Sunday, May 31, 2015

Lightning-Quick Rebuild: Could the Calgary Flames Become What Tampa Bay is?

Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning got more games, goals and points from rookies than of any of the other 29 NHL teams. One year later, here they are in the Stanley Cup final.

If you're a Flames supporter, this may have you thinking 'hang on, what about us?'

After all, Calgary is coming off a season in 2014-15 in which they got huge contributions from rookies. Is there a chance the Flames could also experience a similar step forward next season?

To begin, let's look at similarities between the two organizations:

2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning (excluding playoffs)
  • 1st with 504 rookie games (2nd was NYI with 336) 
  • 1st with 73 rookie goals (2nd was NYI with 55)
  • 1st with 201 rookie points (2nd was NYI with 98)
  • Jumped 33 points in the standings, going from 68 points* in 2012-13 to 101 points
  • Made playoffs after missing in five of the previous six seasons
  • Lost in 1st round
* Estimated 82-game total based on team's record over the lockout-shortened 48-game season.

Leading the way for Tampa Bay was Ondrej Palat (23-36-59) and Tyler Johnson (24-26-50), who finished second and third respectively in the voting for the Calder. Others playing 40-plus games included Radko Gudas, JT Brown, Nikita Kucherov, Richard Panik, Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr.


2014-15 Calgary Flames (excluding playoffs)
  • 4th with 235 rookie games (Behind CAR 250, OTT 242, TB 241)
  • 2nd with 46 rookie goals (1st was OTT with 61)
  • 2nd with 113 rookie points (1st was OTT with 131)
  • Jumped 20 points in the standings, going from 77 points in 2013-14 to 97 points
  • Made playoffs after missing the previous five seasons
  • Lost in 2nd round

Calder finalist Johnny Gaudreau (24-40-64) led the way with Josh Jooris (12-12-24) playing a full season also. Markus Granlund (8-10-18) played nearly 50 games as well. Of course, you also have to factor in the playoffs with Calgary given the late season impact had by Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett.


It's Not That Simple

But, what else?

Did Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman just sit back and trot out the same 23-man roster in reaching 50 wins this season?

Did coach Jon Cooper get the same performances from players in seeing the Lightning surge from 101 to 108 points?

The answer is no and no, and that's why merely comparing rookie contributions then crossing your fingers and hoping is fun and all, but is an overly simplistic way of viewing it.

To enjoy similar success, Calgary GM Brad Treliving will need to have a good off-season too, as the Lightning did last summer. Also, coach Bob Hartley will need many of his players to take a stride forward in terms of individual performance once again next season.  


Revisiting What Yzerman Did

1. Overhauled the Blueline

The upgrading began at last year's NHL Draft when Jason Garrison was acquired in a trade with Vancouver.

A few days later on July 1, the Lightning signed unrestricted free agent Anton Stralman to a five-year/$22-million deal. The Stralman signing has worked out terrific as he's established himself as a very good NHL defenceman playing on Tampa Bay's top pairing with Victor Hedman.

Lastly, completing a 75 percent makeover of the Lightning's top four compared to a year ago, youngster Radko Gudas was shipped to Philadelphia at the trade deadline to get Braydon Coburn, who promptly got hurt but returned in time for the post-season and has cemented the second pairing.

By making those moves, it has allowed Tampa Bay to drop Matt Carle and Sustr down to the third pairing. That has resulted in a much more formidable D group from top to bottom.


> What Treliving Could do

Calgary's top four of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie, Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell, are better than where Tampa Bay was a year ago. However, the drop-off beyond them is severe. The lack of depth on the blueline is an organizational need and one GM Brad Treliving has said he is focused on trying to address this summer. However, one shouldn't expect the volume of upgrades Tampa Bay made.

Bringing in someone to play in the top four and potentially bump Russell or Wideman to the third pairing when everyone is healthy would be in the spirit of what Tampa Bay did and what happened with Carle.

If you look at UFAs, Cody Franson is one that is talked about a lot. Calgary-born Mike Green is set to leave Washington after 10 seasons in the Capitals organization so he's another possibility. Other defencemen that could be available via free agency include Andrej Sekera, Jeff Petry, Christian Ehrhoff, Zbynek Michalek and Johnny Oduya.

Recently signed Jakub Nakladal, 27, a solid stay-at-home defenceman signed out of the Czech Republic, provides some depth and perhaps he surprises. College signing Kenney Morrison is another unknown although presumably he's further down the list. David Schlemko is a pending UFA but he expressed interest in returning after being a useful player down the stretch.

The D prospect people are waiting for is Tyler Wotherspoon but he won't be penciled in, he'll have to come into camp and forge his way onto the roster.


2. Improved the Veteran Group

In terms of that ingredient of veteran leadership, Yzerman used a compliance buyout to move on from 34-year-old Ryan Malone. He then brought in character and a bunch of playoff experience in the form of 35-year-old Brenden Morrow, who he inked as a free agent.

Also, by unloading a bunch of committed money by trading away Teddy Purcell and creating a roster spot at centre by dealing Nate Thompson, Yzerman brought in size in 6-foot-7 centre Brian Boyle, who he signed as a free agent after Boyle was very good for the Rangers in their run to the Stanley Cup final in 2014.


> What Treliving Could Do

Calgary has already moved on from its two oldest forwards lastseason, who were Brian McGrattan and Curtis Glencross. That leaves Matt Stajan and Jiri Hudler, both 31, as the senior members of the forward group.

Pending UFA right-winger Joel Ward, given his size, rugged style of play and penchant for being at his best in big games -- and as a right-winger, could be an attractive player short term for Treliving. At 34, his age doesn't make him ideal, but he strikes me as a guy that would fit in really well with the culture Hartley and this team has established.


3. Created Opportunity

With the exit of Purcell, the trading away of BJ Crombeen, and the departure of free agent Sami Salo, Yzerman created opportunity for the organization's young prospects and a few of them stepped up and gave the club a nice boost.

Taking advantage and playing their first full season was scrappy forward Cedric Paquette, 21, who made the jump from the AHL and hotshot major junior star Jonathan Drouin, who has been brought along very slowly -- a luxury the organization had.

Vladislav Namestnikov, 22, also had a nice season for Tampa Bay notching nine goals and 16 points in 43 games with the big club. He split the season between the AHL and NHL.

On the blue-line, Nikita Nesterov has gotten in 14 playoff games after joining the Lightning after Christmas and playing 27 regular season games.


> What Treliving Could Do

As is the mantra around Calgary, NHL opportunities are going to be earned, not given. However, looking beyond Ferland and Bennett, who will surely secure roster spots, 2013 first round pick Emile Poirier is someone that could win a job out of training camp.

Sidelined to begin the year by off-season shoulder surgery, Poirier spent most of his first pro season in the AHL going 19-23-42 in 55 games. He got in six games with Calgary just to get his feet wet but was used sparingly. While a left-hand shot, he loves playing the right-wing and has some spice to his game that would be welcomed. A good camp could mean good things for the 20-year-old.

Also up front, rugged 6-foot-2 right-winger Garnet Hathaway is a player to watch. The Brown University grad impressed in his first pro season (19-17-36) in Adirondack. At 6-foot-3, late-blooming Austin Carroll, also a right-hand shooter, is another player to watch after wrapping up his junior career with Victoria with his best WHL season (38-39-77). Carroll is likely bound for the AHL but management does think very highly of the physical 21-year-old, who like Ferland also has some nice offensive skill.


Revisiting What Cooper Got

1. Superb Sophomore Seasons

It's one thing to shine as a rookie. But can that player elevate their game even more in year two? In the case of the famed 'triplet line' as they've become known, Palat, Johnson and Kucherov have responded with a resounding yes. All three improved offensively compared to their rookie season.
  • Kucherov, +47 pts. Went from 52 gm, 9-9-18 to 82 gm, 29-36-65
  • Johnson, + 22 pts. Went from 82 gm, 24-26-50 to 77 gm, 29-43-72
  • Palat, + 4 pts. Went from 81 gm, 23-36-59 to 75 gm, 16-47-63

Plus, they continue to get better. Their play in the post-season thus far has been nothing short of phenomenal combining for 28 goals and 55 points in 20 games.

> What Hartley Could Get

I'd expect another stellar year from Gaudreau, who was 24-40-64 in 80 regular season games and then led the team in the post-season with nine points in 11 games. I'd suggest 75-80 points is a possibility in year two. I'm less certain Jooris (12-12-24 in 60 gm) will be able to take another step forward offensively. He brings a lot to the team -- decent size, speed, strong forecheck, solid on the PK, but the offensive bar may have been set a little high. He only scored 11 goals the previous season in the AHL so merely repeating this past year would be a more realistic target.

For late season additions Ferland and Bennett, there is lots to like with both of them and they should each be in line for a great season. Bennett, in particular, is a guy to watch. The way he arrived on the scene, it's easy to forget next year isn't a sophomore season for Bennett as he's still considered a rookie and he has the abilities to be right there in the conversation for the Calder, which promises to be hotly contested given the likes of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.


2. Solid Goaltending

Ben Bishop was a Vezina finalist in 2013-14 and was a big reason why with an average defence group, the Lightning had as good of a year as they did. While Bishop didn't have as good of a regular season this year, seeing his save percentage fall from .924 to .916, he has stepped up and delivered some clutch performances so far in the playoffs.

In particular, in Tampa Bay's three clinching games, the 28-year-old has allowed only one goal and stopped 71 of 72 shots.

Off the bench, rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy posted a .918 save percentage in winning seven of his 13 starts, which was a nice complement to Bishop.

> What Hartley Could Get

The cast is likely to change next season. Pending UFA Karri Ramo probably moves on with 24-year-old Joni Ortio getting a turn to work in tandem with veteran Jonas Hiller. The Flames are hopeful Ortio will emerge as the No. 1 given Hiller is entering the final season of his two-year deal.

In reeling off four straight road wins in January, Ortio demonstrated that he is capable of delivering the type of consistent goaltending that Bishop has provided. Mind you, Hiller has shone at times also -- see the playoff series versus the Canucks.

However, good in spurts doesn't get teams into Stanley Cup finals. There is potential for the Flames to get even bettter goaltending in 2014-15 but there are no assurances. When he was on, Ramo turned in some spectacular performances over the course of the year.


3. Great Supporting Performances

Five players come to mind.

Coming off a broken leg, Stamkos didn't have quite the same burden on him to carry the offence given the emergence of the other Lightning forwards but he still notched 43 goals, second in the NHL behind Alex Ovechkin (51).

Hedman, 2nd overall pick in the 2009 Draft, continues to establish himeslf as one of the NHL's premier young defencemen and will be a Norris candidate in no time.

Third-year forward Alex Killorn had similar regular season totals to his second year but has made a nice impact this post-season going 7-9-16.

While the offensive totals for veteran centre Valtteri Filppula went down with Johnson's emergence as a top six centre, the production has come back in the playoffs as Stamkos shifted to the wing and Filppula returned to being second line centre.

After a couple injury-marred sub-standard years, Ryan Callahan equalled his career high with 54 points. That included 24 goals.

> What Hartley Could Get

Sorry Bob, but you're out of luck when it comes to Stamkos. Calgary does not have a player of Stamkos' ilk, they simply don't. Bennett might one day be a guy that has similar impact on a game but it would be different type of impact and won't be the same gaudy goal totals. Monahan is not built out of the Stamkos mold either. There just is no stud offensive player of this high calibre in the organization and Calgary won't be adding one anytime soon.

Brodie's career arc is climbing rapidly towards being in the NHL elite, just like Hedman. Getting Giordano back as the veteran that makes him that much better, like the role Stralman plays with Hedman, will see Brodie's game take off once again after being Deryk Engelland's custodian the final two months of 2014-15.  Brodie is darn good and it won't be long before he'll surpass Giordano as the club's top defender.

While they're very different players with Killorn having much more natural offensive skill, could Lance Bouma provide something similar what Killorn provides? Bouma's 16 goals this season would suggest that's possible but not many are expecting Bouma to be able to repeat that. But in terms of age and overall impact, Killorn is not a bad comparable and like Killorn has done, Bouma is someone that could thrive in the post-season.

In many ways, Mikael Backlund's role and what it will evolve into over the next couple years, reminds me of where Filppula was at this season. Staying healthy is key for Backlund, who was at his best in the playoffs. A strong regular season from Backlund where he's ready from the start would give Calgary a boost.

David Jones is probably Calgary's best match for Callahan. Jones had a bad start to the season but came on strong in the second half and had a good playoffs. If he could ever stay healthy for a full season, the playoffs gave you a glimpse of the impact he could have given his size and skill.


Realistic Expectations

While there are similarities between the two teams, the reality is the Lightning and Flames are not in identical positions -- as much as fans may hope. Tampa Bay was further along heading into this season than Calgary will be to start next season.

An example of this is at centre and I broached this topic in some depth last weekend in this piece that examined the Flames history at the centre position. There are definitely similarities between Calgary's young core at centre in Monahan, Bennett and Backlund compared to the Lightning with Johnson, Stamkos and Filppula. However, that Lightning trio are collectively five years older and have the experience to show for it. The Flames will get there but they're just not there yet.

That same theme applies to the entire forward group where Calgary doesn't have the same depth as what the Lightning deployed in leading the NHL in goals scored this season. That showed up in the analytics where Tampa Bay was one of the NHL's top teams and the Flames were one of the worst.

This is an area Treliving specifically addressed at year end too, recognizing Calgary needs to possess the puck more and that's not something that is going to happen over night. However, the Flames are on the right track and should be at least a little better in that area next year just naturally as their young players return stronger and more experienced.


Good For Now or Great Forever

What the Lightning's success does re-inforce is that the NHL is a young man's game now. With Stamkos, Johnson, Hedman, Killorn and Palat all in that 'sweet spot' of being 24 or 25 years old, it shows what could be possible for the Flames in a few years with their young core of Ferland, Gaudreau, Bennett, Monahan and Brodie.

By turning over a portion of the roster every off-season, building up a solid supporting cast, strengthening the back-end, continually injecting youth, Yzerman has built a Lightning team that looks poised to be good for many years to come.

It's not to say the Flames won't be able to accomplish next season what Tampa Bay is doing right now, just don't expect it.

What you should be hoping for instead is that Calgary stays the course on its rebuild and eventually gets to where the Lightning are at. Being a perennial Stanley Cup threat in which deep playoff runs become the norm, not the exception, should be the real goal here.



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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Homegrown Flames: Boasting Strength up the Middle for the First Time in a Long Time

It's been over 20 years since Calgary boasted a line-up in which their top three centres were all homegrown. Add drafted by the Flames to the criteria and you need to go back nearly 35 years.

But that could be on the verge of changing.

With Sean Monahan (1st round in 2013) and Mikael Backlund (1st round in 2007) already entrenched up the middle, as soon as Sam Bennett (1st round in 2014) is shifted back to his natural position of centre -- possibly at the start of next season, the Flames will brandish a top three all groomed by the organization for the first time since 1994-95.

Now that was a while ago so if you don't recall that lockout-shortened season, Calgary's depth chart at pivot consisted of Joe Nieuwendyk (2nd round pick in 1985), Robert Reichel (4th round pick in 1989) and Joel Otto (signed out of US college in 1984).

Now consider this. In the 20 years since, the Flames have made the playoffs just seven times. That speaks to the importance of the position and how badly Calgary has struggled to adequately stock it.

But before we explore that, let's begin with this unabridged historical listing of the Flames top three centres for every season going back to 1980. I needed to go back that far to find the last time all three were also Flames draft picks. It was in 1980-81 and 1981-82 and all three were Atlanta draft picks -- Kent Nilsson (4th round pick in 1976), Guy Chouinard (2nd round pick in 1974) and Jim Peplinski (4th round pick in 1979).

I will say that assembling such a list was not an easy undertaking and took quite a bit of research -- especially the early days. Rather than black and white, I found there is plenty of grey most years in trying to identify a top three. You have players coming and going via mid-season trades (e.g. Craig Conroy for Cory Stillman in March 2001), role changes due to significant injuries and players sometimes switching between centre and wing (e.g. German Titov). Nonetheless, this is what I've cobbled together so roll with it. (In yellow are playoff seasons.)






1

2

3

2014-15

Sean Monahan

Mikael Backlund

Matt Stajan

2013-14

Mikael Backlund

Matt Stajan

Sean Monahan

2012-13

Mike Cammalleri

Matt Stajan

Mikael Backlund

2011-12

Olli Jokinen

Mike Cammalleri

Matt Stajan

2010-11

Olli Jokinen

Brendan Morrison

Matt Stajan

2009-10

Daymond Langkow

Matt Stajan

Craig Conroy

2008-09

Olli Jokinen

Daymond Langkow

Craig Conroy

2007-08

Daymond Langkow

Craig Conroy

Matthew Lombardi

2006-07

Daymond Langkow

Craig Conroy

Matthew Lombardi

2005-06

Daymond Langkow

Matthew Lombardi

Stephane Yelle

2003-04

Craig Conroy

Matthew Lombardi

Stephane Yelle

2002-03

Craig Conroy

Chris Drury

Stephane Yelle

2001-02

Craig Conroy

Marc Savard

Rob Niedermayer

2000-01

Marc Savard

Cory Stillman

Jeff Shantz

1999-00

Marc Savard

Cory Stillman

Jeff Shantz

1998-99

Jeff Shantz

Cory Stillman

Andrew Cassels

1997-98

Andrew Cassels

Cory Stillman

Michael Nylander

1996-97

Dave Gagner

Robert Reichel

Cory Stillman

1995-96

Michael Nylander

German Titov

Cory Stillman

1994-95

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Joel Otto

1993-94

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Kelly Kisio

1992-93

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Joel Otto

1991-92

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Carey Wilson

1990-91

Joe Nieuwendyk

Doug Gilmour

Joel Otto

1989-90

Joe Nieuwendyk

Doug Gilmour

Joel Otto

1988-89

Doug Gilmour

Joe Nieuwendyk

Joel Otto

1987-88

Mike Bullard

Joe Nieuwendyk

Joel Otto

1986-87

Mike Bullard

Carey Wilson

Joel Otto

1985-86

Dan Quinn

Carey Wilson

Joel Otto

1984-85

Carey Wilson

Dan Quinn

Mike Eaves

1983-84

Kent Nilsson

Mike Eaves

Dan Quinn

1982-83

Kent Nilsson

Guy Chouinard

Doug Risebrough

1981-82

Kent Nilsson

Guy Chouinard

Jim Peplinski

1980-81

Kent Nilsson

Guy Chouinard

Jim Peplinski



Draft Disasters

Not surprisingly, failure at the draft table has played a prominent role in centre being such a thin position for this club for so long. A look back reveals numerous misses when it came to selecting potential incumbents via the NHL Draft. The following list are picks (along with their Flames NHL totals) expended on centres in rounds 1 and 2 from 1993 through 2010, which did not pan out -- at least in Calgary.
  • 2008, 2nd round, 48th overall - Mitch Wahl, Spokane, WHL
  • 2008, 1st round, 25th overall - Greg Nemisz, Windsor, OHL (15 gm, 0-1-1)
  • 2002, 2nd round, 39th overall - Brian McConnell, Boston U
  • 2001, 2nd round, 41st overall - Andrei Taratukhin, Russia
  • 2000, 2nd round, 46th overall - Jarret Stoll, Kootenay (didn't sign)
  • 1999, 2nd round, 38th overall - Dan Cavanaugh, Boston U
  • 1998, 2nd round, 33rd overall - Blair Betts, Prince George, WHL (35 gm, 3-5-8)
  • 1997, 1st round, 6th overall - Daniel Tkaczuk, Barrie, OHL (19 gm, 4-7-11)
  • 1995, 2nd round, 46th overall - Pavel Smirnov, Russia

Of 10 centres the Flames drafted in the top 50 picks over those 18 years, Backlund is the only one that worked out in Calgary. The other nine combined for just seven goals in 69 games in a Flames uniform.

Two of note that did enjoy NHL success, just not with the team that drafted them, were Stoll, who did not sign and went back into the draft and was selected two years later by Edmonton. The other was Betts, who went on to play 442 NHL games with the Rangers and Flyers after spending most of his three seasons with Calgary in the minors, Betts was traded to New York in 2004 as part of a package to acquire Chris Simon


Formidable Top Three

Backlund has played the best hockey of his career the last two seasons. In particular, the best part of his 2014-15 season came in the playoffs when he spend most of his time centring an effective line with Bennett and Joe Colborne. He led the Flames in shots on goal with 30 and was third among forwards in ice-time behind Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Backlund is a pending restricted free agent and what he re-signs for and how long, assuming that happens and he's not traded, is a fascinating situation to monitor this summer.

A year ago I wrote in this piece that Backlund, if he was able to play a full season this year like he finished up last year, could be in line to make as much as $5-million annually in his next deal. Instead, he suffered an abdominal injury while training in the summer -- something the Flames were not happy about -- and essentially missed the first three months after eventually succumbing to surgery.

Once he returned, he was a key part of the Flames top six forwards and presumably would be in line for similar responsibilities next season. Bennett is not yet 19 so I would not be surprised to see coach Bob Hartley either keep him on the wing for a while longer or, if he chooses to move him to centre, play him on the third line to give him sheltered minutes, similar to how he handled Monahan in his rookie season.

So while I'd expect Backlund to remain one of the top two centres for at least one more season, how will all his time missed affect his asking price this summer? It seems only a matter of time before Bennett wrestles away his spot and drops Backlund to the third line. But having Backlund as a third line centre given his solid all-round game would leave Calgary in great shape. Before long, those three would represent Calgary's most formidable centre trio since Doug Gilmour joined Nieuwendyk and Otto from 1989 to 1991.

While Backlund said quite bluntly on locker clean-out day that he wants to push to be the No. 1 centre and is not content with just being a second or third line guy, the third line is probably the career path he's on in Calgary given the pedigree of Monahan and Bennett. As I see it, should the Flames be able to sign Backlund for south of $4-million in annual average value and with four years of term, Calgary would be wise to do it and with a fist-pump as they'll be set up nicely up the middle for years to come.


Similar Model to Tampa Bay

One of the most exciting young and talented teams in the NHL these days are the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their quick-strike offence they've showcased against the New York Rangers has been mighty impressive. If you look at the age of their top three centres and compare it to the age of what Calgary's young trio will be as of October 1, 2015, see if you can spot the pattern.

Calgary
  • Sean Monahan, 20 
  • Sam Bennett, 19
  • Mikael Backlund. 26
Tampa Bay
  • Steven Stamkos, 25
  • Tyler Johnson, 24
  • Valtteri Filppula, 31

As you can see, the age gap is exactly the same between all three -- except Calgary's trio is collectively five years years younger across the board. This staggered age thing isn't the be-all and end-all, by any means, but I like the idea of two young stars in the top six and a solid veteran to complement them. I think those are pretty good ingredients for success.

Having a guy like Filppula or Backlund in that third line role gives the team a very good replacement when injuries strikes to the top two, or gives you options should you choose to move someone to the wing for a brief period as Tampa Bay has done these playoffs with Stamkos, elevating Filppula into the top six.


Backlund for Less Than $4M with Term is Ideal

Centres are expensive, that's just the reality, and it's not a position you want to skimp on. Monahan and Bennett are both going to earn hefty pay hikes with their next deals.

While a third line centre making $5-million becomes a little rich, if general manager Brad Treliving can lock up Backlund for several years at around $3.75-million, that gives the team time to come up with a succession plan as they'll need one for when Backlund's next deal expires or even prior to that if you end up in a cap crunch.

A look around at the other three teams still alive in the NHL playoffs gives you a sense of a few different ways that succession planning at centre tends to go and how salary constraints can force decisions.

New York Rangers
  • Top Two - Derek Stepan, 25. Derick Brassard, 27.
Dominic Moore, 34, has been playing third line minutes in the playoffs but with one year left on his deal before he would become a UFA, a replacement is in the pipeline in 22-year-old JT Miller. New York's 1st round pick in 2011, it appears Miller is being groomed to take over a top nine role.


Chicago Blackhawks
  • Top Two - Jonathan Toews, 27. Brad Richards, 35.
Toews will be a Blackhawk forever having signed a deal that runs through 2022-23. However, at a rich $10.5-million per season, a 2-3 of pending UFAs Richards and Antoine Vermette, 32 -- as is the case right now, is not feasible. Enter 20-year-old 2012 first round pick Teuvo Teravainen and maybe even Andrew Shaw, 23, as top nine incumbents.


Anaheim Ducks
  • Top Two - Ryan Getzlaf, 30. Ryan Kesler, 30.
With Getzlaf signed long term and Kesler with another season to go on his deal, the Ducks are in really good shape for next season. Big Nate Thompson, also 30, is a nice piece to complement them. However, keeping Kesler beyond 2015-16 could become too expensive. Thus, the Ducks have 2011 first round pick Rickard Rakell coming along nicely. He could be ready to be a top six centre for Anaheim in 2016-17.


First Build a Foundation, Then Patch Other Holes

There is a school of thought out there that between Markus Granlund, Josh Jooris, Drew Shore, and Joe Colborne that there could be a Backlund replacement in that mix and the Flames can afford to deal the Swede in a trade this summer. I just don't see it. Say Bennett re-injures his shoulder and misses three months. Without Backlund also, now you're looking at one of the above as your second line centre?

While I have no doubt Matt Stajan can give the Flames another season of decent top nine minutes as a poor man's alternative to Backlund, I feel going that route and dealing Backlund would be a gamble. What about the year after? And the year after that?

It's absurd to be so close to being locked and loaded at the centre position for the next several years and have one of the best trios in the league, to throw that all away and start searching once again for something you just had.

In missing the playoffs five straight times prior to last season, the Flames gave season-long auditions to eight different players to see if they could be that coveted top three centre. Contrast that with the stability at the position Calgary has enjoyed in the years they have made the playoffs and it's clear that centre is not a position to be constantly fiddling with.

Sign Backlund for four or more years and then turn your attention to addressing the team's other holes. A solid foundation up the middle like that can cover up a lot of blemishes and leave this team perennially dangerous for years to come, even while they work on addressing other positions such as the blue-line.



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Recapping the 2014-15 Season (Part 2): Ten Storylines That Defined the Year

As documented right here in Part 1 of my 2014-15 season recap, there were plenty of impactful individual performances by Flames players this season.

There were a lot of terrific hockey games also. The biggest of the bunch came on December 22. Trailing 3-0 to the Kings and well on their way to a ninth straight loss, Calgary got the game back to even on a natural hat-trick by Johnny Gaudreau, the latter two coming with the goalie pulled late in the third period. Then, Mark Giordano scored the dramatic overtime goal to win it.

While that stood out as the most important road win during the regular season on my list of the 12 most impactful games, the terrific spell of hockey fans saw at the Saddledome late in the year was some of the best of the last decade. First came the playoff spot-clinching win against the Kings in the final home game on April 9. Then, making it two of the best home games of the past 10 years in a span of 10 days, Calgary came back from down 3-0 to defeat the Canucks in game 6 and win the first round series.

It was quite a season. Here is a summary of what fans will remember about this season.


Ten Storylines from the 2014-15 Flames Season


1. So Many Third Period Comebacks

In the end, the Flames finished with 13 wins in games in which they trailed after two periods -- pulling it off a team-record 10 times in the regular season and then three more times in the post-season. To put the playoff number in context, Calgary was 3-3 in games in which they trailed after two periods this season. In the previous 19 years (dating back to 1996), Calgary was 1-23 when facing that scenario.

Further, over the last four regular seasons, Calgary has only come back to win when trailing after two periods a total of 14 times. There was a never-quit attitude that was a trademark of this year's team and it made each and every one of their games something you had to watch until the very end.

The greatest example of this wasn't even a game they won. Back on March 8 in Ottawa, at the tail end of a gruelling seven-game road trip in which they had lost their captain for the season, down 4-0 with less than 14 minutes left, the Flames stormed back to tie it before losing in OT.


2. Return of the 'C of Red'

By this, I'm not just talking about the incredible spectacle that was the Saddledome on game night, row after row of fans outfitted in authentic red Flames jerseys, but all over the city -- in office towers, in restaurants, on Stephen Avenue, there were jerseys everywhere. Flames car flags returned, productivity in work places sagged on game days, it was a rallying point for a city that embraced this blue collar team and supported them with pride.

Also, the Red Mile became a thing again and as a tribute to Calgarians, was a a well-behaved thing with plenty to celebrate over their three weeks of playoff action. You get the sense this year was almost like a dress rehearsal for all this becoming once again a rite of spring around Calgary, just like it was in the glory days of the late 80s.


3. Hartley Presses All the Right Buttons

It's why Bob Hartley should be a slam-dunk for the Jack Adams for NHL coach of the year. To put things in the context of baseball, Hartley isn't an American League manager, just idly sitting back with his hands in his lap, watching his team roll four lines. He's more like a National League manager, always involved, always tinkering to find the right mix prior to each game and then further adjusting mid-game as we'd see ice times rise or fall depending on who was going that particular night.

Hartley wasn't afraid to bounce back and forth between his 1a and 1b (in some order) job-sharing goalies nor was he shy about pulling either one of them and doing so early when he felt the team needed a spark. In fact, Hartley was especially good at knowing just the right time to insert his back-up into a game. Remarkably, three times during the season including game 6 against Vancouver, Calgary rallied back to win a game that the Flames were losing when Hartley inserted his back-up goalie.

In a year where the Flames had five rookies play significant roles, Hartley set them up for success rather than failure. He waited until the right time to play them and when he did, he put them in the line-up in a spot where they could succeed. The number of players that had career seasons also reflects favourably on Hartley, whose confidence on the bench never seemed to waver nor did his support and confidence in his team off the ice.


4. Overcoming the Loss of Giordano

At the time of the injury in late February, Mark Giordano led all defencemen in scoring and was a leading candidate for the Norris trophy for NHL's best defenceman. At the time, the Flames weren't even in a playoff spot. Losing the heart and sole of their hockey club was supposed to be a death sentence.

Instead, the Flames went a remarkable 12-6-3 to finish the regular season and ended up 17-11-4 overall with No. 5 absent from the line-up. Extrapolate that over 82 games and you have a 97-point pace (and with a harder-than-normal schedule), which is absolutely stunning considering they basically did that playing only five defencemen.

With Giordano on the blue-line, the Ducks are still a better team than Calgary on paper. However, so often this season it was not so much about who was the better team, but it was about the Flames ability to find a way to win.

We'll never know but it's not that outlandish to think that the series with Anaheim might well have gone back to Honda Centre for game six if Calgary was able to get Giordano back in that series. Instead, expect a seriously motivated Giordano next season.

You sure do feel back for Giordano though. With only four playoff games in his NHL career, he deserved to be in the line-up this post-season as the team's transformation came under his reign as captain and by all accounts, he was instrumental in how quickly it happened.

As Hartley often said, the team had Giordano the captain, they just didn't have Giordano the player. Well, they needed the player. The remaining big three turned in a yeoman's efforts and Deryk Engelland gave all he could and more, but you simply don't replace a player of his value.


5. Brad Treliving Standing Pat

The first impressions weren't terrific. Trading a third round pick at the 2014 draft for Brandon Bollig, the gigantic free agent contract issued to bottom pair defenceman in Engelland, the signing of Devin Setoguchi. But, give GM Brad Treliving the benefit of actually getting to know his team personally and reserving judgement until after he's actually making moves based on his own assessment rather than the suggestions of others (and computer reports) and his body of work gets significantly better.

There was the willingness to ship Brian McGrattan to the minors upon realizing that the NHL game had suddenly evolved into a much faster game in 2014-15. He got some terrific work done early in the year, realizing what he had and re-signing both TJ Brodie and Hartley to extensions. Some shrewd negotiating got him a second and third round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft for Curtis Glencross, who disappointed in Washington, as well as a second round pick for an unhappy Sven Baertschi, who declared he wasn't going to re-sign with Calgary anyway. The non-move of not mortgaging the future for a quick fix for Giordano, a move unlikely to have gotten Calgary any further anyway, may turn out to shrewdest move of all.

With some interesting RFA situations to deal with and six draft picks in the top 90, more exams are coming up for Treliving but I'd assess it as a good rookie season.


6. A Playoff Series Win

Let's face it, it hasn't happened often. Since Terry Crisp coached the Flames to the Stanley Cup in 1989, this season was only the second time Calgary has made it beyond the first round. That's in a span of 26 years.

To put that in context, Hartley is the 11th different coach during that period (and that's excluding interim coaches). The importance of that achievement, as nominal as it may have felt after a five-game exit to Anaheim, cannot be overstated. Just like how the 22 games without a win in Anaheim is a streak that transcends generations of players yet still seems to cast a shadow over the team whenever they play at Honda Center, the futility of this organization when it comes to playoffs has also been very well documented and had put a tremendous burden on the team. Getting over that hump this season will bode very well for the future.

Maybe a win in Anaheim will be next.


7. The Anti-Analytics Team

All season it was essentially a gang war between the advanced stats community and a loyal Flames fan base. The stats guys, armed with charts and scads of historical data, adamantly told fans that Calgary won't keep winning, they can't, what they're doing is unsustainable. Meanwhile, Calgary's fans defiantly pointed towards the scoreboard/wins column, saying 'oh yeah?'

Was there a winner? Reaching the final eight in a 30-team league can hardly be construed as a failure so that's where I would lean. Was there a lot of luck along the way? Sure. But did the team's refusal to ever quit in a game also play a role? For sure.

There's also something to be said about Calgary's quick transition game and defence-led offensive attack. Designing a game plan for the personnel they had -- quick forwards, puck-distributing defencemen, and coming up with a playing style that's not that prevalent, the Flames found a way to scrap out goals and wins, both of which are the metrics the NHL uses for success. While not saying it won't happen, it would be naive and premature with a young, growing team with an evolving roster to automatically pencil them in for a regression next season. Mind you, such a slight may be the best thing for Calgary, who seemed to thrive on the fact nobody expected them to do anything this season.


8. Unsung Heroes

While so much was made all year, especially in the second half, of the line of Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler, it was a season in which so many others stepped up and took a turn in the spotlight. Who will forget David Schlemko'spectacular shootout goal in Boston in his first game in a Flames uniform. Then there was Raphael Diaz notching a beautiful go-ahead goal in a pivotal win late in the year in Dallas. Fast forward to the playoffs and you had Engelland surviving his epic 3:32 shift-from-hell in the clinching win against the Canucks. Then you had Brandon Bollig and Joe Colborne with clutch goals in game 3 against Anaheim.

Arriving out of nowhere, Josh Jooris was a key contributor all season including a hat-trick versus Arizona on December 2. Joni Ortio arrived rather suddenly also and promptly won four straight starts in January.

It seems cliché to say every single person contributed along the way but in this instance, if you look down the Flames roster, it's true. Every role player delivered in the clutch at some point in the season.


9. Youth Movement All Year Long

The season was 1996-97, the year after Sam Bennett was born. That was the last time the Flames had a cast of rookies that collaborated to score as many goals during the regular season as this year's rookies did. And that's not including the contributions from sophomores Monahan and Colborne. The youth getting things done was definitely a recurring theme all year.

Calgary finished the season with 46 goals from first-year players, the most since since 1996-97 when the Flames got 50 -- Jarome Iginla 21, Jonas Hoglund 19, Joel Bouchard 4, Chris O'Sullivan 2, Todd Simpson 1, Cale Hulse 1, Dale McTavish 1 and Hnat Domenichelli 1.

However, if you're familiar with Calgary's history, you'll know that wasn't a playoff year for the Flames so 50 was the net total. Not the case for this year's group. With five of the team's 12 forwards opening night of the playoffs being rookies -- which is flat-out ridiculous -- the contributions continued into late April and May with 10 more goals for a full-season total of 56.

That's the most regular season and playoffs combined since 1987-88 when the Flames got 84 -- Joe Nieuwendyk 54, Brett Hull 26 (before being traded to St. Louis), Brian Glynn 2 and Shane Churla 1.

To put the post-season success in context, Calgary had only deployed four rookie forwards in the playoffs total since Iginla's debut in 1996 and those four -- Eric Nystrom, David Moss, Matthew Lombardi and Chuck Kobasew -- had combined for one goal.


10. Good Goaltending Despite Not Having a No. 1 

The goaltending situation for the Flames is one of the most fascinating stories to follow this off-season. The two guys under contract for 2015-16 are Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio. Hiller has one year left on his two-year, $9-million deal signed last summer and Ortio's contract for next season converts to a one-way deal in which he's also now waiver-eligible. Essentially the Flames must keep him in the NHL or they'll probably be claimed by another team if they try to demote him.

But the guy, who finished both playoff series and turned in a magnificent performance against the Ducks in particular was Karri Ramo, who at age 28 is also four-and-a-half years younger than Hiller. There's a lot to like with Ramo's athleticism and while neither he or Hiller may ultimately turn out to be the goaltender of the future, Ramo sure looks like the better of the two in terms of goaltender of the current. But to be that in Calgary, the pending unrestricted free agent will need to sign here and that would seemingly only make sense for all parties if Hiller is then peddled.

Two starters, two back-ups, however you want to view it, Hartley flipped back and forth between the two of them often and it seemed to work out just fine as to the team's benefit, when a goalie got hot, so did the Flames.


Final Thoughts

While there may be particular elements of Calgary's game that are unsustainable -- the third period comebacks, for one, the getting grossly outshot on some nights but still winning is another, there are reasons to believe the rebuild is still progressing nicely. First, you look at the impact on the playoffs of Ferland and Bennett, who were not a meaningful part of the regular season at all, especially Bennett, who didn't draw in until the season's final game in Winnipeg.

The future does look promising. 2014 second round pick Mason McDonald had a good year going until he got injured in the playoffs. Highly-touted Jon Gillies won the NCAA championship and promptly turned pro by signing with Calgary. Joining him in Stockton of the American Hockey League next year will be Austin Carroll, a seventh round draft pick, who has an attractive upside. Also up front you have Markus Granlund and Emile Poirier. Don't forget about Morgan Klimchuk either, the third of the Flames three first round picks in 2013, who finished the season strongly with Brandon. The recent re-signing but this time to an NHL entry-level contract of Garnet Hathaway also bodes well. He is a big guy, who is a banger, and you can bet on him making some noise next training camp.

On the blue-line, Calgary successfully wooed free agent Kenney Morrison. Newly inked 27-year-old Czech blue-liner Jakub Nakladal is an intriguing situation also and Tyler Wotherspoon, despite his inability to gain Hartley's confidence this season, remains very much on the radar. Looking a couple years down the road, Brandon Hickey at Boston University is progressing very nicely, the exorbitant ice time he got as a freshman -- and on a good team -- speaks volumes.

It was a compelling season from start to finish and there's more to come. I'd even suggest the best is still to come.



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