Sunday, January 28, 2018

Ranking the Calgary Flames Top 20 Prospects (January 2018 Edition)



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If you're wondering why mortarboards and graduation gowns are hard to find in stores these days, you can blame this edition of the Flames top 20 prospects as this time around, there's been more graduations than normal on my list.

As has become tradition for to help ardent fans pass the time during the NHL all-star break, it's time to unveil the latest and greatest list of who could be regular NHLers in Calgary in the future.

This is also an enjoyable undertaking because first the arguing begins with myself. Up until the last moment, I'm always tweaking the list. Moving one guy up, moving one guy down, moving one in, moving one guy out. I'm constantly thinking it over, re-thinking it and yes, probably over-thinking it.

No matter what, there is always going to be debate and maybe even a little outrage and now those discussions can begin.


History

This is the sixth edition of my bi-annual rankings, which made its debut in August 2015. While it doesn't feel like all that long ago, a look back at the list reminds you of how long ago it really was.

Topping the list that initial year was Sam Bennett. Having just been made the Flames highest-ever draft pick, it was hard to dispute his perch at that juncture. But the next three on the list -- Emile Poirier, Mason MacDonald and Brandon Hickey -- well, for a variety of reasons, their careers have not exactly taken off. Not yet, anyway.

That's what makes these snapshots in time of the Flames prospect cupboard, done twice a year -- late in the summer after the draft and in January/February at the all-star break -- so fascinating is it reminds us of what once was supposed to be, which frequently turns out not to be, and vice versa.

On that first list, at No. 10 was Micheal Ferland. Arguably too high at the time, now he's on the Flames No. 1 line. You just never know.

For those curious, here's a look back at the past rankings:

One thing I'll point out is I like to build-in a power rankings-like feel to my list so prospects tend to rise and fall on my list in a more volatile fashion than they might on the whiteboard in Brad Treliving's office. But I like it that way, it reflects who has had a good season so far, and who hasn't.


My Definition of 'Prospect'

If you look at other hockey publications and websites, there are different definitions for 'prospect'. Some have age restrictions, some exclude players once they're no longer considered an NHL rookie. My criteria is simple and comes down to two things:
  • Age 25 or under for skaters (age 26 or under for goalies)
  • Has not established himself as an NHL regular
For my rankings, note that this is not the order in which I expect players to ascend to the NHL. The estimated time of arrival (ETA) is a minimal factor only. A bigger consideration are two things: 1. Likeliness to make the NHL. 2. Projected impact/role if they do make it.


Grads and Departures

As mentioned, more of players than usual have moved on this time around and moved on in a good way. It could easily have been four, but instead, three players have graduated, no surprise given the high impact Stockton players have made on the 2017-18 Flames.

The most notable departure is Mark Jankowski, who last time around checked in at No. 2 on the list. Given the go-ahead in December by GM Brad Treliving to find a place, not only does that mean no more living at hotel, it also means he's been evicted from this list.

Now a regular on the third pairing, Brett Kulak has also moved on and good for him. An honourable mention while he was languishing in the ECHL, he bumped up and down the rankings over the years, leaving off at No. 13 last year, which is about where you'll find guys with third pairing upside. For Kulak, we'll see if he can take it further.

The other grad for a couple reasons is Garnet Hathaway. For one, he's too old now. But also, he seems to have established himself as a bottom-six NHLer with the GM saying recently that he's here to stay for the season.

So, are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.


Flames Top 20 Prospects - January 2018

Included for reference is each player's previous rankings starting from the most recent (August 2017) and working backwards chronologically.



1. D Rasmus Andersson (previously 3rd, 2nd, 3rd, 2nd, 6th)
  • Age | 21
  • Size | 6-foot-1, 220 lbs
  • Shoots | Right
  • Acquired | Drafted in 2nd round (53rd overall) in 2015
  • This Season | Stockton AHL (36 gm, 4-21-25)
  • ETA | 2018-19
An AHL all-star, the highly-competitive Swede continues to log a ton of ice time. Relied upon to go up against other team's top lines, those nightly assignments are helping round out his defensive game. With the puck, his game is already considered elite. His fitness issues are also seemingly behind him.



2. G Tyler Parsons (previously 1st, 3rd, 9th)
  • Age | 20 
  • Size | 6-foot-1, 185 lbs 
  • Catches | Left 
  • Acquired | Drafted in 2nd round (54th overall) in 2016 
  • This Season | Kansas City ECHL (21 gm, 10-9-1, 3.07 GAA, .906 SV%) 
  • ETA | 2020-21 
Jonathan Quick-like with his quick reflexes, athleticism, quickness and high compete level, Parsons remains the guy viewed as the starter of the future. That said, a tough start to his first pro season sees him drop to No. 2 on my list. But he's been back in fine form lately and there are no lingering doubts.


3. D Adam Fox (previously 4th, 10th, 15th)
  • Age | 20 in February 
  • Size | 5-foot-11, 180 lbs 
  • Shoots | Right 
  • Acquired | Drafted in 3rd round (66th overall) in 2016 
  • This Season | Harvard NCAA (17 gm, 0-12-12) 
  • ETA | 2020-21 
Smart and offensively gifted, he had another stellar performance at the WJC, showing why there is so much excitement within the organization for a guy that somehow slipped to the third round in the 2016 NHL Draft. In his sophomore year at Harvard, expect him to leave school this summer or next.

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4. C/LW Dillon Dube (previously 6th, 7th, 11th)
  • Age | 19 
  • Size 5-foot-11, 185 lbs
  • Shoots | Left
  • Acquired | Drafted in 2nd round (56th overall) in 2016
  • This Season | Kelowna WHL (31 gm, 21-25-46)
  • ETA 2019-20
Put himself on the map with a terrific performance in captaining Canada to gold at WJC. Lauded for his defensive play last year, this year he showed his offensive side. While I'm not sure of his ceiling, he has all the tools to play in the NHL. A sure thing to turn pro next fall, he may not be that far away.




5. D Juuso Valimaki (previously 5th)
  • Age | 19
  • Size | 6-foot-2, 215 lbs
  • Shoots | Left
  • Acquired | Drafted in 1st round (16th overall) in 2017 
  • This Season | Tri-City WHL (19 gm, 5-15-20)
  • ETA | 2019-20
There are high hopes for the big Finn, who has frequently captained his country in international play and did so again at the WJC. Injured right now, he is having another solid WHL season. An impactful presence on the ice, the club expects him to develop into one of those coveted top-four defencemen.


6. LW Andrew Mangiapane (previously 8th, 8th, 9th, 20th)
  • Age | 21
  • Size | 5-foot-10, 185 lbs
  • Shoots | Left
  • Acquired | Drafted in 6th round (166th overall) in 2015
  • This Season | Stockton AHL (31 gm, 16-19-35), Calgary NHL (8 gm, 0-0-0)
  • ETA | 2018-19
Starred in his second pro season in the minors and was named an AHL all-star. Finally got his shot in the NHL and while he has not picked up a point while toiling on the fourth line, experience of taking that next step -- the biggest step of them all -- will only help him. If his time isn't now, it will be soon.

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7. G David Rittich (previously 12th, 16th)
  • Age | 25
  • Size | 6-foot-3, 202 lbs
  • Catches | Left
  • Acquired | Signed as FA in June 2016
  • This Season | Calgary NHL (7 gm, 4-1-2, 2.15 GAA, .929 SV%), Stockton AHL (6 gm, 5-1-0, 2.17 GAA, .931 SV%)
  • ETA | 2017-18
Considered close to NHL-ready last summer, a great start combined with poor play from Eddie Lack earned him an opportunity and he's run with it. Well-liked and a hard worker, I considered graduating him, but just two months removed from being in the minors, let's see how he fares in the second half.

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8. RW Spencer Foo (previously 7th)
  • Age | 24
  • Size | 6-foot-0, 185 lbs
  • Shoots | Right
  • Acquired | Signed as a free agent in July 2017 
  • This Season | Stockton AHL (39 gm, 12-12-24)
  • ETA | 2018-19
Detailed structure of pro hockey made for big adjustment from NCAA. Depleted Heat roster leaving less talent to play with also a factor in slow start. But lately, has been more confident and dangerous offensively and Foo is now the guy making his linemates better, rather than him depending on them.



9. D Oliver Kylington (previously 9th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 7th)
  • Age | 20
  • Size 6-foot-0, 180 lbs
  • Shoots | Left
  • Acquired Drafted in 2nd round (60th overall) in 2015
  • This Season | Stockton AHL (37 gm, 2-20-22)
  • ETA | 2019-20
Fifth pro season -- two in Sweden, three in the minors -- you wonder if AHL-fatigue may set in given his contract slid twice so he's on his ELC for two more years. Elite skater having his best offensive year. Decision-making is improving, but lapses persist. Still working on his play away from the puck.


10. G Jon Gillies (previously 8th, 6th, 2nd, 1st, 5th)
  • Age | 24
  • Size 6-foot-6, 225 lbs
  • Catches | Left
  • Acquired | Drafted in 3rd round (75th overall) in 2012 
  • This Season | Stockton AHL (28 gm, 13-11-4, 2.57 GAA, .917 SV%)
  • ETA | 2019-20
Rittich getting the NHL back-up job must be a tough situation mentally for Gillies, as there's nowhere to go at the moment. Shines at times, but then will suffer a lapse in his play. e.g. After back-to-back shutouts recently, has a .869 SV% in last four starts. Needs to stick with it and improve consistency. 

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11. C Adam Ruzicka (previously 20th, HM)
  • Age | 18 
  • Size | 6-foot-4, 210 lbs 
  • Shoots | Left 
  • Acquired | Drafted in 4th round (109th overall) in 2017 
  • This Season | Sarnia OHL (44 gm, 28-25-53) 
  • ETA | 2021-22 
Lots to like with the Slovakian, who is piling up points on a strong Sarnia team. Projected to go as high as late second round, Flames got him in round 4 where he could be a real steal. He's a young man in a huge body so still has lots of work to do to build strength and be a more consistent player.



12. C Glenn Gawdin (debut)
  • Age | 21 in March
  • Size | 6-foot-1, 195 lbs
  • Shoots | Right
  • Acquired | Signed as FA in Nov 2017 (originally St. Louis 4th rounder in 2015)
  • This Season | Swift Current WHL (49 gm, 39-50-89)
  • ETA | 2020-21
Thriving in the WHL as he should as a 20-year-old playing on a great line, but the insane production became too prolific to ignore. So Calgary jumped in and signed him, cashing in on the relationship built when Gawdin turned heads at September's rookie camp. Club loves his drive and overall game.

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13. C Linus Lindstrom (previously 19th, HM)
  • Age | 20 
  • Size 6-foot-0, 170 lbs
  • Shoots | Left
  • Acquired | Drafted in 4th round (96th overall) in 2016
  • This Season | Skelleftea Sweden (29 gm, 2-1-3)
  • ETA 2021-22
Unlikely to become a high-end scorer, but the organization likes his defensive game, PK ability and face-off prowess. Playing his second year in Sweden's top league has been great for his development. Centered his country's top line at the World Juniors, centering Elias Pettersson and Alex Nylander. 


14. RW Matthew Phillips (previously 15th, 15th)
  • Age | 20 in April 
  • Size | 5-foot-7, 155 lbs 
  • Shoots | Right 
  • Acquired | Drafted in 6th round (166th overall) in 2016 
  • This Season | Victoria WHL (50 gm, 35-44-79) 
  • ETA | 2021-22 
His stats leap off the page where he's been a non-stop source of offence for Victoria. But size is still a concern. Small is one thing, Phillips is tiny. Had a lackluster rookie camp last year and was a late cut from Canada's WJC team. Will be a joy to watch when he turns pro, it just might not be in the NHL.

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15. LW Morgan Klimchuk (previously 14th, 12th, 14th, 7th, 9th)
  • Age | 23 in March
  • Size | 6-foot-0, 185 lbs 
  • Shoots | Left 
  • Acquired | Drafted in 1st round (28th overall) in 2013 
  • This Season | Stockton AHL (40 gm, 12-13-25) 
  • ETA | 2019-20 
Has turned himself into a solid, dependable AHLer, but jury is out on whether he does enough things well enough to separate himself and become an NHL regular. Appears on the path to becoming the forward version of Tyler Wotherspoon -- serviceable in a pinch as a depth forward, but no big upside.


16. RW Eetu Tuulola (previously HM, 18th, 18th)
  • Age | 20 in March
  • Size | 6-foot-2, 230 lbs
  • Shoots | Right
  • Acquired | Drafted in 6th round (156th overall) in 2016
  • This Season | HPK Finland (37 gm, 11-8-19)
  • ETA | 2021-22
Is an intriguing blend of size, skill and with a wicked shot. After coming over to the WHL for a year, he is back in Finland this season where he's putting up decent numbers in the top Finnish pro league. Played three games at this year's World Juniors. Is a natural RW, the organization's thinnest position.

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17. RW Emile Poirier (previously 11th, 20th, 10th, 4th, 2nd)
  • Age | 23 
  • Size 6-foot-2, 200 lbs
  • Shoots | Left
  • Acquired | Drafted in 1st round (22nd overall) in 2013
  • This Season | Stockton AHL (39 gm, 3-13-16)
  • ETA 2019-20
The good news is he's got his life back on track after his battle with alcohol addiction. The problem is that illness robbed him of some crucial development years in one's hockey career. He's trying to re-gain his old form and you see flashes, but it appears it will be a long journey with destination unknown.

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18. LW Ryan Lomberg (previously HM)
  • Age 23
  • Size | 5-foot-9, 185 lbs
  • Shoots | Left
  • Acquired | Signed to NHL ELC in March 2017 
  • This Season | Stockton AHL (37 gm, 5-9-14)  
  • ETA | 2018-19
Getting in an NHL game was a great feat for a kid whose unconventional career path has been a series of jagged lines. Viewed as a Garnet Hathaway-lite, he's fiery, fearless and an absolute buzz-saw on the ice with his relentless puck pursuit. What he lacks in natural talent, he makes up for in effort.




19. C D'Artagnan Joly (debut)
  • Age | 19 in April 
  • Size | 6-foot-3, 180 lbs 
  • Shoots | Right 
  • Acquired | Drafted in 6th round (171st overall) in 2017 
  • This Season | Baie-Comeau QMJHL (38 gm, 15-31-46) 
  • ETA | 2021-22 
A bad back forced him to miss development camp and rookie camp and same injury sidelined him to start the season. But since returning, he's been great and he has nearly equaled his point total from a year ago -- and in 28 fewer games. He's a long way out, but is an intriguing big body up the middle.




20. LW Hunter Shinkaruk (previously 16th, 11th, 6th)
  • Age | 23
  • Size | 5-foot-11, 180 lbs
  • Shoots | Left
  • Acquired Trade with Canucks in Feb 2016 (originally Vancouver 1st rounder in 2013)  
  • This Season | Stockton AHL (38 gm, 12-6-18)
  • ETA | 2019-20
As a fourth-year AHLer, the likes of Hathaway, Mangiapane, Lomberg and Hrivik all getting promoted ahead of him this season speaks volumes. Appears Vancouver sold high on Shinkaruk, who hasn't been able to get back to the numbers he put up two years ago with Utica. Time is running out.


Honourable Mentions:

The best of the rest:

D Josh Healey (previously 18th) - Still adjusting from NCAA and playing time has been hard to get.
RW Zach Fischer (debut) - Late bloomer passed over twice in draft. He can score and he can fight.
C Mitchell Mattson (previously NR, HM) - Lanky, long-term project will play for MSU next year.
D Tyler Wotherspoon (previously HM, 13th, 12th, 13th, 11th) - Solid AHLer, can't get NHL look.
D Adam Ollas-Mattsson (previously NR, HM, 20th, 19th) - Big Swede in first year on the 200x85.





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.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Subtle Ingredients Found in Flames' Savory 7-Game Win Streak

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Calgary Flames are hot.

Chipotle hot.

Red Chili Habanero hot.

In rattling off seven straight victories heading into their five-day 'bye week', Calgary has gotten some pretty prominent performances:
  • Johnny Gaudreau has been el fuego with points in all seven games, amassing 13 points (2 goals, 11 assists) during that span 
  • Micheal Ferland is coming off that tear of four straight games with a goal and an assist.
  • Mike Smith continues to be lights-out on the road where he now boasts a league-best .948 save percentage. His .924 SV% overall is third among goalies with 20-or-more starts.
  • Dougie Hamilton already has four goals in January with three of them game-winners.  
  • Calgary just swept a four-game road trip (first sweep of a four-game-or-longer road trip since December 2007) and at 13-5-4, they're tied with Tampa Bay (14-6-2) for the NHL's best record away from home. That's a .682 winning percentage that has them on pace to break the club's all-time best road mark of 22-12-6 (.625%) set in 1987-88.

But what else has contributed to the success the team has tasted lately? What else has led to this resurgence that has Calgary not just back in wild card contention in the Western Conference, but suddenly contending for home-ice advantage in the Pacific Division.


1. Stingy Defence

It's now been 18 games since the Flames last surrendered more than three goals in a game. As previously documented here, that dates back to Dec. 5. That was the day of the impromptu attention-to-details practice called by Glen Gulutzan, prior to the team's departure to Toronto to begin a two-game road trip.

To jog your memory on the circumstances, Calgary had just lost 5-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers, who came into the Saddledome on a 10-game losing streak. Unhappy with that night’s performance and the state of his team’s game overall, he pushed the departure of the team charter from the morning to the afternoon and re-routed his players to the rink bright and early for a brisk practice instead. The rest, as they say, is history.

While the goaltending has been great over this stretch -- Smith has been awesome and rookie David Rittich has been terrific too, the bigger takeaway is shots and chances against have been down. This has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of goals against.


Early in the season when all-you-can-watch giveaways, poor decisions, and d-zone fire drills were on the nightly menu, that has changed now. The six mainstays on the blueline look far more comfortable out there and that has translated into far fewer high-anxiety moments in their own end.

Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton continue to get it done as an elite top pairing. Travis Hamonic and TJ Brodie look much better. Brett Kulak, a spectator the first month of the season, has been steady as a fixture on the third pairing with Michael Stone.


Average Goals Against per Game - Since Dec. 5 (through Jan. 15)

1. Calgary, 1.89
2. Boston, 2.00
3. Vegas, 2.06
4. Nashville, 2.27
5. Anaheim, 2.28


It's been a remarkable streak of consistency considering the Flames gave up greater than three goals on 12 occasions over the season's first 27 games. 


2. Brouwer's Been Better

No, I don't expect you to accept it.

No, I certainly don't expect you to admit it. At least not publicly.

But while Troy Brouwer has been the fans' punching bag since he signed that four-year, $18 million deal two summers ago, he's been better of late while filling in on the 3M line for Michael Frolik.

When Frolik broke his jaw on Dec. 28 in San Jose, it was an injury that had the potential to be crippling. After all, the 3M line has been so good since the start of last season and Frolik had been playing some of his best hockey of the season. Pessimism reigned supreme when Gulutzan made the decision to insert Brouwer into that spot, elevating him from his perch on the fourth line.

While inserting Brouwer alongside fan-favourite Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk had all the makings of a toxic combination, it hasn't turned out that way.

During this seven-game streak, Brouwer has been the Flames top forward in SAT% (aka Corsi) and ranks third on the team. This while starting in the defensive zone at five-on-five for two-thirds of his shifts, a disadvantage that ranks him No. 1 on the team. 

To give you context on the icy depths to which the 32-year-old had plunged, Brouwer was 19th (46.34) in SAT% prior to this temporary promotion.


Shot Attempt Percentage (SAT%) - Since Dec. 31

1. Hamilton, 55.56
2. Giordano, 55.34
3. Brouwer, 54.01 
4. Monahan, 53.61
5. Stajan, 53.38


Fewest O-Zone Starts at 5 on 5 - Since Dec. 31

1. Brouwer, 33.33
2. Backlund, 35.14
3. Bennett, 36.00
4. Brodie, 36.92
5. Hamilton, 37.08


Now has Brouwer been the beneficiary of his two linemates? Absolutely. Backlund and Tkachuk have proven themselves to be stellar possession players.

Could you say Brouwer has dragged them down a bit? The analytics would certainly confirm that's been the case too. to be honest, a downgrade was to be expected with whoever ended up being the substitute right winger on that line given Frolik's chemistry with the other two.

Giving credit where credit is due. Brouwer has been better in his increased role that has seen him averaging 13:05 of even-strength ice time (6th among forwards) per game since the Frolik injury, a 36 percent increase from the 9:36 (12th among forwards) he was averaging previously. Sure, he will still make a mistake now and then and they tend to be noticeable, although when everyone is watching your every move waiting for a mistake, that's how it generally works. But overall, the use of Brouwer in that spot hasn't been the square peg in a round hole that most were expecting.

Biggest compliment you can say about Brouwer the last couple weeks is he has not been a huge talking point. There hasn't been nearly the fan consternation that I was anticipating at the outset and he deserves some props for that.

Plus, by being serviceable in that spot, it helps the team's overall slotting. It has enabled the Flames to keep the Mark Jankowski line together while also adding more speed and youth to the fourth line. Along with Brouwer's own improved possession play, these positive ripple effects have helped the team nicely mitigate the loss of an important player like Frolik.

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3. Playing with the Lead

One thing that killed the team early in the season was chronic slow starts. Scoring first wasn't necessarily the issue, the problem was they were continually coughing up leads and never could seem get to the first intermission leading on the scoreboard.

For the longest time and we're talking about well into December, they were last in the NHL when it came to the number of first period leads.

Calgary has been much better in this area lately.

After leading after 20 minutes only seven times through the first 38 games, the Flames have led after the first period five times during this win streak. The only game in which they trailed after one was against Los Angeles when they fell behind 2-0. But that night, they followed that with arguably their best period of the season in scoring four unanswered goals and taking the lead for good in the second.

Playing from in front and not having to chase makes the game far easier to play. For one, it's less stress. Secondly, it takes some of the pressure off the goaltender. It also enables you to roll four lines and that results in a more well-rested team. 

Plus, it 's a proven formula for success. On the season, Calgary is 10-0-2 when leading after one. Get a lead, hold it until the Zamboni makes its first appearance and you're looking at one point guaranteed and probably two. It's pretty simple.


4. Fourth Line Consistency

Man, this NHL thing is easy peasy.

Make it seven career games with Calgary for Andrew Mangiapane and seven wins.

What does losing an NHL game feel like? Don't ask Mangiapane as he has no idea.

Call him the Michael Stone of 2017-18, but Mangiapane has turned out to be the good-luck charm for this team as they have yet to suffer a setback since his recall from Stockton in late December.

Now Mangiapane has yet to pick up a point. His average ice time of 8:45 over this period ranks dead last on the team. But his arrival has coincided in an upswing with the effectiveness of the fourth line.

They've spent more time in the offensive zone, they've been more dangerous and if they're not scoring, that's what you ask of them. Go out there and wear down the opposition D, don't get scored on and try to set up the next line with momentum and/or an offensive zone face-off.


SAT% (Corsi) Before/After Win Streak  (ranking among forwards):
  • Stajan - 48.63 (11th), 53.38 (3rd)
  • Lazar - 47.27 (12th), 52.43 (4th)

Has the previously-mentioned removal of Brouwer from the fourth line also helped? Again, the analytics would suggest yes and you can see why. Now you have two younger, faster guys with an old, slow guy, rather than the opposite.

But rather than blame Brouwer for why Matt Stajan and Curtis Lazar weren't better earlier in the season, perhaps the two of them are worthy of a stick tap for their improved play lately. Mangiapane has certainly brought a spark to round out that trio that has given Calgary it's best fourth line minutes this season.

In Sunday's win in Carolina, I thought Lazar was excellent, especially early in the game. You still wonder if he'll score again -- ever -- but driving hard to the net in that sequence that led up to the Stajan goal (and had he not scored, would have drawn a penalty), was a sign of confidence we haven't seen a lot of from the 22-year-old lately.

I also really liked what Marek Hrivik brought to that line as he made his season debut with Mangiapane temporarily shuttled to the third line to replace Sam Bennett, who had bumped up to the first line to replace an ill Sean Monahan.

There's a pace and assertiveness to Hrivik's game that makes you think there's more there. The importance of his athletic play to stay onside on that opening goal by Stajan cannot be understated.

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5. Ka-chuk Ka-boom

Barely 20 years old, Matthew Tkachuk continues to be a standout with nine points (5 goals, 4 assists) during the win streak, which ranks third on the team behind Gaudreau (2-11-13) and Monahan (4-6-10). His five goals over that period leads the team.

In fact, over the past month (since Dec. 15), Tkachuk's 7 goals and 12 points leads the 2016 draft class and that includes the likes of first overall Auston Matthews (6 goals, 1 assist) and second overall Patrik Laine (5 goals, 6 assists).

I know Olli Juolevi had a solid World Juniors for Finland, but has the buyer's remorse set in yet in Vancouver where they passed on Tkachuk at No. 5 to select the Finnish defenceman?

Juolevi should still turn out to be a very good player, but while he awaits his first NHL game, Tkachuk has been an absolute stud for Calgary in his first two seasons. Nothing but giddy squeals still from the Flames that they were able to land a guy at No. 6 that has such high skill, but is also an elite antagonist.

Continuing to earn more and more trust from Gulutzan, Tkachuk is now on the No. 1 power play and he also is among the coach's regular OT forward pairings. What's not new is being on the ice late in close games and for proof of why he's trusted in that role and it has been that way for a long time now, see his great play against Aaron Ekblad last Friday. Not only did he fend off the big defenceman to muscle the puck out of his zone in a one-goal game against Florida, but he made another great play to subsequently set up Backlund's empty netter.

The young man is being counted on more and more and he continues to not just meet expectations, but exceed them.


6. PK is Killing It

With five power play goals over the win streak including goals in three-straight games, the much-maligned man advantage is finally starting to produce again and as a result, it's getting some love. But the penalty kill is the side of special teams that should be showered with adoration these days as it's been outstanding. While the Flames were playing in that string of eight straight one-goal games, the PK pitching shutouts was often a key factor.


Penalty Kill During the Win Streak - SH TOI, PPGA

Hamonic - 26:13, 1
Brodie - 21:46, 0
Brouwer - 20:47, 1
Giordano - 20:33, 1
Backlund - 19:55, 1
Stone - 18:48, 1
Stajan - 12:43, 1
Hathaway - 12:35, 0
Jankowski - 11:37, 0
Bennett - 9:05, 1


Averaging a PP goal against every 4-5 minutes of PK time for most of the season, this recent stretch for Brouwer has yielded much better results. You can add that as another bullet under his improved five-on-five play.

The college kids Garnet Hathaway and Jankowski have been nearly flawless on the season. Jankowski is up to 33:38 now with just one power play goal surrendered on the year. Hathaway is up to 21:43 on the season and has not yet has had to hang his head and skate slowly to the bench after yielding a goal on the man advantage.

The team's penalty killers deserve yeoman's credit for helping the Flames get by without the services of Frolik, who is always an automatic with Backlund as the first forward pairing Gulutzan sends over the boards.

Since the start of the winning streak, Calgary ranks second in number of times shorthanded with 25. But over that period, they've got the fourth-best PK at 92 percent, having killed off 23 of those 25 infractions. Fourth is a giant upgrade on 26th, which is where Calgary ranked going into its game on New Year's Eve.


7. Shooting Percentage Rebounding

Last piece I wrote came out as the Flames prepared to open up the 2018 calendar year. At the time, the Flames were 5-4-3 in their last dozen with one of the key takeaways being that their shooting percentage of 6.95 percent was ridiculously low over that stretch compared to the 8.80 league average.  

As I pointed out at that time, they would have had an extra eight goals by shooting at the league average over those dozen games and if they had done that, you wonder how many of those losses or OT losses would have turned to victories.

Well, now the shooting percentage is balancing out. In the six games since -- all victories -- they've piled up 23 goals on 184 shots for a lethal 12.5 shooting percentage. 

From unsustainably low for a dozen games, to unsustainably high for the last half-dozen, over the span of these last 18 games in which Calgary has given up three-or-fewer goals, it leaves Calgary's shooting percentage at 8.69, which is just under the league average.

It should be reassuring for the team and its fans to know that over this six-week period since Dec. 5 in which Calgary has posted the NHL's sixth-best winning percentage (and second best record in the West behind Vegas), they're not doing it with smoke and mirrors. They're merely shooting at just below league average and it's gotten them points in 14 of those 18 games.


NHL - Best PT% since Dec. 5

1. Vegas - 16 gm, 13-1-2, 28 pts, .875
2. Boston - 16 gm, 12-1-3, 27 pts, .844
3. Washington - 17 gm, 12-3-2, 26 pts, .765
4. Tampa Bay - 18 gm, 13-4-1, 27 pts, .750
5. Philadelphia - 16 gm, 11-4-1, 23 pts, .719
6. Calgary - 18 gm, 11-4-3, 25 pts, .694
7. Colorado - 17 gm, 11-5-1, 23 pts, .676
8. Anaheim - 17 gm, 9-4-4, 22 pts, .647


In fact, with a little more luck around the net -- Calgary is 4th in the NHL in iron hit, either cross bars (10) or posts (26) -- they could be even better. With a little more accurate shooting -- Calgary is 2nd in number of shots that go wide --- they could be even better.


8. Addition by Subtraction

Also worth pointing out are the two personnel changes made recently. Two guys that have been absent for most of this winning streak.

We're talking about Jaromir Jagr, the oft-injured, future hall-of-famer playing on the fourth line, finally being placed on IR after battling all season with a lower-body injury.

Also gone is the team's poster child for an extra forward, Freddie Hamilton. With the departure of 'Freddie the 13th' as he's been cleverly referred to, also gone is the non-stop swirling speculation that he was only on the roster to appease his little brother. 

That's Jagr, he of one goal in 22 games. That's Hamilton, he of zero goals in eight games. 

It's a shame that it hasn't worked out for Jagr. In those spurts when he had the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, he showed that he still had the vision and playmaking ability to play, but the ability to quickly get his shot off isn't what it used to be, nor is his ability to keep up with the play when it transitions up ice.

This isn't a knock, just the reality that father time catches up with everyone. A month away from turning 46, Jagr is nearly five full years older than Matt Cullen, the league's next-oldest player. Think about that. Incredible. 

While there has been rampant speculation that the Jagr experiment is over in Calgary, nothing official has been announced by the club. He is on injured reserve for now. But you sure get the sense that he has played his last game with the Flames and his absence hasn't hurt them.

Meanwhile, Hamilton has definitely played his last game as he was spared a trip to the minors by being quizzically plucked off waivers by the hapless Arizona Coyotes.

Since Jagr's last appearance on New Year's Eve, the Flames fourth line has been noticeably better, thriving on being a more speedier trio. 

While quite likely just a coincidence, Dougie Hamilton's game hasn't fallen off at all since his brother left the nest. In fact, it could be argued he's been better.

Most importantly, these two players have been replaced by two hungry and deserving candidates from the minors and the team has been streaking ever since.

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Final Word

While things are looking up for Calgary, there is still plenty of work left to do.

Their grip on second in the Pacific is precarious at best with the Kings holding two games in hand and the Sharks having played four fewer games.

But what they've done is put themselves back in the mix and have done so by playing the style of hockey over the last six weeks that is very much sustainable. That bodes well.

Keep the goals against down, stay aggressive and don't sit back in the third period, continue to get scoring across the top-nine and if the special teams can continue to perform like they have recently, Flames fans will find the sweet taste of playoff hockey on the dessert menu.



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:


Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Not-So-Dirty Dozen: Improved Defensive Play Past 12 Games Has Flames on Path to Playoffs

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The skid marks on the road are still fresh. The smell of burnt rubber lingers.

Whether or not you realized it at the time -- seat belts do work wonderfully in this regard -- it was exactly four weeks ago today that the Calgary Flames season took a sharp and sudden u-turn.

Screech...

Instead of driving directly to the airport that morning for the club’s cross-country flight to Toronto to start a two-game Eastern Canada road trip, Glen Gulutzan made an 11th hour change to the itinerary late the night before. Suddenly, the next day's morning departure had become an afternoon departure and the players were re-routed to the Saddledome for an unplanned early practice.

The impetus for the coach? Gulutzan was none too pleased with the ramshackle state of his team’s defensive game and you can understand why.

The previous night, it was a 5-2 home-ice loss to Philadelphia. Entering the game on a 10-game losing skid, the Flyers broke open a 1-1 game with three goals in a 71-second span in the second period.

Forty-eight hours earlier in a much-anticipated match-up with the Edmonton Oilers, the Flames had turned in another dud in front of its home fans. Down 3-1 after the first period and 5-1 after the second, it wasn't until it got to 6-1 in the third that a furious late rally was launched to make the final score a deceivingly respectable 7-5. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.

That day, Dec. 5, as the players pulled on their practice sweaters, Calgary sat 25th in the league with 88 goals allowed in 27 games. That was just a stone's throw away from Buffalo (93) in 30th.


Turning Point 

No one knew it at the time, but beginning with that single no-nonsense, attention-to-details practice -- peppy soundtrack provided by Gulutzan's incessant whistling -- the team was about to play its best hockey of the season.

It began the next night at the Air Canada Centre. In a game in which Calgary carried the play all night in outshooting Toronto 48-29, they could only beat Frederik Andersen once. The Flames lost 2-1 in a shootout.

Despite the loss, the vastly improved defensive effort that night was a sterling silver lining.

Beginning that Wednesday night, the team's defence -- so highly touted coming into the season after the off-season acquisition of Travis Hamonic -- has finally started to live up to its advance billing.

The work done to repair the leaks in their d-zone play has been evident throughout the past dozen games, despite a couple missteps along the way.

With red-eye flights and white-knuckle highway trips looming for right after the game, Calgary started its holiday break one night early in an uninspiring 3-2 loss to Montreal on Dec. 22. Then going into the always-tough Honda Center on Friday in the back-end of a difficult post-holiday break back-to-back, they got run out of the building in the first and third periods in a 2-1 loss to Anaheim. But looking beyond those two asterisks, the team has been playing much better.

"These last 12 games, we've played three that were below average, but we've played nine really good ones and we haven't had much to show for it," said Gulutzan on Sunday night, after the Flames rung in the New Year with a 4-3 overtime win over Chicago. "So like the points that the players get (e.g. two-point games for Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, both ending slumps), the points that a team gets on a night like this are also big."


Goals Against Way Down

Over this four-week span in which Calgary has only been outshot twice, the Flames have not yielded more than three goals in a game. In nine of the games, they've limited their opponent to one or two goals:
  • 3 GA - 3 times
  • 2 GA - 5 times
  • 1 GA - 4 times

That adds up to a mere 23 goals allowed in 12 games. That's an average of less than two per game, which is close to a goal-and-a-half better than that dreadful stretch to begin the season in which they were averaging closer to 3.3 goals allowed.

Over that time, only the Boston Bruins have been more stingy.

NHL: Team Goals-Against Average Leaders Since Dec. 4
(factors in minutes played)
  1. Boston, 1.64
  2. Calgary, 1.87
  3. Vegas, 2.03
  4. NY Rangers, 2.10
  5. St. Louis, 2.12
  6. Nashville, 2.15
  7. Tampa Bay, 2.15
  8. Philadelphia, 2.24
  9. Washington, 2.28
  10. Anaheim, 2.42

Boasting the league's second-best goals-against average the past four weeks is quite the meteoric rise from when they ranked 25th on Dec. 5. Overall on the season, the 111 goals Calgary has allowed ties them for 12th -- and they're trending up.

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Defence Wins Championships (and Playoff Spots)

History would suggest that if the Flames can continue to limit the goals allowed, they are setting themselves up for success as year after year, the NHL's top teams always tend to be teams that excel in this area.

Exhibit A - Defence > Offence

In each of the last two seasons, 14 of the 15 best teams when it came to fewest goals allowed have made the playoffs. The only two exceptions have been:
  • 2016-17 - Los Angeles (6th in GA, 26th in GF)
  • 2015-16 - New Jersey (8th in GA, 30th in GF)

Interestingly, the cause-and-effect isn't nearly as compelling on the other side of the puck.

Again, looking back on the last two seasons, only 12 of the 15 highest-scoring teams made the playoffs.

The moral of this story is scoring a ton of goals will 'often' get you in the playoffs, but limiting the goals against will 'almost always' get you in the playoffs. So your best bet is focus first on your own end and play a tight defensive game. Do that and unless your offence is really bad -- see the Kings last year or the Devils two years ago -- then you should be just fine.


Exhibit B - Elite Defence 

Further, if you can be an elite team defensively -- think top five in goals allowed in the league -- you have an excellent chance of not just making the playoffs, but also winning your division or at least having home-ice advantage to open the playoffs.

2016-17 - Top Five in GA
  1. Washington, 177 GA, 1st in Metropolitan
  2. Columbus, 193 GA, 3rd in Metropolitan (4th overall)
  3. Anaheim, 197 GA, 1st in Pacific
  4. Montreal, 198 GA, 1st in Atlantic
  5. San Jose, 200 GA, 3rd in Pacific

2015-16 - Top Five in GA
  1. Anaheim, 188 GA, 1st in Pacific
  2. Washington, 191 GA, 1st in Metropolitan
  3. Los Angeles, 192 GA, 2nd in Pacific
  4. St. Louis, 197 GA, 2nd in Central
  5. Tampa Bay, 198 GA, 2nd in Atlantic

It's all further proof that as the expression goes, a great defence should always defeat a great offence.

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About Calgary's Offence

Now let's turn our attention to the attacking zone.

If the Flames can sustain their improved defensive play and by the end of the season, rank in the top-10 or even the top-5 in goals against, what would the offence need to do?

Basically, just don't be awful like the Kings and Devils as noted above.

A league-average offence should suffice when combined with an elite or near-elite defence. You're always striving to be better than that, of course, but in terms of minimum requirements to make the post-season, that should cover it.

While it's true that the Flames offence is operating well below average right now. That's why they only have a 5-4-3 record over this stretch of superb defensive play, there's reasons to believe they'll snap out of this offensive funk soon.

With six of the seven losses being by one goal, it will only take a slight uptick in offensive production to turn losses into wins. Such results aren't as far away as they may seem either.

For one, they've been generating plenty of chances during this 12-game stretch:
  • Shots on Goal (per game) - 6th (33.58)
  • Total Shot Attempts (per game) - 6th (50.17)
  • Missed Shots (per game) - 1st (16.0)

Where no 'puck luck' enters the equation -- combined with a lack of finish -- is the team's misfortune around the opponent's net. Goals are going in lately at an unsustainably low rate:
  • Team Shooting Percentage - 27th (6.95%)
  • Average Goals For (per game) - 26th (2.33)

Over the past four weeks, the team's shooting percentage has been 6.95. Over that same period the league average has been 8.80. That's a significant difference. If Calgary had shot at the league average over the past 12 games, it would have equated to an additional eight goals.

Sure, some of those extra goals may have come on nights in which they won anyway, but considering all the one-goal losses in this stretch, it's not unreasonable to think that they could have three of four more wins over this period had they buried some of their chances.

Think about how much less consternation there would be in the city if Calgary was 9-2-1 in the past dozen games rather than 5-4-3.

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Final Word

While it's easy to be chagrined about the team's plight when, as a fan, you wake up in the morning and don't see Calgary in a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

But the reality is there are still 43 games remaining and they're only two points behind Anaheim for the second wild card spot -- plus they hold a game in hand. It isn't a mountain they have to climb, or even a hill, it's a speed bump.

There is ample time to not just pass teams and ascend into a top-eight spot, but also threaten for one of those coveted top two spots in the Pacific and home-ice advantage.

Aggravated by the power play struggles, home ice woes and personnel decisions, many fans are upset with the team right now and some are also furious with the coach.

But as I see it, it's like when you're driving on sloppy, wintery roads and your windshield is dirty. Other things tend to distract you while limiting your visibility of the road ahead and in this case, the significant fundamental improvements going on such as the team's much better defensive play.

If the No. 1 line can now re-find its form -- or close to it -- from early in the season when they were blistering hot and arguably the league's top trio. If the 3M line can persevere the loss of Michael Frolik. If the Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski duo with spark plug Garnet Hathaway can continue to generate chances. If Andrew Mangiapane can pick up where he left off in his NHL debut Sunday and eventually factor into one of those three lines, this team has enough horsepower up front.

Combine that with the star power on the back end finally playing up to their abilities and mix in continued fine play in the crease from veteran Mike Smith and rookie David Rittich, Calgary is in good shape.

It's not going to be easy, but for those Western Conference bubble teams currently ahead of the Flames, just a warning that objects in the mirror may not be as far away as they seem.




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:

  • Living the Dream of a White NHL Christmas: Ex-Farmhands Thriving with Flames - Seven one-on-one interviews went into this deep dive into Calgary's development model and four players that have jumped to the AHL, who are not making an impact. (Dec. 24, 2017)
  • Breaking the Persona: Hathaway Showing That Maybe There's More There- Finding himself right in the middle of all the Flames key goals lately, Garnet Hathaway is showing that maybe he can be an offensive contributor at the NHL level after all. (Dec. 20, 2017)
  • Janko and Benny: After a Three-Year Search, Has Bennett Found His Hockey Soulmate - After three years of searching, has Sam Bennett has found his hockey soulmate in Mark Jankowski, just like Backlund has Frolik and Monahan has Gaudreau. (Dec. 2, 2017)