January 06 2015 09:30AM
Incredibly the Calgary Flames find themselves within spitting distance of the post season as the half season mark approaches. The possibility of a post-season appearance in year two of a rebuild is tantalizing, but the true priority for this organization remains the long term. The challenge for Brad Treliving and the decision makers, then, will be to balance the two objectives as we move forward into 2015. As a result of the club's unexpected success they have some interesting upcoming decisions to make, ranging from who to send down when Backlund returns to what to do with some pending free agents.
- Let's start off with the question of Backlund's imminent return to the line-up. The Flames have a full complement of active players so in order to fit him on the roster they'll have to demote someone. The primary options are a couple of kids who are waiver exempt in Markus Granlund and Josh Jooris or tough guy Brian McGrattan, who has only appeared in eight games this year.
We can assume that the team is not comfortable demoting McGrattan for various reasons, so it comes down to the youngsters. Both guys have scored at roughly the same rates in the NHL (13 and 14 points, respectively) and played very similar roles so far. Jooris is older at 24 and probably closer to a finished product than Granlund.
Jooris is also the much better possession player right now. His corsi of 46.1% is well clear of Granlund's 41.5%. In relative rate terms, Jooris is at +1.8 corsi/60 while Granlund is down at -9.6/60. That is despite very similar playing circumstances.
The choice is a clear one.
- A demotion might also be in Granlund's best interest. After a torrid, percentage assisted start, the 21-year old has fallen off a cliff recently, managing just four points in his last 19-games. In fact, he has just three shots on net in his last five games and 40 shots in 29 contests this year. That's a very low rate for any forward above 4th line duty.
Furthermore, Granlund is struggling by observation as well as by the math recently. Although he has good hands and vision, it's very clear he has trouble handling the strength and speed of NHL opponents, especially in his own end of the rink and in the more defensively demanding role as a centre. Granlund is neither overly big nor fast, so he'll either need to get a lot more wily or improve one of those skills in order to become a useful, full time NHLer. A stint in the AHL may help him play more minutes and work on these key deficiencies.
- What might also help is a move to the wing. Calgary has three established NHL centres currently in Matt Stajan, Sean Monahan and Backlund and a probable high-end guy on the way in Sam Bennett. There's also Corban Knight and Bill Arnold pressing for minutes in the minors, as well as possible pivots in Paul Byron, Lance Bouma, Joe Colborne and Josh Jooris still in the show. Wingers also have less defensive responsibilities.
- On to the bigger picture. With 45 points in 40 games, the Flames are somewhere between 47 and 50 points away from a playoff spot, depending on how the West washes out. To be safe, let's assume the cut-off is 95 points. That means they will have to finish around 25-17-0 or some equivalent to get in (say 22-11-6 with some OT losses throw in), which is a win percentage of about 60%. To put that in perspective, the Flames WIN% up until now has been about 53%.
- Calgary can increase their playoff chances by improving their possession numbers. What's interesting about the team right now is their bottom-five possession is mostly the outcome of just one side of the possession equation: shots for.
Currently, the Flames allow just 28.0 shots against per game, good for 5th best in the entire league. Some of that is the club's penchant for avoiding the penalty box - Calgary takes the least amount of PIMs in the NHL so far, which naturally leads to less time on the PK and, therefore, less pucks being fired at their net. The Flames also manage to block a lot of shots.
At even strength they are still competent, however, allowing 28.1 shots/60 (14th in the league between St. Louis and San Jose). The problem, as mentioned, is shot generation. Only the Buffalo Sabres (22.6/60) get less pucks on net than the Flames at 5on5 (24.6/60) in the league. In fact, there are only five teams overall who managed less than 30 shots/60 in the first half of the season (BUF, CGY, EDM, ARI, PHI).
The objective becomes a bit clearer for the coaching staff then - how does the team increase their lousy SF numbers while maintaining their decent SA numbers?
- Part of the problem is likely intractable given the roster: the club's two most effective puck movers from the back-end are TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano and they are buried beneath an avalanche of difficult circumstances every night, which naturally reduces their ability to create more shots. The Flames can't really re-jig usage to give them higher ground, however, since the shift in responsibility would probably undermine the other defensive pairing's results.
- What could help, however (and is eminently possible) is moving Matt Stajan back up the rotation. The veteran centre has very quietly put together better than average underlying numbers in less than ideal situations - results that have been masked by underwhelming counting stats (and circumstances).
Stajan's relative corsi is +5.5/60 through 22 games even though he starts more often in the defensive zone than any other regular forward (35.5% zonestart) and usually plays with grinders and tough guys. In fact, the team has the highest on-ice shot rate with Stajan at 5on5 this year (29.2/60). For context, that number is 10 shots better than Joe Colborne (19.5/60) and more than five shots better than Markus Granlund (24.5) and Josh Jooris (23.8), all of whom tend to play more than Stajan. In fact, amongst regular skaters, the only forward who plays less than Matt's 9:45 ES ice per game is Brandon Bollig (8:48).
Altogether: the team has a decent possession rate and a relatively high shot rate with Stajan on the ice this year, even though he is deployed almost exclusively in a defensive role with grinders. It's probably time to give him a longer look in the top-9 rotation.
- Here's how my line-up would shake out with Backlund back, Granlund demoted and Stajan getting more minutes:
Glencross - Backlund - Byron
Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
Raymond/Colborne - Stajan - Jones
Bollig - Bouma - Jooris/Colborne
The Backlund line gets the tough assignments, The Monahan line gets sheltered and the Stajan line lands somewhere in between. The other option is to keep burying Stajan, but simply give him more minutes and better line mates.
- Two items might surprise people from my line-up: Glencross on the tough minutes line and Colborne thrown in as a filler in the bottom six. Let's start with Colborne.
The only player with a worse relative possession rate on the Flames is Brandon Bollig. Colborne's corsi of 39.8% is comparable to enforcers and fringe NHLers. Amongst NHL forwards with at least 200 ES minutes this year, Colborne's possession ratio is the 19th worst in the entire league. And that's in part because 11 members of the historically bad Buffalo Sabres sit below him on the list. For more context, take a look at Colborne's WOWY (with or without you): you'll notice every player's possession results absolutely crater when skating with Colborne this year (aside from Monahan's, whose stay steady).
As mentioned above, the Flames shot rate with Colborne on the ice is just 19/60, which is five shots below the team average. That's fairly shocking, because the Flames are the second worst team in the league at garnering shots on net at 5on5! In addition, Colborne himself doesn't direct many pucks on net. He has managed just 22 shots in 22 games so far this season, even while averaging 16 minutes of ice per game.
What has prevented Colborne from looking completely terrible is luck and tools. His PDO is a team high 107.4. That's a combination of an on-ice SH% of 11.7 (about the rate many teams score during the PP) and an on-ice SV% of 95.7% (better than Dominic Hasek in his prime). It's amazing that a player with those kinds of bounces has just 3 goals and 12 points (and a +3) in 22 games, but it goes to show how lousy Colborne's shot ratios are.
In addition to lady luck, Colborne has the look of a guy who should be a good hockey player. He's big, has relatively good hands and can skate pretty well. Every few games, he manages to make a play in the offensive zone that suggests he could become an impact player. But, aside from being able to win some face-offs, he struggles mightily at all other aspects of the game.
That Colborne is young and has the requisite tools to be a player is the only reason I haven't agitated to demote or trade him. His underlying results are replacement level player bad, though. Once the percentages regress on Colborne he's going to get lit up like a Christmas tree unless he can start pushing the play north a lot more effectively.
- Of course, this comes back to the primary objective at hand - if the Flames are more committed to experimentation and development than winning this year, then maybe playing Colborne more than Stajan is more worthwhile.
- Let's circle back to Curtis Glencross. He's kind of the anti-Colborne right now: by eye he usually doesn't look that effective, but his underlying numbers are much, much stronger. Glencross, like Stajan, sees some of the toughest assignments out of any forward on the team with frequent starts from his own zone. Unlike Stajan, Glencross also faces the other team's best players every night. Nevertheless, he's a positive relative possession player* (+5.2/60) and he is even scoring at a decent rate (11 goals, 25 points, 3rd amongst forwards), which is why I'd play him with Backlund in a shut down role.
*Some might argue that's an effect of playing with Monahan, but Glencross' shot numbers are actually slightly better away from Sean than with him this season.
- This is the kind of rebound season the Flames were hoping for out of Glencross after his lacklustre showing last year, though it makes their decision of whether to re-sign him or not much more difficult. At 33 years old, Glencross represents a significant risk of deminishing returns down the road. In addition, his decent season and low cap number (just $2.5M) likely make him an attractive deadline rental option for a contender, rendering him a quality trade asset.
On the other hand, sometimes it's beneficial for rebuilding teams to hang on to quality veterans. As Devin Setoguchi and Mason Raymond have ably demonstrated this year, it can be difficult to replenish quality middle rotation talent from the UFA pool in the summer, especially if you're not a first call destination for most free agents.
- I think The Glencross conundrum will ultimately come down to a couple of things:
1.) Are the Flames contending for a playoff spot at the deadline? If so, there's little chance they'll auction off Glencross.
2.) What does the player want contract-wise versus what the Flames can get for him at the deadline? If Glencross is looking for big, long-term money and/or if teams come calling with first round picks or quality prospects, it will probably make more sense to deal him.
- Finally, there's Karri Ramo, who might be the other guy the Flames shop at the deadline. Although the two puckstoppers duelled it out to start the year, it's become clear that the organization now views Jonas Hiller as the putative starter. Ramo's contract ends this year and AHL starter Joni Ortio's salary converts to a one-way deal starting new season. The org will also likely see stand-out college prospect Jon Gillies turn pro in 2015-16. That leaves a probable set-up of Hiller and Ortio in Calgary and Gillies as the starter in Adirondack next season.
If there's any demand at all at the deadline for a veteran back-up type goalie, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see the Flames move him.