Your Calgary Flames: What Are They? (Part 2)

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Picture of the Flames Future Captain Ben Hanowski courtesty of the Associated Press


On Monday, we began a look at the Calgary Flames. A chance to get to know the Calgary Flames. Are they bad? Are they undercover good? If they were stuck on a stranded island and could only bring one book with them, would it affect their PDO? Basically, the heart of the matter is this: is Brian Burke maybe not a crazy person when he says a rebuild can be done by next year when your Calgary Flames are going to vie for a playoff spot?

I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but we took that position in Part 1, and along with some nice evidence to back up the idea that this team is improving, and we all just felt super about that.

But to look only at the good and draw a conclusion means implies that there is no bad, and that’s not how we roll at Flames Nation. We’ve been holed in our underground basement lair all week, and we’ve come to one key crux of the debate: This team needs more work.

That’s not to take away from the great strides made this season, but you don’t take the cake out of the oven when it’s only half baked unless you’re a moron. And you’re not a moron, you know this.

So without further adieu, let’s introduce some road blocks the team faces ahead, as the fight towards relevance continues upward.

VIGILANCE 

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There’s
still a lot of work to be done. Given that this is what Bob Hartley’s Flames are
known for, perhaps that’s not as big a hurdle as we perceive it to be.

(That was a
dumb statement, I know)

Simply put,
there needs to be more elite talent on this team. That’s the vision for the future, that’s the light at the end of the tunnel for anyone building from scratch, and even as the team gets better, it’s important not to lose sight of that. Yes, of course the Flames
have set out to do what they identified as a goal, which is establish a strong
identity as a hard working team that you don’t want to have an off night
against. That’s great. They need to retain that identity going forward, because
it of course is a team game and lacking that work ethic is most assuredly a
barrier to success.

But you
can’t win in this NHL without loads of talent. Look at any of the top teams in
this league and try to identify a lack of all world hockey aptitude. The
Bruins, from Rask, to Chara and beyond. The Penguins, well we know about the
Penguins. Chicago, oh my goodness, just forget about it. Top class teams with
top class talent. Calgary sorely lacks this right now, and acquiring it quite
obviously is no easy task. But it can be done.

Whether it
comes from the draft, or some level of shrewd Kesselesque trades from the
maniacal mind of Brian Burke, for this team to take a step forward, the talent
level needs to skyrocket. Guys like Backlund and Monahan are great, and you
want them on your team, but they are not elite, at least not yet. A big win
this season would be coming away the winner at the Draft Lottery (I wrote this before last night’s game, before the Islanders leapfrogged the Flames in the standings, so you know…a Lottery Win puts Sam Reinhart back into the equation). There may not
be a chance to go number 1 overall, but a guy like Sam Bennett is not totally
out of reach. Is Leon Draisaitl elite? It’s too early to tell, but if he ends
up being who Burke taps on Draft Day, they’re going to have to roll the dice.

(A quick note on Johnny Gaudreau…we have no damn clue. He looks like he’s got everything he needs to be elite, but there are reasons why he’s not a Top 5 pick. A year
in pro, preferably the AHL level, would really give a barometer to his overall
game and his potential to thrive. For now, all we can do is hope, but as fans
of this team, what else is new?)

The Flames Arch Rivals are Themselves

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Every good
crimefighter has an arch nemesis. Batman had the Joker, Bart Simpson had Sideshow Bob, Gerald Ford had gravity. In Calgary, it’s within their own
ranks. If Giordano and Brodie are an elite pairing that saves the Flames, Chris
Butler and Ladi Smid are their Joker. Jokers. Whatever, they are not good. They are the Washington Generals to the Harlem GiobeBrodders (I’m so sorry).

You want Gio
and Brodie on more often than not, but suffice to say you cannot play them 60
minutes a game. When they’re catching a breather, the Smids of the world really
illustrate how much the top pairing makes everyone better. Again, if we refer
to Azevedo’s visualized corsi piece, everyone on the team is under 50% corsi
with any other defenseman on the ice. That’s not to say that they’ve been bad
(though it sort of is), it just goes to show that the success of this team is
driven by the superheroes of the top pairing. This is why it’s not uncommon for
Gio and TJ to flirt with 30 minutes TOI every night, but you would really like
to be able to put in some capable 2nd and 3rd
replacements who can spell them off and keep everyone above water. This is not to say that the Flames need to acquire top pairing type defensemen to fill the bottom 4 D role (although i admire any team that tries to make that a reality), nor do I need
to tell you that just going out and acquiring those players is a chorse, but Ladi
Smid…what are you doing out there man? (Again, this was written before Smid got hurt)

And I know
this is an unpopular take, but it still needs to be said: Brian McGrattan hurts
this team. And it’s not personally Brian McGrattan when I say that, it’s
“prototypical NHL enforcer template”. Everyone loves McGrattan. His story is
unique, he’s a funny guy, and his teammates love him. He’s overcome the odds in his life and beating your own demons is a truly remarkable and inspiring thing. There’s something to be
said about the benefits that kind of guy brings to your team, but it’s
anecdotal, and you might as well claim he’s magic and you can arrive at the
same conclusion.

Your fourth
line is typically not conducive to a team’s success, we know this for sure, but it can certainly affect
its shortcomings. If you cannot confidently deploy a team of dancing bears (and
whatever poor centermen that you saddle them with) for more than 5 minutes a
game, you are exhausting your remaining forwards, and when you wear them out,
bad things happen. It’s like driving your car knowing that it’s leaking oil.
You can keep going for a while, but eventually there’s going to be a meltdown.

This all comes down to Burke and his entourage
once again. His track record at the draft, is…spotty. For every Sedin miracle,
there’s been a Mark Mitera or a Tyler Biggs (you can admit you don’t know who Mark Mitera is. I sure don’t). His recent comments that they tend
to evaluate character over skill is troubling, but hopefully that’s a
misrepresentation of his true intent. Or hopefully he just likes saying things
that keep people questioning his sanity. His actions a lot of times don’t match
his words, and in this case, we better hope that trend continues.

Still, recent actions are puzzling. I would find it a struggle to confidently conclude that the signing of Bryce Van Brabant fills a need on this team, but hey, he’s a gritty guy from that hockey factory in Quinnipac, so you just gotta have him. I’m not even going to get started on Kevin Westgarth.

The Burke Effect

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Brian Burke, pictured, trying to calculate the Flames FenwickClose%

Burke is, of
course, an unknown. While he has a rich history in the NHL, his management patters are, uh,  erratic, and if anyone can truly predict what his next move is, you are a damn
shaman, and I want to enlist your services.

Unknowns
still haunt this team, and whether or not that factors into improvement remains
to be seen, but is a pressing concern. Lest we forget that Burkie and his
hedgehog helmet hair are not technically occupying the General Manager seat
vacated by Jay “Jay” Feaster. That role is being filled by (Insert Latest
Candidate Here), and obviously that’s a key piece that needs to be added before
the trudge upward continues.

(Unless you
believe that Brian Burke is Jeff Dunham and the new GM is going to live on his
hand, which, uh…well I do. And believe me, like Jeff Dunham, that scenario is
not funny. Look at the current list of hinted successors: former Burke yes men
and ‘up and coming young executives with potential’, who I’m sure will have the
gumption to run the team their way and not kowtow to the brash guy that pulls
the string on his employment…)

Mismanagement on the ice is an ever looming threat. Assuming
Cammalleri skips town after the final whistle of Game 82, the Flames are going
to have EVEN MORE available cap space, and will likely need to spend money to
reach the floor. That means a) re-signing some free agents that more than
likely should not be given another opportunity on this team (Westgarth, Butler,
etc.), and b) a desire to go full Florida and sign a lot of mediocre free
agents to bloated contracts that will only help guide the team to short term
“success” (if you want to call a first round playoff exit success, I don’t want
you being a General Manager unless it’s for the Oilers). Yes the rebuild under
Burke is in fast forward, but it should be with the caveat that becoming a
contender is freaking hard to do, and it’s a relatively slow process. No team
in the cap era has ever purchased a championship, and the Flames won’t be the
first to do it.

En conclusión

What are the
Flames? I still don’t think we know for sure. (Are they going to be the team that puts the final death knell in the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff chances? Sadly…) We’ve begun a more
in-depth look at this that should play out over the coming weeks here on FN, and even after that, I
don’t think there will be any definitive conclusions.

A bit of
success if a funny thing though. Looking back at November and December when
this squad was at their worst, nothing the team was doing was working. The
usage of skilled guys like Sven and Backlund being paired with the Dancing
Bears was maddening, injuries to key players piled up, the love for Reto Berra
was mystifying, and the losses kept rolling in. A lot of people were calling
for Bob Hartley’s head, and rightfully so.

Now, much as
the underlying numbers tend to do over time, things have evened out. Berra is
gone, Sven is safe, Backlund’s talent has finally been assuaged. Karri Ramo has
at times been magnificent, and at his worst is providing the team with league
average goaltending, which is all you can hope for. (not to mention the goalies
of the future look pretty damn competent themselves)The charges are being put
in positions to succeed, and there’s been signs that it’s working. I think we
can all agree at this point that Hartley’s job is safe, and even his harshest
critics (ie, me) have softened. His system coupled with a complete 180
turnaround in his player deployment, is bearing fruit. The insistence on
dancing bears needs to be altered, and maybe he’ll have softened on Sven, but
outside of that, he’s taken this team to loftier heights than anyone had
presumed he might.

Does that
mean the Flames are good, or are they just benefitting from the pressure free
vibe of no stakes hockey? It’s hard to say for sure, but let me end on this
note: as a fan of this team, you will NOT find yourself seven years down the
road throwing your jersey on the ice in frustration.