Sunday, October 09, 2016

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Keys to the Flames Making the Playoffs in 2016-17

Carpet has been replaced by hardwood. The wallpaper has been removed in favour of paint. There are some brand new appliances.

This summer for general manager Brad Treliving and the Calgary Flames has been like watching one of those home fix-up shows on HGTV.

After a year in which they exceeded expectations with an improbable run to the final eight in the Stanley Cup playoffs, last season the team under-achieved and it cost coach Bob Hartley his job.

Taking over behind the bench for his second crack at being an NHL head coach is Glen Gulutzan. He's brought a lot of new things -- new defensive system, new penalty kill, new power play. He's brought in new personnel in new assistant coaches Dave Cameron and Paul Jerrard. But perhaps more than anything, he's brought in a new energy.

But there's a limit to how much a coach can impact a game. Ultimately, it's the players on the ice that need to perform far better if Calgary hopes to return to the post-season this year.

Here, in no particular order, are eight keys.

Eight Keys to Making the Playoffs in 2016-17

1. Hunt for Black October

Last year's start was brutal and it buried them in a hole they couldn't dig out of. They stumbled out of the gate 2-8-1 and they never did get out of the red and that early deficit. Calgary's first regulation win did not come until game No. 12 on Halloween and if you recall, that night's 5-4 victory in Edmonton required a fluke goal from Michael Frolik with nine seconds to go. Nineteen games into the season in mid-November, the Flames still were sitting at a meager two regulation wins.

Forced to chase teams in the NHL is death. You may not flat-line officially until March but if you have a brutal first six weeks, your playoff chances will be on life support and you'll be in need of a miracle to crack one of the eight playoff spots in the Western Conference. When 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs like in the old days, there was margin for error. That is no longer the case with 16 of 30 teams making it.

Calgary's schedule begins relatively easy with back-to-back games with Edmonton then Vancouver, Buffalo and Carolina. Then things get very difficult for the next dozen. It makes chalking up at least three wins in those first 10 days imperative.

2. Avoiding Gravel Roads

Fourteen road wins last season was third-worst in the league, only ahead of Arizona (13) and Edmonton (12). That's not going to get it done. Of course, the poster child for the road woes was Johnny Gaudreau, who struggled mightily to produce in opposition arenas. The NHL's leading scorer on home ice with 23-33-56 in 40 games, the road was a completely different story. Wearing white, Gaudreau was just 7-15-22 in 39 games, which tied him for 106th. Further, four of his seven goals came in the final three weeks with the Flames playing out the string at that point.

To succeed away from home, you need a couple things. For one, you need depth scoring so when the top line is shut down as was so often the case a year ago, a different line in more favourable match-ups can pick up the slack. To that point, Mikael Backlund's strong finish bodes well and if the Troy Brouwer-Sam Bennett combination can remain dangerous, that should also take some weight off Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

The other key to picking up points on the road is having your goalie steal you a game sometimes. You're going to get outshot often in other team's barns, picking up two points you probably didn't deserve can be a real boost and help create some positive momentum, especially when you're on an extended trip. Two years ago, Calgary went .500 or better on all four of their long road trips with goaltending playing a vital role.

Last April in my goaltending port-mortem, I came up with criteria for what I considered stealing a game (see point No. 4). Last season, up until game 82, it had happened only twice all year -- both times by Karri Ramo. Historically, goalies should steal 7-8 wins per season and a return to that norm would greatly enhance the road success and Calgary's playoff chances.

3. Penalty Killers are Mr. Brightside

The penalty killing last year started off bad and it never got better, finishing 30th. Making it worse was not only did the results not change, but the system never changed either and you could tell that resulted in some frustration from the players.

Gulutzan and Jerrard, his longtime coaching pal, are implementing a new penalty killing system this year because they know how important special teams are. The changes are significant and while it's taking some time to learn, the players like the new approach and are confident it will work.

While a top 10 ranking would be ideal, Calgary was top five in terms of fewest times shorthanded last year and by maintaining that discipline, even just middle-of-the-pack penalty killing would go a long way to turning around the Flames fortunes and helping the team stay in more games longer.

It's by getting those key third period kills to stay close in games that enable a team to pick up those extra points along the way that could make the difference come season's end.

4. 3D Picture of Perfect Health

One of this year's training camp battles has been who will emerge as the club's No. 4 defenceman. Who will step onto that second pairing and complement the trio of Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton.

While the Flames have a lot of guys that would be pretty good in a third pairing role, I'm not convinced there is a 20-minute guy in the mix. Perhaps it ends up being Jyrki Jokipakka or Brett Kulak, but more likely, I expect it to be a rotation of guys all year.

It's to this point where maybe splitting up the vaunted pairing of Giordano and Brodie makes sense, just to provide a bit more stability with whomever does end up being used in a top-four role, which then would be beside No. 5 or No. 7. Given the chore it's been to find one adequate second-pairing defenceman, imagine if they needed to find two.

(Editors Note: Glen Gulutzan confirmed Tuesday that he will open the season with Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton on three different pairings. The captain gets Wideman, Brodie gets Engelland and Hamilton pairs with Jokipakka. But we'll see how long that lasts.)

That's why keeping the big three healthy and on the ice all season will be vital to the success of this team. The organization has a wave of young defencemen in the pipeline -- Oliver Kylington, Brandon Hickey, Rasmus Andersson and Adam Fox -- who could all one day be capable of playing in the top four. But it won't be this season and for some, that possibility is a long, long way away. So health on the blueline, perhaps this year more than any other, is key.

5. Less Leaky Pipes

The biggest off-season change was the complete gutting of the goal crease with all four of last year's sordid quartet not just gone from the Flames but out of the league altogether with two proven and established veterans acquired in their place.

The combined workload last year of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson works out to around 82 games. If you combine their performance, they would have had the best team save percentage in the NHL last year, which was a season in which the Flames had the league's worst save percentage. Icing on the cake is that for that upgrade, Calgary is spending less than half of what they spent last year on that position.

Some regression from the two of them isn't just a possibility, it should be expected. But if Calgary can come in middle-of-the pack in goaltending, even that should be sufficient enough of an upgrade to keep them in the playoff race until the end because I firmly believe it's a package deal with goaltenders.

If you get more stable goaltending, everything else gets better -- your penalty kill, your road record. Also, the defence play better and more at ease knowing that every mistake won't end up in the back of their net.

6. Can the Czech Leave his Mark

There are holes on every NHL team and Calgary is no different. While Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik make a superb duo, who will play left wing remains a mystery. While Matthew Tkachuk has looked good on the wing with Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer, who slots into that spot should the team eventually return the 18-year-old to London?

But there are holes and then there are canyons and the void at right wing on the Flames top line is looking more like the Grand Canyon at this point. No obvious candidate has emerged in training camp for the spot inhabited by Jiri Hudler for much of the past two seasons. Now obviously, it's not like Gaudreau and Monahan have been holding auditions the past month as Monahan (recovering from a strained back) has only played one game and Gaudreau (unsigned and not in camp) hasn't played in any, but in surveying the performance of other could-be candidates, nobody has jumped out and claimed that job. Not even close. The hope was Alex Chiasson might be that guy but I'm not seeing it thus far.

(Editor's Note: The Flames signed 30-year-old free agent Kris Versteeg on Tuesday and he could open up the season on the top line.)

Could the solution be the guy that nobody is talking about in forgotten man Daniel Pribyl? The 23-year-old was the second leading scorer in the Czech league last season. He's skilled with reportedly a good shot and good play-making ability. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, he has the dimensions of a power forward. As a player that shoots right, that part is ideal too. However, how good he is is an unknown at this point as we've yet to see him play live. He remains sidelined as he recovers from major knee surgery he underwent six months ago.

What we do know is Calgary aggressively pursued him last spring and still signed him, even after he ripped up his knee in the Czech playoffs. To do that, they obviously like him. On a two-way deal, he's been declared healthy but he will start off in Stockton. But when he's healthy and in game-shape, he could ascend fast if Calgary is still rotating through a carousel of plan C's and D's at that important spot.

On an economical entry level contract the next two years, what a find it would be if Pribyl could work out.

7. Avoiding the Mo' Money Blues

Gaudreau, Monahan and Giordano are three vital cogs in the Flames success. Gaudreau just finished in the top 10 in scoring, Giordano just became the first Calgary defenceman since Al MacInnis to score more than 20 goals, and Monahan's 80 goals in his three seasons puts him among the NHL's top young players.

What they also have been is three steals when it comes to performance versus pay. The annual average value for those three last season was a combined $5.85 million. Heck, Dustin Brown made more than that. Well, that cushy equation is about to change.

This season with Giordano's extension kicking in and new contracts for Monahan and Gaudreau, the salaries for each of them individually exceed that number. With that will come heightened expectations because in this day and age, you're scrutinized based on how much you earn. The pressure to perform this season will be far greater and with two of them (and presumably all three of them) on long term deals, last thing you want to do is get off to a bad first year as the heat of the spotlight will intensify pretty fast.

Ultimately, Calgary should be just fine with what they're paying for these players. It won't be anywhere near the steal they enjoyed the last couple seasons but it will be good value still if they can maintain their production. By adding in a better supporting cast in Sam Bennett as a sophomore, Troy Brouwer, the continually-improving TJ Brodie and with the upgrades in net, status quo from these three should leave Calgary in good shape. It's regression that needs to be avoided.

8. California Nightmarin'

The one factor more than any other, in why Calgary made the playoffs two years ago was their divisional record. The Flames squeezed into the playoffs the final week and that was despite a ridiculously good 22-6-1 record against Pacific Division rivals. They beat the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings four times and needed every one of those points to squeak in.

That type of winning percentage was never going to be sustainable. But what nobody saw coming was the team skidding so far the other direction last year. Calgary's 10-15-4 mark against divisional foes in 2015-16 was second-worst of the Pacific teams and just one point better than Edmonton.

The top three teams in the Pacific last year were the three California teams and it wasn't even close. Anaheim, LA and San Jose finished 1-2-3 -- all within five points -- and there was a 20-point gap after that. To bridge that gap in hopes of getting in front of at least one of them this season, they'll need to fare better against those three teams in particular.

Last year, Calgary went 2-10-2 against those three with just one regulation win. With Edmonton and Arizona both improved this year, it's going to be a dogfight in the Pacific and those four-point games are going to take on even more significance. Come season end, if the Flames just get in by a couple points or fall just shy by the same margin, those divisional games are what you'll likely point to.

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 comment:

  1. I was of the opinion last season that the time had come for Brods, and Geo to be split up. Brodie, and Hamilton can handle the top pairing minutes, and assignments. Granted not as well as Geo, there are going to be some costly mistakes, but this team needs to be more solid over all. I say that Geo played a role in Brodie’s development. He is more than just the best D man they have. He is a leader, a mentor. Geo kills penalties, and plays on the PP. He is going to get his minuets, but I would love to see Kulak get some time with Geo, because he looks like a star. That said I don’t really see it happening because of the right left shoot, and I do agree that its better to have players on their natural sides. Oliver might be the answer if they have him paired with the captain. He could turn out to be one of the best singings the Flames have ever had if he learns to respect the level of play in the NHL. I cant think of a better guy to learn that from.