Saturday, December 24, 2016

Ho Ho Ho! Eight Presents For Flames Fans Found Under this Year's Christmas Tree

We've arrived at the NHL's three-day Christmas break after a hectic first three months to the 2016-17 season. No team has played more often than the Flames, who along with six other teams have 36 games in the books.

It's a true three-day break as teams will not (and cannot per the CBA) reassemble until Dec. 27. On that day, the Flames -- like the other nine visiting teams in action that evening -- will do the very rare thing of travelling to their destination city on the same day as the game. Calgary will make the flight to Denver as they open up after the break against Jarome Iginla and the Colorado Avalanche.

Calgary heads into the break feeling good after a decisive victory on Friday night over the Vancouver Canucks in a game they thoroughly dominated from start to finish, outshooting the visitors 37-14.

In the spirit of the holiday season, here are eight presents left for Flames fans under this year's Christmas tree after the fat man in red wiggled his way down the chimney last night. Feel free to start unwrapping them immediately.

1. A Turning Point (from Eric Staal)

On Nov. 15 when star forward Johnny Gaudreau left early in the third period thanks to a broken finger from an Eric Staal slash, it was supposed to be a death sentence. Instead, it was the opposite as it gave the team an injection of life.

It's like the light bulb suddenly went on. Starting in the third period that night when they had to protect a 1-0 lead against a team that has been one the league's hottest, team defensive play and details were going to be key.

What followed was a renewed focus on a team game, boosted by some phenomenal goaltending from Chad Johnson. During the 10 games Gaudreau missed, Calgary remarkably went 6-3-1, which was a nearly identical point percentage to the 12-6-3 the Flames achieved without Mark Giordano after his season-ending injury two seasons ago.

"When you're missing your top guy, we needed to come together as a group to play a certain way," said coach Glen Gulutzan earlier in December, just prior to Gaudreau's return. "It was an opportunity with him out of the line-up for us to embrace a style of hockey that's not only going to get you to where you want to go, but it's long lasting. It gives you permanent longevity. It was a chance for us to get together and play that way. I think that's been a good rallying point for our guys."

It certainly has been a rallying point. Going back to that night in St. Paul, Calgary has been a much improved team.

Best Point Percentage Since Nov. 15:

1. Columbus, 19 gm, 16-1-2, .895
2. Minnesota, 19 gm, 13-3-3, .763
3. Philadelphia, 20 gm, 13-5-2, .700
4. Washington, 18 gm, 11-4-3, .694
T5. Calgary, 20 gm, 13-6-1, .675
T5. Pittsburgh, 20 gm, 12-5-3, .675

Compare that mark to the team's dismal .344 point percentage in the first five weeks in which they went 5-10-1 in the first 16 games. That's a stunning .331 improvement from Gulutzan's crew.

At the end of October, I wrote how slow starts for new coaches is common and of the many recent examples cited, the top three also saw their teams turn the corner at the same 16 or 17-game mark:
  • Mike Sullivan - Improved by .272 PT% after 17 gm in Pittsburgh
  • Dave Hakstol - Improved by .223 PT% after 16 gm in Philadelphia
  • Jon Cooper - Improved by .210 PT% after 16 gm in Tampa Bay

As you can see, the before and after splits for Gulutzan at this moment are literally off the charts.

Now I would strongly suggest that continuing to play .675 hockey over the final 46 games is a tad ambitious. But if Calgary can play in the vicinity of .575 hockey and finish up 25-18-3, for example, that would get them to 91 points and into a playoff spot based on current projections.

For a history refresher, while two years ago Calgary finished in the second wild card spot with 97 points, last year the Wild made it with 87 points and in 2013-14, Dallas got in with 91 points.

2. A Playoff Race (from Glen Gulutzan)

The Flames go into the Christmas break in a playoff spot. Well, sorta. Sorted by points, Calgary owns the second wild card spot in the Western Conference but Nashville, three points back but with three games in hand has a better point percentage by the ever-so-slight two-hundredths of a percentage point.

Nonetheless, the rise has been nothing short of staggering given less than six weeks ago, the Flames had the worst record in the NHL.

NHL's Western Conference Standings - By Point Percentage:

Pacific Division

1. San Jose, 34 gm, 21-12-1, .632
2 Edmonton, 36 gm, 18-12-6, .583
3. Anaheim, 35 gm, 17-12-6, .571

Central Division

1. Minnesota, 33 gm, 21-8-4, .697
2. Chicago, 36 gm, 22-9-5, .681
3. St. Louis, 35 gm, 18-12-5, .586

Wild Card

1. Los Angeles, 34 gm, 17-13-4, .559
2. Nashville, 33 gm, 15-13-5, .530
3. Calgary, 36 gm, 18-16-2, .528
4. Dallas, 35 gm, 14-14-7, .500
5. Winnipeg, 36 gm, 16-17-3, .486
6. Vancouver, 35 gm, 14-18-3, .443
7. Arizona, 34 gm, 11-18-5, .397
8. Colorado, 33 gm, 12-20-1, .379

Worth noting is the Flames have yet to face Nashville. The potentially crucial three-game season series does not begin until Jan. 19 in Calgary. The two sides will also face in Nashville on Feb. 21 and in Nashville again on Mar. 23.

3. A Dangerous Power Play (from Dave Cameron)

Maybe the issue with the man advantage early in the year was not realizing that batteries were not included.

The Flames have certainly been plugged in and powered up on the power play lately. Seems they're either scoring, or are coming darn close to scoring every time. It's come to the point where you expect them to score.

Despite Calgary (10) having played the fewest games in the league this month (Toronto and San Jose are the other two), the Flames' 14 power play goals in December are a league-high.

NHL's Best Power Plays in December:

1. Calgary, 14 for 38, 36.8%
2. Edmonton, 13 for 43, 30.2%
3. Anaheim, 11 for 39, 28.2%
4. Pittsburgh, 13 for 48, 27.1%
5. Columbus, 10 for 39, 25.6%

As result of this surge, Calgary has climbed from 30th less than three weeks ago to 15th heading into the break.

Those 14 goals comes after the team mustered only eight in total over October and November.

4. Tkachuk in a (Penalty) Box (from Jim Benning)

In my latest Flames at 80 Decibels podcast just posted a couple days ago,'s Aaron Vickers and I revisited the last six NHL Drafts from a Flames perspective and assessed how Calgary did. Obviously, it's too early to make final declarations on many of those drafts but we did a check-in and discussed how they shook down.

Included in our discussion was a look back at last year when Vancouver general manager Jim Benning opted to take Finnish defenceman Olli Juolevi at No. 5, enabling the Flames to happily scoop up his London Knights teammate Matthew Tkachuk with sixth pick.

Maybe several years down the road, Vancouver will end up satisfied with taking the first defenceman off the board but we'll see. Draft history suggests that rarely does the first defenceman taken end up being the best defenceman. In fact, often there could be several defencemen that end up better. Meanwhile, Calgary got exactly what they needed and in the form of a much safer forward -- and one with NHL bloodlines.

Regarding Tkachuk, who is sixth in the NHL in penalty minutes but is also second in the league when it comes to drawing penalties, Gulutzan has said he'd rather tame a mustang than train a mule. Truer words have never been spoken. This kid is certainly a pest and you see it nearly every shift.

Playing on the Flames critically-important shutdown line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, a huge amount of responsibility to put on the shoulders of a kid that just turned 19, he's handled it very well. That trio, since they've been formed, has been Calgary's top line in terms of consistently solid performance.

They were in the middle of the offence on Friday night too. Backlund tied a career-best with his first three-point game of the season and eighth of his career. Frolik had a couple helpers and Tkachuk, an agitator all night once again, potted the empty netter.

Going back to Oct. 25 when after two nights spent watching and learning from the press box, Tkachuk was inserted back in the line-up (and onto the Backlund-Frolik line) in his Dad's old haunt in St. Louis, he has been among the NHL's top scoring rookies.

NHL Rookie Scoring - Since Oct. 25

1. Patrik Laine WPG, 31 gm, 15-10-25
2. Mitch Marner TOR, 28 gm, 7-16-23
T3. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 27 gm, 6-12-18
T3. Auston Matthews TOR, 28 gm, 11-7-18
5. Zach Werenski CBJ, 28 gm, 4-12-16

One of my eight bold predictions prior to the start of the season was that Tkachuk would be a finalist for the Calder. Such a thing was always going to be an extreme longshot given the calibre of rookie class in the NHL this year but if voters look beyond point totals and look at impact, role, etc., this could happen.

5. More Ice Time for Ferland (from Kris Versteeg)

Whether it's due to injury, poor play, or penalties, the player that has clearly established himself as Gulutzan's top nine next-in-line guy is Micheal Ferland, who is having a terrific season and has earned that pending promotion.

One wonders if the 24-year-old winger is about to find himself on a line with Sean Monahan and Kris Versteeg after a friendly-fire incident on Friday in which the club lost the services of Troy Brouwer.

On a harmless looking play late in the first period, Versteeg's dump-in from centre hit Brouwer on the hand and the immediate discomfort was apparent as he winced in pain as he dropped his stick and shook his glove.

Maybe Brouwer will be just fine and for that reason, a gift receipt has been included with this present. But there does appear to be reason for concern given it wasn't immediately dismissed by Gulutzan post-game as minor.

"We're going to take another image of (Brouwer's) hand and see how it goes," said Gulutzan. "We'll take a look at that, again, then we'll have to make a decision in the next day or two."

Brouwer is on an ironman streak of 309 games. The last time he missed a game was March 5, 2013, when he played for Washington. He did not play that night against the Boston Bruins due to illness.

His last injury was a minor shoulder injury in early April 2011 while playing for Chicago. In his third NHL season, he ended up missing the final three games of the regular season but returned for the playoffs.

Brouwer has been on a nice run lately on that line with Versteeg and Monahan, helping the latter piece together a career-best 10-game point streak. While that offensive spree for Monahan was scissored this week, it was the NHL's second longest of the season and Calgary's first double-digit point streak since Kristian Huselius had a point in 15 consecutive games in 2006-07.

If you can believe it, with 8 goals and 17 points in 36 games, Brouwer is on pace to finish with the identical point total and goal-assist breakdown as a year ago with St. Louis when he scored 18 goals and had 39 points in playing the full 82 games.

6. Wins (from Garnet Hathaway)

The beat goes on for Garnet Hathaway, who seems to be the lucky rabbit's foot for the Flames. Calgary has won eight consecutive games with Hathaway in the line-up and since he was recalled in mid-November, Calgary is 13-3-1 when No. 64 is dressed.

But is it just co-incidence? I explored that discussion topic in a story earlier this week in which I identified other attributes that Hathaway brings that make up for any slight shot generation advantage that Lance Bouma may possess.

Also not to be overlooked is the penalties drawn. As noted above, Hathaway draws more penalties in his time on the ice than anyone else in the NHL and he leads by a significant margin. Given how lethal the Flames power play is right now, the ability to go out there and put his team on the man advantage is not an insignificant attribute that definitely needs to be a part of the discussion when it comes to Hathaway's value. He may not score or produce a go-ahead goal, but he could very well draw the penalty that leads to it.

That said, if the Brouwer injury ends up costing him time, Ferland is the likely guy to take his place and the spirited fourth line debate goes away as both Hathaway and Bouma will be in the line-up as the guys flanking Matt Stajan.

7. A Back-up Plan (from Brian Elliott)

The storyline all season has been Johnson's emergence as the Calgary kid wrestled away the starting reins from Brian Elliott six weeks ago. While Elliott was going through a painful seven weeks in which he never won a single game going 0-6-1, Johnson caught fire.

Back in that oh-so-familiar spot of being the underdog, it appears we're starting to see Elliott turn the corner and in his defence, he's finally getting the benefit of playing behind a team that is playing far better than when he was getting a majority of his starts early in the season.

In his last four appearances, Elliott is 2-0-1 with a 1.80 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. If you were to examine six of the 81 shots that have beat him, there's even more reason to be optimistic as I'd argue you could add an asterisk to four of them:
  • Thomas Hickey's OT goal against the Islanders was a deflection. The original shot from John Tavares changed directions sharply and slipped under his arm.
  • Sure, Elliott coughed up a juicy rebound that Alex Killorn buried 37 seconds into his third period of a relief appearance against Tampa Bay, but rust was to be expected for a guy seeing his first action in 16 days.
  • Christian Dvorak's goal in Arizona was a mistake, but it's not like it was a shot that he whiffed on. He made a bad decision with the puck along the end boards that led to a turnover that ended up in the vacated net.
  • Last night's goal by Nikita Tryamkin was not his fault in the slightest. Most goalies would not have seen that puck that deflected off the skate of Versteeg, fluttered way up in the air and like lofting a perfect horse-shoe, sailed over his head and landed right in the net behind him. It was the type of bank shot that could not be repeated if you tried it another 10,000 times.

It's a small sample but it bodes well for the veteran, who over a five-year sample size had proven coming into the season that he's a very accomplished and excellent NHL goaltender.

Another positive this week is how he has handled having to overcome some adversity in the way the Coyotes took that 1-0 lead on Monday and again with how the Canucks got their 1-0 lead last night. Given how the year has gone, those goals could have rattled him, but they didn't.

He could (should) get an opportunity to string some starts together after Christmas and maintain this mini-roll he now finds himself on.

"It feels great, just to get back in there and play some games," he said after Friday's win. "I've seen a lot and I've been around long enough to know that you keep working hard and things turn your way once in a while. They have the last couple games and I'm going to try to keep it going."

While he wasn't busy facing just 14 shots, he made a few dandy stops in the third including a sharp blocker save off Brandon Sutter on a two-on-none.

"There were a couple key saves at key moments in that game that he made for us," said Gulutzan."It's not easy (not facing many shots) and when you get three or four quality scoring chances, you've got to be sharp and I though that's what he did really well."

8. Hay-Making Kit (from the NHL schedule maker)

Look up the expression 'making hay' and it is defined as "making good use of an opportunity, while it lasts".

That opportunity is certainly upon the Flames. Last night against a dreadful-looking Canucks team, began a stretch in which six of the games over a seven-game stretch come against the three worst teams in the NHL.
  • 28th Vancouver (.443 PT%) - Dec. 23 at home (4-1 W), Jan. 6 on road, Jan. 7 at home.
  • 29th Arizona (.397 PT%) - Dec. 31 at home
  • 30th Colorado (.379 PT%) - Dec. 27 on road, Jan. 4 at home

The only other team on the docket over the next two weeks is Anaheim on Dec. 29, who Calgary gets at home and need I remind you what happened the last the Ducks stopped by the Dome. It was Dec. 4 and on the night Gaudreau returned from injury, the Flames erupted for an 8-3 victory, piling up eight goals in a game at the Saddledome for the first time since an 8-2 win over Pittsburgh on March 1, 2000.

Out of the 14 points available during this stretch, surely 10 is an absolute must if this group fancies itself a playoff team.

Happy Holidays

That's it for my pre-Christmas writing. Thank you as usual for reading, listening, and for all the favourites and retweets. I don't say it enough but it's truly appreciated.

Now it's time to spend time with my family in a break that will go fast but will be enjoyable. From my family to yours, have a safe and merry Christmas.

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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  1. As always another well-researched, well-written and very entertaining read. Always the best Flames reporting, bar none. Hopefully, you'll be able to keep this up for another 6 months!
    Merry Christmas to you and your family, Darren.

    1. I appreciate the kind words. Seemed like a topical approach and there's always lots of nuggets of information to share. The format worked! Hope you had a great Christmas too.

  2. Enjoy your holiday and much deserved time away from your keyboard, Darren. Like so many Flames fans, I find your work both insightful and well written. I especially appreciate your experiments with podcasts and that awesome article where you described a single Flames shift. Finally, thanks for always moderating our emotions -- when Flames fans are all lighting their hair on fire for one thing or another (fire Gulutzan, trade Dougie, blow up the PP), you always help to put things in perspective. @flamesfan67

    1. The catch is one cannot light their hair on fire when they have no hair to light on fire! ha ha. Thanks very much for the feedback, that means a lot. Truly. Thanks also for trying all the different formats, the podcast has been an interesting experiment for sure. Fresh and different. Cheers.