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.