Friday, January 01, 2016

California Dreaming: Five Things We Learned About the Flames After Losses to Ducks/Kings

Decent marks on some of the quizzes, satisfactory grades on some of the assignments, flunked the final exam.

If you view the 2015 portion of the 2015-16 NHL season as a semester in school, that's how it unfolded for the Calgary Flames.

In particular, the first four weeks of December had been really good, a few gold stars, some smiley faces from the teacher, but when you're residing in the Pacific Division and playoff success is an interstate that runs through the state of California, it's games against Anaheim and Los Angeles that are weighted the heaviest.

After failing home-ice exams against the Ducks (1-0 loss on Tuesday) and Kings (4-1 loss on Thursday), Calgary has shown that it is not yet ready to graduate to Stanley Cup contender.

Five Things We've Learned in the Last 72 Hours

1. Still a Long Way to Go

This is not an indictment of what the Flames have accomplished so far in the two-and-a-half years since Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Tanguay and Miikka Kiprusoff all exited town, it's more of a reality check to how long it takes to build a team back up. Everyone in Calgary from the Flames passionate fan base to team personnel wants the return to being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender to happen faster but you know what, sometimes one just has to accept as I do annually that the drive from Calgary to Esterhazy is going to take 10 hours, no matter what.

The Flames had admirable late game pushes against both the Ducks and the Kings but don't be deceived. A team that's trailing late in a game and playing with nothing to lose against a team sitting back and protecting a lead is not the game scenario in which one should compare two teams (scoring chances, etc.)

What you do is compare them over the first 40 minutes of a game -- or up until a team establishes that comfortable lead and changes its style of play. In that smaller sampling, the Flames were clearly second best on both Tuesday and Thursday night. Calgary had decent first periods in both games, give the Flames credit for that. But the second period in both cases was decisive with the Ducks and Kings both demonstrating that when they are on top of their game, they are superior hockey teams.  

2. Keep Accumulating Assets

Last year on the day of the trade deadline, the Flames sat fourth in the Pacific but were even in points with third place Los Angeles. Despite losing Mark Giordano to injury, a playoff spot was still right there with 20 games to go. Yet it didn't stop Brad Treliving from trading for the future in unloading a veteran but pending UFA in Curtis Glencross along with pending RFA Sven Baertschi in return for draft picks. Two players that didn't fit into the club's long term plans were moved for assets, which were ultimately converted into two building blocks for the future in 22-year-old defenceman Dougie Hamilton and impressive defence prospect Rasmus Andersson.

The same modus operandi must apply this season for the Flames general manager. Jiri Hudler, Kris Russell, David Jones and Jonas Hiller -- for what he's worth -- are all pending UFAs that should be names mentioned in cell phone conversations Treliving is having right now to see what the market is for them. It's doubtful Hudler would be a candidate to re-sign and with Russell likely to be too expensive to re-sign given dollars tied up on defence already, getting assets for those two in particular would be prudent.

If keeping them gives the team a legitimate chance at reaching the second round and maybe beyond, it can be OK to lose assets at season's end for nothing as a post-season run and the experience that comes with it is plenty of return on investment for choosing to ride out a pending UFA.

But with the Ducks surging now and looking like a team a couple weeks away from assuming second place in the division -- quite possibly for good, what are the odds of Calgary toppling the Ducks should they finish third in the Pacific and face Anaheim in a best-of-seven? From what we saw last May, to what we've seen in two games against them this year, the odds are not good enough for it to make business sense to keep players like Hudler and Russell in the hopes that they might make the difference.

3. 'Big and Skilled' is Different Than 'Big'

The Ducks and the Kings are both big teams that have the ability to manhandle the Flames. They've shown that repeatedly in recent years. While the Flames beat the Kings four times last year, that did not reflect a territorial edge in play by any means. Anaheim and LA are both physical, can be surly and when they're playing at their best, they can wear down a smaller team like Calgary, which don't forget is led by a 22-year-old that is only 5-foot-9 and 158 pounds.

In a valiant attempt to combat that, coach Bob Hartley tried to increase his own team's size by playing Brandon Bollig the past two games. This is the same player, who prior to that, had been a healthy scratch for seven straight. Unfortunately, being big-only doesn't really help in these situations. If you have options that are blends of big and skilled then bring them on but Bollig does not have the skill for his presence in the line-up to have a discernable impact in today's NHL.

I don't necessarily disagree with trying Bollig. As a coach, you're limited to the players at your disposal and Mason Raymond in the line-up these last two games doesn't change either result, nor would Josh Jooris for that matter (although I would have tried the latter on Thursday). More so, it is a reminder that the Flames are not yet deep enough up front. Calgary doesn't have enough top-nine talent to beat either team in a pure speed and skill game and they don't have the size to beat them in a heavy, physical game.

4. Ferland Has a Bright Future

Among the handful of guys that did impress in these last two losses was Micheal Ferland. I thought the 23-year-old was very good in both games. Where some players had their effectiveness greatly diminished against the aggressive California opponents, Ferland had two of his best games and that's a good sign considering the division the Flames are in.

Ferland sometimes struggles to manufacture the emotion he needs to play with against teams such as Eastern Conference opponents in which their isn't a built-in rivalry or pre-existing animosity but when up against divisional rivals, he elevates his game to a level that makes him a very dangerous player because not only does he have the size, speed and tenacity to get on the forecheck and win puck battles, he can also hold onto the puck and make plays once he gets it as he has decent hands. His 47-goal season with Brandon was four years ago but lately, you see the signs that he could some day be a 20-goal guy in the NHL.

"When Micheal is skating, he's dominant," said Hartley after last night's game. "And we're starting to see that consistency. He's a very young player and there's going to be growing pains just like any other young player. But he's physical, he goes hard to the net, plus he has great abilities with the puck. Tonight, he had a few great chances." 

Looking at the liberties taken on Johnny Gaudreau over the two games -- whether he's getting two-handed by Ryan Kesler or cross-checked by Milan Lucic, I wouldn't mind seeing Ferland moved beside Sean Monahan and Gaudreau on that top line in select circumstances. For one, you're not getting a lot out of Hudler these days anyway. Plus, Ferland's presence on the ice beside him would act as a better deterrent against opponents determined to inflict damage on Gaudreau than having such protection on the bench and limited to chirping opponents. I believe if given a chance, Ferland has the skill set to be effective on that top unit.

5. Wham, Bam, Thank You Sam

The Flames best forward the last two games has been Sam Bennett. Against two of the division's elite teams, that says a lot about Bennett and how bright his future is. In fact, he's been pretty good all month if you look beyond the scoring summaries. How the 19-year-old has just one assist in his last 15 games is mind-boggling given he's been playing well for most of that period.

The breakaway Bennett got less than 30 seconds into last night's game typified how it's been going though. Got in on Jonathan Quick so fast that he ran out of real estate on an attempted deke as Quick -- one of the NHL's best goalies -- defended him well. Against the Ducks, Bennett put the potential tying goal off the crossbar in the third period.

Bennett may not have the size or strength that Monahan has but he plays 10 times bigger. Consider this. In 13 December games, Monahan was credited with two hits. Over that same period, Bennett had 31 hits including 14 in this last four-game homestand. Bennett is not afraid to play 'big boy' hockey and seems to really enjoy it. That is huge. He's out there wallpapering guys of all sizes and creating momentum in games where goals are hard to come by. Those are qualities that I think will eventually elevate him to being this team's top line centre.

Hartley has been stingy with Bennett's ice time recently, he's averaged about 12 minutes per night the past couple weeks, but he played 16:24 against the Kings and more Bennett in 2016 will only help this team. In fact, I can't be the only one interested to see Bennett get a chance soon to play with Gaudreau.

Final Word

Last year at the trade deadline the Flames were not in a playoff spot. They unloaded a veteran in Glencross, lost their captain, and despite that ended up finding their way back into the playoffs for the first time in six years and reaching the second round for just the second time in 25 years.

The return of the Red Mile, as exciting as it was for the city, was very much a bonus and the approach for the organization should really be no different this year.

The last couple games has taught us that Calgary does not have the horses yet to reasonably assume that they could get past both the Kings and Ducks in the playoffs. It could happen. Heck, anything can happen. But to borrow a phrase from former GM Jay Feaster, intellectual honesty has to enter the equation and based on the last 72 hours, the Flames are not yet ready to compete with Los Angeles and Anaheim and be able to beat them four times in the span of seven games.

Unload players that are not part of the future picture, increase the ice time of young players like Bennett and Ferland that will be, expand the roles and responsibilities of players like Markus Granlund that you're not sure about yet and give auditions to players you need to make decisions on. For the latter, I'm talking specifically about a guy like Jakub Nakladal, the 28-year-old Czech brought to North America on a one-year deal, who is a pending UFA stuck in Stockton, despite Heat coach Ryan Huska saying he's been good.

If there was anything learned in these last two games, the future is not as far away as it once was -- the Flames weren't blown out by the Ducks or Kings, but it's also not here yet. The future is still to come and continuing to build towards that future should be the top priority.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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  1. You are bang-on again Darren.

    I think Ferly is heading into a really elite direction. I think he has better hands than Lucic, even if he isn't as large a presence. Regardless he's developing into something special I believe. And I think Coach Bob should be given a lot of credit for Ferly. He seems to care about the kid, and has administered enough tough-love to get through to him.

    Regarding the Bennett/Monahan situation. What is the point of taking a 6'2" centre if he acts like he is 5'9"? The number of hits between him and Bennett in the past month was telling. Monahan is about to "nice" himself right out of the top job the way he is going. Bennett with Johnny Hockey is starting to look far more beneficial; and yes like you said Ferly riding shotgun.

    1. Monahan should still be a very good player for a long time but he is going to limit his upside as a No. 1 centre of Gaudreau if he refuses to engage physically as teams will continue to take liberties on No. 13. He doesn't need to turn into Lance Bouma but finishing checks and using his size, the occasional losing of his temper just so people know it can happen, are both qualities that could help him be an even better player.

      Agree on Ferland. Another great game against Colorado. The way he's carrying the puck right now suggests he's someone that needs to be 'feeling it' and be confident to be at his best. The more experience he accrues, the more regularly that should come out as he settles in.