FGD: Threat Level Teal

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.

The Line-up

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
  • Brodie
  • Kipper

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.

The Opponent

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
  • Niemi

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.

  • Brent G.

    Does anyone think Gomez will rebound in a crazy way this year? I could see him putting up 20ish points in 48 games which will be awesome for a 1 million dollar player.

  • Brent G.

    Exicted to see Hartley’s “high octane” offence…I am very skeptical he can do anything with this aging core. If Hartley can turn around this team, he deserves a statue outside the Saddledome.

    Hopefully the youngster line plays good tonight, and we are looking at the Flames of the future.

    I think the Sharks will score early and often and bury the Flames 4-1.

  • RedMan

    There’s a reason Jarome plays RW. It’s because he provides more value grinding along the boards than he does playing a north-south 2-way game. I’ve said many times that, in theory, Tanguay would make a great center because of his skillset (and he’s never been one to grind, anyway) but that it’s never really worked in practice. This is mainly because he was never able to get the time to properly acclimate to the role. We have to give Tanguay more than just one game–or 1 period!–to judge his ability at playing the new position.

  • RKD

    There was a lot of buzz of using Iggy at center because Hartley wanted a big guy in the middle to take face-offs, plus Iggy is good at them.

    Iggy at center would be kinda weird, but Hartley might roll it out for a few shifts, Iggy was open to the idea to try it as well.

    Glen X should be a top 2 line guy, I think he fell back the third line his scoring would drop off dramatically.

    The Sharks find a way into the playoffs, year in and year out. They’ve reached the conference final three times, in the past 10 years, once in ’04,’10, and ’11.
    A guy like Gomez could alleviate some of the pressure on Marleau and Thornton.

    • Well…Iggy is one of the best (if not the best) face-off guy on the team, so if by playing centre it means just taking face-offs, that’s fine. But if it means Iggy has to do all the defensive stuff of a centreman, no thanks.

    • RedMan

      is the center supposed to do things like, let’s say, play defensively or come back into the defensive zone? cause if not, then Iginla would make an awesome center!

  • Colin.S

    I don’t get the Begin+Sarich in over Brodie+Jones at all, because being old an slow has done so well for the flames in the last couple years……

    I’m hoping the Flames win but Begin+Sarich have a terrible game so Brodie and Jones can get in, I really like both last year.

  • Subversive

    I’m strangely optimistic about the Flames this season. I think that if the young players take a step forward, they could actually be a top 6 team. A lot depends on Kipper, and how intelligently Hartley deploys his lines. Sitting Brodie seems like a bad decision, which makes me worry about Harley, but hopefully he’s quick to learn from his mistakes. Anyway, it’s probably just early season euphoria, but I feel good about their playoff chances right now.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Last year GlenX scored the first goal, this year the magic 8-ball likes Backlund or Cammi.

    Kent have you had a look at Blyve for live chat? They offer a free account for upto 500 Viewers.

  • Captain Ron

    Burns could get a serious look at a Hollywood Wolfman movie audition.

    Here’s hoping the first game of the season doesn’t have the same result for the Flames as last nights Vancouver home opener did for the Canucks.

  • RexLibris

    He lost me at “Gomez should provide the Sharks with the depth scoring”.

    On the surface a Flames/San Jose matchup holds little interest. That being said, the narrative in which you frame the two teams (aging rosters trying to hold back time) makes this intriguing.

    I’ll be watching it nevertheless, however, there is now a more interesting theme to keep in mind.

    Also, best Sharks roster photo I think I’ve ever seen.

    I don’t think San Jose actively chooses to rebuild this year.

    • Captain Ron

      The funny thing about the aging perception is the Flames are actually the 14th youngest team in the league. I realize the “aging” is happening at the top of the roster though.

      I hear you about Gomez (1 goal last year, and all that) but to be fair, perception in San Jose is generally that Handzus was terrible last season.

      Anyway, as Kent said, that top 6 absolutely horrifies me, but the bottom 6 is kind of… well, brutal. Interesting to note, I picked the Sharks to win the cup last year, so that might explain the bad luck. I picked the Blues this year.

      • It’s true the Flames aren’t old overall. It’s just the primary players who are, which is still a fundamental issue.

        I made the point way back in May:

        As you can see, a large proportion of the team fell outside of the professional peak age. The 28+ year olds (that’s the bad end of the curve) scored 83% of the points, ate up 73% of the cap budget and accounted for more than 70% of the ice time. In contrast, players near or entering peak age accumulated about 19% of the ice time and scored a paltry 14% of total points accounted for.

        Those ratios might change a bit this year with Cervenka and Baertschi in the line-up, but the fact remains – the Flames rely overwhelmingly on guys over 28 years old.