Five days away from the start of the NHL season when things get going for real with Calgary the inaugural visitor to Rogers Place, here are eight questions on my brain.
1. Will Gaudreau be in Uniform?
The Flames pint-sized dynamo was last spotted on the ice 18 days ago in black and fluorescent orange, lined up beside Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin for Team North America. Last time he was spotted at a game, it was a Philadelphia Eagles football game.
When you talk to the coach these days, the impression you get is the new system he's trying to implement is very much still a work in progress. And this is with guys that started studying it before training camp opened, have been practicing it the past three weeks, playing in it for seven games, and spend time daily at video sessions, reviewing spliced-together clips demonstrating what they're not doing properly, so they can correct it.
Meanwhile, Gaudreau is still at square one.
It will not affect his ability to whirl around in all the open meadow you get should a game get to 3-on-3 overtime but the more pressing and pertinent question is what will his preparedness be for the sixty minutes of regulation hockey once a deal is finally consummated. The cohesiveness with others on the ice, a key part of success with the new system, will not come in the snap of a finger.
Whether he's signed or not in time for opening night is one thing, when he'll have a grasp on the new system is quite another. The Flames have four practices and one game-day skate before they open the season in Edmonton. The countdown has already begun -- 5, 4, 3....
2. Impact of the Injuries up the Middle?
Much has been made of the Flames strength up the middle but so far in the pre-season, the shining light at centre has pretty much been Sam Bennett, Sam Bennett and more Sam Bennett.
There was a huge collective exhale when Mikael Backlund, recovering from a concussion, drew into his first pre-season game on Sunday and he did look good, ringing a couple goal posts. He got in a second game against the Canucks on Thursday night. At least by playing for Sweden in the World Cup of Hockey before he got rattled by Sami Lepisto, Backlund should be in good shape and ready to go come Wednesday.
Not nearly as far along is Sean Monahan, the club's No. 1 centre, who got into a game for the first time on Thursday when ideally, he'd have at least 3-4 games in at this point to shake off the cobwebs and settle into the Gulutzan system. Limited by a strained back for much of training camp and without his linemates from the past two years, how quickly will Monahan get back to the level that earned him a $6.4 million AAV for the next seven seasons? He skated with Canucks castoffs Linden Vey and Hunter Shinkaruk as his linemates against Vancouver. Very was then placed on waivers today.
Then there's Matt Stajan. He's healthy and he has played a lot but he is looking more like a 4/5 guy at this point in his career. One wonders how tight his grip is on that fourth line centre role. Some time on the wing as well as time in the press box both seem like possibilities for the 32-year-old, who still has two years remaining on a contract that pays him $3.125 million annually.
3. Can The Offence Just Flip the Switch?
Three forwards have scored goals in the pre-season. Three. One of them -- Matthew Tkachuk (2), could be in the OHL by November 1. One of them -- journeyman Freddie Hamilton (2), has spent a majority of his career in the minors. That leaves one established veteran in Troy Brouwer, who has lit the lamp and he did so only once. That's it, not a sniff from anybody else.
Of those nine goals, only five came at even-strength. Sure, it came from a line-up that featured a lot of non-NHLers. But also true is those games came against teams made up of several non-NHLers.
The last two years (excluding empty net goals), Calgary has finished fifth and seventh in goals for. While Jiri Hudler is gone and so is Joe Colborne, there are guys in their place that as I examined earlier in the summer should make up for that shortfall, or close to it. This includes the defence, expected to remain a big part of the offence and may even play a bigger role in Gulutzan's system.
So things should be OK despite the optics of the anemic pre-season production if they get Gaudreau's name on a contract and get everybody back in their proper seats on the bus. That said, until that happens, there is reason for worry. Maybe not concern, but worry.
4. How Long Does the Kid Last?
The vote of confidence came from Gulutzan on Thursday. Tkachuk is fully expected to start the season with the Flames. But he hasn't been told to find a real estate agent just yet. For now, he'll continue to enjoy maid service and a free continental breakfast.
The most consistent line and only consistent line to date has been Tkachuk, Bennett and Brouwer. Other than Oct. 2 against Winnipeg when Brouwer got an extra night off and Alex Chiasson dressed in his place, that trio has been together and they've been dynamite. They've carried the play, they've created chances, they've looked like an impactful NHL line, and that's been a rare sight.
However, there's been one other consistency with that line. They've only played the four home games. They've had the benefit of playing against some greatly watered-down opposition line-ups. It's not to take anything away from what they have done but the course conditions are only going to get considerably more difficult.
Not once in those four games has Tkachuk, Bennett and friends played against a top defence pairing. When Edmonton rolled into town, Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom were nowhere to be found. Arizona sat out Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alex Goligoski. Vancouver didn't dress Alex Edler and when the Jets stopped by, Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers were all conspicuously absent.
It's still possible that Tkachuk will thrive starting next week, but as Gulutzan admitted Thursday, the regular season is an entirely different beast and expectations should be tempered. At this point, a return trip to London for one more year of Junior -- mix in a couple weeks at the World Junior Championships -- is still the most probable outcome, but he will get his chance to say otherwise.
5. Easy Schedule for Whom?
I've often referred to the Flames 2016-17 schedule to start off the season and how it could be worse. Relatively speaking, Calgary has an easier start with back-to-back games against Edmonton, in Vancouver, then home to Buffalo and Carolina. All four of those teams had the same length of summer as the Flames.
While it is a chance to get off to a fast start, know that all four of those teams are also salivating over the opportunity to play Calgary in the early going, seeing it as a way for them to pick up an early win. They see it as catching the Flames potentially without Gaudreau, with a rusty Monahan and other question marks. Connor McDavid, Milan Lucic and the Oilers. Sophomore Jack Eichel joined by free agent signing Kyle Okoposo in Buffalo. Loui Eriksson and the Sedins in Vancouver. If you're thinking any of these games are going to be pushovers and an easy two points, think again.
Of course, then the schedule turns difficult. Really difficult. It's almost imperative that the team win three of those first five because the next stretch is a killer. Of their next dozen games, 11 are against playoff teams from last season. The Blues visit on Oct. 22 to wrap-up a homestand. Calgary then heads on the road for a two-game joyride to Chicago and St. Louis. Flames return home to play Ottawa and Washington before going on a killer four-game roadie that opens in the United Center against the Blackhawks and also has stops in San Jose, LA and Anaheim -- the latter two on consecutive nights.
6. What to do With All These Fourth Liners?
What we've learned over the past three weeks is that the list of candidates to play on the fourth line is long. Unfortunately, the Flames job fair when training camp opened consisted of more openings than just that.
We know who will play left wing with Monahan, at least eventually, but who is going to play on the right side? The hope was Alex Chiasson could slide into that role but from what we've seen so far, I'm skeptical.
Tkachuk has emerged as the left-winger to complement Bennett and Brouwer but if he ends up back in junior after nine games, who slots into that role?
You get the sense Calgary desperately wanted one of the two veteran PTO guys -- Chris Higgins or Lauri Korpikoski -- to latch onto the left wing job with Backlund and Frolik. But have they? Neither has taken the ball and run with it. If one of those veterans ends up in that spot, it will more so reflect the lack of internal options deemed ready.
Micheal Ferland seems like the most likely candidate to land somewhere in the top nine although his best game on Wednesday came while operating in a fourth line-like role alongside Vey.
Of the others, Hunter Shinkaruk has probably looked the best and would be best-suited to play top-nine, aka is least-suited to play fourth line, but waiver-exempt, he could also end up in Stockton for more seasoning.
Meanwhile, you have an eight-horse race of guys probably best served to play on a fourth line -- Vey, Freddie Hamilton, Chiasson, Garnet Hathaway, Brandon Bollig, Lance Bouma, Stajan and Ferland.
7. Is there a No. 4 D on the Roster?
Similar to the situation upfront, has there been a defenceman that has emerged as a candidate ready to log 20-plus minutes per night on the Flames second pairing?
I think Jyrki Jokipakaa has been just fine but remember that he was a semi-regular in the press box in Dallas when the Flames acquired him. He would be an excellent third pairing option, but is he ready for full-time second pairing duty?
Of the others trying to make the roster -- Tyler Wotherspoon, Brett Kulak, Nicklas Grossmann -- you have to squint your eyes to see them on the third pairing, never mind the second. To that point, Wotherspoon was put on waivers on Thursday, a precursor to him likely being sent to Stockton on Saturday -- unless he is claimed by another NHL team.
As for the the other veterans, that's not the place to play Deryk Engelland and Dennis Wideman doesn't exactly look like a cheetah out there these days so that doesn't seem a very good idea either.
So once again, too many guys for the third pairing, not enough for the second.
Many fans are appealing for a re-signing of Jakub Nakladal and while he had a nice run with the Flames late last year after the season was shot, if the 28-year-old was viewed as a viable 20 minute-per-night guy, he would not be sitting out there unsigned at the moment. Thirty NHL teams would have a use for that calibre of player.
As for the possibility of Kris Russell making a return, Elliotte Friedman broke the news Friday night that yes, he will be signing in his home province of Alberta, but he has agreed to a one-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers.
8. Will Special Teams be Special?
A penalty kill that ranked 30th and a power play that was 30th much of the season before a torrid finish after the Flames were eliminated from contention. That was the past state of Calgary's specialty teams and it was downright ugly. The current state remains very much a work in progress at both ends.
The changes to the penalty kill that I detailed in this piece last weekend, are significant and is going to take some work. Instability in the penalty killers during these training camp battles hasn't helped. Gulutzan's system with assistant coach Paul Jerrard as the supervisor in charge, it needs to be better than what we've seen in the pre-season, but the training wheels will remain attached on the new look for now. I'd expect it to take most of October before they have this thing buttoned down.
As for the power play. The Tkachuk-Bennett-Brouwer line has looked good, and there's a hard stop after that. Obviously, the other unit would be comprised of Gaudreau, Monahan and insert name here and while they should also be equally effective if not better, emphasis on 'should'. Gaudreau was also on that unit all of last year when it struggled. The new look to the PP will take some time to gel so we'll reserve judgement for now.
- Under Repair: Closely Examining the Flames New Approach to the Penalty Kill - The Flames are changing up the PK. But what are they changing? What will you see differently. Players discuss the changes, what to expect, and why they like the new look. (October 2, 2016)
- Training Camp Update: Breaking Down Who's in and Who's on the Bubble - So how many positions are actually open on the team? I examined this question and came up with 11 names for 4 forward spots and 5 names for 1 defence spot. (September 29, 2016)
- Five Flames Training Camp Battles to Watch - Leading candidates including favourite and darkhorse in five training camp battles - RW with Monahan & Gaudreau, LW with Bennett & Brouwer, LW with Backlund & Frolik, D with Hamilton, seventh D. (September 24, 2016)
- Training Camp Primer: Ten Players to Watch from the 66 Attending Training Camp - To provide some semblance of order to the 66 players invited to Flames training camp, I break them into 20 groupings and identify a player to watch in each group. (September 22, 2016)
- FF80F Podcast: Episode 6 - Ryan Leslie Guests in a Wrap-up From Penticton - Bringing great insight as usual, the host of Flames TV and I weighed in on a bunch of Flames prospects including Matthew Tkachuk, who we had an extended talk about. (September 21, 2016)