It’s been a rough 20-odd games for Flames fans. Aspirations of the club striking last year from our collective memories with a definitely strong opening to the season were dashed almost immediately when the Edmonton Oilers (the worst team in the league) objectively outplayed Calgary in the opening game. Fast forward six weeks and the Flames are looking up at the rest of the conference, with the spectre of a near .600 win % required to simply slip into the post-season as an 8th seed haunting the club’s every game.
So there’s been lots of complaining and gnashing of teeth. That’s my default position, frankly, but even the optimistic have been mostly disheartened through the early going here.
Granting that stuff, the fact is – it’s not all bad. There are some positives to take from the Flames first 24 games, even if the overall picture is a gray one.
1). Alex Tanguay
Unlike most of Sutter’s moves the last couple of years, I was solidly behind the Tanguay signing. A heavy hitter for years, Alex’s injuries and struggles after he left the first time depressed his stock to a non-trivial degree. That enabled Sutter to snag him at the bargain basement price of $1.7M and thus far the dude has delivered. He currently leads the team with 21 points. That despite the fact he’s been paired with Jarome Iginla for a majority of the season and the latter looked like he was playing with shoes and a canoe paddle for the first 4 weeks of the year.
Tanguay’s underlying numbers are solidly mediocre. His production has been somewhat bolstered by good percentages (PDO of 102, second highest on the team). His pricetage makes these issues less pressing. In addition, he’s improved a lot by my eye, mostly in lock-step with the captain, over the last month or so. If he can continue on the path he’s on currently, Tanguay will easily be the best bargain on the team by the end of the year. And will likely warrant another contract as a result.
2.) Jay Bouwmeester/Robyn Regehr
One wonders why this pairing wasn’t hit upon earlier. Robyn Regehr has spent a lot of years looking for an adequate partner since Jordan Leopold was dealt to Colorado (for the aforementioned Tanguay). Lots of different guys have been tried with various levels of success: Cory Sarich, Dion Phaneuf and even Rhett warrener before his body broke down completely. None of them were ever wholly adequate, and fraknly Regehr himself has spent significant stretches looking shaky over the last few seasons.
As did Jay Bouwmeester in his inaugural season as a Calgary Flame. Like Regehr, Bouwmeester auditioned a number of less than ideal partners last year: Adam Pardy, Steve Staios, Cory Sarich. The best of the bunch was Mark Giordano and they were separated far too often.
With Phauef gone and Sarich on the outs with the coaching staff, it looks like Brent Sutter has settled on pairing the Flames two best defensive rearguards together.
The union has been a fruitful one. Since joining Regehr, Bouwmeester has mostly looked like the big minute, shut-down quality defensemen that was advertised when he was signed by the org. Regehr seems to be back to form as well. The duo is too new to get a read on them stats-wise, but I think we can safely say the early returns are very promising.
3.) Mikael Backlund
Before the start of the year, I was fairly adamant that Backlund could use another season in the AHL. The kid was jus okay during his audition last season by my eye and he didn’t exactly knock things out of the park in Abbotsford either. It didn’t seem to make sense to have him start out on the parent club. And then injuries hit and his inclusion on the active roster went from debatable to certain.
Backlund started the season mostly where he left off last year: treating the puck with suspicion, defaulting to the dubious strategy of shooting it in the general direction of the net whenever he crossed the blueline. He was killing offensive zone insertions quite often because he’d throw the puck away at the slightest pretext. Both then and earlier in his career there was evidence of raw skills (skating, puck handling, vision), but they were undermined by typical rookie stuff.
The kid looks to be coming around though, which is incredibly good news for a franchise that hasn’t internally developed a forward worth a damn since…well, David Moss or Matthew Lombardi I guess. Backlund certainly isn’t blowing the doors off in terms of production and Brent Sutter still mostly treats him with kid gloves, but there’s evidence of growth. At 21, he’s not a liability against lesser lights (as evidenced by his good underlying stats) which is the first step most prospects never really take. He’s no longer treating the puck like a hot potatoe, instead pressing the attack by using his speed and stick-handling to drive wide and take the puck to the net. He’s been a capable PKer and I think his numbers would improve with some PP time, which may or may not start accruing to him in the near future.
If Backlund can continue to improve in this manner going forward, the Flames have a player on their hands.
4.) Mark Giordano
The interesting thing about Gio is that he keeps adding to his list of abilities the longer he stays in the league. When he originally broke through, I tabbed Gio as a limited 3rd pairing, second PP guy who could be signed for cheap and provide good value from the bottom-end. That’s mostly how he’s been deployed during his tenure here (he’s crushed things in that role, of course), so it remains an open question whether he’ll be able to step into a legit top-4 role once his pay check quadruples.
That said, on top of his offensive skills, his mobility, excellent passing and tenacity, Giordano has become one of the NHL’s premier shot blockers this season. Only the Rangers Girardi has gotten in front of more pucks than Gio’s 66, and he’s played two more games. What’s more, we know Giordano’s BlkS total isn’t merely an artifact of poor possession, since he spends a lot of time at the other end of the ice (corsi +13.52/60…Girardi is -13/60 BTW). We also know that shot blocking is a legitimate skill.
When Robyn Regehr was hurt earlier this month, Giordano wore a letter in his absence. I can imagine that will be permanatly added to his resume at some point as well.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, naturally. For instane, iginla’s recent awakening portends good things for the club if he can extend for awhile. Nik Hagman has been decent from start to finish and Jokinen’s move to the right side to the third is a hopeful sign the org has figured things out as far as he’s concerned. But these are the most unabiguous bright spots in my eyes through the early going so far.