Saturday, November 26, 2016

Eight From 80 Feet: Grey Cup Weekend Round-Up of Flames Thoughts and Did-You-Knows

With a lot of observations and stats rattling around in my brain, here's a round-up of eight musings on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames.

Waking up this morning in Pennsylvania, they do not play today after a 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins on Friday. They return to game action on Sunday night when they take on the Flyers.

To the chagrin of the Calgary sports fan, that game in Philadelphia goes head-to-head with Bo Levi Mitchell and the Calgary Stampeders' date with the Ottawa RedBlacks in the Grey Cup. Gentlemen, get your PVRs started...

1. Ochocinco Running with the Ball

In starting six of the last seven games and taking over the Flames starting job for now, Chad Johnson is on a real roll. He is playing some spectacular hockey, even if he doesn't make it look spectacular because of his smooth, calm demeanor between the pipes.

Over this 11-day span -- which was preceded by an 11-day span in which he never got into a single game -- he is 5-1-0 with a 1.17 goals-against average and .958 save percentage. The Calgary kid and graduate of Bow Valley minor hockey has played phenomenal.

When he signed a one-year deal with Calgary as a free agent on July 1, he pointed to last season with Buffalo as significant in that for him, he felt he finally got a chance to prove that he can be more than just a back-up.

"It was a good stepping stone in the sense that everybody saw that I could play consecutive games, that I could be that relied-upon guy," Johnson told me back on July 1. He got that opportunity with the Sabres when Robin Lehner got hurt in the season-opener.

He said when you've been a back-up all your career, it becomes a label.

"It's changing that reputation, changing their perspective of what people think I am," he said. "Last year opened up a lot of people's eyes. Hey, this guy can play a lot of games, this guy can compete, win his teammates over and be that relied-upon guy to be the starter. That was big for me."

When Lehner went down, Johnson started eight of the next nine games. After a not-so-great October, he really settled in starting in November and he points to that as the beginning of what's been a real, nice run.

We're not talking about a two-week hot streak, people, this guy has been one of the league's top goaltenders going on 13 months now. The stats reflect that too.

NHL SV% Leaders - Since Nov. 1, 2015 (min of 25 starts):
  1. Chad Johnson Buf/Cgy, 47 gm, 26-13-5, 2.12 GAA, .928 SV%
  2. Devan Dubnyk Min, 73 gm, 34-30-6, 2.13 GAA, .927 SV%
  3. Sergei Bobrovsky Clb, 44 gm, 24-16-2, 2.30 GAA, .924 SV%
  4. Robin Lehner Buf, 35 gm, 37-23-3, 2.44 GAA, .923 SV%
  5. Ben Bishop TB, 64 gm, 37-23-3, 2.21, .923 SV%
  6. Thomas Greiss NYI, 44 gm, 23-15-2, 2.38 GAA, .923 SV%
  7. Tuukka Rask Bos, 72 gm, 39-23-7, 2.29 GAA, .922 SV%
  8. Corey Crawford Chi, 68 gm, 40-21-7, 2.42 GAA, .922 SV%
  9. Cory Schneider NJ, 65 gm, 29-28-8, 2.24 GAA, .922 SV%
  10. Braden Holtby Wsh, 73 gm, 52-11-8, 2.20 GAA, .922 SV%

Notably absent from the list is Montreal's Carey Price, who has a .942 SV%, but has only played 17 games over that period due to injury. So if you want to call him second to Price, I'm pretty sure he'll still take that and most Flames fans will still settle for that.

2. Offensive Offence

What Johnson's stellar play has been disguising is the fact that this team isn't scoring. In those six games during which Johnson has put up that 1.17 GAA, his opposing goaltender -- a collaboration of Devan Dubnyk, Mike Smith, Jimmy Howard, Robin Lehner, Sergei Bobrovky and Anton Khudobin -- has fashioned a tidy 2.03 GAA.

Calgary is scoring enough to win, but just barely.

This is not a new thing either. Since the Flames put up five goals on the Craig Anderson-less Ottawa Senators on October 28, they've scored a meager 23 goals in 14 games. That's an average of 1.6 goals per game. Only twice over that span have they scored more than twice. Winning is not sustainable if they cannot start putting the puck in the net with greater regularity.

Some of the more notable slumps:
  • Troy Brouwer - last 15 gm, 2-1-3
  • Alex Chiasson - last 14 gm, 2-0-2
  • Mark Giordano - last 16 gm, 0-3-3
  • Sean Monahan - last 15 gm, 1-3-4
  • Matt Stajan - last 15 gm, 1-1-2

At 2.26 goals-per-game on the season, Calgary ranks 26th, only ahead of Colorado (2.21), Ottawa (2.20), Vancouver (2.14) and Buffalo (1.81).

3. The Big Jankowski

After he was drafted 21st overall by ex-GM Jay Feaster on June 22, 2012, it took Mark Jankowski 1,617 days to reach the NHL. I see no reason why it should take any more than three days to get into his first game.

When a team struggling to produce offence dips into the AHL to bring up its scoring leader, you know he's going to find his way into the line-up sooner than later.

In Stockton, Jankowski's 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists) had him tied with Morgan Klimchuk (5 goals, 7 assists) for top spot on the team.

Is the 22-year-old ready for the NHL? More time in the AHL would probably be preferred. But apparently Calgary sees him as their best option at this time and it's hard to argue if you've had the opportunity to see him play.

If it was up to me, I'd insert him for Freddie Hamilton on Sunday night against Philadelphia.

Let's face it, he's not up here to play on the wing. He's only played centre the last few years. Management has said they view him as a centre. You're not going to call up a first-year pro and then experiment with him at a new position in the NHL. That would be absurd.

So for me, there's two options. You move Matt Stajan to the wing and insert Jankowski at centre on the third line. Or, you bring him in for Hamilton and use him as your pivot on the fourth line.

With the Stajan-Bennett-Chiasson line producing both goals against the Bruins and having a fine night, why mess with that trio. Thus, it's an easy choice.

While Hamilton hasn't hurt the team -- that fourth line while he's been on it has only given up two goals in 13 games -- they're also not generating any offence either. Just three goals for Hamilton's line over that span and for him individually, no points on the season.

Taking out Hamilton isn't the type of shake-up that one would end up regretting. Let's face it, he only played 6:59 against Boston. But inserting Jankowski given his upside is a move that could pay dividends. For me, I view as low risk, possible high reward.

As for Hamilton, he sat out 10 of his first 12 games. Returning to the press box should not surprise anyone. He's a depth player, a 13th/14th forward type, a utility guy that can fill in nicely in a variety of roles but isn't a core piece.

While some coaches don't like to mess with success, this is a time when I would as the team needs to be looking forward, figuring out how to sustain this winning streak, rather than resting on the laurels of the superb goaltending that's been stealing them points.

4. California Top Line Reunion 

The push-back on taking Hamilton out with the team on its best roll of the season might be the effective banging and crashing the fourth line has done lately with Micheal Ferland and Garnet Hathaway on the flanks -- and I agree those three played well together.

But also remember that Ferland was moved up beside Troy Brouwer and Sean Monahan on Friday and barring a Kris Versteeg return from an injury that has him sidelined day-to-day, that bigger role for Ferland is well deserved and I would give that line more time together.

Instead, how I'd look at a Jankowski-for-Hamilton switch is reuniting what was a very effective trio for Stockton for the first month of the season. Coach Ryan Huska had deployed Shinkaruk-Jankowski-Hathaway as his top line right from the start of the season and they played really well.

In seven games together, before Shinkaruk was recalled by Calgary, the trio combined for 20 points:
  • Shinkaruk, 4-3-7
  • Jankowski, 3-5-8
  • Hathaway, 3-2-5

So there's some existing chemistry there and for a team starving for offence, having those three together on the Flames fourth line would be well worth trying. There might be a little less overall commotion, but Hathaway will still be a thorn every time he gets out there. Meanwhile, perhaps the offensive skill from Jankowski and Shinkaruk could come through on the score sheet where help is badly needed.

5. Lady Byng Ferly

This one might surprise you. Of all the Flames that have played in at least five games, who is the only player besides Johnny Gaudreau to not yet take a minor penalty?

The answer is Micheal Ferland, who is one of only 24 skaters in the league (out of 478) that have played at least 15 games and have not yet taken a two-minute penalty. His only trip to the penalty box was for a fight with Dallas Stars pest Antoine Roussel.

In comparison, last season he took 15 minors in 71 games.

The thing is he's still out there playing physical -- he's second on the team with 51 hits (Brouwer, 52) and that ties him for 19th in the NHL. But he's playing smart. In that memorable playoff series against Vancouver, so many of his his hits looked like borderline charging penalties. That is not the case any more. Ferland is hitting clean, he is not leaving his feet, yet he is still finishing off his checks and his physical play is helping him regularly force turnovers.

You may remember one terrific sequence last week against Arizona. Midway through the second period, he dumps the puck in and chases after it. He gets to the end boards at the same time as Coyotes defenceman Michael Stone and wins that battle for possession. Then he carries the puck behind the net, using his strength to fend off Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and sets up Freddie Hamilton for a dangerous chance in the slot.

As the puck goes back the other direction, he quickly heads back up the ice on the back-check and ends up leveling Ekman-Larsson with a hard hit along the side boards that temporarily knocked the Coyotes captain out of the game.

Mix in some offensive success -- his four goals already matches his total from last year -- and you get a guy that after Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund, has arguably been the club's next-best forward.

6. Puck Management 101

Giveaways is a stat that has its imperfections. It's a subjective stat that may be interpreted differently by the off-ice officials in one arena versus another. I've always wondered when is it a giveaway and when is it a takeaway. There must be a lot of plays that fall into a grey area.

That said, it's still interesting to reference to see trends that are happening. If it seems like Calgary has been a lot smarter with the puck lately and giving up less breakaways and odd-man rushes, that could trace back to what's been a much better team lately in terms of puck management.

Here's a breakdown of giveaways for the Flames up until the loss to the New York Rangers on November 12 and then after that point. Included is the win-loss record in terms of the 'giveaway battle'. In other words, did they have more or less giveaways than their opponent. Also, I've included their total giveaways over that span and the average per game:
  • Games 1-16 - 3-12-1, Opp - 123 (7.7), Cgy - 160 (10.0)
  • Games 17-23 - 6-1-0, Opp - 68 (9.7), Cgy - 46 (6.6)

As you can see, Calgary is doing a much better job of not coughing up the puck, which will often lead to dangerous scoring chances.

Not once in the season's first 10 games did Calgary win the giveaway battle. Through 16 games, only three times did they have fewer giveaways than their opponent. However, starting with the 1-0 win in Minnesota on November 15, Calgary has been the team with the fewer giveaways in six of seven games. They're averaging 3.4 fewer giveaways per game over this last stretch.

To put that into some league-wide context, Calgary was 7th worst in the NHL with that average of 10.0 giveaways per game. Since that point, 6.6 giveaways per game is 5th best.

Read into it what you want but for me, it speaks to players getting a better grasp on a Glen Gulutzan system that is about puck possession, reading the ice, making smart decisions and not forcing the play. Watch the games and on breakouts, if the puck carrier does not like what they see for options, they hang onto the puck, turn back into their own zone and regroup. They are not forcing a play that maybe isn't there. In the spirit of Grey Cup weekend, they're not trying to force a pass into a receiver that isn't open.

There is a practice drill they do that supports this concept of making the simple, higher percentage play and not gambling. On transition, you're seeing shorter passes that have a higher success rate and a building up of the attack.

7. Bark at the Supermoon

Don't look now but the Flames are 5-2-0 since the supermoon. Now that might have just as much to do with the superchad instead but we are seeing signs lately of a team turning the corner.

As noted, puck management is much improved. While the Buffalo and Columbus games both featured elevated shots against and obviously, the chasing Bruins really took the play to Calgary in the third period last night with 20 shots to end up at 36, there are positive signs.

One would be the shots against prior to this stretch of three straight games with 30+ shots allowed. Before it was seven consecutive games of allowing 28 or fewer. In that stretch that began after the 5-0 drubbing in Los Angeles, Calgary surrendered an average of just 23.7 shots.

It looks like the team is finally starting to settle in under coach Gulutzan and that the stretch of five practices in seven days from Nov. 8-14 (after having just seven practices over the previous four weeks to start the season) could end up being that turning point experienced by most new coaches.

The results certainly support that theory. The Flames have won five of their last seven after winning only five of their first 16 games:
  • Prior to Nov. 15 - 16 gm, 5-10-1, .344 PT%
  • Since Nov. 15 - 7 gm, 5-2-0, .714 PT%.

Now it's too early to tell for sure if that ends up being the turning point for Gulutzan, but if it does, it falls right in the pocket of when it happens for most as documented in my earlier article on this topic. Sixteen games in, after about five weeks together, all of that is consistent with what many other NHL coaches have experienced after taking over a new team.

8. Road Warriors

Calgary is 7-5-1 on the road. No NHL team has more wins away from home than the Flames, who are tied with Edmonton, Boston, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay for most road victories.

For context in regards to 2015-16, last year's seventh road win did not happen until January 21.

Calgary's road points (winning) percentage of .577, if sustained and obviously that's a lot to assume at this early stage, would result in the Flames best road record since they won the Stanley Cup in 1988-89.

Calgary Flames Best Five Road Seasons:
  1. 1987-88 - 22-12-6, .625 PT% 
  2. 1988-89 - 22-13-5, .613 PT% 
  3. 2014-15 - 22-17-2, .561 PT% 
  4. 2003-04 - 21-16-4, .561 PT% 
  5. 2009-10 - 20-15-6, .561 PT% 

Before heading home, they've got two more games to go on this season-long road trip. Once again, it's a back-to-back too. Calgary has Philadelphia on Sunday and then it's off to Brooklyn to play the New York Islanders on Monday night.

A .500 road trip is generally considered good, but when you win three of your first four like the Flames have, dropping the final two would be a let-down.

It's why the time is right to freshen up the line-up with the small tweak of inserting Jankowski. We'll see if Gulutzan agrees and gets the kid in there for at least one of these back-to-backs.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Q1 Awards: Best and Worst Performances From the First Quarter of the Flames Season

With the Calgary Flames 8-12-1 at the one-quarter mark of the regular season and sitting in fifth in the Pacific Division, here is a look back on the good, the bad and the ugly from the first six weeks.

1. Best Player

1. Michael Frolik 

The 28-year-old Czech has gotten off to a terrific start as the club leader in goals (6) and points (14). He also has two shorthanded goals as well as an OT goal, Still getting the tough assignments defensively, he and linemate Mikael Backlund have been terrific together, especially shorthanded where they've been dangerous. A third line player to start the season behind the Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett lines, Frolik's line has been excellent, looking more like the club's No. 1 line most of the year.

2. Mikael Backlund - Playing like a No. 1 centre, he's second in shots with 50, a sign that more offence will come.
3. Chad Johnson - A nice back-up plan is looking more like a starter. Has outplayed Brian Elliott.

2. Biggest Disappointment - Part 1, Rich Guys

1. Sean Monahan

Selected to play for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey, he had to pull out with a strained back that lingered on, limiting him to just one appearance in the preseason. He's never really got going. An average skater at the best of times, he looks slower and isn't having nearly the impact he has had in his first three NHL seasons. The struggles come in year one of a seven-year deal with a cap hit of $6.375 million.

2. TJ Brodie - League-worst minus-13. Rocky start for a guy that has been one of the NHL's best kept secrets.
3. Johnny Gaudreau - Struggled big time his first 14 games before finally turning the corner. Then he broke his finger.

3. Biggest Disappointment - Part 2, Young Guys

1. Sam Bennett

Through the preseason, Bennett-Troy Brouwer looked like a deadly combination and that carried into the regular season as did their production. However, that chemistry dried up and eventually the line was broken up. Bennett spent the past three games on left wing, a temporary move made more permanent with the Gaudreau injury. Discipline has been an issue. Ranks second in the NHL with 14 minors (Evgeni Malkin, 16) and has twice been benched by the coach as a result.

2. Jyrki Jokipakka - Touted as a potential No. 4 D, he's spent much of the last few weeks as the No. 7.
3. Hunter Shinkaruk - Hasn't taken advantage of his call-up. Three meh games then was scratched for three.

4. Most Pleasant Surprise

1. Matthew Tkachuk

Bounced between lines for the first few week and then after a game or two on the fourth line, he was a healthy scratch for two straight. But upon his return, he was tried on left wing with Backlund and Frolik and those three have been terrific. Known for their tough deployments as a line, it's unusual for so much defensive responsibility to be heaped upon an 18-year old but Tkachuk is smart, Gulutzan loves how he manages the puck and he'e earned an NHL job when many had him pegged to return to junior.

2. Micheal Ferland - Physical but clean and has decent hands. Improved consistency has been the key.
3. Matt Stajan - Is rejuvenated and his solid, intense all-round play has earned him more ice time.

5. Positive Storyline

1. Improved 5-on-5 Play

Create more shot attempts at even-strength than your opponent -- only measured while the game is "close" so teams are not playing desperate (trailing by multiple goals) or safe (leading by multiple goals) -- and you get what typically is a good predictor for future success. The Flames finished 28th in SAT% Close two years ago and 26th last year. This year, with a greater focus on this area under Gulutzan, they have been much better. As of this morning, they sit 14th at 50.45 and were as high as 10th last week.

2. Frolik-Backlund - Gaudreau-Monahan and Brouwer-Bennett have fizzled, but this pairing has been terrific.
3. Veterans Rejuvenated - While top players struggle, depth guys like Deryk Engelland and Stajan have thrived.

6. Negative Storyline

1. Special Teams

An unmitigated disaster once again. The power play is last at a meager 8.4 percent while the penalty kill is 29th at an ugly 72.7 percent, only ahead of the slow-starting Blackhawks (68.2 percent). When you've scored the fewest PP goals (6) and given up the most PP goals (21), you're killing your chances of winning with any regularity. In six of seven home losses, Calgary was within one goal into the final 90 seconds. In those six close defeats, the Flames were 0-for-23 on the PP while the opposition went 9-for-22.

2. Coach Transition Pains - Slow starts are common for most new coaches, but it doesn't make it any less painful.
3. Home-Ice Record - Season ticket holders are understandably frustrated with a 3-7-0 record at the Dome.

7. Best Win

1. St. Louis, 4-1 on Oct. 25

Having just been smoked by St. Louis at the Saddledome three days earlier, it didn't bode well for Calgary as they visited the Scottrade Center on the back-end of back-to-back games. As it was, it is a building the Flames have rarely won in lately. But Dennis Wideman and Engelland scored in the first period, then Bennett scored early in the second to make it 3-0. Outshooting the Blues 23-11 after 40 minutes, the Flames cruised to the win with Elliott making 23 saves for wins on consecutive nights.

2. Chicago, 3-2 on Oct. 24 - Elliott made 31 saves and Calgary never trailed in a solid all-round effort.
3. San Jose, 3-2 on Nov. 3 - Began California junket with a win over last year's Stanley Cup finalists.

8. Worst Loss

1. Los Angeles, 5-0 on Nov. 5

Outshot 39-24, outscored 5-0 -- all at even-strength, this train wreck on a Saturday night at Staples Center was arguably the second ugliest defeat in the team's 2,800-plus games regular season history. The only other time Calgary was shut out, gave up five-or-more goals and were outshot by 15-or-more was that infamous 9-0 loss to Boston on Jan. 5, 2012. It would turn out to be the last NHL appearance for Nicklas Grossmann, who was waived three days later and eventually had his contract terminated.

2. Edmonton, 5-3 on Oct. 14 - Outshot the Oilers 24-12 in first period and led 2-1, only to collapse.
3. Buffalo, 4-2 on Nov. 21 - Up 1-0 when barrage of Flames penalties led to three quick Sabres goals.

9. Best Goal (click for video)

1. Tkachuk vs Arizona

Calgary had been the better team but trailed 1-0 in the third period to a red-hot Mike Smith and the Coyotes when off a face-off deep in the Arizona end, Tkachuk got the puck just above the goal line and ripped a shot that beat Smith over the shoulder. "One heck of a shot," said Gulutzan after the game. "There wasn't any room there. He made a big play." That goal at 6:40 helped get the game to overtime where Frolik notched the game-winner.

2. Gaudreau vs Minnesota - Gaudreau fends off three back-checkers and multiple slashes before tucking in a back-hand.
3. Engelland vs St. Louis - Kris Versteeg's saucer into the slot is buried by Engelland after a dandy dangle.

10. Biggest Summer Acquisition Bust (So Far)

1. Brian Elliott

When acquired on the day of the draft in exchange for the Flames second round draft pick, Calgary's goaltending issues were supposed to be solved. But the 31-year-old hasn't displayed the calibre of goaltending that was expected and what most people had witnessed from him over the last five years. Sure, he's faced lots of odd-man rushes but he isn't making any of those 'big' saves. Lately, he has been giving up one bad goal per game and that has hurt the club. The good feelings from his three-game win streak have passed.

2. Troy Brouwer - A bright spot the first two weeks, chemistry with Bennett has faded and so has he.
3. Nicklas Grossmann - Three games was enough to confirm his foot speed made him a serious liability.

11. Worth the Price of Admission

1. Matthew Tkachuk

Gnawing all the time on that mouth guard, Tkachuk is a shit-disturber and that's the exact ilk of player the club badly needed. He's in the middle of skirmishes all the time, a sign that he's getting under the opposition's skin. Now sometimes -- maybe too often -- he is the guy that ends up in the penalty box but he also draws a lot of penalties from frustrated defenders. A fan favourite already, he's learning to play on the edge but within the boundaries. Meanwhile, he's been a great fit with Backlund and Frolik.

2. Micheal Ferland - Using his size very effectively. He hits, brings energy, wins puck battles.
3. Garnet Hathaway - Banger-and-crasher, who for a 4th liner has spent a lot of time in the offensive zone.

12. Biggest Head Scratcher

1. Nicklas Grossmann Experiment

While there were some other factors behind why Grossmann signed at the number he did -- allowed the Flames to maximize their cap relief when they put Ladislav Smid on the IR -- the signing itself still seemed strange from the outset. With the NHL another year quicker, Grossmann's wheels were always a concern. As stunning as him getting a one-year, one-way deal was, playing him opening night against the quick Edmonton Oilers will surely go down as a regret for Gulutzan.

2. Linden Vey on Power Play - In a puzzling move, he replaced Gaudreau on PP instead of Frolik, the team's leading scorer.
3. Lack of Discipline - Was shorthanded the fewest times in the NHL in 2014-15. This year they've been on the PK the second-most of anyone.

Final Word

It was back on podcast No. 4 with PostMedia columnist Scott Cruickshank when he described each new Flames season as like a new book. I love that way of looking at it. He said from one year to the next, you never know what is going to happen, there will always be unexpected surprises, and that's what makes it so much fun to chronicle for those around the hockey team.

It probably hasn't been a whole lot of fun for fans to endure but it has been a season of non-stop storylines and from my perspective, it's made for a very interesting season. Just think, another four and a half months to go in this latest 'Choose Your Own Adventure' story.

After four consecutive good outings, Calgary took a step (or two) back against Buffalo on Monday. Now what? Will the tailspin continue for a few games or was that Sabres game just a blip?

It's really difficult to get a feel for this team so I guess we'll have to just sit back and watch. Over the next 20 games, one thing for certain is I would expect no stop to what's been a roller-coaster of emotions so far for fans. You might want to pop a couple Gravol before the action continues Wednesday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

Where's Fro, Yo? Gulutzan's Perplexing Refusal To Play His Leading Scorer on the PP

The Calgary Flames all-round best player, No. 1 goal scorer, leading point producer and top forward in shots on goal, is not and has not been able to earn himself a spot on the NHL's worst power play.

This has got to be one of the most dumb-founded sentences I've ever typed:

In my opinion, rookie coach Glen Gulutzan has a gotten a lot of undeserved criticism this season. No, he's not exempt from sharing in the blame and maybe he shoulders more of it than anyone else, but this is a team with several new faces, who were without multiple key players through most/all of training camp, who is undergoing a massive, fundamental shift in how they play. Transition pains were to be expected. But 19 games into the season, his steadfast refusal to at least try Michael Frolik on an abysmal power play is mind boggling.

On the season, 'Baby Jagr' as he's known back in his hometown in the Czech Republic, has played a grand total of just 4:48 on the power play. Not one second has come as an actual fixture on either the first or second power play unit.

A breakdown of that ice time:
  • 2:28 - Came as a spare versus the Dallas Stars and New York Rangers last week. He was one of the players that saw ice time on the second unit, filling in for rookie Matthew Tkachuk while he was out of the line-up with his injured hand.
  • 0:56 - Came against Chicago on Oct. 24 when he was part of a make-shift third unit with Matt Stajan and Alex Chiasson, who got out during the final minute of a squandered double-minor to Tyler Motte.
  • 1:14 - The rest that is left over is just random scraps along the way as Calgary prepared to return to five-on-five after a blown man advantage -- 8 seconds in game 1, 9 seconds in game 2, 19 seconds in game 6, 3 seconds in game 10, 18 seconds in game 13, etc.

Now I'm not suggesting putting Frolik on the power play means he has to remain on it until he becomes a free agent on July 1, 2020, but my goodness, it's time to give the 28-year-old a shot because this element of Calgary's game is absolutely killing them.

Give Frolik a Chance

Frolik leads the Flames in scoring with 12 points (6 goals, 6 assists), all of them coming at either even-strength (10) or shorthanded (2).

Remove power play points and Frolik would be tied for 16th in NHL scoring. Players he would be ahead of include Tyler Seguin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Pavelski, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, Marian Hossa, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Corey Perry, Nicklas Backstrom... you get my point.

I get the concept of managing ice time and that Frolik along with Mikael Backlund -- also having an excellent season -- is the forward pairing always over the boards first when the Flames go on the penalty kill. But the guy he pairs with while shorthanded is doing the special teams double-dip, why not try them together on the man advantage and see if that same chemistry you see at 5-on-5 and 4-on-5, can shine through at 5-on-4. What do you have to lose?

It was back on November 9, after two straight practices that featured a high concentration of work on the power play, in which Gulutzan vowed to keep his two power play units together for seven games so they could develop some consistency.

At the time, these were the units:
  • Unit 1 - Gaudreau, Monahan, Bennett, Chiasson, Giordano
  • Unit 2 - Tkachuk, Backlund, Brouwer, Brodie, Hamilton

It's been five games so far and they've gone 2-for-19. One for the top unit -- a goal by Johnny Gaudreau in Minnesota. One for the second unit -- albeit from Micheal Ferland, filling in for Matthew Tkachuk against the New York Rangers while the rookie was out of the line-up with stitches in his hand.

Yes, a PP clip of 10.5 percent is an improvement over the 8.3 percent up until that point. But that's like saying Nerds are a tiny bit healthier for your teeth than Candy Corn.

I respect Gulutzan's desire to keep his word because in his first year behind the bench, you need to establish that your word does not only apply when it's convenient. He needs to be good for it.

But an escape clause landed in his lap when Gaudreau got injured. It was a perfect chance to slide in Frolik, or even Ferland for that matter. Left shot for left shot in either instance. Instead, he opted for the right-shot of Linden Vey, who spent all season in the AHL up until just a few days prior.

Further, I guess that by consistency, he was referring to the forward units only because he tweaked and flip-flopped the D pairings at that same time. He moved TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton to the first unit, bumping Alex Chiasson off what originally was a power play comprised of four forwards. Subsequently that meant dropping Mark Giordano to the second unit alongside Dennis Wideman.

So Vey's stay boils down to him being the lone right-hand shot up front on that first unit. I know having a right shot is viewed by the organization as real important in terms of the options it provides on the man advantage but in this instance, is it so important that you're willing to play a minor leaguer ahead of your leading scorer? That seems like a stretch.

Broken Home

This is a power play that has gone 1-for-37 on home ice. Wrap your head around that. Plus, the only goal was that throwaway Ferland tally halfway through the third period against the Rangers last Saturday. Down 4-0 at the time, all it accomplished was broke Henrik Lundqvist's shutout.

That's playing 68:06 with an extra man on the ice -- the equivalent of nearly three-and-a-half periods -- and scoring one measly goal.

Mix in a dreadful penalty kill that has surrendered 12 goals at home and it's no surprise their record at the Saddledome is 3-7-0. But what has to be most frustrating, if not infuriating for the club and its fans is five of those seven losses were one-goal losses if you exclude empty net goals. In fact, you can essentially make that six one-goal losses as the 4-2 defeat to Carolina was also a one-goal game into the final minute when Carolina scored on a 5-on-3.

That's virtually six one-goal losses in front of the home fans. In those six defeats, Calgary has gone 0-for-23 on the power play while the opposition has gone 9-for-22 with the extra man.

A middle-of-the-pack NHL power play should have produced four goals during that span. A middle-of-the-pack penalty kill should have only yielded four.

Just imagine the impact a nine-goal swing on special teams could have had in those tight games. Instead of 3-7-0 wearing red jerseys, this club could easily be 7-3-0, or maybe even better than that.

You know where Calgary would be in the standings with an additional eight points? First place in the Pacific Division.

What I Would Do

If he is to remain true to his word, Gulutzan needs to give his forward units of Monahan-Bennett-Vey and Backlund-Tkachuk-Brouwer two more games.

But I'd argue there's no time for that. The team has had itself a pretty good week. Back-to-back wins against Minnesota and Arizona and a real good effort last night in which they outchanced Chicago, only to see the game decided on some bad luck in the late going.

The time to make a change to the power play isn't Wednesday in Columbus, it's Sunday in Detroit while they've got some positive things going on in their game at even-strength. The Gaudreau escape clause is still right there and Gulutzan would be fully justified if he chooses to use it.

If I was the Flames coach, here is what I'd roll out for power play units when Calgary hits the ice at Joe Louis Arena:
  • Unit 1 - Bennett, Monahan, Brouwer, Brodie, Hamilton
  • Unit 2 - Tkachuk, Backlund, Frolik, Giordano, Wideman

I'm real tempted to insert Brett Kulak for Wideman. The Columbia Icefield is regressing faster than Wideman can get across the blue-line to keep in a puck that is rimmed around the boards. But having a lefty-righty split on the point for one-timers is important to me so with my desire to get Frolik on that second unit, I do want to keep at least one right-shooting option on the ice.
Meanwhile, you'll see I've put Brouwer back on the top unit and now both forward trios are also identical to the Flames top two lines at even-strength. Harness the chemistry exhibited Friday with Bennett in Gaudreau's spot on the top line, and harness the chemistry exhibited by the other three since Tkachuk has joined that line.

Maybe this won't work either, but surely it's the next thing to try.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Wild Honour Gaudreau with 21-Slash Salute

Sixth in league scoring as a sophomore with 30 goals and 78 points, you knew Johnny Gaudreau was going to command a lot of respect this season.

Tuesday night at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota chose to recognize the diminutive Flames star with a 21-slash salute, the hockey version of one of the military's highest honours.

Usually reserved for military or state funerals, the 21-gun salute is when a cannon or some form of artillery is fired 21 times into the air. It comes from a naval tradition of ships firing all unspent ammunition into the sea to show that it is unarmed and signify a lack of hostile intent.

Lack of hostile intent? Right. Might want to check in with Christian Folin, Ryan Suter, Jason Zucker and the rest of the Wild involved in that stick-swinging performance.

While Gaudreau is not dead as the metaphor goes, the Flames playoff chances sure will be if the first line left winger is lost for an extended period of time. Seen earlier examining his left hand or wrist, Gaudreau left the game eight minutes into the third period and did not return.

Recapping Minnesota's Performance

The 'tribute' began five minutes into the game on Gaudreau's third shift, in which he also produced the game's only goal.

As he carried the puck in on a zone entry during a Flames power play, Mikko Koivu took the first swing.

That's 1.

Shortly after, sprung on a breakaway from the blueline in on a bullet pass by Mark Giordano, Gaudreau fended off a six-pack of stick-work from three Wild players in pursuit in deftly slipping a backhand past Devan Dubnyk.

First it was Folin reaching his stick in, then came two desperate swipes at the puck from Charlie Coyle that both rode up the shaft of his stick and into the hands region. Then came the serious stuff, two much more solid chops from Folin and a last-ditch flailing by Jonas Brodin that caught him more on the hip after the puck was already off the stick and bound for the open corner.

That's 7.

Next shift came another slash although this one more a run-of-the-mill hockey play that happens when you're battling -- a soft one-hander to the hands from Erik Haula.

That's 8.

Two shifts later came another one, this one with some venom. While Gaudreau was positioned in front of the Minnesota net without the puck, Suter delivered a hard whack to the hands.

That's 9.

Then it was time for Zucker to perform a solo act.

It began with a swipe at the hands by the Wild left winger. Next shift came three more. First, a more purposeful swing at his hands as Gaudreau ducked behind his own net. On the ensuing rush up ice, Zucker delivered two solid whacks on the left glove as he chased him.

That's 13.

Now to be fair, Gaudreau delivers his shares of slashes through a game too, especially on a forecheck. On this occasion, he takes a swipe at Suter deep in the Minnesota corner, who then returns the favour by whacking him right back as they both head up ice.

Into the second period now, it's Suter again. As Gaudreau skates through the slot without the puck, it's another whack to that left hand. This one stings noticeably as he gives his glove a shake right after.

That's 15.

Back on the power-play in which a string of penalties with a TV time-out mixed in resulted in a lengthy 2:51 shift for Gaudreau, the slashes began once again on zone entries as the Flames do their usual and make a drop pass to Gaudreau, who charges over the Wild blueline with speed, but right into the line of fire each time.

Mikael Granlund gets him with a one-hander. Next approach, it's Koivu with a similar one-hander.

That's 17.

Playing four-aside, it's Suter again, this time chopping him as Gaudreau darts through the neutral zone and then for good measure, mugging him with his glove and hauling him to the ice for a well-earned interference penalty.

Back on the man advantage and still on this lengthy shift, Eric Staal delivers a two-hander to the gloves. Again, Gaudreau shakes his hand.

That's 19.

Into the third period, it's another encounter with Folin. Skating through the neutral zone and again without the puck, the Wild defenceman stands him up with a cross-check into the same hands and wrist area. Gaudreau turns immediately turns and heads to the bench.

That's 20.

Lastly, on shift 17 for Gaudreau, it's one more whack into the hands, this one by Staal finishes his night.

That's 21. Or black jack. Or black and blue.

Sticks and Bones

There are apparently two problems with our hands and wrists when it comes to the NHL justice system:
  1. They don't break in half when slashed.
  2. They don't separate from our body when slashed.

If so, maybe the increase in stick-work that Gaudreau (and other star forwards, to be fair) seem to be subject to these days wouldn't be an issue.

What I mean by this is when are slashing penalties most often called? When a player's stick is slashed. It's as if every broken stick comes equipped with a chalk outline and a roll of police tape.

All the time, it is the outcome in which the severity of the crime is decided. No matter how soft of a slashing motion it may be, it seems that any slash to the stick is an automatic penalty if either the stick is knocked out of a player's hands (see Garnet Hathaway last night) or if the stick breaks.

Of course, the flaw with this line of thinking is the frequency in a game in which sticks will just shatter on their own when hardly touched or sometimes not even touched at all. With the composite stick material compromised from an earlier incident(s) -- maybe a skate blade went over it, or from normal wear and tear -- we've all seen sticks explode in the shaft when doing something as simple as receiving a pass, preparing to shoot or just taking a face-off.

Meanwhile, all the time, whacks and slashes that make direct contact to the 27 bones that make up the human hand and wrist are often shrugged off. If only X-Ray vision was a real thing and not just in comic books. Is this what it's come to? The NHL is more concerned about $250 hockey sticks than the million dollar hands of its star players?

Final Word

As of early Wednesday morning, there is no word yet on Gaudreau's condition. Safe to say all Flames fans as well as the entire organization are collectively holding their breath.

Think about it. A broken wrist, for example, could sideline him for eight weeks. Lose a $6.75 million hockey player like Johnny Hockey for two months, or one-third of the hockey season, and you may as well attach a $2 million price tag to the slash that got him, and it went unpenalized. That's the equivalent of 8,000 broken hockey sticks.

And don't kid yourself, a long-term injury to Gaudreau doesn't just hurt his own team, it hurts the league. Calgary is three days away from departing on a six-game Eastern road trip with once-a-season stops in Detroit, Buffalo, Columbus, Boston, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. That's a lot of big hockey markets and would be a huge missed opportunity for the NHL to showcase one of the most exciting players in the game.

It's time for the league to get its priorities straight and forget about the slashing of sticks, but crack down on the slashing of bones, or expect teams to take protection into their own hands.

Heck, if you're the Flames, you should anyway. Teams need to know that it's not OK to take liberties on your marquee player. Micheal Ferland, Garnet Hathaway, Troy Brouwer, Sean Monahan and others, this is a responsibility the entire team should share.

Because without Gaudreau's silky-smooth hands in the line-up, you can forget about the post-season. If that happens and it results in another disappointing year, it will be disgruntled fans that will be delivering the next salute and it will be comprised of slashes also, as in how much of their income they're prepared to spend on season tickets.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Deryk Engelland: A Lighthouse on Defence, Standing out Amongst a Dark and Stormy Sea

If only the rest of the Flames blueline were playing as consistently as Deryk Engelland.

It's a statement that would have got you cut-off at the bar the last couple years, but this season, truer words may never have been spoken and it sums up what's been a disappointing start for a team in which there were greater expectations.

Steady but never spectacular... Wait, make that rarely spectacular.

But seriously, as the club's oldest player at 34 years and seven months, Engelland has played a simple, no-frills game all season. If the Flames were getting anywhere near that degree of consistency out of his much-higher profile and higher-paid colleagues like Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton and Dennis Wideman, this team would not be in the mess it finds itself.

"Probably the best start to a season I've ever had, for sure," said Engelland, when I asked him this weekend if he felt he was playing the best hockey of his career. "So far, I'm pretty happy with my game individually, but we've got to work on some things as a team."

No kidding.

At 5-10-1, the Flames wake up Monday morning as the owner of the league's worst record. Only Arizona has fewer points but the Coyotes hold two games in hand.

While plus-minus is a stat has its detractors and I get it, this is also a results-based business as they say. In this instance, that statistic seems to support what the eyeballs are seeing and that is a guy that has been Calgary's most consistent defenceman over the first 16 games.

A glance at how the Flames defence have performed at even-strength:
  • TJ Brodie - 16 gm, 18:48 TOI, 18 GA (-11)
  • Dougie Hamilton - 16 gm, 14:11 TOI, 16 GA (-9)
  • Mark Giordano - 16 gm, 18:12 TOI, 15 GA (-3)
  • Jyrki Jokipakka - 12 gm, 14:20 TOI, 8 GA (-3)
  • Deryk Engelland - 16 gm, 15:29 TOI, 7 GA (+8)
  • Dennis Wideman - 9 gm, 16:23 TOI, 6 GA (+3)
  • Brett Kulak - 8 gm, 15:14 TOI, 5 GA (+3)

No team has a greater negative goal differential than the Flames at minus-20 (Vancouver is next at -15) and yet somehow, Engelland ranks in the top 20 in the entire NHL in plus-minus (+8). It's astounding, really.

"He's gotten more minutes this year and he's ran with it," says coach Glen Gulutzan. "He's one of the guys that has taken what we've given him and gotten better with it."

Trust Breeds Confidence 

A word you hear all players -- young and old -- talk incessantly about is confidence and it's a frame of mind that can be elusive. When you have it, you play at your best, but when you don't, every shift becomes much more difficult.

"The last couple years, I've started the season playing 10-12 minutes per night. Coming in this season and being able to play 18-20 minutes right from the start, it's a big confidence booster and you ask anyone, confidence is a huge part of the game," says Engelland. "If you're playing with confidence, you're playing well and making the easy plays. If you're not playing with as much or maybe you're gripping your stick, you're trying not to make a mistake."

The latter is no way to play effective defence in the world's best hockey league.

"He's a mature NHL player," says Gulutzan. "He knows what his role is. He knows how to play within himself. When he doesn't, I remind him and it doesn't take him long. His ups aren't that high and his lows aren't that low. He's an evolved NHL player. He knows his role in the league."

Gulutzan, of course, knows Engelland from when he coached him for two seasons in the ECHL over a dozen years ago, back when he was fresh out Moose Jaw in the WHL.

"He was a guy that I knew his character," Gulutzan sayss. "There was probably a level of comfort with me with him. He's a real leader in our locker room. The style we're playing, he's played before. He's played in Pittsburgh and a lot of the things weren't new to him and he's hit the ground running. He's a guy that obviously we trust and we lean on for leadership."

Partner's Perspective

Ask someone like Brett Kulak, who has played beside him quite a bit, including most of his NHL time last year, and that same word comes up again -- consistency.

"He goes about his business the same way every day and it shows in his play," says the 22-year-old understudy. "His consistency is always there and you know what you're going to get from him every night and that's why I've thrived playing with him. I know we're going to be simple in our own zone, we're going to talk a lot and just play a hard game."

Twelve years apart in age, Kulak says he can learn a lot from seeing how Engelland -- 15th oldest defencemen in the league -- goes about his business.

"Just watching him, it goes back to his consistency and I'm sure he's learned that over his career. He never comes to the rink with the thought, oh I need to do way more than this or way more than that. He just trusts his own game and knows he'll just do the right things."

Goalie's Perspective

While they've only had a short time together, goaltender Chad Johnson enjoys playing behind Engelland because you know what you're going to get.

"It's just that simplicity in his game. Being in good spots," Johnson says. "It's the experience that he has that makes him consistent. If you have an older guy, you want him to be steady, relied upon, can play big minutes and kill penalties, block shots. He does that for us."

As to why he's been able to put together a solid season in a turbulent year in which so many other players are struggling, Johnson sees a guy that is simply playing within himself.

"He's consistent and as a team, you model yourself around the consistency in the way he plays. Not his style, obviously, it has to be your own way, but the way he brings that consistency and that focus in practice and you expect that steadiness from a veteran guy."

In contrast, Johnson says much of the rest of the team is almost trying too hard.

"When you're not having success, everybody pushes. Everybody tries to do sometimes too much," says Johnson. "For us, it's up in our heads, and making sure we're dialed into the details. What is killing us right now is little mental mistakes in either coverages or positioning and at the end of the day, the teams that make less mistakes will win hockey games, especially when they're in the area around the net.

"For us, the mental side is making sure we're dialed in every game, from start to finish, every shift, every play, making sure we're engaged and not trying to over-coach. Everybody wants to say oh we've got to do this, we've got to do that, these guys should be doing this, they should be doing that. It's hard not to just say control what you can control as an individual and make sure you're focused."

Future Gazing

If there's one thing we've learned lately is the NHL is becoming more and more of a young man's game where 30 seems to be the new 35. The league is faster now than ever before.

That makes it even more surprising that Engelland, not the swiftest of skaters, has been able to enjoy some modest success. We're still talking about a third-pairing calibre of player, but used frequently in a top-four role this year, he hasn't hurt the team. Far from it.

Going back to 2002-03, Calgary has only had three defencemen in the line-up that have been older. Included is their age in years and days (per Hockey Reference) as of their final game for the Flames: 

  • Bryan Marchment - 36 years, 351 days - Apr. 17, 2006
  • Adrian Aucoin, 35 years, 298 days - Apr. 27, 2009
  • Cory Sarich - 34 years, 253 days - April 26, 2013

When he appears in Calgary's next game, Tuesday night in Minnesota, Engelland will be 34 years and 224 days. He will pass Sarich by mid-December.

Playing the best hockey of his career, the pending unrestricted free agent come July 1 doesn't feel like he's near the end. Far from it.

"I'd like to definitely get a couple more years in, for sure. My body is feeling good, I feel healthy. If I can get (a contract), I'm going to take it," Engelland says.

With Las Vegas entering the NHL next season and that being his off-season home the last several years, I asked him if playing 'at home' had any allure.

"Either way you're going to play there," he says with a wry smile.

Fair enough. Whether it's as the home team or the visiting team, it's safe to say he would enjoy that opportunity.

Final Word

Engelland says he hasn't thought a lot about free agency, but admits it's always in the back of your mind. From listening to him talk, you can also tell that he's been paying attention to the last couple off-seasons and how the landscape for aging free agents has changed. The work for players his age isn't nearly as plentiful as it once was.

"At the end of the day, I just want to get a contract, no matter where it is. I don't want to set my sights on one place, and then you don't have anything and you're going on a PTO. My main goal is to continue to play well, and hopefully the contract will take care of itself."

He says there have been no talks with the Flames and that's not surprising at this early stage. But the way he's playing and in a season in which Ladislav Smid and Dennis Wideman also come off the books at year's end as well as there being a very real a risk of losing one of the club's young blueliners -- either Kulak or Jyrki Jokipakka in the expansion draft, Calgary could do worse for a presumably cheap, depth defenceman.

"That would be great, but right now. I'm just going to go day by day, playing my game, and trying to help us win."

It's the type of simple approach that right about now might be the best thing for Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton to try and inject into their own games. Heck, even the struggling forwards could learn something from Engelland's methodical approach. If Calgary's best players can get back to being their best players, the nice seasons being enjoyed by depth guys like Matt Stajan and Engelland could bode well.

"I've always believed on teams that I've been on that those kinds of guys are the guys that make the difference. The third and fourth line guys, the 5-6 d-men, that's where it matters," says Johnson. "Everybody has a top two lines that are pretty equal. You have other teams that have skilled guys like Johnny, they all have goal scorers, but it's the bottom lines, the guys that do the dirty work, that don't get a lot of recognition, who make the difference in winning hockey games."

The Flames quest to find consistency as a team continues Tuesday night in Minnesota. They're back at the Saddledome on Wednesday when the Coyotes come calling.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick -- both on the Flames 2016-17 season, and on what could be Engelland's final season in a Calgary uniform.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

FF80F Podcast: Episode 8 - Reporter Wes Gilbertson Stops in to Discuss the Flames Woes

Fire the coach, start over with the special teams... all those refrains are out there from frustrated Flames fans as for the second season in a row, Calgary has gotten off to a slow start.

On Friday morning, after the latest loss, a 4-2 decision to the Dallas Stars, PostMedia beat writer Wes Gilbertson joined me in the Saddledome press box, aka makeshift sound studio, and we tackled the topics that have fans fuming.

Topics Broached
  • Glen Gulutzan, what he's going through and his future in question
  • What ails the special teams and how to snap out of it
  • Reflecting on the Nicklas Grossmann experiment 
  • The Pacific Division and are playoff chances realistic
  • We also answered these reader/listener questions submitted to Facebook

Options to Download/Listen

You will be able to download Flames at 80 Decibels from all your favourite websites soon, as well as through your regular podcast player or app. Here are a few of the more popular links to where you can download the latest episode:

Catching up On What You've Missed

The good news about summer podcasts is for the most part, they're all still very much relevant. After all, there hasn't been much Flames news lately. So if you haven't heard them all yet, check them out:
  • Episode 7 - On Oct. 30, Kristen Odland from PostMedia stopped by and we looked back on a roller-coaster month of October. We also discussed Glen Gulutzan's unique coaching methods.
  • Episode 6 - On Sept. 20, before leaving the rookie tournament in Penticton, Ryan Leslie from Flames TV stopped by and we discussed which prospects stood out and  also who didn't. Includes some great insight into who Matthew Tkachuk is off the ice and his background.
  • Episode 5 - On August 28, PostMedia sportswriter and longtime Flames beat reporter Scott Cruickshank stopped by to look ahead to the season as well as reminisce about the 2004 Stanley Cup run and what it was like to cover that series both home and away. 
  • Episode 4 - On August 14, Ryan Leslie from Flames TV stopped by and provided a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes with the Flames -- on the charter, etc. Other topics included who will play RW on the top line, who will benefit the most from the new coach.
  • Episode 3 - On August 5, I connected with Mr. Kerr again, this time to dig into a variety of other off-season topics like the Gaudreau/Monahan contract 'stalemate', Troy Brouwer and expansion.
  • Episode 2 - In the more technically-sound second episode (thanks to Rob Kerr's audio equipment) on July 19, Rob joined me as co-host and we debated the Flames season-opening roster. 
  • Episode 1 - In the July 11 impromptu pilot, featuring zero technology, I recapped development camp. This was was a solo effort with sub-part technology but fresh on the heels of the prospects being in town, lots of good stuff discussed.

We'll have another podcast out later in November. Will the outlook be brighter or will the skies still be cloudy. We'll have to see. Thanks for listening

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