Random Thoughts - Flames Year In Review

Kent Wilson
April 28 2014 12:25PM

random-thoughts

It seems a little bizarre for a season this season to feel like a success - a season in which the Flames finished second last in the west - but that's the sense of Flames fans are left with, I think (myself included). 

That no one expected anything of the team in the first place is likely the biggest reason people are finding silver linings to focus on in the wake of 2013-14, but there's more to the rising tide of hope in Calgary beyond the influence of lower expectations. The team's noteworthy second half, a fresh new core of talent and a growing stable of prospects are amongst the biggest reasons Flames fans are looking forward to next year. 

- The big thing is, the club wasn't as bad as their final place in the standings would suggest. Despite a swath of injuries over the season (only Chris Butler played the full 82 game schedule) and a concerted effort to play every raw kid available down the stretch (#tankmode), Calgary ended up with a -32 goal differential. That's certainly not good, but it's more than 30 goals better than our hapless neighbors to the north (-67) and well clear of other similarly win challenged clubs on the rebuild path (Buffalo, New York and Florida were all south of -40). So while the Flames are picking in the top-5 at the draft in June, it's arguable that they were a tier above the other basement dwellers. 

In contrast, Calgary was only a few goals away from teams like Vancouver (-27), Nashville (-26), Ottawa (-29) and Toronto (-25). And that's with the Leafs enjoying near Vezina caliber goaltending all year.

- In December of 2013, it looked like the Flames would be battling the Sabres for last overall. From about the middle of November to the start of the new year, the club was lousy - they couldn't score, the goaltending was mediocre and they were putting up league worst possession numbers on most nights. Things were grim.

As you can see from this rolling average graph from Extra Skater,  the nadir of the season was New Years against the Lightning:  

Calgary Flames 2013-2014 rolling 10-game 5v5 close FF%

After which the Flames became to climb back to respectability. The improvement was masked a bit by a post-New Years eve by a SH% dry spell, but as you can see the puck was finally starting to travel in the right direction.

The famous brouhaha between Tortorella and Hartley happened on January 18th. That's the first peak in January touching the 50% line on the graph above. It will likely be cited as a catalyst for the second half turn-around, but as you can see the turn-around was already under way. I can't speak to what psychological or sociological effect the line brawl had on the team as whole, but something had already started to click, performance and strategy-wise, before that point.

- No doubt the primary reason for Flames fans optimism is the club's second half. Pinpointing the source of that improvement and iterating on it is the task of the organization's decision makers this off-season. We've done our own investigations round these parts and from what we can tell a big part of the story is the combined play of Mikael Backlund, TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano.

This year, for example, when Backlund was on the ice with Giordano or Brodie, his corsi rate was an astounding 59.4%. To put that number in perspective, the LA Kings were the best possession team in the league this year with a corsi of 56.8%. As a result, Calgary's goals for % (goals for/goals against) was 62.5% (Backlund + Brodie) and 67.9% (Backlund + Gio) at even strength when the noted combinations were skating together.

Short version: the Flames dominated at even strength when Backlund-Brodie-Giordano were playing together. This is especially noteworthy because those guys regularly faced the big guns on a nightly basis, meaning their success isn't merely a consequence of circumstances.

These are elite numbers ladies and gents. which is why Giordano in particular is (rightfully) being considered in some corners for the Norris trophy.

- This leads us to the true reason for optimism - the org has apparently found the bedrock on which to build a new foundation. This is important because a lot of rebuilds find themselves building their castles in the swamp, only to see them collapse and sink into the mire time after time. 

When the previous regime finally crumbled in the lock-out shortened season, the Flames looked for all the world like a team starting utterly from scratch. The emergence of guys like Brodie and Backlund as not just every NHLers, but potential difference makers, means the club doesn't have go foraging for the seeds of a new core - they are in place and burgeoning already.

- The other reason for optimism, obviously, is the kids. There is a general tendency of all fanbases to overrate the NHL potential of their prospects. Following prospects closely feels a bit like stumbling around the desert with a divining rod sometimes - a vast majority of them don't ever cross the replacement level threshold, but it's hard not to be encouraged by the Flame's current batch of youngsters neverthless.

Sean Monahan leads the parade after a 20+ goal season as a teenager. There's still work to be done with the former 6th overall pick and I'm somewhat skeptical of his offensive ceiling down the line, but there's no doubt he had a very good year given his age.

There's a relatively big class of kids bubbling underneath the surface too though. Johnny Gaudreau is roundly considered to be one of the best college hockey players of the last two decades. Max Reinhart, Markus Granlund and Corban Knight all had good to great seasons in the AHL this year. Emile Poirier and Morgan Klimchuk were difference makers on their respective junior clubs. Jon Gillies is one of the best goaltending prospects in the NCAA and Joni Ortio was named to the AHL all rookie team. 

On top of all that, Calgary will be adding a high caliber kid with the 4th overall selection in the upcoming entry draft. I don't think we'll be able to say the Flames have the best prospect depth in the league at that point, but it's certainly the best collection of kids that I can personally recall going back to the mid-to-early '90s. 

Perhaps the only sour note in prospect land was Sven Baertschi running in place this year. I didn't think his play was all that bad on the big club to start the season - the only thing separating Baertschi and Monahan when at the time was Monahan's sky high shooting percentage. It also seems like something about Sven's pre-season started him off on the wrong foot with the decision makers in town, resulting in a season filled with "tough love".

That said, Sven didn't exactly go down to the AHL and tear things up. He ended the season on a hot streak, but his overall stat line of 13g, 29p in 41 games isn't bad, but it's certainly not overly compelling either.

Which isn't to say it's time to cut bait with Baertschi. He will turn 22 years old in October and as we noted in this space last summer, a lot of current NHL stars weren't regulars at the age of 21. There's lots of development runway left for Baertschi and there's no denying he has significant offensive upside.  

- With all that said, keep in mind that this is a delicate stage of the rebuild and things can still go completely pear shaped. I've heard it said that the reason a collection of wires can be tossed into a drawer and always come out tangled is there is a near infinite number of ways knots and snarls can occur. Conversely, you need everything to stay perfectly in order for them to remain untangled. 

Headphone

That's true of managing a sports teams as well - there are may, many more blind alleys and landmines than there are safe paths.

Calgary has cap space, a young core and a nicely stocked cupboard of prospects. For the first time in years I personally see a faint hint of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The task in front of Burke and Treliving this summer, I think, is to act with patience, prudence and with a clear eye on the future. Protect and nurture what they have, eschew chasing white whales in free agency and look for small, incremental ways to improve as they bring the kids along.

The opportunity to compete again is tantalizingly close, but it can be dashed against the rocks in an instant if the decision makers don't keep a firm, steady hand on the wheel.

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Former Nations Overlord. Current FN contributor and curmudgeon For questions, complaints, criticisms, etc contact Kent @ kent.wilson@gmail. Follow him on Twitter here.
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#1 Burnward
April 28 2014, 01:00PM
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@RKD

Bluetooth. Changed my life. So freeing.

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#2 Kenta
April 28 2014, 04:32PM
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Welcome back Kent. Nice to see some thoughtful analysis again rather than hastily cobbled together posts of lists and cut and paste jobs we have been subjected to recently.

What are your thoughts on whether the new GM is going to be Tonto to Burke the Lone Ranger (as he was to Maloney in Phoenix) or do you think he will be his own man from the get go?

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#3 Robear
April 28 2014, 05:08PM
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Kenta wrote:

Welcome back Kent. Nice to see some thoughtful analysis again rather than hastily cobbled together posts of lists and cut and paste jobs we have been subjected to recently.

What are your thoughts on whether the new GM is going to be Tonto to Burke the Lone Ranger (as he was to Maloney in Phoenix) or do you think he will be his own man from the get go?

Wow, tough words! You volunteering to improve the content? You get from a community what you put in.

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#6 Burnward
April 28 2014, 01:09PM
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Couple thoughts...

Turnaround started when the boys started to get healthy. Vancouver game was a brother forging situation that carried over.

Monahan has a high shooting percentage because kid is a stone cold killer. Ridiculous how much finish he had as a rook. That's just natural goal-scorer ability.

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#8 jeremywilhelm
April 29 2014, 12:32PM
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Sieloff, lol.

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#9 Avalain
April 29 2014, 03:01PM
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ChinookArch wrote:

I'm amazed at how much Flames fan sentiments changed for Baertschi. At the beginning of last season, I felt like a voice in the wilderness pleading for realism, every time someone pronounced him the next saviour. Now, I'm a lonely voice saying that all is not lost with young Sven.

I listened to a Troy Ward on a radio interview providing some detail on Baertschi's development. In a nutshell, he has tonnes of talent and just needs to a bit of maturity. (BTW: I hope we can keep Ward in Abby for a while, I really like that guy).

In retrospect, Baertschi was probably better off learning how to be a professional in the AHL last year.

Technically, I'm hoping that Ward doesn't stay in Abby. I mean, considering that the team is moving and all.

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#10 Stubblejumper
April 28 2014, 01:08PM
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Nice article Kent..a good retrospective about the season that was, and particularly Backlund, Brodie and Gio's importance to the club.

Preaching patience and avoiding chasing FAs is also prudent and a poignant reminder not to get ahead of ourselves as there is a long road ahead.

On a go forward basis I'd be interested in your thoughts about what Treliving inherits right now, and then also what needs to be done over the next two years build the foundation for a Cup contender.

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#11 ChinookArch
April 28 2014, 02:04PM
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I'm amazed at how much Flames fan sentiments changed for Baertschi. At the beginning of last season, I felt like a voice in the wilderness pleading for realism, every time someone pronounced him the next saviour. Now, I'm a lonely voice saying that all is not lost with young Sven.

I listened to a Troy Ward on a radio interview providing some detail on Baertschi's development. In a nutshell, he has tonnes of talent and just needs to a bit of maturity. (BTW: I hope we can keep Ward in Abby for a while, I really like that guy).

In retrospect, Baertschi was probably better off learning how to be a professional in the AHL last year.

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#13 beloch
April 28 2014, 02:49PM
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Re: Sven

At the start of this season Hartley was saddled with three rookies who desperately needed shelter: Monahan, Colborne, and Baertschi. I'm not the best person to ask about this, but I suspect routinely throwing rookies against competition too far over their heads can damage their development. Giving them five minutes a night on the goon-squad probably isn't helpful either.

After both Wideman and Giordano were lost to injury there just wasn't enough shelter to go around. Monahan was stuck in the NHL due to his age and Colborne would have to pass waivers to be sent down. Baertschi was the only option, so we probably shouldn't worry too much about the choice to assign him to Abbotsford. What is concerning about Baertschi is how he initially struggled after his return to the AHL. He's improved since then, but this still has to be a disappointing season for him.

The good news is that Baertschi was on a 34.7 point pace (with a 6.7% sh%) while he was in the NHL and has a NHLE of 29.3 from his time in the AHL. That's actually very promising for a 21 year old. Sven Baertschi will be back on the big team soon. As the first high-profile prospect of the grand rebuild to make the team, the expectations and pressure for Baertschi must have been very high this season. Perhaps next season people will just let him play.

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#14 Robear
April 28 2014, 03:21PM
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Kent Wilson wrote:

We don't know that yet. Jordan Staal's rookie season SH%? 22.1. His career SH%? 12.1. His second highest SH% season was 13.3. Andrew Cogliano shot over 18% as a rookie. He has settled in at about 12.5%.

You can count on one hand the number of modern NHLers who have sustained a SH% above 15% over the long-term. It's not impossible that Monahan could be one of those guys, but it's improbable.

I agree with Kent (welcome back by the way, hopefully the new job is going well), I'd love to see Monahan as a high percentage shooter a la Tanguay, but I think its more likely that we saw regression across the last 3/4 of the year and the first 15 games was due to some inspired play by Hudler and what is quite evidently an above average hockey IQ and quality finishing by Monnie.

Again like Kent, I'm not sold that his 20 goal rookie campaign heralds a 40 goal top end. I expect/hope that he becomes a Daymond Langkow type, with better finish. A regular 20+ goals a year and a beast in both zones.

That was always the book on him. Early matured, but not the top end talent projection of the top 5 prospects. Considering where MacKinnon looks to be projecting currently (#wow!) that is still good stuff

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#16 exsanguinator
April 28 2014, 05:04PM
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-32 goal differential, 40 something one goal games. Turn some of those 1 goal losses into wins and you got a bubble team. a couple more pieces and we're in the playoffs.

Definitely way better than teams like Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton.

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#17 Robear
April 28 2014, 05:05PM
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beloch wrote:

Hartley gradually removed Monahan's shelter over the course of the season. By the end his possession in difficult deployments was good. I don't think anybody expected Monahan to be able to step out of the shade in his 18-year old season and do well, but he did. Scoring is great and all, but a two-way possession player with okay scoring is far more useful than an 80 point poofball who gets owned by third-liners when he isn't putting the puck in the net.

If by "removed Monahan's shelter" you mean, let him take over a Centreman's responsibilities in his own end! Still lots for him to learn, thats for sure. ;)

He projects well for a shutdown guy and I totally agree, a possession beast who takes on the heavies is way more useful than another Phanoofball.

Hopefully the coaching staff keep working him and he keeps progressing in the right direction.

Yah for 2015-16!

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#18 T&A4Flames
April 28 2014, 07:21PM
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Monahans shooting % is likely to regress but when you look at how he scores his goals I think it will stay relatively high. He scores a lot from in close which is a skill all it's own. He's not going to dangle or use speed to beat Dmen wide like MacKinnon but he knows where to go and where to be. That's a skill that can't be taught. Getting in prime scoring areas is why I believe he'll keep a pretty high shooting %.

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#19 Gussey
April 28 2014, 08:10PM
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Kent Wilson wrote:

I'd be entirely okay with Monahan becoming Jordan Staal BTW. Worst case scenario is Sam Gagner, who must be the most mediocre NHLer ever to score 40+ points as a rookie teen in this league.

How about Jonathan Toews as a comparison? Too much? Toews had 24 goals in his rookie season as a 20 year old. Similar commitment to the game. Not sure what the thoughts were of Toews coming into the draft or what his skills were compared to Monohan at the same age.

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#21 Skuehler
April 29 2014, 11:21AM
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beloch wrote:

Re: Backlund/Brodie/Giordano's awesome possession

The portion of this season that was played without Giordano was dark and brutal. He's a huge difference maker. Is he young enough to build around though? As hard as it is to imagine the Flames without Giordano right now, the smart move might be to trade him after another season or two.

There is hope for the post-Giordano Flames however. Brodie is the first partner Giordano has had in ages that elevates his play rather than drags it down, which is bloody impressive for a 23-year old. The Flames could get a decade of quality defense out of this kid! The key for the rebuild, aside from massively extending Brodie's contract, is to find Brodie's future partner once Giordano is either traded or simply declines.

Backlund has shown flashes of brilliance before this season, but these were almost always terminated by injuries. He wasn't healthy the whole season this year, but he really kicked some major butt. He might not be the big, bruising, 80 point center that Flames fans have been dreaming of, but this is a guy who can tilt the ice. If Monahan becomes a #1C, Backlund will be the shut-down guy feeding him the high ground.

Maybe Brodie could mentor Spoon the way Gio has him. Keeping the Brodie and Gio together makes for a top tier 1-2, but maybe it's time to spread them around and elevate some of the prospects or 5-6 guys. Maybe Gio-Sieloff, Brodie-Spoon, Russell- Wides.

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#22 RKD
April 28 2014, 12:43PM
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I agree the Flames were definitely a tier above teams like Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton. Hitting rock bottom is extremely dangerous because I think it can be very difficult to turnaround. There's lots to be excited about as a Flames fan, next season we get to see existing players develop and new prospects get a shot at being a regular NHLer. I hope Sven can get top 6 minutes next season from what I hear from Troy Ward his play in all three zones has been improving. Next year is another transition year, I'm excited to see what Gaudreau and Agostino bring to this squad. I hope Backlund continues to improve offensively, Gio is still a beast, Brodie still appears to be moving in the right direction.

Bryon has proven his value to this team, I think he will be a regular NHLer, Colborne seems decent but I think he can still give us more.

On an unrelated note, my headphones are always permanently tangled.

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#23 the-wolf
April 28 2014, 02:09PM
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I was quite worried about Sveb, but he didn't just end on a hot streak, he showed he could utterly dominate at the minor league level. Also, listening to Conroy and Ward speak baout him, he had a lot of figuring thing sout defensively to do which he's done. The question mark on him remains consistency, he really needs to step up and lead in the game 3 for the Heat. Which isn't to say he isn't trying, but he needs to take that step.

I also wouldn't be surprised to see Calgary regress a bit next season before going 2 steps forward in 2015-2016 season.

The one negative re: Gio is that he's already over 30. Sure, I think he's got another few all-star seasons in him, but it's not like he can be counted on to be a cornerstone for the rebuild n 5 years. Depedning on how the rebuild goes, the team may want to move him in a few seasons (unless we can duplicate what the Avs are doing!).

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#24 TheRealPoc
April 28 2014, 02:47PM
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Solid write-up, Kent.

I honestly believe this is the best fresh canvas this franchise has ever been presented with. Strong pipeline, potential pillars already with the big club and more cap space than you can shake a stick at. This is an incredible opportunity to build the right way.

So...um, good luck and don't screw up, Brad!

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#25 beloch
April 28 2014, 03:07PM
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Re: Backlund/Brodie/Giordano's awesome possession

The portion of this season that was played without Giordano was dark and brutal. He's a huge difference maker. Is he young enough to build around though? As hard as it is to imagine the Flames without Giordano right now, the smart move might be to trade him after another season or two.

There is hope for the post-Giordano Flames however. Brodie is the first partner Giordano has had in ages that elevates his play rather than drags it down, which is bloody impressive for a 23-year old. The Flames could get a decade of quality defense out of this kid! The key for the rebuild, aside from massively extending Brodie's contract, is to find Brodie's future partner once Giordano is either traded or simply declines.

Backlund has shown flashes of brilliance before this season, but these were almost always terminated by injuries. He wasn't healthy the whole season this year, but he really kicked some major butt. He might not be the big, bruising, 80 point center that Flames fans have been dreaming of, but this is a guy who can tilt the ice. If Monahan becomes a #1C, Backlund will be the shut-down guy feeding him the high ground.

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#26 beloch
April 28 2014, 03:31PM
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Robear wrote:

I agree with Kent (welcome back by the way, hopefully the new job is going well), I'd love to see Monahan as a high percentage shooter a la Tanguay, but I think its more likely that we saw regression across the last 3/4 of the year and the first 15 games was due to some inspired play by Hudler and what is quite evidently an above average hockey IQ and quality finishing by Monnie.

Again like Kent, I'm not sold that his 20 goal rookie campaign heralds a 40 goal top end. I expect/hope that he becomes a Daymond Langkow type, with better finish. A regular 20+ goals a year and a beast in both zones.

That was always the book on him. Early matured, but not the top end talent projection of the top 5 prospects. Considering where MacKinnon looks to be projecting currently (#wow!) that is still good stuff

Hartley gradually removed Monahan's shelter over the course of the season. By the end his possession in difficult deployments was good. I don't think anybody expected Monahan to be able to step out of the shade in his 18-year old season and do well, but he did. Scoring is great and all, but a two-way possession player with okay scoring is far more useful than an 80 point poofball who gets owned by third-liners when he isn't putting the puck in the net.

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#27 Burnward
April 28 2014, 08:43PM
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Kent Wilson wrote:

We don't know that yet. Jordan Staal's rookie season SH%? 22.1. His career SH%? 12.1. His second highest SH% season was 13.3. Andrew Cogliano shot over 18% as a rookie. He has settled in at about 12.5%.

You can count on one hand the number of modern NHLers who have sustained a SH% above 15% over the long-term. It's not impossible that Monahan could be one of those guys, but it's improbable.

I hear ya. But he didn't have a lot of cheap ones and was money in the shootout.

He's a natural goal scorer, IMO anyways.

Debate to resume May 1, 2017? Ha!

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