird and wacky Pacific Division.

With all this standings nonsense sorted out, here's a recurring feature I do from time to time called Eight From 80 Feet, which is a round-up of eight thoughts on the current goings-on with the Flames.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we will begin.


1. Johnny B. Goode at Even-Strength

Last year, Jiri Hudler was the NHL's even-strength scoring champion with 60 points (25 goals, 35 assists), finishing one point ahead of Jamie Benn (23-36-59). Johnny Gaudreau finished in a tie for 35th (16-27-43).

A look at the even-strength scoring leaders for this season reveals it is Gaudreau that is the threat this time. Tied for 11th in overall league scoring, he is tied for third in even-strength points and with less games played than the others.

NHL Top 10 - Even-Strength Points
(Ties sorted by fewer games, then most goals)

1. Patrick Kane CHI, 7-21-28
2. Tyler Seguin DAL, 11-13-24
3. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 8-13-21
4. Mike Cammalleri NJ, 9-12-21
5. Artemi Panarin CHI, 9-12-21
6. Jamie Benn DAL, 8-13-21
7. Taylor Hall EDM, 9-12-21
8. Vladimir Tarasenko STL, 11-9-20
9. Dylan Larkin DET, 11-9-20
10. Bobby Ryan OTT, 7-13-20


Gaudreau has been especially effective at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Over the last three games, he's been on the ice for nine of the Flames 10 goals (5 goals, 2 assists) and over the span of his current nine-game points streak at home, he has 17 points (7 goals, 10 assists).

Gaudreau is tied for second behind Patrick Kane when it comes to the most productive player on home ice.

NHL Top 5 - Home Points
(Ties sorted by fewer games, then most goals)

1. Patrick Kane CHI, 9-15-24
2. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 7-12-19
3. Jamie Benn DAL, 12-7-19
4. Erik Karlsson OTT, 5-13-18
5. Taylor Hall EDM, 7-11-18


2. Bad Case of the Deja Vu's

This year has started out in many ways like the Flames season two years ago. In fact, Calgary has the exact same point total through 26 games.

2013-14 - 26 gm, 9-13-4 for 22 points (minus-25 goal differential)
2015-16 - 26 gm, 10-14-2 for 22 points (minus-29 goal differential)

Failure to string together wins was an issue two years ago also with two multi-game winning streaks in the first one-third of the season -- both only being two games long. Same for this year's Flames, who also haven't won three games in a row yet and are currently working on just their third multi-game winning streak.

Comparisons to that season aren't terrible if you're comparing against the final 34 games (starting with the overtime loss the night of the infamous January 18 brawl in Vancouver) when Calgary finished 19-14-1. However, equalling the first 26 games is not good at all if you consider the personnel differences between this year's team and that 2013-14 team.

You can see why expectations were considerably higher for this year's team:

Forward:
  • Out: Mike Cammalleri, Curtis Glencross, Lee Stempniak, Brian McGrattan, TJ Galiardi, Paul Byron, Kevin Westgarth, Sven Baertschi
  • In: Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, Michael Frolik, Josh Jooris, Micheal Ferland, Mason Raymond, Brandon Bollig, Markus Granlund
Defence:
  • Out: Chris Butler, Shane O'Brien
  • In: Dougie Hamilton, Deryk Engelland
Goaltender:
  • Out: Reto Berra
  • In: Jonas Hiller

3. Repercussions of Gillies' Tragic Hip

The news came down last week that top goaltending prospect Jon Gillies would be undergoing hip surgery and given the 4-6 months recovery time for such a procedure, he would be lost for the season.

While it's true it doesn't impact the Flames short-term goaltending picture at the NHL level, there will be an impact on the organization's long term plans for the position.

When I talked with Mason McDonald in July at development camp about his timeline to turn pro, he expressed a keen desire to turn pro next season. Turning 20 in April, that would be the typical time line for a goalie of his calibre to move on from major junior. He was the Flames second round pick in 2014 so going pro two years later makes sense.

The Gillies injury and having his development curve essentially postponed by one full season could throw a wrench into McDonald's plans or more so, the organization's plans for him.
  
While there was always a high probability McDonald was going to end up playing in the minors at the same time as Gillies anyway, it's an easier situation for everyone involved if that overlap existed for only 1-2 seasons. With Gillies potentially ready for the NHL as soon as after two seasons of AHL seasoning, you could assign McDonald to the ECHL for a season and then elevate him to the AHL after that.

However, now you're likely looking at 2-3 full seasons of Gillies and McDonald both in the minors if McDonald turns pro next September and is that too long? You want both playing so splitting time in Stockton doesn't seem smart so that would mean multiple seasons for McDonald in the ECHL and not sure that's what you want either. We'll find out next September how it is handled but I'd say the odds that McDonald returns to junior for an overage season have gone up.

4. 50 Shades of Mediocrity

Meanwhile, Calgary's goaltending right now continues to be a question mark. Karri Ramo is playing pretty much every game and while he certainly has a flair for making the big save and one could splice together a pretty sweet montage of Ramo's highlight reel saves this year, it's the saves he does not make that are the worry and are an issue nearly every night. The last two games in particular, there have been a couple goals in each that are shots that need to be stopped and the Flames are fortunate to have escaped with wins in both. 

NHL - Average Goals-Against Per Game

26. Carolina, 2.96
27. Colorado, 2.96
28. Winnipeg, 3.00
29. Arizona, 3.15
30. Calgary, 3.58


NHL - Team Save Percentage 
(excluding EN goals)

26. Boston, .907
27. Nashville, .905
28. Arizona, .902
29. Carolina, .890
30. Calgary, .885


A comparison to a year ago when Calgary had the same goaltenders speaks volumes to how far the play at this position has fallen off. Ponder this: Last season, Calgary gave up one-or-fewer goals in a game more often than they gave up four-or-more goals. This year, it's completely the opposite and not even close.
  • Four-or-More Goals Against - 15 times this year (last year, 19 times)
  • One-or-Fewer Goals Against - 2 times this year (last year, 21 times)

It's looking more and more like next season, if not before, there will be at least one and probably two new goaltenders in town. It's just too important of a position to have so much continued uncertainty.


5. The Stockton 411

Continuing on with the theme of goaltending, Joni Ortio made his fourth start (in nine days) for Stockton on Saturday night and picked up his second win with 23 saves in a 4-2 win over San Diego.

Naturally there was some rust on the Flames goaltender when he made his debut on November 27 and he ended up getting pulled that night 13:07 into the game after giving up four goals on 12 shots. With Gillies gone for the year and Kevin Poulin out for a while also after a dislocated kneecap, Ortio will be getting plenty of playing time. He's got a save percentage of .860 at the moment but that will climb as he settles in.

Turning the focus to the skaters, here's a look at who's hot or not.

Hot:
  • RW Garnet Hathaway, 6 pts (2 g, 4 a) in his last 4 gm
  • C Freddie Hamilton, 7 pts (2 g, 5 a) in his last 5 gm
  • LW Kenny Agostino, 4 pts (3 g, 1 a) in his last 2 gm

Cold: 
  • LW Morgan Klimchuk, 0 pts in 9 gm on the season (played 5 games since returning from injury)
  • RW Austin Carroll, 0 pts in his last 7 gm
  • RW Emile Poirier, 3 pts (1 g, 2 a) in his last 13 gm (missed last 3 games with upper body injury)

Last weekend were a couple of individual performances of note:
  • On Saturday night, Derek Grant had a big night with two goals including the game-winner, seven shots on goal and he also dropped the gloves and got in a spirited fight.
  • Jakub Nakladal had nine shots on goal on Friday's 5-3 loss in San Jose. The 27-year-old pending UFA continues to look solid and will surely find his way to Calgary (and this time into the line-up) at some point this season.

Stockton plays twice this week with road games in San Antonio (Thursday) and Texas (Saturday). Poirier's injury is considered minor and it is hoped that he will be ready to return this week.


6. WJ Camp Beckons

Canada's World Junior selection camp starts this Thursday in Toronto. Two Flames prospects will be in attendance -- McDonald from Charlottetown (QMJHL) and defenceman Brandon Hickey from Boston University (NCAA). 

McDonald is already on the team as only him and MacKenzie Blackwood from Barrie (teammate of Rasmus Andersson and Andrew Mangiapane) will attend. However, McDonald will be competing to be the starter and he's got some serious work to do as Blackwood has had a very nice season and if you were going by statistics, should be considered the front runner. Comparing the two so far:
  • McDonald - 19 gm, 7-12-0 with a 3.47 GAA and a .893 SV%
  • Blackwood - 24 gm, 16-7-0 with a 2.36 GAA and a .932 SV%

McDonald is the first Flames prospect to make Team Canada in goal since Leland Irving in 2007. However, Irving did not get into a game as Carey Price played the entire tournament. McDonald will be looking to become the first Calgary goalie to actually see playing time since Trevor Kidd in 1992.

Hickey was one of 11 defencemen invited although highly-touted Jake Walman from Providence, the only other player from NCAA, got injured on Saturday and if it's as serious as speculated, that list will now be down to 10. They're expected to keep seven so that means three cuts.

Here is the complete list of Flames prospects that have played for Team Canada over the years at the World Juniors:
  • 2013 - Tyler Wotherspoon
  • 2010 (Silver) - Greg Nemisz
  • 2009 (Gold) - Keith Aulie
  • 2007 (Gold) - Leland Irving
  • 2006 (Gold) - Dustin Boyd
  • 2005 (Gold) - Dion Phaneuf
  • 2004 (Silver) - Dion Phaneuf
  • 2002 (Silver) - Chuck Kobasew
  • 2001 (Bronze) - Jarret Stoll*
  • 1999 (Silver) - Robyn Regehr^, Blair Betts, Rico Fata, Daniel Tkaczuk
  • 1998 - Daniel Tkaczuk
  • 1996 (Gold) - Denis Gauthier, Jarome Iginla
  • 1995 (Gold) - Marty Murray
  • 1994 (Gold) - Joel Bouchard, Marty Murray
  • 1993 (Gold) - Joel Bouchard
  • 1992 - Trevor Kidd
  • 1991 (Gold) - Trevor Kidd, Kent Manderville
  • 1990 (Gold) - Trevor Kidd, Kent Manderville
  • 1988 (Gold) - Theoren Fleury
  • 1987 - Theoren Fleury
  • 1986 (Silver) - Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts
  • 1985 (Gold) - Brian Bradley
  • 1983 (Bronze) - Mike Vernon
  • 1982 (Gold) - Bruce Eakin, Pierre Rioux^
  • 1981 - Denis Cyr
  • 1978 (Bronze) - Brad Marsh#
  • 1977 - Brad Marsh#
* Was a Calgary draft pick but never ended up signing.
^ Was not yet Calgary property but became so shortly after and made his NHL debut with the Flames
# Was an Atlanta Flames draft pick but made his NHL debut with Calgary


7. Lead Blower

Cover your eyes as the 'blown lead' counter is up to 19 now.

Calgary has broken a tie and gone ahead in a game a total of 22 times this season. They've blown that lead 19 times. The latest two blown leads came against Boston on Friday when the Flames led 2-0, then again at 3-2, only to fritter away both of those advantages and need Jiri Hudler's tying goal with 1.2 seconds remaining to get the game to overtime.

It's a disturbing trend and one that's difficult to fully comprehend.

How can a team that's won 10 games have only successfully hung onto a lead three times? By winning six games in overtime and another in a shootout, that's how.

Here are the only three leads Calgary has held:
  • Oct. 31 in Edm - Took a 5-4 lead with 0:09 left in the third on Michael Frolik's fluke goal. Won by that same score.
  • Nov. 7 vs Pit - Took a 2-1 lead at 16:21 of the first on Johnny Gaudreau's goal. Won 5-2.
  • Nov. 17 vs NJ - Took a 1-0 lead at 10:04 of the first on TJ Brodie's goal. Never trailed the rest of the night in winning 3-2.
 
Yes, you're reading that correct. It's been three weeks since the Flames last successfully held onto a lead. Yikes. Going hand in hand with that stat is another category in which Calgary is at the bottom of the NHL.

Fewest Regulation Wins:

7 - Leafs, Hurricanes
6 - Oilers
5 - Flyers
3 - Flames

Anytime the Oilers have done something positive twice as often as you, that's not good.


8. Mean Micheal is M.I.A.

Where has the ornery Stanley Cup playoffs-version of Micheal Ferland gone? He leads the Flames in hits (51) but he's not having nearly the same impact on games as he could be having and I'd argue should be having.

I agree that 40 hits in six games -- an average of 6.7 hits per game -- like he had against the Canucks last April, is a pace that could not be sustained without him ending up regularly on the IR. However, a pace of 2.8 hits per game as he's currently averaging is also not something that can be sustained if he wants to stay in the NHL.

The Flames need more out of Ferland and maybe Lance Bouma's return to practice on Sunday will spark him because I don't know that his line-up spot is 100 percent safe once Bouma returns. Safe is also how I'd describe how Ferland has been playing much of this season. In fact, too safe. He appears too comfortable and not sure if that's a byproduct of his one-way contract or just an inability to get up for teams in the same way you can when you're locked into a long, emotional playoff series.

There were two opportunities last week for Ferland to flex a little muscle.

First was in the Dallas game when Dougie Hamilton laid a heavy check along the end boards on agitator Antoine Roussel. The two exchanged words all the way back up the ice and while Roussell wanted Hamilton to drop the gloves with him, he didn't oblige. But, nor should he have to against the Stars penalty minute leader.

This is where Ferland needs to step in later in the game and let Hamilton know he's got his back and have a little chinwag with the Dallas pest. If you're Calgary, you want Hamilton playing more physical, using his size like he did in that sequence. But man, back him up a little bit when he does.

Similar thing against the Bruins. Away from the play, Sean Monahan received two heavy cross-checks in the back seconds apart, the second from Brad Marchand. To his credit, Gaudreau jabs his stick at Marchand as a response, only to have Marchand give him the stick right back. Again, it doesn't have to be a fight, but Ferland needs to be the guy that steps in and reminds Marchand that he's the guy he has to deal with if he's going to go after Calgary's skilled players.

We've seen lots of good from Ferland this season in spurts, but not often enough and with Calgary looking up at 29 other teams, a more emotional and involved Ferland would certainly help this club moving forward.



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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11 comments:

  1. The Smythe was pretty horrible too. The top teams (Calgary/Edmonton) just feasted on awful teams in Winnipeg/Vancouver/Pre-Gretzky LA

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    1. If you go top to bottom, you're not wrong. It felt like an impossible division just because of the Oilers and how stacked they were but there was softness in there also. The Smythe then is not the Central now but I do think the Norris comparison for the Pacific today is fairly accurate -- less LA.

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  2. Dale Howerchuk's Jets were pretty good as I remember.

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  3. A little hard on Ferly in my opinion. It's hard to get involved sometimes when you get 7-9 min. a game. He's had a few more recently, but put the big kid on a top line for more than 4 shifts and let him settle in. I guarantee he will not only score regularly but will give either Monahan/Johnny H, or Bennett/Frolik tons more room to do their magic.

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    1. I hear you on the ice time, but he's not taking the ice time he's getting and busting down the door and making it hard for Hartley to not play him more -- and that's what he needs to do. Get noticed. Like I said, I think he can add a bit more snarl to his game and it would benefit him and the team. My other thought and I've re-iterated this many times. I really liked the Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland line whenever they were together in the pre-season, which happened for one period in some games, two periods in others. I found it energized Ferland and I like the fit given both Gaudreau and Monahan could use some muscle on the flank if they start getting targetted. One of my bold predictions is that trio would become a thing. I'd like to still see it.

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  4. 84/85: 43-27-10, Howerchuk had 130 pts. Though you are right, I guess they seemed to give Calgary trouble a lot so I thought they had better seasons. This is the only exceptional one though.

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    1. My memories of that era is of Bob Essensa always beating the Flames on a Sunday matinee in Winnipeg. Felt like it happened once a month but maybe only happened once a year. But winning in Winnipeg semed nearly impossible for the local hockey heroes. Damn that Randy Carlyle also.

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  5. Darren, I wanted to compliment you on your well thought-out columns. I try to read FN at times but it seems to be full of fringe hockey fans, and nerd-stat clones. To me your articles always seem to make sense. You don't just write them to cause problems or create a stir. And you aren't continually dumping on a select group of Flames players like at FN. Also your replies are as well thought out as your articles. I haven't commented before but admire your good work.

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    1. I appreciate the kind words, thanks for reading. The blog is really a sandbox to play in when I'm not writing for The Canadian Press. Leftover quotes, untapped story angles, analysis, there's always plenty to talk about. I've been around this team a very long time and watched a lot of games. If I can provide some insight, maybe give people an alternate perspective on a topic to mull over that they haven't thought of, I like to do that. Thanks again.

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  6. Best Flames writer out there, keep up the great work

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