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.

-----------------------------------------------

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)


Thursday, March 08, 2018

Recalculate: Forget the Pacific, Flames' Shortest Route to Post-Season is Through the Wildcard

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Man, I love my GPS navigation system.

But it has a flaw. The same bug can also affect our Stanley Cup playoffs GPS navigation system.

Allow me to explain.

Even though I almost always know exactly where I'm going -- I've lived in Calgary my entire life, after all -- I always punch in the address of my destination because I love that omniscient feeling of knowing how long it's going to take to get to a particular place.

But what I've discovered is sometimes the route that I normally travel, that familiar default path that first springs to mind, isn't always the best route. Sometimes there's another way to get to that location that is actually a shorter distance.

Ninety-five points.

The last couple weeks, it's become the de facto number of points Calgary will need if they hope to make the post-season.

On the radio, on social media, even in the Flames dressing room, prior to this road trip, seemingly everyone was touting that 11 wins in their final 16 games is what would be required. After splitting the first two stops in Pittsburgh and Buffalo, that number has been updated to 10 wins over the final 14 games.


10-4, Over and Out

The reason so many disgruntled fans have already run up the white flag is that 10 more wins is a huge ask from a club that's been riding a roller coaster of inconsistency for five months. Heck, Calgary has won just five times in their last 14 games.

But, there's another way for the Flames to get to where they want to go. There's an easier way.

Where the glimmer of hope lies, in which it is possible Calgary can squeak in with just eight more wins, is by traveling to the Stanley Cup playoffs via a different route.

If you re-ask the question: Can the Flames go 8-6 to finish the season? A .571 winning percentage over the final month is a lot more doable than a .714 clip, which is what 10-4 works out to.

This shortcut to the post-season that most seem to be overlooking requires a change to the conventional route traveled. On my vehicle's navigation system, I would select 'view routes' and when it offers Pacific Division as the default, I would manually switch to the other option of 'Wildcard'.


Two Ways to Get There

To this point, most have been focused solely on a top-three spot in the Pacific as the only way in.

To be fair, it's always felt that way given how strong the Central teams have performed all season with the Chicago Blackhawks the only one out of that division's seven teams to have fallen out of it. Plus, there's history. Since the wildcard concept was introduced in 2013-14, seven of the eight wildcard spots have been swallowed up by Central teams.

With a mindset of top three in the Pacific or bust, the task becomes a daunting one. With the Ducks rolling, the Kings having an easy remaining schedule and the Sharks three points up and with two games in hand, that route is going to be a long distance to travel. If that was, indeed, the only route for Calgary to get to its desired destination, 10-4 probably would be required. Maybe even 11-3.

But upon taking a closer look, there is no longer any reason to anoint both wild card spots to the Central. In fact, it's quite possible that this season for the first time, both of those two extra playoff invitations could end up going to the Pacific.

Instead of traveling on the I-5 through California, trying to catch two of the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, it's time to take a different exit and head towards Texas, Colorado and Missouri.

What you'll find is just like on my vehicle's navigation system -- and this is the flaw that bugs me -- sometimes when you change from the default route, the distance to travel becomes shorter. Same thing for Calgary. No longer is 95 points the minimum requirement, go the wildcard route and 91 or 92 points could get you in.

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Zeroing in on the Central

Taking a closer look at the Central, the top three teams are distancing themselves from the pack. Nashville has won nine straight and are starting to separate themselves at the top. Winnipeg, winners of eight of their last 10, are locked into second. Minnesota, on a 7-2-1 tear, is tightening its grip on third. I don't envision much changing.

But it gets real interesting after that with Dallas, Colorado and St. Louis all competing for those two wild card spots against whoever doesn't finish second and third in the Pacific -- those runner-ups currently being Los Angeles and Calgary. If you pencil in the Kings and it's awfully tempting to do so when you look at their soft remaining schedule, now it comes down to four teams -- the Stars, Avalanche, Blues and Flames -- competing for the final wild card spot.

After examining the remaining schedules for those four teams, I can see as few as 92 points being sufficient to punch a ticket to Lord Stanley's party and getting in with that few points wouldn't be unprecedented.

While Calgary had 94 points last year, they would have still gotten in with 88 points. The season prior, that same 88 points would have been enough to land the second wild card spot. Three years ago it would have taken 96 points with Bob Hartley's Flames club grabbing the last spot with 97. But in 2013-14, the first season of the new playoff format, 92 points would have sufficed.


Breaking Down the Remaining Skeds

Here's a look at what could end up happening over the final four-and-a-half weeks. In this hypothetical scenario that isn't entirely unrealistic, Calgary would get in with 92 points. There are more points in there to be had too.


Calgary Flames

NOW | 68 gm, 33-25-10, 76 pts

Calgary's win over Buffalo on Wednesday was the first of four straight games against non-playoff bound opponents. The team hopes that timing is fortuitous and by the time the schedule takes a sharp turn and becomes more difficult, they might have Mike Smith back from his lower-body injury.

Worth noting is the Flames are done their season series with the three Central teams in which they're battling. No four-pointers with the Stars, Avs or Blues are left on the table.

Breaking it Down:
  • The next three opponents in Ottawa, the New York Islanders and Edmonton, are all just playing out the string. These are points that Calgary has to have. PREDICTION: 2-1-0
  • Next comes a six-game grind against the Pacific -- one at home and one on the road with San Jose, home to Anaheim, in Los Angeles. Also in that stretch are games on consecutive nights in Vegas and Arizona  PREDICTION: 3-3-0
  • Next is a three-game homestand in which Columbus, Edmonton and Arizona stop by the Scotiabank Saddledome for a visit. PREDICTION: 2-1-0
  • Final two games are a one-off trip to Winnipeg then home to Vegas on final day of the season. By then, the Golden Knights should be in rest-the-regulars mode. Heck, the Jets might be in a similar spot. PREDICTION: 1-1-0

SEASON-END | 41-31-10, 92 pts


Dallas Stars

NOW | 67 gm, 37-24-6, 80 pts

While the Stars were six points clear of the Flames going into Wednesday night's games and were not really on anyone's radar as a candidate to miss the post-season, they're not as safe as you might think.

The Stars' have the most difficult closing schedule by far. I mean it's a killer. Ten of their final 15 games are on the road and only three are against non-playoff teams. That's a brutal grind even with a healthy Ben Bishop, which he is not. The Stars goaltender is out with a suspected knee injury and while not a long-term injury, his return date is not yet known.


Look through Dallas' final 15 games and it's a lot easier to find nine losses than it is to find six wins. It's not inconceivable that they struggle to accumulate double digits in points over the duration of the season.

Breaking it Down:
  • They have a much better home record (23-10-3) than road record (14-14-3), but they only have five games remaining at the American Airlines Center. The teams that come calling aren't lightweights either with four of them being Anaheim, Boston, Philadelphia and Minnesota. Vancouver is the only non-playoff team they get at home. PREDICTION: 2-2-1
  • On Sunday, they begin a six-game road trip in Pittsburgh. The final stops in Winnipeg and Washington aren't any easier. Best chance to pick up points is their three-game tour of Eastern Canada in the middle -- back-to-back in Montreal and Toronto, then in Ottawa. PREDICTION: 2-4-0
  • Their other four road games are a one-off trip to Minnesota and the always difficult Xcel Energy Center and then a trek through California to finish the season including Anaheim and LA back-to-back on the final two days of the season. PREDICTION: 1-3-0

SEASON-END | 42-33-7, 91 pts


Colorado Avalanche

NOW | 66 gm, 35-24-7, 77 pts

Colorado has had a great season. They're already 29 points better than a year ago and there are still 16 games to go.

While they have six non-playoff teams remaining on their schedule, five of them are division rivals so those games aren't going to be easy.

Their home-road splits are even with eight of each remaining.

Breaking it Down:
  • The next two games present quite the contrast -- in Columbus to wrap up a road trip, then home to Arizona. PREDICTION: 1-1-0
  • Next comes a heavy dose of Central rivals. First, a two-game trip into Minnesota and St. Louis. Then back home to host Nashville the next night on the back-end of games on consecutive nights. Next, Detroit visits, before wrapping up this segment in Chicago. PREDICTION: 2-3-0
  • Six of the next eight games are against the best of the Pacific -- a home and home set with Vegas, the Kings both home and away, then stops in Anaheim and San Jose as well. PREDICTION: 2-4-0
  • The other three are home games against Philadelphia and Chicago, squeezed into the middle of that heavy Pacific schedule, then the Blues on home ice. PREDICTION: 2-1-0

SEASON-END | 42-33-7, 91 pts


St. Louis Blues

NOW | 66 gm, 35-26-5, 75 pts

The Blues schedule isn't too bad, despite having more road games (9) than home games (7). That said, they're not exactly hot right now. St. Louis has struggled mightily lately going 2-6-2 in their last 10.

Of course, providing a hint as to where the front office had the club's playoff chances pegged, the Blues subtracted rather than added at the trade deadline, dealing away longtime centre Paul Stastny.

Breaking it Down:
  • Next up is a three-game trip through California. PREDICTION: 1-2-0
  • After its home date against Colorado, it is a string of original-six opponents -- versus the NY Rangers then on the road in Chicago. Next up, Boston visits the Scottrade Center. PREDICTION: 2-2-0
  • Next is a five-game stretch against the Pacific with a game in Columbus mixed in. Visiting St. Louis is Vancouver and San Jose. Blues fly to San Jose and Arizona. PREDICTION: 2-2-1
  • St. Louis finishes off the year with home games against Washington and Chicago and then a road tip to Chicago and Colorado on the final two days of the season. PREDICTION: 2-2-0

SEASON-END | 42-34-6, 90 pts


Final Word

The sooner Flames fans turn their focus away from the Pacific Division, the faster their blood pressure will drop as you'll drive yourself crazy watching that out-of-town scoreboard and hoping for California losses.

Los Angeles has nine non-playoff teams remaining and six of those match-ups are at Staples Center. The way the Sharks and Ducks are playing, all of those teams look destined to finish with 95-plus points easily.

The opportunity to play past April 7 is still there for Calgary, but it's through the wildcard spot. While it's attainable, they still need to finish the season playing more consistently than they have thus far. Winning at least eight games will still likely be needed. But if they can play at the same high level that they have for the first two stops in this road trip, especially in that 5-1 trouncing of the Sabres on Wednesday, it's not out of the realm of possibility. Far from it.


Get in and even if you make it as the second wild card team, a first round showdown with Nashville is far from an automatic four-and-out. Calgary has matched up well with the Predators all season, winning two of the three meetings. The Flames have also enjoyed tremendous success in Nashville lately winning their last six trips to Tennessee. Bridgestone Arena is no Honda Center.

But there can be no let up. Not one bit. Calgary needs to continue to do all the good things they did in Pittsburgh and all the great things they did in Buffalo when they return to action on Friday night with another critical two points on the line in Ottawa.

If you're a season ticket holder, don't book that late-April vacation quite yet.



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.

-----------------------------------------------

Recent Flames Reading:

  • 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)

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Rocky Mountain Meltdown: Eight Things Required for the Flames to Make the Playoffs

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Rock bottom.

This is what it looks like. This is how it feels.

In the mile-high city on Wednesday night, Calgary's hopes for the 2017-18 season continued to careen down the mountainside like a runaway boulder.

Leading 2-0 approaching the midway point of the second period in a must-win game in Denver, the Flames looked in control. Then it all went to hell. An absolute implosion.

There is no other way to describe it. Everyone and everything played a part: Goaltending, defensive play, discipline, special teams, not to mention the head coach overseeing it all, who took his second bench minor in as many nights. It was a monumental collapse on all fronts that was both real and spectacular.


Turn Out the Lights

By the time the buzzer sounded to end the second period, Calgary had surrendered four unanswered goals and lost all sense of composure. Game over. Stick a fork in them. Done.

There would be no rallying back on this night. No fight from this fragile group. Only more of the same. A furious Johnny Gaudreau crossing the ice to head to the dressing room with 12 minutes left in the third period, tagged with a 10-minute misconduct on top of his absurd unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for embellishment, perfectly summed up the team's frustration.

That avalanche at the Pepsi Center didn't completely bury Calgary's playoff hopes, but those odds will soon be on life support if this enigmatic club doesn't figure things out fast.

This morning, the Flames woke up 11th in the Western Conference. The math still works. They still control their own destiny, but the wildly inconsistent play that has plagued this team for five months does not instill much hope that Calgary can get on that type of roll required to climb back into the top eight.

With 17 games to go, the Flames odds of winning the Stanley Cup continue to fall. Eight teams are ranked ahead of them in the Western Conference and considering only eight teams make the playoffs, you can do the math on what the oddsmakers think.

Can they turn things around? Sure.

Will they? Let's just say that if I'm Nicolas Cage on my honeymoon in Las Vegas and I'm sitting at the poker table, I'm not wagering Sarah Jessica Parker.


Eight Things That Must Happen


1. Return of Mike Smith

Jon Gillies and David Rittich entered this season with 80 minutes of NHL experience between them. Eighty minutes. That's it. That's not even enough time to get two-thirds through the movie Slap Shot. Now they've got the pressure of Calgary's post-season aspirations riding on their shoulders. It's not a scenario for success and you're starting to see it.

Being a great goaltender once every couple weeks is one thing. Playing at or near that same level when you're playing every other night and shouldering the responsibility of being a team's No. 1 is a completely different animal.

Take Rittich, for example. The Czech rookie was 5-0-2 with a 1.96 GAA and .938 SV% in seven starts while a back-up to Mike Smith. Since the Smith injury, his performance has dipped and the drop-off hasn't been subtle. In six starts, Rittich is 1-4-1 with a 4.41 GAA and .864 SV%.

The reality is Gillies, 2-1-0 in three starts with a 2.42 GAA and a .916 SV%, isn't the solution for this year either.

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The team's only hope and one they're clinging to at this at this point is that they get Smith back soon. The 35-year-old has been the backbone of this team all season. He has bailed them out time and time again, especially early in the season, stealing two points when the team wasn't good enough to win, and he'll need to have that type of impact again.

Fair or not fair, realistic or not realistic, they need Smith back and at that same level if they want a chance. The encouraging news is once they get him back healthy, the schedule sets up to allow the veteran to play a lot. There's only one set of back-to-back games the rest of the season. Every week features at least one two-day break.

Saving Smith for the playoffs is no longer a luxury this team can afford. The timeline is a mystery, but if Gilles, the presumed starter on Friday, can be good enough to knock off a Rangers team that has run up the white flag on the season, then you come right back with him one more time in a much difficult assignment on Monday in Pittsburgh.
   
Can Smith make it back by next Wednesday in Buffalo? By then, one week will have past from when he was spotted at the Saddledome earlier this week finally facing some shots. From that point, 15 games to go, you could roll with Smith in 14 of them if you need to, unless you somehow have the luxury of giving him a day off that final week.

His age? Doesn't matter now. Risk of being tired for the playoffs? Doesn't matter. This guy is your only chance. Get on that horse and ride it.


2. Go .667 During the Pac-Six

A critical stretch in the schedule begins on March 16 with a home game against San Jose. It's the first of six consecutive games against Pacific Division foes in which five are against teams ahead of them in the standings.

Over that 11-day stretch, they have two games with San Jose -- one in each building, a home game against Anaheim, a road game in Los Angeles, a road game in Vegas and there's also a road tilt against the Coyotes.

That's two weeks away still so it's premature to set the bar on a minimum number of points needed, but right now, winning four of those games and going .667 is looking like a must with winning in regulation time a point of emphasis, especially in the four-pointers against the Sharks, Ducks and Kings.


3. More From the Man Advantage

Going into the Dallas game, the Flames power play was on a sizzling 9-for-21 tear. It was never going to remain that hot, but it has to at least remain warm. Instead, it's suddenly ice cold again. Eleven times over the past two nights, Calgary headed onto the man advantage. Eleven times the team's best offensive players returned to the bench empty-handed. A bunch of those opportunities came at key moments in the game too where a goal might have sent the game down a different path.

They generated plenty of shots -- 17 of them on target including peppering Ben Bishop a dozen times in their six failed tries against Dallas, plus another boatload of opportunities that smashed off the end glass. Their nearly-two-minute, two-man advantage against the Stars looked dangerous, but we are well past the point of being able to settle for 'good process'. This isn't December. They need results and right now.

In particular, they need more in that scenario from Sean Monahan.

While Matthew Tkachuk and Dougie Hamilton have been lighting it up recently with the extra man, Monahan had gone 38 games without sniping a power play goal when he swept in a centering pass from Johnny Gaudreau on Feb. 22 in Arizona. The next game, a shot from Michael Stone glanced off him and in.

But where is that patented 10-15 foot one-timer? The lethal release that has been his calling card since entering the league? It's been a long time. Too long. Maybe he’s just not getting the looks, but this guy has proven to be deadly from the low slot and we haven’t seen enough of that lately.

For the last four-plus months of last season, Calgary's power play operated at nearly a 25 percent clip. The Flames need to get back to near that number for the final six weeks.


4. Make Home-Ice Great Again
 
This club's road record this season has been out of this world. If you go back to the late 80s and early 90s, Calgary boasted some damn good teams and none of them were as successful in opposition barns as this year's club, which is 18-10-5.

But the inevitable speed wobble has finally hit. Regulation losses in three of their last four and the next stop is at the harrowing PPG Paints Arena in where the Penguins just had an 11-game winning streak snapped. It isn't getting any easier.
   
To counter that, the focus must now shift back to 555 Saddledome Rise. Calgary needs to turn around its embarrassing 14-14-4 home record. There is no margin for error now. There are nine home games left and I'd suggest they need to win at least seven of them. That's a pretty big ask considering they've only won two of the last nine home games.

If atmosphere is to blame and they are a group that needs outside assistance to get revved up for a game, the tranquil library-like setting we're used to shouldn't be an issue coming up:
  • New York on a Friday night. Original six teams always travel well when it comes to fan support and the booze should be flowing to kick off the weekend.
  • Islanders on a Sunday sounds like the weekend edition of the Wild on a weekday, but kids can be noisy and there should be plenty of them. 
  • After that, the Oilers, Sharks and Ducks visit in succession -- two wicked rivalry games in there that always get fans worked into a lather, along with another key divisional clash.
  • The rest of the way, there a couple more Saturday night games. By the time Columbus visits on a Thursday night, it will be March 29. By then, if that game ends up being vital, the atmosphere should come built-in.

The issue of course is Calgary's propensity to face-plant in those big moments in front of their ticket-buying supporters. That's a habit they need to stop cold turkey. Eighteen points available at home. Picking up at least 14 points are a must. Might even want to try for 15.

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5. Vintage 79

The hot car back in the year '79 was a Trans Am or Camaro. Rocking the music charts at No. 1 was My Sharona. Attracting the most viewers on television was Three’s Company and the electronics the kids were going crazy over was the Intellivision game system.

Great memories.

Even better memories for Calgary come from jersey No. 79 and the impact it has had in the past.

Sidelined day-to-day at the moment with an upper body injury, the Flames badly need Micheal Ferland not just back in the line-up, but back in the form he showed in the first half of this season.
 
Officially, Ferland has been absent the past three games. However, he’s been missing from the offence for far longer. No points in his last seven games and just one goal in his last 19, that's not good enough. As one of four 20-goal scorers on this team, Ferland is a key offensive cog that will be counted on to help carry this team down the stretch.

When healthy, do you re-unite him with Gaudreau and Monahan? That depends where you come out on Sam Bennett. If that's the only place you think you can maximize your return on Bennett, maybe it's Ferland on the port side with Mark Jankowski.

Either way, you need him in your top-nine somewhere -- skating, playing physical and firing that puck. You need the whole package that makes Ferland such an alluring and tantalizing talent.

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6. More Killer Instinct

It's been a knock on this team all season. Playing down to the level of the opponent. Can't put teams away when they have a chance. The lack of killer instincts exists in four forms:

(a) Taking Advantage of a Lesser Opponent

No more over-respecting the opponent. This is a team that needs to believe in themselves, that they're playoff-worthy and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and then go out there and dictate the game.

Sure, the New York Rangers are still an NHL team and they have some talented young players who are playing loose and with no pressure, but remember also that Friday's opponent is out of playoff contention. Calgary needs to start fast, score first and then step on their throat.

It doesn't matter if you're playing out the string like New York is, the line-up is still made up of pro athletes who hate to lose. However, how much fight do the players have deep-down if management has already admitted openly to the public that they've given up on this season. If you can get up early on teams like the Rangers, you might not see the same level of desperation as you would from other teams with something on the line.

Same thing next week when Calgary travels into Buffalo and Ottawa. Massive games for the Flames, not so much for the other teams. Same thing applies to the two games remaining with Edmonton. Same thing with the two games to go with Arizona.
 

(b) Don't Let Teams Back in the Game

When you do get up by one goal in a game, you need to stay aggressive and get that important next goal. If you're up 2-0, don't sit back and try to hold onto that lead, try to make it 3-0.

Far too often, when Calgary has a team down, they let them back up off the canvas. Don't let them hang around, take away their will by scoring early and often and staying relentless. As they say in football, the only thing 'prevent defence' prevents is victories.


(c) Eradicate the Late Goal

Too often, Calgary has given up a goal late in a period, undoing their work over the previous 18 minutes. Those goals are called back-breakers for a reason. It’s because they are painful ones to surrender. It often shifts the momentum in a game and gives the opponent a new life.

The Flames need to treat those final few shifts late in a period with greater urgency while also being smart and not making that risky play or decision that could be costly.


(d) Take Advantage of Back-up Goalies

The other recurring theme this year (and throughout this franchise's existence) is how great the opposition back-up goalie has played.

A benefit of often having teams arrive at the Saddledome on the back-end of back-to-back games, Calgary faces a lot of back-up goaltenders.

Yet back-up after back-up after back-up have turned in Carey Price impersonations against the Flames. Calgary can't let that happen. They have to make life difficult on the opposing goaltender.

Traffic, screens, get to the greasy areas. Enough with the muffins being lobbed from the blue line, hammer some slap shots on goal in hopes of generating rebounds and deflections. Wreak havoc. There is a reason they're not the starter. Make things uncomfortable and shoot to score, not just shoot.


7. Scratch out Points

Like Groundhog Day, Flames players and fans have watched the same thing happen repeatedly on the out-of-town scoreboard lately. The Kings tie the game with 11 seconds remaining, then win it in overtime. Anaheim picks up one point with two goals in the final minute of the third period. It seems that nightly, teams around them are finding ways to scratch out extra points, Calgary needs to start doing the same.

In the last 13 overtime games Calgary has played, they've left that second point on the table in nine of them. Overtime used to be the Flames strong suit. For a while, they were the best in the league at resolving games in extra time. That's no longer the case. Only four times since mid-November have they emerged from a 60-minute plus effort with both points. That's not good enough. They need to get back to their earlier level of domination or close to it.

Meanwhile, the Flames also need to do a better job of scratching out points in games they're currently losing in regulation. Examining the six regulation losses in their last 11 games, in five of those games, they either led (three of them) or were tied (two of them) in the second period.

They've got to find ways to seal the deal or at least get one point in those games. Right now, Calgary is leaving rinks with zero points while in games involving the California teams they're battling with, three points are being divvied up.

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8. Better Line-up Selection/Deployment

Glen Gulutzan is taking a lot of heat from fans and given the team's disappointing position in the standings, you can understand why. Taking bench minors on consecutive nights would suggest he's feeling that heat also.

One of the most common criticisms is his personnel choices and how he deploys his players. While everyone is going to have their own ideas on lines, there are a few situations to monitor.
 
The Chris Stewart pick-up by GM Brad Treliving was a no-risk roll of the dice. Don't make it a risk by overplaying him. If he looks like a fourth liner, then use him as that. If he's not even that, then don't keep running him out there.

He hasn't had a practice with the team yet, so it's too early to abandon the experiment, but the leash needs to be relatively short with this guy who is on an expiring contract and owed nothing. At this point, from what we've seen in two very small samples, fourth line is the spot at best.

Curtis Lazar has been a disappointment, but he should not be sitting in favour of Tanner Glass. Lazar has been serviceable on the fourth line and he's been better in the second half. While 'serviceable' is not the most flattering of adjectives and is not one you'll ever read on anyone's Tinder profile, if he beats the alternatives and it could be argued that's the case, then you leave him in the line-up.

Newly acquired center Nick Shore is going to get a chance to play, but it's fair to be skeptical of what impact he will have given he was acquired for a seventh round pick. If Stewart is like grabbing something from the free box at a garage sale, the Shore pick is grabbing something from the '5 cents' box. Does he spell off Matt Stajan on occasion, or bump Stajan to the wing? Stay tuned. But like Stewart, now is not the time to over-experiment.

When Ferland is back, put Ferland or Bennett on the top line, put the other on the third line alongside Jankowski and hope that whoever rounds out that line can help that trio get going because only getting production from the top six down the stretch isn't going to suffice.

Prospect Andrew Mangiapane is the most talented of the other third line options, but going pointless in 10 NHL games didn't help his cause and now he's back in Stockton and at this moment is not an option. I wouldn't be surprised if Kris Versteeg lands there when he's ready to go, but he's missed over two months to injury and isn't a speed burner to begin with.

Gulutzan can only do so much, it's on the players to execute. But it's his job to put the pieces at his disposal in the right places and the last couple nights, both losses, it could be argued he never got it right.


Final Word

If 95 points is a reasonable target to qualify for the post-season, the Flames need to win 11 of their final 17 games. That's a big ask. Doable, but it will require a string of consistent play, this from a team plagued by inconsistent play all season.

Can the team turn it around on a dime? It seems unlikely, but the window is at least open to generate some momentum. Three of the next four games are against so-called beatable teams. But the Rangers, Senators and Sabres won't be beatable if you assume they'll be beatable.

Again, it's about killer instinct. It's going out and taking six points out of these next four games because you're the team that needs them more. That's the first step. It's a must. Get on a little bit of a roll before you face the Islanders and Oilers at home. Then that could be two more wins. 

If you can grab 10 of 12 possible points over the next six games, you're probably back in a playoff spot heading into that crucial six-game stretch against the Pacific.

But one step at a time and that first step goes Friday night.

The boulder running down the mountainside is picking up speed and Calgary needs to stop it ASAP -- and stopping something with that much momentum isn't going to be easy. It may take a 6-foot-6 goaltender playing the game of his life. Over to you, Jon Gillies.




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