It seems a little bizarre for a season this season to feel like a success – a season in which the Flames finished second last in the west – but that’s the sense of Flames fans are left with, I think (myself included).
That no one expected anything of the team in the first place is likely the biggest reason people are finding silver linings to focus on in the wake of 2013-14, but there’s more to the rising tide of hope in Calgary beyond the influence of lower expectations. The team’s noteworthy second half, a fresh new core of talent and a growing stable of prospects are amongst the biggest reasons Flames fans are looking forward to next year.
– The big thing is, the club wasn’t as bad as their final place in the standings would suggest. Despite a swath of injuries over the season (only Chris Butler played the full 82 game schedule) and a concerted effort to play every raw kid available down the stretch (#tankmode), Calgary ended up with a -32 goal differential. That’s certainly not good, but it’s more than 30 goals better than our hapless neighbors to the north (-67) and well clear of other similarly win challenged clubs on the rebuild path (Buffalo, New York and Florida were all south of -40). So while the Flames are picking in the top-5 at the draft in June, it’s arguable that they were a tier above the other basement dwellers.
In contrast, Calgary was only a few goals away from teams like Vancouver (-27), Nashville (-26), Ottawa (-29) and Toronto (-25). And that’s with the Leafs enjoying near Vezina caliber goaltending all year.
– In December of 2013, it looked like the Flames would be battling the Sabres for last overall. From about the middle of November to the start of the new year, the club was lousy – they couldn’t score, the goaltending was mediocre and they were putting up league worst possession numbers on most nights. Things were grim.
As you can see from this rolling average graph from Extra Skater, the nadir of the season was New Years against the Lightning:
After which the Flames became to climb back to respectability. The improvement was masked a bit by a post-New Years eve by a SH% dry spell, but as you can see the puck was finally starting to travel in the right direction.
The famous brouhaha between Tortorella and Hartley happened on January 18th. That’s the first peak in January touching the 50% line on the graph above. It will likely be cited as a catalyst for the second half turn-around, but as you can see the turn-around was already under way. I can’t speak to what psychological or sociological effect the line brawl had on the team as whole, but something had already started to click, performance and strategy-wise, before that point.
– No doubt the primary reason for Flames fans optimism is the club’s second half. Pinpointing the source of that improvement and iterating on it is the task of the organization’s decision makers this off-season. We’ve done our own investigations round these parts and from what we can tell a big part of the story is the combined play of Mikael Backlund, TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano.
This year, for example, when Backlund was on the ice with Giordano or Brodie, his corsi rate was an astounding 59.4%. To put that number in perspective, the LA Kings were the best possession team in the league this year with a corsi of 56.8%. As a result, Calgary’s goals for % (goals for/goals against) was 62.5% (Backlund + Brodie) and 67.9% (Backlund + Gio) at even strength when the noted combinations were skating together.
Short version: the Flames dominated at even strength when Backlund-Brodie-Giordano were playing together. This is especially noteworthy because those guys regularly faced the big guns on a nightly basis, meaning their success isn’t merely a consequence of circumstances.
These are elite numbers ladies and gents. which is why Giordano in particular is (rightfully) being considered in some corners for the Norris trophy.
– This leads us to the true reason for optimism – the org has apparently found the bedrock on which to build a new foundation. This is important because a lot of rebuilds find themselves building their castles in the swamp, only to see them collapse and sink into the mire time after time.
When the previous regime finally crumbled in the lock-out shortened season, the Flames looked for all the world like a team starting utterly from scratch. The emergence of guys like Brodie and Backlund as not just every NHLers, but potential difference makers, means the club doesn’t have go foraging for the seeds of a new core – they are in place and burgeoning already.
– The other reason for optimism, obviously, is the kids. There is a general tendency of all fanbases to overrate the NHL potential of their prospects. Following prospects closely feels a bit like stumbling around the desert with a divining rod sometimes – a vast majority of them don’t ever cross the replacement level threshold, but it’s hard not to be encouraged by the Flame’s current batch of youngsters neverthless.
Sean Monahan leads the parade after a 20+ goal season as a teenager. There’s still work to be done with the former 6th overall pick and I’m somewhat skeptical of his offensive ceiling down the line, but there’s no doubt he had a very good year given his age.
There’s a relatively big class of kids bubbling underneath the surface too though. Johnny Gaudreau is roundly considered to be one of the best college hockey players of the last two decades. Max Reinhart, Markus Granlund and Corban Knight all had good to great seasons in the AHL this year. Emile Poirier and Morgan Klimchuk were difference makers on their respective junior clubs. Jon Gillies is one of the best goaltending prospects in the NCAA and Joni Ortio was named to the AHL all rookie team.
On top of all that, Calgary will be adding a high caliber kid with the 4th overall selection in the upcoming entry draft. I don’t think we’ll be able to say the Flames have the best prospect depth in the league at that point, but it’s certainly the best collection of kids that I can personally recall going back to the mid-to-early ’90s.
Perhaps the only sour note in prospect land was Sven Baertschi running in place this year. I didn’t think his play was all that bad on the big club to start the season – the only thing separating Baertschi and Monahan when at the time was Monahan’s sky high shooting percentage. It also seems like something about Sven’s pre-season started him off on the wrong foot with the decision makers in town, resulting in a season filled with “tough love”.
That said, Sven didn’t exactly go down to the AHL and tear things up. He ended the season on a hot streak, but his overall stat line of 13g, 29p in 41 games isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not overly compelling either.
Which isn’t to say it’s time to cut bait with Baertschi. He will turn 22 years old in October and as we noted in this space last summer, a lot of current NHL stars weren’t regulars at the age of 21. There’s lots of development runway left for Baertschi and there’s no denying he has significant offensive upside.
– With all that said, keep in mind that this is a delicate stage of the rebuild and things can still go completely pear shaped. I’ve heard it said that the reason a collection of wires can be tossed into a drawer and always come out tangled is there is a near infinite number of ways knots and snarls can occur. Conversely, you need everything to stay perfectly in order for them to remain untangled.
That’s true of managing a sports teams as well – there are may, many more blind alleys and landmines than there are safe paths.
Calgary has cap space, a young core and a nicely stocked cupboard of prospects. For the first time in years I personally see a faint hint of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The task in front of Burke and Treliving this summer, I think, is to act with patience, prudence and with a clear eye on the future. Protect and nurture what they have, eschew chasing white whales in free agency and look for small, incremental ways to improve as they bring the kids along.
The opportunity to compete again is tantalizingly close, but it can be dashed against the rocks in an instant if the decision makers don’t keep a firm, steady hand on the wheel.