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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Bold Predictions for the Flames for 2016-17

The off-season, an excruciatingly-long 185 days, comes to an end today as the Flames open up their 35th season in Calgary.

Following up on a popular feature I first hatched last year, here is the 2016-17 edition of my eight bold predictions.


Eight Bold Predictions for the Flames


1. Chad Johnson Wins 20 Games

All eyes are fixated on Brian Elliott and rightly so. It was his acquisition from St. Louis for a second round draft pick that was the single most significant transaction in a summer filled with activity for general manager Brad Treliving. However, despite a shaky performance in the pre-season, his caddy isn't too bad either. Chad Johnson is coming off a 22-win season a year ago with a pretty mediocre team in Buffalo,

When you think of back-up goalie in Calgary, you think of the guys that ran the defence gate during the time Miikka Kiprusoff was entrenched as No. 1. From that motley crew that included Joey MacDonald, Henrik Karlsson, Curtis McElhinney, Vesa Toskala and Brian Boucher, a measly five wins would have been a godsend. But Johnson is not your ordinary back-up. He had the third-best save percentage in the league after November 1 last year and he will get plenty of playing time. This is not a scenario in which Elliott will get 90 percent of the starts. I'd expect closer to a 60/40 division in playing time and when he gets hot, Johnson could string together multiple starts in a row. On an improved team, the motivated Calgary native could surprise many.


2. Power Play Finishes Top Three

On Feb. 9 last season, the Flames power play ranked 30th in the league at 14.2 percent and that was a ways back of Toronto, who was 29th at 15.1. However, after scoring 23 times on 162 chances up until that point, they scored 23 times on just 108 chances over the final two months, a rate of 21.3 percent, which was a 50 percent improvement in efficiency and got Calgary up to 22nd in the rankings by the end of the season.

They've got the personnel with Johnny Gaudreau the ring leader up front. They've got a dynamic defence. They've added a much-needed right-hand shot at forward in Troy Brouwer, which will open up more options and make the power play harder to defend. They've got a weapon in Sam Bennett, who was rarely spotted on the man-advantage last year but will be unleashed this season, and they have a fresh, new approach to the 5-on-4 this season under new coach Glen Gulutzan. Put that all together and the power play could explode this year, not implode like a year ago.


3. Daniel Pribyl Scores 20 Goals

No disrespect to Kris Versteeg, but this is a guy that all 30 teams in the league were prepared to move on from just a couple months ago. An unsigned free agent, he was going to go and play in Europe before he failed his medical and returned to North America. The Edmonton Oilers, whose last playoff appearance predates the first Police Academy movie, said they were interested but only in a depth role. That doesn't sound to me like the perfect fit for a No. 1 line like he is being touted since signing with Calgary on Tuesday.

He'll start there, but keep an eye on big Czech right winger Daniel Pribyl, who was declared healthy on Tuesday, having recovered from major knee surgery six months ago. Pribyl was the second-leading scorer in the Czech league last year behind ex-Flame Roman Cervenka. He was in the midst of a strong playoffs too when he tore up his knee. Unsigned at the time so testament to how highly Calgary's scouting staff thought of him, the Flames carried through on signing him anyway and even brought him to Calgary to be operated on by the team's medical staff. The 23-year-old will start off in Stockton but a month from now after he has gotten up-to-speed and has his timing back, etc., expect him to be a top candidate to be recalled and if he gets slotted onto the top line, he could thrive immediately.


4. Tkachuk will be a Finalist for the Calder

There's a better than 50/50 chance that Matthew Tkachuk ends up playing this season for the London Knights. But as was the case with Sean Monahan three years ago, don't be surprised if he plays so well over the first month of the season that Calgary just can't get him out of the line-up. He is certainly set up for success. The one line that was together almost the entire pre-season and was very effective was Tkachuk alongside the duo of Bennett and Brouwer.

He's got a good shot, he's smart, he'll spend most of his time in the lap of the goalie, the edges of his skates tickling the blue paint. Plus, he's got a steadfast determination to be in the NHL and stay in the NHL. The rookie-of-the-year race should be a great one this season with Matt Murray, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Ivan Provorov and Mitch Marner among the many candidates that could be in the hunt. But look for a driven and determined Tkachuk to put himself right in the thick of it and perhaps be one of the three finalists for the Calder should he stay in the NHL and be an integral piece of the Flames top six, which you could argue he already is.


5. Sam Bennett Scores 31 Goals

Anything Johnny can do, I can do better. Well, maybe not to that extreme, but just watch Sam Bennett go this season. If there's one player on this Flames roster that could benefit the most from the coaching change, it's Bennett. After a busy off-season of training, the 20-year-old reported for camp 10 pounds heavier than a year ago. But with the weight off his shoulders of all the over-handling he persevered last year, he probably feels at least 10 pounds lighter.

Since he didn't get the chance to showcase himself nearly as much as he should have a year ago, it's easy to forget how highly-skilled this young man is. You saw it the night of his four-goal game against Florida. You witnessed it in junior when he put up some eye-popping numbers with Kingston in the OHL. Remember his last tour with the Frontenacs when he had 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 11 games. He's on a line this year that has shown immediate chemistry. He's going to get plenty of power play time, which was hard to scrape up last year. He'll get 3-on-3 overtime time, which was similarly rare last season. After a year in which he spent a third of the season immersed in learning to play center in Bob Hartley's system, he still put up 18 snipes. Entering the final year of his ELC, don't be shocked if he exceeds the 30 goals Gaudreau put up a year ago. Then settle in for another long and agonizing summer of contract negotiations.


6. Flames Will Open the Playoffs at Home

Calgary finished 21 points back of third place San Jose in the Pacific Division last season, and fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup final, the Sharks should be better. But so should Calgary. A lot better. If they can clean-up their divisional record and in addition to bringing back some bottles of wine from Napa Valley, can actually bring some victories back from California too, the Flames could break up the vaunted West Coast cabal.

The Ducks are opening the season without restricted free agents Hampus Lindholm and Rickard Rackell. Randy Carlyle behind the bench will be a recipe for something but whether or not it's success, that remains to be seen. Can John Gibson stay healthy and be the solution in net? Meanwhile, the Kings are vulnerable too. They're older. Milan Lucic is gone. If Jonathan Quick doesn't play at an elite level, will Darryl Sutter's crew score often enough? The window is there for Calgary to latch onto one of the top two seeds in the division and wouldn't some home cooking be a great way to celebrate the return of the Red Mile come mid-April.


7. Johnny Gaudreau Finishes 2nd in Scoring 

The cramming is underway. Late to camp, with a new coach and a new system to learn, trust that Gaudreau is watching a lot of television these days, but it isn't NetFlix. But this kid is an elite-skilled player, who will simply go out and do what he does best, create offence. He had 78 points last year with a power play that was dreadful most of the year. Add on another 5-10 points with improvement there. He's a year older so add in an inflationary spike of another 5-10 points. Whether or not his pal Monahan can finish off his set-ups at the same pace as seasons past remains to be seen and there are still concerns about the hole on the right side of that line, but if he can bump up to around 90 points, that could find himself second to Patrick Kane at the end of the year.

Let's run down the six players that finished ahead of Gaudreau's 78 points in 79 games ni 2015-16. While Jamie Benn is a fantastic player, last year's Art Ross runner-up might be hard-pressed to duplicate his career-best 89 points. With Sidney Crosby (85 points), there are the concussion concerns. Joe Thornton (82 points) is getting up there in age and Erik Karlsson's 82 points feels like a high-water mark for the Senators defenceman. If the emergence of the Brouwer-Bennett line can take some attention away from Gaudreau in enemy barns, an uptick in his production away from home could very well result in him being the best-of-the-rest when it comes to chasing Kane.


8. TJ Brodie Finishes Top Five in Norris Voting

The big name that everybody around the league knows is Mark Giordano. All-star appearances the last couple years is proof of that. The high draft pick that everyone has heard about, thanks to his much ballyhooed exit out of Boston last summer, is Dougie Hamilton. The guy that slips under the radar and is grossly undervalued outside the Calgary market is TJ Brodie. Perhaps this is the year that changes.

Not surprisingly, defencemen are never going to get any love when the team is last in the league in goaltending and we witnessed that last year. Giordano finished 13th in Norris voting and Brodie never got a single vote. The winner was Drew Doughty with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns as finalists. But if Calgary is, indeed, a much-improved team this season, it's with a more frequent and more positive spotlight on the Flames where voters (the NHLPA) will get a much greater appreciation for the dynamic game that Brodie brings to the rink every night. He's a lightning-quick skater, great vision, sublime passer and solid defender. As captain, Giordano will always be the face of the back-end for the Flames and make no mistake, he's playing his best hockey, but the engine back there, methodically doing his thing, is Brodie and this could be the year the rest of the league realizes that as well.



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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13 comments:

  1. Great post Darren. Glad to see Sam B. get a mention.

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    1. You know how badly he wants to keep up with Connor McDavid, his old minor hockey teammates. That drive will take him far.

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  2. I hope just one of these comes true

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    1. A shutout looks possible, but there's no way that will happen. There will be at least one surprise, I guarantee it. Well, maybe not guarantee it, but I feel strongly about it!

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  3. In past years, what's your 'winning percentage' on your bold predictions? Not a shot, just curious how often your predictions come to fruition?

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    1. If you look back at last year (link is in the story), I know much of sentiment at the time was there was no chance. I ended up going four-for-eight and had Ramo not got hurt, that one may have been close too. Also, they were well on their way to 12 OT victories when over the final half of the season, they hardly played any OT games. So on the surface, all eight mentioned above seem far-fetched, let's agree to re-visit at season's end and see if a couple end up panning out. Cheers.

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  4. Would love to hear a prediction about the Backlund/Frolik combo. I really wouldn't be shocked to see Backlund get close to the 30 goal mark (if he stays healthy).

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    1. Thirty goals sounds like a stretch but slightly bold might be a 60-point season. Career high was 47 last year. So let's go with that.

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  5. For me the longest shot is Pribyl since we saw how Cervenka went but here's to all of them being true!

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    1. To be honest, I was going to say 15 goals but that didn't sound like a bold number. So went with 20. Yes, very aggressive. But if played 60 games with those two guys, certainly doable. But agree, that's the one that is further out there than the rest.

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  6. They're bold. My heart says "sure" but if I was a gambling man I'd win money by betting on zero of these coming true.

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    1. That was the sentiment last year too. There was a lot of that. But I ended up going 4-for-8 and I was well on track on the OT one before their OT games dried up completely in the second half.

      I feel like this year's boldness is more bold than last year so we'll see. But I don't want to get shutout as that always sucks in any sport. So hoping for two to come through just so it was worth my time. Cheers.

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  7. I would say there is a shot for any of those to be correct, except Pribyl. Too many variables: 1. will he get top line minutes? 2. How many games until he gets out of Stockton? 3. Is he a 30+ goal scorer? Getting 20 in 2/3 of a season suggest that.

    I see above you have already acknowledged that Pribyl one is a stretch, I just felt like beating a dead horse.

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