Sunday, November 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Could have been better.

Could have been worse.

All in all, not bad.

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding the Skids

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

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

All things considered, that's pretty good.

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

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

In a Decent Spot in the Pacific

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Depth Scoring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Penalty Killing

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

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

But it won't always be this bad.

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

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

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

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

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

3. Defensive Play

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

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

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

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

But can they be better? Most definitely.

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

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

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

Final Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Monday, November 13, 2017

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

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Ground zero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Year Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Dip, Indeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Depth Scoring Should Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Top-Six Scoring Should Continue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Defense Should Start to Settle In

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Stellar Goaltending Should Continue

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Special Teams Should Improve

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

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

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

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

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

Final Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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