Your Calgary Flames: What are they? (Part 1)

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It was
September 5th of 2013, and your Calgary Flames had just hired Brian
“Brian” Burke as their shiny, new President of Hockey Operations and “not
General Manager”. The move at the time seemed to draw a line down the middle
that divided the Cowtown faithful in reference their confidence in the new hire and, more
importantly, the future success of their beloved franchise.

It was
obvious to everyone when then GM Jay Feaster shipped Jarome Iginla and Jay
Bouwmeester to new return addresses in the lockout shortened 2013 season that a
new era was being ushered in at the Scotiabank Saddledome; a period of rebirth
many felt was long overdue. In short, a rebuild. If you’re reading this, you
already knew that.

Brian Burke,
one way or another, became emblematic of the Calgary rebuild, but only in the sense
that this accepted 3-4 year process of planned upheaval was suddenly in peril, given
Burke’s spirit of competition and also more tellingly, all the troubling things
he’d say whenever he would open his mouth.

Word came
that Mr. Burke was not a fan of the process of a rebuild, the laborious routine of restocking the cupboards with elite talent, well, that was beneath
him. Whether you were ever Team Burke or Team Logic, it didn’t really matter; When Burke claimed that these Calgary Flames, the ones very much like the ones
we’re accustomed to this season, would be vying for a playoff spot next season
(I repeat, NEXT SEASON), we were all likely trying to find ways to retrofit the
name Burke over that of the now faded and worn Sutter insignia on our homemade
voodoo dolls.

Fast forward
to today. The Flames season, predictably, is over, but the overarching specter of gloom we’ve grown accustomed to is conspicuously absent. There’s a certain je ne sais
quoi coating this team. The debate rages on: Is this team legitimately good? Is
the system and culture put in place by Bob Hartley yielding results? Or is it a
matter of pride in another lost season, players battling for roster spots and
better leverage in contract negotiations, possibly highlighting their skills
for would be suitors in the free agent market? The FlamesNation crew, all of
us, even the most cynical (you can argue amongst yourselves as to whether that
title goes to myself or Kent, or let’s face it, it’s definitely Lambert) have
been having so much fun watching the Flaming C lately (yes, we said fun) that
we intend to devote a lot more time to answering that question.

There are clear signs of improvement in the ranks of your favourite team, but also a lot of barriers hindering a true, flourishing and sustainable contender, and we’re going to examine it all over the coming weeks. Consider this an introductory course before the crew here do some heavy digging into just what the Flames are. Today, we’re going to highlight the highlights. After the jump we’ll shed light on what definitely appears to be characteristics of success in this team when previously there were none.

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

chance

As you all are keenly aware, I’m obviously known for being Mr. Positive around here, and if you’re still reading and not laughing at that sentence, welcome to your first day at Flames Nation. I’m going to go
on the offensive and say this team has been pretty good. As mentioned, we’ll
take a harder look at the numbers in the coming days, exploring the Flames
possession numbers (spoiler alert: they’ve been good!) and try to get a gauge
on any level of sustainability.

The question
we all have to ask ourselves, assuming this team is not as deep into the woods
as we all handicapped them to be, and holy hell try to wrap your heads around
this one: was Brian Burke right? Is his vision (and yes, even in part the
vision of Jay Feaster) coming to fruition? If by some small miracle the Flames
win the draft lottery in the offseason and end up with an Ekblad, Dal Colle, or
Drasaitl (I think no matter how you slice it, Reinhart is out of grasp), how
much closer to the end of a rebuild is this team? Let’s break down the WHOA factors.

A Good Defense

Consider, if you will, the
tandem of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie. Outside of Calgary, this is a
partnership that is mostly unheralded. Many outside observers, upon learning
the news that Gio had been named Captain of the Flames after Iginla’s
departure, widely asserted that they had no idea who he was. And while of
course that’s a touch hyperbolic, the fact that he had an extremely outside
chance of suiting up for Canada in Sochi and has had whispers surrounding his
name in Norris trophy consideration should explain just how good this tandem
has been. As Justin has shown in his visualized corsi piece, Gio and TJ are
absolute stalwarts, dominating possession despite taking on easily the toughest
competition. As Tyler Dellow notes in his highly complimentary piece on
Giordano’s rise (truly a must read), it’s the pairing of these two (as well as the play of Backlund
and Cammalleri who also tend to drive possession) that make it easy to credit
the Flames’ recent success on “hard work”, because it’s not something that’s
easy to see over the course of a game. Given that the Flames are generally
underwater whenever Brodie and Gio (who need a nickname, by the way, I’ll leave
that to you fine citizens) should add credence to the notion that this pairing
is basically elite.

And while it’s
been a career year for Giordano, quite possibly unsustainable with almost
assuredly some measure of regression, you would not expect, barring some major
setback (injuries, etc.), the dropoff to be too steep, especially when Mr.
Brodie, only 23 years old by the way, continues to improve to the point where
it won’t be too long until he’s the alpha dog on that unit.

Arrested Development?

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I did
something the other day that I don’t usually do, and that was listen to the
afternoon segment on Sportsnet 960. Generally I’m not a fan of the
personalities on that show, but I like Pat Steinberg, I was stuck in traffic,
Calgary radio is generally a black hole of quality music, and there were a lot
of commercials, so there we were.

Patty had posited a question, you know, to the world, but also to studio guest Peter
Loubardias, who I am generally not a fan of but he seemed ALMOST on point on
this one, and that question is “what are the Flames? Are they better than what
we think?” (which you’ll notice IS THE TOPIC OF THIS PIECE. I’ve never been
known for my originality, okay?)

Loubo,
though, flipped the question around, replying “out of all the players I’m about
to name, which of these players are not better than they were at the start of
the year”

He went on
to list the names of Giordano, Brodie, Backlund, Joe Colborne, Lance Bouma, and
Paul Byron. Consensus was, all of these players are vastly improved.

That’s not
the most accurate assessment one could make (if you’re a regular reader, you
know how we’ve felt about Brodie and Backlund for YEARS), but you look at guys
like Bouma, Byron, and Colborne, who are on the ice in important situations of
the game, and who had never been regular NHLers previous, and don’t look out of
place. Whether it’s personal development, a system that allows them to be
deployed in situations where they’re set up to succeed, or both, it’s been a
remarkable turnaround to the start of the year where you would scratch your
head when a lot of these guys were on the ice.

Couple that
with the strong play of vets like Hudler and Cammalleri, contributions from
some pretty underrated players like Galiardi (who may never come into favour
with the coaching staff for whatever reason), and baby, you’ve got a core
going.

Remember too
that Sean Monahan is a 19 year old who looks to score 20 goals this season. His
underlying numbers show that there’s a lot of room to improve his game, but you
ask to see a teenager who doesn’t fall into that category and I’ll show you 18
year old Sidney Crosby. 20 goals from Boring Monahan is a bonus, as this season
was designated to give him a feel for the pro game, to identify strengths and
weaknesses in his game, and work on them. I’d say to be his age in the NHL,
that’s a mission more or less accomplished. He only looks to get better, a
parallel he shares with his team.

Also consider
that AT SOME POINT, Sven Baertschi will be an everyday player. He’s already
tracking to be a 0.5/ppg player, so if he ever impresses coaching and
management enough in the mythical 3 zones of play category, he’ll be an
important piece soon.

There’s a future here, which I think is what we all wanted to
see this season, and it looks maybe a bit better than some had thought it would
in such a prepubescent stage.

UP Next

Well, there’s a lot of work to do. 

Part 2 , which will be posted Wednesday…will highlight the barriers to success that still certainly plague this team, as well as try to determine which category some unknowns fall into (I won’t give it away, but it rhymes with Barry Blammo).

But in the meantime, bask in the glory of what can be classified as tangible results. The players seem to have fallen in line with Bob Hartley’s expectations of them, and conversely he’s more or less worked through his own shortcomings when it comes to player deployment (though neither has been perfect). This is not the be all and end all of turning a franchise around, but it’s a great first step. 

And just because I’m not accustomed to being so rosy about things, I just need to sign off on some random low note or else I’ll start to hyperventilate, so, uh…Ben Hanowski sucks. (sigh of relief)