Monday, November 13, 2017

Performance Curve: Just Like a Year Ago, are the Flames on the Verge of Climbing out of the Dip

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Ground zero.

Exactly one year ago, that's the point Calgary was at in its season.

The Flames woke up on the morning of Nov. 13, 2016, with a 5-10-1 record. They sat 29th in the overall standings, one point up on Arizona, but sorted by winning percentage, they were alone in the cellar with a .344 mark. The Coyotes (.357) held two games in hand.

The upwards trajectory that would land Calgary a wild card spot at season end and an invitation to the exclusive Stanley Cup playoffs began at that point.

They beat Minnesota 1-0 on Nov. 15, a night in which they lost their best offensive player -- Johnny Gaudreau suffering a broken finger.

With a renewed commitment to team play in the absence of their leading scorer and re-dedicated to the systems first-year coach Glen Gulutzan had been trying to instill, they went a stunning 6-3-1 in Gaudreau's absence. When he returned on Dec. 4 against Anaheim, they kept it going by reeling off four more consecutive wins.

Added up, that 11-3-1 tear had them back in a playoff spot less than a month later. They remained in a playoff spot the rest of the way for all but 10 days spread across a three-week period from Jan. 25 to Feb. 14.

One Year Later

Fast forward to today and Calgary (9-7-0) has gotten off to a better start. At the same 16-game mark as a year ago, they're seven points north of where they were then.

Yet how they've gotten there and considering all the off-season moves -- Trading for Mike Smith, trading for Travis Hamonic, re-signing Michael Stone -- the commonality between the two seasons is once again this year, the team hasn't played as well as expected.

It begs the question, are the Flames on the verge of going on a similar run?

Back in September, I had a chance to spend some time one-on-one with the Flames coach. In our discussion, he talked about the concept of a performance curve.

"There's a performance curve for every team. It's a bit like an 'S' with a dip in the beginning," Gulutzan explained. "We were in the pit and the pit of the performance curve is: Expectations? Not sure. Are we a real team? Not sure. Roles specification? Not sure. Chemistry? Not sure. And we stayed in that pit for a while."

Reflecting back on 2016-17, the Flames skipper went on to explain the theory of why last year's group were able to climb out of that early hole.

"If you've got the right people and everybody gets on board, you can get out of there and we did. We slingshotted out of there and by the end of the year, we became a real team."

The team's performance on the ice corroborated that claim.

From Jan. 26 onwards, the Flames finished the season 21-9-1, which was the second best winning percentage in the league. Only the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals were better over the final two-and-a-half months.

The groundwork for that post-All-Star break tear was laid back in mid-November when the upswing first began.

Looking ahead to this season, he added, "This year I hope that pit is just a real quick little dip."

Little Dip, Indeed

While overall, it seems like the Flames have had a disappointing season, the context of where they were a year ago does add valuable perspective.

If you compare 9-7-0 to 5-10-1, there is no comparison. In that light, this season would, indeed, be classified as a 'little dip' as Gulutzan was hoping would be the case.

Where a year ago, Calgary had to pass six teams in the Western Conference to navigate its way back into a playoff spot, this year the Flames are already in the top eight.

This morning, the Flames woke up in the second wild card spot -- even with Vancouver and Chicago in points, but with one and two games in hand respectively. Calgary sits two points back of San Jose for third place in the Pacific Division and are just three behind second-place Vegas.

If they could duplicate last year's 40-23-3 closing record from this point forward, they would finish with 101 points and could very well end up with home-ice advantage to begin the post-season for the first time since 2005-06.

That begs the question, is this team capable of playing .629 hockey like they did from this same point a year ago?

Capable? Absolutely they're capable and here are five reasons why:

1. Depth Scoring Should Come

It's one of the cheesiest photos in hockey. A grown man, holding a puck in front of him -- much like you'd proudly show off your first lost tooth when you're six years old -- with white hockey tape wrapped around it in which somebody has scribbled "First goal".

Staged. Awkward. It's the sports version of a bunch of executives in suits, dress shoes and with gold shovels, pretending they're about to dig at the groundbreaking for a new building. Gag.

Yet there in the corner of the Flames dressing room last Thursday -- which feels like a month ago, yet was the last time Calgary played -- you had village elder, Jaromir Jagr, standing side-by-side with Mark Jankowski, both with pucks. For Jagr, his first goal for Calgary. For the Flames rookie, the first of his career.

Not pictured but also with a first that night was Sam Bennett, with his long-awaited first point. A nice play to help set-up Jankowski's goal, it comes one game after he was instrumental with his play along the boards in a Flames goal against Vancouver, only to not figure in the final scoring as third assists aren't a thing.

Depth scoring has been a barren wasteland so far. To summarize this well-documented storyline, up until Thursday night, the only bottom-six even-strength goal had been scored by Kris Versteeg and it came in the home opener after shuffling of lines in the second period had him playing alongside Sean Monahan -- who set him up -- and Micheal Ferland. So a bottom-six goal technically, but not really. Incredibly, that had been it through 15-plus games until Jankowski had Jagr's rebound bounce in off his pants.

But the hope is the combination of Jankowski, Bennett and Jagr can produce some offence and in listening to Gulutzan the past week, it sounds like they'll be kept together for a while as he hopes stability in his bottom-six will lead to chemistry and that chemistry will lead to production.

Jankowski says it's already starting to come and it's only been two games together.

"He thinks the game so well, I think that makes it easier," Jankowski says about his hall-of-fame destined winger. "He's always in the right spot. He always knows where you are on the ice. We talk a lot on the bench, when we get back off shifts. What he likes and what will make us successful. He plays really well down low, he holds the puck really well and he's so strong and makes plays and has great vision."

As the familiarity with each other grows, so should their production as the ingredients are all there -- major junior scoring sensation and fourth overall pick, first round pick that was an all-star and led his AHL team in scoring in his rookie season, and the NHL's second-leading scorer of all time.

"As we play more, it gets more and more comfortable and I even noticed it tonight," Jankowski said. "When you're playing with new linemates, as time goes on, you get to know each other a little bit better."

A year ago, it was mostly Troy Brouwer and Versteeg that were alongside Bennett. The hope is that Jagr and Jankowski alongside the 21-year-old should make for a more productive trio.

2. Top-Six Scoring Should Continue

Gaudreau is having an excellent season. At 22 points through 16 games, he looks primed to blow away his career-high of 78 points. Heck, he might threaten the 100-point mark.

Whether it's the crackdown on slashing that is paying dividends or just the evolution of a very talented and ultra-competitive player, Gaudreau is dialed in and that's all sorts of good news for Calgary.

Meanwhile, No. 1 centre Sean Monahan continues to quietly go about his business. On pace for 40+ goals, he looks to be a sure bet for at least 30.

The third piece and arguably the most important factor in that top line taking a step forward from past years is Ferland, who has been sensational this season, especially since being reunited with those two.

Ferland is tied for second on the team with six goals and he's got a goal in four of his last five games.

There's more there too. The big man has an underappreciated skill set and lately, his playmaking has been very noticeable. Consistency has always been the worry with Ferland but if he can remain close to the high level he's playing at right now, it's going to make for a very dangerous trio that will cause opponents fits.

Meanwhile, the 3M line has picked up where it left off last season.

Renowned for their defensive work and assignments, if there's any drop-off in the offensive production from veterans Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, that will be more than made up for in a stronger and more dangerous Matthew Tkachuk.

3. Defense Should Start to Settle In

They were touted in the off-season as one of the best bluelines in the NHL but so far, we haven't seen it. But that's not to say they can't still be a pretty formidable group moving forward.

Hamonic's game has been coming along nicely and up until hurting himself 10 days ago, he was starting to shoulder more responsibility defensively.

In elevating him to his top penalty kill pairing recently, Gulutzan explained that up until that point, Hamonic was still learning the Flames system, which was quite a departure from how they played in New York. We know that Gulutzan's systems take a while to become instinctual too -- see last season -- so the approach of integrating him slowly does have some validity.

Meanwhile, the benefit of him being hurt is it's given Stone an opportunity to jump into the top four briefly, log more minutes and get his game on track. That could have positive ramifications moving forwards, once he returns to third pairing minutes upon Hamonic's looming return.

You're also seeing a much better Brett Kulak of late. Like really good. Gulutzan singled him out once again after Thursday's game.

It was a September to forget for Kulak, who struggled in the preseason and misplayed himself out of the starting six. But now he's back and is looking once again like a young man with the ability and upside to be a very good third pairing option for this club.

4. Stellar Goaltending Should Continue

Meanwhile, as long as he stays healthy, Smith looks poised to deliver the type of consistent goaltending that Calgary hasn't experienced for several seasons.

Gaudreau is having a terrific season. Monahan has been clutch once again. Tkachuk, who was good already, has quickly advanced his game to great. But Smith's been this team's MVP so far.

Even in the games where he's given up three, four or five goals, there aren't any punches to the gut in there. There have been a few shots of late where he would have liked back, I'm sure, and you could argue he should have had, but this season has still been free of those back-breaking groaner types, which seemed to occur far too regularly a year ago and were absolute killers.

The team is going to need to tap into Eddie Lack eventually and the jury is still out on what to expect when that happens. And who knows, maybe it eventually ends up being Jon Gillies or David Rittich that end up in that back-up role in the new year should Lack not get it done when called upon over the next couple months.

But it's not about the back-up. This year's relatively relaxed schedule with no World Cup or Olympics to force a condensed schedule is ideal for Calgary and for Smith. The next back-to-back is still a couple weeks away -- Nov. 24 (at Dallas) and 25 (at Colorado) -- and it's another two weeks until the next one after that -- Dec. 6 (at Toronto) and 7 (at Montreal).

Smith could well be on his way to playing 65 games and if that happens, his career-high of 38 wins in 2011-12, is a mark very much in jeopardy -- and that would be good news for Calgary.

5. Special Teams Should Improve

The story of both of Calgary's special teams was well documented last year. Ranked last or next-to-last for the first 2-3 months, both were top-10 if not top-5 over the final 3-4 months.

Neither special team unit started off very well this year either, but the power play has been better lately.

More Ferland or Jagr and less Brouwer on the No. 1 unit -- as we've seen lately -- should pay dividends. Ferland has the familiarity with linemates Gaudreau and Monahan and Jagr is, well, Jagr. Give him the puck in the offensive zone with a little extra space that 5-on-4 provides and look out. While it may come encased in a 45-year-old package, the hands, vision and hockey IQ are still as good as new for No. 68.

The penalty kill is the biggest area for concern but getting Hamonic back will help. Him and Giordano should make for a solid top duo and Gulutzan has pointed out that he really liked how Stone and Brodie killed penalties together last year so just like that, both of your D pairings on the PK should be better.

While finding the right mix of forwards to complement Backlund and Frolik continues to be a work in progress, Calgary can also do itself an enormous favour by simply relying on its penalty kill less. Showing more discipline and taking less penalties could really help Calgary's cause.

Final Word

Calgary's got a big test coming right up. On Tuesday they fly to Detroit where on Wednesday, they'll open up a 12-day, six-game road trip that starts out East. Dates with the Flyers, Capitals and Blue Jackets follow their trip to the new Little Caesar's Arena. The trek wraps up in the West with stops in Dallas and Colorado. To date, their longest journey out of town has been a mere two games, so this will be the first real test.

It's also why offence from the third line is imperative moving forward. Both Gaudreau (4-6-10) and Monahan (3-5-8) have strung together real nice six-point streaks this homestand. Ferland (4-2-6) has had a big impact too. But those favourable match-ups Gulutzan can arrange at home will be more difficult on the road.

In Detroit, that top unit will inevitably get a thick dose of Tomas Tatar, Dylan Larkin and Justin Abdelkader. In Philadelphia, they can expect to see a lot of the Sean Couturier line. In Washington, they'll have to contend with a non-stop dose of blueliners John Carlson and Brooks Orpik.

It's going to be more difficult for that line to generate offence, which will put the onus on the rest of Calgary's forward group, particularly the third line, to take advantage of more favourable match-ups comparably.

It's why the timing of the breakout from that Bennett-Jankowski-Jagr line on Thursday was so important. If those three can take some offensive swagger with them on the road, Calgary will be far better off.

A year ago on a similar six-game trek out East at around this same time in November, part of the team's turnaround stemmed from a successful 3-2-1 record on that trip.

Another above .500 road trip coming up would set up Calgary nicely for the stretch from late November through early January that follows right after in which 12 of 18 games are at the Saddledome.

Is the Flames little dip behind them? We'll find out soon.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Five Flaming Fun Facts: Some Intriguing Numbers Through the First Dozen Games

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1. Bang, Crash, Boom, Goal

What a performance by Micheal Ferland on Sunday, who was everywhere and impacted the game in a gigantic way. In the process, he also caught the attention of Glen Gulutzan.

"Outstanding," said the Flames coach. "He was physical when he could be physical and sometimes it's hard to be physical when you have the puck all night and you're making plays and you're in on the forecheck and playing with the puck. He did a little bit of everything for us."

When Ferland plays like that -- lots of north-south, plenty of shoot-hit -- it's hard to envision him not being on the No. 1 line. When he's dialed in like that, watch out.

Ferland's gaudy stat line on the night read: 1 goal, 5 shots, 7 hits

Now that's the full meal deal.

In fact, Ferland is the first player in the NHL this season to record at least one goal, five-or-more shots and seven-or-more hits in a game. Last year, that feat was only accomplished five times:
  • Bobby Ryan OTT - Feb. 14 vs Buf - 1 goal, 6 shots, 7 hits
  • Milan Lucic EDM - Nov. 27 vs Ari - 1 goal, 7 shots, 7 hits
  • Jarome Iginla LA - Mar. 9 vs Nsh - 2 goals, 6 shots, 7 hits
  • Patric Hornqvist PIT - Dec. 31 vs. Mtl, 1 goal, 5 shots, 7 hits
  • Marcus Foligno BUF - Mar. 2 vs. Ari, 2 goals, 5 shots, 8 hits

Going back to when the NHL first introduced hits as a statistic in 1997-98, it's only the second time a Flame has hit those numbers in a single game.

On April 11, 1998, Cory Stillman had 1 goal, 5 shots and 8 hits against Edmonton.

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Of course, Stillman's big night was a rare highlight in a very bad season for the franchise. To jog your memory, that 1997-98 edition of the Flames had a points-percentage of .409, which remains the worst in franchise history, even worse than the expansion Atlanta Flames in 1972-73 (.417).

Over the last five years, that same Ferland stat line has only been accomplished 22 times with only two guys appearing multiple times on the list:
  • Alex Ovechkin, 5
  • Brent Burns, 2

Not bad company.

2. Mr. Clutch

Last night was the 23rd career game-winning goal for Sean Monahan, which moves him into seventh in franchise history. He's now one ahead of Al MacInnis, Kent Nilsson, Robert Reichel, Jim Peplinski and Daymond Langkow.

Speaking of 23, that's also how old he is. That makes it all a bit mind-numbing. You really do tend to forget that Monahan just turned 23 less than three weeks ago. He could be top-five in franchise history by the end of the season.

Of course, as a notable caveat, the presence of three-on-three overtime now is a notable factor one can't discount when looking at historical snapshots -- four of Monahan's game-winners have come since 3-on-3 overtime was introduced in 2015-16. But scoring in overtime doesn't diminish his reputation of being clutch, it will just skew how quickly he ascends the all-time list.

Flames - Most Game-Winning Goals in Franchise History

1. Jarome Iginla, 83
2. Theoren Fleury, 53
3. Joe Nieuwendyk, 43
4. Joe Mullen, 33
5. Gary Roberts, 27
6. Lanny McDonald, 25
T7. Sean Monahan, 23
T7. Joel Otto, 23
T7. Eric Vail, 23

If you want to go apples to apples in your comparisons, Monahan is also in good stead since breaking into the NHL in his draft year of 2013.

NHL - Game-Winning Goals (since 2013-14 season)

1. Alex Ovechkin, 37
2. Max Pacioretty, 34
T3. Joe Pavelski, 26
T3. Brayden Schenn, 26
T5. Tyler Seguin, 25
T5. Patrick Kane, 25
T5. Vladimir Tarasenko, 25
T5, Jonathan Toews, 25
T5. Brad Marchand, 25
T5. Jeff Carter, 25
T14. Sean Monahan, 23

To add to that, his eight overtime goals over that span tied him for No. 1 with Alex Ovechkin and Jeff Carter.

3. Fab Five or Die

Same old, same old. The Flames have now scored 27 goals on the season with a staggering 26 of them featuring at least one of Johnny Gaudreau, Monahan, or the 3M line in on the scoring. By that, I don't mean just on the ice, but I mean either getting the goal itself or assisting on it.

The only goal that was Fab Five-free was the shorthanded goal in Vancouver on Oct. 14 by Mark Giordano, which was assisted by Freddie Hamilton and Troy Brouwer.

Here's another way of looking at it.

Five-on-Five goals by Center:
  1. Monahan - 10
  2. Backlund - 6
  3. Bennett - 2

The two for Bennett beckon an explanation:
  • Game 2 vs. Winnipeg - When Gulutzan shuffled the lines mid-game and the newly-formed Gaudreau-Bennett-Lazar trio scored a goal (scoring play was Brodie from Stone and Gaudreau).
  • Game 6 vs. Vancouver - Calgary got a goal mid-line change. Twelve seconds after Bennett had come on for Backlund and with Frolik and Tkachuk still on the ice, Dougie Hamilton sniped a goal, set-up by Tkachuk.

So neither can really be considered a bottom-six goal.

The other goal that comes up in conversation as a potential bottom-six goal was Versteeg's tally in the home opener against the Jets. But in the juggled lines that night, Versteeg was on the ice with Monahan and Ferland -- two-thirds of the current top line -- so that hardly qualifies as a bottom-six goal either, at least in my opinion.

So while this speaks to how effective those top two lines are producing, it also emphasizes how little they're getting from anyone else. The net of that is they're not getting nearly enough offence.

But after a tough night on Friday in which it seemed inevitable that Jankowski was on his way back to Stockton, the Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski partnership was more impactful on Sunday. This time with Curtis Lazar alongside them, they combined for six shots (compared to one on Friday) and earned praise post-game from Glen Gulutzan.

"I thought Janko's line generated some chances. I thought Brouw had a couple good looks, I think Brouw might have had two or three posts. When you're getting those chances, they'll start to go in so that's the best sign," Gulutzan said. "We need secondary scoring but if you look around the league, it seems to be tough these days, but when our guys are getting chances, now at least you know you're moving forward."

Setting up an interesting decision for when Jagr is ready to return, that trio saw more even-strength time than the Brouwer-Stajan-Versteeg line. Both are bottom-six, that part we know, but it's been hard to decipher which was the third line and which is the fourth. On Friday, their usage was reversed.

Frankly, it it were me, I wouldn't send Jankowski anywhere and I would add Jagr onto the right side, just like how Gulutzan teased the fans on hand at the Saddledome on Saturday for the Red Rally.

If you're going to demote someone, it seems like the better play is to look at your two most frequent scratches -- Freddie Hamilton and Tanner Glass -- and pick one.

4. Mike = Miikka?

It's been pretty much a clean sheet.

Jakub Vrana's tying goal in the third period on Sunday night that appeared to leak under his arm or glove and trickle in, is the closest thing I recall to a bad goal allowed by Smith all season. Yet at that, it was still a 28-foot wrist shot from the slot, not a centering pass from the corner. Smith has been consistently excellent. The back-breaking goals against that have been chronic the last few years have not been there at all.

Add in another 30 stops for Smith on Sunday and he's on track for one of the best seasons we've seen in Calgary.

Top Five Save Percentages in Team History:

1. Kiprusoff - 2003-04, .933
2. Smith - 2017-18, .930
3. Kiprusoff - 2005-06, .923
4. Kiprusoff - 2011-12, .920
5. Kiprusoff - 2009-10, .920

Now obviously there is a long, long way to go and save percentages are going to be higher this year anyway. With the new criteria implemented for what constitutes shots on goal, an off-ice official told me recently that it will add an estimated 3-5 shots to a goalie's workload each night. But nonetheless, Smith is getting the job done.

The other noteworthy thing is Smith is playing a lot. Having started 11 of 12, he's on pace to play over 70 games and only one player in club history has shouldered that much workload. Any guesses? Again, it's Miikka Kiprusoff, who seven times played 70 or more games.

Heck, back up the cut-line to 65 or more games and the only name you add to the workhorse list is Roman Turek (69 games in 2001-02, 65 games in 2002-03). The most games Mike Vernon played in a season was 64.

Since Kiprusoff departed and the goaltender carousel began to rotate, the most starts in a season was Brian Elliott's 45 last season. Jonas Hiller started 44 in 2014-15.

5. Johnny B. Very Goode

The play on the winner was an electric sequence by Gaudreau, who didn't like what he saw on the first rush so curled back and tried it again, this time spotting Sean Monahan on the doorstep.

"That’s Johnny," said Monahan post-game. "We see it day-in, day-out. He’s got great hands and he’s got quick feet. He reads the game better than anyone I know. If you get open in a quiet area you’re usually going to find the puck."

His two assists gives him a dozen on the season, tied for third in the NHL behind Steven Stamkos (17) and Jakub Voracek (14). It also puts Gaudreau ahead of his scoring pace from past years.

How many games to reach 12 assists:
  • 2017-18 - 12 games (on Oct. 29, 2017)
  • 2016-17 - 21 games (on Dec. 10, 2016)
  • 2015-16 - 14 games (on Nov. 5, 2015)
  • 2014-15 - 21 games (on Nov. 22, 2014)

How many games to reach 15 points:
  • 2017-18 - 12 games (on Oct. 29, 2017)
  • 2016-17 - 19 games (on Dec. 6, 2016)
  • 2015-16 - 15 games (on Nov. 7, 2015)
  • 2014-15 - 21 games (on Nov. 22, 2014)

If he keeps it up, Gaudreau should be a lock to finish in the top 10 in league scoring.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Not-So-Special Teams: Thoughts, Stats and Observations on Calgary's Struggling PP and PK

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U-G-L-Y, you don't got no alibi, you're ugly.

Swap out the cheery tone for angry rage and that sums up the feelings of a maligned Flames fan-base right now. Calgary's special teams haven't been pretty to watch in what's been a miserable week for both units.

Shorthanded, they've gone an unfathomable 1-for-3 on the penalty kill in three straight games -- Tuesday's comeback win in Nashville, Wednesday's loss in St. Louis and Friday's loss to Dallas. Now that's a slap in the face. Six power play goals against on nine opportunities? Ouch. You don't need to be a mathematics major to figure out that's a meager 33.3 percent.

On the power play, it hasn't been any better. They've gone 0-for-8 while generating only six shots on goal. For nearly 16 minutes, they've had one more skater than the opposition and have barely tested the opposition goaltender.

 The numbers speak volumes. What a contrast.
  • Opposition: 6 goals on 15 shots in 11:32 of 5-on-4.
  • Flames: 0 goals on 6 shots in 15:53 of 5-on-4

Needless to say, special teams was the hot topic after a fourth straight setback at home that has left Flames fans spewing venom on social media.

Penalty Road Kill

After Friday's game, coach Glen Gulutzan addressed the penalty kill.

"We need to get a kill. Three games in a row, we've spotted two goals," says Gulutzan.

"My experience with these things is they get mental. You get into patches where you can't keep the puck out of your net like we are in right now," he said. "You need a couple successful ones. You can't go out on the ice every time and oh we're going to get scored on."

He says they're not aggressive enough.

"We are a little passive. That's what happens when you get scored on too, you get unsure of yourself and you've got to find that mojo back."

How do you get better? Typically, it's in the video room.

"In the last seven years that I've been in this league, you don't practice penalty kill a lot, you teach it through video and reinforce principles that you want," he explained. "It's a real teaching thing and we're going to have to get back to some of the basics here in some of our sessions and take some extra time."

Maybe, expect some personnel changes too.

"We might have to introduce some more killers, some guys aren't getting it done," he admitted.

What might be required is a hybrid solution with a combination of some new blood and also using existing guys differently. They clearly have to do something.

"It's not good enough, obviously," said Mikael Backlund. "We've got to find a way to make it hard on them to enter our zone. When it comes down to it, just bear down and find ways to not let them in."

Below is a breakdown of shorthanded ice time and power play goals allowed. Note that this excludes 5-on-3 time as I feel that unfairly skews the data for the players that end up getting scored on in those opportunities where executed correctly, it should always result in a power play goal.

While this is oversimplified, as it only reflects goals allowed and not overall scoring chances, it's nonetheless a decent indicator of who is getting the job done, and who isn't.

Three PK Thoughts

1. Flip-Flop D Pairings

It's obvious that so far, Mark Giordano and Michael Stone have been Gulutzan's No. 1 go-to PK pairing, but should they be? It's that pairing that have been on the ice for all six PP goals allowed this week.

Stone has basically picked up where Deryk Engelland left off last season in the role of right-shooting, well-compensated third pairing defenceman, who shoulders extra ice time while shorthanded. It's as if it's the club's way of helping to justify the $3.5 million annually being paid to a player, who otherwise would only play an average of 12 minutes per night.

Far more effective has been the pairing of TJ Brodie and Travis Hamonic so perhaps start with them and flip-flop the allocation of minutes.
Is part of their effectiveness, comparably, the result of them being a regular pairing at even-strength also? Giordano and Stone, of course, only play together on the PK and not otherwise.

2. Old and Slow Ain't Doin' It No Mo

While the sample size is small, fleet-footed Sam Bennett has been the most impactful penalty killer having logged exactly 13 minutes of shorthanded time and only once, having to hang his head and dejectedly skate slowly back to the bench.

The issue with counting on Bennett as one of your top penalty killers is frequently, he's the guy sitting in the penalty box when the team goes down a man.

What should spark the most concern is the ineffectiveness to date of veterans Troy Brouwer and Matt Stajan. Perhaps there isn't enough quickness anymore?

That said, a curious entry on the list is 33-year-old Tanner Glass. He's well down the list in terms of PK ice time, but he hasn't given up a goal yet. Sixth among forwards in SH ice time, he's been able to successfully take time off the clock every time. (For what it's worth, two years ago with the Rangers in his last mostly-full NHL season, Glass was also effective while again in a small sampling. He logged 25:16 of PK time that year and was only on for two PPGA.)

3. Fresh Options

Since Gulutzan broached the subject on Friday, who might be candidates? Can Curtis Lazar be taught? It's not new terrain for Lazar, who was used on the PK in Ottawa. In his time with the Senators, he logged 107:33 of time shorthanded, surrendering 16 goals. That works out to 6:43 in PK ice time per PPGA, which is pretty much right in the middle of Frolik and Brouwer.

Does this open up opportunity for Freddie Hamilton, should he find his way back into the line-up? He's only seen nine minutes of PK time as a Flame in total, but he hasn't yet given up a goal. You'd think he'd have the quickness that would make him another option to consider.

Of the young players, Mark Jankowski killed penalties in Stockton but he's still trying to earn the trust of the coach at even-strength, never mind when down a man. On the farm, Garnet Hathaway is a frequent penalty killer. Marek Hrivik is another intriguing option. He's an older player at age 26 but he looked good on the PK in the pre-season for Calgary. He's also reportedly played very well for the Heat since returning from injury.

Power Power Play Outage

Meanwhile, misery loves company as the power play isn't working either.

It's not critical that your man advantage score every time, but it is imperative that it at least create pressure and provide momentum. Otherwise, you're creating momentum alright, only for the opposition.

"But let's not take any pressure off our power play. Our power play is not generating. We need it to generate," Gulutzan said.

Asked if, like the penalty kill, he is open to potentially changing up the personnel on the man advantage, he said always.

"You're always looking for ways to get better. Our power play, we're not getting enough pucks to the net. we're not recovering any slop in the slot area when we do get pucks there so we've got to do a better job of that," he said.

Mark Giordano also weighed in on the scuffling man advantage.

"We're out of synch just a touch right now," said the Flames captain. "We'll get a look but we won't sustain any real pressure in the zone, which we need. For whatever reason, we're not breaking in clean enough to get possession. We've got to be better."

Asked at what point when a power play is struggling like it is, should the club look at the personnel it's deploying or power play system, Giordano deferred to the decision-makers behind the bench.

"Those are coaching decisions, the personnel ones, but if you're out there in those key situations, you have to do a better job and that's the bottom line."

In a similar exercise to above, I also examined the allotment of power play ice time and what the production has been. Below is a breakdown of ice time and goals scored while each player was on the ice.

Note that once again, this excludes 5-on-3 time to avoid unfairly skewing the data for the players that get the benefit of playing in those manpower situations. Instead, the key here is to level the playing field and see where the production is coming from on the more conventional one-man advantage.

Three PP Thoughts

1. Ferland > Brouwer

Stop me if you've heard this song before. Much like the penalty kill, one of the names that floats to the top when it comes to ineffectiveness thus far is Brouwer.

The insistent usage of Brouwer on the man advantage lately is a head scratcher considering that dating back to the end of last season, he's been predominantly playing on the fourth line. If you think about it, it's flat-out weird to have a fourth liner show up on a team's No. 1 power play unit unless it's some sort of Sam Gagner-like power play specialist. Brouwer is not that.

In nearly 20 minutes of ice time on the man advantage this season, Brouwer has yet to be on the ice for a goal hug. Meanwhile, the other guy whose linemates are on the ice anyway, Micheal Ferland, has been on for three power play goals in under 12 minutes.

Embed from Getty Images

The role is supposed to be that of a net-front presence, but inevitably, Brouwer ends up handling the puck and inevitably, the play ends up dying on his stick. A bobble, a mishandled pass, a lost puck battle, and down the ice it goes.

One of the things that Calgary coveted in Brouwer was a right shot up front on the power play, which had been all left-shots in the past.

"In Troy's particular case, he's a right shot. So that opens up opportunities," said general manager Brad Treliving back on July 1, 2016. "You look down the middle and we have four left-shooting centre men. To have the ability to have a right shot on your power play is a completely different look."

But for the options that provides, the negatives is the skill you leave on the bench as a result. It doesn't seem like it's worth it. Think square peg in a round hole.

The easiest choice is to try Ferland, who had success in his limited time. Plus, that keeps your lines intact. Ferland can also wire the puck and that element is lacking too.

When Jaromir Jagr is ready to return, then he becomes another option, especially if he returns to playing on the top line.

2. Flip-Flop Your D Pairings

While on the PK, moving Giordano to the No. 2 unit looks like the smart play, the opposite move seems due on the power play, which should mesh out to a push when it comes to his overall ice time.

We know Brodie can distribute the puck, Kris Versteeg can distribute the puck, but neither can shoot the puck -- and yes, I know Brodie did have a couple goals find their way in early in the season. In fact, the lack of a dangerous shot seems glaring on that top unit. At least Giordano can tee it up pretty good and that becomes an additional weapon teams need to guard against.

So in the spirit of trying something, or anything, move the Giordano-Hamilton pairing from the No. 2 unit onto the No. 1 unit and drop Brodie and maybe Versteeg to the other unit with Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and one other player to be determined.

More ice time in offensive situations should be a must for Hamilton, who excels at that part of the game. He's just not being used enough stuck on the No. 2 unit.

3. Tweak the Second Unit Personnel

The second unit is where you need to use Bennett. Give him some space, some time, and some quality teammates and let him create.

Frolik has great chemistry with Backlund and Tkachuk but I don't see a need to keep the 3M line together on the power play. Backlund-Frolik already are doing the heavy lifting while shorthanded, are already shouldering the most difficult defensive responsibilities at even-strength, there are other options to play on the power play.

In fact, for the same wear-and-tear reasons that applies to Frolik, They should also be open to occasionally subbing out Backlund (or Tkachuk) and trying a young guy like Jankowski, who plays the power play all the time in the AHL. Or, insert Ferland on this unit, should Jagr end up on PP1.

You're not at that point yet, but it's an option down the road in order to flatten ice times and get Jankowski/Ferland more minutes, where he's set up for success, while ensuring Backlund and Frolik are not playing too much, which could impact their more important assignments at five-on-five and on the penalty kill.

Final Word

It really is deja vu all over again for the club's special teams. How soon we forget last season when both Dave Cameron's power play and Paul Jerrard's penalty kill were disasters early, ranking 30th and 28th in the league at the end of November, only for both to turn it around and rank sixth from  Dec. 1 onwards.

But remaining patient, that's way easier said than done. It's especially hard to do when expectations are so high like they are this year for this team and when it really does feel like the club needs a jolt.

Don't be fooled by the Flames' 5-6-0 record, they're fortunate to be that close to .500. If not for the stellar play of Mike Smith, they could very well be record-wise in the exact same situation as a year ago.

A seven-game homestand, which Calgary opened up on Friday, provides the luxury of increased practice time and that should be welcomed the way things are going. It also affords the team the ability to break in new personnel in different manpower situations or shift the units around, should they decide it's time to tinker.

Either way, the pressure is on Gulutzan to get his special teams turned around. Whether that's staying the course with the personnel he has in place, or mixing it up, he will ultimately be held accountable for what he does, or doesn't do.

But with Washington and Pittsburgh the next two visitors to the Saddledome, that u-turn in performance better happen quick.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


Recent Flames Reading:

  • Total Recall: Has it Ever Happened? What if Calgary Called up Stockton's Top Line - It would be a bold and unique move. With Jagr placed on the IR, what if Calgary waived Glass and Hamilton and called up all three of Jankowski, Mangiapane and Hathaway. (Oct. 22, 2017)
  • How I'd Fix the Flames: What I'd do if I was Named GM and Coach for a Day - Six games into the season, coach Glen Gulutzan is not happy with how his team has played, calling them out-of-sync. Here's what I'd do in order to establish some stability. (Oct. 15, 2017)
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Random Flames Thoughts on a Cool, Fall Weekend - My assortment of random Flames-related musings include two prospects ripping it up in major junior, don't judge Mike Smith's book by the cover, Parsons and the ECHL. (Oct. 14, 2017) 
  • Good Omen? Smith's Thanksgiving Shutout in Anaheim Sparks Memories of 2004 - The start to the season for Mike Smith has conjured up memories of Miikka Kiprusoff, who was the guy the last time the Flames boasted at true No. 1 starter. (Oct. 10, 2017)
  • Podcast: Episode 20 with Pat Steinberg- In this season preview edition, the host of Sportsnet960's radio broadcasts joined me to look at the season ahead. We made a bunch of predictions, some bold, some not, and answered several listener questions. (Oct. 9, 2017)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Total Recall: Has it Ever Happened? What if Calgary Called up Stockton's Entire Top Line

Goal hug for Jankowski, Mangiapane and Hathaway. (Photo by Jack Lima)

Maybe Andrew Mangiapane can negotiate for one of the arm rests.


But there's no question, the flight departing San Francisco International Airport bound for YYC would have Mangiapane in the middle seat, squeezed between Mark Jankowski and Garnet Hathaway.

By size, he's the smallest. By age, he's the youngest. By pro experience, he's got the least.

I don't care if you're normally the left wing with those two guys, for the next two hours and 33 minutes, you're the centre.

Sorry kid, hope you downloaded some NetFlix beforehand.

What the Heck am I Talking About?

Pause for a moment and ask yourself, what if the Flames did the unconventional thing. What if Calgary did that one unthinkable thing that nobody would ever expect them to do.

It would be the type of bold hockey transaction(s) that would set off a tsunami of euphoria in the currently disgruntled C of Red.

Imagine, just imagine, if you woke up Monday morning to see this on the transaction wire:
  • Calgary assigns C Freddie Hamilton to Stockton (AHL)
  • Calgary assigns LW Tanner Glass to Stockton (AHL)
  • Calgary places RW Jaromir Jagr on injured reserve
  • Calgary recalls C Mark Jankowski from Stockton (AHL)
  • Calgary recalls LW Andrew Mangiapane from Stockton (AHL)
  • Calgary recalls RW Garnet Hathaway from Stockton (AHL)

Now you'll have to suspend reality for a minute because it would never actually happen in one fell swoop like this. Twenty-four hours before being demoted to Stockton, both Freddie Hamilton and Tanner Glass would first have to be placed on waivers, but don't get caught up in the minutia, just follow my train of thought.
(And if you're wondering about the status of Jaromir Jagr, so are the rest of us. He left Saturday night's game after four shifts with a lower body injury. While no official update was issued on Sunday, he is listed on the NHL Media website's roster page as on the IR, so stay tuned.)

What if the Flames, desperate to create more offence, were to literally airlift the entire No. 1 line from Stockton and insert all three into the line-up on Tuesday night in Nashville.
It's one thing to make minor nips and tucks around the perimeter of the line-up, then there's really sending a message. Imagine the impact on the dressing room if Calgary rolled out this line-up on Tuesday night (or some close facsimile of this for a top-nine, that part isn't the main focus here):

Gaudreau - Bennett - Lazar
Tkachuk - Backlund - Frolik
Versteeg - Monahan - Ferland
Mangiapane - Jankowski - Hathaway

Scratches: Stajan, Brouwer

Depth Scoring Has Been Offensive

The conundrum is the Flames aren't getting anything from their bottom six right now.

Nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Zero points for Sam Bennett
All 11 five-on-five goals that Calgary has scored has featured at least one of either Johnny Gaudreau or Sean Monahan, or at least one of the 3M line.

There are no exceptions.


If the top nine listed above sounds familiar, that's from the closest thing Calgary has gotten to a bottom-six goal at even-strength.

Those were the exact line configurations coach Glen Gulutzan turned to halfway through the home opener against Winnipeg. Trailing 3-1 at the time, the Flames went on to win 6-3 with each of those three lines contributing a five-on-five goal.

This raises a technicality. Was it the Monahan line that would have been viewed as the third line that night? But he's the team's No. 1 centre and leading goal scorer. So was it the Sam Bennett line then? But Gaudreau was with him and he's obviously Calgary's No. 1 left winger.

Regardless, the experiment was short-lived, ending about halfway through the next game in Anaheim.

The point being -- and no pun intended -- the team hasn't gotten a hint of offence from the Bennett line, other than that one night when he had Johnny Hockey on his flank. Same goes for the Matt Stajan line, or the Curtis Lazar line, or the Freddie Hamilton line as the fourth line was constructed last night.

Even-Strength Points and ES Time on Ice:

Kris Versteeg, 1 in 79:08 (a goal set-up by Monahan)
Troy Brouwer, 1 in 73:11 (an assist on Gaudreau goal)
Sam Bennett, 0 in 92:33
Micheal Ferland, 0 in 79:09
Matt Stajan, 0 in 54:48
Curtis Lazar, 0 in 52:15
Tanner Glass, 0 in 48:01
Freddie Hamilton, 0 in 14:45

The advanced stats picture isn't any rosier. Looking beyond just goals generated but instead the ratio of shot attempts for versus shot attempts surrendered at even strength, aka Corsi. This of course is meant to reflect the amount of territorial pressure or puck possession the team has while that player is on the ice. Viewed through that lens, only Stajan is above 50 percent.

Shot Attempt Percentage (SAT%)

Stajan, 50.45
Lazar 45.56
Versteeg, 45.29
Ferland, 44.51
Brouwer, 43.59
Bennett, 42.71
Hamilton, 40.00
Glass, 39.81

Meanwhile, in NorCal

At this same time, you can't ignore the season that Stockton's top line is having.

The Mangiapane-Jankowski-Hathaway line has been Ryan Huska's No. 1 line and they have been consistently producing all season.

Stockton has 17 goals at even-strength in six games and that trio has generated 10 of them. That's nearly 60 percent of Stockton's offence at five-on-five coming from that trio.

They obviously play well together, why not bring them up as a unit and make them Calgary's fourth line and see what happens? It would be an eyebrow-raiser, but are the conditions not ripe for that exact type of maneuver?

Jankowski, 23, is legit. We saw it in the preseason. He was a late cut and probably one Brad Treliving made more so for business reasons, than performance reasons. Since going down, he's been a great pro too, who hasn't sulked but instead has gone out and not missed a beat, further demonstrating that he should be in the NHL.

Hathaway, 25, is a known commodity with 41 NHL games on his resume now. He hasn't generated any offence at the NHL with just one goal and seven assists in his half-season of work, yet he continually produces at the AHL level. In his career in the minors, he has 40 goals in 161 games. Perhaps he and Jankowski can produce offence as a tandem as they clearly have chemistry with Stockton.

 As for Mangiapane, 21, he has yet to get his first NHL recall but you can't say he hasn't done everything in his power to earn it.

A 20-goal season as a rookie last year, and now sizzling-hot out of the gate this season.

Only two left wingers have been on the ice for even-strength goals -- Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. That's it. If neither of those guys are on the ice, the team isn't scoring.

The time might be right to insert a skilled guy like Mangiapane on the port side and see if he can provide a spark and help create some of that badly needed secondary scoring.

The risk is minimal with Mangiapane too. Waiver-exempt, he can be shuttled back to Stockton at any point without issue, whether it's after one game, one week or one month.

Final Word

Gulutzan, the Flames task master more focused on the process than the results these days, called Saturday night's 4-2 loss to Minnesota his team's best effort of the season.

But I'm not sure that's much of a consolation prize for season ticket holders, who saw the home side lose their third game in a row.

In those last three games at the Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary has mustered just three goals. There's only so much ugliness those $11 beers can cover up.

In fact, going back to Backlund's goal 16 seconds into the third period of the home opener, it's essentially been three goals in the last 10 periods. That's not going to win you many games, and it hasn't.

Blanked by the Senators, nearly blanked by the Hurricanes, Calgary was held off the scoresheet again on Saturday until Monahan's goal with 27.5 seconds left in the second period. There hasn't been a lot for the home fans to cheer about.

You wonder how long the team can just keep rolling out the same cast, expectations being what they are this season, before trying something fresh and maybe, just maybe, attempting something completely outside the box.

There's diversifying your top five and spreading out the wealth throughout your top nine like I suggested above. That's a start. But to complement that, would they dare recall an entire line? Not sure that's ever happened before and if it has, it's certainly been rare.
Admittedly, it's a pretty far-fetched scenario, but man, it is sure fun to contemplate.

Meanwhile, if you're at the SFO airport, keep your eyes peeled.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


Recent Flames Reading:

  • How I'd Fix the Flames: What I'd do if I was Named GM and Coach for a Day - Six games into the season, coach Glen Gulutzan is not happy with how his team has played, calling them out-of-sync. Here's what I'd do in order to establish some stability. (Oct. 15, 2017)
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Random Flames Thoughts on a Cool, Fall Weekend - My assortment of random Flames-related musings include two prospects ripping it up in major junior, don't judge Mike Smith's book by the cover, Parsons and the ECHL. (Oct. 14, 2017) 
  • Good Omen? Smith's Thanksgiving Shutout in Anaheim Sparks Memories of 2004 - The start to the season for Mike Smith has conjured up memories of Miikka Kiprusoff, who was the guy the last time the Flames boasted at true No. 1 starter. (Oct. 10, 2017)
  • Podcast: Episode 20 with Pat Steinberg- In this season preview edition, the host of Sportsnet960's radio broadcasts joined me to look at the season ahead. We made a bunch of predictions, some bold, some not, and answered several listener questions. (Oct. 9, 2017)
  • Don't You Forget About Me: Simple Minds' Song Befits Impactful Night for Lazar - While TJ Brodie and Johnny Gaudreau were the headliners in Saturday's win over Winnipeg with four points each, don't overlook the really nice game by Curtis Lazar. (Oct. 8, 2017)

    Sunday, October 15, 2017

    How I'd Fix the Flames: Six Games In, What I'd do if I was Named GM and Coach for a Day

    Embed from Getty Images

    Seeking stability.

    That was the message from Glen Gulutzan after Saturday night's 5-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

    "We're a little out of sync right now in a lot of areas," said the Flames coach in his post-game media scrum. "Just our lines, who is playing with who, our bench, power play -- who is on the power play, who is not on the power play.

    "We have to sit back here in the next few days and get a little bit of stability. I really like stability and right now, even for myself on the bench, we're a little chaotic."

    No kidding.

    There's putting your lines in the blender, which all coaches will do, then there's what happened throughout the game last night where Gulutzan tossed his 12 forwards into the container, put on the lid, and hit puree.

    "We've got guys coming in and out of the line-up and we've got different guys playing on the power play at different times. Taking some penalties too, trying to get guys back on the ice and shuffling. It's just not a rhythm feel that we have right now. I think we'll be OK once we get that rhythm but we have to find it."

    How I'd Establish Stability

    As Gulutzan alluded to, part of the issue is this team's propensity right now to continually take minor penalties, especially early in a game. Calgary was shorthanded five times in the first period alone on Saturday.

    When the Flames are killing penalties, six important players aren't touching the ice: Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Dougie Hamilton, Jaromir Jagr, Kris Versteeg.

    For one, that's far too much talent to be stapled to the pine. So Calgary needs to be far more disciplined. But beyond that, when they do get back to five-on-five, the lines themselves seem a bit discombobulated lately. Jagr is moving around. Lazar is moving around. Bennett is moving around.

    In an attempt to provide more stability overall, I have three primary goals:
    1. Improve the Roster - There's one particular transaction I would do that would improve the 23-man roster.
    2. Tweak the Lines - Jagr is here now. His conditioning is coming. There are three practices before the next game. Time to settle on some line combinations.
    3. Align the PP/PK Units - By this, I'd try to lessen the impact of extended special teams time on the 5-on-5 flow by having the PP combos and PK pairings better align with the regular lines.

    So with that groundwork laid, let's get after it. Here are the seven steps I'd take.

    Step 1 - Waive Hamilton

    Before putting on my coaching hat, I'm going to be the GM for a day. Shove over, Brad Treliving, I've got some paperwork to file.

    The first thing I'm doing is putting Freddie Hamilton on waivers. I realize he's a big part of Dougie Hamilton's life and it seems like a bit of a package deal but sorry, improving the team trumps my sentimentality for their family bond. This is the move I need make to open up a roster spot for a recall from Stockton.

    In his last pre-season appearance, Hamilton took a dumb penalty. In his first shift last night, he took a dumb penalty. Discipline is already a problem with this team, I need my fourth line players to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

    Hamilton isn't hurting the team as a 14th forward. He's a serviceable enough player capable of playing multiple positions who can be inserted in a pinch, but the team has a better option in the AHL and the time has come to make this move.

    Step 2 - Recall Jankowski

    Mark Jankowski is ready. We saw that in the preseason, we've seen that so far in the AHL regular season where he scored again last night giving him five points (4 goals, 1 assist) in Stockton's first three games.

    When he was sent down, Treliving vowed that he would be back before too long. It's been two weeks, time to get this guy back to Calgary and for good.

    Plus, I have top-nine plans for Jankowski so the sooner he gets here and he gets integrated into practice, the better.

    Step 3 - Reset the Forward Lines

    Here is how I'd set up my lines this week when the Flames return to practice:.

    Gaudreau - Monahan - Jagr
    Tkachuk - Backlund - Frolik
    Bennett - Jankowski - Versteeg
    Ferland - Lazar/Stajan - Brouwer

    Extra: Glass, Lazar/Stajan

    Line 1

    While Jaromir Jagr takes a while to get to where he's going at age 45, Sean Monahan is no speed demon either. Jagr's ability to hold onto the puck and make plays, Monahan's ability to find the quiet ice and bury chances from the slot and then add in the raw skill of Johnny Gaudreau, let's put them together, keep them together for an extended period and see what they can do.

    If that's too much ice time for the old man at times, a simple mid-game adjustment you could make as needed is flip-flop Jagr and Versteeg for a while.

    Line 2

    If it ain't broke, I ain't fixing it.

    Matthew Tkachuk has come back this season bigger and stronger and he looks great, while Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik continue to form a reliable two-way duo. As a line, the advanced stats for all three are tremendous once again this year.

    There are sufficient changes one can make up front without needing to mess at all with the 3M line.

    Line 3

    It feels to me like Sam Bennett is trying too hard -- his non-stop parade to the penalty box lately is perhaps an indication of that. It's as if he's frustrated and trying to make an impact in other ways since the offence isn't coming.

    Bennett has been better this year, but he's still a guy that looks a bit lost and without a single point to show for his first six games, you wonder where that ever-elusive confidence is these days.

    He still can be a centre down the road for this team and perhaps for a long time, but right here, right now, it feels like its time to move Bennett back to left wing and let him relax. Lessen his responsibilities, just let him zip up and down the wing and see if the offence comes back around again.

    This is also where Jankowski slots in. Let's be clear, I don't call up the 23-year-old to play him on the fourth line or make him a scratch. He's here to play significant minutes and that comes as the centre on the third line.

    Jankowski was good in the preseason, he was a good soldier by going down to the minors and not moping but instead showing that the team made the wrong decision. Time to bring him back.

    Line 4

    Curtis Lazar: 4C and Top-9 Extra
    This is where opportunity lies. Micheal Ferland and Troy Brouwer on the wings, playing a simple bang-and-crash north-south game will give you energy and hopefully a little bit of offence now and then.

    At centre, I've got a rotation. I'd start with Curtis Lazar there, but I'm very comfortable with Matt Stajan there and depending on the opponent, I'd even use Tanner Glass at centre (he could split draws with Brouwer, who also dabbles at the dot).

    The key for me is stabilizing the top-nine and limiting the night-to-night line-up changes to interchangeable parts that come and go only on the fourth line.

    Yes, Brouwer makes a lot of money to play down in the line-up like that, but to get your best bang for your investment in him at this point in time, you must find a way to maximize his contribution. Unfortunately, he hasn't worked out in the top-nine so abandon that and right now, I'd keep him on the fourth line where he has been effective in recent games. Lately, I've seen him more invested emotionally and playing more physical. That's a start to his reclamation and now is not the time to change anything.

    I've liked Lazar in spurts in the top nine but I'd rather go with Jankowski there and then you run out of spots for Lazar. But Lazar with Ferland and Brouwer gives him a chance to make an impact with his speed and forecheck so that looks like the best spot for Lazar for now.

    Meanwhile, if Bennett can't figure out the NHL's application of the rule book, he might even have to take a seat, in which case I'd elevate Lazar. Lazar remains my No. 10 when it comes to the top-nine. He's the guy I plug in wherever the hole is if there's a minor injury, etc.  That said, Ferland is a promotion candidate also.

    Step 4 - Get Kulak in the Line-up

    It's time to see Brett Kulak.

    Matt Bartkowski has been OK but we know what the 29-year-old can do, let's see what the 23-year-old can do.

    Given the limited role for that No. 6 D, this shouldn't be a line-up change that will cost you while at the same time, it could help you as you're bringing in a guy with some upside and who is hungry to show the calibre of player he can be with his skating and ability to make a good first pass.

    There was an extended period last season where Kulak looked solid to the point where I wondered if he would ever come out of the line-up. Time to commit to getting his game back to that same point.

    As for the top four, I don't change a thing.

    Step 5 - Settling on PP Units

    Here is how I'd deploy the power play:

    PP1:  Brodie-Versteeg-Gaudreau-Monahan-Jagr
    PP2: Hamilton-Giordano-Tkachuk-Backlund-Bennett

    Power Play 1

    There are four usual suspect here so we're not talking about massive changes, but we've seen Brouwer, Ferland and Jagr rotate through that RW forward spot.

    For me, it has to be Jagr. Stop the rotation.

    For one, it keeps that line intact for more stability overall. Secondly, this is where he should be able to thrive. Give him some space on the power play to show off  that hall-of-fame vision, hands and shot.

    It wouldn't be in that same net-front role that the other two filled and it may require a tweak to the PP set-up but Dave Cameron, you're stuck with Jagr, find a way to make it work. There could be worse problems.

    Power Play 2

    The team needs to get Bennett going and he's got the skill to be a fixture on the power play and should be. So it's the 3M line, less Frolik, insert Bennett.

    Tkachuk is a no-brainer for me. He's a talented kid and has the ability to create chaos in front. Plus, he's an elite passer.

    I keep the D pairing of Mark Giordano and Hamilton the same.

    Step 6 - Settling on PK Pairings

    Here is how I'd deploy my PK combos.

    PK1: Backlund-Frolik
    PK2: Bennett-Jankowski
    PK3: Lazar/Stajan/Glass-Brouwer

    Again, what I'm going for here is keeping guys together that play together at even-strength. This limits the amount of shuffling the coach needs to do afterwards and should provide more of that rhythm Gulutzan is seeking.

    While I labelled them PK1, PK2 and PK3, they need not roll out in this order. I feel this is where Brouwer picks up some ice time. I've liked his work on the PK so far. Last night on the 5-on-3, he and Backlund did a stellar job in sharing the high forward spot.

    On the blueline, I'd go Giordano-Stone and Brodie-Hamonic as my two LR pairings.

    Step 7 - Not Changing a Thing in Net

    I continue to roll with Mike Smith. I like what I've seen from him so far and if I were the coach, he's my workhorse.

    I get Eddie Lack into the second-half of the Oct. 24 and 25 back-to-backs on the road in Nashville and St. Louis but I see no need to use him before then.

    As the season wears on, Lack will play more, but right now while it's early and Smith is fresh, locked in and on a roll, you ride that horse.

    Final Word

    The Flames woke up Sunday morning in first place in the Pacific Division. They're three points up on Anaheim and six clear of the Oilers.

    So to be clear, this isn't exactly a crisis situation.

    But if you've been watching closely, there is lots of room for improvement. What I'm proposing would not be drastic changes while at the same time would give the team the type of stability moving forward that Gulutzan is seeking.

    Plus, it makes Calgary a better team instantly.

    But in a disclaimer that should have been at the top, not here at the bottom, remember that I'm not the GM, nor am I the coach. This is just one man's opinion.

    Now we sit back and see over the next few days what Gulutzan and Treliving have in mind. They're the guys whose opinions actually matter.

    But with Sunday a day off for the team and then three days of practices coming up starting on Monday morning before Calgary is back in action Thursday night when the Carolina Hurricanes visit the Saddledome, the time is definitely right to make some tweaks.

    Let's see what they do.

    By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


    Recent Flames Reading:

    • Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Random Flames Thoughts on a Cool, Fall Weekend - My assortment of random Flames-related musings include two prospects ripping it up in major junior, don't judge Mike Smith's book by the cover, Parsons and the ECHL. (Oct. 14, 2017) 
    • Good Omen? Smith's Thanksgiving Shutout in Anaheim Sparks Memories of 2004 - The start to the season for Mike Smith has conjured up memories of Miikka Kiprusoff, who was the guy the last time the Flames boasted at true No. 1 starter. (Oct. 10, 2017)
    • Podcast: Episode 20 with Pat Steinberg- In this season preview edition, the host of Sportsnet960's radio broadcasts joined me to look at the season ahead. We made a bunch of predictions, some bold, some not, and answered several listener questions. (Oct. 9, 2017)
    • Don't You Forget About Me: Simple Minds' Song Befits Impactful Night for Lazar - While TJ Brodie and Johnny Gaudreau were the headliners in Saturday's win over Winnipeg with four points each, don't overlook the really nice game by Curtis Lazar. (Oct. 8, 2017)
    • It Was Just One Game, People - Flames fans' overreaction game was certainly on point as the Flames 3-0 opening night loss to the Oilers set off widespread panic. Yes, it took one game. Five reasons to relax and not fret, posted via the FF80F facebook page. (Oct. 5, 2017)