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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.




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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6 comments:

  1. The difference between a Ferland body check and say one from Dougie Hamilton, or Sean Monahan, is the power behind it. Brouwer may have more, but not the game-changing, teeth-rattling, hits of Ferly.

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    1. Punishing, board-swaying, but clean. The Canucks claims of charging from two years ago are mute now. Clean but with a lot of ferocity.

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  2. A good read as usual. Like your data digging, analysis and thoughts putting together.

    A suggestion to your blog is to make your comment area easier to access. The single reason I read flames nation more is because the discussions, fights, and occasional trollings, which is often more interesting than those blogs. It is too quiet here.

    - Ting

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the input and I would prefer that the comment area is more prominent as it's very subtle. But as best I can tell, the comment area is what it is for this content platform so like a Dennis Wideman contract, I'm stuck with it.

      Delete
  3. Intellectually your columns are so far ahead of FN Darren, it's a total blowout. Keep those people there for gawdsake. Your sign in is really no more difficult, and your replies are thoughtful and encouraging.

    ReplyDelete