The new season is freshly born, and with it new sights and wonders. The Flames have burst out of the gate with a 1-0-2 start, which would be wholly disappointing if Calgary had not been roundly pick by pundits to finish last in the league with a bullet. Each game was a one goal affair and the Flames have led for long stretches of all of them. With a bit more luck, a few less errors or a bit more NHL-level goaltending, the club could easily be 3-0-0.
Here’s some thoughts and observations after the first week…
– What a difference a shift in perception makes. Had the Flames brass instead decided to stay the course again this year, a 1-0-2 start featuring not one but two blown leads in the third period, there would be an angry mob already forming at the steps of the Saddledome. Instead, the faithful is relatively pleased with the club’s efforts.
Given that reaction, it’s kind of amazing the decision makers waited this long to shift gears. If you can’t build a winner, it’s a marketing coup to build a club that can meet or exceed very low expectations instead.
– It also helps that all of the games have been wildly entertaining so far, a marked improvement from seemingly endless years of slow, plodding, "off-the-glass" style hockey. The Flames are a
Chinese Oilers fire drill in their own zone, their special teams need quite a bit of work and no one knows if they will even have average goaltending this year, but at least they’re flying around with some gumption.
– That’s the list of things the Flames have struggled with so far. On the good side of the ledger is a faster transition game out of their own end and through the neutral zone. One problem that plagued Calgary’s top-six in particular the last few years was a slow, turn-over prone transition through the center ice, which frequently resulted in the puck going the wrong way and the team spending and starting way too many shifts in their own zone.
One of the changes that seems to be promoting the quicker counter punch is the mobility and puck handling of the blueline. A top pairing of Giordano and Brodie means the clubs gets the puck out of their end in a hurry. Wideman and Russell are pretty good at this too. More ice time for players like Backlund and Stempniak has also meant a more complete 200′ foot game, at least when it comes to puck pursuit and backchecking.
– Speaking of Giordano and Brodie, they have been outstanding at even strength so far. They are mostly skating against other team’s top lines and have the best possession rates on the team. Giordano co-leads the team in scoring, Brodie is averaging over 24 minutes in ice time. They aren’t merely suviving the tough sledding, they’re excelling. If some people are wondering why the Flames don’t seem quite as terrible as expected, look no further than the top of the Flames blueline rotation as at least some of the explanation.
– Wideman has also been pretty decent, although Hartley has him starting almost exclusively in the offensive zone at ES and he plays a ton on the PP, which helps. His frequent partner Russell is generally decent, but a true step back of the club’s clear top-3 options. The former Blue Jacket is quick and good with the puck, but is prone to egregious errors from time-to-time and doesn’t seem to be boast good decision making when things go awry. Already three times this season the opposition has scored goals while Russell has slid out of frame on his belly. Ideally he’s probably a guy who should be a #5 or 6 in the rotation.
– Sean Monahan has had a pretty strong start to the season given his counting stats (2 goals, 1 assist) and hasn’t looked out of place the last two games. That siad, he’s also operating with an ES on-ice SH% of 13.3, which is bound to come crashing back down to earth at some point. Hartley has also made sure to gift the kid a 60% zone start, which is about as easy as it’s going to get and his underlying numbers aren’t all that exemplary.
In other words, things only get tougher for Monahan from here on in. I don’t think he’ll be able to keep seeing that favorable ratio of face-offs and the puck isn’t going to go in at nearly the same rate all year. Keep that in mind as the team wrestles with the decision of keeping him up beyond game nine.
– Curtis Glencross has fine stats across the board, but he has looked awful by eye. Lackluster decision making and uninspired compete level all over the ice. I’m stunned most of his results are adequate. On the plus side, he’s capable of being a lot better and will likely improve as the season progresses.
– Speaking of the kids, another thing that’s probably floating their boat is Lee Stempniak, who for my money might be the best all around forward on the club right now. He currently leads the team with 16 shots on net in three games, despite mostly playing with a pair of rookies (talented rookies, but rookie notheless). At some point Hartley will move him up with either Glencross or Backlund and he’ll help raise the performance of one of those lines as well.
If other clubs are smart, they’ll start calling the Flames about Stemps as a deadline rental as soon as Christmas is over. Of course, one wonders if he keeps this up if Calgary will try to retain him as a veteran to stabilize things during the on-going rebuild instead. Naturally, that would depend on Stempniak wanting to stick around in that kind of role…
– It’s somewhat gratifying to see read a lot of positive reviews on Backs from all corners of Flames fandom so far this year. He looked tentative in the offensive zone (like rookie Backlund) initially, but has grown more assertive over the first three games. Hudler’s been picking corners which has helped his output, but it will be interesting to see how the line does once Cammalleri replaces Galiardi.
– On the other hand, new guy Joe Colborne has been pretty underwhelming. Hartley hasn’t given him too much room to strut his stuff, but then Colborne hasn’t done anything that would convince the coach to move him up the depth chart. In contrast, journeyman Ben Street seems to have become a new favorite of the bench boss. I always liked Street when I saw him on the Heat and he always struck me as player who would have high utlity in a bottom-6 role in the NHL. He probably shouldn’t be playing against the Sedins in an ideal world, but as a third or fourth liner, he’s much more useful than the Mike Brown’s of the league.
– Some interesting numbers so far: The Flames are averaging 35 shots on net per game (!), but also giving up 33 (frown). Still, that’s a positive shot differential. Huzzah! Their ES shooting percentage is over 11%, so expect that to regress at some point. Their goaltending is actually better at 5on5 this year than it was last year, but is still bad (.904). That said, it’s actually PK SV% that has really sunk the club (57.1!!!). At the very least, the puck stopping short-handed should get much better at some point because nobody is that bad.
– Of course, let’s keep in mind we’re just three games in so making any sort of projections or analysis is fraught with caveats. The first 10 games of the season tend to be kind of screwy. People treat them as predictive of the rest of the season because it’s the first bit of information about the new team, but it just isn’t so. You usually have to wait 20-30 games to get any kind of real read on an NHL team, and even that is the bare minimum to say anything meaningful.