(This was written before last night’s content against the Avs)
We’re through the first half of the 2013-14 season, which means the standings picture is starting to become clearer. Things can always change in the latter half of the year, but we have enough games under our belt now to at least get a feel for who the Flames are and what we can expect from the rest of the year.
– Let’s tackle the recent struggles first – Calgary has scored on just 1% of their shots through the post-Christmas dry-spell, which is grotesquely bad luck, even if we can all agree their play hasn’t exactly been inspiring. Calgary has had two legitimate goals called back by suspect officiating over that span and more than a few posts, close-calls and suddenly hot opposition goaltenders. It happens.
The Flames aren’t going to be a high scoring club at the best of times of course and it’s pretty clear that the impressive first-10 games or so were not truly indicative of the team’s talent. That said, they aren’t as bad as they seem right now either.
– Which isn’t to say the Flames are good either. In fact, they aren’t even mediocre. Only three teams in the league have a possession rate as bad or worse than Calgary currently: the Edmonton Oilers (yup, they are still terrible), the Toronto Maple Leafs (whose bubble will probably burst in the second half of the year) and the Buffalo Sabres. There’s a chance Calgary’s ability to move the play north will take another hit post-deadline, though to what degree will depend on who they keep and who they sell off.
– Speaking of selling at the deadline, the decision will only partially be in the Flames hands. With guys like Mike Cammalleri, Matt Stajan, Lee Stempniak, Kris Russell and Chris Butler approaching free agency, the move to put each or all of them on the block will be driven, in part, by each guy’s willingness to re-sign in Calgary. Personally, I would actively try to re-sign Russell, Stajan and Stempniak, but it’s also possible all of those guys spurn the Flames advances and look for greener pastures elsewhere.
– The inclusion of Stempniak in that list might surprise some people. Stempniak is suffering through a dreadful dry spell currently, but the truth is he’s a quality middle tier NHLer. Stempniak’s possession rate is 4th best amongst forwards on the team currently and his abysmal PDO (92.3) isn’t likely to persist forever and not indicative of his actual ability.
In addition, his terrible luck and lousy counting numbers would make him cheaper to re-ink and a good "buy low" candidate for the club. His poor output may even make him more ameniable to sticking with the Flames if they approach him about a contract now, since a bad year makes it difficult to cash-in on a good contract as a UFA in the summer.
Stempniak is the sort of player that can get lost in the mix during a rebuild. Edmonton purged a lot of their decent (yet unspectacular) NHL talent during their many-tiered rebuild efforts and now they are finding it difficult to gain traction again with a roster filled with kids and hastily bolted on spare parts.
Stempniak may not seem like "the answer" but he’s the sort of player who adds structure to an NHL roster; allowing the team to potentially emerge from the other side of tunnel with shiny new talent buttressed by quality, established veterans.
– Stajan is in a similar boat. His season, from an underlying numbers perspective, is the best of his career. Stajan is seeing the toughest minutes on the team and is third amongst forwards in terms of relative possession. Stajan isn’t a particular sexy player and is easy to overlook, but his resurrection post Sutter as a useful all around center has been a remarkable one. His PDO is also a dismal 93.0, so he’s another guy the Flames could get cheaply if they make some overtures soon.
– One player I didn’t mention as a sell candidate is Jiri Hudler, in part because he’s signed for another couple of seasons. Hudler’s one of the few guys who has run hot from a percentages perspective this year (PDO = 104.8), so it would be a good time to "sell high" if there’s interest in him.
That said, the Flames should probably consider keeping Hudler for the remainder of his contract. The club will have to retain some salary to make the cap floor next year and, like Stempniak and Stajan, Hudler could be one of those vets who helps the team find its footing afte it has bottomed out (likely next season).
– The irony of Calgary’s SH% going south in December and early January is the goaltending seems to have come around. Karri Ramo and Reto Berra both have three quality starts in their last five appearances and each guy has a SV% above .900, which is the first time the Flames can say that about their two main goalies in the last season and a half.
It will be interesting to see if they can continue to play at this level for the rest of the season.
– Sean Monahan’s underlying numbers right now are as bad or worse than Ben Street, Tim Jackman and Joe Colborne. At the time of writing, the only guys getting outshot more frequently on a relative scale on the Flames are Brian McGrattan, Ladislav Smid and Shane O’Brien. And the latter two guys start way more often in their own zone. In contrast, when he was sent down to the AHL, Sven Baertschi’s possession ratio was 45% (about the same as Glencross and Paul Byron right now). Monahan’s is currently at about 43%.
The kid was almost treading water at the start of the season, albeit with a healthy dose of help from the coach in terms of starting position, but he has fallen off a cliff since the start of December (even though Hartley continues to feed him softer minutes). It could be Monahan came back too early from his foot problem and playing injured has hampered him to a non-trivial degree, but it could also be that he’s just a teen who is completely overwhelmed.
If it was an option, I’d say the Flames should send Monahan down to the AHL. Unfortunately, that’s not possible given his current age, which is another reason keeping teenaged junior players in the NHL is a gamble.
– Speaking of Colborne, his work with the Flames has been underwhelming, to say the least. There are times when you can see flashes of ability – big reach, soft hands – but he just doesn’t get much accomplished aside from those rare glimpses. Colborne doesn’t drive possession and doesn’t personally generate shots on net, meaning there doesn’t seem to be much upside there.
Colborne turns 24 at the end of the month, so it’s not like he’s a raw 20-year old either. It’s worth hanging on to him for a bit because there’s a package of skills there and maybe he’ll figure things out with some games under his belt, but the early returns are pretty discouraging.
– Although I think the Flames will improve a bit in January and February (assuming their percentages snap back to some degree), there’s a very real chance the club gets significantly worse after the deadline sell-off happens. If Stajan and Stempniak along with Cammalleri opt to move on, it’s probable the Calgary Flames will ice the worst roster in the entire league through March and April. A top-5 pick is almost a lock and the Flames are likely in the running for a top-3 pick as a result.