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Sunday, October 30, 2016

FF80F Podcast: Episode 7 - Beat Writer Kristen Odland Guests in a Breakdown of October


The podcast is back, baby!

Truth be told, it's been top of mind for me all month but what I've been wrestling with is with the story lines changing seemingly on a daily basis, how does one do a Calgary Flames podcast that tackles those hot topics without it becoming stale before it's edited and published and available to be heard.

The off-season was easy, news doesn't change very often, but mid-season as I discovered is a trickier beast.

However, I thought I'd roll up the sleeves and get after it and defer to you -- the listeners -- and see what you think. Then we'll go from there.

Prior to Calgary's practice on Saturday morning, fresh off a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Friday night, PostMedia beat writer Kristen Odland stopped by makeshift studio in the Saddledome press box and we got after some of the topics of the day.



Topics Broached
  • The roller-coaster start to the season
  • Glen Gulutzan and some of his unique coaching methods
  • Individual performances so far, who has surprised, who has disappointed
  • Matthew Tkachuk's 'Secret Plan' and what it might be
  • Goaltending so far
  • Which prospects have shone so far down in Stockton
  • Upcoming road trip from hell -- Chicago, then off to California 

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 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.

Look for another podcast soon as we get into November, which is a busy month for Calgary involving a lot of travel. Thanks for listening.




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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    Sunday, October 23, 2016

    Recurring Issue: Slow Starts for New NHL Coaches is More Common Than You Think

    No wins in his first four games as the new coach. All four losses coming in regulation time. Outscored 15-4. Three of those four losses coming at home.

    Finally came a win, but against one of the league's worst teams in Columbus. Following that were two more losses in the next three games.

    In case you don't remember, things didn't start off so well last year for Mike Sullivan when he took over as head coach in Pittsburgh in mid-December. The reason you may have forgotten is because his season ended in June on a victory. Champagne tends to be bad for your eyes and for your memory.

    Now to be clear, I'm certainly not making the outlandish suggestion that this year's Calgary Flames are the second coming of last year's post-Mike Johnston Pittsburgh Penguins.

    But if you go back over the last few years of NHL coaching changes, there are plenty of examples of teams that suffered transition pains, such as what the Flames are persevering right now under new coach Glen Gulutzan.


    2016 Stanley Cup Was a Battle of New Coaches

    The Sullivan struggles extended even further.

    After taking over behind the Penguins bench on December 12, his record in his first 17 games was a very pedestrian 6-7-4. But after close to six weeks on the job, the team turned the corner and over the final three months of the regular season, they went 27-9-1 under his guidance for a blazing .743 point percentage (defined as points achieved divided by points available).

    Of course, Sullivan's counterpart in the Stanley Cup final, San Jose bench boss Peter De Boer, was also in his first year on the job.

    Taking over prior to the season for longtime skipper Todd McClellan, the Sharks record on Remembrance Day was a very ho-hum 7-8-0. But similar to what happened in Pittsburgh, the team settled in under the new coach, became comfortable with the changes he introduced, and they went an impressive 39-22-6 over the remainder of the regular season.

    While the Calgary Flames, considering the age of their key pieces, are nothing like the Sharks either, that's also not the point.

    History shows that even when you inherit well-built, older, established teams with high-end talent, it still takes a while for it all to come together.


    'Slow Start' Narrative is a Real Thing

    As I looked back at the NHL coaching changes that have happened the last few years, more than 75 percent of the time the team struggled at first, before things eventually clicked and away the team went.

    It was difficult to identify a typical point for when that upwards trajectory hit. In the 13 cases below, that moment came somewhere between 12 and 22 games with the median being around the 18-game mark.


    Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh, 2015-16*
    - First 17 gm, 6-7-4, .471 PT%
    - Final 37 gm, 27-9-1, .743 PT% (+.272 PT%)

    Dave Hakstol, Philadelphia, 2015-16
    - First 16 gm, 5-8-3, .406 PT%
    - Final 66 gm, 36-19-11, .629 PT% (+.223 PT%)

    Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay, 2012-13*
    - First 16 gm, 5-8-3, .406 PT% (also the final 16 gm of regular season)
    - Next season, 82 gm, 46-27-9, .616 PT% (+.210 PT%)

    Peter De Boer, San Jose, 2015-16
    - First 15 gm, 7-8-0, .467 PT%
    - Final 67 gm, 39-22-6, .627 PT% (+.160 PT%)

    Alain Vigneault, NY Rangers, 2013-14
    - First 21 gm, 10-11-0, .476 PT%
    - Final 61 gm, 35-20-6, .623 PT% (+.147 PT%)

    Barry Trotz, Washington, 2014-15
    - First 17 gm, 7-7-3, .500 PT%
    - Final 65 gm, 38-19-8, .646 PT% (+.146 PT%)

    Todd McLellan, Edmonton, 2015-16
    - First 22 gm, 7-14-1,  .341 PT%
    - Final 60 gm, 24-29-7, .458 PT% (+.117 PT%)

    Dan Bylsma, Buffalo, 2015-16
    - First 22 gm, 8-12-2, .409 PT%
    - Final 60 gm, 27-24-9, ,525 PT%  (+.116 PT%)

    Mike Babcock, Toronto, 2015-16
    - First 14 gm, 2-8-4, .286 PT%
    - Final 68 gm, 27-34-7, .397 PY% (+.111 PT%)

    Lindy Ruff, Dallas, 2013-14
    - First 13 gm, 5-6-2, .462 PT%
    - Final 69 gm, 35-25-9, .572 PT% (+.110 PT%)

    Bill Peters, Carolina, 2014-15
    - First 21 gm, 6-12-3, .357 PT%
    - Final 61 gm, 24-29-8, .459 PT% (+.102 PT%)

    Jeff Blashill, Detroit, 2015-16
    - First 17 gm, 8-8-1, .500 PT%
    - Final 65 gm, 33-22-10, .587 PT% (+.087 PT%)

    Gerard Gallant, Florida, 2014-15
    - First 12 gm, 4-4-4, .500 PT%
    - Final 70 gm, 34-25-11, .564 PT% (+.064 PT%)

    * Started mid-season


    Now there have been exceptions. Peter Laviolette in Nashville and Paul Maurice in Winnipeg dodged the new coach blues. There wasn't any noticeable transition period reflected in the win-loss record for Willie Desjardins in Vancouver or John Hynes in New Jersey either. But they represented the minority by far.


    Restless in Calgary

    Anybody following the Flames is well aware of the angst that is out there with the fan base at the moment. The pleas from furious fans to fire Gulutzan have been kicking around social media since the opening weekend.

    Calgary's 1-4-1 start in a season in which there had been so much optimism coming into it, has resulted in a lot of frustration for the players, coaching staff and fans.

    But it's been six games. Six. It's far, far too early.

    What we've learned so far is clearly it's going to take some time. Will it take 14 games? 18 games? 28 games? 40 games? Nobody knows the answer.

    What you need to do is buckle up because the roller-coaster of erratic emotions is sure to keep going for at least the next few weeks.


    Blueliner's Perspective

    I spoke with defenceman Dougie Hamilton on Saturday and he admitted there is a transition going on right now.

    "Say, fronting shots in front of the net instead of boxing out. Last year, you're used to just going to the net and looking at the D, now you're focusing on the box outs," said Hamilton, providing an example of a systematic change.

    When you've been doing it one way for six months, it does take some time to unlearn the old way and for the new way to become natural. The result during such a transition is more thinking and less reacting.

    "When it is a habit, you're doing it second nature instead of having to think, look where guys are and that goes for our whole game -- offensively as well, power play, everything," Hamilton said. "When everyone's familiar with each other and you have chemistry and everything just happens on the ice instead of having to think of where you're going, it's a lot easier."

    Hamilton, who has had three different coaches the last three NHL seasons, alluded to his time in the OHL playing for Niagara.

    "Back to my powerplay in junior, we were together for two or three years and it makes it easier to play. It's easier when you're in a comfortable situation where everyone knows what everyone's doing."

    He says it's coming along individually but it's the team's collective play when on the ice together that is coming a bit slower.

    "For me, I have no problem with the system now, it's more our full team and full unit of five doing things together consistently," said Hamilton. "We've had a lot of good times in our games but there are times where we're not so good."


    Different Ways to View The Team's Plight

    There are a number of different perspectives you can have on Calgary's rocky start. Perhaps too much was expected from a team that still finished 26th last season despite racking up a lot of end-of-season, 'garbage-time' points last year.

    The Flames are still rebuilding. This point seems to have gotten lost, perhaps because of all the off-season additions. You can toss out the window what happened two years ago when they defied the odds and went from draft lottery contender to making the post-season. As long as the roster still includes the likes of Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland, Ladislav Smid and Matt Stajan, it's fair to admit it's simply not their time quite yet.

    That said, not to be lost is how Calgary is losing. It's been bad. Like really bad.

    Their best players have been their worst. TJ Brodie, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano, Hamilton, Brian Elliott -- all have been playing like shadows of the players they are capable of being.

    Is it just adapting to a new coach? Is it the new systems? Nobody knows for certain but one thing for sure, six games is way too early to know. Give it until this time next month at least, and at that, don't expect the type of sharp ascent that the Penguins and Sharks had last year because those teams are simply way better teams than Calgary at the moment.


    Final Word

    The Flames difficult schedule coming up has also set off alarms and has some fans sheltering in place. After failing badly in this so-called easy portion of the schedule, now comes the likes of the Blues and Blackhawks on the road. The Capitals, Stars and Rangers all show up at the Saddledome. They make their way back to Illinois for another visit to the Chelsea Dagger dance hall. Oh, and add in a California road trip and not to Knott's Berry Farm, although this one does take them on three scary rides. Yikes.

    But an optimistic Troy Brouwer on Saturday suggested maybe this 'Murderer's Row' of opponents is actually the best thing that could happen as now it's time for the team to put up or shut up.

    "I think it can be a good thing. There's no easy games in the NHL, for starters, but when you're playing against the quality of teams we're about to play against in the next little stretch. It's going to make us have to elevate our game," he said.

    "Otherwise, we're going to be so far behind. So that's how we're looking at it. As a positive. We've got some tough games ahead of us, but us being in the situation we're in right now, it forces us to be better and better quickly and that's how we're approaching it."

    The way the season has begun, it's inevitable that the team will turn the corner at some point and settle in. It can't get much worse, can it? There's just too much talent for them to continue playing this poorly. However, will it be three or four wins by that 18-game mark when things typically start to take a noticeable turn for the better, or can they somehow scratch out seven or eight wins by then?

    The latter may be what's required to make the playoffs and while that sounds a tad optimistic, one thing I am far more certain of is playoffs or not, Gulutzan will still be this team's coach when the season ends.

    After all, three hours up the highway, McClellan survived a pretty poor first year in Edmonton and now in his second go-round, the Oilers are looking much more comfortable and are rolling along with five wins in their first six games, which has them in first place overall.

    Patience isn't always rewarded and hey, there's no certainties in life, but there are enough case studies out there as noted that riding out the new-coach blahs will end up worth it in the end. Yes, even if you have to plug your nose and cover your eyes to get through October.




    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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    Thursday, October 20, 2016

    Sunny in California: Stockton Unbeaten Thanks to Strong Starts for Several Prospects

    Hot and California often go together. But that wasn't the case for the Flames AHL affiliate in Stockton last season.

    But after missing the playoffs the last two years, including the season prior when Calgary's primary minor league team was located in Adirondack, coach Ryan Huska and his band of merry prospects are off to a strong start winning their first two games.

    On Wednesday night, they defeated the Texas Stars 5-1. That victory over Dallas' minor league affiliate comes on the heels of a 3-2 win in the season-opener on Saturday over the San Jose Barracuda, the minor league team for the Sharks.

    I took some time late Wednesday night to watch the replay of the Heat's game and here are some observations from that game and on the season so far.

    Thanks to Stockton's top-notch communications team of Brandon Kisker and Dustin Cowell for the quotes littered throughout.


    1. 5 & 7 Looking Good on Blueline

    Phew. Finally a good game from a Calgary top D pairing wearing No. 5 and No. 7.

    OK, that's a bit cheeky, but honestly, Tuesday night's Flames game against Buffalo had to have been the roughest combined night at the office I recall ever seeing from Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie. Meanwhile, looking steady in matching sweater numbers for the Heat last night was top duo Tyler Wotherspoon and Kenney Morrison. They even line up in the right order with Wotherspoon (No. 5) on the left and Morrison (No. 7) on the right.

    Two of the final defence cuts from training camp -- Wotherspoon having to clear waivers on his way down -- a strong season from both could help influence the decision process if there becomes an opportunity at some point, as there is less money remaining on their contracts, for general manager Brad Treliving to peddle pending UFAs Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland.

    The other two pairings, and it was the same as it was in game one, were veteran Ryan Culkin with Rasmus Andersson and longtime AHLer Colby Robak, who was in Flames camp on a PTO, lining up beside 19-year-old Oliver Kylington.

    “When you’re on your heels, those veteran guys have the ability to settle the game down. They tend to make the right plays and help the younger guys along. When you look at a guy like Colby Robak, he had a great game for us tonight and was probably our best defenseman," said Huska. "The older guys that we have this year have really been there for the younger guys and given us what we needed from them so far.”


    2. Huge Sigh of Relief from Klimchuk

    Calgary native Morgan Klimchuk missed the season-opener with a minor injury but he got back in Wednesday, playing the left side with Daniel Pribyl and Emile Poirier, and he got his season off to terrific start with a goal and an assist. Remember, this is a guy that was held to just three goals in 55 games last season and that included getting skunked in his final 33 games. It was a pretty rough go for the kid drafted in the same round as Sean Monahan three years ago.

    With all that weight on his shoulders coming into his second pro season, it only took one shift to get off the snide. Scoring for the first time since Jan. 13, Klimchuk took a pass from Poirier, split the defence, and darted in alone where he scored five-hole. It got better too. Later, during a line change, it was Klimchuk's pass to Mark Jankowski that ultimately led to a goal for Hunter Shinkaruk and just like that, Klimchuk had his first multi-point game as a pro.

    "It’s frustrating to have a lingering injury like that at the beginning of the season, but I’m fortunate to have only missed one game and be back to normal," Klimchuk said. "I felt good out there and I think I showed well.”

    When I spoke with Huska about Klimchuk in this piece in September, and at the time he was supposed to play the wing with Jankowski and Matthew Tkachuk in Penticton before a groin injury forced him to miss all three games, he predicted a breakout season for him. Well, his confidence should certainly be at a high after an encouraging season debut.


    3. Gillies is Great

    It was another terrific start for the Flames top minor league prospect on Wednesday as Jon Gillies stopped 29 of 30 shots. After a 28-save performance in the opener, Gillies has stopped 57 of 60 shots for a .950 save percentage and is off to a fine start, reminiscent of a year ago.

    The key difference is last season, his performance came with him in constant pain as he battled the hip injury that had bothered him since his second season at Providence College. That nagging issue shut his season less than a month after it began as he underwent surgery.

    While the Flames NHL goaltending is set for this season with Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, the fact remains that they are both on one-year contracts. Typically, college goalies need at least three seasons in the AHL but there have been guys that got there quicker. Jonathan Quick, pardon the pun, would be one example of an exception. If Gillies continues to prove himself to be an elite goaltender in the AHL, we'll see how that might alter Calgary's short to medium-term organizational plan for between the pipes. Maybe his runway will be shorter than anticipated. Either way, it's a positive performance from a guy who is highly touted.


    4. Holy Shinkaruk, This Kid can Score

    With Calgary going with just one extra forward right now in Freddie Hamilton, the bumps and bruises will add up eventually and they'll need to make a phone call to Stockton and bring someone up. When that occurs, one of the guys that will surely be in the conversation to get that tap on the shoulder is Shinkaruk. Especially if the Flames are looking to fill a spot in the top nine.

    This guy loves to score and this guy is good at scoring. Making it goals in consecutive games, the 22-year-old scored another beauty on Wednesday after a nifty little pass from Jankowki found him bursting up the middle with speed. He made a little juke to sidestep a Stars defender then lifted a slick backhand past the goaltender.

    "I saw the defenceman had a pretty open stick, so I just wanted to try to put it through him and my move is usually to go backhand shelf and I was lucky enough to pull it off,” said Shinkaruk.


    His goal in the opener was also pure skill as again he was set up nicely by Jankowski. This time off a turnover, he showed quick hands in burying the abbreviated breakaway.

    "These are points that are huge in making the playoffs at the end of the year, so it’s good that we’re starting off with wins," said Shinkaruk. "There’s a few things we have to get better at, but it’s nice to get a couple wins despite that.”


    5. Pribyl is a Big Dude

    There's not a lot of size in the top nine in Stockton. Klimchuk, Matt Frattin and Linden Vey are listed at 6-foot-0 but that might be generous. Then there's Shinkaruk at 5-foot-11 and Andrew Mangiapane at 5-foot-10. While Jankowski stands out for one, the other guy that looks much bigger and it has to be his extra thickness is Czech free agent signing Daniel Pribyl.

    A natural centre, the intention according to Treliving when they signed him in the spring was to use him on right wing as he is a right-shot and that was an organizational weakness. Plus, he played some wing last year in the Czech Republic. But he has started at centre both games with Poirier on his wing in both contests. He doesn't have blazing speed so you know what will be an area he has to work on but he is big and strong on the puck and appears to see the ice very well. It may take him a while to get back in top form after being out for six months after major knee surgery and missing all of training camp, but he's a guy to watch out for as the season goes on.


    6. Wotherspoon Wears an 'A'

    After spending a long time in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and the last couple years as the captain in Syracuse, Mike Angelidis was signed by the Heat to a a one-way deal to be a the necessary veteran leader for Stockton. Sure enough, he was given the 'C' with Frattin and Garnet Hathaway named the alternates.

    However, Angelidis was handed a three-game suspension earlier in the week for a delivering a shot to the head of an opponent in the season opener, an infraction that went unpenalized at the time. In his absence on Wednesday, it was Tyler Wotherspoon that was sporting an 'A', which speaks to how valuable Huska views the most experienced of Calgary's 'young' blueline prospects.


    7. Jankowski Centering the Top Line

    Someone that continues to look good and does not look like a guy adjusting to a new league is Jankowski. Perhaps his comfort in the early going can be attributed to the eight games he got in last year after signing with the Flames. As you'll recall, his NHL contract did not start until this season and that permitted him to join Stockton on an amateur try-out where he went 2-4-6 in eight games.

    Centering Stockton's No. 1 unit with Shinkaruk and Hathaway for the first two games, Jankowski had a goal and two assists on Wednesday to go with an assist in the opener. Four points in two games? Not bad. He's got lots of offensive tools and you can see the defensive awareness in his game that would have been drilled into him while playing for coach Nate Leaman in Providence. The more you watch Jankowski, service time in the NHL becomes less of an 'if' question and more of a 'when'.

    For those of you keeping track, the bottom six forwards for Stockton on Wednesday were Mangiapane on left wing with Vey and Frattin as a third line. The fourth line or 'energy line' as goes the cliche, was Ryan Lomberg between Brandon Bollig and Hunter Smith.


    8. Power Play Looking Good

    The intention the way most NHL organizations run these days is for Huska in Stockton to mimic in Stockton in every way the system play being deployed in Calgary under Glen Gulutzan. This enables players to transition into the line-up seamlessly when they get recalled. This includes using the same terminology so again, there is no confusion to what Gulutzan wants an AHL call-up to do in certain scenarios as the advice being barked from behind the bench will be consistent with what Huska is saying.

    That all said, one thing that looks vastly different from Calgary in the early going is the Stockton power play. After the Flames struggled mightily on Tuesday going 0-for-6, the Heat were moving the puck very crisply on Wednesday in going an efficient 2-for-5 with the extra man. While Calgary did try Kris Versteeg at the point briefly on Tuesday on one man advantage, going with just one natural defenceman and four forwards seems to be the modus operandi so far for Huska. With that single D often positioned at the top of an umbrella formation with his two nearest forward options one-third of the way down the wall on either side, it sure seemed to work well.

    Mangiapane's slick wrist shot for his first goal came with Wotherspoon as the lone d-man and Jankowki's one-timer in the second came with Oliver Kylington manning the point. In both cases, the four forwards were the two rookies Jankowski and Mangiapane, joined by veterans Frattin and Vey. That unit appears to have some early chemistry and there's certainly no shortage of skill there.

    The Heat are back in action on Friday night when they host Tucson. The AHL affiliate for Arizona is new this year to the Pacific Division.



    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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    Saturday, October 15, 2016

    Allergic Overreaction: Exposure to Oilers Sweep Causes Rash of Ridiculous Reaction in Alberta

    What does the wild rose, grey horned owl and lodgepole pine have in common?

    Known respectively as the provincial flower, provincial bird and provincial tree, they are all officially recognized symbols of Alberta.

    Apparently it's time to add one more to the list.

    After the Edmonton Oilers completed the sweep of the season-opening home-and-home with the Calgary Flames, it seems there's an official 'provincial emotion' too and it's overreaction.


    Shrieks of joy.

    Shrieks of horror.

    One distinct sound with two polar opposite meanings could be heard echoing across Alberta on Friday night as Leon Draisaitl's empty net goal put the finishing touches on a 5-3 victory and Edmonton's first two-game winning streak over Calgary since the 2012-13 season.


    Euphoria Up North

    Let's begin in the provincial capital where the Oilers picking up two wins against a team that finished bottom-five last season gives them as much reason for swagger as 80s lip-synching duo Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus were entitled to when Milli Vanilli had two songs reach No. 1 on the music charts.
    • Girl You Know It's True? - Um, actually, I don't think it is.
    • Baby Don't Forget my NumberFlames fans won't soon forget No. 97, but beyond that...

    When it's been 10 years and six coaching changes since you last made the playoffs, I understand the excitement of starting a season unbeaten in your first two games.

    However, these are the same Oilers, who also opened this season by giving up 65 shots on goal in the first four periods. Not exactly squeaky tight defence. Four-goal-per-game Auston Matthews is going to love playing these guys next month.

    These are the same Oilers, who don't have a top defence pairing. Sure, they have one-and-a-half second pairings, but in the name of Tom Gilbert, just because someone is used in a 1/2 role in a particular city, doesn't make him a player of that ilk league-wide. Maybe Adam Larsson or Oscar Klefbom will get there and Larsson is close, but it's not time for the Norris conversation quite yet.

    These are the same Oilers, who got nothing in the first two games from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Although bagels from a first overall pick are the types of things you can overcome when you have other first overall picks to rely on.

    Or, I guess make that 'other first overall pick' singular these days. I keep forgetting Edmonton only has half as many first overalls as they used to have after their off-season purge of Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov.


    Legit Reason to be Excited

    But that other No. 1 pick they do have, my goodness what a hockey player.

    Now it took Edmonton not one, not two, not three, but four cracks at being first to the podium, all in the span of six years, but they have finally landed a generational franchise-changer that has the ability on his own to put the team on his back and take them to the next level. Sorry to break it to you Flames nation, but that's how good Connor McDavid is.

    Winning the draft lottery in 2014 and jumping ahead of the Sabres to select first. It would not surprise me if that's a moment in NHL history we will look back on years from now as being Sidney Crosby-to-the-Pittsburgh Penguins-like in terms of its ramifications.

    From age 11 to 19 for this Calgary native, I was a Flames fan constantly infuriated at Wayne Gretzky. It didn't seem fair.

    Over that span, Calgary had Kent Nilsson, Hakan Loob, Joe Mullen, Joe Nieuwendyk. They were all great players. But they were no match for Gretzky. No. 99 was too good and the Flames had no answer for him. Fast forward 30 years and the next generation of Flames fans finds themselves in the exact same predicament with McDavid.


    Different But Similar

    Comparing McDavid's talent level to Gretzky would be unfair and it's something I won't do. But what I will compare is the way he can single-handedly take over a game because in that regard, I see no difference at this early stage.

    Be ready for a lot of broken hearts as this guy is skilled, strong, smart and relentless. He has lightning-quick hands and man, can he ever fly.

    Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and even the captain himself Mark Girodano, they all took their turn watching McDavid blow by them. In this case, objects in the mirror are not closer than they appear.

    Seriously. It was like watching two English Bulldogs and a Dachshund try to chase down a Greyhound.

    Not even close.

    Not even fair.

    But as an overall team, the Oilers aren't there yet. That also is not even close.

    The degree of difficulty for McDavid will only increase. Maybe not Sunday night when the wounded Buffalo Sabres roll into Rogers Place like lambs to a slaughter, but St. Louis, Winnipeg and Washington loom in succession in the not-too-distant future.

    Lying ahead will be much stiffer tests, not just for the kid, but more so, for the team's other 19 players. Cherish the 2-0 start if you're an Oilers fan but it is just that, a start.


    Misery Down South

    As delusional as some Oilers fans are about what being 2-0 really means, an equal percentage of despondent Flames fans are also putting way, way too much stock into these first three days of the regular season.

    That's right, it's been three days. Good lord.

    The pitchforks are already out for new coach Glen Gulutzan. This despite not having the ability to play his 'A' line-up one time during the pre-season. Injuries to two of his top three centres, the absence until the final tune-up practice of his best player. Meanwhile, everyone is trying to learn all new systems that are reliant on cohesion. Yeah, good luck with that.

    When Wednesday night was the first time you actually had your projected forward group altogether -- and at that, Kris Versteeg was still introducing himself around the dressing room -- failure for the team's defensive play to be immediately air-tight is hardly a startling revelation.

    It's going to take some time. It was always going to take some time. With the injuries, the absentees due to World Cup, the quirky exhibition schedule. Brad Treliving has referred to this pre-season as "clunky" and that's a good word for it.

    Speaking of the Flames GM, there's even been anger in his direction. The clock is ticking on him and his coaching hire tweeted a delirious fan the other day. Hey, everyone's entitled to their opinion, but we're breaking new ground on the level of absurdity with some of the panic-stricken comments I've come across.

    Let's just be serious for a moment. Let's just take a couple deep breaths, relax, and recap what has really unfolded so far.


    Not as Bad as it Seems

    For one, they opened up the season on the road and and lost. Let's attach a little perspective to that.

    When it comes to the so-called Battle of Alberta, Flames fans can be a cocky bunch given the missteps of the Oilers the past decade. Going two rounds deep in the playoffs two years ago. Making the playoffs four times over the span of Edmonton's dry spell. It's not juggernaut stuff but Calgary has been the better team, for sure.

    But Edmonton is a better team now then they were then. Accept it. McDavid is in year two. They've added Milan Lucic. Added another top five pick to their stable of forward talent in Jesse Puljujarvi. The defence is much better with Larsson's arrival and Klefbom is on his way to being a good one .

    To be cocky is fine. As fans, trash talking is part of the joy of sport. It's what you signed up for and you're absolutely entitled to it. But it does take a lot of arrogance to just assume the Flames should have won in Edmonton on Wednesday, then to decry that the sky is falling when they don't. While doing so may taste like a tablespoon of Buckley's, let's give the Oilers just a wee bit of credit here.

    Now Friday night back in the cozy confines of the Saddledome, that loss is a legitimate whoops and I'll grant you that. But where does that leave the team? 0-2 instead of 1-1? With 80 games to go? Feels like something the local hockey heroes should be able to recover from.

    While it's easy to have sane judgment clouded when you lose twice in a row to the Oilers of all teams -- given their reputation, the Battle of Alberta and all that, but the same positives remain that existed four days ago when the season was about to start.


    Season Preview Refresher

    The Flames goaltending is better. Really, it is.

    You can pump the brakes on the Brian Elliott doom and gloom. He hasn't been great so far, he'll be the first to admit that. But let's not forget that in the past five seasons entering 2016-17, his .925 save percentage was second only to Cory Schneider's .926. That's a more telling sample size than the past three days.

    He was actually really sharp early Friday night in that frantically-paced start to the game. But when you have to take off both your trapper and blocker to count up the number of breakaways and odd-man rushes you stared down in a game, it points to a larger issue.

    They still have Troy Brouwer, who is making an impact on the ice. This guy will contribute to Calgary's success in many different ways this season and not all of those ways will be visible to the fan watching the games on television. Let's just say there's a reason he was brought in and given an 'A'.

    Matthew Tkachuk will continue to make a push to spend the season in Calgary.

    I asked Gulutzan post-game last night to assess the penalty kill that gave up two key goals after a night in which it was really good in Edmonton. He dismissed the first goal as a bouncing puck type of play that is going to happen against all teams. Candidly, he called the second goal a mistake.

    But mistakes will happen. As I wrote recently when getting into the breadth of change being implemented on the PK, it's going to take a while to learn. But if you watch it closely, the indicators are there that this area should be much improved from last year when it ranked 30th.

    For that matter, the power play has also looked really good at times early so there are signs that improvement in that area is also likely.


    Final Word

    Since entering the NHL in 1980, Calgary has had a lot of really good offensive hockey clubs, especially if you go back to the wide-open hockey of the late 80s. Yet only twice in franchise history have they ever put up 25 shots in a period.

    Last night, they peppered Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot with 24 shots in a heavily-slanted first period.

    The aggressive forecheck, the pressure, the defence pushing up, forcing the opposition to panic and give away the puck. Friday night's game maybe didn't end well, but there were a lot of positives to take from how it began..

    New coach, new assistant coaches, new system, new players -- a ton of personnel turnover from the opening season-roster a year ago. There's going to be some growing pains. There was always going to be that. Sure, it sucks when it's the arch-rival that takes advantage but a stiff dose of perspective is needed here.

    Come January and the halfway point in the season when these two sides meet again, expect Calgary to be far more buttoned-down in their system and a far more polished group overall. I'd also expect a different outcome.

    While the Oilers are going to surprise a lot of people this year, riding the coattails of arguably the best player in the game already, I wouldn't be surprised if when they do play each other next, it's the Flames that go into those two games with the better season record.
     
    As for that allergic overreaction that has left you itchy the past few days, just put a little hydrocortisone cream on it and things will be back to normal in no time. Just don't scratch it.



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    Wednesday, October 12, 2016

    Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Bold Predictions for the Flames for 2016-17

    The off-season, an excruciatingly-long 185 days, comes to an end today as the Flames open up their 35th season in Calgary.

    Following up on a popular feature I first hatched last year, here is the 2016-17 edition of my eight bold predictions.


    Eight Bold Predictions for the Flames


    1. Chad Johnson Wins 20 Games

    All eyes are fixated on Brian Elliott and rightly so. It was his acquisition from St. Louis for a second round draft pick that was the single most significant transaction in a summer filled with activity for general manager Brad Treliving. However, despite a shaky performance in the pre-season, his caddy isn't too bad either. Chad Johnson is coming off a 22-win season a year ago with a pretty mediocre team in Buffalo,

    When you think of back-up goalie in Calgary, you think of the guys that ran the defence gate during the time Miikka Kiprusoff was entrenched as No. 1. From that motley crew that included Joey MacDonald, Henrik Karlsson, Curtis McElhinney, Vesa Toskala and Brian Boucher, a measly five wins would have been a godsend. But Johnson is not your ordinary back-up. He had the third-best save percentage in the league after November 1 last year and he will get plenty of playing time. This is not a scenario in which Elliott will get 90 percent of the starts. I'd expect closer to a 60/40 division in playing time and when he gets hot, Johnson could string together multiple starts in a row. On an improved team, the motivated Calgary native could surprise many.


    2. Power Play Finishes Top Three

    On Feb. 9 last season, the Flames power play ranked 30th in the league at 14.2 percent and that was a ways back of Toronto, who was 29th at 15.1. However, after scoring 23 times on 162 chances up until that point, they scored 23 times on just 108 chances over the final two months, a rate of 21.3 percent, which was a 50 percent improvement in efficiency and got Calgary up to 22nd in the rankings by the end of the season.

    They've got the personnel with Johnny Gaudreau the ring leader up front. They've got a dynamic defence. They've added a much-needed right-hand shot at forward in Troy Brouwer, which will open up more options and make the power play harder to defend. They've got a weapon in Sam Bennett, who was rarely spotted on the man-advantage last year but will be unleashed this season, and they have a fresh, new approach to the 5-on-4 this season under new coach Glen Gulutzan. Put that all together and the power play could explode this year, not implode like a year ago.


    3. Daniel Pribyl Scores 20 Goals

    No disrespect to Kris Versteeg, but this is a guy that all 30 teams in the league were prepared to move on from just a couple months ago. An unsigned free agent, he was going to go and play in Europe before he failed his medical and returned to North America. The Edmonton Oilers, whose last playoff appearance predates the first Police Academy movie, said they were interested but only in a depth role. That doesn't sound to me like the perfect fit for a No. 1 line like he is being touted since signing with Calgary on Tuesday.

    He'll start there, but keep an eye on big Czech right winger Daniel Pribyl, who was declared healthy on Tuesday, having recovered from major knee surgery six months ago. Pribyl was the second-leading scorer in the Czech league last year behind ex-Flame Roman Cervenka. He was in the midst of a strong playoffs too when he tore up his knee. Unsigned at the time so testament to how highly Calgary's scouting staff thought of him, the Flames carried through on signing him anyway and even brought him to Calgary to be operated on by the team's medical staff. The 23-year-old will start off in Stockton but a month from now after he has gotten up-to-speed and has his timing back, etc., expect him to be a top candidate to be recalled and if he gets slotted onto the top line, he could thrive immediately.


    4. Tkachuk will be a Finalist for the Calder

    There's a better than 50/50 chance that Matthew Tkachuk ends up playing this season for the London Knights. But as was the case with Sean Monahan three years ago, don't be surprised if he plays so well over the first month of the season that Calgary just can't get him out of the line-up. He is certainly set up for success. The one line that was together almost the entire pre-season and was very effective was Tkachuk alongside the duo of Bennett and Brouwer.

    He's got a good shot, he's smart, he'll spend most of his time in the lap of the goalie, the edges of his skates tickling the blue paint. Plus, he's got a steadfast determination to be in the NHL and stay in the NHL. The rookie-of-the-year race should be a great one this season with Matt Murray, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Ivan Provorov and Mitch Marner among the many candidates that could be in the hunt. But look for a driven and determined Tkachuk to put himself right in the thick of it and perhaps be one of the three finalists for the Calder should he stay in the NHL and be an integral piece of the Flames top six, which you could argue he already is.


    5. Sam Bennett Scores 31 Goals

    Anything Johnny can do, I can do better. Well, maybe not to that extreme, but just watch Sam Bennett go this season. If there's one player on this Flames roster that could benefit the most from the coaching change, it's Bennett. After a busy off-season of training, the 20-year-old reported for camp 10 pounds heavier than a year ago. But with the weight off his shoulders of all the over-handling he persevered last year, he probably feels at least 10 pounds lighter.

    Since he didn't get the chance to showcase himself nearly as much as he should have a year ago, it's easy to forget how highly-skilled this young man is. You saw it the night of his four-goal game against Florida. You witnessed it in junior when he put up some eye-popping numbers with Kingston in the OHL. Remember his last tour with the Frontenacs when he had 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 11 games. He's on a line this year that has shown immediate chemistry. He's going to get plenty of power play time, which was hard to scrape up last year. He'll get 3-on-3 overtime time, which was similarly rare last season. After a year in which he spent a third of the season immersed in learning to play center in Bob Hartley's system, he still put up 18 snipes. Entering the final year of his ELC, don't be shocked if he exceeds the 30 goals Gaudreau put up a year ago. Then settle in for another long and agonizing summer of contract negotiations.


    6. Flames Will Open the Playoffs at Home

    Calgary finished 21 points back of third place San Jose in the Pacific Division last season, and fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup final, the Sharks should be better. But so should Calgary. A lot better. If they can clean-up their divisional record and in addition to bringing back some bottles of wine from Napa Valley, can actually bring some victories back from California too, the Flames could break up the vaunted West Coast cabal.

    The Ducks are opening the season without restricted free agents Hampus Lindholm and Rickard Rackell. Randy Carlyle behind the bench will be a recipe for something but whether or not it's success, that remains to be seen. Can John Gibson stay healthy and be the solution in net? Meanwhile, the Kings are vulnerable too. They're older. Milan Lucic is gone. If Jonathan Quick doesn't play at an elite level, will Darryl Sutter's crew score often enough? The window is there for Calgary to latch onto one of the top two seeds in the division and wouldn't some home cooking be a great way to celebrate the return of the Red Mile come mid-April.


    7. Johnny Gaudreau Finishes 2nd in Scoring 

    The cramming is underway. Late to camp, with a new coach and a new system to learn, trust that Gaudreau is watching a lot of television these days, but it isn't NetFlix. But this kid is an elite-skilled player, who will simply go out and do what he does best, create offence. He had 78 points last year with a power play that was dreadful most of the year. Add on another 5-10 points with improvement there. He's a year older so add in an inflationary spike of another 5-10 points. Whether or not his pal Monahan can finish off his set-ups at the same pace as seasons past remains to be seen and there are still concerns about the hole on the right side of that line, but if he can bump up to around 90 points, that could find himself second to Patrick Kane at the end of the year.

    Let's run down the six players that finished ahead of Gaudreau's 78 points in 79 games ni 2015-16. While Jamie Benn is a fantastic player, last year's Art Ross runner-up might be hard-pressed to duplicate his career-best 89 points. With Sidney Crosby (85 points), there are the concussion concerns. Joe Thornton (82 points) is getting up there in age and Erik Karlsson's 82 points feels like a high-water mark for the Senators defenceman. If the emergence of the Brouwer-Bennett line can take some attention away from Gaudreau in enemy barns, an uptick in his production away from home could very well result in him being the best-of-the-rest when it comes to chasing Kane.


    8. TJ Brodie Finishes Top Five in Norris Voting

    The big name that everybody around the league knows is Mark Giordano. All-star appearances the last couple years is proof of that. The high draft pick that everyone has heard about, thanks to his much ballyhooed exit out of Boston last summer, is Dougie Hamilton. The guy that slips under the radar and is grossly undervalued outside the Calgary market is TJ Brodie. Perhaps this is the year that changes.

    Not surprisingly, defencemen are never going to get any love when the team is last in the league in goaltending and we witnessed that last year. Giordano finished 13th in Norris voting and Brodie never got a single vote. The winner was Drew Doughty with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns as finalists. But if Calgary is, indeed, a much-improved team this season, it's with a more frequent and more positive spotlight on the Flames where voters (the NHLPA) will get a much greater appreciation for the dynamic game that Brodie brings to the rink every night. He's a lightning-quick skater, great vision, sublime passer and solid defender. As captain, Giordano will always be the face of the back-end for the Flames and make no mistake, he's playing his best hockey, but the engine back there, methodically doing his thing, is Brodie and this could be the year the rest of the league realizes that as well.



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    Monday, October 10, 2016

    A Day for Flames Fans to Give Thanks as Gaudreau Returns to the Fold Just in Time

    At dining room tables across Calgary on Monday, as family gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving, I suspect Johnny Gaudreau's name came up more than a few times.

    After all, it was a day for hockey fans to give thanks that the diminutive kid from New Jersey will remain a member of the hometown Flames for another six seasons.

    The dramatic impact the 23-year-old has had on this city in his two years removed from Boston College has been immeasurable. Thus, news of his $40.5 million contract extension -- the exact same deal inked last summer by Mark Giordano -- was reason for fans to celebrate.

    The last time Gaudreau was spotted on the ice was Sept. 21 in Toronto, his last shift a memorable one. It was his slick pass to Nathan MacKinnon that set-up the overtime winner as Team North America defeated Team Sweden 4-3 in the World Cup of Hockey.

    Since then, two-and-a-half weeks -- that to many probably felt like two-and-a-half months -- have passed with the star left winger conspicuously absent from Calgary's training camp.

    Monday morning, as players filtered off the ice after a brisk, lengthy and detail-oriented practice at the Saddledome, they all put on a brave face with the obvious discussion topic, a non-topic.
    • Mark Giordano spoke about the excitement of opening the season against Edmonton.
    • Sean Monahan talked positively about the different atmosphere around the team this year.
    • Mikael Backlund mentioned the system play and how encouraged he is with how it's going.

    Heck, even coach Glen Gulutzan was in on the facade, insisting that Linden Vey wasn't just playing on the wing with Monahan and Michael Ferland as a placeholder for a certain absentee, but that he had liked Vey's camp and deserved to be there. Sure. Although that doesn't really explain why he was put on waivers on Friday.

    Anyway, no disrespect to Vey, but he just tumbled down the forward depth chart and the spot he was clinging to on the power play is long gone.


    Day to Rejoice for Fans

    Make no mistake, the real winners here are supporters of the Flames, who pour their hard-earned money into supporting the team through tickets, jersey sales, etc.

    Having been subjected to two tours of Olli Jokinen, having never had the opportunity to enjoy the raw talent of their own top-three pick, never mind a first overall like the neighbors to the north redeem on a regular basis, Gaudreau is arguably the most exciting player in franchise history.


    Kent Nilsson, for those of you old enough to remember, was darn talented too, but the 'Magic Man' left Calgary over 30 years ago after five seasons.

    Gaudreau already has two seasons in and expect him to hang around for at least six more. Am thinking it won't be long before you can remove the 'arguably' from that previous sentence.

    While he may be a fourth round pick, re-visit that 2011 draft and name one player you would rather have instead of him. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? Gabriel Landeskog? Mark Scheifele? Yeah, I didn't think so.

    Those spotted giving an extra couple fist-pumps at the news was season ticket holders and why not, considering the Saddledome is the gallery where his finest work has always been on display. The highlight-reel dangles, the sublime passes, the display of raw emotion after the big overtime goal -- so often it comes with him wearing red. It's as if hockey's version of The Louvre has an address of 555 Saddledome Rise.


    Johnny's Hockey Town

    Walking from the parking lot into the arena as I do every home game, I always make a point of observing the names that adorn the backs of the crush of Flames jerseys as fans head to the game. Jarome Iginla's town up until three years ago, the last few years have been one of transition.

    But it seems like every game, the ratio of Gaudreau-to-other names slides further and further in the direction of No. 13.

    Heck, on an off-night last season I took my teenage daughter to a game and I left there $150 lighter in the wallet as she joined the masses. That's the impact he has had and will continue to have. It's an impact that extends well beyond what he produces on the ice.

    He's personable, friendly. For the same reason my generation grew up adoring Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, he's an adorable presence. It's something about being short. How many grandparents out there want to just reach into their television and give his cheeks a pinch.


    Competitive Fire

    Of course, don't confuse this as someone just happy to be here. Oh, he loves to play hockey. But to be clear, he loves to win at hockey.

    "It's something I've had in my blood my whole life. I hate losing at whatever we're doing," Gaudreau told me last December when in this piece, I set out to investigate the origin of his competitive fire.

    Heck, he even confessed to cheating at board games with his family.

    "I remember this one game, Chutes and Ladders," he recalled last December. "Me, my brother and my two sisters used to play it constantly. You would go up and down and up and down and I used to always try to find a way to sneak my guy up one more level."

    That drive has never abandoned him. After a Flames OT victory last year while the media was in a scrum a few feet away with the winning goal scorer -- Giordano or Backlund, I can't remember who it was now -- there was this commotion heard from Gaudreau's dressing room stall nearby as he took off his gear and fired it to the floor in anger.

    Had Calgary not just won? They had, but Gaudreau had the winning goal on his stick seconds earlier and failed to convert, and he was furious at himself for that.


    Arriving Just in Time

    Whether it's late Monday night or early Tuesday morning, Gaudreau will get on a plane bound for Calgary. The team expects him to arrive in time for the Flames practice at 11 am on Tuesday. Other than Wednesday's game-day skate in Edmonton, this is the last chance for a solid practice before the season-opener.

    Safe to say that instead of binge-watching House of Lies on the flight, a mini-series of video clips produced by Gulutzan will be what airs on his tablet. After all, there is a lot to learn in a very short time with a new system at even-strength and a few changes to the power play.

    It's going to take a while and expect some cramming to be necessary as the exam schedule is a busy one -- Oilers on Wednesday, Edmonton again on Friday, Canucks on Saturday, Sabres on Tuesday, Hurricanes on Thursday, Blues on Saturday. Yikes

    And there's no time to slowly settle in either.

    Calgary started the season miserably a year ago and it cost them. A 2-8-1 opening 11, just two regulation wins in their first 19. The playoff chase was over before it realistically began.

    The widespread fear was a repeat of that this year. Think about how the Oilers would have been salivating at the possibility of getting two of this season's four showdowns with the Flames out of the way before Gaudreau had signed.

    Now with him back in the fold, a sense of normalcy can return with guys back in their proper seats on the bus.

    While Calgary continues to search for a solution at top line right wing -- it looks like Michael Ferland will get the first shot, for now anyway -- at least they're not also searching for a top line left-wing.


    Sunny Skies

    The work turned in this off-season by general manager Brad Treliving has given fans many reasons to be optimistic heading into 2016-17. The emergence of a second line with a rejuvenated Bennett and his early chemistry with Troy Brouwer. The huge improvement in net with established veteran Brian Elliott. The first impression given by scrappy 18-year-old Matthew Tkachuk.

    But that optimism, that sunshine, had been blocked out the past month as the Gaudreau contract stalemate hung over the city like a dark storm cloud.

    Well, the clouds parted on Monday night and the sun can once again shine through.

    While this isn't necessarily the year for the Flames. You never know either. They're better than the team that made the playoffs two years ago. They're much better than last year when they only ended up missing by 10 points.

    Get into the post-season, if you have a hot goalie, with some scoring depth, you never know what can happen.

    Long-term as this mix of youth, mid-career savvy and experience grow together, there's even more optimism. Consider that this is a team in which Gaudreau, Monahan, Brouwer, Frolik, Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton are all locked up for at minimum, the next four years. You can inevitably add in Bennett and Tkachuk to that list too.

    It's a solid core that will be together a long time and while that foundation is the engine that should drive this team to success, you still need the key that starts it up and that guy is Gaudreau.



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