Sunday, April 23, 2017

Change is the only Constant: Who Might be Back and Who Might Not, From This Year's Flames

Change, as they say, is the only constant.

Welcome to the business side of operating an NHL team.

If you have a successful season and post positive results, change is necessary because within your budget, you cannot afford to keep all your workers. Some that have earned raises with their performances will end up switching workplaces.

If your season doesn't go so well, change is necessary because you want to address any shortcomings. Inevitably, performance reviews will result in some contractors not being brought back.

So how much change should we expect from the Calgary Flames after a season in 2016-17 that started off disappointing, went through long stretches of tremendous success, before ending disappointingly?

Is there a normal number of changes?

Pack Your Bags

Sticking with Calgary, I went back over the last five years to see from one season to the next, how      many of the team's regulars or at least semi-regulars ended up not back with the team the following year.

What I learned is at minimum, at least five notable players have moved on annually. This number topped out at a whopping 14 exits from last season's team between a busy trade deadline and a summer in which Calgary moved on from several free agents.

For the purpose of this research, note that I define 'notable' as skaters that appeared in at least 15 games for Calgary and goalies that played in at least 10 games. I'll also add that last year's departed included two unique situations of players that didn't leave the organization, but were no longer on the NHL team. Prior to the start of this season, Ladislav Smid was placed on LTIR for the year and the team chose to also bury Brandon Bollig and his one-way contract in the AHL for the season.

I include them though because that's in the spirit of the type of change we're talking about -- on the NHL team one season and then not the next season.

Departures - Year after Year

  • 2016-17 (TBD) - D Jyrki Jokipakka... 
  • 2015-16 (14) - LW Brandon Bollig, RW David Jones, C Derek Grant, D Jakub Nakladal, RW Jiri Hudler, C Joe Colborne, G Jonas Hiller, G Joni Ortio, C Josh Jooris, G Karri Ramo, D Kris Russell, D Ladislav Smid, C Markus Granlund, LW Mason Raymond
  • 2014-15 (5) - LW Curtis Glencross, D David Schlemko, C Paul Byron, D Raphael Diaz, LW Sven Baertschi
  • 2013-14 (8) - D Chris Butler, G Joey MacDonald, RW Kevin Westgarth, RW Lee Stempniak, C Mike Cammalleri, G Reto Berra, D Shane O'Brien, LW TJ Galiardi
  • 2012-13 (9) - LW Alex Tanguay, RW Blake Comeau, D Cory Sarich, RW Jarome Iginla, D Jay Bouwmeester, G Miikka Kiprusoff, LW Roman Cervenka, LW Steve Begin, RW Tim Jackman
  • 2011-12 (5) - C Brendan Morrison, LW David Moss, LW Rene Bourque, D Scott Hannan, RW Tom Kostopoulos

As noted, we know there will be at least one player in a new uniform for next season because that player is already gone -- Jyrki Jokipakka was shipped to Ottawa at the trade deadline. But who else has played their last game in the Flaming 'C'?

Here are a dozen players from the organization in which there seems to be the most speculation. With each, I've included why I think they will or won't be back.

1. G Brian Elliott

Age: 32
2016-17: 45 starts, 26-18-3, 2.55 GAA, .910 SV
Contract Status: UFA on July 1, coming off 3Y/$7.5M deal ($2.5M AAV)

For a stretch of two-plus months starting Jan. 26 with a 3-2 overtime win in Ottawa, Elliott finally looked like the goalie the Flames were expected all along when they acquired him from St. Louis back in June. Winning 11 consecutive games at one point, he regained the starter's job he had lost before Christmas and put up some superb numbers. He was particularly sharp in March, which has been a pattern throughout his career. But then the playoffs happened.

In game two in Anaheim, it was two shaky goals allowed in the first seven minutes that put Calgary on its heels. Back home, all of game three was rough. As the Flames blew a 4-1 lead, the worst of the bunch was the soft goal that kickstarted the comeback from a sharp angle late in the second. After that shaky outing, there was uncertainty he'd even get the game four start. He did, but proof that any trust was gone, he was immediately pulled after the Ducks took a 1-0 lead on another bad goal. Three shots faced, just 5:38 into the game, Elliott was yanked. He wore his mask on the bench the rest of the first period.

While he gave the Flames some great goaltending in stretches, that playoff performance that contributed to Calgary begin swept in a series in which you could argue they outplayed Anaheim, has surely left a bitter aftertaste for the front office. Should Calgary re-sign Elliott and face the Ducks in the playoffs again next year, where would the team's confidence be at? He's played Anaheim 16 times in his career and beaten them once -- and that was in his first game against them in 2009.

Gut Feeling: Gone

Unless: Plans for UFA Ben Bishop and any other available established goaltenders (e.g. Marc-Andre Fleury) fall through and the team ends up putting public furore aside and bringing back Elliott. But you know the team likes Bishop as he was their plan 'A' last June.

2. RW Troy Brouwer

Age: 32 in August
2016-17: 74 gm, 13-12-25, minus-11, 44.50 SAT%
Contract Status: 3 years left on 4Y/$18M ($4.5M AAV)

In talking on Friday about the players that helped the team turn around its season in November, coach Glen Gulutzan mentioned Troy Brouwer's name among a few other veterans. Wearing an 'A', which he was given shortly after being signed, he is entrenched as part of this team's leadership group. Those type of qualities were expected from him.

However, also expected was a far greater impact on the ice. When they signed him last July 1, I'm pretty certain there more visions of him playing right wing in the top six rather than on the fourth line, which is where he finished the season and spent the playoffs. In physical games down the stretch against the likes of the Kings and Anaheim, he did not have nearly the impact I expected. Never mind goals, just use your size to lead the push-back. But you rarely saw the physicality and edge that were supposed to be included in the package.

He will be exposed in the expansion draft where one wonders if Vegas GM George McPhee will 'jump' at the opportunity (while perhaps being coaxed by Brad Treliving with the offering of a prospect as added incentive) to bring in a guy he traded for in 2011 when GM of the Washington Capitals. He acquired Brouwer from the Chicago Blackhawks for many of the same reasons Calgary signed him as a free agent on July 1. But he was turning 26 then. Now he'll be turning 32. But leadership will be needed in Vegas as they try to hit the casino floor running. They'll also need some big contracts to reach the salary cap floor. While three years left is a lot, there are more frightening terms out there. What I'm not putting any stock into was Brouwer on Friday declaring that Calgary was his home. We knew that. He was already building a house in Calgary when the Flames signed him. It may be his home alright, but his off-season home.

Gut Feeling: Gone

Unless: McPhee opts to select someone else from Calgary in the expansion draft due to having the same concern about the state of Brouwer's game that fans have and frankly, so did Gulutzan, who was the guy who dropped him to the fourth line.

3. RW Kris Versteeg

Age: 31 in May
2016-17: 69 gm, 15-22-37, minus-3, 47.52 SAT%
Contract Status: UFA on July 1, coming off 1Y/$950K deal

It makes you wonder how Versteeg nearly ended up out of the NHL last season. It was only when he ran into insurance issues regarding some past injuries that he ended up not signing in Switzerland. He signed a tryout with the Oilers, was poached just before the season began by Calgary, who inked him to a one-year deal, and he went out and had a terrific year. He was a key veteran in the dressing room -- he has two Stanley Cup rings -- but also a major contributor on the ice as part of the Flames No. 1 power play unit.

What we know is Versteeg and his young family really enjoyed playing close to home. What we learned is there is still plenty of game left for the veteran, who will be 31 next season. Also, listening to Treliving talk about him on Friday, it's obvious that he's a big fan also. Versteeg was pretty frank also about how much he enjoyed this season, liked playing for Mark Giordano, who he called one of the greatest leaders he's played for. He also talked glowingly about the coaching staff and about the team's bright future.

He won't be as cheap as he was last year but he'll be affordable and the need is definitely there from a Flames perspective. Are there wingers in Stockton ready to be promoted into a top nine role next season? Doubtful. Signing him before the expansion draft won't make sense from a player protection perspective but perhaps shortly after.

Gut Feeling: Back

Unless: Negotiations drag and Versteeg -- looking after his family first, like last summer -- jumps at a different deal from another team in order to lock down an NHL spot and avoid being left twisting in the wind.

4. D Michael Stone

Age: 27 in June
2016-17: 19 gm, 2-4-6, plus-5, 45.74 SAT%
Contract Status: UFA on July 1, coming off 1Y/$4M deal

Stone is an interesting situation as a guy that age-wise should be entering his prime and whose career was on an upwards trajectory before major knee surgery a year ago led to an off year and a perceived drop in his value. For nominal cost, his acquisition from Arizona made sense and it coincided with a red-hot run for the Flames and in particular, improved play from TJ Brodie. Once Stone replaced Dennis Wideman as his D partner, it looked like Brodie finally felt he had the freedom to play his normal, dynamic 200-foot game again knowing he had a reliable guy defensively beside him. Of course, Stone has a connection to Calgary having played with the Hitmen in junior and with his wife -- who just had twins -- being from Calgary too. Plus, there's the connection to Treliving, who was in Arizona when Stone was drafted.

That said, it was the 'having a more reliable D partner' part that helped Brodie. While a capable top four defenceman will be a necessity once again next year, it doesn't need to be Stone, especially if the cost to bring him back is too pricey given other needs (e.g. starting goaltender). There will be other and potentially more inexpensive options. With Brett Kulak knocking on the door, Rasmus Andersson coming soon, Oliver Kylington in the pipeline, Brandon Hickey too, do you want to go long term with a No. 4 D at a potentially hefty price tag? Remember, you already have Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton locked up and taking up a big chunk of cap space. So that's key for me, what is Stone looking for as a 27-year-old free agent (younger than most guys that hit the free market) this summer. Or are you more so looking for someone for just a couple of seasons, to keep the spot warm until one of the aforementioned kids is ready. If the latter, Stone might not be the best fit.

Gut Feeling: Gone

Unless: The market isn't there for Stone and he's willing to settle for a shorter one or two-year deal for less money than he made last year.

5. D Deryk Engelland

Age: 35
2016-17: 81 gm, 4-12-16, plus-2, 46.61 SAT%
Contract Status: UFA on July 1, coming off 3Y/$8.75M deal ($2.9M AAV)

I thought it, I've written it, and on exit day, Engelland admitted it. This season was the best of his career. Coming at age 35 too. Crazy. Who knew when he signed that deal three years ago and was the fan's whipping boy for the early part of it that he would end up endearing himself to the fan base like he has.

It hasn't made him a steal by any means. He's still a third pairing defenceman making close to $3 million and that's not very smart line-up construction in the salary cap world. But for what he gives the team. A physical presence that will step up for anyone, a guy that logs a lot of PK time, a good veteran presence in the room. To his credit, he's turned himself into a guy that you could certainly live with.

That said, if he re-signs with Calgary, it will have to be for far less. That's the reality. I've heard Vegas speculated as a landing spot as that's where he lives in the off-season but while that's a nice thought for Engelland, would Vegas have interest? Not sure a guy at the tail-end of his career makes the most sense for an expansion team that will inevitably be adding plenty of other veterans in the expansion draft to get to the salary cap floor. He said on Friday that Calgary would be one of his top choices and his good relationship with Gulutzan, whom he goes way back with, is surely a consideration. From a stability perspective, having him back for one more season as a veteran third pairing option would work just fine for a team that will have a few changes on the back end.

Gut Feeling: Back

Unless: He wants a two-year term and gets such an offer elsewhere. Would Calgary be willing to go two years with Engelland? Not sure that makes sense.

6. LW Matt Stajan

Age: 33
2016-17: 81 gm, 6-17-23, plus-3, 49.05 SAT%
Contract Status: 1 year left on 4Y/$12.5M deal ($3.125M AAV)

One of the better players early in the season. When you're not in uniform as a healthy scratch when the season comes to an end, that always makes you pause for thought, but Stajan coming out of the line-up for game four versus Anaheim wasn't necessarily a reflection of him looking back but Gulutzan wanting to insert fresh legs. Sure, one available option to the team is you could buy out Stajan if you really felt he had reached the end but then you're paying him over two years. Plus, I think he still contributes enough to be a depth forward.

Much like Engelland, Stajan's wage doesn't jive with what you want on the fourth line in this day and age. It's just far too much money to pay somebody that is playing minimal minutes. That said, you're down to one year left and he truly is a great guy to have in the room for many reasons including the youth at centre, youth which could include Curtis Lazar and Mark Jankowski next year. In his final NHL season, I'd expect him to be a great depth forward. May not play all the time, may play some wing, but is a great mentor for the many young players and a guy that's popular in the room and plays with his heart on his sleeve.

Gut Feeling: Back

Unless: Treliving feels the $1.3 million the team would save on the 2017-18 salary cap through a buy-out would be worth the $666K penalty they'd have to incur towards the cap in 2018-19.

7. G Chad Johnson

Age: 31 in June
2016-17: 36 starts, 18-15-1, 2.59 GAA, .910 SV%
Contract Status: UFA on July 1, coming off 1Y/$1.7M deal

In pursuit of an opportunity for more playing time and a shot to be a No. 1 goalie, Johnson has relocated NHL teams each of the last six summers. That has to be getting old.

As someone who grew up in this city, who married a girl from Calgary, tying the knot a week before signing with the Flames last July 1, there's obviously a fit to be had for him. He's about to turn 31, he's not coming off the type of year that is going to get him a No. 1 job anywhere else so why not Calgary?

When he went on a tear last November and December, he showed that he can play every day. Whether he can play 55-60 games, we may never know. If Calgary does pursue Bishop, who has an injury history, Johnson would be a great guy to pair him with given his ability to step in and run with the ball for a few weeks if needed.

Gut Feeling: Back

Unless: With goaltending on the way, Calgary is reluctant to offer term of more than a year. If Johnson does get a two-year offer from another team, he may prefer that added security.

8. D Brett Kulak

Age: 23
2016-17: 21 gm, 0-3-3, minus-3, 50.58 SAT%
Contract Status: RFA on July 1, coming off 3Y,/$2.45M ELC ($817K AAV, $70K in AHL)

At times early in the year, Kulak looked like a guy that should be put in the line-up and kept in the line-up. A guy that could definitely play on the third pairing, who some day could evolve into a second pairing guy. He skates well enough. He can defend. He does a little bit of everything. But just as you think he's here for good, his play falters a little bit and down to the minors he goes. I should add though that jettisoning him to Stockton this season was easy for the Flames as he was not waiver-eligible. Next season, he will be waiver-eligible.

With Wideman gone, potentially Stone and Engelland both gone also, there will be spots available on the blueline. From what we've seen and how he's been used, Kulak is the most ready of any of the prospects so after a summer of potentially significant change, next year could be the season he breaks through.

Gut Feeling: Back

Unless: Vegas likes Kulak's upside too and poaches him in the expansion draft. In selecting 30 players, one from every club, not all will be experienced NHL players, Vegas will need some that are young but high on potential.

9. D Tyler Wotherspoon

Age: 24
2016-17: 4 gm, 0-0-0, minus-2, 46.48 SAT%
Contract Status: RFA on July 1, coming off 1Y/$625K deal

He was the next in line on the blue-line for the longest time but his stock has fallen significantly since he made his NHL debut four years ago and played 14 games late in the season. In the three seasons since, he's played only 16 NHL games and has been passed on the depth chart by guys like Kulak. Even though he continues to be deployed as one of Ryan Huska's most relied upon defenders in Stockton -- and he has reportedly had a great season -- you really do start to wonder if his time with the organization is coming to an end.

Last year, he agreed to a one-year deal for near the league minimum. It was supposed to make him an affordable option and increase the odds of him sticking in the NHL this season. That never happened. He could be the Kenny Agostino of this off-season. Someone, who can definitely contribute at the AHL level but at age 24, if the organization has determined that's all he will ever do, it's time to move on and open up playing time and a contract spot for other, younger players.

Gut Feeling: Gone

Unless: Calgary loses Kulak in the expansion draft and they opt to hang onto Wotherspoon for one more season as organizational depth.

10. RW Alex Chiasson

Age: 27 in October
2016-17: 81 gm, 12-12-24, minus-6, 52.03 SAT%
Contract Status: RFA on July 1, coming off 1Y/$800K deal

I've learned that two things will drive a fan crazy. The first is a player that is overpaid for what he contributes. This was not Chiasson. The second is when a player is deployed in a role that is above his skill grade. This was Chiasson and for half the season as Gulutzan -- very familiar with the player from his time coaching him in Dallas -- stubbornly kept deploying him on the No. 1 line alongside Monahan and Gaudreau. Not only was it not working, but it seemed to negatively impact the other two, who are core players on the team and never got going until Chiasson was off their line.

The sweet spot for Chiasson is a bottom-six role and it was when he was used in that capacity that you finally had a useful player, who put up decent numbers with a dozen goals. The issue for the Flames is he's arbitration eligible this off-season so Treliving is back in that Lance Bouma/Joe Colborne situation again. Given how signing Bouma didn't work out, and walking away from Colborne did work out, I'd think that if Treliving has learned anything, there's a decent chance that Chiasson is not qualified with Calgary not wanting to ante up the $1.5 or $2 million he might be awarded if you go to arbitration.

Gut Feeling: Gone

Unless: Chiasson likes the set up in Calgary, enjoys playing for Gulutzan, and agrees to a deal at an affordable number to bring him back as a bottom six winger, who can kill penalties.

11. LW Lance Bouma

Age: 27
2016-17: 61 gm, 3-4-7, minus-2, 46.63 SAT%
Contract Status: 1 year left on 3Y/$6.6M ELC ($2.2M)

Any hope Bouma might get back to his form from 2014-15 -- or anywhere close -- went out the window this season when Matthew Tkachuk locked up the left wing spot with dynamic duo Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. It was on a line with Backlund two years ago that Bouma racked up career-highs in goals (16) and points (34) that he has yet to equal if you add up all of his other five seasons.

Bouma plays an energetic, physical style, who is not bad in a checking role and can give you minutes on the penalty kill. That makes him a serviceable depth player. The problem is his scoring touch has evaporated entirely. He has five goals in the last two seasons. For what he's earning, having cashed in on that one big year, you need more. That, or you want someone else in that role that can make similar or greater contributions at half the price. Versteeg, for example, made less than half of what Bouma earned last season.

Gut Feeling: Back

Unless: Treliving can work some magic and include him as part of a larger trade over the summer. The other option is a buyout, which historically Calgary has done only rarely as paying players to not play has never been something the organization has been high on. Plus, they'll still be paying $1M for Mason Raymond next season. But it's possible. It would knock Bouma's cap hit down to $666K next season with an additional $766K charged to the cap in 2018-19.

12. D Dennis Wideman

Age: 34
2016-17: 57 gm, 5-13-18, minus-6, 49.91 SAT%
Contract Status: UFA on July 1, coming off 5Y/$26.25M deal ($5.25M AAV)

All season Gulutzan preached that he wanted his team to play fast. As the slowest player on the team, Wideman does not have that ability. His heavy shot is one of his best attributes, but he was not used on the power play. He ran out the clock on the five-year contract given to him by former GM Jay Feaster by playing on the third pairing whenever he did get in the line-up.

He was a $5.25 million healthy scratch for all four playoff games and 18 of the final 23 games of the regular season. Clearing that money off the books has been a long time coming for a team that has other needs to address.

Gut Feeling: Gone

Unless: Unless nothing. Now the subject of a lawsuit from linesman Don Henderson, Wideman's time in Calgary is over. So might his time in the NHL.

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 Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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    Sunday, April 16, 2017

    29 Lines About 29 Losses: A List of the Many Reasons Brad Treliving Should be Furious

    It should come as no surprise that in the aftermath of another night of Honda Center frustration, Brad Treliving was pissed off.

    Heck, I'm sure plenty of bar stools in Calgary met a similar fate and nobody has more invested in this team than this guy.

    Frustrated with the outcome? For sure.

    Mad about some of the decisions made by the players? Probably.

    Angry with the calls that went against his team? Of course.

    There are numerous reasons for the Flames general manager to be incensed after a 29th straight loss in that arena. In fact, here are 29, one for every setback over this decade-plus stretch of futility.

    1. The Non-Goal - This one has to top the list. A key moment in the game came midway through the second period when Sam Bennett fights off the check of Korbinian Holzer to get his stick on a centring pass from Kris Versteeg with the puck eventually trickling into the net in the midst of a frenzy of activity in the crease.

    Not called a goal initially on the ice, it went to a video review as the puck did end up in the net. After a lengthy review, it was ruled there had been goalie interference either by Alex Chiasson, who during the skirmish had come in and swiped at the puck and in the process, contacted goaltender John Gibson, or by Bennett (it was not clear), and in the view of the officials, Gibson was prevented from being able to make the save. It's that in-between rule where it's not severe enough to be a goaltender interference penalty, but the goal doesn't count either.

    If this sounds familiar, it was two years ago that Bennett also appeared to score in a playoff game against the Ducks, only for that one also to be disallowed.

    While it's certainly a play we could debate in this space for an article in itself and no doubt it will be a hot topic across Flames nation on Sunday, it was needless to say an awfully tough decision to swallow for Calgary because it was ultimately a subjective call that denied them what would have been the go-ahead goal.

    After blowing a one-goal lead in game 1, it's hard to believe one of the best teams in the league at keeping leads would have blown a lead again. So yes, that one play was that significant.

    2. Elliott's Slow Start - Two goals against on the first six shots. Once again, Calgary falls behind early. Brian Elliott rebounded nicely, shutting the door for exactly 48 and half minutes after that and making 20 consecutive saves in the process -- a handful of dangerous chances thwarted along the way -- but then came that pinball winner off the stick of Ryan Getzlaf, and more so the skate of Lance Bouma.

    Agonizing is the fact that with a better start, that fluke goal might have been inconsequential. But instead, it wasn't because of the two that the veteran goalie missed earlier.

    The opening goal by Jakob Silfverberg from off the wing, he has to have that one. While there were others to share in the blame on the second goal, a top NHL goalie can't get beat on a wrap-around like that. He just can't.

    Calgary scored the next two, but instead of taking a 2-0 lead, that only tied it 2-2, and you know how things turned out.

    3. Hamilton's Bad Decision - Jostling with Corey Perry in the neutral zone as Anaheim heads up ice on a rush and with Dougie Hamilton trying to get back in the play, the defenceman ends up grabbing Perry's stick with his glove.

    No, it wasn't for very long. Yes, it was blatant. Whistled for two minutes for holding the stick at 14:33 of the third period, Calgary goes to the PK for the first time since Matthew Tkachuk's high-sticking penalty in the first period. The Ducks need only 41 seconds to take advantage.

    Just like that, Anaheim leads with less than five minutes remaining. Whether or not it was the right call or a fair call can and will be debated, but what should not be a debate is in that game situation, you simply can't give the official a reason to raise his hand. It was an unnecessary risk in which the team ended up paying a heavy price.

    4. Referee's Questionable Decision - Of course, as mad as you are at your player for unnecessarily giving the officials a reason to make a penalty call there, you're equally mad at the referee tandem of Wes McCauley and Brian Pochmara for making that call.
    Did that really need to be a penalty in that moment of a 2-2 game? Was it really that egregious of a foul given all the hijinx that had gone uncalled over the previous period and a half? That part is certainly debatable. Could the referee have also sent off Perry for interference and made it coincidental minors? Absolutely.

    5. Hockey Gods Aren't Crazy, They Just Dislike Calgary - Regardless of all the variables leading up to the go-ahead goal, the bottom line is it was a total fluke goal and it really makes one wonder if there really is some sort of curse in that building.

    Seriously, a harmless centring pass caroms sharply off Bouma's boot, flutters high in the air in the direction of the net and with Elliott having no idea where the puck had gone, like a centre fielder who loses a fly ball in the bright sun, it lands behind him in the net. To quote Jerry Seinfeld, "That was one magic loogie."
    To re-enact that goal, you'd probably need to try it at least a couple hundred times and that would be trying to do it on purpose. That's just the kind of sorcery everyone has come to expect in that building where the 'you'll never believe what happened...' lore continues to grow.

    6. Too Many Wasted Chances - It's not like the Flames didn't have chances to bury the Ducks early in the game.

    They had a couple of breakaways, including Gaudreau bursting in off the wing, but failed to convert each. Set-up on a brilliant fake-shot turned slap-pass by Michael Stone, Sean Monahan failed to got all of his stick on the puck and instead of putting the Flames in front, the puck flipped off his stick and went wide.
    Two guys being paid handsomely to score big goals. Two guys the Flames need to score big goals if they want to prevail as the underdog in this series. Neither was able to deliver.

    Monahan has a pair of goals so far and he's been good. But when you lose two one-goal games, it's the goals that you don't score that end up the talking points.

    7. Gaudreau Passes up the Shot - That was the game situation. That's why you gave him a six-year, $40.5 million contract in the off-season.

    With the game on the line in the final 30 seconds of regulation, if you could pick one player to have the puck on his tape from 15 feet out, that's the guy you would select.

    After Hampus Lindholm uncharacteristically coughs the puck up into the slot, Gaudreau gets a grade 'A' chance in a prime shooting spot. But wait. Rather than shoot, he spins around and sends a no-look backhand pass to the side of the net that doesn't connect.

    In game 1, it was Gibson beating Gaudreau in a showdown in the waning seconds by stretching out his pad to stop Gaudreau's backhand as he cut across the crease. In that situation, Gaudreau has to make his World Cup Young Stars teammate beat him a second time.

    8. Brouwer's Disappointing Season - The wait continues and continues.

    Safe to say the Flames are still waiting for the 'big game' player to emerge that scored eight times in the playoffs a year ago to get him a $4.5 million paycheque this year. One goal from Brouwer in these first two games sprinkled in anywhere might very well have made the  difference and made this series 1-1 instead of 2-0.

    This isn't a guy that will come out of the line-up. This isn't someone that should come out of the line-up. But a decent fourth liner/penalty killer/net-front power play presence isn't good enough for the pay stipend he's cashing. Expectations are commensurate with what you make for a salary in this business and he's making a lot while not contributing a lot.
    Calgary needs more from him at this point, beyond what he may be contributing off the ice as an alternate captain. Calgary needs way more.

    Unfortunately, the fact he opened the playoffs on the fourth line is an indicator of how far his stock has fallen. More and more, you wonder what kind of sweetener it may take -- a top prospect, perhaps -- for Treliving to coax Vegas GM George McPhee into taking in the expansion draft the player he once brought to Washington. Because so far in Calgary, it isn't working out.

    9. Brouwer's Disappointing Usage - Late in the season, Micheal Ferland finally got a chance on the top power play unit in place of Brouwer. After all, it made sense as he was already playing at five-on-five with Gaudreau and Monahan.

    For many, it was a move long overdue considering how well Ferland has played. Yet, Gulutzan has reverted to the way things were earlier in the season to begin the playoffs and it's been Brouwer in that role once again.

    Particularly perplexing was how it played out in game 1 when Ferland was creating chances all night yet still got passed over when the Flames needed that late goal.

    Treliving has been very upfront in his time in Calgary to say that he lets his coaches coach. He assembles the roster, brings in the personnel. How the players are deployed is up to the skipper. They chat every day so you know opinions are exchanged, but ultimately it's the coach's call and it has to be. You can't have a GM meddling. That said, you do wonder how Treliving is viewing his prize July 1 signing.

    I think with the GM there's a better understanding of what else he brings to the team, he's around the team all the time and you see things that the rest of us don't, but at that salary, intangibles cannot be your biggest contribution.

    10. Undisciplined Dougie - Getting back to Hamilton because he's been in the crosshairs and rightly so, that makes four minor penalties for this series.

    While it's easy to point to his age -- still a youthful 23 -- and say maybe it's simply the pressure of the Stanley Cup Playoffs getting to a young man, but Ducks blue liners Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour and Lindholm are all younger than Hamilton and have all played fewer NHL games, yet they have played very well. Consistent. Solid.

    You can't harp too much on Hamilton because he was such a key part of the Flames resurgence. When he and Mark Giordano were paired together on Nov. 15 for the first time, that's when Calgary's season took off. But that version of Hamilton is what Calgary badly needs to show up in this series right away. He's too important of a piece.

    11. Brodie Snaps at the Wrong Time - You don't see TJ Brodie get mad very often. But sure enough, Kesler -- not surprisingly -- is a guy that does it and it was costly on Saturday night.

    Brodie's cross-check to the back of Kesler while he was already down put the Flames back on the penalty kill with less than three minutes remaining in the game. Now down a goal, they were going to have to manufacture a comeback while playing four-against-five. Not good. It may not have fatally killed Calgary's comeback hopes, but it seriously wounded them.

    This feud isn't new.

    You may recall back at the Saddledome on Dec. 29, 2015, after Kesler shot the puck into the empty net after the final buzzer went, Brodie was as furious as I've seen him, shouldering Kesler into the boards afterwards and sparking a small melee.

    Was it uncharacteristic? Yes. Was it rare? Yes. But is he still accountable for it? Has to be. It took two big minutes off the clock.

    12. Ryan Kesler - Speak of the devil. If you live in Calgary, it's just part of living in this city. You have to have a strong dislike for the Anaheim centre. Presumably the feelings aren't much different for Treliving.

    Kesler is a monster in the playoffs, an absolute force, who owns the Flames. Great at the dot, dangerous with the puck, difficult to play against, a master in getting under the skin of the opposition and that smirk afterwards -- it must drive guys crazy.

    The Flames can only dream that Matthew Tkachuk will one day have a similar type of presence and impact in that coveted but hard-to-fill role of an antagonist that your team and fan base loves, but everybody else hates.

    13. Damn Nashville - As we got into the final week of the season, the team that most felt Calgary would match up better against, despite them having the best record in the Western Conference, despite their three Stanley Cups in the last seven years, was the Chicago Blackhawks.

    As if he was doing all he could to facilitate that match-up, Gulutzan sat out the likes of Mikael Backlund, Mark Giordano and Kris Versteeg for the Flames regular season finale too. A win by Nashville in Winnipeg on that Saturday, as the Predators pursued third place in the Central, combined with a Calgary loss, would have resulted in the Flames travelling to Illinois instead. To save you looking it up, the last time Calgary won in the United Centre was last October. No curse to be found in that arena and that alone was a reason to crave that match-up.

    But instead, the Predators found out during their game that third place and a match-up with Minesota was no longer within reach after the Blues clinched it with a win over Carolina. Shortly after in real time, Nashville promptly gave up two goals in the last half of the third period -- the final one shorthanded with 45 seconds left -- to lose 2-1 to Winnipeg in regulation and draw Chicago instead of Anaheim.

    In case you haven't noticed, the Predators just took a 2-0 series lead winning twice in Chicago and not giving up a goal. Safe to say the Flames wish they played at 7 pm Central time last night.

    14. History Says You're Screwed - Sure, they played well. Yes, if they can only eliminate some mistakes they can defeat the Ducks. But the bottom line is the team has to win four of the next five to win the series and the odds of that are not good.

    In fact, in franchise history, Calgary has never overcome a 2-0 deficit. They've been in that situation nine times and are 0-9. Sure, all streaks must come to an end eventually, but where have I heard that before! Until it happens, hard to expect it to happen.

    15. Oilers Won - You know the salt in the wound for the front office especially is that the Oilers and their fancy, new rink that they're not shy to flaunt in front of Calgary, did win their game 2, then won again on Sunday night to take a 2-1 lead.

    Three hours up the highway from Calgary, Edmonton's fanbase is going nuts, the entire city has turned orange. It's bedlam and in a good way. Meanwhile, the Flames return to what's now the second-oldest arena in the NHL, and while there is plenty of colour in our city too -- most of the red today is people's faces. So much anger. So much frustration.

    Losing in the first round will sting a lot less for the underdog Flames if the favourite Oilers lose too, but we'll have to wait and see on that -- and I have my doubts it will happen. If Edmonton gets on a roll, expect the C of Red in Calgary to really grow, and I'm not talking about the size of the crowd at the Saddledome.

    16. The Runt of Canada's Litter - Not only did Edmonton win, but so did Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal -- all of them overcoming a 1-0 deficit. Of Canada's post-season participants, only the Flames are heading to game 3 down 2-0 in the series and that must drive the front office crazy.
    Treliving can see the hype going on in Alberta's provincial capital, out East with the Maple Leafs as they arrive home, the exhileration in Montreal with the Habs surging in front 2-1 in its series.
    When you see the impact those game 2 (and game 3) wins have had in those markets, on those teams, you yearn to keep up with them and do the same. Failing to do so must leave a pit in his stomach. Instead of a jubilant Sunday in Calgary, a real buzz around town, there's a lot of anger and frustration. You know what sells tickets, jersey and merchandise? Not that.

    17. So Many Blown Opportunities to End 'It' - Despite how often they adamantly say they don't pay attention to the streak and to them, it's just a another game against Anaheim, I don't believe it.

    If you're a player, how can you not wonder to yourself what it's going to take to win there. Going back to the last regular season game in Honda Center in which they dominated and took a lead in the first period, that's three times in a span of 12 days they've had a great opportunity to win there and remove that oversized mental baggage, and each time they've blown it.

    So often, teams talk about confidence and players talk about confidence and they always emphasize how important it is. Well, how can this team have any confidence whatsoever that they're going to win in a building they've lost in 29 times in a row? They say they're not thinking about it and while that's the correct and expected answer publicly, I call bull shit. Until they win there, it will always be a distraction no matter how vehemently the players try to deny it.

    18. That Line Change - Yes, it happened two nights ago but that dreadful wholesale line change by the Bennett-Versteeg-Chiasson line and Bartkowski-Engelland D pairing that cost the Flames the lead in game 1, it must still stick in the craw of the GM. Heck, it will be an agonizing memory 20 years from now.

    19. Wrong Guy Shooting - One of the attributes we heard about Stone when he arrived a couple weeks prior to the trade deadline was he had a heavy shot. Reportedly, he can really rip a slapshot. I say "reportedly" in that we've rarely seen it. Too often, it ends up being Brodie taking the shots and that's definitely not his forte.

    By all means, make No. 7 the quarterback on the power play. Let Brodie be the puck mover on that pairing that heads up ice with the puck, but when you do get set-up at five-on-five in their zone, it should be Brodie getting it to Stone, not vice versa. Brodie's shots are like a guy flinging a frisbee and Gibson, who looks like a guy that has spent time catching frisbees on So-Cal beaches, is having little trouble repelling them.

    Last year in Arizona when Stone had a solid season, he averaged nearly three minutes per game on the power play. In his 21 games with Calgary, he's played a little over six minutes total on the man advantage. It's too late in the season to change the power play but having a guy that can bomb a shot from the blue line -- like Al MacInnis in the glory days -- is an ingredient absent from that first power play unit.

    20. Tkachuk Double Minor - It didn't hurt the team. In fact, it ultimately ended up helping them.

    Tkachuk's double-minor for accidentally high-sticking Patrick Eaves in the beard put the Flames down a man with two minutes to go in the first period of a game they already trailed 2-0. Instead, Backlund's shorthanded goal 22 seconds into the penalty started Calgary's comeback.

    Yet, it still had to irritate Treliving that a four-minute high-sticking call was given instead of a two-minute penalty. There was no blood, it was accidental and it's not like Eaves was injured. Heck, he remained on the ice to start the power play. Didn't even miss a shift. That's got to be irritating.

    21. Squandered Comebacks - Despite everything they're up against -- that building, playing a very good team that has won the Pacific Division five years in a row, falling behind each game to a team that during the regular season was 33-7-5 -- 7th best in the NHL -- when scoring first, the Flames deserve full credit for each time, staying the course and eventually erasing their early deficit.

    In game 1, it was overcoming a 1-0 hole just 52 seconds in. In game 2, it was rallying back from a 2-0 deficit less than seven minutes in.

    But the kick to the groin is that in both instances, all that work in battling back, all that energy expelled, all went for naught as after getting the game back to even or even briefly taking the lead in game 1, they gave it away again.

    The worst part, they served Anaheim the knock-out blows on a platter on both nights. A bad line change and that unnecessary goaltender interference penalty by Bouma in game 1. An ill-timed penalty by Hamilton in game 2. Just like that, they were chasing the game again and you're only going to come back against a tough team like Anaheim so often.

    22. Can't Win the Opening 40 Minutes - The Flames don't even have to win a three-period game. They've shown all season that they just need to win the first two periods. That's it.

    It's like Calgary has Mariano Rivera in the bullpen yet he's out there doing nothing but eating sunflower seeds so far because the team can't get him a lead.

    No team in the regular season was better at locking down a lead after two periods than the Flames, who went 33-0-1 in that scenario for a .971 winning percentage. The one overtime loss was in the third game of the season. After that, they successfully converted 33 second period leads in a row.

    But this series, bad starts have been costly as it's resulted in them chasing a deficit, not protecting a lead. In game 1, they trailed 3-2 after two periods. Despite opportunities to take the lead on Saturday, it was 2-2 after 40 minutes.

    23. Schooled at the Dot - Not only have they been chasing the game, they've also been chasing the puck. After two games, the Flames have the worst face-off percentage in the playoffs at 39.0 percent. Most of the time it goes like this: Puck is down, Ducks have it, Calgary is forced to defend.
    Not a single Ducks player is below 50 percent:
    • Wagner, 8-3, 72.7%
    • Getzlaf, 24-10, 70.6%
    • Vermette, 19-13, 59.4%
    • Thompson, 11-8, 57.9%
    • Kesler, 25-21, 54.4%
    As you might expect, not one Flames player is above 50 percent:
    • Brouwer, 7-9, 43.8%
    • Bennett, 10-15, 40.0%
    • Backlund, 18-29, 38.3%
    • Monahan, 13-21, 38.2%
    • Stajan, 6-12, 33.3%

    Brouwer's odd presence at the top of Calgary's list speaks to why he's still the guy on the power play over Ferland. As a right-shot, he's fared the best of any Flames center against the Ducks predominantly-right group of pivots. It's like a baseball match-up, only the opposite. If you're not having success lefty versus righty, try righty versus righty.

    It raises the question of how can you get better in this area? Does the centre need to go for a tie-up and you ask for more from your wingers? It's an area that is hurting Calgary and they need to find a way of being better in this area.

    24. Can't Take Advantage of Depleted Ducks Blue Line - Nearly $16 million worth of defencemen were missing from Anaheim's blue line in game 2. Wow.

    Never mind the $7 million absent in Simon Despres and Clayton Stoner, both on LTIR, the Ducks were missing an additional $8.9 million worth of experience from the back end on Saturday night with Sami Vatanen (upper body) a late scratch, joining the already-injured Cam Fowler (lower body). That's two of their top three players in ice time this season M.I.A.

    Yet with 21-year-old Shea Theodore in the line-up and logging 20-plus minutes, 29-year-old journeyman Korbinian Holzer pressed into action, Calgary still could not take advantage. Lindholm played over 26 minutes to anchor the blue line and they got enough out of aging Kevin Bieksa, young Brandon Montour and just-getting-going Josh Manson.

    A big-time wasted opportunity.

    25. Bouma Simply Cannot Score - You know Treliving has learned from the Bouma situation two summers ago, not to overpay for one-hit wonders. You saw that in the treatment of Joe Colborne last off-season.

    But again, that doesn't make it any easier to accept.

    This is guy making north of $2 million who simply has lost his scoring touch altogether. Did he ever have a scoring touch to begin with? That's the key question and it's looking increasingly like the answer is probably not and that's at the root of this.

    Because the Flames' chances of winning would go up if he could finish off some of the chances he gets.
    In the second period, shortly after Monahan had tied it 2-2, Bouma gets the puck in a scramble with Gibson down and out in the crease. Just roof it, or even elevate it at all and the Flames lead.

    Instead, he shovels it into Gibson's glove.

    In another chance, Brouwer's hot shot isn't handled by Gibson but the rebound goes right past Bouma as he heads to the net. Had he anticipated the rebound better, stick down and ready, maybe he buries it instead.

    Bouma's been fine as a fourth liner but that would be if he was making $750,000. At the freight he's earning, you need more. Still one more year to go on that deal also.

    26. General Player Usage - As much as the fourth line was bringing energy and all that, there was still far too much of that line in a must-win game.

    They're rarely going to score. It's time to ride your horses that have and will. Every game in this series has been gruelling, no denying that, but there's been no overtime and the team had four days off prior to the series beginning. For a guy like Backlund, he had six days off prior.
    In a must-win game like last night, don't you need to go with the core guys that got you there a bit more? That's the 3M line, that's the Monahan line. Gulutzan is using his fourth line like he's preparing for a long series but that spread-out ice time will have no long-term benefit if the Flames are swept in four games.

    27. Chasing the Game, Again - The degree of difficulty of winning is so high when you're constantly chasing the game. Giving up the first goal of the game has been a chronic issue with this team all season and that hasn't changed in the post-season.

    The Flames have shown an ability to bounce back and they settled in to the game nicely again last night, carrying the play big time after the halfway point in the first period. But they've got to find a way to be better prepared -- both as a team, and individually (i.e. Elliott), -- to get through the first 10 minutes at 0-0. Do that and the odds of winning go up exponentially.

    28. Series is Slipping Out of Your Control - There is no doubt the Flames can outplay Anaheim in four of the next five games. They have the personnel to be able to do that. They have shown they can do that. The first two games have been that close.

    Bu t now what they're up against is how often do you outplay a team and still lose? It happens quite a bit. Now, not only do you need to be very good, but you also have to have some luck because often, the best team doesn't always win. Calgary is in a situation where they essentially have to play four perfect games.
    Gibson has the ability to steal a game and they can't let that happen. Getzlaf has the ability to win a game on his own and they can't let that happen.

    They're going to have to play nearly flawless hockey plus get help from above to pull this series out. That's asking a lot from the hockey gods, who evidently aren't big fans of you.

    29. Snowing in Calgary - And after all that, with so many things to stew about, then you've got to leave the palm trees and sunshine of California and return to Calgary, where snow has covered your car while you were away.

    Chances are, like so many of us fools, Treliving already put the snow brush in the garage too, so he's out there with his sleeve pulled down and shivering fingers, sweeping off the windshield. Lovely. Just wonderful.

    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 Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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    Friday, April 14, 2017

    Five Regrets: What Flames Would Surely Want to Do Different Next Time After Game 1 Loss

    Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

    It's an old expression but certainly a fitting one to describe Thursday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim where Calgary had only themselves to blame for a crushing 3-2 setback.

    Hoping that game one of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs would spark the start of a new era of success at the Ducks' Haunted Mansion, located just a few blocks away from Disneyland's namesake building, instead it was more of the same and just another oh-so-familiar frightening ride.

    The Flames have lost a mind-boggling and NHL-record 28 consecutive games in that rink, going back to April 25, 2006.

    This wasn't just a blown opportunity. This was an opportunity that they obliterated to shreds with a series of bad decisions and bad execution.

    In a list that easily could have been twice as long, here are the top five game situations that unfolded in which the main culprit involved quite likely ended up having a sleepless night.

    1. Gaudreau, Regrettable Execution

    Indicative of how things went on an off-night for Johnny Gaudreau, the highly-competitive superstar was left surely swearing under his breath and shaking his head on a few occasions.

    First was just over a minute into the second period with the score tied 1-1 when he broke in on a dangerous 2-on-1 with Micheal Ferland, only to squander the opportunity.

    If passing up a tremendous chance to shoot from 20 feet out was was one regret, not saucering his pass across to Ferland would have been another.

    Given Gaudreau's elite skill set that is on display every night, the saucer pass in that situation is something he could do in his sleep, yet on this moment -- feeling like a 1-in-100 situation, he instead tries to slide the puck over to Ferland along the ice and with a quick stick, Ducks defenceman Brandon Montour neatly intercepts it and clears the puck to safety.

    But there would be another chance to be the hero.

    With 20 seconds remaining in the game in a frenzied scramble around the Ducks net, Gaudreau scoops up a Matthew Tkachuk rebound as he's chugging through the crease but instead of waiting that extra half-second to get beyond the outstretched pad of John Gibson, he backhands it into his pad, enabling the Ducks goaltender to cover it up and snuff out the Flames last chance.

    I mean it was a crazy, hysteric scene in front of the net and 95 percent of players are going to do exactly what Gaudreau did and unload the puck quickly like it's a hand grenade. But the reason Gaudreau is so special and is paid $6.75 million annually is because he is an elite scorer and it was out of character to see him not convert that chance in that big moment, as he's done so often over the years.

    It was the final chapter in a night where for the most part, Gaudreau looked nervous on this big stage, the puck was bouncing off his stick far more than normal. Chalk it up to game one jitters perhaps, or maybe it's part the suffocatingly close checking from defensive thorn Ryan Kesler that can wear a guy down, but I'd expect Gaudreau to be better next game and the Flames need him to be.

    2. Engelland, Regrettable Line Change

    One thing in common between the Scotiabank Saddledome and the Honda Center is the location of the players bench in respect to the end of the ice where the Flames defend to open the game. The way it is configured in both arenas, the most challenging line change during a game for the Flames is always going to be the right defenceman in the second period. In both buildings, the worst-case scenario if that right-side d-man is stuck along the boards in his own corner, he has a 115-foot journey to get off the ice.

    Now in normal circumstances, professional hockey players should be able to skate 115 feet in a snap of their fingers, but when you've been out on the ice for a long, gruelling shift and are sucking wind, that distance can suddenly feel more like 1.15 miles.

    Case in point was Deryk Engelland's epic 3:22 'shift from hell' in the playoffs two years ago in the clinching game against the Vancouver Canucks, in which he just couldn't get off the ice in the second period. If you don't recall that memorable sequence, I wrote 405 words about it right here.

    Two years older and a little bit slower thanks to Father Time, Engelland was back in the spotlight on Thursday night. Calgary's eldest statesman at age 35 found himself faced with a similar decision -- only with two key differences.

    For one, at this point he hadn't been trapped on the ice. He was merely at the end of what would end up being a routine 49-second shift. Secondly, he did choose to go for that line change, rather than hang back while the others went. Man, did that ever prove costly.

    With just over six minutes remaining in the second period after Engelland had relieved pressure by dumping the puck down the ice and it going on goal, Engelland, his defence partner Matt Bartkowski and the entire line of Sam Bennett, Kris Versteeg and Alex Chiasson all chose to exit the ice for a line change at the same time.

    Bad decision.

    Check that. Brutal decision.

    Many Should Share the Blame

    You could and probably should hold all five of them responsible for either choosing to change, or not hustling off the ice fast enough, but Engelland tops the list as he was the last guy back and had the furthest to go. He even hesitated for a second as if he had second thoughts, but then went anyway.

    Kevin Bieksa retrieved the puck, made an 80-foot pass to hit Ryan Getzlaf at the far blueline and the Ducks broke in on a 3-on-0 with the ever-dangerous Patrick Eaves and Rickard Rackell with him.

    No, not a breakaway.

    No, not the very rare two-man breakaway.

    Suddenly, three guys were bearing down on Brian Elliott. I've watched a lot of hockey in my life and I don't recall the last time I've seen that. And we're talking about a playoff game in which Calgary had a one-goal lead. Ooomph.

    As Getzlaf swooped in, Elliott made the first stop, sharply kicking out his pad to repel Getzlaf's 15-foot snap shot, but the rebound landed on the stick of an uncovered Rakell. With time to spare still as the five Flames that had just jumped over the boards, desperately tried to get back into the play, the 23-year-old who led the Ducks with 33 goals in the regular season, would not squander the chance, burying his first of the post-season before Elliott could scramble across.

    Just like that, Calgary's first lead of the night -- thanks to a Bennett goal just over four minutes earlier -- had evaporated. You had a sense that goal was going to end up being costly and indeed, that turned out to be the case.

    3. Bouma, Regrettable Flight Path

    Immediately after the punch to the gut that was the Ducks tying goal, things began to unravel for Calgary, who were obviously rattled. First up was a Hamilton tripping call just 25 seconds later.

    While the under siege Flames survived that penalty kill, they put the dangerous Anaheim power play back on the ice just three seconds later, the result of a Lance Bouma goaltender interference call.

    I've watched the replay multiple times of that sequence in which Bouma clips Gibson and while you could argue whether or not he got bumped slightly off-course by Rackell in front, the fact remains he was making a straight line for Gibson and any evasive action Bouma took to avoid contact was minimal. His failure to do that made it a very easy penalty call for the officials.

    Given the importance of the goaltending position, referees are going to be watching for this type of stuff all playoffs. In that scenario, Bouma has to be smarter and make a way bigger effort to avoid contacting the goaltender.

    Was it heat of the moment, the frustration of having just blown the lead, the case of a 4th line guy expected to play a physical role trying to do so in his limited minutes of ice time. Maybe it was all of that but it ended up costly as on that man advantage, Jakob Silfverberg scored to break the tie. Coming from behind to take the lead on the Ducks in Anaheim is hard enough to do once. Asked to do it again, it would prove to be too big of a mountain to climb.

    4. Giordano, Regrettable Power Play Execution

    As bleak as things the third period as the parade of Flames penalties continued, they remained within one goal, killing off Versteeg's slashing penalty eight minutes in and Dougie Hamilton's cross-checking penalty (one of his three minors on the night) taken just past the 14 minute mark.

    Then opportunity knocked.

    For a dumb decision, Kesler was whistled for interference with 3:07 remaining for taking down Gaudreau away from the play.

    Forty-seven seconds into that power play, Logan Shaw's stick clipped Troy Brouwer, sending the Flames to 1:13 two-man advantage.

    Right there, before them, was a golden opportunity to tie the game and get it to overtime. Not only are the Flames on a five-on-three, but Anaheim's best penalty killer -- Kesler -- is one of the guys in the box. Also worth noting while we're at it, the Ducks are also without arguably their best penalty killing defenceman in Cam Fowler, sidelined with a knee injury.

    But that 5-on-3 ends up being a disaster.

    Dreadful execution marred by indecision keeps them from generating any type of dangerous chance down low, which is an absolute must when you've got two extra players on the ice. The lone shot on goal during that lengthy two-man advantage goes down officially as a Giordano 58-foot slapshot.

    But wait, there's more.

    Essentially still on a two-man advantage only this time at 6-on-4 with Kesler back on the ice but with Elliott pulled for an extra attacker, it's the same old struggles for Calgary. Once again, nothing dangerous, the only shots coming from way back at the blueline. Sequentially in a 20-second span inside that final minute:
    • Hamilton: 53-foot wrist shot over the net
    • Giordano: 48-foot wrist shot wide of the net
    • Giordano: 51-foot wrist shot wide of the net

    Not nearly good enough.

    The wagging finger of blame can probably point many directions -- perhaps at power play coach Dave Cameron as this team hasn't been very good on five-on-threes all season, or any of the other skaters on the ice that failed to get open, but for me I pin the blame on Giordano.

    The captain has got to be the quarterback in that moment. He needs to take charge. He needs to be the guy initiating a flip-flopping of sides with TJ Brodie to set up a better one-timer possibility.

    For Flames fans on the edge of their seats, it was an agonizing way to finish the game.

    5. Gulutzan, Regrettable Player Usage

    It was a tremendous night for Ferland, who along with Elliott were easily the Flames two best players. This makes it even more preposterous how little he was used by coach Glen Gulutzan down the stretch when Calgary was desperately seeking that tying goal.

    Over the last 9:07 of the third period, Ferland had one shift. It was just 27 seconds long, as it was the shift cut short as a result of Kesler's penalty on Gaudreau at 16:53 of the third.

    Rather than keep Ferland on the ice with his two linemates, a power play configuration that had been used frequently by Gulutzan over the final few weeks of the regular season, instead the coach stubbornly went back to the power play combination he had been using all game, the same combination he had tried much of the regular season but seemed to have abandon late in the season of Brouwer instead.

    In advance of a game, every NHL head coach put together a very detailed plan for what he will do in various game scenarios. This is all part of the hours of preparation they'll do before a game.

    But at some point, you need to have flexibility and be willing to ride the hot hand. See what's happening that night and when you have guy that is 'feeling it' like Ferland was all night, you need to have the ability to 'feel that' yourself and utilize him more.

    Given the salary you paid him to come in and contribute this time of year, the 'A' on his sweater, his big-game experience and all that, I understand why the coach might insist on reverting to Brouwer on that top unit to begin the playoffs given the big stage, etc. I don't agree but I can understand the rationale.

    Tremendous Evening Statistically, Historically

    But when Ferland is having the calibre of night he is, you need to leverage that. You absolutely have to tap into that. Between penalties and the pulled goalie, the Flames had an extra man for the final 3:07 of the game. Gulutzan needs to get him back on the ice and instead of Brouwer would have been easy to do.

    For context on Ferland's night, here's some historical data per Hockey Reference.

    In the last 20 years, Ferland is one of only five Flames players to amass seven shots on goal in a playoff game decided in regulation. Here are those five players, ranked in order of least to most amount of ice time:

    1. Micheal Ferland, Apr. 13, 2017, 7 shots (0 goals) in 11:49
    2. Daymond Langkow, April 19, 2007, 7 shots (2 goals) in 20:21
    3. Jarome Iginla, May 13, 2004, 7 shots (0 goals) in 20:52
    4. Jarome Iginla, April 11, 2004, 7 shots (0 goals) in 22:23
    5. Steve Montador, April 29, 2004, 7 shots (0 goals) in 23:14

    Ferland did not see one second of power play ice time. Not a sniff. All of those chances were generated at even-strength.

    This isn't a hate on Brouwer. If you could look past his salary and just view him as a fourth line player, I thought that trio with Matt Stajan and Lance Bouma was actually pretty good early in the game. Brouwer was on the ice for the Flames first power play goal.

    But for me, it's more about what Ferland was doing, recognizing it, and running with it.

    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 Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


    Recent Flames Reading:

    Tuesday, April 11, 2017

    Ducks-Flames Playoff Primer: Five Compelling Battles That Could Decide the Series

    Bring. It. On.

    For only the second time in eight years, the Flames are back in the Stanley Cup playoffs and it is sure to be a compelling couple of weeks as they'll be playing the Anaheim Ducks, who I'd argue is Calgary's No. 1 rival right now.

    For a couple of decades including the glory days of the late 80s, the label of Calgary's No. 1 nemesis was always the Edmonton Oilers and while we can all look forward to the day when that is the case once again, it's not the case today. Heck, they haven't faced each other in the playoffs since 1991.

    Fuelled by a dramatic seven-game playoff series in 2004, the Canucks took over as Calgary's arch-rival that spring and that lasted for a dozen-or-so years but that feud has also faded of late for the same reason the rivalry with Edmonton disappeared. For rivalries to not only survive, but also thrive, it takes both teams to be competitive. Vancouver just finished 29th and that's after a season in which they finished 28th.

    Hated Ducks

    Enter Anaheim and its cast of villains, who Calgary has faced in a playoff series a couple times lately -- back in 2006, then again in 2015. The Canucks having added a couple of the ring leaders from the Flames feud with Vancouver in Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa certainly hasn't hurt the hatred between the two teams and their fan bases.

    Most recently, you had Anaheim GM Bob Murray accusing Mark Giordano of being dirty, "asinine" remarks retorted Flames GM Brad Treliving on Monday. Plus you had a third period full of shenanigans when the two sides last met a week ago.

    This year, their records weren't far off each other either. Remove the season series and their records would have been:
    • Anaheim, 77 gm, 42-22-13, 97 pts  
    • Calgary, 77 gm, 44-29-4, 92 pts

    But add in the season series in which the Ducks took four of five games and you end up with the 11-point disparity between the clubs that resulted in Anaheim winning the Pacific Division and Calgary settling for the first wild card spot in the Western Conference.

    Before the two sides hit the ice for game one on Thursday night, here's a look at five battles within the battle, which could determine who prevails when this series comes to a close.

    1. Ducks PK vs. Flames PP
       In this era where goal scoring is at a premium and that's even more so the case in the post-season, winning the special teams battles is going to be critical. In particular, Calgary's power play is an area to watch.

    In the Orange Corner 

    At least Calgary has the fabled 'Wideman effect', what's your excuse, Anaheim? This series will feature the NHL's top two teams in terms of most times shorthanded this season. The Ducks were on the penalty kill a league-high 281 times while the Flames were next at 277.

    Why this lack of discipline hasn't hurt Anaheim is they've been very good at killing off those penalties, ranking fourth in the league in that capacity during the regular season.

    Leading the way upfront, the Duck's most frequent PK pairings have been:
    • Kesler - Getzlaf
    • Kesler - Silfverberg
    • Thompson - Wagner
    • Shaw - Cogliano

    When you see the same name listed twice, you know he's used in that role a lot so expect a ton of Ryan Kesler when Anaheim is shorthanded. He led the Ducks and was fourth among all NHL forwards in PK ice time this season.

    This is one of the areas of the game where Cam Fowler (lower body) will be most missed as he topped Anaheim defencemen both in average ice time overall as well as time spent on the PK.

    In the absence of Fowler, expect to see plenty of Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen and Bieksa. Sidelined since November with an abdominal injury, veteran Clayton Stoner will be used in that capacity too if/when he is able to return.

    In the Red Corner 

    Given Anaheim's track record, Calgary will get its chances on the power play. Key is can they take advantage. The Flames can even limit some of the extracurricular post-whistle scrums that inevitably await by brandishing a lethal PP that swings momentum and/or scores when they do get those five-on-four opportunities.

    For a long time now, Calgary has had two distinct PP combinations:
    • Unit 1, 1 D Set-Up: Brodie, Versteeg, Gaudreau, Monahan, Brouwer/Ferland
    • Unit 2, 2 D Set-Up: Hamilton, Giordano, Tkachuk, Backlund, Frolik/Bennett

    Until recently, the fifth member of both units was Troy Brouwer and Michael Frolik. But lately, Glen Gulutzan has frequently replaced Brouwer with Micheal Ferland and instead of Frolik, Sam Bennett has been getting more looks. Those are two changes that increases the skill on each unit and I would expect that usage trend to continue.

    On the season, Calgary finished 10th on the power play, which is impressive considering they were second-last at the end of November. From Dec. 1 onwards, they were sixth best and they finished the year strong going 8-for-27 over the final eight games.

    2. Up the Middle: Experience vs. Youth

    An important area of any NHL team is centre and this series provides an interesting contrast at that pivotal position between experience and youth.

    In the Orange Corner 

    The Ducks have some exciting young players on their roster that will make them a formidable team for years to come but they're not playing up the middle.

    There are a couple talented young wingers, the defence has numerous rising stars that are still in their early 20s and of course there's John Gibson in net. But up the middle, that's where it's definitely age before beauty.

    Ducks Projected Top Nine:

    Patrick Eaves - Ryan Getzlaf (age 31) - Rickard Rakell
    Andrew Cogliano - Ryan Kesler (age 32) - Jakob Silfverberg
    Nick Ritchie - Antoine Vermette (age 34) - Corey Perry

    Ryan Getzlaf is an enormous talent who helped get Rickard Rakell 33 goals to lead the team. Underrated Patrick Eaves is also dangerous, having notched 11 goals in just 20 games with Anaheim after being acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline.

    Kesler needs no introduction. Solid two-way player that lives to get under the skin of the Flames. Then there's Antoine Vermette, a modest free agent signing in August, who doesn't put up the offence he once did but he still contributes in many ways including being the second-best face-off man in the NHL this year at 62.2 percent. Plus, anytime you've got a former 50-goal man (and six times a 30-goal man) on your wing like Perry, you know the offence can come at any time.

    In the Red Corner 

    In Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund and Sam Bennett, Calgary is boasting a home grown top three centers for the first time since Joe Nieuwendyk, Robert Reichel and Joel Otto anchored the Flames top three lines in 1994-95.

    Flames Projected Top Nine:

    Johnny Gaudreau - Sean Monahan (age 22) - Micheal Ferland
    Matthew Tkachuk - Mikael Backlund (age 28) - Michael Frolik
    Kris Versteeg - Sam Bennett (age 20) - Alex Chiasson

    After a rocky start, Monahan has been much better over the last 3-4 months. Since Ferland joined that top line on Feb. 21 in Nashville, all three of them have flourished. Over that period, Gaudreau's 26 points (7 goals, 19 assists) in 23 games is fifth best in the NHL. With 23 points (8 goals, 15 assists), Monahan ranks 16th.

    Meanwhile, Backlund's superb season is something everyone is familiar with and while Bennett's year has been mostly disappointing, he seems to have elevated his game recently and just in time.

    So often, it's the third line and depth players that end up in the spotlight in the playoffs and that could be the case here. If the Backlund line neutralizes the Getzlaf line and the Kesler line neutralizes the Monahan line, it might just come down to which third line can produce more.

    Tale of the Tape - Top Three Centers
    • Average Age - Ducks 33.1, Flames 23.8
    • Average NHL seasons - Ducks 12.4, Flames 4.4
    • Regular Season Games - Ducks 2,740, Flames 939
    • Playoff Games - Ducks 262, Flames 33

    With the Ducks trio nearly 10 years older in average age and with way more experience, this is going to be a fun dynamic to watch.

    3. Haunted House: 2017 Flames vs. Ghosts of the Past
    Ah yes. The Honda Center, aka Haunted Center, aka Unhappiest Place on Earth.

    Until Calgary wins again in the arena originally referred to by Disney when it was built in 1993 as the Pond of Anaheim, this venue with all its marble floors and showhome look and feel is always going to be a talking point when these two teams meet.

    In the Orange Corner 

    The number you'll hear referenced most often is the NHL record 25-game winning streak Anaheim has against Calgary at the Honda Center (which is 0-20-5 from the Flames vantage point). But that's a regular season streak. Adding to the wackiness is that last Calgary win -- a 5-1 victory on January 19, 2004 -- came with both Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff injured and not in uniform.

    The futility goes back even further if you want. Go back to the 1998-99 season, Anaheim has lost only that one time to Calgary in it's last 35 regular season tilts (31-1-3).
    The fans know this is big mental edge for their team. I was at the gamelast Tuesday while in California on a family vacation and the chant began late in the game and without any prompting from the scoreboard or anything, "You can't win here." clap-clap, clap-clap-clap. 

    They haven't won there for a long time, that's certainly true. But can they win there? Most definitely.

    In the Red Corner 

    The key point that frequently gets lost in the above stat is we're in the playoffs now and Calgary has won in that building more recently than 2004 if you include the post-season.

    On April 25, 2006 in game 3 of their first round series, Flames won 5-2. Kristian Huselius (1 goal, 2 assists) and Robyn Regehr (1 goal, 1 assist) led the offence while Miikka Kiprusoff made 27 saves.

    Since that game, they've lost their last five playoff visits but worth noting is three of those losses were by one-goal. Scott Niedermayer had the game-winning goal with just over five minutes left in the third period in one of them, Sean O'Donnell scored in overtime in another, and in the most recent playoff trip to Honda Center two years ago, Perry clinched the series 2:26 into extra time.

    The thing with history is it's just that -- history. A majority of that was accrued by players no longer with the organization. Many of the players involved are no longer in the league.

    Matthew Tkachuk, for example, he's only lost there twice. Many players on Calgary brought in recently have actually enjoyed modest success there.
    • Troy Brouwer is 3-3-1 in his last seven visits to Honda Center.
    • Michael Stone is 4-5-2 in 11 career games in Anaheim.
    • Matt Bartkowski has won two of his last five trips to Anaheim.
    • Alex Chiasson is 3-4-0 in seven games at Honda Center.
    • Michael Frolik won three times in Anaheim prior to arriving in Calgary.
    • Brian Elliott also has a win. He's 0-4-1 since but he has tasted victory there.

    The history most relevant is this season and in Calgary's two trips to Honda Center in 2016-17 -- once in early November, the other time last week, the Flames played fine both times.

    In fact, Anaheim has been held to 21 or fewer shots on home ice only three times in the last two seasons. Including playoffs, that's over the span of 86 home dates. Two of those three games were against Calgary this season.
    • On Nov. 6 in a 4-1 loss, Calgary outshot Anaheim 26-21.
    • On Apr. 4 in a 3-1 loss, the Flames outshot the home side 27-20.

    Both games were right there for the taking after the first period, tied 1-1 in the first game, Calgary with a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes last week, only for the game to get away.

    So it's not like they went in there and got steamrolled. This edition of the Flames, which is the only version that really matters, has played them competitively twice. About to play as many as four games in that rink over the next two weeks, I would actually be surprised if they don't win there at least once.

    4. Goaltending: Rising Star vs. Determined Vet

    The battle between the pipes also shapes up to be a good one and again it's a young rising star going head to head with a determined veteran, who feels he still has something to prove. Only unlike the situation up the middle, the roles are reversed this time with the Ducks having the young guy and it's  the Flames with the guy with the experience.

    In net for Anaheim is John Gibson, a legitimate star in the making, who was a second round pick in 2011, the second goaltender off the draft board that year at No. 39 behind Nashville's selection of Magnus Hellberg.

    Then you have Brian Elliott, the second-last pick in the 2003 draft, which was nine rounds deep back then. Elliott went 291st to the Ottawa Senators, the last of 28 goalies chosen that year.

    In the Orange Corner 

    Gibson has only played four times in the last seven weeks. After suffering a lower-body injury on Feb. 20, he returned on Mar. 10 only to end up on the IR again, which lasted through the end of March.

    But he's back and ready to go and he put to rest any questions about that when he stopped 26 of 27 to defeat the Flames a week ago and followed that up with a 37-save shutout of the Chicago Blackhawks two nights later.

    In his last eight appearances going back to Feb. 14, the 23-year-old is 4-2-1 with a 1.44 GAA and a .954 SV%. That type of goaltending will carry a team a long way and it if you're wondering, he's been good all season.

    Of the 41 goalies to make a minimum of 25 starts this season, Gibson's .924 save percentage ranks him 4th behind Sergei Bobrovsky (.931), Craig Anderson (.926) and Braden Holtby (.925). That's pretty good company for a guy in only his second full NHL season. Six of Gibson's 25 victories this year were shutouts, which is one heck of a ratio.

    While the Flames hope he'll be rusty, the Ducks are viewing him as rested and that's certainly an ace up the sleeve for Anaheim.

    In the Red Corner 

    Elliott was acquired last June at the NHL draft to be Calgary's No. 1 goalie. Treliving was happy to surrender a second round pick in a deep draft and a conditional pick to stabilize a position that was ground zero of the Flames unravelling a year ago.

    Sure enough, Elliott enters the playoffs as the guy Calgary expected him to be. The only surprise is the winding journey he's taken in arriving at this point.

    The start of the year wasn't a good one for Elliott. After becoming a first-time parent 10 days prior to the season-opener, his play early was rough to say the least, reflecting what the workplace performance ends up being like for most sleep-deprived new parents.

    Eventually, the struggles cost him the No. 1 job as Chad Johnson stepped in and started 13 of 15 games at one point from mid-November through mid-December.

    But Elliott's game came around, his numbers improving as the season went on right through the end of March.
    • Oct/Nov - 3-9-1, 3.31 GAA, .885 SV%
    • Dec/Jan - 6-3-1, 2.33 GAA, .904 SV%
    • Feb - 6-1-1, 2.40 GAA, .917 SV%
    • Mar - 9-2-0, 1.97 GAA, .935 SV%
    • Apr - 0-3-0, 3.52 GAA, .871 SV%

    Should the Flames be concerned that Elliott enters the playoffs having lost his last three games -- two of the setbacks coming to Anaheim? It's certainly not the ideal scenario. But the body of work over the two-plus months leading up to April should reassure fans that he'll be dialed-in come game one.

    After all, Elliott has a track record in the playoffs.

    Been There Before

    Last year in winning nine of 18 starts to help backstop the Blues to the Western Conference final, a run which included series wins over the always-tough Chicago Blackhawks and high-scoring Dallas Stars, before eventually succumbing to the San Jose Sharks, Elliott sported a tidy .921 save percentage, which is very solid for that time of year and against that level of competition.

    In fact, prior to losing his final three games to San Jose as things got away from him and his team a little bit, he was 9-6 with a .932 save percentage.

    Elliott has played 37 career playoff games. the 32-year-old has the demeanor of someone that is ready for this moment and won't get too caught up in it. It's a poise to be expected from a guy that has his experience and that will be badly needed on a youthful team in which many of its key players have very thin post-season resumes. Meanwhile, Gibson only has six career playoff starts, having lost four of them.

    The guy whose performance is most important to his team is Elliott. When he's on, it elevates the play of the entire team as they play a better, more confident and assertive game in front of him. How badly Calgary can sometimes play in front of struggling goalie they don't have confidence in was evident all last season and in that ugly first month this year.

    If Gibson falters, the Ducks have a better chance of surviving that than if Elliott stumbles. Plus, Anaheim has Jonathan Bernier in reserve and he played very well in Gibson's absence. In his reduced role, Chad Johnson, coming off a minor injury, has not been able to return his game to the same level he was at in November and December so this is Elliott's series, barring a disaster.

    5. Round 2: Ferland and Friends vs. Bieksa and Friends

    It was in the first round two years ago where Ferland, a relative newcomer to the league, made a major impression by having a heck of a series against the Vancouver Canucks in the first round.

    Of course, Bieksa stirred things up by referring to him as irrelevant.

    It really was something to watch in 2015 as Ferland stapled him and other Canucks blueliners into the end boards so often that soon they were all unloading that puck like a hand grenade when they saw the No. 79 freight train coming.

    Well, those same two meet up once again.

    In the Orange Corner 

    Even in the absence of injured blueliner and ice-time leader Cam Fowler, the Ducks present a much different blue-line than the Canucks two years ago and that includes a reduced role in comparison for Bieksa.

    At age 35, Bieksa is the old man on an otherwise youthful blue-line in which the other five defencemen are all age 25 or younger. Clayton Stoner, 32, changes that dynamic a bit if he returns but Anaheim's strength moving forward is definitely the young talent on the back end. Vatanen, Manson and Fowler are 25, Lindholm and Brandon Montour are 23, Shea Theodore is just 21.

    Meanwhile, in addition to the defence and Gibson, which gives the Ducks a solid last line of defence, the Flames top line of Ferland alongside Gaudreau and Monahan, will have to work their way past one of Bieksa's old Canucks teammates in Kesler as you know that trio with Andrew Cogliano and Jakob Silfverberg will match up frequently against them.

    Between Bieksa and Kesler, there's high level of agitation and sand paper that comes with those two guys as well.

    In the Red Corner

    Two years ago with Lady Byng-winning Jiri Hudler alongside Gaudreau and Monahan, that trio -- so vaunted during the regular season -- struggled in the Stanley Cup playoffs when the play gets more physical and space seems to diminish.

    I'm really curious to see how things go for that same duo of Gaudreau and Monahan this year, with the rough and tumble Ferland on the flank. While Ferland can finish as he's shown with his 15 goals, it's his surly nature and physicality that Calgary will hope will buy the other two a bit more room and ultimately will lead to more success.

    The Flames have improved depth this post-season compared to a year ago. The 3M line is a considerable upgrade as the second line over the trio last year of Backlund with a fuzzy-cheeked 18-year-old Bennett and Joe Colborne.

    Kris Versteeg, Bennett and Alex Chiasson have the ability to chip in some secondary scoring from the third line, but Calgary will still need to get production from that top unit.

    I wouldn't expect the same rate of production as they've contributed since first being united but they'll need to still need to play the role of the offensive catalyst by pushing the puck up ice and generating chances.

    Ferland's role in this playoff series really is a pivotal one. He's not out there on the fourth line like two years ago, now he's a central figure in the Flames forward group. He needs to be contributing while at the same time also providing some push-back and keeping the Flames from being bullied.

    That said, it's a fine line as you don't want to be chasing the Ducks around either as getting distracted and off your game is exactly what they'll be trying to do.

    Now let's get this series going.

    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 Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


    Recent Flames Reading:
    • Rewind and Reflect: Revisiting my Original Eight Keys to Making the Playoffs - In an interesting exercise, I revisited the eight factors identified as key at the start of the season. How did they turn out and did they make a difference. I evaluate each one. (April 8, 2017)
    • It's About Time: Giordano Eagerly Ancitipates His First Playoff Action in 10 Years - Due to being hurt twice, and once being M.I.A. in Russia, it's stunning that Mark Giordano has only played four career playoff games. He's pumped to finally play in some more. (April 1, 2017)
    • He's Back: Now Over 200 pts, Rejuvenated Gaudreau Makes Flames a Formidable Foe - After digging through old media guides and tattered newspapers, I do my best to put Gaudreau's season and recent stirling play into historical context. (March 27, 2017)
    • FF80F Podcast: Episode 13, Wes Gilbertson Talks Playoff Match-ups - Reflecting back on key moments on the season, which players still have more to give and could be heard from down the stretch, and debating the best and worst playoff match-ups. (March 20, 2017)
    • Smart, Smart Player: Tkachuk's High Hockey IQ on Display Once Again - It seems like every game, 19-year-old (going on 29-year-old) Matthew Tkachuk makes a smart play that demonstrates his high hockey IQ. Friday night was no exception. (March 18, 2017)