Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fixing the Flames: Five Adjustments I'd be Tempted to Try

It was seven seconds of awkward silence that spoke volumes.

As embattled Calgary Flames coach Glen Gulutzan stepped to the podium Saturday night to address the media post-game, I started off the proceedings with this question: What tops the concern list out of a game like that?

I was referring, of course, to the final chapter in this year's 'Slaughter of Alberta' in which Edmonton swept the season series for the first time in history. Before a rare sell-out crowd at the Scotiabank Saddledome in the most anticipated game of the season, the Flames were run out of the building by their archrival.

"I don't even know where to start," Gulutzan began. Then he paused as he mulled over what by now must be a list of concerns the length of my Costco shopping list for today.

"I think we have to relook at everything," he finally said, breaking the silence. "But how we play without a lead is probably the top thing on the list."

First Period Faceplants Continue

They've had plenty of chances at practicing that lately. Saturday night when Chad Johnson surrendered goals on shots No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4, as Edmonton took a 3-0 lead less than six minutes into the game, it was the seventh straight game Calgary has given up the first goal.

In six of the seven, they didn't make it to the 11-minute mark before falling behind. In the last three games, they haven't even reached the five-minute mark. Not ready to play. Not even close.

In Saturday's early 'shock and awe' barrage in which Edmonton took an immediate stranglehold on the game, it was the third goal in particular that left Gulutzan dumbfounded.

Defending a seemingly innocuous two-on-two rush, Calgary defenceman Jyrki Jokipakka -- as if he suddenly saw a bright shiny object -- abandons his position and makes a beeline across the ice for the puck carrier Benoit Pouliot. In doing so, he completely abandons his man, Jordan Eberle. Pouliot nonchalantly passes the puck over to Eberle and with acres of open meadow ahead of him, he cruises in and whips a wrist shot past Johnson.

Suddenly it's 3-0 and there is still 14:02 to go in the first period.

"The third one, I don't know what we were doing," said Gulutzan bluntly. "I actually have no explanation for what our D were doing on the third goal. It was a complete mistake."

Myriad of Miscues

Oh, there were plenty of mistakes to choose from on this night. Plenty.

On the fifth goal, Eberle's second, that made it 5-0 halfway through the second period, the Flames exhibited the type of defending you might see while watching atom hockey today at your local community hockey rink and I emphasize 'might'. Even at ages 9 and 10, teams should know better than to have everyone on the ice fixated on and chasing the puck carrier.

On this one, Matt Benning had everyone in red focused on him -- yes, I said Matt Benning -- leaving Eberle open in front for a redirect of Benning's centering pass.

"Some of the mistakes we're making, are glaring mistakes," conceded Flames captain Mark Giordano. "At this level, it can't happen, especially at this time of year, they just ate us up tonight."

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in Calgary's coaches office after that game. The smoke that would have been billowing out of that chimney. My goodness.

"It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing," said Gulutzan, echoing himself as well as the feeling from fans across Flames nation. "I don't talk to the guys after the game, win or lose, I talk to them the next day, but certainly in the coaches room, emotions are high. It's embarrassing. Our resolve to stick to it wasn't there."

Urgency Setting In

The season has not yet gotten away. Calgary still woke up Sunday morning sitting in second place in the Western Conference wild card race. However, sort by the more telling points percentage that incorporates games played and the Flames are now fourth, behind Vancouver and Los Angeles. It sure feels like the season is getting away.

This raises the question of what next?

I expect that is the question weighing heavily on the mind of the entire Flames front office on Sunday, a travel day for the team as they fly to Toronto for a three-game Eastern road trip that begins Monday night at the Air Canada Centre and will be followed by stops in Montreal on Tuesday and Ottawa on Thursday.

By "relook at everything" as the fuming Flame coach vowed on Saturday night, what might that look like? Since we won't begin to know until Monday when Calgary hits the ice at the ACC at 9:30 am MT for its game-day skate, we're left to speculate.

With three games to go until the all-star break and with all three being difficult assignments -- all three opponents locked in playoff spots in the Eastern Conference -- now might be the time to experiment at least a little.

Five Things I'd Try to Fix the Flames

1. Break up 3M to Leverage Tkachuk

For much of the season, the Flames have been a one-line team. It's been the vaunted trio of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk, and then everybody else. You can't win as a one-line team, no matter how good that one line is.

The obvious risk in breaking up one of the best lines in the NHL is you end up with zero lines going, but the potential reward that makes it at least worth pursuing is you end up with two lines going and while zero is worse than one, two is twice as good.

It seems completely wrong that a 19-year-old kid is the key variable in this but once again he was one of the handful Saturday night that seemed to care, who seemed determined to not just stand around and accept sand being kicked in his face.

I would move Tkachuk up with Sean Monahan and Troy Brouwer, The hope would be that Tkachuk will drag Monahan and Brouwer into the game, as he tends do with whoever his linemates are -- and both of them could use the jumpstart.

Sure, Monahan is scoring again lately -- a five-game goal-scoring spree is second only to Nashville's James Neal (6) for the NHL's longest this season -- but more fire, more emotion from the 22-year-old would raise his game to an entirely new level.

We're talking about a guy that is 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds. When you're often playing beside Gaudreau, who is regularly treated like a pinata by the opposition, and you're built like Monahan is, you need to get your nose dirty far more often. That's part of your job.

2. Break up 3M to Kickstart Gaudreau

Meanwhile, I would drop slumping Johnny Gaudreau onto the left side of the Backlund-Frolik line.

Backlund-Frolik as a pairing has been an effective duo for a long time. With Gaudreau mired in an awful funk -- one goal and three assists in his last dozen games -- he looks frustrated and doesn't appear to be enjoying the game like he normally does. Maybe playing with two guys having tremendous seasons will rub off and get him back headed the right direction.

I'm not sure the heavy lifting asked of the Backlund line is the right long-term relocation for Gaudreau but to help him get reset, it's sure tempting to try in the short-term.

3. Free Brodie

TJ Brodie is a better defenceman than we're watching right now. Way better. The last few years were not an anomaly, Brodie has shown that he can be one of the most dynamic defencemen in the league. Using his blinding speed, he can be up ice, joining (or leading) the rush in one moment and then be the first guy back seconds later.

That dynamic nature of his game that made him one of the NHL's rising young stars on the blueline not that long ago has completely evaporated and you wonder how much of that has to do with his defence partner, Dennis Wideman. Wideman's foot speed is frighteningly slow given today's light-speed NHL and as a result he has become a defensive liability at five-on-five. This sure seems to be impacting Brodie, who perhaps doesn't feel he can play the same way as he has in the past when paired with a steady and more reliable partner like Giordano.

For me, I want to get Brodie back into a similar setting in which he's enjoyed success in the past. That means a different D partner that is a better skater. Also, I am determined to get him back to where he's been most comfortable his entire career and that is playing the right side. It may not be his natural side in respect to how he shoots, but he's stated in the past he's more comfortable on that side, and if that's the side he's played throughout his career, than that's how I'd define his 'natural side'.

Not wanting to break up the Giordano pairing with Dougie Hamilton, I move Brodie to the right side alongside the left-shooting Brett Kulak.

4. Insert Kulak

Early in the season as his game seemed to get better and better, Kulak looked like he would never come out of the Flames line-up again. Then the defenceman's game went through a rough patch, which isn't unusual for a 23-year-old, and he eventually ended up back in the minors to build himself back up.

He's been back in the NHL for over two weeks now but all seven games since his January 9 call-up, he has been left gnawing on overly salty press box popcorn. The time to insert him into the line-up is long past due.

There are multiple options that Calgary could pull out of the line-up to make room for Kulak. Jokipakka, as mentioned earlier, is an obvious one. Wideman would certainly be another. The latter, a pending UFA in his final season as a Flame, has twice already this season been pulled out of the line-up for multiple games. There was a three-game absence in October. Then came a four-game string of healthy scratches in November. Might a third stint be forthcoming? It wouldn't be unwarranted.

Considering they haven't been playing Kulak at all, inserting him into a third pairing role is the more likely landing spot for Kulak, if they play him at all, but I'd sure be tempted to move him straight into the top four and try him with Brodie.

5. Play Elliott

Last weekend in what I billed the biggest game of his season, Brian Elliott delivered for 65 minutes. In Edmonton last Saturday, the veteran made 26 stops including six in overtime. Only Patrick Maroon's first period power play goal beat him before the Oilers eventually won 2-1 in a shootout.

For that effort that backstopped a solid all-round game played by Calgary, Elliott puzzlingly found himself wearing a ball cap to start each of Calgary's three games in the homestand that followed.

Meanwhile, Johnson has struggled mightily of late. In his last two starts, he's given up seven goals on 25 shots. On the homestand, he had a .809 save percentage. In the first period alone, his SV% was a dismal .667.

You traded a second round pick to get Elliott for a reason. You kept going back to him as your No. 1 goalie to start the season for a reason. It's time to give him the same amount of leash that Johnson has got lately.

Who knows what the goalie picture will look like next season, but for right now, it's time to turn back to Elliott and give him another opportunity to see if he can get back to being the outstanding goaltender that he was last April and May when he helped the the Blues dispatch of the Chicago Blackhawks and then the Dallas Stars in the playoffs.

Final Word

There are all sorts of things the Flames could do, and maybe will do come February, but with three games to go until the all-star break and a five-day break to reset, there may be a limit to the extremes of any shake-up we see this week.

In the above scenarios, I still have scuffling Sam Bennett playing centre on the third line. Put Kris Versteeg on one side and try Micheal Ferland on the other. Or put Bennett on the wing with Matt Stajan and Versteeg, that might be something to try also.

Mark Jankowski's hat-trick on Friday night makes the Stockton Heat leading scorer someone that you wonder if GM Brad Treliving is considering recalling. But again, that call-up is likely to wait for now.

Heck on the back end, I'd bring back Tyler Wotherspoon and insert him on the blueline as well as Kulak. Wotherspoon and Engelland on the third pairing while Jokipakka and Wideman sit? Why not. You really wonder what Calgary's line-up would have looked like against Toronto if Gulutzan was forced to declare such in the fresh aftermath of Saturday night's debacle.

What we do know is change is needed and quickly or that six weeks of tremendous hockey the Flames played from mid-November through the end of December to get themselves back into the playoff race, will have all been for naught.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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      1. How about:

        Tkachuk-Backs- Frolik

        1. I can completely understand the desire to keep the 3M line together but Monahan and Gaudreau together this year has been very underwhelming and it's been tried a couple different times now. I just wonder if they don't need a break from each other right now and from what I've observed, Monahan has been better away from his diminutive pal than with him. My two cents, anyway.

        2. I've been thinking the same thing myself. I think Tkachuk would work well with Monahan anyway, plus he would help drive play on that line. Tkachuk would compliment that line quite well. Backlund is the best centre on the team so it makes sense for him to centre Gaudreau and hopefully help turn Johnny's season around. I've been getting frustrated with Gulutzan's player usage.

      2. Hello Mr. Haynes, great article as always. Just wanted to point out a typo:
        "with two lines going and while zero is worse than one, two is twice is (typo) good"

      3. I like the changes. I had tears in my eyes watching the Oilers beat us on home ice. WE CANNOT ACCEPT THIS!!!


      4. If Bennett isn't a centre, there is a huge problem with the organization at that position. Flames need to do everything possible so Bennett becomes a top 6 centre.

      5. Its just another mismanaged Calgary Flames hockey team, and I'm tired of it. I think its time to look at this organization from the top down. I'm not sure our GM is the guy to keep and I am definitely not a fan of this coach. I wonder how far Hartley would have taken this team. Let's face it we are the Maple Leafs of the west, and as long as this management team is in place it may be another 50 years for us before we get a run at the cup again. This is disgusting.