Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Too Early for Final Judgment: Five Reasons for Flames Fans to not Give Up Hope Quite Yet

First, a disclaimer. 

I'm not here to tell you things will only get better. 

I had no problem promising that when the Flames started 1-4-1. Even though their pace at the time was to finish with 41 points, nearly double the 1974-75 Washington Capitals when they went 8-67-5, this is a different era. Things were only going to get better and they did, three consecutive wins followed. 

But here we are two weeks later, Calgary has lost four of its last five, they're 5-8-1, and the residents of Flames nation are once again fuming. On pace for 64 points, I can no longer make the same promise. Just two years ago, Edmonton Oilers (62), Arizona Coyotes (56) and Buffalo Sabres (54) all finished the season south of that figure.

It would be the worst season in franchise history, eclipsing the record of 67 points set in 1997-98 -- long live Marty McInnis, Andrew Cassels and Rick Tabaracci -- but as they say, records are made to be broken.

While I'm not here to blow sunshine up your you-know-what, for fans seeking proof of playoff life, desperate for positive signs -- however minuscule -- to cling to, there are a few reasons to remain optimistic.


1. Lack of Practice Time About to Change

Nobody has played more games than Calgary. The frantic pace began when they opened the season with three games in four nights and it hasn't stopped. They're just now enjoying their first three-day break of the season. 

The result has been less practice time than anyone. It's been nearly four weeks since the season began and the Flames have had just seven legitimate practices over that span. By 'legitimate', I'm not counting optional practices like last Friday after the win in San Jose. I'm also excluding game-day skates, which are short, usually optional, and are not much more than glorified pre-game warm-ups.

The notion that a new coach, who is implementing new systems across the board from five-on-five to special teams, needs practice time to get concepts cemented does not seem like a stretch.

That relished practice time has finally arrived. Starting Tuesday, the team is scheduled to have five practices over the next seven days. The only two games over that period are both at home with the Dallas Stars in town on Thursday and the New York Rangers at the Saddledome on Saturday.



2. Still in New Coach Transition Period

I wrote this two weeks ago and it's a highly recommended read. It's basically a research piece in which I looked back at recent NHL coaching changes and examined how things began for current coaches when they started out with their new team. Turns out, there is truth to the narrative that adjustment time is needed.

While there were a handful of exceptions, 75-80 percent of the time there was a noticeable period of transition pains at the outset in which the team struggled, not dissimilar to what Calgary is experiencing at the moment. That period lasted anywhere from 13 to 22 games. Then teams turned the corner and played much-improved hockey over the remainder of the season.

As you'll see, Glen Gulutzan's record so far this season is actually right in the pocket alongside the first 4-6 weeks experienced by other big-name coaches.
  • Barry Trotz, Wsh, won 7 of his first 17
  • Peter DeBoer, SJ, won 7 of his first 15
  • Mike Sullivan, Pit, won 6 of his first 17
  • Jon Cooper, TB, won 5 of his first 16
  • Glen Gulutzan, Cgy, won 5 of his first 14
  • Lindy Ruff, Dal, won 5 of his first 13

Also not to be overlooked is the quality of team inherited by the first three names on the above list were very good. They were established, perennial playoff teams.


3. Difficult Strength of Schedule

Eleven of the 14 opponents the Flames have played so far are currently in a playoff position. With two games in Chicago already, a California trip, two games against St. Louis, there can be no denying that Calgary's schedule has been among the NHL's most difficult.

While in the moment, dropping back-to-back games to begin the season against the Oilers seemed like a disaster, it's not looking nearly as bad now with Edmonton the runaway leader in the Pacific at 9-3-1 and having beaten the likes of Washington, Winnipeg, St. Louis and last night winning in Detroit. 

View it as two points that Calgary should have had, sure, but most fans by force-of-habit are still looking at it as four points that slipped away and it's come time, reluctantly as you may be to accept it, to now look at Oilers games as auto-wins.
 
This current 'Murderer's Row' of opponents isn't going away for a while yet. The Stars and Rangers are both in playoff spots also. Same thing for Minnesota, who the Flames play a week from today. The next reprieve isn't until Arizona comes to the Saddledome on Nov. 16.


4. Best Players Not Yet Playing Their Best

Calgary sits one point out of a playoff spot and they're doing it mostly on the backs of guys like Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, Matt Stajan, Micheal Ferland and Deryk Engelland.

Inevitably, underperforming core players like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie will find their games. These are not players who have suddenly become bad players over the summer.
  
With three of those four in the first year of new, lucrative long-term deals, maybe there is something to the idea of guys trying too hard, trying to do too much. The pressure of their new salaries setting in quickly when the team struggled out of the gate. Regarding the Flames top forward duo in particular, that was an explanation tendered by President of Hockey Operations, Brian Burke, when he visited with the Sportsnet960 morning show on Monday.

With it more of a 'when' question than an 'if', for when Calgary's best players get back to being their best players, it would be reasonable for one to expect the frequency of wins to increase when that does happen. 
 
Plus, with all of them fixtures on the power play, that troubling area of Calgary's game should also improve considerably. Gaudreau has been on the ice for over 48 minutes of power play time yet the team has generated just two goals with him out there. Nobody that follows the Flames needs to be told that he's obviously capable of playing much better. Perhaps a better night in Anaheim on Sunday was the start of the turnaround. 



5. Process Has Been Better Than the Results

Two years ago, the Flames were winning but doing so in a fashion that was deemed unsustainable due to their near league-worst poor possession numbers. They ranked 28th with a SAT% Close of 45.25 (ratio of shot attempts for versus shot attempts against at even-strength when the game is 'close'). Having fended off regression for that entire season, enough to creep into the playoffs, that regression set in last season, clobbering Calgary over the head.
   
In their concerted effort to get better in that area, the Flames have been a better possession team this season. Much better, in fact. Ranked 26th last year (47.07), they currently rank 15th (49.64) in SAT% Close. You saw signs of that improvement last road trip. Lost in the facade of what on the surface looked like a brutal 1-3-0 road trip was the fact that through two periods while the game was close, the Flames had outplayed Chicago, outshooting them 26-15. They were also right there with Anaheim through two periods, outshooting them 22-16.

In both of those instances, it was a power play goal against that eventually broke a tie and gave the Blackhawks and Ducks a lead they would not relinquish.

The Los Angeles game was a dreadful, arguably the second-worst loss in team history as I noted here. But there were positives to take out of the other three games.

Just like two years ago, if winning wasn't sustainable with bad possession numbers, nor should losing be given the team's improvement in that area.


Final Word
 
With the addition of Troy Brouwer and Matthew Tkachuk and the upgrade in net by adding established veterans in Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, the team was advertised as being better. The new coach was supposed to add to that.
 
Maybe they are and maybe they're not, but less than a month into a six-month regular season, the one thing that is certain is it's still far too early to pass final judgement



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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