Friday, December 09, 2016

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Instrumental Reasons Behind the Flames Stunning Turnaround

You've heard of the Sweet 16.

This was the Sour 16.

It took five weeks, during which Calgary won only five times. During that 16-game span, #FireGully became a thing on social media and there was much fury and unrest in Flames nation. Understandable too. After all, where was this team that was supposed to be so much improved from a year ago.

It eventually arrived, just a little later than expected.

Like so many coaches before him, new coach Glen Gulutzan did not avoid the transition blahs that seem to come as part of the package when one is starting out behind the bench of a new NHL team. However, also like so many new coaches before him, eventually the team grew more comfortable with the systems being implemented and has turned the corner, with recent results proving that.

The point in time where the city-wide frown began to turn upside down -- and for a variety of reasons that all played a part -- was mid-November.

While lots of things started to happen around that time, something that sticks out for me is the first-year coach finally got an extended period of practice time with his new team. After just seven practices in nearly four weeks to start a very hectic and busy beginning to the season, he finally had the luxury of five practices in a seven-day span from Nov. 8-14. I'm not talking leisurely game-day skates either, this is five full-on, 75-90 minute practices that came at a point in the schedule where the team was at home and only had two visitors over that period -- Dallas and the New York Rangers.

The results since speak volumes as Calgary has gone from the worst team in the league (by winning percentage) to third-best. Now that is some kind of turnaround.

Period ending Nov. 14:

25. Colorado, 14 gm, 6-8-0, 12 pts, .429
26. Carolina, 14 gm, 4-6-4, 12 pts, .429
27. Vancouver, 16 gm, 6-9-1, 13 pts, .406
28. NY Islanders, 16 gm, 5-8-3, 13 pts, .406
29. Arizona, 14 gm, 5-9-0, 10 pts, .357
30. Calgary, 16 gm, 5-10-1, 11 pts, .344

Period starting Nov. 15:

1. Columbus, 11 gm, 8-1-2, 18 pts, .818
2. St. Louis, 11 gm, 8-2-1, 17 pts, .773
3. Calgary, 14 gm, 10-3-1, 21 pts, .750
4. Philadelphia, 13 gm, 9-3-1, 19 pts, .731
5. NY Islanders, 10 gm, 6-2-2, 14 pts, .700

   
While some may want to dscount the merit of the team's record over this recent stretch due to it being a softer part of the schedule, there are two counter-arguments I would present:
  1. Also a Condensed Schedule - The frequency of games has significantly added to the difficulty. e.g. A six-game in nine-day road trip with two back-to-backs is insane. Calgary's 14 games dating back to Nov. 15 is more than any other team.
  2. Quality of Opponent - While by reputation, some of the teams faced aren't as tough as the teams faced earlier in the year, it's worth noting that of the NHL's five hottest teams of late as listed above, Calgary has played three of them recently -- Columbus, Philadelphia and the NY Islanders.  

So what gives? Here are eight reasons that have been instrumental for the Flames turnaround.


1. Good Kind of Identity Crisis

Imagine if there was a third Sedin.

Distinguishing between Henrik and Daniel is difficult enough. Heck, I've seen Canucks beat writers double-checking with the team's media relations staff to make sure they know which one they're talking to.

Add in a third and the inability to figure out which is which would be infinitely more difficult. Well, you know what is like that right now? The Flames situation when it comes to their top nine forwards.

When Calgary's lines are tweeted out on the day of the game, different media members will list them in a different order. When referring to them on the broadcast, Kelly Hrudey's numbering system doesn't necessarily jive with mine. When they're listed on the Flames website, there is often a third variation.

When Johnny Gaudreau burst upon the scene a couple years back and found chemistry with Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler, there was no doubt, which was the No. 1 line.

That's no longer the case and in the Flames, a three-way battle to be the No. 1 unit is a good thing.

It's easy to call Gaudreau's line the top line. After all, he's the top player. But up the middle and on the right side, it could be argued that linemates Sam Bennett and Alex Chiasson are both third on the depth chart at centre and right wing respectively.

OK, is it the Monahan line then? After all, this is your first round pick from 2013, who has been operating as the team's No. 1 centre for much of his career. Maybe. But he has not been Calgary's best centre this season and operating with Kris Versteeg, and most recently Michael Ferland on the left side of his line with Troy Brouwer, those aren't top line guys.

For a majority of the season, although they tend to get stereotyped as the second or third line, the trio of Mikael Backlund, Mikael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk line has been the best unit. They continue to play well too. They're scoring, they relentlessly defend. They've been good.

I don't have the answer to how you list them from 1-3 other than don't get too hung up on it as they're all playing well these days and while the ice time may vary game to game, sometimes depending on who they're playing, the bottom line is Calgary's top nine is looking as formidable as it's been in quite a while.


2. Johnson Doing Kiprusoff Things

It was only a matter of time before Chad Johnson's handiwork in the Flames net of late -- 10-2-0 in his last 12 games, 1.57 GAA, .948 SV%, three shutouts -- would start conjuring up Miikka Kiprusoff comparisons.

Well, here you go. By making five straight starts and winning all five games, Johnson becomes the first goaltender to pull that off since Kiprusoff did it five seasons ago.

The distinction is those five wins came in consecutive games for Calgary. Karri Ramo also had a five-game winning streak with the Flames last season, but it was not continuous games. Going back to last December when Calgary won seven in a row, Ramo was in net for the first three. Then Jonas Hiller got in for a couple victories. Then Ramo returned and picked up two more wins.

Looking ahead, should Johnson get the start and win again against Winnipeg on Saturday, he'll again tie a mark last done by Kiprusoff . The Finn strung together six straight starts/victories from October. 21 to November 1, 2008.

On a one-year deal and able to be re-signed after January 1, there's been a lot of speculation recently  about the Calgary kid's future and whether re-signing him makes sense given he's already 30.

For local context, when Kiprusoff turned 30, he had 83 NHL wins. He finished his career with 319. Seventy-four percent or nearly three-quarters of his victories came after he was in his 30s.

Johnson had 50 wins when he turned 30 last June. He's got 12 wins already this year and it looks like he's just getting going. Goalies take longer to develop but they also seem to age better than players at other positions.


3. Special Teams

Gulutzan has talked about the importance of winning the special teams battle and to that point, he has been practicing it a lot. You're finally starting to see positive strides taken and on both units.

While Calgary's overall rankings are still not great -- 27th on the power play, 26th on the penalty kill -- it's again this recent body of work that speaks volumes about the improvement.

Period Ending Nov. 14:
  • PP - 29th (5-for-53, 9.3%)
  • PK - 29th (46-for-63, 73.0%)

Period Starting Nov. 14:
  • PP - 10th (8-for-40, 20.0%)
  • PK - 8th (40-for-46, 87.0%)

In the close games that the Flames have been playing, something unlikely to change as the season goes on, special teams can be a real difference maker, as they have been in the past few weeks.

That win on Tuesday was a perfect example. A 1-1 tie into the third period and the Flames win it with a clutch power play goal. Those were the games they were losing early in the season as it was the opposition that was getting that key goal on the man advantage.


4. Gaudreau's Return Has Been a Spark

What a return it has been for Gaudreau, who has picked up multiple points in three consecutive games for the first time in his NHL career.

Of course, who can forget that first night back when Calgary fans welcomed him to the ice on Saturday against the rival Anaheim Ducks and he scored on his first shot of his first shift. The Flames piled up eight goals in a home game for the first time since March 2000.

Gaudreau was just starting to heat up at the time he went down with that broken finger with three goals in three games. He has picked up right where he left off with three straight two-point games.

On this two-game road trip to Dallas and Arizona, Gaudreau was in on all four of the team's goals. Talk about making an impact.

Of course, the operative word is 'road' trip. His home/road splits last year were worrisome as he couldn't seem to produce away from the cozy confines of the Saddledome and the team's win-loss record suffered as a result. So far this season, we're seeing a noticeable improvement in this area.

In fact, he's got six points over a four-game road scoring streak (2 goals, 4 assists). Last year, only once did he score in three straight road games and that came in February and was in the form of one assist in games in Anaheim, Los Angeles and Philadelphia that were all losses. In contrast, Calgary has won three of the four games in this recent stretch, where he's had a big impact on the game.

Gaudreau's road-home splits last season and now this season.

In 2015-16:
  • Road - 39 gm, 7-15-22
  • Home - 40 gm, 23-33-56

In 2016-17:
  • Road - 11 gm, 3-5-8
  • Home - 9 gm, 4-5-9

Overall, his scoring pace is behind where he was at last year when he was nearly a point per game, but he's quickly catching up and he could be back on that same pace by the end of December if not before.


5. Tkachuk is Kicking It

You had the sense at the time that Calgary was real fortunate to get Matthew Tkachuk at pick No. 6 in the June draft and he's done nothing to dispel that notion.

This kid is a player and while he'll have to learn to control himself a little better -- he's second in the NHL in minor penalties, tied at 16 with Bennett (Evgeni Malkin leads with 18) -- his cantankerous style of play has been a welcome addition and has given the line-up a jolt of piss-and-vinegar that it hasn't had in a long time.

That same Nov. 15 date was significant for Tkachuk as Calgary got him back after missing two games with a hand injury. Since that point, he's been playing a lot as part of the very effective trio with Backlund and Frolik.

He's not the top scoring rookie over that period. With six points (3 goals, 3 assists), Patrik Laine (6-3-9), Mikko Rantanen (2-7-9), Mitch Marner (2-5-7), Auston Matthew (5-2-7), Antthony Mantha (4-3-7) and Ivan Provorov (3-4-7) all have more points.

He doesn't lead forwards in ice time. At 16:13 over that span, Rantanen (18:03), Laine (17:48), Marner (17:40), Matthews (17:21), Sebastien Aho (16:34), William Nylander (16:28) and Mantha (16:25) are all ahead of him.

But in terms of effectiveness, he's got to be right up there. Remember, this is a guy playing with two veteran Flames that are frequently saddled with defending the opponent's most dangerous line. That's a huge factor and keeping that in mind and while also noting that he has started in the defensive zone more than almost any other rookie in the league, his 51.99 SAT% Close is an impressive advanced stat.

It takes many, many years to be able to look back on a draft with certainty and declare winners and losers but with Blue Jackets third overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois back in the QMJHL this season and Canucks fifth overall pick Olli Juolevi back in the OHL, Tkachuk is certainly off to a terrific start and is looking like the real deal. There could very well be some regrets years from now from teams that picked in the top five.


6. Rousing Road Record

Calgary continues to get things done away from home where playing a more simple, low risk, no-nonsense style of game has led to a lot of positive results.

The Flames nine road wins lead the NHL.
 
For context, last year Calgary was stuck at nine road wins as they turned the calendar to March. This year, they're already at that figure and it's not yet the middle of December.

Their play on the road has provided the team with a steady foundation and now the home record is starting to come around. Calgary is coming off a perfect 3-0-0 homestand and will begin a new three-game homestand on Saturday when the Jets visit. Following them will be the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday.


7. Best Playing Like the Best

The tying goal last night said it all for the Flames. Mark Giordano from Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. The team's three highest-paid players. Three guys that were the guys taking the most heat early in the season and rightly so, none of them were playing anywhere near their calibre.

All three of them combine for a decisive late first period goal that got last night's game back to even with it staying that way until overtime when Gaudreau got up to his usual 3-on-3 business. He started overtime on the ice and when Hamilton buried the winning goal 69 seconds later, he was still on the ice.

OK, he wasn't supposed to be. His guy had already come on and had joined the play but sensing what was going on behind him after he made a nice dish to Hamilton, Gaudreau never did exit the ice, standing near the gate instead, awaiting the red light, which sure enough came on shortly after.

After one goal in his first 27 games, Giordano has goals in two of his last three games and if not for Chiasson's skate coming off the ice a fraction of a second too soon in Dallas on Thursday, it would be three straight games with a goal for the Flames captain, who notched a career-high 20 a year ago.

Since suffering the indignity of being dropped to the fourth line against the New York Islanders on Nov. 28 while Mark Jankowski made his NHL debut between Versteeg and Brouwer, Monahan has finally started to find his game.

He scored in the third period that night in Brooklyn to begin what's now a six-game scoring streak (3 goals, 5 assists), which matches the longest streak of his career.

And we've talked about Gaudreau.

If the Flames can find a way to get TJ Brodie going and a new left-shooting defensive partner (Tyler Wotherspoon? Jyrki Jokipakaa?) that enables him to move to his natural (for him) right side would be something I would be tempted to try if I'm Gulutzan.

Although with Calgary on a five-game winning streak, don't expect much tinkering quite yet. As they say, if it ain't broke...


8. Far Less Chasing

The other thing the Flames are doing much better lately is managing the game.

Early in the season, Gulutzan's mantra to his troops was "start fast" and he preached that at the start of every game. Sure enough, the team would come flying out of the gate but often were maybe too revved up and they would get caught deep, there were bad pinches and the result was odd-man rushes against that frequently ended up in the net. Falling behind early was a recurring thing.

Eventually the message was tweaked ever so slightly. Gulutzan changed the mantra to "start smart". The hope was don't get behind early. Make good, smart decisions with the puck early and allow themselves to settle into the game. That has worked a lot better.

Examining the recent body of work, only twice in the past 14 games have they trailed by two goals. It happened against Buffalo when a 1-0 lead disappeared in the blink of an eye in the second period when the team's discipline and penalty kill imploded. They also fell behind by two in a poor effort in Philadelphia.

Beyond that, they've been playing smarter defensively, managing the puck much better and combined with Johnson's goaltending wizardry, they're giving themselves a chance to win every night and taking advantage of it on most nights.




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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2 comments:

  1. Hi Darren,

    Do you think that Ferland should play with Bennett and Gaudreau? I rather prefer Ferland with Bennett (they play well when paired) and Chaisson on the fourth line than the way it is now.

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    1. So often lines combinations can be like a game of musical chairs, wherever you are at when the music stops (i.e. when the team starts to win) then that's where you remain. The team does like to use Chiasson in that role because he is a right-handed shot and they like his ability to retrieve pucks. I'm with you that Micheal Ferland can do much of the same but I think Chiasson's game is a little bit underrated. That said, Brouwer's injury means Ferland will get a chance in a much higher profile situation so good for him. Thanks for the message.

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