With the Flames reeling through an historic dry spell and plunging down the league standings faster than the Toronto Maple Leafs, it seems an odd time to talk about positivity. There’s no question it’s tough to be a Flames fan right now – the team can’t score, they have won the fewest games in regulation in the NHL since the start of December and there’s no obvious end to the misery in sight. In fact, there’s a non-trivial chance the Flames will pick inside the top-2 come June.
So it’s hard to blame the Dome crowds for being eerily silent these days.
Still, there are seeds of hope…
– Here’s a silver lining to the recent scoring struggles: if the Flames were going to suffer from a once-in-a-franchise scoring rough patch, this was the year for it – Calgary’s in year one of the rebuild and weren’t going to win anyways. As painful as each new shut-out or one goal performance is, they get the club one step closer to drafting a potentially elite player, which is really the only goal of this season (aside from, perhaps, develop a few of the assets at the NHL level).
– Guys like Mikael Backlund and TJ Brodie are putting up noteworthy underlying numbers despite extremely tough sledding this year. They’re not quite elite talents (not enough offense), so aren’t enough to form a new contending "core" on their own, but they are the sort of guys could will help get the team back over the hump after they bottom out.
If the management team can get the ship pointed in the right direction in the next few years, Backlund and Brodie will still be within shouting distance of their prime and should be able to take on the tough assignments while the youngsters find their legs.
– For the first time in perhaps a decade+, there’s some real talent in the hopper. John Gaudreau has 19 goals and 40 points in just 21 games this year. His 1.90 point-per-game pace is on an Island in the Hockey East division this year – the only two guys close to him are frequent BC linemates Kevin Hayes (1.67) and Flames prospect Bill Arnold (1.38). If Kevin Hayes sounds familiar, it’s because the Hawks picked him in the first round in 2010. He is one year older, 7 inches taller and 60 pounds heavier than Gaudreau…and has five less points.
Ross Mauermann is the closest none-BC linemate to Gaudreau with 29 points (1.32 PPG). There are only 12 players scoring at a point-per-game pace or better in the entire division currently. Johnny Hockey is more or less scoring at 2 points-per-game. Oh and here’s what’s most impressive about that: only five of his 40 points have come on the PP.
– There’s also Emile Poirier, who has 29 goals and 59 points in just 40 games so far. Poirier is 6th in league scoring in the QMJHL and is doing it without much help – the next highest scorer on the Olympiques has 43 points.
The QMJHL is nowhere near as tough as college and is probably the easiest league in the CHL to score points in, but Poirier’s results are nevertheless impressive. He was one of the older players chosen in the draft this season (December, 1994) and will have the option to turn pro with Abbotsford next year. It will be interesting to see if that happens.
– Of course, the big picks will come this year and next year as the Flames bottom-out. In the upcoming draft, Calgary will likely have a choice of at least one of Aaron Ekblad or Sam Reinhart when they approach the podium in June. Ekblad might be a generational talent (the only defender to ever be granted exceptional status to play on the OHL at 16) and Reinhart is close to a can’t-miss talent up front.
Even if somehow the Flames finish outside the top-2 and those guys are gone, there are some pretty good consolation prizes this year in Sam Bennett, Michael Dal Colle, William Nylander and Leon Draisaitl.
– The other thing that gives me hope this season is the club’s ample cap space going forward and the rate at which useful players are so frequently discarded (and therefore easily available) by shortsighted NHL GM’s. Consider, if the Flames had been active in collecting a few cast-offs over the last season or two, they could have Mikhail Grabovski (32 points in 43 games), Clarke MacArthur (33 points in 45 games), Tom Gilbert (21 minutes of ice/night) and Jussi Jokinen (32 points in 47 games) in their line-up today rather easily.
What’s more, none of the players noted here are major surprise turn-arounds this year. All of them were good bets to rebound given what we knew about them based on their careers and underlying numbers. If the Flames are at least a little savvy and willing to take a chance on a gamble here or there, they will be able to shore up their lackuster depth over the next few years without going big whale hunting or doling out ridiculously large contracts to the David Clarkson’s of the UFA market.
– The endless panicked scrambling of the Edmonton Oilers is another, albeit unrelated, reason to be happy these days. MacT’s recent moves (selling low on Dubnyk, acquiring a 4th line player being paid 3 times too much and acquiring a career back-up) are all belly laugh material. I don’t what’s in the water in Rexall Place, but they should find a way to weaponize such a pontent form of dumb serum.