1. An impetus?
A lot can be said for the Flames’ recent performances. This much is
obvious. I saw the other day where they’ve had one of the most prolific
offenses and stingiest defenses in the entire league since mid-January
or so, right around the time that Calgary and Vancouver had their
infamous brawl game, during which John Tortorella (rightly) felt so
aggrieved by the Flames’ actions that he attempted to fight Bob Hartley
between the first and second periods.
The thrust of the argument I heard was that the Flames used that
incident as something of a rallying point; that is, whatever it was that
had been ailing the team in those first few miserable months of the
season had been shaken free by having been made to get in fights with
the Canucks, and having to defend their coach from another. This is
obviously something along the lines of the “fighting motivates teams”
claptrap, and is obviously nonsense because if it’s proven that fights
have little to no influence within minutes after they happened, it’s
unlikely that Mikael Backlund is closing his eyes as he laces up his
skates, imagining the froth-mouthed insanity on Tortorella’s face two
and a half months ago, and tapping that emotion to put up five shots
against Edmonton, or whatever.
2. So what has turned things around defensively?
There is something to be said for inspiration, of course, but there’s
probably more to be said for math. The Flames goaltending was always
going to be bad the last two seasons, but in 48 games in 2013, it
was historically bad. In the first half of this season, it continued.
The fact of the matter is that almost no collection of professional goalies
anywhere in the world considered to be at anything resembling the NHL
level would be capable of letting more than 10 percent of the shots they
face get past them if they’re trying. Period. That old thing about
regressing to the mean is holding true for Karri Ramo lately. The depths
of his badness early on – and make no mistake, it was a deep and abiding
badness if ever there was one – were likely not indicative of his
overall quality. Neither is this recent hot streak, during which his
play has been exemplary.
The answer almost certainly lies somewhere in the middle and that’s what
the Flames have to work with for a few years, at least until Joni Ortio
or even Jon Gillies are ready to take the reins. Is that enough for
this team to work through a rebuild? Tough to say. As usual, we are
going to need a lot more evidence.
3. And the offense?
The same is true of the Flames’ forwards and their shooting percentages.
They were making a lot of mediocre goalies look like Pekka Rinne, and a
few very good ones look like Dominik Hasek. Again, this was over the
course of 80-something games across two seasons. Even with this huge
step forward in goalscoring, the team remains 21st in the league in
even-strength, score-close shooting percentage, following a 48-game
campaign that saw them go 13th, having played most of that time with a
higher skill threshold than what they have now.
You can’t control shooting percentage, insofar as you can’t under- or
outperform what your team brings to the table for very long. Bad as the
Flames are up front, on paper, they aren’t as bad as all that. Pucks
that weren’t hitting the back of the net then are doing so now, and it’s
confirming a lot of the things most of us probably thought all along:
Backlund is good, Cammalleri is good, Galiardi is useful, etc. One thing
that mint also be growing apparent is that the concerns from when he
signed about shooting percentage when Jiri Hudler is on the ice might
not have been well-founded. He might always just have an on-ice shooting
percentage north of 10. Some guys (but not entire teams) can do that
for much longer periods than others, and we have a lot of evidence at
this point that he might just be one of them.
Again, this kind of offensive explosion is something you shouldn’t go
around expecting to last much longer than this, but it too was probably a
long time coming.
4. Starting to think about summer
With the season now officially just about over I’ve found myself
wondering a lot about what Brian Burke is going to do this summer as it
pertains to retaining the team’s free agents, especially considering
that there’s a cap floor he’s going to have to reach.
Mike Cammalleri, I thinks we can all agree, is gone. “Sell the house”
gone. “Cut prices on his jersey in the pro shop” gone. And that’s $6
million they have to replace unless they’re prepared to overpay him
ludicrously, which I would tend to doubt. He wants to test the market,
and there are teams that can use him and offer far more attractive
options and comparable money to what Calgary will splash on him.
Other than that there aren’t too many tough calls to make. Re-up
literally all of the RFAs. Let all the UFAs walk. Most can be replaced
internally or cheaply on the secondary market, where useful veterans
aren’t so much targeted as sought out to fill holes in lineups. The
Flames have a lot of holes, and they’re not attracting any top guys to
fill them any time soon (I’d further argue they never really have). The
Flames in particular can probably get those guys by doing what the
Panthers did a few years ago: offer some very middle of the road players
some very nice contracts which are not in any way commensurate with
performance past or future.
Those are really all their options at this point. Maybe they also give
Brodie a big, long extension for huge money this summer because he
really has earned it. Mostly you have to think they hope some rookies
make the club.
5. Still more on Gaudreau and Arnold
You must by this point be sick of hearing me yammer on about Johnny
Gaudreau and Billy Arnold but I am currently writing this from the media
room at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, where their team will play
later today in the national semifinal against a very strong Union team.
So you will have to forgive my wanting to yak about them once again.
In the past I’ve mainly used quotes from themselves, their teammates,
and their coaches to highlight and underscore how good they are. Here,
instead, are quotes from their competition: Union’s Shayne Gostisbehere
and Mat Bodie. The former is the best defenseman in the country and was
also Gaudreau’s roommate in Ufa when the USA won World Junior gold two
winters ago. The latter is a very good college defenseman in his own
right, and they combined to shutter the BC offense in an NCAA tournament
game last year, which Union won 5-1.
“He’s a great player,” said Gostisbehere. “Back [when we played against
each other in junior hockey] he was the smallest kid. He’s an amazing
player. Every time he touches the puck something special is going to
happen. The crowd gets on their feet. He’s not a kid who can just try to
hit because he’s pretty much unhittable. He’s so shifty. He’s a great
kid. He’s a very humble kid, too. He was my roommate at the
pre-tournament in Finland, and you couldn’t tell he was the best college
hockey player because he was so humble about it. He’s an easygoing kid
and definitely a great hockey player.”
Added Bodie: “We got to see [Gaudreau and Arnold’s line] a little bit.
They’re a tremendous line. It shouldn’t be about limiting the damage.
They haven’t been kept off the score sheet all that much all year. It’s
going to be about taking time and space away. It’s not simply a line
matching up or D-pair matching up. It’s the five guys on the ice. We
work as a unit in the D zone, and it’s going to be up to everyone to
chip in to try to stop those guys.”
If you want to watch this game, which really should be a good one, you’ll be able to check it out on TSN.ca and TSN2 at 3 p.m. Calgary time (5 p.m.
Eastern). Tune in live if you can.