Saturday, May 14, 2016

Walking in Shark Footsteps: Flames Look to Copy San Jose's Return to Prominence

Guess the team:
  • Longtime coach has parted ways and the search is on for a replacement.
  • Starting goaltender is a pending UFA and isn't being brought back so a new No. 1 is needed to upgrade goaltending that ranked near the bottom of the league.
  • Despite that, they didn't miss the playoffs by much. Would have got in with four more wins.
  • Fuelling the disappointment, missing the post-season comes after making it the previous season.
  • The bright side is the 30-something team captain and backbone of the team -- an after-thought in his draft year -- just posted two of his best seasons.

If you guessed the 2015-16 Flames, you're close but wrong. Remember that Calgary's goaltending wasn't ranked "near" the bottom of the league. It was right at the bottom. Dead last with one of the worst team save percentages the NHL has seen in the last six years. Oh, and the Flames finished 10 points out of a playoff spot, not eight, so needed five more wins, not four.

The correct answer is the 2014-15 Sharks.

Yet 12 months later, here they are in the Western Conference final, getting prepared to play the St. Louis Blues in game 1 on Sunday night. San Jose is seeking its long-awaited first trip to the Stanley Cup final since entering the league in 1991.

What the Sharks Did

After the team and Todd McClellan mutually agreed to go their separate ways on April 20, 2015, despite the coach having one year remaining on his contract, general manager Doug Wilson cast a wide net in search of a replacement.

It was an exhaustive search that took 38 days but Wilson finally found his man in Peter DeBoer, who had previous coaching experience with the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils. He reportedly beat out the likes of Dan Bylsma, Randy Carlyle, Adam Oates and Dave Lowry.

Next, they made some noise at the draft. First was the trading of Antti Niemi's rights to the Dallas Stars, confirming that the Sharks goaltender for the past five seasons would not be back. Three days later, Wilson addressed that void by trading for 25-year-old up-and-comer Martin Jones, who had been the back-up to Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles the past two seasons. That trade was swung with Boston, who as part of an elongated three-way deal, had acquired Jones from the Kings four days prior.

With Jones a workhorse between the pipes making 65 starts and posting a .918 save percentage, and with DeBoer reinvigorating the team from his perch behind the bench, the Sharks went 46-30-6 for 98 points last season. The nine-point improvement from one year earlier was good enough to finish third in the Pacific, just five points back of the division-leading Anaheim Ducks.

Wearing the 'C' and leading the way once again was 2005 seventh round pick Joe Pavelski, who had another terrific season with 38 goals and 78 points.

Can the Flames Do the Same?

Mired in a similar situation and armed with an identical shopping list, the question is can Calgary make the same turnaround in 2016-17?

What we know is the coach search continues. Today is day 11 since the firing of Bob Hartley was announced. By all reports, general manager Brad Treliving is being thorough. Currently in Russia as part of Team Canada's management team at the IIHF World Championships, Treliving told PostMedia reporter Michael Traikos on Friday that he was in no immediate rush.

Perhaps the most interesting thing he said was it's the quality of coaching experience that matters to him, more than the actual years of service. “To me it’s not as much about where you’ve coached, but what you’ve built and what your piece was in growing it,” Treliving said. “It’s being involved in winning programs.”

Reading between the lines, that could mean watch out for some of the fresher, younger options of which I tossed out several options in my list of second-chance candidates, guys that coached once before in the NHL and are looking for a second crack at it. As well, keep an eye on guys with successful resumes that haven't yet had an NHL gig like Travis Green (Utica, AHL), Sheldon Keefe (Toronto, AHL) or Dave Lowry (Victoria, WHL).

In net and watching the impact goaltenders have had this post-season in stealing games, one wonders who will end up coming to town and being given the keys to the crease. You'd think it won't be somebody you're gambling on but someone that has shown that they can be the guy. Marc-Andre Fleury has to be an option worth looking into. If you could somehow pry Brian Elliott out of St. Louis, what a nice pick-up that would be. Same goes for either Ben Bishop (pending the severity of Friday's injury) or Andrei Vasilevskiy out of Tampa Bay. Or like the Jones deal, involve a third team if you need to in order to maneuver Frederik Andersen away from the division-rival Ducks.

With an upgrade in net and if the a coach can restore some decency to Calgary's special teams, a 10-15 point improvement shouldn't be an issue for a team whose core is still young and should be getting better every year.

Plus, you have undrafted Mark Giordano as the dressing room leader. Coming off a 2014-15 season cut short by a brutal injury, the 32-year-old just posted a career-best season offensively with 21 goals and 56 points.

History of New Coach/New Starter and the Impact

Over the last 10 years, eight NHL general managers have found themselves in identical situations in the off-season to Wilson and Treliving -- coming off a season of not making the playoffs, and tasked with hiring a new head coach and bringing into the organization a starting goaltender.

Interestingly, five of the eight times those teams that made that high profile double-addition got right back into the post-season the very next year. In addition to the aforementioned Sharks, the other four teams to accomplish that were:

2014- 15 Vancouver Canucks 
- GM Jim Benning
- Fired John Tortorella, hired Willie Desjardins
- Signed UFA Ryan Miller as the new No. 1 goalie
- Returned to the playoffs after missing by 8 points the previous season

2011-12 Florida Panthers
- GM Dale Tallon
- Fired Peter DeBoer, hired Kevin Dineen
- Signed UFA Jose Theodore as the new No. 1 goalie
- Returned to the playoffs after missing by 21 points the previous season

2009-10 Colorado Avalanche 
- GM Greg Sherman (although he was hired at same time as Sacco so did not do the firing/hiring)
- Fired Tony Granato, hired Joe Sacco
- Signed UFA Craig Anderson as the new No. 1 goalie
- Returned to the playoffs after missing by 22 points the previous season

2006-07 Vancouver Canucks
- GM Dave Nonis
- Fired Marc Crawford, hired Alain Vigneault
- Traded for Roberto Luongo from Florida to be the new No. 1 goalie
- Returned to the playoffs after missing by 3 points the previous season

As for the other three times, two were last season and involved overcoming a monumental point-differential to the extent that the odds were never realistic. In both cases, the teams still improved significantly, but just not enough to make it into the post-season.

2015-16 Buffalo Sabres
- GM Tim Murray
- Fired Ted Nolan, hired Dan Bylsma
- Traded for Robin Lehner from Ottawa to be the new No. 1 goalie
- Missed playoffs by 15 points after missing by 44 points the previous season

2015- 16 Edmonton Oilers
- GM Peter Chiarelli
- Interim Todd Nelson (after Dallas Eakins fired) not brought back, hired Todd McLellan
- Traded for Cam Talbot from NY Rangers to be the new No. 1 goalie
- Missed playoffs by 17 points after missing by 35 points the previous season

2006-07 Toronto Maple Leafs
- GM John Ferguson Jr.
- Fired Pat Quinn, hired Paul Maurice
- Traded for Andrew Raycroft from Boston to be the new No. 1 goalie
- Missed playoffs by 1 point after missing by 2 points the previous season

What has been consistent is each and every time, the addition of a new coach and goalie resulted in an improvement that next season and in most cases significant.

Final Word

While there are clearly some similarities between the Sharks situation a year ago and the situation the Flames find themselves in this summer, I'll be the first to acknowledge there are obvious differences too.

Missing the playoffs in 2014-15 was the first time in 12 years San Jose had not qualified for the dance. By comparison, making the playoffs in 2014-15 was the first time Calgary had made the playoffs in six seasons. The Sharks have the better team at this moment and certainly have the far more experienced team.

While San Jose is led up front by 36-year-old Joe Thornton, the straw that stirs the drink offensively for the Flames is 22-year-old Johnny Gaudreau. Top-six winger Patrick Marleau is 36 while Michael Frolik is 27. Up the middle, Logan Couture is 27 while Sean Monahan is 21. On the blue-line, the ever-steady blueliner Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 29 while TJ Brodie is 25.

Same in some ways, different in others, what Flames fans hope is next year's regular season performance will mirror what San Jose has been able to accomplish this year because if that's the case, that would mean a re-opening of the Red Mile next spring and maybe not just for a couple weeks but possibly for a month or more. We've seen it often enough, once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen.
But key will be the next few months and the most important off-season in the managerial career of Treliving and whether he ultimately ends up filling these two high-profile job openings with the right candidates. And not just getting one of them right, but nailing both choices. So no pressure at all!

Over to you, Mr. Treliving. Good luck.

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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