Five things: Getting closer

1. Raphael Diaz’s impending contract

As I write this on late Wednesday afternoon, Nolan Yonkman and Sheldon Brookbank have been released from their tryouts with the Flames. Makes sense to me. They’re the latest in a string of veterans league-wide who were on such deals and have since received their walking papers. “Thanks for playing in those exhibition games so we met the NHL veteran minimums, now go on ahead and have a good career, somewhere else, please and thanks.

Not released from his tryout, though, and with this season now less than a week away, was Raphael Diaz. Which says to me that the Flames intend to keep him, and should sign him to a deal relatively soon (if they haven’t already done so by the time you read this).

As I said last week, before even having viewed a game with my own eyes, the consensus around the rink seemed to be that he’d earned a deal. Having caught a game or three since then, I’d have to say I agree. Now, does that mean that he’s going to be some sort of answer to all of Calgary’s prayers with respect to their defensive woes? Of course not. The dude’s been around long enough, and with enough different teams, that we know more or less what his role can and should be: A reasonable No. 4 or 5 defenseman who can get the puck forward against lower-level competition. 

Has he looked better than that, and logged bigger minutes, in this preseason? Yes, but please keep in mind this is preseason, where opponents are generally bad enough that Diaz would even get a shot to play 23 minutes a night or whatever he’s averaging. On a full, non-injured Flames roster, he’s the No. 4 at best (behind Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Dennis Wideman, obviously; I’d put him in the same category as Kris Russell). The team might not even see him as that much, given that they’re also paying Ladislav Smid and Deryk Engelland, both of whom are on much bigger freights than whatever Diaz pulls. So maybe you see two of those bottom three guys getting rotated in and out of the lineup all season, based on need.

Of course, if nothing else he’s a warm body, and we saw last season how bad the Flames might end up needing those on the blue line. He’s just another tool in the toolshed in that regard. Further, signing Diaz also gives the kids more chance to flourish and get bigger roles against top AHL talent.

Such a deal — which would hopefully be multi-year so they don’t have to go through this again next summer — would be beneficial for just about everyone involved.

2. Sam Bennett’s injuries

I think if there was any question as to whether the team’s top pick in this year’s draft was going to be able to make it onto the NHL roster, it’s been dispelled by the fact that he gets knicked up every single game he plays. Because of that, I think his even getting the requisite nine-game tryout with the big club is up in the air; you don’t want him getting drilled by some veteran and going on the shelf for an extended period of time during what’s going to be an incredibly important development year.

I don’t think there’s any question that from a skill standpoint, he’s capable of keeping his head above water against pro talent (I’d rate him as being farther along at this point than Sean Monahan was last year, from what I’ve seen). But physically, I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s not ready to play the kind of “heavy hockey” that would be asked of anyone on the Flames roster this season.

Were it up to me — and it should be, but isn’t — this kid is shipped back to junior without a single NHL game played. And that’s not a knock on him, necessarily. He’s just not ready in terms of how punishing this league can be. Let him go down to the OHL and dominate against kids without the physical maturity of NHLers while he packs on the pounds and hopefully improves his overall flimsiness.

3. Everyone else’s injuries

Of course, if we’re going by that logic, other guys could be in danger of being sent to the OHL too. While Bob Hartley hasn’t expressed any amount of concern on the issue — likely because they’re all of the day-to-day variety — it’s still worth noting that an impressive portion of what should be this team’s opening day roster has been held out for at least a little while with nagging problems.

Mikael Backlund, David Jones, and Mason Raymond continue to miss time, while others like Ladislav Smid and Devin Setoguchi are only just now coming back. Again, I think this is what’s going to happen when you ask teams to play as physical up and down the lineup as Hartley typically does. It’s the little injuries that pile up, and that’s the kind of thing that causes you to end up using 35 or so guys over the course of the season.

Things are made worse in the preseason, of course, by the fact that borderline NHLers want to “make a statement” or whatever and play more physical than they should or really need to, in hopes of attracting the attention of their teams’ management. Guys get in too many fights, guys throw too many big hits that can lead to injuries. Nature of the beast and all that, but the Flames are to some extent asked to play like that more regularly. I think it’s a legitimate point of concern.

4. Johnny Gaudreau’s chances

At this point, I think we can all agree it’s a done deal: Johnny Gaudreau will have to play himself out of a role with the Flames over the course of the regular season, because he’s proven all he has to in exhibitions. He only has one point (a gorgeous highlight-reel goal on Tuesday), but in four preseason games he has 18 shots on goal. That’s the most of anyone in the NHL, despite getting only a little more than 11 minutes per game.

Now, it’s telling that the shots leaders besides him include Emerson Etem and Filip Forsberg before you get down to the James van Riemsdyks and John Tavareses and Phil Kessels of the world, but still, there he is. Yup, 18 shots in 46:42. No one else in the top 10 (which also includes Matt Duchene, Kris Letang, and so on) has as many shots, nor do they even come close in terms of ice time; the closest other guy that high on the list is Phil Kessel at 53:32.

So yeah, he’s on the team, and he deserves it. Not that I think there were any real naysayers out there, but you’d have to think almost 23.5 shots per 60 minutes — regardless of how much power play time he’s gotten, or the players he faced — is enough to be deeply impressive. 

And I say that as someone who puts very little stock overall in preseason performance’s predictive abilities. You have to outperform your competition, and he’s done that. Right now, he looks like as much of an NHL player as anyone else.

5. Jonas Hiller’s job

One thing I’ve found deeply amusing over the last few days is the refrain, repeatedly constantly in the local media, that there may be some sort of a battle for the starting goaltender’s position. I find such arguments ludicrous.

Even before the shutout against Colorado, he should have been everyone’s The Guy this season. Karri Ramo is fine but he’s a little below average, while Hiller has a proven track record as a league-average goaltender. Which is all you can really ask for from a guy on his contract, and with the team being in this situation overall. Even a 1a/1b setup would be unfair to Hiller, who’s a legitimate NHL starter and should have to brook no argument from a guy whose career numbers are, shall we say, less-than.

The goaltending roles throughout the organization are pretty well-defined, I’d think. Hiller is the NHL starter, Ramo is the NHL backup (who will, to be fair probably be used a little more than the standard guy in his position, but not much). Meanwhile, Joni Ortio’s the No. 1 in Adirondack, and he’ll be backed up by Doug Carr. Couldn’t be simpler than that.

  • Parallex

    Hope Bennett plays the next couple of games and starts the season here, especially if Backlund is still out. I think the 9 games (or less) would give him a great perspective on the NHL level and from what I’ve seen so far, he deserves it.

    Agree Hiller has looked good and will probably get the start, even though I believe Ramo’s played better. At this point I’m seeing a 1A/1B scenario with about a 60/40 game split with each goalie getting stretches just like last year. Ramo from mid-season onwards has been better than league average.

  • Parallex

    If the kids keep pushing, and injuries are kept at a minimum, I could see a few trades before Christmas to bring in several more of the young prospects. The vets that haven’t distinguished themselves so far and could be available are: Jones, Smid, Byron and McGratton. Several prospects could be available too, including Reinhart, Knight and Culkin.

    • Parallex

      Sadly NOBODY would take Jones, likely not many would be interested in Smid unless #gritchart and Mcgatton is mostly useless.. (apparently good in the room and for young dudes)

      Byron is the most legit out of those players but he is small and likely not to high on anybodies chart.

      I could see Knight being available to a team where he falls higher on their depth chart. I am reluctant to give up Reinhart but seemingly he may be getting pushed down the depth chart too.

  • Parallex

    I don’t think Ramo played enough games last year to be able to say he is below average and won’t be anything more then that. Maybe you are right, but I think we would need to see more of him before you write him off as a career backup.

  • Parallex

    I’d rather Ramo be the starter TBQH.

    A: His save percentage last year .911, Hiller average save percentage over the last three years… .911. So the same percentage stat dispite Ramo having to get re-acclimated to North American ice early.

    B: He’s 4 years younger. Sure at 28 Ramo isn’t a spring chicken but I like to think he still might have some unrealized upside.

    C: He’s got an expiring contract… so even if Hiller is the medium-term answer in net I’d like Ramo to have enough starts that some other team might find him an attractive option prior to the deadline.

  • SavardianSpinorama

    I also believe Bennett needs to go down to the OHL to get stronger and more mature physically like Jonathan Drouin did last year. We want to avoid another RNH situation with perennially busted up shoulders and other injuries.

    And particularly given Bennett (aka mini-Gilmour) plays much more physically and tenaciously than either Drouin or Nuge who are both about the same build.

    That said it would be great for Bennett to get some NHL experience at a slower pace so he can assimilate and adjust to a fire hose of new information coming his way, not only on-ice (game speed, physicality, systems, defensive responsibilities, etc) but also off-ice (strengthening & conditioning, coaching, preparation, media, travel, hotels, teammates etc) and home life (accommodation, meals, nutrition, downtime, social, community etc).

    LBB mentioned Pietrangelo got his 9 game cup of coffee spaced out over a couple months so he could be with the team to train, travel, practice, strengthening & nutrition, etc. By reducing the pace Bennett would be able to fully prepare for every 2nd or 3rd game, go down to the OHL by the end of November, and still be eligible to play in the WJC at Xmas.

    Giving Bennett 9 games spaced out over 6+ weeks would appear to be an ideal solution for providing an optimal development scenario customized for Bennett’s needs.

  • SavardianSpinorama

    After coming back from injury, Ramo’s save percentage was 0.919 his last 11 games (which would have placed him in the top twenty among goaltenders). That save percentage included poor outings his final two games (which was good, given that another win would have relegated the Flames to picking fifth and likely missing out on Bennett).

    Also, I don’t think it’s unfair to say Ramo needed some time to get reacquainted with the NHL’s smaller ice surface (as was mentioned by Parallex).

    Whether it’s Ramo or Hiller doesn’t matter to me, but a lot of people have handed Hiller the job. His save percentage was no better than Ramo’s last year, despite playing for a much better team.

  • Parallex

    Right now, Ramo and Hiller are about equal..let the last 2 games decide who plays October 8 or 9th.

    But it will likely be Hiller vs Miller against Canucks and Ramo against Oilers next night. Would be nice if Hiller outplays Miller on opening night!

  • RKD

    I hope a lot of teams regret overlooking Raphael Diaz. 18 shots in 4 games by Gaudreau is pretty impressive. Even with the injuries to Backlund and Raymond I can’t envision Bennett past the nine game tryout mark. This is a development year, not the year to make the playoffs.

  • MonsterPod

    I think Bob Hartley showed us last year that he plays whatever goaltender he likes at the moment. We were all interested to see Ramo and Berra and instead we were watching McDonald game after game 12 months ago.

    Hiller vs. Ramo is up for grabs IMO.

    I don’t see any reason not to give Bennett his 9 games with the big club. It would be a great experience for him. Give him sheltered minutes with one big winger and let the kid learn. Then down he goes to get bigger.

    I hope both Johnny and Sven make the team out of camp. In a rebuild where you don’t want to win, I tune in to watch them and Monahan play the game. I have no interest in the Raymond — Stajan — Jones type line though of course I understand why they’re there.

  • PrairieStew

    1. Agree – Diaz is exactly what is needed – providing the same skill set as Russell to balance off Smid and Engelland, and giving more time for Wotherspoon and Sieloff to develop.

    2. Sam has been very good – better than I thought he would be. I hope he realizes that being sent back to junior would not be a demotion, but rather would reflect how important he is in the eyes of the Flames braintrust.

    3. Pretty standard stuff on the injury side. Here’s hoping Backlund is back soon and shows little rust.

    4. For me it is about even money that Johnny leads the team in scoring by the end of the year.

    5. Hiller may be the guy – but Ramo should play – if only to showcase him for a trade deadline deal. Another second round pick? Yes please – a scenario that could be repeated at next seasons deadline with Hiller. Does Carr even have a contract – isn’t Theissen the guy they brought in to back up Ortio ?

  • beloch

    Re: Gaudreau

    A pure shooter getting off the number of shots that Gaudreau has would be impressive, but he’s also an incredible play-maker who consistently pulls off gorgeous passes. The points will come.

    Re: Hiller and Ramo

    Hiller is 32 and has probably peaked. He knows the NHL game. He’s consistent. That’s a great asset for the Flames. Ramo is 28, has much less experience in the NHL, and some big holes in his game. He might not have peaked just yet. Given that these two goalies had identical sv%’s last year, there is definitely a goalie battle brewing. This can only be a good thing.

  • Burnward

    Bennett will get crunched by somebody trying to teach “the hot-shot rookie” that now he is in with men. It will happen in NHL (or AHL if he was eligible). If so then give him his 9 game NHL look see first. If he is prone to injury then find out now. Find out his mental and maturity makeup, his 200 foot game playing men in the 9 game, then work on those in junior. Regardless ship him down to junior after. Gaudreau and possibly Sven are the skilled new guys we will focus on in the NHL. Because of that we don’t have to rush Bennett.

  • KiLLKiND

    I don’t think I agree with your assessment of how to handle Bennett or Ramo.

    1. Bennett getting slightly hurt in preseason does not at all mean he will get hurt all the time in the NHL maybe it means he came in and was working his butt off and simply strained himself. While he should get his 9 games whether it be spaced out as mentioned by @Stubblejumper or at the start but he seems to handle himself well from watching him play

    2. Ramo I almost wish the Flames didn’t sign Hiller as Ramo seemed more than capable especially in the last half of last year of being an above average starter and we could have signed a backup for 1 year then let Ortio come in as the backup.

    • beloch

      Sure Bennet handles himself fine, but give him a year to ripen, and I doubt he’ll need to “strain himself” every game. Also, what’s to lose by sending him down?

      I understand your take Ramo, and I would have liked to see him with the 2 year contract and Hiller with 1. Management clearly stated they wanted Ortio to get maximum games this year to see what he’ll hold for the future. He won’t get that up in Calgary.

      • KiLLKiND

        I don’t entirely think keeping Bennett up is the right call what I mean is that we should look at his 9 games with a different mindset than the preseason. In the preseason there seems to be a higher chance of injury and if he proves he can play in the NHL it may speed up his development. he not learn as much from dominating a lower level rather than an additional year of learning the pro level. On the the other side if he proves like the general consensus that he is undersized then by all means send him down and don’t risk his future.

  • The Last Big Bear

    1) Yes, regarding Diaz. Depth option who can play NHL hockey.

    2) @Stubblejumper summed up my thoughts regarding Bennett quite well. Stretch his 9 games. Bennett’s hockey is NHL ready. Sending him back to the OHL is just killing time while we wait for him to get tougher. He can stack on muscle and functional strength faster by training with the Flames’ staff and playing once a week, than he can by playing 68 games in junior and spending all winter sitting on the bus to Peterborough.

    3) The NHL schedule is too long. Too many games, not enough time to recuperate.

    4) The only thing standing between Gaudreau and 20 goals in the NHL is a career-altering injury. I think it is highly likely to happen at some point. He doesn’t need to be managed from a skill development point of view, he needs to be managed to minimize his career-long risk of concussions. The AHL is just as rough as the NHL, but slightly slower paced, which I think makes it an ideal stepping stone in Gaudreau’s development, especially from the all-important “learning not to get killed” aspect.

    5) If Hiller is so much better than Ramo, then he’ll prove it on the ice, and there won’t be a debate any more. Until then, there’s every reason to expect there to be a battle between the two.

      • MonsterPod

        Especially when you only get out of the first round three times in over 30 years.

        Here’s to a strong, steady, smart rebuild that makes us a perennial contender.

        • SavardianSpinorama

          You have a point LBB.

          Considering football gets a week between games (other than those Thursday night fiascoes), and that hockey has it’s fair share of physical contact, the thing is:

          Do the players want to take a pay cut for fewer games?; do the broadcasters want to lose out on revenue?; do the teams want to lose out on revenue?; do the fans want to watch less hockey, regardless if a few less games might increase the overall quality of hockey?

          I dunno.

          Money changes everything.

  • icedawg_42

    I think 9 games in the NHL should be considered the next step in Bennett’s development. He’ll take that knowledge and hunger back to junior with him. All the skills in the world, but I agree with those who say the rigors of playing against big men might be just a smidge beyond where he is today. No shame in that. As for the tender battle. I could see a 1a/1b ‘lite’ tandem in that Ramo could/should get more starts than you’d normally see from a backup, but less than a 50/50 or even 60/40 split. I really like Ramo, think he’s got a lot of potential, but I also really like Hiller, and he’s got the NHL experience to go with it.

  • Colorado Flames

    I find it very interesting that Ortios contract is a one way next season. That means he is much more likely to be with the big club next year cause of the waivers. Ramo is in the last year of his deal. GMs know things like this when they negotiate contracts. Reading between the lines tells me there is a very good chance Ramo will not be on the team next year. If he plays this year likely 25-40 games given Hiller doesn’t totally suck or gets hurt and plays well in that roll I see a possibility he gets dealt at the trade deadline to a team that wants to solidify their net. Regardless how it plays out neither Ramo or Hiller are long term solutions, they are really hoping Ortio is our future in net. Ramo could be potentially given his age but won’t likely get the playing time to prove he can or can’t be a long term solution for the Flames. He has potential but is more likely to reach it with another team.

    I will say this neither of these guys have me quite convinced yet. They are both good goalies but not GREAT goalies. Hiller played on a very good team in Anaheim so it will be interesting to see him on a rebuilding team. His career save percentage is about average for an nhl goalie. Personally I think he’s overrated.

    Ramo played great at the end of the season last year but us largely unproven at the NHL level as he doesn’t have a whole season as a number one under his belt. At the end of the day I think if there are no injuries Hiller will play slightly more games than Ramo at least until the trade deadline. Hopefully Ortio has a good year in Adirondack and furthers his development.

    • SavardianSpinorama

      The last great goalie the Flames had kept the team from a decent pick in the draft for about four years. Granted, the Flames are not in that situation right now, but there is time for one of Ortio, Gillies or McDonald to show us their “voodoo thing” in the next two or three years.

      • icedawg_42

        I agree with this. As much as I like Ramo and Hiller, they should both be regarded as stop-gaps until all the stars align and the Flames are challenging for this Stan Leek Up thing…

  • Nick24

    I think that Ramo can at the very least be a starting goalie in the NHL. Hiller is a fine goaltender in his own right, but if Ramo out-plays him, I’d have no trouble starting him over Hiller, and likewise for Ramo.

    Ramo played pretty darn well for the Flames last year and he’s earned a shot to compete for the starters gig.