Saturday, April 08, 2017

Rewind and Reflect: Revisiting my Original Eight Keys to the Flames Making the Playoffs

Much like the Calgary Flames, I spent the last week in California, preparing for the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

For me though, it was in the form of a little family R & R before the busy post-season grind begins as early as Wednesday. Oh, and special thanks to Mikael Backlund and Sam Bennett as for a young lady in my household, this photo trumps any of the Disney character photos she accumulated over the week.

To be more accurate, my trip was more about the second 'R' -- relaxation. My Fitbit says I've hoofed over 40 miles during my six days hanging around the Anaheim area so 'rest' would be the farthest thing from the truth and my swollen, blistered feet can confirm that!

For the team, they were more in wait-and-see mode rather than desperately-trying-to-squeak-in mode, which resulted in a much different mindset to where we thought they might be heading into the final week. It was an opportunity to rest some of the nicked-up and/or aging veterans like Michael Stone, Matt Stajan and Brian Elliott (did not play on Thursday) as well as Mark Giordano, Mikael Backlund, Deryk Engelland and Kris Versteeg (did not play on Saturday).

With one night of NHL action to go, still decided is will Calgary begin its second trip to the post-season in the last eight years in Anaheim or in Edmonton. An Oilers victory over Vancouver on Sunday night combined with a Ducks regulation loss to the Los Angeles Kings would mean it's off to Rogers Place for the first Battle of Alberta since 1991. Otherwise, it's back to the Honda Center -- as if they never left.

While we wait, I thought it would be a fun exercise to revisit a piece I wrote six months ago where I identified eight keys to the Flames making the playoffs this season, and for each segment, reflect on how that panned out... or didn't pan out (update highlighted in yellow).

Eight Keys to Making the Playoffs in 2016-17

(originally published October 9, 2016)

1. Hunt for Black October

Last year's start was brutal and it buried them in a hole they couldn't dig out of. They stumbled out of the gate 2-8-1 and they never did get out of the red and that early deficit. Calgary's first regulation win did not come until game No. 12 on Halloween and if you recall, that night's 5-4 victory in Edmonton required a fluke goal from Michael Frolik with nine seconds to go. Nineteen games into the season in mid-November, the Flames still were sitting at a meager two regulation wins.

Forced to chase teams in the NHL is death. You may not flat-line officially until March but if you have a brutal first six weeks, your playoff chances will be on life support and you'll be in need of a miracle to crack one of the eight playoff spots in the Western Conference. When 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs like in the old days, there was margin for error. That is no longer the case with 16 of 30 teams making it.

Calgary's schedule begins relatively easy with back-to-back games with Edmonton then Vancouver, Buffalo and Carolina. Then things get very difficult for the next dozen. It makes chalking up at least three wins in those first 10 days imperative.

Looking Back: 

As everybody knows, the Flames did not get off to that fast start I suggested would be necessary. They stumbled out of the gate with back-to-back losses to Edmonton, an overtime loss in Vancouver and finished that "imperative" five-game, 10-day stretch to start off with just one win -- an overtime triumph over Buffalo.

Through 16 games, they had the worst winning percentage in the league at 5-10-1 with just three of those wins in regulation.

While forced to chase from that far back will almost always mean certain death in regards to playoff aspirations, this would not turn out to be the case. The reason is when things took a turn for the better starting Nov. 15, the Flames didn't merely play good hockey, they played great hockey. Since that point, Calgary (40-23-3) is right there with Minnesota (41-20-7), Anaheim (38-17-10), Chicago (39-20-7) and Edmonton (37-20-8) as one of the best-five records in the Western Conference.

2. Avoiding Gravel Roads

Fourteen road wins last season was third-worst in the league, only ahead of Arizona (13) and Edmonton (12). That's not going to get it done. Of course, the poster child for the road woes was Johnny Gaudreau, who struggled mightily to produce in opposition arenas. The NHL's leading scorer on home ice with 23-33-56 in 40 games, the road was a completely different story. Wearing white, Gaudreau was just 7-15-22 in 39 games, which tied him for 106th. Further, four of his seven goals came in the final three weeks with the Flames playing out the string at that point.

To succeed away from home, you need a couple things. For one, you need depth scoring so when the top line is shut down as was so often the case a year ago, a different line in more favourable match-ups can pick up the slack. To that point, Mikael Backlund's strong finish bodes well and if the Troy Brouwer-Sam Bennett combination can remain dangerous, that should also take some weight off Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

The other key to picking up points on the road is having your goalie steal you a game sometimes. You're going to get outshot often in other team's barns, picking up two points you probably didn't deserve can be a real boost and help create some positive momentum, especially when you're on an extended trip. Two years ago, Calgary went .500 or better on all four of their long road trips with goaltending playing a vital role.

Last April in my goaltending port-mortem, I came up with criteria for what I considered stealing a game (see point No. 4). Last season, up until game 82, it had happened only twice all year -- both times by Karri Ramo. Historically, goalies should steal 7-8 wins per season and a return to that norm would greatly enhance the road success and Calgary's playoff chances.

Looking Back: 

Calgary's strong play on the road has been a huge factor in the team's success this season. Up until recently, the Flames record away from the Saddledome had been better than it had been on home ice, which often led to remarks around how the Flames had to play more of a 'road game' when they're in front of their home fans.

Calgary ended up 21-16-4 away from home, finishing one win shy of tying the franchise record of 22 road wins. That had been previously done three times -- 1987-88, 1988-89 and 2014-15. That was also only two back of Chicago (24), who led the Western Conference. Opposition buildings was their safe house for the first four months until the Flames finally got rolling at home starting in mid-February. 

Individually, Backlund and the 3M line with Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik was a huge reason behind the team's success. Never mind secondary scoring, that line was producing offence for much of the season like what would be expected from a No. 1 line and that was critical to Calgary being in the spot they are today. The other note up front is Gaudreau's had far more success in other buildings this year with 30 points (8 goals, 22 assists) in 35 games. His home-road split this season is essentially even as he has 31 points at the Saddledome.

As for goaltenders occasionally stealing a game, that's exactly what this year's brand new duo has done. Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson have each stolen four games for a total of eight by my criteria (team outshot by at least six shots, goalie faces at least 32 shots, surrenders two or fewer goals, wins the game). For Johnson, three of his came in an eight-day stretch in late November (Nov. 23 at Columbus, Nov. 25 at Boston, Nov. 30 vs. Toronto), which was part of that critical juncture in the season -- with Gaudreau injured -- in which Johnson's strong play helped get Calgary survive and kept its playoff hopes alive.

3. Penalty Killers are Mr. Brightside

The penalty killing last year started off bad and it never got better, finishing 30th. Making it worse was not only did the results not change, but the system never changed either and you could tell that resulted in some frustration from the players.

Gulutzan and Jerrard, his longtime coaching pal, are implementing a new penalty killing system this year because they know how important special teams are. The changes are significant and while it's taking some time to learn, the players like the new approach and are confident it will work.

While a top 10 ranking would be ideal, Calgary was top five in terms of fewest times shorthanded last year and by maintaining that discipline, even just middle-of-the-pack penalty killing would go a long way to turning around the Flames fortunes and helping the team stay in more games longer.

It's by getting those key third period kills to stay close in games that enable a team to pick up those extra points along the way that could make the difference come season's end.

Looking Back: 

For whatever reason and there are many theories out there, this season saw the Flames go from one of the most disciplined teams to one of the least. Calgary (277) is tied for first in the NHL in times shorthanded, even with Bob Murray's Anaheim Ducks, who have one game to go. When you're in the penalty box a lot and you cannot kill penalties, which was the case early in the season, that is a recipe for disaster and it nearly was for the Flames. 

At the same point in mid-November when Nolan Patrick was the more common conversation in Calgary than any foolish notion of making the playoffs, Calgary was 29th on the penalty kill at a meager 73.0 percent. But since that point as players have became more comfortable in Gerrard's system, the PK has been much, much better, operating at a clip of 84.1 percent, which has been sixth best over that period, which amounts to greater than three-quarters of the season.

Better shorthanded play combined with a similarly significant improvement from the power play, has made special teams a huge factor in the Flames resurgence.

4. 3D Picture of Perfect Health

One of this year's training camp battles has been who will emerge as the club's No. 4 defenceman. Who will step onto that second pairing and complement the trio of Mark GiordanoTJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton.

While the Flames have a lot of guys that would be pretty good in a third pairing role, I'm not convinced there is a 20-minute guy in the mix. Perhaps it ends up being Jyrki Jokipakka or Brett Kulak, but more likely, I expect it to be a rotation of guys all year.

It's to this point where maybe splitting up the vaunted pairing of Giordano and Brodie makes sense, just to provide a bit more stability with whomever does end up being used in a top-four role, which then would be beside No. 5 or No. 7. Given the chore it's been to find one adequate second-pairing defenceman, imagine if they needed to find two.

(Editors Note: Glen Gulutzan confirmed Tuesday that he will open the season with Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton on three different pairings. The captain gets Wideman, Brodie gets Engelland and Hamilton pairs with Jokipakka. But we'll see how long that lasts.)

That's why keeping the big three healthy and on the ice all season will be vital to the success of this team. The organization has a wave of young defencemen in the pipeline -- Oliver KylingtonBrandon HickeyRasmus Andersson and Adam Fox -- who could all one day be capable of playing in the top four. But it won't be this season and for some, that possibility is a long, long way away. So health on the blueline, perhaps this year more than any other, is key.

Looking Back: 

That esteemed big three, who are still very much the big three on this team, have indeed stayed healthy. Between the three of them, they've only missed one game due to injury and that was Hamilton with the cut on his leg a couple weeks ago. 

As for their performance, it took a while for the pairings to be settled. In fact, Giordano and Hamilton were not united for the first time until that Nov. 15 night in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but that duo has been dynamite ever since -- one of the best defence pairings in the NHL --  and while it's been an uneven season for TJ Brodie, the third wheel in that group, his play has been much better since the acquisition of Michael Stone a couple weeks prior to the trade deadline.

The fourth D spot ended up an issue most of the year with Jokipakka not elevating himself up the depth chart as the team hoped -- in fact, he went the opposite direction -- and Wideman simply too old and too slow at this point in his career to be effective in that role. 

Who will be cast in that role next season? Just like last summer, it will be a storyline again this year. Kids are coming, but are any of them ready to play top four minutes? Not likely. Might Stone return? Maybe? Might they eye another free agent on the open market? Maybe. Time will tell.

5. Less Leaky Pipes

The biggest off-season change was the complete gutting of the goal crease with all four of last year's sordid quartet not just gone from the Flames but out of the league altogether with two proven and established veterans acquired in their place.

The combined workload last year of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson works out to around 82 games. If you combine their performance, they would have had the best team save percentage in the NHL last year, which was a season in which the Flames had the league's worst save percentage. Icing on the cake is that for that upgrade, Calgary is spending less than half of what they spent last year on that position.

Some regression from the two of them isn't just a possibility, it should be expected. But if Calgary can come in middle-of-the pack in goaltending, even that should be sufficient enough of an upgrade to keep them in the playoff race until the end because I firmly believe it's a package deal with goaltenders.

If you get more stable goaltending, everything else gets better -- your penalty kill, your road record. Also, the defence play better and more at ease knowing that every mistake won't end up in the back of their net.

Looking Back: 

It took a while but the Flames goaltending, which was supposed to be improved but didn't look that way for the first month, eventually came around.

Elliott's resurgence has been particularly impressive after getting off to an abysmal start. In fact, he had lost the No. 1 job by November and needed to win it back. 

But lately, Elliott has been really good. Going back to Jan. 26, Elliott is 18-5-1 with a 2.20 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. In comparison to the rest of the league (minimum of 13 starts over that span), that ranks him 2nd in wins and 7th in the other two categories. 

Getting steady, consistent, reliable goaltending has helped this team grow in confidence.

6. Can the Czech Leave his Mark

There are holes on every NHL team and Calgary is no different. While Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik make a superb duo, who will play left wing remains a mystery. While Matthew Tkachuk has looked good on the wing with Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer, who slots into that spot should the team eventually return the 18-year-old to London?

But there are holes and then there are canyons and the void at right wing on the Flames top line is looking more like the Grand Canyon at this point. No obvious candidate has emerged in training camp for the spot inhabited by Jiri Hudler for much of the past two seasons. Now obviously, it's not like Gaudreau and Monahan have been holding auditions the past month as Monahan (recovering from a strained back) has only played one game and Gaudreau (unsigned and not in camp) hasn't played in any, but in surveying the performance of other could-be candidates, nobody has jumped out and claimed that job. Not even close. The hope was Alex Chiasson might be that guy but I'm not seeing it thus far.

(Editor's Note: The Flames signed 30-year-old free agent Kris Versteeg on Tuesday and he could open up the season on the top line.)

Could the solution be the guy that nobody is talking about in forgotten man Daniel Pribyl? The 23-year-old was the second leading scorer in the Czech league last season. He's skilled with reportedly a good shot and good play-making ability. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, he has the dimensions of a power forward. As a player that shoots right, that part is ideal too. However, how good he is is an unknown at this point as we've yet to see him play live. He remains sidelined as he recovers from major knee surgery he underwent six months ago.

What we do know is Calgary aggressively pursued him last spring and still signed him, even after he ripped up his knee in the Czech playoffs. To do that, they obviously like him. On a two-way deal, he's been declared healthy but he will start off in Stockton. But when he's healthy and in game-shape, he could ascend fast if Calgary is still rotating through a carousel of plan C's and D's at that important spot.

On an economical entry level contract the next two years, what a find it would be if Pribyl could work out.

Looking Back: 

The hole at right wing on the top line did turn out to be a "grand canyon" for much of the season as fans persevered an endless trial of Alex Chiasson forced into that role like one might try sticking a round peg in a square hole. Safe to say that combination didn't work. Daniel Pribyl, the wild card option entering the season, was a complete non-factor as he's had an injury-plagued season in the AHL and hasn't been able to stay on the ice.

Nonetheless, Gulutzan has been able to scratch out some extra offence in that top six, fulfilling the need that was identified.

One unexpected source of offence as been the terrific year had by Tkachuk, who bumped up to the Backlund-Frolik line shortly after the season began and has contributed more than anyone was expecting. This guy has not been a supporting player by any means but has been a key member of that line in a season in which the two veterans are having career seasons.

The other discovery was Micheal Ferland on the top line. Something Bob Hartley had experimented with in the past, it hadn't worked previously but this time the trio has clicked and Ferland has not only been a big factor himself in Calgary's offence with a career-best 15 goals, but his arrival on that top line has sparked a uptick in the play of Gaudreau and Monahan, who have caught fire ever since.

Since Ferland joined that line on Feb. 21, Gaudreau (7-19-26) is tied for the fourth-most points in the league behind Nikita Kucherov (19-16-35), Connor McDavid (10-21-31) and Patrick Kane (14-15-29). Monahan (8-15-23) is tied for 14th.

7. Avoiding the Mo' Money Blues

Gaudreau, Monahan and Giordano are three vital cogs in the Flames success. Gaudreau just finished in the top 10 in scoring, Giordano just became the first Calgary defenceman since Al MacInnis to score more than 20 goals, and Monahan's 80 goals in his three seasons puts him among the NHL's top young players.

What they also have been is three steals when it comes to performance versus pay. The annual average value for those three last season was a combined $5.85 million. Heck, Dustin Brown made more than that. Well, that cushy equation is about to change.

This season with Giordano's extension kicking in and new contracts for Monahan and Gaudreau, the salaries for each of them individually exceed that number. With that will come heightened expectations because in this day and age, you're scrutinized based on how much you earn. The pressure to perform this season will be far greater and with two of them (and presumably all three of them) on long term deals, last thing you want to do is get off to a bad first year as the heat of the spotlight will intensify pretty fast.

Ultimately, Calgary should be just fine with what they're paying for these players. It won't be anywhere near the steal they enjoyed the last couple seasons but it will be good value still if they can maintain their production. By adding in a better supporting cast in Sam Bennett as a sophomore, Troy Brouwer, the continually-improving TJ Brodie and with the upgrades in net, status quo from these three should leave Calgary in good shape. It's regression that needs to be avoided.

Looking Back: 

It took a while and there was some nervousness early in the season as Gaudreau and Monahan struggled to find their way and conjure up the chemistry that has been so good between them over the years, but they've certainly found their mojo now and are delivering the type of impact that is expected with the money they're making.

On the back end, Giordano has also been excellent all season as the anchor of the blueline and while the points haven't been as prolific as in season's past, he's still performing at a high level as one of the most counted-upon players. The pairing of him and Hamilton is the team's backbone. 

8. California Nightmarin'

The one factor more than any other, in why Calgary made the playoffs two years ago was their divisional record. The Flames squeezed into the playoffs the final week and that was despite a ridiculously good 22-6-1 record against Pacific Division rivals. They beat the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings four times and needed every one of those points to squeak in.

That type of winning percentage was never going to be sustainable. But what nobody saw coming was the team skidding so far the other direction last year. Calgary's 10-15-4 mark against divisional foes in 2015-16 was second-worst of the Pacific teams and just one point better than Edmonton.

The top three teams in the Pacific last year were the three California teams and it wasn't even close. Anaheim, LA and San Jose finished 1-2-3 -- all within five points -- and there was a 20-point gap after that. To bridge that gap in hopes of getting in front of at least one of them this season, they'll need to fare better against those three teams in particular.

Last year, Calgary went 2-10-2 against those three with just one regulation win. With Edmonton and Arizona both improved this year, it's going to be a dogfight in the Pacific and those four-point games are going to take on even more significance. Come season end, if the Flames just get in by a couple points or fall just shy by the same margin, those divisional games are what you'll likely point to.

Looking Back: 

Calgary finished with a combined 7-8-0 record against the Sharks, Ducks and Kings, which is pretty good considering the calibre of the opposition. Of course, losing four of five to Anaheim has fans squirming as they anticipate a potential first round clash with the Ducks, but there have been positive signs.

Calgary was right there, even with Anaheim last Sunday at home, before Logan Shaw's goal with three minutes left gave the visitors the narrow victory. At Honda Center on Tuesday in the return match-up, the Flames had a dominant first period, only to fritter that lead away. The difference between the two sides is not nearly as big in actuality as their record against each other would suggest, but mentally, the crevasse must feel that big to players, who are checking in a lot of over-sized mental baggage whenever they arrive at LAX.

Calgary's decent success against this difficult trio was instrumental in their season ending road-swing through California not having the importance it looked like it would have when the schedule first came out.

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:
  • 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)

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