Sunday, December 24, 2017

Living the Dream of a White NHL Christmas: Former Farmhands Thriving with the Flames

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From Etch A Sketch (1960) to Pong (1972), from Cabbage Patch Kids (1983) to Tickle Me Elmo (1996), from the Nintendo Wii (2008) to Fingerlings (2017), the must-have item topping childrens' Christmas wish lists changes annually.

There's no such variety for hockey players toiling in the minor leagues.

For them, it's the same thing every year and in 2017, Brett Kulak, Mark Jankowski, David Rittich and Garnet Hathaway all received that ultimate gift.

Unwrapped on Oct. 3, Oct. 23, Nov. 24 and Nov. 29 respectively, the four former members of the Stockton Heat received a one-way ticket -- at least for now -- to the NHL.

For everyone but Hathaway, it's the first time they've arrived at the annual holiday break on the NHL roster of the Calgary Flames.

Mark Jankowski
"It's definitely going to be a great Christmas, it feels good to be going home as an NHL player," said Jankowski, who flew back home to Ontario on Saturday morning to spend his time off with his sisters, brother and parents.

For Kulak, his trip home was shorter. He hopped in his vehicle after Friday night's game and headed up the QE2 to Stony Plain on the outskirts of Edmonton.

"It feels good for me," said the third pairing defenceman. "This is another step in the right direction that I want to take in my career."

A similar sentiment was echoed by Rittich.

"So happy that I can be here with these big boys and playing with and against the best players in the world," said Rittich. "It's so great for me."

Residing at the moment at a downtown hotel where he was recently joined by his fiance, Nikola, Rittich isn't travelling anywhere for the break other than to the Frolik home on the 25th. Fellow Czech Michael Frolik invited the two of them over to enjoy the big day.

"It's nice for them to ask us, because Christmas at a hotel is, umm, not the best," said Rittich with a chuckle.

Rittich is particularly excited about being in Canada after last year, his first season in North America, spending the holiday break in California.

"That was different because the weather is way different. There, I didn't see snow the whole time," Rittich told me. "In my hometown, it's pretty high for Czech Republic, we got awesome white Christmas, so I'm happy we'll have a white Christmas here."

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Confidence on the Rise

For Hathaway, this is the second year in a row he's flown back home out of Calgary at Christmas. But this time around, he says it has a different vibe.

Garnet Hathaway
"I feel like I've come a long way from where I was," said the native of Kennebunkport, Maine. "The physical aspect of my game hasn't really changed, but I'm in a different role on the team right now. I worked hard in the summer to try and grow my role and try to contribute to this team more, so I'm going to keep working towards that."

The numbers reflect how Hathaway's game and usage has evolved.

Last season in Calgary, he had five points in 26 games. This year in half the number of games, he already has six points. His ice time is up, his role on the depth chart is up -- playing third line alongside Jankowski and Sam Bennett. Also up and an attribute he sees in all four of them, is his confidence.

"You can't walk on eggshells and stay up here," Hathaway said. "You look at all the guys. How Ritter has played -- he plays every game, every play in practice, like it's do or die. You look at the work ethic of Janko and Kulie, I think Kulie is probably the first guy at the rink every day and has been since I've known him."

Also on the rise is the faith being shown in the four of them by coach Glen Gulutzan.

"In my talks with Janks and Hath, I've said, 'Hey, I don't want you to play nervous. Janks message was play good defensively so I can trust you, but play and don't be scared to try things, but you've got to be good defensively'. With Hath, it was the same thing."

Slowly but surely, their solid on-ice performance is earning them increased trust from the Flames skipper.

A press box regular to start the year, Kulak is now a fixture in the everyday line-up and is seeing his ice time increase. Hathaway has started to get shifts on the penalty kill. Jankowski has become a regular on the power play.

"Usually the stubborn coaches are the last guys that come into that development model as you get set in your ways, especially with your old guys," admits Gulutzan. "For us to move forward, you have to give those guys -- when they're proving it -- you have to give them a little more bite and then see if your team can get to a little bit of a higher level."

Flames Development Philosophy

While he is quick to acknowledge that not everyone is on the same trajectory, Gulutzan says he likes the '20-50' model as he describes it where if circumstances allow, you can start guys off with a string of games in the NHL. Then when that player goes back to the minors, that helps them be that much more ready for the next call-up.

Glen Gulutzan
Hathaway and Kulak have both experienced similar development paths where they got a taste, went back down, and now are thriving in what's becoming a longer -- and perhaps permanent -- stint with the NHL club.

"That's a really good development model for me when a guy is starting to get in the league because what 20-some games can do is confirm to a player that I can play here," Gulutzan explained to me. "Then the next time they come, whether it be a year later, I'm going to do a little bit more to be there because I think I can play there on a regular basis.

"In Janks' case, he earned it by his play here in training camp. He was very close. Then he went down there and kept it going so we brought him back. Rittich is on that same level. He proved it down there. Now let's give him a little taste, see if he can prove it up here and he's doing well."

Gulutzan credits the philosophy of general manager Brad Treliving and the instruction provided by Stockton coach Ryan Huska and his staff.

"We've done a great job of developing our players the right way," Gulutzan continued. "It's Tree's plan to have those guys cooked nicely before we bring them up here. Husk and his staff are doing a great job. They're developing them and now they can come here and they can contribute right away. That's when you know you have a strong organization, when you're not having to develop your players in the NHL."

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Standouts in the Minors

Asked if there's a feeling of pride when you have players graduate to the NHL, Huska says a little bit, but he also says that's just the Stockton staff doing its job.

Ryan Huska
"It's nice to see them have success because all four of those guys were really great team guys and true pros in regards to putting time into their games," said Huska, who is in his fourth season behind the Flames' AHL bench.

"As much as we're proud for what they've been able to do in the early phase of their call-ups, they deserve a lot of the credit. All four of them were very diligent in their work habits and working on their game in regards to being consistent with it and making improvements. All four are also competitors, which is something that you look for all the time."

Asked if the success of any of them thus far had surprised him, Huska said absolutely not. He then expanded upon each guy and why.
  • On Kulak: "His ability to stick with it and continue to belief in himself is what has separated him from some others. He probably had the bumpiest road of all those guys by spending a lot of time in the ECHL his first year and he maintained the belief in himself and his ability and through it all, he continued to put in the work to make sure he was getting better, no matter where he was, or what positions he was being put in."
  • On Jankowski: "He got himself to the point where he gained confidence last year here, but this year he came down and was dominant early on in the season for us. He had a stronger belief that he could be a guy that in the middle of the ice, controlled the ice. I don't think there was another centreman down in the American Hockey League that had his ability in regards to distributing pucks and being the big man that everybody's looking for."
  • On Hathaway: "Two words for him would be dependable and consistent, and he makes people better. So if you want to call him a multiplier or whatever that word might be, you know what we were getting from him each and every night and it never changed."
  • On Rittich: "Competitor is the one word you think of when you talk about David because he really competes hard. Whether it's practice or a game, he put everything into it all the time. He hated to get scored on. Part of his character is if we lost a game 1-0, David wouldn't have been happy. If we won a game 10-9 and he gave up nine goals, he'd be the happiest guy in the dressing room. He's a real team guy where he wants to do whatever he can to help his team have success and sometimes that's just coming to the rink with a great, upbeat attitude, which we saw every day here."

While Huska still has his team atop the AHL's Pacific Division at the break with a 16-8-3 record, he says they have certainly felt the loss of those players.

"It's hard to replace Garnet's energy and his dependability and compete that he would bring each and every shift. It's hard to replace a big man like Mark down the middle of the ice where we relied on him in all those situations and it's hard to replace David where basically he had one loss while he was here. When he was in the net, he was winning for us all the time.

"So you are losing some real, key people out of your line-up but at the same time, that door is open for some other guys and this is their great opportunity to try and take advantage of a little more ice time or being a guy more counted on in different areas."

Gives Others Hope
One of those guys still in Stockton, anxiously awaiting his first NHL call-up, and being counted on even more now is Andrew Mangiapane.

Mangiapane is a particularly interested observer considering he opened the season on the same line as Jankowski and Hathaway.

Andrew Mangiapane
"I usually watch the games on nights we don't play and to see Hath and Janko both playing well and producing, I'm happy for them," said Mangiapane. 

He says their success also gives him added confidence.

"When they do good up there, it gives me hope that I can do good as well if I get the chance," said the 21-year-old second-year pro, who now finds himself playing on a line with Brett Findlay and Ryan Lomberg

"Obviously, you want to be in the NHL right now, but you have to take your time. Play great down here and work on things you need to work on and when you get called up, make the most of your opportunity."

Huska agrees that for his players, seeing guys get promoted gives everyone a little extra boost of confidence.
"Last year, there weren't a lot of injuries and call-ups, so we had a lot of guys that were here for a large portion of the year. For our guys to see those faces going up early this year, having success and helping Calgary win some games, it's very fresh for them and I think they realize that I'm not that far off. If I can put in a little bit more work and I can be consistent with what I'm trying to do in the role I'm expected to play in, there's a chance."

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Band of Brothers

Roughly a year apart in age, for Jankowski, 23, Kulak -- turning 24 in two weeks -- Rittich, 25, and Hathaway, 26, a kinship between them has developed. They've all put in the time to reach the ultimate destination. While some have been at it longer than others, it wasn't a quick ascent for any of them.

Jankowski, who first reported to Stockton after his NCAA career at Providence College wrapped up, spent 78 games with the Heat.

Hathaway, who went a full four years at Brown University, has been in the AHL for parts of four seasons, accumulating 173 games worth of AHL experience.

Brett Kulak
Kulak has logged 156 games in the minors, most of those in the AHL but 39 coming in the ECHL in 2014-15.

Other than a 20-minute cameo appearance in game 82 for the Flames, Rittich spent all of last season in Stockton.

While sharing thes crease with Jon Gillies, that only resulted in 37 games, not to be forgotten is Rittich spent the previous two seasons with Mlada Boleslav in in the top Czech league so added up, that's over 100+ games of pro development on the resume.

"Sometimes we fall back on stories of being in the minors, so it's pretty cool," said Kulak, who just recently welcomed in Jankowski as his roommate after he got the nod to go ahead and find a place to live. "We definitely spend a  lot of time around each other so we all have that feeling that we're all helping each other through the whole thing,"

Hathaway agrees that a bond has developed between them.

"We have some history together. We all went through a lot together. It is the dream to be here. To share it with guys that you put a lot of work into it with, that means a lot."

For Rittich, as he overcomes the additional obstacle of learning a new language -- something that has come a remarkably long way in a short time -- that familiarity has helped him a bunch in Calgary.

"We're now together for two years, a couple of the guys for a longer time. For me, it's way better. They know me and who I am and I know who they are. It's better for everyone and it's good for all four of us," said Rittich.

Patience is a Virtue

The promoting of young, exciting players into the NHL will never happen fast enough to quench the thirst of rabid fans. That's just the way it is and it's not anything unique to this market.

In fact, to have four that finished last season in Stockton all contributing already this season in Calgary, that's a number that is higher than average.

Whether it's Mangiapane, 20-year-old defenceman Rasmus Andersson, or perhaps an older guy like Marek Hrivik, 26, who is next, expect the Flames to steadfastly stick to their development formula because they've seen it work and right now are reaping the benefits.

Jankowski and Hathaway make up two-thirds of what's been Calgary's most effective forward line in December. Kulak's ice time is increasing and Rittich has won his first three starts.

"I just want to give the biggest chance to win for the guys and show my best," said Rittich. "For me, it's most important if we win. If you look at the standings and you can see that we have lowest goals against and we have 10 points in 20 games. Or if you have higher goals-against and you be first in the league. So what is better? It's first place. For me, it's definitely more important than my numbers."

The model to develop prospects is one of patience, ongoing work with the development staff under the direction of Ray Edwards and for GM Brad Pascall, it's surrounding the young players with veterans to show them the way.

"All of our veteran players have been really good trying to create the right environment down here for us," said Huska. "A few years back, that was Aaron Johnson for Kulak. Last year, Mike Angelidis, he played the game really hard, all the time, and I think that rubbed off on Mark and Garnet. This year, we have just an outstanding group of older guys -- Luke Gazdic, our captain Rod Pelley, Cody Goloubef, Colby Robak has been excellent, Hrivik has been excellent and of course, Tanner Glass has joined us now too.

"Glass is an absolute true pro in regards to how you take care of yourself and prepare and consistency in regards to playing a role. He's another guy that I think is someone who likely would have rubbed off on Hath. He's really good to have around young players. Just the way he approaches the day to day, he's really a student of the game. He wants to understand it and asks questions and he really, really takes cares of himself and makes sure he's ready to be at his best."

Hathaway sees the importance of those types of players and the positive influence seasoned veterans can have in young minor league dressing rooms.

"(Angelidis) last year, such a good guy and a great pro. He came to work every day. He has his sternness about him, but he's easy to talk to. It was a great environment to play in and to learn," said Hathaway. "And Glasser, he's played a long time. He knows what it's like to make it and he knows what it takes and that's a big thing for the guys to learn."

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Final Word

On Thursday in the Flames first game back out of the break, they're at the SAP Center in San Jose where in the afternoon, Stockton will play the San Jose Barracuda.

"Just to say hi, they'll probably come to the game. Hopefully we get to see them, talk to them, catch up. I think it will be pretty cool," said Mangiapane.

With 11 goals and 29 points in 27 games to lead the team, it seems more a matter of when and not if that Mangiapane will get to see his ex-linemates on a more regular basis and by that, I'm not referring to them getting demoted.

With it likely that at least a few forwards will exit the organization in the off-season -- Matt Stajan, Freddie Hamilton and Jaromir Jagr all come to mind -- there will be openings.

Perhaps by this time next year, Mangiapane will have already received what's on his Christmas wish list.

"I've just got to wait, and hopefully that day will come."

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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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Breaking the Persona: Hathaway Showing Maybe There's More There Than Most Thought

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Samuel L. Jackson. Badass.

Morgan Freeman. Wise, old man.

Vince Vaughn. Smart-ass

In Hollywood, actors get typecast all the time. Based on the type of role they usually play, eventually that role is all anyone ever expects them to play and they get pigeon-holed into having certain characteristics.

It can be a tough persona to break.

Same thing applies in the NHL.

There are five words that over the last couple years have become permanently attached to Garnet Hathaway and it can be career-limiting:

We know what he is.

Energetic? Yes.

Physical? Yes.

Pain-in-the-ass to play against? Absolutely.

Offensive touch? No.

The latter, often a dagger to one's NHL aspirations, is a label you earn when you're an undrafted 26-year-old player who in a half-season's worth of NHL service has scored only one goal.

Making the Most of His Chance

But after three games filling in admirably, if not impressively, for Jaromir Jagr on the Flames third line, now I'm starting to wonder.

Do we really know what Hathaway is?

It's only been a week. I'm not suggesting anyone get out the eraser quite yet. But based on his play this week alongside Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett against the Leafs, Canadiens and Canucks, I'm also not prepared to laminate his current label either.

The Flames picked up five of six points the past three games with the native of Kennebunkport, Maine, instrumental in the two wins -- both of them being third period comebacks.

Where in the past, Hathaway would have been mostly stapled to the bench alongside his fourth line linemates as the team rolled the top nine in a bid to get back in the game, this week Hathaway found himself at the epicenter of all the important goals.

Three points in two games. All on critical game-tying or game-winning goals. All coming in the third period.

Exhibit A - Scores tying goal vs. Montreal at 7:49 of the third period

Inside the Montreal end, Hathaway steps inside of Alex Galchenyuk to intercept a puck shot up the side-boards by David Schlemko. Hathaway gets the puck back to Brett Kulak at the blueline. Kulak's shot misses the net, but the carom off the end boards is retrieved by Bennett, who drags it out front for a quick shot. In the ensuing scramble, Hathaway barges his way to the top of the crease and is able to jab the loose puck past a sprawled Carey Price before being wrestled to the ice by Galchenyuk. Waved off initially, it ends up counting to tie it 2-2 when coach Glen Gulutzan successfully challenged the initial ruling of goaltender interference.

Exhibit B - Primary assist on Tkachuk's tying goal vs. Vancouver at 11:34 of the third period

Hathaway races to the side-boards to intercept Ben Hutton's attempted bank pass to Markus Granlund. He quickly glances over his right shoulder to see where his teammates are then after quickly settling the puck on his stick, Hathaway zips a backhander into the slot where Matthew Tkachuk corrals it, goes to his backhand and sends a shot into the top corner while falling.

Exhibit C - Assist on Bennett's winning goal vs. Vancouver at 18:50 of the third period

Ten seconds of intense pressure begins with Hathaway's dangerous chance from 10 feet out off a cross-ice pass from Jankowski. Anders Nilsson stopped the initial shot, but unable to control the rebound, the puck bounces around the front of the net where it eventually bounds off the skate of Hathaway to Bennett out front, who misses the crowded net on his forehand.

After Jankowski -- from behind the net -- chips it into the opposite corner, Hathaway gets good body position to outmuscle Michael Del Zotto for a 50-50 puck. In the ensuing two-on-two board battle, the puck squirts out to Bennett who curls off the sideboards, bowls his way into the slot and fires a backhand past Nilsson for the game-winner.

Maybe There's Something More There

This recent body of work has the voice in the back of my head whispering maybe, just maybe there's something more there with this player.

Glen Gulutzan addressed Hathaway's play of late after Saturday's game.

"We played Garnet Hathaway after training camp in our first game in Edmonton, but we had some roster issues, obviously, and he went down," said the Flames coach.

"We told him to go down and play hard and what he did was play extremely hard. He had 11 goals and was in the top 10 in the American League in scoring. We wanted to get him back up here."

If comedic actor and longtime star of The Office, Steve Carrel, can eventually re-invent himself by taking on a series of dramatic roles, who is to say it's not too late for Hathaway to turn himself into a serviceable third liner.

It's not like Carrel suddenly became a Shakespearian actor. For Hathaway, we're not talking about elevating him into the top-six, but can he bump up one spot on the depth chart and play in the top-nine?

Well, so far so good. Nine shots over these last three games. Being around the action isn't new for Hathaway, but spending so much time around the opposition net is. He deserves credit for the third line not missing a beat when he stepped in for the injured Jaromir Jagr.

Bennett, Jankowski and Jagr were going pretty good when the 45-year-old Czech went down with that nagging lower-body injury he's been battling. Hathaway has slipped seamlessly into that spot and kept that trio rolling, despite the absence of the NHL's second leading scorer of all-time.

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Continued to Improve in the Minors

While he hasn't until now been able to produce offence in the NHL, he's enjoyed plenty of success in the AHL, his points-per-game increasing as he accumulated more and more experience.

In his rookie season with Adirondack in 2014-15, he scored 19 goals and had 36 points in 72 games. Not bad as a first-year pro.

In his second year, he averaged just under a half-point per game with 8 goals and 21 points in 44 games. That year he also spent 14 games with the Flames.

Last year with the Heat, he was averaging two-thirds of a point per game with 8 goals and 20 points in 31 games. That earned him his longest stint yet in the NHL getting into 26 games with Calgary.

This year, he was averaging more than a point-per-game with 11 goals and 19 points in 28 games when he was jettisoned to Calgary.

With much of his time in the minors the last two years being spent with Jankowski as his centre, one also can't underestimate the impact that has had. Chemistry can be a powerful thing, regardless of where it is hatched -- at the Saddledome or at the Stockton Arena.

"The chemistry that him and Janko had down there, it's a nice little fit up here," said Gulutzan.

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Should Have Been Drafted

The other thing to keep in mind is this isn't a guy that has come from out of nowhere.

In his draft year in 2010, Hathaway was ranked No. 110 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

That was higher than teammate Micheal Ferland (No. 146) and also higher than Ferland's Brandon Wheat Kings teammate and now Ottawa Senators' scoring star Mark Stone (No. 119), yet Hathaway went undrafted while Ferland and Stone were selected in the fifth and sixth rounds respectively.

As his story goes, Hathaway went off to Brown University for his full four years, but the Flames continued to keep their eye on him, eventually signing him to a one-year minor league contract.

After his impactful rookie season in the minors, he turned that into an NHL contract and next up on his wish list is a permanent NHL role. 

Final Word

It takes a long time to overcome first impressions and Hathaway will need to keep playing at the level he's at if he hopes to remain part of the top-nine.

But has he earned a spot in the top 12? Hard to argue that given what the team has gotten, or more so not gotten from the carousel of other players used in that role.

Even if that ends up being where Hathaway lands and that's still probably his career path at this point, he is showing right now that he can be a guy that in a pinch, can bump up in the line-up and play more important minutes and take on a bigger role.

That versatility will only further help him in his NHL career.

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:

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Janko and Benny: After a Three-Year Search, Has Bennett Found His Hockey Soulmate?

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Riggs and Murtaugh.

Lowrey and Burnett.

Jenko and Schmidt.

What makes a great buddy film is two characters that complement each other. They don't necessarily need to resemble each other or have similar characteristics -- and often they don't -- yet when you pair them up, it simply works.

On the big screen, we saw that chemistry with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence had it in the Bad Boys franchise. Most recently, we saw it with the partnership of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street.

On the ice, the Calgary Flames have also boasted a couple of popular and highly effective forward duos in recent years. They too have become great buddies.

Gaudreau and Monahan.

Backlund and Frolik.

But the one guy and central figure upfront that has not enjoyed the luxury of having a steady, longtime partner to develop and evolve with has been Sam Bennett.

Searching for the Right One

For Bennett, the carousel of linemates has been spinning like a merry-go-round since he broke into the NHL in the 2015 post-season.

In 2015-16, his most common even-strength linemates were Michael Frolik (37%) and Mikael Backlund (36%). But those two had each other and while it worked as a trio, the younger Bennett was the third wheel in that relationship. Bennett was the guy in the back seat of the station wagon.

Beyond those two, coach Bob Hartley tried an assortment of others with Bennett during his rookie season but without much success (percentages compiled via DobberHockey and are approximate):
  • Micheal Ferland (18%)
  • Joe Colborne (17%)
  • Markus Granlund (17%)
  • Josh Jooris (12%)
  • David Jones (12%)
  • Johnny Gaudreau (12%)
  • Jiri Hudler (10%)
  • Mason Raymond (6%)

Last year, the search continued.

Incoming coach Glen Gulutzan hoped to conjure up some magic by pairing up new free agent signing Troy Brouwer with Bennett in training camp and hoping the veteran and the kid would hit it off.

They didn't.

Nor did it work much better with Kris Versteeg or Alex Chiasson, despite each getting long looks with Bennett. Spending most of his even-strength time last season with those three -- Versteeg (41%), Brouwer (40%), Chiasson (40%) -- Bennett's production as a sophomore fell from 18 goals and 36 points as a rookie to just 13 goals and 26 points.

Bennett also spent some time last season with Gaudreau (20%) but again, he was spoken for already. Micheal Ferland (12%), Matt Stajan (9%) and Lance Bouma (7%) also spent time alongside him but there was nothing dynamic to be found. No sparks in any of those relationships.

Enter Jankowski

But maybe, just maybe, Bennett has finally found his hockey soulmate in 6-foot-5, 210 pound Mark Jankowski.

While still very much in the 'newlywed' phase of their time together, Jankowski (60%) represents the most stable relationship (proportionately) Bennett has been in yet. Don't forget that Jankowski was in the American Hockey League for the first three weeks of the season. Lately, that 60% has been darn close to 100%.

Since his call-up and the subsequent falling of dominoes that eventually saw Bennett shift to left wing and Jankowski inserted at third-line centre, the two have been constantly found side by side on the ice.

Jaromir Jagr (39%) has been Bennett's other most frequent even-strength linemate this season. Since returning from injury, he's been a fixture on the other wing.

But getting back to the kids, could the Providence College grad and 2012 first rounder be the player that completes Bennett?

We're a long way from knowing that for sure but based on their play much of the last month, there's plenty of reason to be hopeful if you're a fan, team management or Bennett himself.

Lovin' the Home Cookin'

On Thursday at the Saddledome, Jankowski had two goals with Bennett assisting on both.

Two nights earlier in the opening game of the homestand, the only Flames goal was scored by that same Jankowski-Bennett line.

Of course, don't forget the last game of the previous homestand. On that electric night in which Calgary won 7-4 over St. Louis, Jankowski had two goals and an assist and Bennett had his first goal of the season in a two-point night.

So between the two of them, that's 10 combined points (Jankowski, 4-1-5, Bennett, 1-4-5) in the last three home games. Doing it in front of the home crowd, now that's how you become fan favourites.

In the middle was that six-game road trip in which the trio got skunked, but the silver lining over those 12 days was they were still generating chances. Over those six games, the trio of Bennett, Jankowski and Jagr combined for 31 shots on goal and 53 shot attempts. There were a few pucks off the iron as well.

"Our line was playing well, we were creating chances throughout the road trip," Jankowski said. "I've always said, when the chances stop, that's when you've got to worry. I thought we were getting the chances and the goals will come if you stick with it."

Thursday was a game that the club hopes will be the springboard. Jankowski with the two goals on six shots, Jagr with four shots and a helper. Bennett chipped in two assists, had two shots and earned heaps of praise from the head coach. It added up to a dozen shots and a great all-round performance.

Bennett's Game Heating Up

Gulutzan noted that Bennett is playing some of the best hockey of his career in terms of creating chances.

"All the analytics we do with Sam, it was the second best segment as a Flame," Gulutzan said on Thursday. "These last 10 games as far as what he created and how many chances he had, it's just a matter of time when that happens."

We know the raw skill Bennett has -- he went fourth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft for a reason. He lit up the OHL when he was in junior and as a teenager, he scored 18 goals as a rookie in the NHL.

But there have been plenty of bumps in the road and to this point, he is still sitting at just one goal in 25 games this season. But the coach thinks it's coming and Bennett does too.

"I've started to feel better, our line has been generating quite a few chances," said Bennett. "I know that if the chances are coming, then eventually the production is going to come. So I'm just going to keep playing like I'm playing."

The trio will get a chance to keep it going on Saturday night against Edmonton. With Cam Talbot injured, they'll be shooting on back-up goaltender Laurent Brossoit, who will enter the game with an .876 save percentage.

"The more we play together, the more comfortable we're going to get and the more we're going to build that chemistry," Bennett added. "It felt really good (Thursday) together and I think we can keep building off a game like that."

Two Potentially Future Fixtures

What's especially appealing about the combination of Jankowski and Bennett is these are two young guys who are still very much finding their way in the NHL.

This has the potential to be a combination that can remain together for a long, long time and really blossom.

It's only the third season for Bennett, who we tend to forget only turned 21 in June. Jankowski is not that much older, having turned 23 in September.

These are two guys with bright futures and who knows, it might very well be with each other.

You get the sense Bennett wouldn't mind that.

"He's got unbelievable skill," said Bennett, when asked about his centre. "As he plays more games in this league, he's getting more and more comfortable and you can see it. He's really starting to find his game and it's a lot of fun to play with him right now.

"Every game, he's gotten better and better. Now he's starting to take pucks to the net and it's starting to work for him."

Having the NHL's second-leading point getter of all-time on the other wing doesn't hurt either. Jagr, 45, has been a nice chaperone for the other two.

"That line, and you can see with the chances and how they're getting rewarded, they're building their confidence and that's going to be big for our club," Gulutzan said.

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Final Word

For 13 and 23, they're not only linemates at 5-on-5, they play on the power play together too. They've got plenty in common.

For 11 and 67, there's a bit of power play time in there but where they're rarely found apart is on the penalty kill. Together, that's one of their things.

As Bennett and Jankowski mature, their resumes grow and Gulutzan gains more and more trust in both of them, you can envision a similar future for 77 and 93 too. That could include both power play and penalty killing as both have done that in the past. It may not be this year, but down the road.

Could Janko and Benny be the new Johnny and Mony? Could they be the new Backs and Fro?

It would sure make Calgary a far more formidable club if they have, indeed, finally found the right combination of ingredients to generate consistent third line production. If that's the case, look out.

"That top line has been unbelievable for us, it's definitely nice to contribute offensively and we know that we have to do that to have success down the road," Bennett said.

Bennett and Jankowski. Perhaps Calgary's next lethal weapon.

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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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Despite the Clouds, Still Plenty of Sunshine in the Upcoming Forecast for the Flames

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You know what they say around Calgary. If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes.

Well, same thing applies to this city's hockey team.

If you don't like how the Flames are playing, just wait five days. Or three days. Heck, the wind can completely change directions in one day.

Having arrived back in Calgary in the middle of the night, players will wake up in their own beds on Sunday morning -- well, excluding hotel-bound David Rittich -- after a season-long 12-day, six-game road trip that epitomized this club's entire season so far.

Could have been better.

Could have been worse.

All in all, not bad.

It's easy to lament the points that got away. Blowing the lead three times in Friday's regulation loss in Dallas is a wound that will take a while to scab over. But the reality in today's competitive NHL is finishing above .500 on a road trip will never hurt you. Never.

Now is the bar for road excursions like the one they just completed going to be set higher than a smidge above .500 at 3-2-1? Yes.

Is seven out of a possible 12 points ever going to be the goal when you board that comfy charter, destined for the first stop? Absolutely not.

This is especially the case when you fancy yourself as one of the conference's elite teams.

But there's something to be said about finding a way to scratch out points when you're not playing your best hockey -- and that's certainly been the theme to the first two months of the season.

Avoiding the Skids

While one can also view it as maddening inconsistency, the other way of viewing Calgary's up-and-down season so far is one of tempered satisfaction in the fact that they've avoided any of those prolonged losing skids that can sink you.

Past the quarter point in the season now, the longest losing streak has been two games and according to my trusty Canadian Press Stylebook, it can't be described as a 'streak' until it's three or more games. So by CP's definition, they've yet to have a losing streak.

All things considered, that's pretty good.

Of the three times that they've dropped two games in a row, only twice were both of them regulation losses. It seems that every time that doom and gloom looms, Calgary pulls a u-turn that next time out and turns those collective frowns upside down. For example:
  • Play a stinker in Dallas on Friday, bounce back last night to win in Colorado.
  • Get crushed in Detroit, answer back with wins in Philadelphia and Washington.
  • Have a poor outing in a home-ice loss to Vancouver, follow it up with a terrific effort against the Red Wings.
  • Open up a homestand with a loss to Dallas, bounce back with victories over the Penguins and Capitals.

Oh, they're a moody lot, these Flames. If you're not good with turbulence, you'll want to grab a case of Gravol next time you're at Costco.

In a Decent Spot in the Pacific

For all the consternation that has swirled around the Flames during these first seven-and-a-half weeks and there's been plenty, they're actually in a pretty good spot. Not a great spot, but not bad.

Through 23 games, they sit third in the Pacific with 27 points. They trail Vegas by four points and are two back of Los Angeles.

It's not a comfortable third by any means. Vancouver is just one point back in the divisional chase and in the fight for the two wildcard spots, there are seven teams between 24 and 26 points.

Three losses in a row and just like that, Calgary could be on the outside looking in.

But that's just it, they flat-out refuse to lose three times in a row. They're grinding away like a professional golfer that doesn't have his best stuff on that day. For every bogey, there's a birdie, but it's mostly pars while they wait for their swing to come around.

The good news, even though it may not be viewed that way by all, is the Flames have not played their best hockey yet. Far from it.

A few players have, absolutely, and those three need no introduction, but for the most part, this team is still finding its way and while you can view that as a concern, the positive that fans can rally around is inevitably, this team is going to get better.

While the offensive pace from the top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Michael Ferland is unsustainable, there's no reason to believe the drop-off will be significant. We're talking about three players, all of them in or entering their prime, playing the best hockey of their careers.

Meanwhile, there are several key areas of the team that are also not sustainable, but in this case, it's in a good way. Here are three areas where improvement can be expected:

1. Depth Scoring

Just when you think you're out, they drag you back in.

When we last saw the Flames at the Saddledome, they were revelling in the afterglow of that long-awaited breakout from the third line.

Two goals and an assist for Mark Jankowski, the first goal in a Flames uniform for Jaromir Jagr. Smiles, laughs, police hats and souvenir pucks were everywhere.

Then came the road trip in which that same trio of Jankowki, Jagr, and snake-bitten Sam Bennett, were skunked. Zip. Zero. Zilch. No productivity whatsoever.

But the points from this trio will come, the chances will eventually be buried and here's why.

In the last six games, those three have combined for 31 shots on goal (Bennett 11, Jagr 11, Jankowski 9) and 53 shot attempts. You don't need to be expert in hockey analytics to realize that a shooting percentage of 0 percent is unsustainable.

Mix in some dented iron along the way and they're doing pretty much everything but scoring. While the game summaries suggest maybe it's time to try something new, the eyes see something different. Keep throwing them over the boards. The breakthrough is coming.

Same thing applies to the assortment of spare parts that have made up the fourth line.
  • Kris Versteeg - 3 pts (2-1) in 22 gm
  • Troy Brouwer - 2 pts (0-2) in 23 gm
  • Curtis Lazar - 2 pts (0-2) in 16 gm
  • Freddie Hamilton - 0 pts (0-0) in 5 gm
  • Matt Stajan - 0 pts (0-0) in 14 gm

Added up, that's two goals and seven points at even strength in 80 combined games. That's the equivalent of one full season.

These players may not be dangerous snipers, but they're better than that.

2. Penalty Killing

They're not in last any more, so there's that.

The woes of the Flames gawdawful penalty killing up until this point is another one of those storylines that everyone is very familiar with by now.

But it won't always be this bad.

In fact, perhaps it's already started to turn the corner. Going back to the last two periods of the Philadelphia game, the PK has killed off 13 of the last l4 chances over the span of four-plus games. Along the way has been some critical kills at critical junctures too.

They still rank 30th at 73.8 percent, ahead of only Florida (73.6), but it's heading in the right direction.

If this sounds familiar, it's because exactly a year ago today, Calgary was in an identical situation.

Last year on Nov. 26, also having played 23 games at that point, the Flames were also second-last on the penalty kill (75.3). From that point forward -- so for the final 59 games of the season, Calgary had the fifth best PK (84.4) to climb all the way to 12th by the end of the year.

It would be naive to expect a similar run, but is there plenty of room for improvement in this aspect of Calgary's game? For sure.

3. Defensive Play

Judging by the nightly fire drills, the defensive zone has been a struggle, obviously.

Expectations were high coming into the season and as a group, the Flames vaunted defense core has collectively stubbed their toe.

Travis Hamonic is still finding his way as he settles into a new team playing a different system. TJ Brodie has been making mistakes on a frighteningly frequent basis. Dougie Hamilton hasn't been immune to costly brain cramps also.

It's fair to question if this group is as good as they were touted and I'd say it's already too late for that.

But can they be better? Most definitely.

That Stars loss two nights ago was surely close to rock bottom with brutal defensive miscues leading to every goal -- Brodie, Hamilton (twice) and Michael Stone among the guilty parties.

But on the bright side, Brett Kulak's gradual ascent has been encouraging. While the 23-year-old got a night off on Saturday, I'd chalk that up entirely as the coach looking to inject fresh legs for the final game of a long roadie and Matt Bartkowski needing to finally get in a game. I fully expect Kulak back in uniform on Tuesday.

Prior to the road trip, Kulak was averaging less than 12 minutes per game (11:56). On the road trip, Kulak averaged more than 14 minutes per game (14:14) and he's playing the best hockey of his career. While an extra four shifts may not sound like a lot, it's an indication that Kulak is earning more trust from the head coach. With more ice time comes more confidence and you're seeing that reflected in his play.

Final Word

Calgary's playoff positioning right now is precarious at best, but where they sit in comparison to Anaheim and Edmonton is worth noting.

Viewed by many including myself prior to the season as the Flames two biggest divisional threats, Calgary is three points up on the Ducks and seven points clear of the scuffling Oilers.

No disrespect to the Vegas Golden Knights, but I don't see them winning the division. So of the teams that matter, Calgary is two points back of the Kings with a game in hand and one point up on the Sharks, who hold a game in hand.

Sitting in a playoff spot is a great outcome for a team that has yet to play its best hockey.

So while many will want to view the Flames season as mostly cloudy, partly sunny is also accurate. I think it's inevitable that mostly sunny is on the way.

As long as every cold snap is followed by a chinook, Calgary will continue to remain in the mix in the Western Conference.

Once the team finds its way on the PK, eliminates the egregious defensive mistakes and once the supporting cast finally finds some puck luck, the mercury will rise.

Add in the strong season being had by the Flames top line, the solid play turned in by Mike Smith, who is clearly the real deal as a No. 1, and should Rittich be able to provide Calgary with stability on Smith's days of rest, there should be a heat wave or two coming.

In a division, conference and league where every team has its warts and reasons for its fan base to lie awake restless at night, the Flames are no worse for wear at this point and are in a position to still be viewed as probable post-season participants for a second season in a row.

When they get there and it's more a case of 'when' than 'if', you can bet that they'll be playing better hockey than they have been so far and that bodes well.

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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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.

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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