Saturday, April 16, 2016

Six Month Follow-up: Assessing My Eight Bold Predictions for the Flames for 2015-16

With the season complete, the buzz word around the Flames front office has been 'evaluate'. The coaches, the players -- all of them are having their performances in 2015-16 evaluated.

I figure there's no reason I should be exempt from this exercise so today I evaluated how I did this year also, specifically in regards to my Eight Bold Predictions made prior to the season. What's interesting is how expectations change over time. Eighty-two games later, some of these predictions don't seem all that daring but really, they were at the time. I recall one reader in particular referring to them all as "ridiculous".

So, let's revisit them one-by-one. Below are each of the bold predictions verbatim from what was posted on Oct. 6, 2015. Highlighted under each one is my self-assessment on how I did, along with some related notes, stats and comments.

REVISITED: Eight Bold Predictions

1. Gaudreau Finishes Top 10 in NHL Scoring

All this guy does is create offence and that isn't changing anytime soon. After a dominating three years at Boston College, it took him 11 days to acclimate to the NHL but once Johnny Gaudreau got his bearings, he ripped it up to the tune of 64 points (24 goals, 40 assists) over his final 75 games. Let's not forget, this coming after he'd been accustomed to playing 40-45 games per season at Boston College. The 22-year-old is a fixture on the top line -- the chemistry with Sean Monahan continues to get better and better, he's a mainstay on the power play, and 3-on-3 overtime and the acres of open ice that comes with it was built for a guy of his talents. After finishing tied for 29th in NHL scoring a year ago, expect a bump up to 75-80 points this season and a top 10 finish. You can expect him to remain in the top 10 for many years to come.

COMMENT: This was one in particular that doesn't seem all that bold now but at the time, it really did feel like an ambitious prediction given the volume of established, in-their-prime star players perennially found at the top of the NHL's scoring leaders. Oh, and Gaudreau, 22, was entering only his second pro season. While the diminutive star finished 106th in road scoring (7-15-22), he more than made up for it at home, where he finished 1st (23-33-56), two points better than Patrick Kane. Add those splits together and Gaudreau (30-48-78) finished tied for sixth overall -- behind only Kane (46-60-106), Jamie Benn (41-48-89), Sidney Crosby (36-49-85), Joe Thornton (19-63-82) and Erik Karlsson (16-66-82). With a more potent power play and/or without missing three games, he's probably in the top five. As I wrote in this piece late in the season, the production the Flames have gotten from Gaudreau and Monahan at such a young age has been nothing short of staggering.

2. Ramo Wins 30 Games

When my phone buzzed early in the morning on July 1 with the announcement that Karri Ramo, just hours away from being an unrestricted free agent, had been re-signed by the Flames for $3.8 million, you knew right then and there that didn't happen for him to be waived and sent to the minors three months later. The urgency in bringing back the 29-year-old Finn suggests he's the one coach Bob Hartley trusts the most and sure enough, he'll be between the pipes for the season opener against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday. Ramo went 15-9-3 a year ago in 32 starts. With a stronger team in front of him and Jonas Hiller on his way out at some point, expect an additional 25 starts this year and 15 more victories as he spends the season as the team's No. 1 goalie.

COMMENT: Clearly I blew this one although I wasn't as far off as you might think. While it looked in October like I would be a full 30 wins off my prediction, a change to Ramo's style as explained in this piece made him more 'quiet' in net, improved his performance and resulted in more consistent play. With that, he took over the No. 1 job and was up to 17 wins when he suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 11. Had he stayed healthy, continued to get a majority of the playing time, winning 13 times over the final 29 games was not out of the realm of possibility. Now, we wait and see what the Flames decide to do with their goaltending this season after a year in which they set some pretty ugly historical marks both individually and as a team.

3. Brodie Leads Team in Average Ice Time

Lost in the hype around Dougie Hamilton and the excitement of Mark Giordano being healthy again is the fact TJ Brodie could soon be the best of the three, even though his pay stipend won't reflect that. Brodie, 25, has been on a rapid ascent the past few seasons. Don't be surprised if the Hamilton-Giordano pairing -- that has looked less than scintillating so far -- does not last and Brodie ends up back in his familiar spot with Giordano shortly after he returns from his broken hand. Brodie was three seconds behind Giordano in average ice time at the time of his injury last year and his 25:12 by season's end ended up two seconds more than the captain and tops on the team. It still seems like a bold prediction given all the attention surrounding the other two but I wouldn't be surprised at all if No. 7 ends up pacing the team once again and makes his $4.65 million cap hit look like robbery.

COMMENT: One of the storylines out of camp was Giordano and Hamilton playing together on the top pairing. With Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell reunited, that presumably meant Brodie on the third pairing with Deryk Engelland when he returned from his wrist injury. Well, that's a good idea except for the fact that it was a terrible idea. While some were of the mindset that Giordano has been propping up Brodie, if his play after Giordano was injured last year wasn't proof enough, it became increasingly obvious this year that if anything, it's the opposite. Heck, when Giordano was selected to go to the all-star game, even he essentially said they picked the wrong guy. Excelling in all situations, Brodie finished the year with an average of 25:15, which was No. 1 on the team and 11th in the NHL. It was 28 seconds more than Giordano and over five minutes more than Hamilton.

4. Calgary Wins Twice in Anaheim

There's bold, there's extra bold, then there's uh-oh-better-call-an-ambulance type of bold. At first blush, this may sound like a case of the latter given the Flames dubious history in Southern California that we've heard about ad nauseam. Calgary hasn't won a regular season game in Anaheim in their last 20 visits (0-15-5) dating back to 2004 and have just once one win in their last 30 tries if you go back to 1999. Nonetheless, the Flames enter the year an improved team, they're a greatly motivated team after being dispatched by the Ducks in the playoffs and with three trips to Honda Center this season, expect a couple wins (one in the first meeting on Nov. 24 and once the jinx is broken, the next win will come far easier), one giant sigh of relief, and a Flames team with considerably less baggage should the two teams go on to meet in the Pacific Division final.

COMMENT: This seemed to be the year to break the jinx. The Flames lost the first crack at it 5-3 in late November but that was OK as they still had two more tries and at that point Anaheim seemed beatable. Due to their shaky start, Calgary was still four points up on the Ducks when they met at the Saddledome on Dec. 29. But Anaheim won 1-0 that night and it was a turning point for both teams. By the time Calgary made its second trip to the Honda Centre on Feb. 21, they were well back and the home side was riding a lengthy hot streak. The Ducks won 5-2. The Flames were even further back when they lost 8-3 on Mar. 30 to set an NHL record for futility against a particular opponent. Most head-scratching for me is it's not like Anaheim is running roughshod over teams at the Honda Center. In addition to losing to Nashville in game 1 of the playoffs, they lost on home ice during the regular season to Arizona (x2), Vancouver (x2), Carolina, Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Edmonton, Los Angeles, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Washington and Winnipeg. I don't get it, I just don't.

5. Ferland Ends up on the Top Line

Expect Hartley to start off as he left off last season with a top line of Gaudreau, Monahan and Jiri Hudler. However, expect to see big, rugged Micheal Ferland on that line before too long. Gaudreau is the key to the offence and knowing the threat he is every shift, expect opponents -- especially divisional foes -- to play him much harder this year with the volume of whacks on the wrists to increase. At 12 and 14 penalty minutes respectively, Monahan and Hudler are not the calibre of security detail Hartley may be content with. By slotting Ferland into Hudler's spot, which we saw the coach tinker with throughout September, you add some muscle and a shenanigans-deterrent to that line yet Ferland is still a guy with very good hands and a high hockey IQ. Meanwhile, Hudler with Bennett and Frolik if that is how the second line shakes out would be an effective trio also.

COMMENT: Do I get half marks? It sort of went as expected. Hudler was the most frequent right-winger on the top line the first few months before the revolving door really got spinning after Hudler was dealt to Florida at the trade deadline. Lining up there most often was Ferland, who looked great at times with them but didn't look so good at other times. According to, the most frequent winger on that top line was: 1. Hudler, 2. Ferland, 3. Jones, 4. Jooris, 5. Colborne, 6. Shinkaruk. Who will play on the wing in 2016-17 is one of the unanswered questions. The draft lottery could provide an option should Calgary land one of the top Finns. There is free agency with the Isles' Kyle Okposo an intriguing although probably too rich option. There's also the possibility of an off-season trade. But until one of those three things happen, Ferland remains very much in the mix. 

6. Bennett Notches 60 Points

The ramp-up will be slow as Hartley does the responsible thing with a 19-year-old player with just a dozen NHL games on his resume by giving him sheltered minutes on the third line. However, don't expect his linemates to be Josh Jooris and Micheal Ferland for very long. I fully expect Bennett will barge his way into the top six and play at a level that demands more ice time and expect the coach to oblige. I liked Bennett between Czech countrymen Jiri Hudler and Micheal Frolik in the pre-season and that trio reunited along with power play time on the second unit should get Bennett in the vicinity of 60 points by season's end. If you're looking for an exact split, I'll say 25 goals and 35 assists. His buddy Connor up the highway in Edmonton will be getting all the Calder hype, but know that a very driven and competitive Bennett will want to be in on that conversation also.

COMMENT: OK, at 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists), he didn't really come close. However, there was a point where we was on a real roll while playing left wing on a line with Mikael Backlund and Frolik where you wondered if there was maybe a chance.  A three-point night in San Jose on Feb. 11 gave Bennett 28 points on the season but more notably, 14 points over a span of 13 games. Had he been able to continue to score at that point-per-game pace for the rest of the season, he would have reached 60 points. While that wouldn't have been a very realistic expectation, considering the hot-hand Backlund had over the final couple months, you never know. Instead, Bennett was switched to centre a week later and inserted between two less-skilled wingers and saddled with more defensive responsibilities, the offence dried up. At one point, he went 18 games without a goal.

7. Russell is Traded at the Deadline

With over $17 million annually committed to Giordano, Hamilton and Brodie, the reality is it's going to be nearly impossible to retain Kris Russell given where his value is at. When Giordano went down last year, Russell logged a lot of vital minutes and really raised his profile. But deeper on the back end now thanks to a strong draft, developing youth and free agent signings, Russell will likely be a victim of Calgary needing to skimp salary-wise on remaining defencemen in order to keep all their core pieces up front. If Brodie's return reduces Russell's role and given the presence of Jakub Nakaladal, Tyler Wotherspoon, Ryan Culkin, and with Rasmus Andersson on the way, it gives Treliving the luxury of moving the pending UFA for assets, rather than lose him for nothing. Remember how important those two draft picks received for Curtis Glencross turned out to be.

COMMENT:  As the trade deadline approached and Russell, a warrior of a hockey player, remained on the sidelines with a minor injury despite resuming practicing, it became clear his days were numbered and this was a team protecting its asset. Sure enough, on trade deadline day, GM Brad Treliving pulled the trigger and shipped the 28-year-old to Dallas in return for young Finnish defenceman Jyrki Jokipakka, 2014 second round pick Brett Pollock, finishing off his major junior career with the Edmonton Oil Kings where he was the team's leading scorer, and a second round draft pick in 2016. The caveat with the draft pick is it converts to a first round pick should Dallas reach the Western Conference final and Russell appear in at least half of the games. So far, it looks like a terrific trade as Jokipakka played very well for Calgary and seems to have all the makings of a solid, reliable blueliner. 

8. Calgary wins 12 Times in OT

It sounds like a lot but Calgary won nine of the 13 games that were decided in 4-on-4 OT last year so it's not as out there as you think. Of the seven games that went to a shootout last year, if another four of those end up ending in OT now, which seems like a safe bet given our short sampling of 3-on-3 and how quickly the games tend to be decided, then a dozen victories isn't out of the question. While we'll have to see how it plays out, I think Calgary is a team built for the 3-on-3 format. With their mobile, good-skating defencemen so adept at jumping up in the play already, the Flames don't need to resort to the risky three forwards that some teams are considering, just link up their established forward pairings with one of Brodie, Giordano, Russell, Hamilton and it's game over.

COMMENT: It looked they were going to achieve this no problem. In fact, it looked they were going to obliterate it. When Russell scored the winning goal in extra time in Nashville on Dec. 15, that was the Flames eighth overtime win and it came in game 30. Little did we know that over the final 52 games -- seven of them going to extra time -- Calgary would prevail in OT only one more time to finish the year with nine, which was still tied with Detroit and New Jersey for fourth. Los Angeles (12), Chicago (10) and Philadelphia (10) finished with more 3-on-3 victories.

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  1. Thanks for the review of your thing Bret Pollack played for the Oil Kings not the Oil Barons...

    1. Thank you. Probably not the first time I've made that mistake. I'm not great with my oil royalty. Should have just stuck to the "Oil Somethings" to be safe. Thanks for letting me know. Cheers.