1. It continues
Last week I talked about how the Flames’ winning ways should remain upsetting to fans, and people largely did not want to hear it. Lots of talk about how this team was never bad enough to finish in the bottom five, and so on.
Well, the Flames have three points from their last three games (a humbling of the Hurricanes, a loss to the Capitals in which they looked overwhelmed, and a shootout loss really deserved to get more against a suddenly bumbling Montreal side). The Flames remain in the playoff hunt as a consequence: tied for a wild card spot with 12 points from 11 games, but technically sixth in the West as it stands. Which, if you’d prefer the team win, has to be considered a good thing.
But how soon does reality start to set in? Has to be right around the corner. You can say this team is hard-working its way toward a bunch of points and all that, but in reality you and I both know what’s really happening here: The goalies are playing so far above their heads that wins keep coming despite the Flames actually being poor most nights out.
There’s no other way to say that. Prior to last night’s games, the team was 28th in score-adjusted Fenwick, meaning that when you normalize all factors out of the proceedings, the Flames are the third-worst team in the league in terms of puck possession. So all that winning? You can attribute it to the team’s .952 even-strength save percentage (fifth in the league) and its shooting 9.33 percent at 5-on-5 (eighth).
I think we can all agree this team doesn’t have the fifth-best goaltending setup in the league, nor is its overall talent enough to buoy the eighth-best shooting in the league for 82 games. Corrections are coming, hard and fast. Last year the team, which didn’t make many huge offensive upgrades this summer, shot just 7.86 percent at evens, and Karri Ramo (.924 ESsv% last year) and Jonas Hiller (.927 over the last three seasons) won’t keep this up either.
And then the team will suddenly start losing games, often, and by a lot. And everyone who thought this team was “too talented to be bad again” will no longer feel that way. And won’t that be a funny turn of events all of a sudden?
2. Gaudreau gets better all the time
Something Kent said Tuesday night during the Flames’ game against Montreal really had me thinking. He said, basically, that Johnny Gaudreau still looks pretty tentative a lot of the time when he’s out there. Essentially, he hasn’t played with confidence because he’s still figuring out the NHL. I think that’s a fair assessment. I’ve seen it before.
When he came into college, you could tell Gaudreau was mega-talented. And while he was putting up points, he was still getting bullied a little bit because he was no longer playing kids topping out at 20 years old was definitely weighing on him. It’s crazy to imagine this now, but there was a stretch of 13 games his first year in NCAA in which he registered just 2-2-4 and was basically a non-factor in BC’s setup. Once he got over that hump, he ended the year with a streak of 29 points in his final 21 games. In his final two years, he was held of the scoresheet altogether just 14 more times in 75 games.
Not that he’s going to score like that at the NHL level or anything, but if Bob Hartley can use him correctly going forward — as he did on Tuesday — then he’s going to be a good one. He only finished with the one assist, of course, but he was a plus-12 in terms of corsi events, and more than doubled his regular-season shot total (from four to 10). No he didn’t start many shifts outside the offensive zone, and when you need to get a player like him going (he didn’t have a single shot in his previous two games), that’s what you do.
You have to frame his “best game as a pro” in that context, obviously. But he also has four points in his last five and it wouldn’t be entirely shocking to see that continue, especially if he continues to play with Mikael Backlund and Paul Byron. They were dynamite together.
3. The center injuries
That knee-on-knee hit Matt Stajan took from Jarred Tinordi, though, is troubling. Not a 100 percent “it’s so dirty you have to suspend him for four games” kneeing, in my book, but it wasn’t good either, and I’d hope he would get a call from Player Safety on it.
The fact that it came in the same game as Joe Colborne getting dinged up a bit — as I write this, I’ve seen no information on how severe either is — is a bigger worry. These are the team’s Nos. 3 and 4 centers, and if one or both of them is out for any considerable length of time, having two AHLers running the bottom two lines is a huge concern. You have to wonder who they’d call up (Billy Arnold? Corban Knight? Markus Granlund?) or move into those positions (guys like Lance Bouma and Josh Jooris are technically natural centers).
In any event, that’s not an enviable position, especially with the schedule the Flames have coming up. They host a hot Nashville club on Halloween, then play five on the road, far from home.
Maybe it’s a moot point and both guys are fine, but if not, that’s got to be a huge worry if this club thinks it can keep winning.
4. The Glencross question
We’re now 10 games into the season and I’m starting to wonder what, exactly, the team’s plans are with Curtis Glencross.
He’s not producing, and that has been a point of concern, but he is driving possession relative to the rest of the club, and playing literally the toughest competition of any forwards on the team. And I think that puts the Flames in a bit of a conundrum.
Glencross is unlikely to accept a hometown discount, first and foremost, which probably doesn’t matter because the team’s not going to be anywhere near the cap. So the question becomes whether they want to pay him to notch fewer goals and assists than he has been, with the idea that he can be used very effectively to drive possession anyway making him better suited to a bit of a checking role? If so, how do you properly value him? You probably can’t, for example, give a raise to a guy who will be 32 in December, especially if he wants three or four years. It would be illogical and dangerous to do so, especially if you buy into the idea that this team could legitimately compete in the West four or five years from now (they can’t, by the way).
And so if you decide you’re not going to re-sign him, you have to trade him. But you’d be trading him at a point when his value is lower than it has been in quite a while. And further, with the Cammalleri debacle last year (not trading him at the deadline and watching him inevitably walk for nothing), it doesn’t seem like that’s something the Flames are going to do anyway.
This is a deep asset management question that just might not have a very good answer for the club. But they have to make a decision anyway.
5. The Hartley question
Finally, I want to address something I saw in Elliotte Friedman’s wonderful 30 Thoughts this week: The idea that the Flames might 86 Bob Hartley at the end of the year. I would be fine with it for a lot of reasons, some of which were listed in the piece.
First and foremost, he’s not a Burke/Treliving hire, and you’d think, as the team potentially traverses its new new new rebuild plans they’d probably like their guy in there. While I don’t agree with the team’s apparent roster-building philosophy, you’d at least like to see that philosophy carried out at every level of the organization, rather than having one hand doing something independent of the other.
Second, I don’t think Hartley’s a good coach, because he continually dresses too many fighters and because he doesn’t seem particularly willing to mix his systems with what the team can actually do.
Third, if Burke and Treliving end up hiring Randy Carlyle when he gets hired, the Flames are going to be stockpiling a lot of high picks in the years to come. As you know, I’m all for that.