Thursday, June 02, 2016

Eight Things the Flames Can Learn From Observing the Success of this Year's Penguins

Watching the Pittsburgh Penguins take a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup final, there are lessons to be learned if you're the Calgary Flames.

Part of it is the style of game Pittsburgh deploys but another part is how they got here. This includes their approach to the draft, player development and line-up construction.

Here are eight observations, each accompanied by a Calgary perspective.

1. The More Draft Picks the Merrier

So often, the best way to have a good draft is to simply have more bullets in the chamber. The more times you pull the trigger, the better the odds you'll hit a target. In 2012, the Penguins drafted nine players. It was the most they had picked since 2004 when the draft was nine rounds long. It came a year after Pittsburgh had just five selections.

That quantity of picks afforded them the option of being a bit more creative such as grabbing a goalie higher than they otherwise might have. When it came to pick No. 83 in the third round, Pittsburgh had already drafted two defencemen including Olli Matta and two centers including Oskar Sundqvist, who they just chose two picks earlier at No. 81. So this time they rolled the dice and selected an OHL goalie named Matt Murray, who had fallen hard in the rankings in the second half of the season. It was the highest the Penguins had drafted a goalie since taking Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003.

Calgary Slant - The Flames enter the 2016 draft in a similar situation as the Penguins in 2012. Calgary drafted only five times last year, which tied 2010 for the fewest picks in franchise history. This year, they currently possess 10 selections, which if they make them all would be the most picks since 2004. Without a top 50 pick in 2015, this is a chance to replenish the system like Pittsburgh did four years ago and along the way maybe take a chance on a guy they might otherwise not gamble on as you never know which mid-to-late rounder could end up being the Matt Murray (or Joe Pavelski) of the draft.

2. Don't Overlook Guys That Fall in the Rankings

Getting back to Murray, at the mid-term rankings in January 2012, NHL Central Scouting ranked him No. 2 among North American goalies behind Malcolm Subban. In the final rankings three months later, Murray had plummeted to 18th.

Part of the reason for that cliff-like drop-off was Murray lost his starter's job halfway through the season to stud prospect Jack Campbell, who Sault Ste. Marie brought in via trade. The other part was probably the fact Murray finished dead last in the OHL with a .876 save percentage. But Pittsburgh didn't let that statistical regression take away from what they had seen from him in his rookie season or at the U18 World Championships and in taking him as the 10th goalie off the board, their faith was rewarded. After being drafted, Murray raised his save percentage to .894 then .921 in his final two seasons with the Greyhounds. After turning pro, he continued to play at an elite level posting save percentages of .941 and .931 in his two seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Calgary Slant - This sounds a lot like what happened to Oliver Kylington last year, who was the No. 1 ranked European skater at NHL Central Scouting's mid-term rankings, but fell to 6th in the final rankings. Then come draft weekend in which 11 European skaters were selected before Calgary traded up to grab him at No. 60. By staying patient with Kylington and letting him develop at his own pace in the minors, the Flames could end up nicely rewarded.

3. Over-Ripening in the Minors is OK

Trivia Question: Going back to game 7 against Tampa Bay, who has logged the second-most ice-time behind Kris Letang in each of Pittsburgh's last three games? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is blueliner Brian Dumoulin, who has quietly become a much relied-upon defender for coach Mike Sullivan. Third on the Penguins in average ice time (21:06) over the entire playoffs behind Letang (28:40) and injured Trevor Daley (22:08), the Maine native is really coming into his own under the intense spotlight and scrutiny of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The 24-year-old is in his first full NHL season and it comes after three seasons spent toiling in the AHL where he appeared in 188 games. It's generally understood that after goaltenders, defencemen take the next-longest to develop. Dumoulin, a 2009 second round pick acquired by Pittsburgh in the Jordan Staal trade several years ago, is a reminder that patience is a virtue when waiting for blueliners.

Calgary Slant - What this re-confirms for the Flames is it's not yet time to panic that some of the defencemen in the organization for a while have not made it to the NHL. In fact, of the four blue-liners with the most tenure in the minors, nobody has logged as much service time as Dumoulin had accrued before finally breaking through in the NHL. Including time in the ECHL where applicable, minor league game totals for Calgary's four are: Tyler Wotherspoon (162), Brett Kulak (134), Patrick Sieloff (102) and Ryan Culkin (97). There's still plenty of reason to remain hopeful that one or two of the above will turn into NHL regulars in the not-too-distant future.

4. Black and Gold > Black and Blue

When it comes to penalty minutes, three of the top four Penguins in that category during the regular season were Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Letang, who was the baddest of the badasses with 66 PIM to top the team. That's right, Letang was the leader at 66 PIM. Twenty years ago, there would have been a dozen or more players with more than that. It's further proof that Pittsburgh is not constructed in the way that some hockey people still feel teams need to be built in order to be successful and that is of big, bruising, rugged forwards that can play that so-called 'heavy hockey'.

Instead, Pittsburgh is a team built on speed, more speed and even more speed with your ability to accelerate far more important than your level of pugnacity. Oh, and size doesn't matter. Seven of Pittsburgh's 12 regular forwards are 6-foot-0 or under. Five of them are no taller than 5-foot-11. Keychain-sized Conor Sheary, author of the overtime winner in game 2, stands just 5-foot-8.

Calgary Slant - In contrast, the Flames finished the year with only one regular forward (two if you include Hunter Shinkaruk) on the roster listed at 6-foot-0 or under and that was Johnny Gaudreau, who coincidentally was also the team's best player. Yet, the mantra this off-season if you believe the things Brian Burke has been spewing at season ticket-holder events is Calgary still needs to get bigger. That's right, more and not less of Brandon Bollig, whose 103 PIM in 54 games would stand out awkwardly on the Penguins roster like a bright red shirt in the Consol Energy Center's sea of gold. If the Flames have learned anything the past eight weeks, the focus should be on getting faster, not bigger. 

5. Big Impact From Small Packages 
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."  - Mark Twain
Sheary was never drafted. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he was the captain and leading scorer, he signed a minor league deal with Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2014. After a solid season, last summer he was rewarded with a two-year entry-level contract by the Penguins. Halfway through this year, he got called up to the NHL and now he's playing on a line with Crosby and not looking at all out of place. He's not very big but he has great wheels and smart offensive instincts and those are things that matter.

Meanwhile, he's also taking up as little cap space as possible -- no exaggeration. For this season and next, Sheary's NHL salary is a mere $575,000, which is exactly the league's minimum wage and is the NHL equivalent of working the front counter at McDonald's. That dollar figure also matters when you have the foursome of Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel and Letang making a combined $32 million.

Calgary Slant - You wonder if Brad Treliving would like a do-over on Paul Byron. Similar attributes to Sheary in terms of size and quickness, Byron was an economical role player that had the ability to kill penalties and play up and down the line-up. While far from a star, he was a useful player to have in your employ in a salary cap league, especially given where the contracts for Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are headed. Instead, Byron is coming off a solid season with Montreal and will be a nice complementary piece for the Habs for the next three years at an affordable $1.17 million per season.

6. Face-offs Can Matter

Generally speaking, face-offs are often overrated. So many of them happen in the neutral zone, and/or early in games and/or at even-strength that they are not even minor blips in determining the outcome of a game. That said, winning more face-offs than you lose is an indicator that more often than not, you'll win the handful of face-offs that really matter such as when you're starting a penalty kill in the defensive zone or beginning a power play, where a lost draw can cost you 30 seconds of your man advantage

In the regular season, Matt Cullen (55.7), Crosby (51.7) and Nick Bonino (50.4) were all above 50 percent. In the playoffs, Bonino (47.6) has slipped below the break-even mark but Cullen (52.9) and Crosby (52.7) are both in the black and when you're frequently playing one-goal games, one face-off can make all the difference. Proof of this was Wednesday night when Crosby, who went 17-7 on the night, won the draw in OT that led directly to Sheary's winning goal.

Calgary Slant - Calgary needs to get better at the dot. The Flames were 27th in the NHL in face-offs in the regular season with only Sean Monahan (51.0) above 50 percent. Matt Stajan (47.3), Mikael Backlund (47.2) and Sam Bennett (46.1) were all well back. With general manager Brad Treliving emphasizing a desire to play a better possession game next season, starting off with the puck more often would be a step in the right direction. Calgary's face-off men need to either get better or the team might consider a personnel change. This area being such a strength for Derek Grant (55.0) is what makes the pending UFA an attractive bottom-six option.

7. Young Goalies Can be A-OK

Having just turned 22 on May 25, one myth Murray is dispelling is that teams need a goalie with experience to win in the playoffs. Murray is two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup and he's only got nine regular season victories on his resume. Meanwhile, he has 13 wins in these playoffs. Only Cam Ward (2006, Carolina), Ron Hextall (1987, Philadelphia) and Patrick Roy (1986, Montreal) have posted more post-season victories as rookie, each of them winning 15 times.

Murray is proving that young goalies can handle the pressure of the moment and if you're the Penguins, having a 31-year-old back-up that is no slouch himself in Marc-Andre Fleury has Pittsburgh sitting in a real luxurious spot at the moment.

Calgary Slant - For starters, this revelation should do nothing to hasten the timeline of Jon Gillies. Just because Murray showed you a young man can star on hockey's biggest stage, that's not something you should just assume. If you're the Flames GM, the smart approach is to still expect Gillies to need 2-3 seasons in the AHL. However, it does give you hope that perhaps Gillies -- four months older than Murray -- could be ready sooner than expected if you end up in a pinch and have to bring him up sooner than anticipated.

8. Always Room for a Wily Vet or Two

The demographic of the Penguins roster that packs the biggest wallop is the 27-29 age bracket. Guys that fall into this range include all three members of the HBK line -- Carl Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel. As well, Crosby, Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Malkin reside here. Considering guys in this age range are typically in their prime, the impact of this group should come as no surprise.

However, there are still a couple of veterans on the roster that play key roles and it reinforces that there is always room on championship-calibre teams for a veteran presence, those older guys that get rattled less, who have literally 'been there and done that' and can be a reassuring presence in the dressing room. For Pittsburgh, those two guys are Matt Cullen, 36, and Chris Kunitz, 39, both logging 13-14 minutes in ice time in the playoffs.

Calgary Slant - For those that suggest trading Mark Giordano would be prudent because he'll be too old when the Flames are finally ready to win, not so fast. Age 32 today, why couldn't Giordano to the Flames 3-5 years down the road be what Kunitz is to the Penguins today and be that longtime veteran. When you look at the Flames roster, Giordano is really is the only guy on the team today that is 29 years or older that you can envision still being with this team two years from now. That's OK too, there's space for a guy like that, especially if he still has plenty of game too and there's no indication to think the team captain won't still be a key contributor several years down the road.

Final Word

For years, the NHL has been guilty of being a copycat league. When Jacques Lemaire coached the New Jersey Devils to their first Stanley Cup in 1995, it led to many coaches in the league moving to a similar stifling defensive style that Lemaire deployed in an attempt to duplicate his success.

Twenty-one years later, one can only hope from an entertainment perspective that should the Penguins go on to be crowned champions this year, the league again will sit up and take notice of the quick, exciting style that Pittsburgh plays and try to use that as a blueprint for next season.

Now the Penguins do have some elite and special talents on their roster so I get that it's not nearly as simple to just go out and clone how they play as a team but while teams like the Flames cannot match up personnel-wise, they could still adopt a similar style, a similar roster construction and take a similar approach to player drafting and development.

Plus, you never know, with an ex-Pittsburgh goalie in net starting in 2016-17, emulating the black and gold in Calgary could be easier than you think.

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. A couple of things Flames don't have: generational player Crosby and Malkin!

    1. That is, indeed, who I was referring in the closing when noting that Pittsburgh has "elite and special talents" so it's a different situation. The takeaway in that regard is the NHL is changing. It's been strikingly noticeable over the past two years and not just from those on the outside but coaches are seeing it too. Be ready to have four lines comprised of players that can all play and get around the ice with some pace because if you're not rolling four lines or close to it, you're going to get left behind.

  2. I don't want to talk about Olli Matta. The Flames STILL could have had Jankowski in the 2nd round. There was no reason to trade down for him and by-passing a pretty decent defenseman. Terrible drafting!

    1. Terrible drafting but has this not become what you expect at this point? Or was this still a terrible draft even with the expectation of it being terrible? In that case, oh no! Time will tell because it's so hard to know but without having a top-50 pick, the future sure seems bright for the two kids from Barrie. If he ends up with double the picks this year, what kind of haul can the new GM come up with? Should be fun in a couple weekends.

    2. Yes, I think Brad Treliving "stole the show" at the draft last year. Even though he had a slow start, acquiring Dougie Hamilton was like getting the 3rd overall pick (would still have to give 1 and 2 to McDavid and Eichel, respectively) and Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington were great picks where the Flames got them (it will be some time before we know if they'll pan out; nonetheless, very good value). I'm not down on Mark Jankowski, either, I just think that was such a reach by Jay Feaster and John Weisbrod. I can't imagine the Flames' scouting staff were enamoured with their bosses that day. Thanks for all your hard work, Darren. You're the best writer covering the team.