January 20 2013 12:29PM
Well it's finally here. The season opener.
After about 10 months of waiting, debating, fighting, hoping, wailing, wishing, gnashing teeth and rending garments, we finally get to see the latest iteration of the Calgary Flames take to the ice.
Their opponent this afternoon is the San Jose Sharks, a club some pundits claim is on the inevitable downswing; a former power watching the window of opportunity creaking shut. Personally, I think the rumors of the Sharks death are greatly exaggerated.
Although they finished 7th in the Westrn Conference last year with 96 points, the San Jose nevertheless sported a +18 goal differential, the 7th best score-tied possession rate in the league and the best PP shot rate in the NHL. What sunk their record to mediocre levels was stuff that likely won't repeat - bland percentages at even strength at best and a PK save rate of just 85% (third worst in the league).
So unless Thornton and Marleau drop off at age 32 this year, the Sharks can still bring it. The top-6 tends to control play at 5-on-5 and they have the most compelling powerplay in the league for several years running. Game one is a stiff test for the new look Flames.
Although some of us may want different combinations, these are the lines the Flames announced today:
- Glencross - Tanguay - Iginla
- Baertschi - Backlund - Cammalleri
- Horak - Stajan - Stempniak
- Comeau - Begin - Jackman
- Bouwmesster - Giordano
- Wideman - Butler
- Sarich - Smith
The first line is an experiment which may last all season or one period depending on how Alex Tanguay adjusts to the center position. He's still one of the game's great puck distributors, but there's a whole lot more to being a pivot, especially when it comes to the own-zone responsibilities. The fact the's probably going to go head-to-head with Thornton-Marleau-Pavelski isn't going to make his tranisition any easier today.
The line I'm personally most intrigued by is, of course, Backlund's trio. Mikael can play at both ends of the ice and, if he's more assertive north of redline, has hands and creativity. Baertschi is a rookie, so will probably won't be much help defensively for now, but can both snipe and find his linemates in traffic. Cammalleri proved in Flames colors last year that he remains a crafty sniper. The three should, in theory, be highly complimentary to each other.
I'm happy with the defense pairings, except for the probable scratching of TJ Brodie. Given his age, big apparent step forward in the AHL this year and Calgary's needs beyond this season, Brodie should be the natural choice to play ahead of just about every other option the club has for the third pairing. For now he seems to be the odd man out though.
Begin in for Jones is also an odd choice. The 4th line doesn't figure to be terribly relevant, but Jones was rounding into a useful checker and PKer last year. He's also, you know, 26 years old and has recently played in the league whereas Begin is 34 and hasn't seen an NHL game since 2010-11.
According to The Neutral at Fear the Fin, here's what we can expect from the Sharks today:
- Marleau - Thornton - Pavelski
- Clowe - Couture - Havlat
- Galiardi - Handzus - Wingels
- Sheppard - Desjardins - Burish
- Vlasic - Stuart
- Irwin - Boyle
- Murray - Braun
As you can see, the top-6 is terrifying, especially that first unit. Things drop off a bit after that, though, which is why you can understand the Sharks are looking at Scott Gomez.
Brent Burns starts the season hurt, which impacts the Sharks defense depth quite a bit. If they have any vulnerabilities today, it's definitely the bottom-end of the roster both up front and on the back-end.
For more background on the Sharks, I asked Fear the Fin a few questions. To see my answers to some Flamescentric inquiries, go here.
1.) A lot of pre-season predictions and power ranks seem imply the Sharks are no longer a Western Conference power and may be falling into middling territory in the league. I think that's not really accurate, but how are perceptions in San Jose to start the year?
I think there's a fair amount of disappointment permeating the fanbase after last season. The Sharks fell apart in the second half, stumbling to their lowest regular season finish since 2003 then exiting the playoffs quicker than they ever have before. There are some who believe the window has closed on the team but I think most people realize there's still a lot of talent here; San Jose's top six forwards are as talented a group as there is in the NHL and, when healthy, the defense is deep and skilled. However, if the Sharks get off to a slow start this season, don't be surprised to see fans jumping off the Golden Gate en masse.
2.) If Gomez makes the Sharks, what role do you expect him to play?
Gomez should provide the Sharks with the depth scoring they sorely lacked all of last season. He would be a substantial upgrade over Michal Handzus as the team's third-line center, fitting in nicely between two great skaters with offensive ability in T.J. Galiardi and Tommy Wingels. Together, that trio should be the type of soft-minutes scoring line a team that deploys its top two lines power-against-power should be utilizing. Since Todd McLellan likes to load up the top power play unit with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, Gomez would be a much-needed center for the second unit.
3.) Are there any meaningful rookies or new comers who will make a difference in the Sharks line-up this year, or is it more or less the same crew?
The Sharks have largely opted to bring back the same the same group they had last season, save for a few subtractions in Daniel Winnik, Dominic Moore and some depth defensemen. Still, there are some players who will be expected to take on increased roles. Wingels performed splendidly for the Sharks down the stretch a year ago as an effective forechecker but he's going to be counted on for scoring this season. Galiardi largely disappointed after coming over from Colorado at the deadline but the team needs him to rediscover his abrasive, productive self. Additionally, with Brent Burns and Jason Demers hurt to start the year, AHL call-up Matt Irwin may be asked to log some heavy minutes. Expect to see him paired with Dan Boyle tonight.
4.) Even if you are confident of the Sharks chances this season, does it feel like their "window" is beginning to close with Marleau, Thornton, Boyle, Stuart and Havlat all over 30? What happens if this group fails to make noise this year?
They definitely have some important decisions to make this summer, when they'll be exactly one year away from Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski and Boyle all reaching unrestricted free agency at once. The drop in the salary cap alone could likely dictate the end of Dan Boyle in teal but it's possible Doug Wilson could use that as an excuse to begin charting a course for the rebuild process. If the team fails to make it past the first round, I'd expect that to happen.
Thanks to the Neutral and FTF for the input.
Sum it Up
San Jose is battling to remain a Western Conference super power and Stanley Cup contender. The Flames, in contrast, simply want to stay in the playoff picture. Both clubs are fighting against time as their marquee forwards age. If either or both fails in their goals this season expect their GM's to take a knife to the respective rosters come the off-season.
As for this evening, the Flames will need to at least battle the Sharks big guns to a draw at ES and seek to stay out of the box as much as possible given San Jose lethal powerplay.
PS - No livechat for games this year thanks to CoveritLive's decision to move to a pay model. Until I can find an alternative application for the chats, we're relegated to sharing our thoughts via the comments section.