Friday, July 13, 2018

Enough is Enough: Treliving Finally Repairs Hole in Line-up that has Existed for Seven Years

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Nearly six months later, it remains a sequence of events etched in the memory of Flames management.

Bad experiences do tend to linger that way.

The night was Monday, January 22, and the lowly Buffalo Sabres limped into the Saddledome tied with Arizona for the worst record in the league.

Calgary had been on a roll, taking a seven-game winning streak into its CBA-mandated bye week. But that was a week ago. In the first game back after the five-day layoff, the Flames lost 2-1 to the Winnipeg Jets in a shootout.

This was another close game. It was tied 1-1 late in the third when Mikael Backlund was sent off for holding the stick with 33 seconds remaining in regulation time.

With the team’s top penalty killing centre serving his two minutes, right winger Troy Brouwer was sent over the boards to handle face-off responsibilities. Brouwer would not leave the ice the rest of the game as four consecutive times he hunkered down and went helmet-to-helmet at the dot with Ryan O’Reilly. While he beat him the first time to help get the game to overtime, he would lose the next three, sealing Calgary's fate.

The last two draws came in the defensive zone to the right of goaltender Mike Smith. The first at 1:07, cleanly won by O'Reilly, led to a pair of Jack Eichel shots that were both blocked by Michael Stone. The lost face-off at 1:24 was the one that proved fatal. Winning it clean once again, O’Reilly pulled the puck back to Eichel who slid a pass to Rasmus Ristolainen, who promptly zipped it back and boom, his one-timer was in the back of the net. Just like that, game over.


Season Began to Slip Away

For Calgary, the losses kept piling up after that.

Next was a 4-3 overtime setback to Los Angeles, again on home ice. Following a 4-3 shootout loss in Edmonton, the Flames returned home where they lost two more times -- 4-2 to Vegas and 7-4 to Tampa Bay. By the time Calgary tasted victory again, snapping a stretch of six straight losses, the mortal wound had already been inflicted. The death spiral that would see the Flames eventually tumble well out of playoff contention had begun.

What went down in the closing stages of the game on that cold, wintery night against Buffalo highlighted a fundamental flaw in Calgary's roster construction -- not a single right-shot center.

O’Reilly is one of the league's best when it comes to face-offs -- he was 60.0 percent in 2017-18 -- and to oppose him in those critical moments, the only viable options were Sean Monahan, Mark Jankowski or Matt Stajan -- all of whom would be on their weak side -- or Brouwer, a winger by trade, who because he shoots right-handed, ends up taking face-offs more out of necessity.

"Oh, I remember it well. Lost it. Lost it. Lost it," recalls general manager Brad Treliving. "Ends of periods, ends of games, you look at all those game situations. That particular one, over my four years, I've got about seven of them.

"You want to be able to give the tools to your coach to say OK, what are all the different things that can happen in a game in all the different situations and do we have a weapon to be able to deal with those situations? That one right there is one that we've wanted."

While he acknowledges Brouwer, over his career, has done a "fairly decent job of being able to take faceoffs on his strong side", it's still not the same as having a natural center with a right shot.

This off-season, Treliving has clearly made remedying that situation a priority as he has brought in not one, not two, but three guys that shoot right and can play center in Derek Ryan, Elias Lindholm and Austin Czarnik.


Strong Side vs. Weak Side

How long has this void at centre existed? Consider this. The last right-shot center Calgary deployed in its top-nine was Craig Conroy, who retired in 2011. Now a Flames assistant GM, I asked Conroy to elaborate on the subtleties between strong side and weak side.

First thing he pointed out is it's the position of the official that matters most. Going back to those late-game face-offs against Buffalo, with the draw taking place to Smith's right in the defensive zone, the linesman dropping the puck is to the right of Brouwer. As a right shot, what makes Brouwer on his strong side is his ability to turn quickly (clockwise) as the puck is dropped and to be able to do so unimpeded by the official, who is standing on the opposite side of where he's turning. Of course, he's doing that while simultaneously trying to pull the puck back with his backhand.

“You feel so good on your strong side because the big thing is the ref isn't in your way. You can spin your body and you have more leverage,” explains Conroy. “If I go to push the other way, it doesn't give me as much strength and leverage. That's the thing that makes the difference."

Conroy was also in the building that night when Buffalo was in town and he also vividly recalls that fateful sequence.

“I remember sitting there, watching Brouw, and thinking to myself maybe slide your stick up a bit more, turn your body, but he knew he couldn't do anything,” said Conroy.

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The Art of Cheating

By saying he couldn't do anything, Conroy was alluding to Brouwer's inability to cheat in that particular game situation, given the only other two skaters on the ice were Stone and Mark Giordano.

Cheating is how you close the gap when you’re up against someone as good as O’Reilly. Conroy knows all about it as he and his old pal Jarome Iginla were often co-conspirators.

“Jarome was actually very good at taking faceoffs so he'd be like hey, you go for it, if you get kicked out, I can win it,” recalls Conroy. “So I would cheat a lot and sometimes you get kicked out, but it's different when you don't have that comfort level like Brouw.”

Already in a tough match-up as it is, if Brouwer gets tossed, now you have a defenceman taking the face-off against O'Reilly and Calgary is really in trouble.

The other thing that worked against Brouwer in those situations is he hadn’t been taking draws all night.

“By that time in the game, a big moment like that, when you're a centre and you've taken 15-20 draws a night, you get into a rhythm with the linesmen and you have a pretty good feel for how guys drop it," says Conroy. "When you're not a centre, it's not really fair."

In that particular game situation, Conroy says ideally you would have two right-shot centre options out there -- something that this year will finally be an option for the first time in a very long time.

“When you feel you don't have someone next to you who can win the draw, you're not cheating and you become a little more hesitant because your mindset is I can't get kicked out."

In a game comprised of split-second reactions, any hesitancy is a death sentence and it was on that night.

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It's Big Face-Offs that Matter

Face-offs are an interesting aspect of hockey. Many of them like neutral zone draws at five-on-five can be pretty nondescript events and can be fairly dismissed as having very little bearing on a game's outcome.

But why being a good face-off team matters is the better you are at face-offs in general, the more likely you will be able to win the important ones at those critical times in the game. As Treliving explains, sometimes those critical draws happen long before a goal actually goes in.

“Here's how it really works,” he says. “You get running around in your own end and you can't the puck out of your own end so what happens, you ice it. So now you're icing it and you've got your third or fourth line out there. They're dead tired, so who comes out? The other coach is throwing the big boys out there.

“Now you've got to win a faceoff to get out of the situation. You can't win the faceoff, you spend 40 seconds in your end and you take a penalty. So now you're on the penalty kill and you give up a power play goal. So then everybody says the penalty kill is no good, but six minutes ago, it was the initial icing, you couldn't win a draw and there's the chain of events that happened.

"So if you back the chain up and ask what's the root of the problem, some people see the end result, but when you really back it up and say what caused the problem, this is an area that seems to cause us some problems. So kill it at the source versus put a band-aid over it.”

The team's fortunes in the face-off circle certainly look substantially better now than a month ago. Ryan ranked ninth in the NHL last year at 56.5 percent. Lindholm was very good also, ranking 24th at 54.5 percent.

“We've been looking for a right-handed face-off guy," insists Conroy. "But when we try and trade for one, they're hard to find. They are really hard to find."

Not anymore. Bill Peters will just need to look down his bench to find options from both sides.


Makes Other Centers Better

Also worth noting is that with the addition of right-shot centers to shoulder more face-offs on their strong side, the face-off winning percentage for your left-shot centers is going to go up as they’ll be taking less face-offs on their weak side.

While he didn’t have the exact figures at his fingertips, Conroy suggests that if you take a guy like Monahan, who is typically between 48 and 50 percent, if you remove his weak-side draws, then he bumps up to around 58 percent.

It’s like a platoon in baseball, where left-handed batters see their batting average go up if they don't always have to bat against left-handed pitching.

“It gives you more options. I never really had a guy that took draws for me, but if you only had to take them on your strong side, you would have felt great. Sometimes on your weak side, the other guy just gets your number and it's tough,” says Conroy.

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Final Word

While the James Neal signing and the trade for Noah Hanifin and Lindholm are what has dominated the summer headlines, the Ryan signing as a free agent should not to be underestimated.

While Ryan's face-off prowess is an area in he will be relied upon heavily in 2018-19, there is a lot more to his overall game.

“One of the things we wanted to address this off-season was adding depth and versatility to our forward unit,” says Treliving. “At the end of the year I talked a little bit about us, as a team, relying on too few of guys to do too many things. To do too much of the heavy lifting. Derek provides us the ability to move up and down the line-up, able to play different positions. Touches both sides of special teams.”

Ryan is someone Calgary has liked and has been tracking for a year and a half and nearly had him at the trade deadline last year before the deal fell through when Carolina lost centre Jordan Staal.

“Steve Pleau, one of our scouts, who does Carolina. He said hey, this is a perfect fit for us. Can play anywhere in your line-up. Excellent on faceoffs, really good on the power play. Sees the ice well, makes plays cross-seam," Conroy says.

"There's flexibility with Derek too. He can play anywhere in your line-up because he's smart. He's not the fastest guy, but he's quick to pucks. He buys time with the puck, he finds guys, he creates and he's got a knack around the net."

Named MVP of the Swedish Hockey League in 2014-15, Ryan signed his first NHL deal the following summer at age 28.

Last year he set new career highs with 15 goals and 38 points.

While he's on the wrong side of 30, Treliving is confident that much like Giordano, another late bloomer, Ryan is a player whose career arc will be different than the norm, much like his path to the NHL that included four years at the University of Alberta and three years in Austria.
 
"There hasn't been a 31-year grind on him," says Treliving, who describes him as having low mileage. "The career path has been a long one, it's been a unique one, but there's been production and success everywhere. He's needed an opportunity and when he's gotten it, he's run with it."

It's earned him a three-year contract with Calgary in which he'll start earning his $3.125 million annual salary come that first defensive zone draw to Smith's right.

"He had a lot of interest, it wasn't just us, he had decisions, but thankfully he picked us to be the team," says Conroy. "With Lindholm too, now I'm looking forward to seeing how it all works. I'm hoping it works out like I think it will in my mind."

You and many others, Craig.



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About Flames From 80 Feet

You may have noticed that the volume of FF80F content has gone down significantly over the past nine months. For those that don't know, it's the result of my business model currently being broken. It's why the podcasts have stopped too. I used to have a site sponsor that was with me for 3-4 terrific years that provided the financial backing to be able to produce content on a regular basis. But that arrangement ended last October and the unfortunate reality in business is when the money stops coming in, the work stops going out.

For me, FF80F is strictly a side business and is operated as such. It's more of a labour of love than anything. I enjoy doing it, but it's not something I need to do. It is separate from the freelancing I do for The Canadian Press. If you're wondering what's next, that's a great question. I don't know. Ideally, I'd love an arrangement that will enable me to continue to maintain FF80F but perhaps on a smaller scale than in the past. A few stories and maybe a podcast each month? Just spitballing. The thing is for me personally, life outside of the rink has also gotten much busier over the last year and I need to be realistic when it comes to how much time I'll have to dabble here. That said, I'm open to listening to any and all ideas from full/partial/occasional site sponsorship (or even one offs, e.g. Top 20 prospects is coming...) to whatever other ideas you might have. If you want to chat, contact me and I'll get back to you as soon as I can.

Lastly, a huge and I mean massive shout-out and thank you to all of my loyal readers and listeners, who have always been fantastic. I truly appreciate your support over the years and somehow, some way, I hope Flames From 80 Feet can continue in some form for many years to come -- or at least until they build a new arena in Calgary with a press box that is 120 feet about the ice instead of 80, because then I'm screwed. I don't have a re-branding budget!  

Cheers,

Darren
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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 chime in on the news of the day.

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Recent Flames Reading:

  • Trying to Crack the A Team: Don't Pity the Foo - Since Spencer Foo signed with the Flames just a over a year ago, right wing has suddenly become a crowd scene. However, he remains unfazed, confident that he can make the team and be a difference maker. (July 10, 2018) 
  • Flames Get Younger and Different in Blockbuster Trade with Carolina - In a blockbuster deal at the draft, Calgary traded fan favourites Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox. While the return were names that are less familiar , they're both solid. (June 24, 2018)



Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Trying to Crack the A Team: Don't Pity the Foo

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In June 2017 when highly-touted NCAA free agent Spencer Foo chose to sign with the Flames, he did so after evaluating several NHL teams and deciding Calgary was the best fit for him.

From the outside, it was a logical choice too. Here was a talented offensive player, 23 years old at the time, who shoots right and plays right wing. He was exactly what the organization badly needed. On the NHL roster, only Troy Brouwer, Curtis Lazar, Garnet Hathaway and Freddie Hamilton met that description and bottom-six forwards at best, they combined for just 17 goals in 2016-17.

Fast forward a year and the landscape has changed considerably.

Brouwer, Lazar and Hathaway are still around, plus Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan and Austin Czarnik have all been added. Right-shooting forwards is no longer the barren wasteland it once was. Let’s not forget the July 2 signing of James Neal either, who shoots left, but plays right wing and is penciled into that spot on the No. 1 line.

So where does that leave Foo, who after spending most of his first pro season in the American Hockey League, scored twice in four games in a late-season call-up to the Flames?


Eyes on the Prize

To his credit, when asked about it after Sunday’s development camp scrimmage, he shrugs off the influx of forwards added to the depth chart with a steely-eyed resolve. Forget 13th or 14th forward, this guy remains fully focused on being a difference-maker.

"Really, nothing changes for me. It's all the same,” said the well-spoken Foo, who comes across confident, yet not cocky. “I don't want to be a bubble guy on this team, I don't want to be a guy who's up and down. I want to be able to establish myself as an NHL player, who can make an impact.”

In other words, if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, you can lose track of what’s right in front of you.

“If you're worried about other guys coming in, your mindset isn't in the right place,” said the Edmonton native. “I'm worried about coming in and earning my spot over anybody else."

Foo says his late season call-up to Calgary will help him prepare for 2018-19 and what he hopes will be a breakthrough season.

“That was huge for me. Throughout the year when you're playing in the American League, and all throughout your life, you don't really know how it's going to be like when you finally make the jump to the NHL,” Foo explains.

“To be able to come in and be able to play with some great players and score a couple goals, it's pretty special for me and it gives me a lot of confidence."


Anxious to Get Going

When rookies report to camp in early September, Foo says he will be ready.

"It was great just to get experience and dip your foot in the water,” he said. “It feels good, gives you a lot of confidence going into the off-season. Now I really know what it takes."

Foo’s final stat line with Stockton was 20 goals and 39 points in 62 games in Stockton. That included 15 points (8 goals, 7 assists) over his final 18 games.

"It's a huge jump,” said Foo about his first season in Stockton after three years at Union College. “It's not always necessarily faster, but there are a lot of subtleties in the pro game that are different. Guys are just so experienced and know what to do with the puck. That makes a big difference. Then you make another jump to the NHL and it amplifies it even more."

Making the NHL roster for October 3 isn’t going to be easy. Foo will basically have to steal someone’s job. But don’t let the smile fool you, know that he’s fully prepared to do whatever it takes.



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 chime in on the news of the day.

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Recent Flames Reading:

  • Flames Get Younger and Different in Blockbuster Trade with Carolina - In a blockbuster deal at the draft, Calgary traded fan favourites Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox. While the return were names that are less familiar , they're both solid. (June 24, 2018)


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Flames Get Younger and Different in Blockbuster Trade with Carolina

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There's an adage that you always overvalue your own.

It applies to fan bases and players on your favourite team. It also applies to those fantastic household items that never fetch what you were hoping for when you try to sell them at a garage sale.

Flames GM Brad Treliving pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade on Saturday afternoon, shipping away two NHL players and a prospect to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for two NHL players.

Gone are 25-year-old defenceman Dougie Hamilton, 26-year-old winger Micheal Ferland and 20-year-old blueline prospect Adam Fox. In return, Calgary receives 23-year-old right-shooting centre/right winger Elias Lindholm and 21-year-old left-shooting defenceman Noah Hanifin.

The reaction in some circles, to say the least, has been extreme and not very complimentary to the front office. Perusing comments online, there’s a lot of anger over what Calgary gave up. It comes as no surprise either given that’s the part of the trade Flames fans are closest to. With attachment comes feelings and emotion — and often intense emotion. In that regard, yesterday would have felt like a bad break-up for many fans. Pass the ice cream, and can I please get a hug.

Fans know Hamilton. They know last season he was tied with Victor Hedman and Ivan Provorov as the NHL’s top-scoring defenceman with 17 goals. Fans know the capabilities of Ferland, who had 19 goals in his first 42 games last year. Fans know the upside of Fox, who has starred with Team USA at the last two World Juniors.

When you look strictly at the upside of those pieces, then sure, that is a lot to give up. In fact, viewed through that lens, the price was too steep.

But that’s also over simplifying it.


Outgoing Pieces

Dougie Hamilton
As Hamilton, who just turned 25, moves onto his third NHL organization already, you have to wonder why. It’s not his analytics, which are good. It’s not his counting numbers, which are also good. But there is more to a player’s overall make-up. On the ice, there are other elements to one’s game like physicality and intensity/will-to-win (see Matthew Tkachuk) that aren’t as easily measured or quantified.

Then there’s the player off the ice. Was he the right fit in the room? I’m not implying anything because I don’t know anything and there’s no mud-slinging coming from Treliving, but I do know it’s highly unusual for ninth overall picks of his magnitude to be dealt multiple times this early in their career. So one does wonder what the negatives are with this particular player, because there does appear to be some.



Micheal Ferland
Ferland, at his best, is a tremendous talent. But how often he was at his best is certainly up for debate. Inconsistency haunted him his entire time in Calgary. Even last year. After that blazing start, he finished the year with two goals in his final 35 games. So did they trade away a first-line player? Or did they trade away a fourth line player?

Also a significant factor is Ferland is one year away from unrestricted free agency and may not have been in the future plans anyway. With a 20+ goal season on his resume now, his price on the open market may not have been commensurate with his projected usage. i.e. The Flames would not want to pay him top-six money to play in their bottom six.

Then there’s Fox. Prospects are always coveted by fans  because as they ascend towards the NHL, they are usually impressive everywhere they stop. Fox’s showings at the last two World Juniors, his time with the U.S. National Team Development Program before that, and his play in college, had fans giddy about the calibre of player the 2016 third rounder could one day become. But would he ever realize that potential in Calgary? Returning to Harvard for a third year as he has already committed to means he is also one year closer to being able to go the free agent route and sign with anyone, which becomes an option in the summer of 2020.

Relations between the player and the team were good, but Treliving spoke Saturday about the growing uncertainty about their ability to be able to sign the native of Jericho, New York. While Fox had huge upside to Calgary, the team who owned his rights, how much would another team be willing to spend to acquire him, knowing the uncertainty they’d be inheriting?


Incoming Pieces

Seemingly lost in all this, or at least under-stated, are the pieces acquired.


Both Lindholm and Hanifin were highly touted top-five draft picks not that long ago, who are relative unknowns thanks to the North Carolina market they're buried in.

Elias Lindholm
Lindholm was selected one pick ahead of Sean Monahan in 2013. He’s just 23. His offensive totals haven’t been nearly as gaudy as Monahan, but his numbers have been on the rise and the belief is that there’s great upside with the young Swede, who could very well end up operating on the same line as Monahan in October. With Johnny Gaudreau on the other wing, could he finally be the right wing fit the organization has been searching for?

Meanwhile, Hanifin is just 21 and already has three years of NHL experience on his resume. Last year he participated in the NHL All-Star Game. Selected fifth overall in 2015, the Boston native immediately steps into the club’s top four, likely in the spot of TJ Brodie on the second pairing with Brodie jumping up to the top pairing alongside Mark Giordano. Moving Brodie back to the right side is something new coach Bill Peters hinted at when he was hired and re-iterated again on Saturday from the draft in Dallas.

Noah Hanifin
It’s safe to say that Carolina Hurricanes games aren’t very high on most people’s lists when it comes to what NHL game to turn on in the winter. For that reason, Hanifin and Lindholm are very much unknown commodities still to many. That said, they’re not new to Calgary’s new head coach, who endorsed the acquisition of both of them.

It’s fitting that the trade happened at the draft as these were two coveted players in the draft not that long ago. While it’s too early too pass judgement that they are both superstars in the making, it’s also far too early to assume they’re not.


Final Word

In analyzing the trade, the age of the newly acquired Flames is the other very relevant piece to the discussion. Both will remain under team control for a long time. These are pieces acquired not just for the current, but for the future too.

With Giordano turning 35 prior to this upcoming season, one doesn’t have to squint very hard to envision Hanifin and 2017 first rounder Juuso Valimaki, turning 20 in October, as making up the left side of the club’s top four a few years down the road. With Rasmus Andersson, turning 22 in October, on the right side, Calgary’s got some real nice, young pieces on defence.

With the emergence of Matthew Tkachuk up front, the long-awaited arrival of Mark Jankowski, the hoped-for breakthrough of Andrew Mangiapane and Spencer Foo. With Dillon Dube and Glenn Gawdin in the pipeline. With Gaudreau and Monahan still south of age 25 also and now add in Lindholm, that’s a real nice youthful foundation up front as well. Plus, there’s still Sam Bennett if the club can ever get him on track.

The consensus this off-season after the coaching change is that Treliving was stapling his future to Peters. Perhaps instead, he’s pushing all his chips in on Carolina in general. Or, make that ex-Carolina.

The debate will continue to swirl until October, as will the venom as the die-hard Hamilton supporters are not a quiet bunch, but for those of the opinion that Calgary got fleeced in Saturday’s trade, my suggestion is try holding a garage sale. You’ll learn that some things just aren’t as valuable to others as they are to you. It sucks, but it’s true.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Watch and Learn: For the Flames, What Has Happened in Vegas, Shouldn't Stay in Vegas

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"You can observe a lot by just watching."

It's one of many quirky sayings -- aka Berra-isms -- attributed to New York Yankee great Yogi Berra, who certainly had a way with words during his storied, hall-of-fame career.

But while it sounds silly on the surface, the spirit of what he meant is quite profound. Look around in life, take in what are others are doing and how they're doing it, and you can really learn a lot.

Case in point being the wonderful-to-watch Vegas Golden Knights, who are tied 2-2 with the San Jose Sharks in their Stanley Cup playoffs second round series.

Coming on the heels of a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings, the six playoff wins for Vegas are already one more than Calgary has amassed over the past nine seasons.

In a fitting finish in game 3 on Monday, it was William Karlsson authoring the overtime magic with a top-shelf laser as he darted down the wing.

The 25-year-old Swede and former Columbus Blue Jacket has been the poster child for this collection of depth players turned Cup contenders who have captured the hearts and minds of hockey fans everywhere with their high-octane style of play.

Most Goals - Regular Season and Playoffs Combined (through May 2)

1. Alex Ovechkin Wsh, 57
2. William Karlsson LV, 47
3. Patrik Laine Wpg, 46
4. Evgeni Malkin Pit, 45
5. Nikita Kucherov TB, 44


Led offensively by Karlsson's rise from obscurity, Vegas has been the No. 1 story all season. In shattering expansion season records from every other first-year franchise in every other sport, the NHL's newest team went a remarkable 51-24-7 in the regular season to run away with top spot in the Pacific Division.

They've kept it going in the playoffs where if not for a goaltender interference call in overtime of game 2, they could have a commanding 3-1 series lead right now. As it is, they still head back to T-Mobile Arena for game 5 on Friday with home-ice advantage in what's now a best-of-three.

While Calgary is already three weeks and one coaching change into what will be a painfully long off-season, the expansion darlings from Nevada have improved to 5-to-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup. Check Pinnacle Sports for all playoff odds.

It begs the question, how are they doing it and what has Calgary's front office learned?


Perspective on the Honeymoon in Vegas

I asked general manager Brad Treliving and new head coach Bill Peters about the blueprint that's been laid out in the desert and what their takeaway has been.

"To me, (assistant GM) Kelly McCrimmon and (GM) George McPhee have done a great job in the beginning. Their selections through the expansion draft were outstanding," says Peters. "They had a plan, they executed a plan and they're a four-line team that plays with unbelievable pace in both directions, with and without the puck.

"They play their players and the players in the bottom half of their line-up are responsible players, who don't give up much. Credit to them for drafting to an identity and now with Turk (Gerard Gallant), making them play to that identity."

The first thing that grabs your attention when you watch them play is how fast they play. It's relentless as their four lines come at you wave after wave. Four lines travelling at four variations of fast: super fast, blinding fast, light speed and hyperspace.

"You look at Vegas and it's not a unique style of play. It's the modern game. It's speed and it's attack," explained Treliving.


Don't be Too Quick to Judge

The Flames GM says another lesson to be learned is what can happen when you give guys an opportunity. Karlsson averaged less than 14 minutes in ice time with Columbus over the last two seasons and got virtually no power play time. The result was a lackluster 15 goals in 162 games.

This year, he sniped 43 in the regular season while averaging closer to 19 minutes. His average power play ice time has also jumped from 0:14 per night with the Blue Jackets to 2:24 with the Golden Knights.

"Ultimately it shows you that when people are given an opportunity in areas that over the course of their career -- whether it be at the amateur level early in their careers -- they have shown that they have a certain skill set, it's amazing what can be accomplished," Treliving said.


"Sometimes we all get locked into certain guys that have played a certain role for a certain period of time and sometimes there's a hesitancy to provide those opportunities. These are all guys who at one point in their careers were good players."

Now Karlsson is an extreme example and his ridiculously high 23.4 shooting percentage this season is certainly worth noting as that figure is not repeatable, but this is clearly a skilled guy. His speed, his hands, his shot -- all have been on display. Whether he was miscast, misused or simply not yet ready in Columbus, he has blossomed this season and his days of single-digit goals appear to be well behind him.


Applying What's Been Learned

It makes you ponder who could bust out in Calgary if given a legit chance to play with skilled players in the top six. Who could be the Flames' version of Karlsson?

The first name that springs to mind is 2014 fourth overall pick Sam Bennett, who thus far in his career has been stapled to the bottom half of the forward group. But there are others too. While the circumstances are different as they spent most of last season in the minors, you also wonder if prospects Andrew Mangiapane or Spencer Foo could make a splash offensively if given an extended opportunity to play with the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk. Both have scored plenty at other levels.

The usage of Mangiapane in his 10 NHL games last season was a source of immense frustration for fans. The club's leading scorer in the American Hockey League was deployed mostly on the fourth line in Calgary and was kept far away from the power play, despite it's well-chronicled struggles. The result was no points and an average of less than nine minutes of ice time.

"Now you've got to have a certain skill set," interjects the Flames GM. "You can't just grab Brad Treliving, give him an opportunity to go play and it's going to work out just because you're giving him an opportunity, you have to have a certain skill set and a base skill set."

The other observation Treliving points out about Vegas is the team they've built and by that, he's referring to both on and off the ice.

"There's a real togetherness on that team and I think mix and chemistry is more important than people give it credit for," he says.

"It also shows what can happen when you get on a roll. That team has gotten on a roll and again, they're the poster child for today's modern game. It's quick, it's get it, move it, chase it and play with speed and I don't think our league is getting any slower anytime soon."


Forging a New Identity

You get the impression that a quick game, or at least a quicker game, is how Peters would like Calgary to play.

"We want to be able to play fast. We want to have speed in our game, whether it's puck speed, foot speed, gap speed. We want to play quick and we want to have the puck and we want to attack," said Peters, the passion evident in his voice.

"It's fun when you have the puck. It's a lot of work when you're in the d-zone and you're defending and you're getting wore out, that's heavy lifting. We have to do the heavy lifting quick and then get through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone where we'll have fun and express our skill and let our top-end talent show."

That approach along with the edge in his personality -- summed up politely as "direct and honest" -- is part of why Treliving aggressively courted the native of Three Hills, Alberta, when his window opened to leave the Carolina Hurricanes after four years.

"Speed is two things: You can have individual speed -- how quick you think, how quick you move a puck, how quick you gap up, and competitiveness, and those are the two areas he's focused on," said Treliving.


Nailed the Audition

Peters' preparedness, his modern thinking of the game and that sternness that they hope will coax more out of the players were all qualities Treliving observed first-hand two years ago at the World Championships when he and McPhee, as co-GMs, hired Peters to coach Team Canada. That team ended up winning gold.

"It's a short window so you have to be careful. It's different than an 82-game grind, but you get to know the individual, what he's all about, you really get to peel back the curtain," said Treliving. "A lot of times people will say well this guy's a great coach, that guy's a great coach. Until you're around them and see it every day, you don't know."

Peters he does know and very well after being joined at the hip during their time two springs ago in Russia.

"I sat in on every meeting when he dealt with players one on one. I sat there when he dealt with a team setting. Every situation. Just his philosophy, then getting to know him as an individual. When you leave there, although you're around each other for a month, you feel like it's been a full season. I left there with what I felt was a great knowledge of the guy."


Final Word

Interestingly, during their time together two years ago, which was the first time they worked with each other, Treliving was looking for a new head coach to replace the fired Bob Hartley. But Peters wasn't a candidate as he was coming off a solid second season in Carolina and still had one year remaining on his contract.

As it turns out, unbeknownst to either of them at the time, Peters' seven weeks with Hockey Canada essentially ended up being a comprehensive first interview with the GM, one that included an extensive work experience component.

"In that setting, you see everything. You get a sense of what he believes in the game and how he teaches it and there was a lot of time away from the rink. We were in Russia, there wasn't a whole lot of sight-seeing going on so we were hot-stoving it a lot of nights. You really got a sense of who he was."

If a quicker and harder to play against Flames team can return to the post-season in 2018-19, all will be good. Perhaps a year from now, it will be other teams looking at Calgary and asking the question, how did they turn it around?

If not, another Berra-ism comes to mind. It will be like deja vu all over again.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Smart Move or Colossal Mistake? Pondering the Flames Rumoured Interest in Hiring Bill Peters

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Guilty until proven innocent.

Welcome to the NHL justice system when it comes to hiring a new head coach, especially in Calgary where naturally, wild west rules apply.

Forty-eight hours ago the Bill Peters-to-the Flames rumour mill really started to sizzle when he told the Carolina Hurricanes thanks, but no thanks, and took advantage of an opt-out clause in his contract that terminated his deal with one year remaining. He had been the skipper in Raleigh the past four seasons.

“I have a lot of respect for Bill as a person and coach,” said new Owner/CEO/Governor Tom Dundon. “We thank him for his time with the Hurricanes and wish him success in whatever comes next.”

What comes next could very well be a return to his home province for Peters, who grew up on a farm near Three Hills, an 80-minute drive north-east of Calgary and later moved to Killam, a town a couple hours further east.

After taking 24 days to make the decision two years ago to fire Bob Hartley, this time around, methodical and thorough Flames GM Brad Treliving expedited the process by two full weeks in relieving Glen Gulutzan of his head coaching duties last Tuesday, only 10 days after the season’s conclusion. It seems like more than just coincidence that his comparably quick trigger finger aligned with Peters being in the midst of his one-week window of opportunity to explore other job options.

The dots that connect Treliving to Peters is two years ago when Treliving was co-GM of Team Canada for the World Championships alongside George McPhee, they hired Peters to coach that team.

A GM and his coach always form a close relationship and that isn't any different when you're seconded for an international event such as that one that took place in Russia.

In the 48 days from April 5, 2016, when Peters was hired to May 22 when Canada hoisted the World Championship trophy at the VTB Ice Palace in Moscow, they would have spent considerable time with each other and getting to know each other very well. When you enjoy success together as they did in winning gold, those bonds tend to last forever too.



As you may recall, during those seven weeks, Treliving was also looking for a head coach for his NHL team with assistant general managers Craig Conroy and Brad Pascall doing the leg work back home in Treliving's absence -- Conroy famously doing the Grouse Grind with Gulutzan. During the search, Peters was not an option as he had one year remaining on his three-year contract with the Hurricanes.


Examining Peters' Time in Carolina

After a 71-point season in year one, Peters arrived at the World Championships having just led his rebuilding club to an 86-point campaign, a 15-point improvement and Carolina's highest point total in five years. He had his club battling for a playoff spot late into the season.

In July of that summer, about six weeks after Treliving had hired Gulutzan, Carolina GM Ron Francis announced that Peters had signed a two-year extension.

"We talked at the initial press conference about changing the culture," said Francis at the press conference. "It’s not easy to do, but I think we’ve taken steps in that direction to where our guys come and play hard each and every night. I would reach out to those fans who left us a couple of years ago to come back and take another peek. They’d be pleasantly surprised at the progress we’ve made and the direction we’re going in, the work effort that’s there on the ice every night."

Trending in the right direction, Peters' club improved again in 2016-17, but only by one point. Stuck in the ruthless Metropolitan Division where four of the NHL's eight 100-point teams resided (Washington 118, Pittsburgh 111, Columbus 108, NY Rangers 102), that wouldn't be enough. Not helping was the Hurricanes 5-10-1 record against that gauntlet of four fierce divisional foes.

They were actually right there for a wild card spot in mid-January at 21-15-7, but they could not sustain that pace. A month later, Francis traded pending UFA Ron Hainsey to the Penguins for a second round pick. The 35-year-old's departure left the Hurricanes with a youthful, but inexperienced blueline in which Justin Faulk, 24, was the oldest. The rest of the new-look top-four also included Jaccob Slavin, 22, Brett Pesce, 22, and Noah Hanifin, 20.
 
Last season it looked for the longest time like his club’s point total would climb once again. Carolina was sitting in a wild card spot on Valentine's Day. At 27-21-9, they were one point up on the Columbus Blue Jackets and were on pace to finish the season with 91 points. But a six-game winless skid right after -- two of the losses coming to the upstart division rival New Jersey Devils -- would be the team's undoing. By season's end, the Hurricanes finished with 83 points, good enough only for sixth place in a division that would send five teams to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.


Caveats in Assessing His Time in Carolina

Peters departs Carolina having not made the playoffs in his four seasons. That's nothing new for the thrifty organization, which was last spotted in the post-season in 2009 with Paul Maurice behind the bench, after he took over earlier that season for the fired Peter Laviolette.

After winning the Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006 (after one season earlier having taken over for a fired Maurice, are you following all this?), Laviolette then failed to get them into the playoffs the next two years. Maurice also couldn't get Carolina back into the the playoffs the next two seasons and he was fired in 2011-12, replaced by Kirk Muller, who eventually gave way to Peters.

Interesting that here we are in 2018 and Laviolette (Nashville) and Maurice (Winnipeg) head up two of the NHL's best teams and could soon be battling it out in the second round. While Carolina certainly hasn't enjoyed much playoff success of late, some pretty good NHL coaches have cut their teeth in that market and gone on to better things.

Getting back to Peters, in assessing his body of work in Carolina, there are three other factors in addition to the difficulty of the division to take into consideration, beyond just his win-loss record, which in a way is a lot like plus-minus for head coaches — a stat that's easy to look up and reference, but has its flaws.

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1. League-Worst Goaltending

Last year, which many anticipated might have been the breakthrough year for Carolina, the Hurricanes goaltending was the worst in the NHL. The team save percentage was dead last of the league's 31 teams. In fact, anchored by the aging Cam Ward, the goaltending has been bottom-four in each of Peters' four seasons:

2017-18 - 31st (.893) | Scott Darling (40 starts, .888), Cam Ward (42 starts, .906)
2016-17 - 27th (.901) | Cam Ward (61 starts, .905), Eddie Lack (18 starts, .902)
2015-16 - 29th (.902) | Cam Ward (51 starts, .909), Eddie Lack (31 starts, .901)
2014-15 - 28th (.902) | Cam Ward (50 starts, .910), Anton Khudobin (32 starts, .900)


You're never, ever going to have success in the NHL with league-worst or near-league-worst goaltending. It's just not happening. The last time a team ranked in the bottom-four in team save percentage made the playoffs was in 2009-10 when Pittsburgh and Ottawa both got in, despite being tied for 27th in that category.

They ended up playing each other in round 1 with the Penguins winning. Pittsburgh was then promptly eliminated by Montreal in round 2.


2. Young Team

Carolina was the third-youngest team in the NHL last year. That was even with aging Justin Williams and Lee Stempniak on the roster. Their age was most evident on the aforementioned blueline where as of January 1, the ages of the six regulars were:
  • Noah Hanifin, 20
  • Haydn Fleury, 21
  • Brett Pesce, 24
  • Jaccob Slavin, 24
  • Justin Faulk, 25
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk, 26

That's a young group at a key position. For context, four of the Flames six defence regulars are older than Trevor van Riemsdyk, the undrafted trade acquisition from the Chicago Blackhawks who was this group’s elder statesman.


3. Small Payroll

Going back three seasons, which is as far back as Cap Friendly has in its archives, Carolina has always been a bottom-three team in payroll during Peters' tenure.

2017-18 - 30th | $59.2M, which was $15.8M below the ceiling
2016-17 - 30th | $56.8M, which was $16.2M below the ceiling
2015-16 - 28th | $61.2M, which was $10.2M below the ceiling


Think about that. Heck, another $16 million would be nearly enough space to fit in a Johnny Gaudreau, Dougie Hamilton and Mikael Backlund based on their 2017-18 AAV.

When you look around the Metropolitan Division and see Washington at $75.4M, Pittsburgh at $74.8M, NY Islanders at $73.9M, Philadelphia at $73.7M, NY Rangers at $72.2M, Columbus at $71.4M and New Jersey at $67.4M, it's not an even playing field.

For Carolina, they're operating at a significant disadvantage and they know it.

"I think in order to win here, everybody has to play well. It can’t be ‘our defense was a little off’ or the ‘forwards could have been better.’ Everybody has to be dialed in. That’s the only chance we have here and I think everybody recognizes that," said longtime Carolina assistant coach Rod Brind'Amour to Hurricanes beat writer Chip Alexander this weekend in the Raleigh News and Observer.

“We do need everybody to contribute and play well. The margin for error for us is not what other teams have and we know that.”


So, What has he Done?

If Peters hasn't made the Stanley Cup playoffs, why is he being considered the solution to coach an under-achieving team in Calgary that is desperately trying to get back into the playoffs?

It's the No. 1 question on the minds of disgruntled Flames fans, already furious about a hiring that has yet to happen.

Until we get a chance to hear from Treliving on this topic, here are few things to ponder:


1. Apprenticed under Mike Babcock

In 1989, Peters' last year of playing Canadian college hockey, Peters was a right winger for Red Deer College, the team coached by Mike Babcock which won the Alberta College Championship.

Over two decades later, Babcock hired Peters in July 2011 to be one of his assistant coaches with Detroit. He spent three years under Babcock, responsible primarily for the defence and penalty kill, before leaving to take the head coaching job in Carolina.

Peters reconnected with Babcock for the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, selected by Team Canada GM Doug Armstrong to join an illustrious cast of assistant coaches in Claude Julien, Barry Trotz and Joel Quenneville -- all of them guys that Flames fans would be absolutely tickled to have come in and take over for Gulutzan.

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2. Won at Other Levels

No NHL playoff appearances is the void on Peters' resume, no doubt. Or at least on his head coach resume. All three seasons he was in Detroit, the Red Wings made the post-season.

But he has won before.

The 2016 World Championship has been mentioned when he won gold with a 2-0 win over Finland. Peters was also an assistant coach under Todd McLellan the year prior when Canada beat Russia 5-4 to claim gold.
 
Going back to his time coaching in major junior, he won the Memorial Cup with the Spokane Chiefs in 2008. It was after that he left for Rockford in the AHL, where he coached the Chicago Blackhawks' affiliate for three seasons through 2010-11.

While Peters didn't win the Calder Cup, his player development work is worth noting. Nine players came through his team (e.g. Corey Crawford, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Leddy) and graduated to Chicago, where they helped the Blackhawks win Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

Also in 2008, Peters coached the Canadian U-18 team that won gold at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.


The Curious Concept of the 'Proven' Coach

Full disclosure, I have always found it near impossible to assess how effective a coach is. Are coaches that have success great coaches? Or are they merely coaches that have great teams? I have no idea.

Similarly, are coaches that don't enjoy success bad coaches, or merely coaches caught in bad situations of having sub-par teams?

To this day, Ken Hitchcock has a reputation as one of hockey's best coaches and his resume was stellar early in his career. He had three consecutive deep runs with the Dallas Stars in the late 90s including winning the Stanley Cup in 1999 and reaching the Cup final in 2000. He moved onto Philadelphia and enjoyed more success there.

But in Columbus and then St. Louis and then this past season in Dallas before retiring, he accomplished very little and that was with some really great Blues teams.

Given his history with Treliving, Dave Tippett is another name frequently mentioned as a so-called proven coach. But is he really? He missed the playoffs his last five seasons with Arizona. Bad teams though? Sure, so let's give that a pass. So how about his first three seasons in Arizona when the team was better? 2009-10, he had a 107-point season, but was upset in the first round by Detroit. The next year, a 99-point season but was swept in the first round by Detroit. The one year of success is when Mike Smith arrived and played out of his mind (.944 save percentage), leading the Coyotes to the conference final.

Before that in his six years with Dallas with a team that was perennially one of the league's best, Tippett's club was upset in the first round three times. In his final year in which he was fired, they missed the playoffs altogether.

Babcock is another prime example. Highly sought after as one of the best coaches, who had two straight trips to the Stanley Cup final with Detroit in the late 2000s. But then the long post-season runs dried up despite some stellar Red Wings teams with the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom. In the last five seasons, he has not made it to the second round. Did he win Olympic gold with Canada? You bet, but he had a pretty good team also.

The point is I think it's very difficult if not impossible to truly measure how effective a coach is. Mike Sullivan had the same amount of NHL head coaching experience as Gulutzan when he was hired in Pittsburgh three years ago. He has won two Stanley Cups. Great coach or the beneficiary of inheriting a great team loaded with star players?

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What we do Know about Peters


1. Plays a Puck Possession Style

What we know about Peters is he is big on playing a puck possession style. When you're on the rush, don't chip the puck in and chase it, if you have the puck, hang onto it and make a play. Same thing when breaking out. Don't just shoot it away if you don't have an option, regroup, go D-to-D to open up the ice and wait for an option to become available.

For what it's worth, the Hurricanes were the No. 1 team in the NHL in possession last year as measured by SAT% Close, which is the ratio of shot attempts for versus against at 5-on-5 when the score is close.

2017-18 SAT% Close

1. Carolina, 55.07
2. Boston 53.40
3. Tampa Bay, 52.95
4. Calgary, 52.79
5. Pittsburgh, 51.81
6. San Jose, 51.72
7. Winnipeg, 51.64
8. Dallas, 51.59
9. Nashville, 51.52
10. Columbus, 51.30


There are some pretty good teams still playing right now at the top of that list. Interesting to see Calgary there too. More on that later.


2. Limited Shots Against

Contributing to the above stat, Carolina led the NHL in fewest shots allowed in 2017-18:

1. Carolina, 28.9
2. Boston, 29.3
3. St. Louis, 29.7
4. Dallas, 29.8
5. Philadelphia, 29.9
6. San Jose, 30.3
7. Vegas, 30.7
8. Los Angeles, 30.9
9. Pittsburgh, 31.1
10. Calgary, 31.1

Considering how young his blueline was, that's quite an accomplishment. The only glaring issue was when there were shots allowed, they often went in.


3. Disciplined Team

How much of this Peters had to do with and how much is just the personnel is impossible to gauge but Carolina was the runaway leader last season in fewest times shorthanded.

1. Carolina, 191
2. Columbus, 214
3. Philadelphia, 223
4. San Jose, 224
5. Arizona, 225

Calgary ranked 24th at 269.

Furthermore, the Hurricanes ranked No. 1 in this category each of the two previous seasons also and were second in 2014-15, Peters' first season at the helm.

If he could have some sort of influence in that area, that would sure be a positive.

The NHL tracks minor penalties taken per 60 minutes and on the Flames, Garnet Hathaway (1.68), Sam Bennett (1.38), Matt Stajan (1.13), Dougie Hamilton (1.09) and Mikael Backlund (1.08) were all penalized more frequently than the highest Hurricane, who was Marcus Kruger (1.04).



4. Youth Got Opportunity

Given his team was so young, this is another one of those areas that can be interpreted different ways but there were a couple of examples that I came across where young players received more ice time than they would have gotten in Calgary under Gulutzan, who freely admitted that he was a stubbornly hard guy for young players to earn the trust of.

Last season, the Hurricanes brought up 22-year-old left-winger Valentin Zykov, who had led Carolina's AHL team in goals. He played 10 games in the NHL, spending his time on the team's No. 1 line alongside Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. He even saw some power play time. In those 10 games, Zykov had seven points (3 goals, 4 assists) while averaging 13:42 in ice time.

It's a strikingly similar situation to the Flames and left-winger Andrew Mangiapane, who also led his AHL team in goals and also got a 10-game look in the NHL. However, the difference was how Mangiapane was deployed, playing mostly fourth line and not getting any time on the man advantage. The 22-year-old failed to pick up a point in his 10 games while logging just 8:56.



For more examples, Aho logged 16:47 as a rookie, Victor Rask played 16:20 in his first year and even Phillip Di Giuseppe at 14:16 in his first NHL season wasn't far behind the modest 14:40 that the talented Matthew Tkachuk had to scratch and claw for in his rookie season.

The other example is on the blueline. Here is the average time-on-ice in their rookie seasons for four Carolina defencemen who broke in on Peters' watch:
  • Jaccob Slavin, 20:59
  • Brett Pesce, 18:46
  • Noah Hanifin, 17:54
  • Haydn Fleury, 16:48

In Calgary, Brett Kulak has averaged 13:16 in his career so far.

Now much of this is opportunity/needs driven, of course, with Calgary having a veteran top-four in place the last couple years. That said, in an organization in which the likes of Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki, Adam Fox and Oliver Kylington might all be pushing for NHL spots in the near future, it's interesting background.


5. Player Growth

Again, this is hard one to assess from so far away. I'd be lying if I told you I watched countless Carolina Hurricanes games the last few years.

While Jeff Skinner's regression is one to wonder about and even be concerned about, the young Finns Aho and Teravainen appear to be coming along nicely. Again, then there's that young blueline.



Social Media Firestorm

It's been fascinating to watch the reaction to the Peters rumours on social media. This guy has already being run out of town and he hasn't even arrived in town.

It speaks to the unhappiness of the cantankerous fan base who after a disappointing season, wanted coaches heads on a stake -- and got them, now already they're sharpening up the next shoots of bamboo.

Since Peters resigned, a few blogs have made the rounds with a less-than-flattering review of his time in Carolina. Then again, what else was anyone expecting. You don't have to dig very deep to find the same things in New York about Alain Vigneault, same thing in Arizona after Tippett parted ways, and also in Dallas after Lindy Ruff exited. Parting shots, always.

As I see it, NHL coaches and blogs are like hotels and Trip Advisor. You are always going to find a dissenting opinion. Always.

The truth of the matter, but it makes for horrible pub conversation and even worse sports talk radio, is we as fans or media don't know who will be the best guy to guide the Calgary Flames.

Unless you're Treliving and know exactly what the difficulties were last season -- whether it's hard-to-coach players, fragile egos, dysfunction, divisions -- you don't know. All that stuff that goes on behind the dressing room door that a coach needs to deal with as a hockey team's head of Human Resources, that’s information we're not privy to.

Similarly, of all the coach candidates being touted, whether it be Peters or Vigneault or soon-to-be-60 Darryl Sutter or whomever, what makes them the best fit? What is it about how they've operated in the past both on and off the ice that makes them the right choice for this specific situation? Again, it's impossible to know from afar. You need to be familiar with how they operate behind closed doors. Win-loss record is one factor, but it's just one of many variables to take into consideration.

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Final Word

For Treliving, this next hire is his last bullet. He knows it.

Rarely does a GM get to hire a second coach. He inherited Hartley, hired Gulutzan, now he is looking for his second coach in three years. For a guy who is as thorough as they get in information gathering and doing background checks on anybody being brought into the organization, you know it's not going to be any different with this particular hire.

So while the fan base is up in arms, thinking they have some bit of incriminating intel on Peters that the GM doesn't have. Sorry to break it to you, but you don't.
 
As for whether it will be the right hire, that part we'll have to wait and see. Armed with a solid goaltender in Mike Smith, a superstar like Johnny Gaudreau, a reliable veteran leader on defence in Mark Giordano, an all-in, enormously talented, shit-disturber like Matthew Tkachuk -- four weapons he arguably hasn't had before -- can he put this club over the top?
       
Two years ago, Peters was highly touted, lauded as progressive and was viewed by many as one of the fast-rising great hockey minds in the NHL. Again, I defer to that elite group he rubbed shoulders with behind Canada's bench for the World Cup. Has he suddenly become a bad coach in the last two years? Or just a victim of circumstances? There are several narratives, either go ahead and make up your mind right now and pick one, or do what I'm doing and just let it play out.
 
Some of the criticism is he is merely Glen Gulutzan 2.0. But if this upgraded model brings with him an assistant coach that can execute a better power play, if he gives prospects like Mangiapane, Spencer Foo, Dillon Dube and Rasmus Andersson legitimate opportunities to play, and if makes a few less head-scratching personnel decisions, being similar to Gulutzan isn't a bad thing.

Whether you want to admit it or not, Gulutzan converted Calgary's style of game to a more sustainable, conducive-to-winning approach over the past two seasons from the stretch-pass-and-pray system under Hartley. Oh, the latter was great when the cardiac kids 'found a way' (e.g. 2014-15), but when they didn't (e.g. 2015-16), uh-oh.

Will Peters ultimately prove himself to be an innocent man and cleared of all current guilty charges? If so, he'll certainly be owed some restitution.





Saturday, March 10, 2018

Rejuvenated: Matt Stajan's Clutch GWG a Well-Earned Reward for His Improved Play of Late

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It was hockey's version of the 150-foot dash and my goodness, what an important one it was for Matt Stajan.

The track meet that produced Stajan's critically important podium finish took place Friday night at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. His featured sprint came with just over eight minutes remaining in the third period.

It was a critical juncture in the game too. Up against a non-playoff team that Calgary absolutely had to beat, they found themselves clinging to a one-goal lead late in the game. The better team by a large margin in the first period, the Senators had shifted the momentum back in their favour and by this point, the stellar goaltending of David Rittich was the only reason the Flames 1-0 lead was still intact.

Circling deep inside his own zone just above the face-off dot to Rittich's left, Stajan sees Brett Kulak make a superb play along the boards to strip the puck from Bobby Ryan and chip it into the neutral zone to an open Johnny Gaudreau. With Stajan darting up the left-side boards, Gaudreau cradles the puck before sending a short pass to his right to Curtis Lazar flying up through centre on the other side, who takes the puck wide as he crosses the Senators blueline.

As he gains the zone, Lazar looks to his left and he can see Stajan continuing to gallop up the ice like a thoroughbred. To buy his veteran center the extra bit of time needed to get to the net, the former Senator swings to his right against defenceman Fredrik Claesson and continues to patiently hold onto the puck.

Then it's go time.

With Stajan having blown past an unsuspecting Mark Stone and Erik Karlsson, who both made the mistake of turning their backs on him, he's now got a direct, open lane to the net and he continues his beeline for the near post. Lazar knows exactly what's going on and at the precise hundredths of a second, he threads a perfect pass across and Stajan -- travelling at full-speed -- stabs out his stick and neatly deflects the puck over the pad of Mike Condon.

What an absolute beauty.




Clutch Performance

The latest goal for Stajan was a big one. A huge one. An enormous one.

Heck, it's perhaps the most important goal he's scored since his memorable game-winner against the Vancouver Canucks at the Saddledome on Apr. 25, 2015, as the Flames completed a comeback from an early 3-0 deficit in game six and moved on to the second round of the playoffs with a 7-4 victory.

I couldn't be happier for him either.

As Stajan winds his way towards the finish line of his four-year, $12.5 million contract extension he signed back on Jan. 20, 2014, while Brian Burke was operating as the club's interim general manager, it's been a season of ups and downs.

Early in the year, there was plenty of the latter: Ten times a healthy scratch. Held without a point until Dec. 17. Just one assist in his first 34 games. Just one goal in his first 40 games.

During his early season struggles, he took a lot of heat. Admittedly, I was one of them, suggesting he no longer contributed enough to be a fixture in this club's nightly line-up. On a team starving for depth scoring, they needed more than what they were getting and if Stajan was no longer capable of that, it had come time to provide opportunity to others.

But lately, my goodness, there's been a lot more of the former. By that, I mean a lot more.

Seems he still had plenty in the tank after all. I know I stand corrected. For disgruntled fans, some of whom wanted him dispatched to the minors, others who lobbied for him to retire, it goes to show that maybe embattled coach Glen Gulutzan -- a relentless backer of Stajan -- might know what he's doing after all.



Playing his Best Hockey in Years 

The birth certificate says he's 34, but right now Stajan is playing like he's 24.

Call it a second wind. Call him rejuvenated. Maybe while on that Florida road trip in mid-January, Stajan snuck away for a side trip up the eastern coastline to the city of St. Augustine to take a dip in Ponce de Leon's fabled Fountain of Youth.

Whatever it is, it's working. As he approaches the 1,000 game mark -- just six more games to go -- Stajan is playing the best hockey of the season. Heck, I'd argue he's playing some of his finest hockey as a Calgary Flame and his statistics would back up that claim.

The NHL has an advanced stat called P/60. It takes your point production and factors in how much you're on the ice. The result is a number that reflects the number of points you're producing per 60 minutes of ice time.

For a guy like Stajan who is averaging around 10 minutes per night while centering the fourth line, it balances the playing field. While eight points (3 goals, 5 assists) in 19 games since Feb. 1 ties Stajan with Sam Bennett for eighth in team scoring, he climbs much higher on that list once you factor in his 10:44 of average TOI compared to the 18-plus minutes being logged by the seven guys ahead of him.

P/60 for the Calgary Flames - Since Feb. 1

1. Johnny Gaudreau, 3.19
2. Sean Monahan, 2.86
3. Matthew Tkachuk, 2.42
4. Matt Stajan, 2.35
5. Dougie Hamilton, 2.17
6. Sam Bennett, 1.80
7. Mikael Backlund, 1.67
8. TJ Brodie, 1.65
9. Micheal Ferland, 1.64
10. Mark Giordano, 1.49


Of course, not factored into the above is all of Stajan's points have come at even-strength too. That makes what he’s doing even more impressive.

If you're curious how that 2.35 scoring clip over the past six weeks compares with the rest of his career, it's right at the top. Stajan's best P/60 in his previous eight seasons in Calgary was his 1.87 in 2012-13. That was the year he signed his contract extension.

Now on the season, adding in the 40 games of offensive futility through the end of January, his P/60 rate of 0.93 would be a career-low, but what's done is done. All that matters right now is Stajan has picked the most pivotal time of the Flames season to play his finest hockey of the season.

If Calgary has any hope of rattling off the eight or nine wins required over the final 13 games to get into the post-season, more of the same from Stajan and the fourth line would sure go a long, long way.


Final Word

Stajan is a likable guy. He's soft spoken, but is thoughtful when he talks. Always a pleasure to deal with, when you talk about the consummate pro, he's that guy.

To come out smiling on the other side of what's been some tough years in a Calgary uniform is quite a tribute to his character.

He arrived in town in February 2010 in the unenviable position of being the featured piece of the underwhelming package fetched from the Toronto Maple Leafs when general manager Darryl Sutter traded away popular young defenceman Dion Phaneuf.

As a throwback to the NHL's old payroll model of spreading it out, a constant point of ridicule is the fact that Stajan is a fourth liner making over $3 million dollars annually in a league that simply doesn't do that any more.
 
In the new NHL payroll model, you pay your best players a lot, then surround them with a less-expensive supporting cast. While Calgary is obviously an exception (see Troy Brouwer, although he's been playing much better lately too), fourth lines are now typically the home for young and/or cheap players, not the opposite.

Of course, everyone is familiar with the devastating situation Stajan and his wife, Katie, persevered through in the spring of 2014 with the loss of the couple’s first child, Emerson, who passed away shortly after birth.

Ask any fan, even those that have been most vocal in their criticism, and nobody will have any issue with Matt Stajan, the person. The issue has only ever been with Matt Stajan, the player.

But right now and going back to the NHL all-star break, there's zero issues with either.
 
As the conspiracy theorists used to rave, this is not someone merely being played to get him to the century mark in games So he can get that coveted silver stick. This is a guy that has flat-out earned his playing time and good on him.
   
For someone whose value you don't measure merely in goals and assists, the goals and assists are there as well these days. Add in everything else and you have yourself a very useful player.




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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Recent Flames Reading:

  • Recalculate: Forget the Pacific, Shortest Route to Post-Season is Through the Wildcard - It's just force of habit by now, but you're always looking at the Pacific teams when you try to find Calgary a playoff spot. Well, wait a second. Don't overlook the Central. (Mar. 8, 2018)
  • Rocky Mountain Meltdown: Eight Things Required to Make the Playoffs - It was an implosion. There's no other way to describe the second period in Denver that left Calgary reeling. Playoffs remain possible, but here are eight things that have to happen. (Mar. 1, 2018)
  • Mid-Year Update of the Flames Top 20 Prospects - Who is the new No. 1? Who has graduated? Some prospects are climbing, others are falling. It's my bi-annual comprehensive look at the Flames system and who are the organization's top young players. (Jan. 28, 2018)