1. A bad start
The Flames have started the year as a club that has gone better than .500, winning nine points from its first eight games, including the overtime loss on Tuesday night.
This cannot be seen as acceptable.
Nine points has them sitting tied for third in the Western Conference (albeit with more games played than almost anyone in the league). They have a positive goal differential, and all their wins are coming on the road (4-2-0). This is bad.
Teams that are serious about being in the basement this season — Carolina, Buffalo, Colorado, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Winnipeg — are scraping along nicely. Over the weekend, the Flames were like sixth in the league.
The good news is it’s unsustainable, because the team’s road PDO is north of 105 (eighth in the league) driven by a .932 save percentage in all games, and its FF% away from home is in the low 40s (25th). They are going to start losing games in the near future, and not a moment too soon. The race to the bottom is already being run at near-record pace and the Flames are miles behind.
And just so we’re clear, and to reiterate a point that shouldn’t need reiterating: If you think this winning is a good thing, you are a lunatic. Flames fans should be rooting, and rooting hard, for the team to lose every game for the rest of the season. The closer to the bottom they get, the better their chances of drafting a franchise-altering center. This should be the goal, despite all the stuff you could say about Professional Pride and bringing up the prospects in a Winning Environment. This should be a huge tank battle between about 25 teams, and no one in a position of significant media power is going to come out and say that. But it should be. If you’re not legitimately competing for the Cup this year, you should instead be trying to nosedive. It’s that simple.
The Flames haven’t done that to this point, and I’m not sure they’re going to keep up with the bottom of the league as a result.
2. Gaudreau quickly improving
On to some better news, it seems that Johnny Gaudreau is finally starting to take a larger role in the offense. I say finally, just eight games into his NHL career, because he was asked to sit out a game at Columbus. He hadn’t put a shot on goal since the first game of the season, so that decision from Bob Hartley was fair enough.
He seems to have come back revitalized. Three points in two games now, three shots on goal (not a lot but he got 28:11 of TOI in them combined so it’s not like he’s being relied upon a lot. Now, was that a case of him taking advantage on the power play? Sure it was, but when you’re trying to get a young offensive star going, juicing him with man-advantage time isn’t a bad way to do it.
Moreover, though, it’s the way he’s getting these points that’s impressive:
- His goal was a nice hustle play on the man advantage, because he zipped across the slot and right into open ice to support the puck carrier as he dealt with some traffic. Instead, Raymond shot, and Colborne, fronting the net, got Gaudreau the puck below the red line. He then used every inch of his reach to wrap it around. Nice effort there.
- His setup on the Mason Raymond goal Sunday night was very nice if understated; he perfectly handled a long, hard pass up at the far blue line, bought himself a little space from a defender, and gave the puck away at the exact right time.
- Finally, his assist on Tuesday just saw him skate into the teeth of the Tampa PK, blowing by the first two guys then drawing the second two to his side of the ice. No one saw Dennis Wideman streak into the slot until it was too late.
These are the kinds of plays he made in college when things were going very well for him. These are the kinds of plays he might be able to make consistently at this level. With that having been said, the teams he preyed upon were the hapless Jets, backed by the more-hapless Ondrej Pavelec, and the Hedman-less Lightning, who were playing Evgeni Nabokov (in 2014 somehow). So I guess what I’m saying is let’s not start engraving the Calder just yet.
3. The Brodie extension
More good news for the Flames came in the form of Brad Treliving’s ability to lock TJ Brodie down for five more years at a ludicrously low price point, $4.65 million per. I’m currently of the opinion that Brodie is a borderline Norris-worthy defenseman, and he’s likely to keep up that pace for the entirety of this contract (as long as Mark Giordano doesn’t slow down too much).
This is the way the wind has been blowing for a while now, because all the good, young defensemen (Jake Muzzin, Jonas Brodin) are doing it these days. Sign long-term for cheap. But Brodie is different because, by my calculations, the Flames bought three years of unrestricted free agency. Which is a crazy amount to get at that price. A real nice job out of Treliving here. I almost can’t believe it happened.
There isn’t much more that can or needs to be said about it: This was just about a perfect deal. (Calgary only loses points for not getting him down to an even $4.5 million per for eight years.)
4. What does that mean for Giordano?
One feature of the Brodie deal that has been the subject of significant comment is that the first season under it (2015-16) will pay him just $3.9 million, in deference to the team’s captain, who will make $4.02 million in the final season of his current deal. Which is nice in practice but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Giordano is currently paid $1.23 million against the cap less than Dennis Wideman, which is obviously nonsense and not something that’s avoidable. Giordano was not captain when Wideman signed, there’s a new GM now, etc.
But I’ve always been one to think the “No one makes more than ________” line some teams draw in the sand is idiotic. You pay people what you have to to keep them. The Red Wings probably lost out on a lot of chances to sign very good young players because they wouldn’t pay anyone more than the team-friendly money Nicklas Lidstrom was making toward the end of his career. Now, we all know the UFA market is deeply inefficient — you pay more than actual value for everything — but this Flames team is going to be heavily involved in that market for years to come.
Not that anyone worth signing to a big deal is going to be clamoring to come to Calgary. But what if, let’s say, Johnny Gaudreau develops into a star by the time his contract is over. Giordano could very reasonably ask this team to pay him $6.5 million per year (that would probably be a bargain, but it would bump him into the top-10 in cap hits among defensemen), and they’d either pay it or let him walk. But they’d have to pay it, because you don’t let a Norris-caliber defenseman walk. By the time he’s 34 or whatever, and making $6.5 million and you’re getting diminishing returns on that investment every year as his ability is ravaged by age, do you really want to draw that line? Again, this presupposes the Flames have or acquire anyone worth that kind of money by then, but just given how inflationary salaries are getting simply because the cap is going up, a decent borderline-first-line guy could ask for that money pretty reasonably.
That’s all very pie-in-the-sky, obviously, because it presupposes the Flames will, at some point in the next several years, have someone worth that much. But it’s a worthwhile thought exercise in any event, because it’s a philosophy you see every once in a while.
Restricted free agents don’t have much choice, obviously, about where they sign, but teams need to accommodate their best players, and placing artificial limits on how much they pay them doesn’t strike one as being a wise decision.
5. Monahan struggling?
So we’re eight games into the season and Sean Monahan still hasn’t scored. And he has just two assists. And he only has 2.5 shots per game.
And so you can say he’s struggling a little bit, for sure. But at the same time, I’ve actually been fairly impressed with his play. He’s not getting nearly as many offensive zone starts as he did last year (though only like three guys on the Flames are north of 50 percent anyway, because of how badly the team is getting buried in its own end). He’s also playing some of the tougher competition on the team (higher than Mikael Backlund, even).
This is going to be his life now, but one imagines that the offense will come soon enough; shooting doesn’t go cold forever, just as it doesn’t stay as hot as he started last season. After all, it is a league of growing pains because sophomores are asked to do far more than rookies in terms of playing tough minutes. And this team’s center depth adds to that fact. Monahan is the team’s No. 2 pivot, for good or ill. The learning curve is steep, and despite the lack of goals, he’s acquitted himself well enough overall.