We’re at about the quarter-mark of the 2014-15 Calgary Flames season and your local hockey heroes have amassed a record of 14-8-2, good enough for 30 points and a 9th overall placement as I compile this today.
To say the hockey world is shocked and/or impressed is probably apt, and maybe even an understatement. To fully grasp how well the Flames are doing, particularly in relation to how bad we thought they would be, we turn to the FlamesNation family: myself, Christian Roatis, Byron Bader, Beloch, Justin Azevedo, Kent Wilson and The Book of Loob.
Through the first quarter of the season, the Flames are in the thick of things. On a scale from “not surprised at all” to “massively surprised,” where do you fall on the team’s standings performance thus far?
Ryan: I’m pretty damn surprised. The coaching staff has gotten the most lemonade out of these hockey-playing lemons and the puck luck is bouncing the right way. For now.
Christian: I’d say just under massively surprised. I think after last year we all kind of knew this team had the potential to win some games, especially with all the one-goal margins last season and a now improved goaltending situation, but I don’t anyone – outside of Guru Aaron Ward – imagined a start like this one.
Byron: I’m certainly massively surprised they’ve won this much. Their underlying numbers are where I’d expect them to be. It’s been a wild ride so far. I hope it continues!
Beloch: I’m somewhat surprised. I predicted that the Flames would improve relative to last season, if for no other reason, on the merits of improved goal-tending alone. I thought they might challenge for a spot in the playoff bubble. Instead, they’re challenging for a home-ice start in the playoffs! There’s no denying the Flames have had good luck, but their underlying numbers are also improving thanks to players like Monahan, Byron, and Gaudreau turning into dependable possession players.
Justin: This team is not as good as their record. They are playing so far above their head visibility is nearly infinite. It will not continue, but the longer it does the more I am worried HOPS decides this is the year to go for it… again. This team should not be adding “playoff pieces”, but, I fear that they will anyway. I am not “surprised” by how many points they have per se simply because most teams riding a 1022 PDO are going to have that kind of success.
Kent: I can’t imagine anyone is going to say “not surprised”. Since I started writing about the team, this is probably the most unexpectedly good run I’ve seen out of the Flames given the roster and expectations.
BoL: Have you ever watched a sleeping dog fart so loud it wakes the dog up? That’s how surprised I am. Going into the season I knew the Flames were going to be too good to be bad, in the sense that they were going to be too good to challenge Buffalo for Connor McDavid, but they’ve taken this further than any of us would have ever believed. And it’s pretty cool so far. I mean the PDO is pretty surprising too, and when it evens out, it’ll be about as shocking as a Paul McCartney album, but we’ll have that discussion when it gets here, because right now, this is too fun.
What do you feel is the Flames’ biggest strength right now?
Ryan: I presume everyone is gonna talk Giordano and Brodie, so I’ll go off-book and say “team speed.” The team’s fast players – Gaudreau, Granlund, Byron notably – have been amongst their best and really emerged as a catalyst for the team’s offense.
Christian: Their ability to be oblivious to what’s transpired in the game up to the point they’re currently at. Whether they’re up 2 goals or down 2 goals, they play the same way. Their game never changes and keep pushing until the final buzzer sounds. I think the ability to not get rattled and just play Calgary Flames hockey has been a big contributor to their success.
Byron: Persistence. They’re never out of it.
Beloch: In terms of what matters on the ice right now, Brodano. In terms of what’s going to matter in the next few seasons, it’s got to be the farm. The Flames have a lot of talent in the pipeline and we’re just starting to see some of it this season.
Justin: The ability of the team to shut down elite competition. All credit here goes to Brodie and Giordano, who are the best defensive pair in the NHL and if someone tells you otherwise slap ’em in the mouth.
Kent: Giordano and Brodie. Can a defense pairing share the Hart trophy?
BoL: G̶r̶i̶t̶, S̶a̶n̶d̶p̶a̶p̶e̶r̶, B̶e̶e̶f̶, I̶n̶t̶a̶n̶g̶i̶b̶l̶e̶s. Uh, it’s Brodano and pretty much only Brodano. At some point last season, the Flames made the adjustment to have their offense run through the blueline (probably when it became obvious that they pairing of Gio and Brodie was next level elite, that usually helps), and since then, the team has thrived. They’ve been so good, they’ve managed to win despite the presence of Bollig, McGrattan, Smid, Setoguchi, and Engelland on a regular basis. It’s unreal. You know if the NHL were going to go to the Olympics this season, hello first pairing (of defensemen inexplicably left off Team Canada).
What do you feel is the Flames’ biggest weakness right now?
Ryan: Their defensive depth isn’t too hot, allowing teams to really key in on the Engelland/Smid pairing. And when Kris Russell was out of the line-up, you really saw how not-amazing Dennis Wideman truly is. This is a one-pairing team.
Christian: Their habit of getting behind the 8-ball early. They were down 2-0 to Anaheim, Chicago and New Jersey at the tail end of their homestand, and although they came back in all three games, and won two of them, it’s not a good habit to get into. I got totally gutted on twitter for mentioning it, but no one can deny that eventually all these comebacks are going to start raring out. Good karma and luck aren’t bottomless pits.
Byron: A lack of possession drivers and skilled size.
Beloch: On the ice right now, the Flames lack veteran scoring/possession forwards. The return of Backlund and Stajan should help a bit. Long-term, the Flames need some blue-chip defensive prospects.
Justin: The inability of the other 18 or so players to suppress shots to any meaningful degree. The Flames are far and away the worst Canadian club in defending shots. Despite what people may say, these are not “lower quality” shots because of the “defensive system”. There is no such thing as shot quality over this many games with this many events. The Flames just cannot stop other teams from shooting, and the fact that it hasn’t hurt them in the standings to this point is miraculous.
Kent: Their bottom pairing of Engelland and Smid can’t be trusted against any level of NHL competition above 4th liners. Calgary’s roster is also obviously very thin up front given its injuries and although some of the kids have filled in admirably, it’s only a matter of time before a line-up with zero established NHL centres starts to feel the pinch.
BoL: Oh hello
Ignoring how improbable the Flames performance to-date has been, where do you see them finishing (standings-wise) after the next 60-ish games?
Ryan: I figure the bounces catch up with them and they go around .500 from here on out, finishing just a smidge outside the playoffs.
Christian: If they continue this play, I could see them in one of the wild card spots, but more than likely they drop to fifth in the division, ahead of Deadmonton and Arizona. That would really irk me because it would probably mean a draft pick outside the Top 10.
Byron: I think after the next two weeks we’ll have a good idea. Lots of really tough road matches coming up. If they can keep around this pace until mid or late December, I could see them hanging on to a 6-10 spot in the West.
Beloch: The Flames are 0.61 so far this season and sportsclubstats says they need to go 0.52 over the remainder of the season to have a better than 50% chance of squeaking into the last playoff spot. That’s doable even if the Flames regress quite a bit. I predict the Flames will be in the playoff bubble unless something disastrous happens, like a season-ending injury to Brodie or Giordano.
Justin: There’s too many points banked to be in the McDavid area, so I’d predict the Flames pick at #12 in June. They will not make the playoffs, and they shouldn’t.
Kent: Given all the points they’ve banked, somewhere around 10th in the West.
BoL: Oh man, I have no idea, depends on how long magic lasts, right? (and doesn’t magic last….FOREVER???) Obviously we all expect this team to regress soon (and the schedule gets pretty tough in December, so maybe it’s then), but this hot streak could last a little while longer too, so, while this is probably a huge cop out, I’m going to say they go .500 over the next 60 games. That probably puts them in the hunt for a wild card spot with like probably Minnesota or something. I’m still hesitant to say this team makes the playoffs, but I sure as hell hope so. Being right is way worse than playoff hockey.
Which Flames player has most impressed you so far?
Ryan: Josh Jooris was excellent in camp, but many figured it was just youthful exuberance that would fade over time. So far, it hasn’t.
Christian: Sean Monahan. The steps he has taken and player he has turned into is just beyond any of my wildest dreams. The guy has turned himself into this teams undisputed number one centerman, trusted in all situations, at age 20. Talk about a homerun.
Byron: Several. Jooris and Byron probably most. Gaudreau, Granlund, Gio, Brodie have also really impressed. (And Colborne, too.)
Beloch: In terms of surprising me, Monahan. We knew Brodano was an elite pair last season. We expected Gaudreau to make a splash. I was expecting Monahan to improve modestly, taking on slightly tougher competition but still requiring a fair bit of shelter. With Backlund and Stajan out he’s been thrown to the wolves! His response (i.e. making himself a fur coat) is a major reason why the Flames haven’t tanked this season.
Justin: There’s three guys who have stood out (not including 5&7) to me: Gaudreau, Hudler and Monahan. Hudler’s points are a function of above-average personal luck (~18% SH%) but he is one of the best Flames at gaining the zone and maintaining possession. Gaudreau seems to make something happen every time he has the puck; his elusiveness is uncanny and his size does not affect his play. Monahan’s underlying numbers have taken a real step up this year, which suggests to me that he’s improved his defensive game a significant amount.
Kent: We’ll skip over some obvious ones like Gio, Brodie and Monahan and go with Paul Byron, who has really established himself as a useful, everyday NHLer. He barely got signed this past summer to his cheap, one year deal and a lot mock line-ups had his as the team’s 13th forward heading into the season. Fair to say he’s played himself into a much firmer position at this point.
BoL: At times, almost everybody. Obviously the most consistent has been our super pals on 1-2 D, but I think my answer has to go to Sean Monahan. He’s taken tremendous strides at the center position this year, especially after having to pick up the tough minutes slack for Mikael Backlund. He’s not out of place, and he’s well on his way to becoming that 1C he was drafted to be. Which is nuts, because if a Flames first round draft pick pans out FOR THE FLAMES…I don’t know how to finish this sentence, I’ve never seen it happen before.
Which Flames player has most disappointed you so far?
Ryan: Neither of Brandon Bollig or Deryk Engelland have really impressed me this season. At least Bollig’s cheap.
Christian: Sven Baertschi. Maybe he hasn’t been given a big enough opportunity but he just doesn’t seem to “have it”. It’s a real shame.
Beloch: The Gooch.
Justin: My god is Deryk Engelland bad. There are no redeeming qualities to his game and between him and Smid the Flames also have one of the worst pairings in the NHL to go along with the best one. His basic understanding of game flow has to be questioned simply because he cannot make an outlet pass. Multiple times per game Engelland gives the puck away because he has no ability to predict where his teammates will be – at least, that’s what it looks like. Brandon Bollig is just terrible as well. Can’t skate and refuses to carry the puck for any length of time.
Kent: I can’t say I’m terribly disappointed with anyone in particular. It’s too bad Sven Baertschi hasn’t been able to work his way out of Bob Hartley’s doghouse yet, even though I’ve personally been satisfied with his play for much of his time in the show. I didn’t have high hopes for either Brandon Bollig or Deryk Engelland, but they’ve both played down to even those lowered expectations. I was also hoping Devin Setoguchi would be able to re-claim his 40-point form and become a marginally useful asset, but I guess that’s not in the cards.
BoL: Tough call, as all the players I think are bad are living up to the expectations I had for them. Engelland is awful, but we knew he was going to be awful, Setoguchi was an experiment that didn’t work out, and Bollig is the same hot garbage he was in Chicago. I think I’ll say Rafa Diaz, because as a relatively mobile, offensively minded defenseman, he really should have surpassed both Engelland and Smid on the depth chart. And while I do think he’s better than both of them, his play hasn’t been enough to force Bob Hartley to play him over those two. I’m not sure who to blame for that one, but Diaz has a hand in that for sure.
What prospect from Adirondack do you hope to see in Calgary between now and the end of the regular season?
Ryan: Bill Arnold, if only to see if he and Johnny Gaudreau can bring their chemistry over from college.
Christian: Emile Poirier. I’ve got to see this kid with my own eyes. Lightning quick, plays a black and blue game and has tons of skill to boot? Yes, please.
Byron: Besides the ones that are already up Poirier and Arnold.
Beloch: Adirondack has a lot of great forwards, but I’m going to go off the board and ask to see Cundari and/or Wotherspoon instead. The Flames need to develop some second pairing defenders if they want to take the next step as a team.
Justin: There’s really no one that I’d like to see as much as I’d like to see Sven get more than 10 good minutes of ice in a game. I’m frankly not sure what Sven has to do at this point to get more respect. His underlyings are very good for what and where he’s playing and he’s essentially scored at the same pace as the golden boy has (.44 vs .49 PPG). Sure, he makes defensive mistakes. Guess what? Every young winger does that. You’re just more tuned to notice it when Sven does it because of this. I assume we see Poirier soon, but other than him it’s just a bunch of guys who might turn out to be bottom-of-the-roster players, i.e. players easily replaceable in free agency.
Kent: They’re almost all here already. I’d like to see if Tyler Wotherspoon has progressed given how shaky Calgary’s 3rd pairing is and it would be interesting to get a look at Emile Poirier and Bill Arnold as well.
BoL: Out of the ones who haven’t played in Calgary this year? I’d say it’s gotta be Wotherspoon, because again, have you seen Engelland and Smid? Plus I think he’s trending nicely towards bona fide NHL defenseman, and that’s pretty neat.
Finally, are you surprised that the Flames are ahead of the Oilers in the standings, or that they are this far ahead of them in the standings?
Ryan: I thought it’d be much closer than it is, and that one team would pull away after the All-Star Break.
Christian: From a roster standpoint, yes, the Oilers are more talented on paper. From a logic standpoint? No. This article from Mark Spector of Sportsnet says it all for me. That team just doesn’t care about each other. Polar opposite of the Flames.
Byron: Very surprised. I really thought this was the year that Edmonton broke out of the basement. I was incorrect.
Beloch: Prior to the start of the season, I pegged the Oiler’s goalie tandem as being potentially weak. A lot of Oiler pundits and fans were giddy over the sv%’s that Fasth and Scrivens had last season, but they were making an unsound extrapolation based on a tiny sample. Both of those goalies had very few NHL games under their belts and were totally unproven. Both of them had the potential to be good, but both of them had the potential to be bad. A larger sample size suggests that both of them are bad, but more games are needed to deliver a firm verdict. One of them might yet prove to be of backup quality.
Still, the decision to start the season with two unproven backups has pretty much tanked the Oilers’ season. That was a seriously boneheaded move by MacTavish (unless his intention was to tank). The Oiler’s possession numbers are improved over last season but their shot percentage is in the basement. They might start scoring more goals if that corrects, but their GPG is fourth last in the league in right now! This is not good to see from a team built around offense! Finally, the team’s morale seems lower than it’s ever been. A few nights they’ve hung on until the final buzzer, but other nights they’ve given up in the first period and seemed to be just waiting to make the long walk of shame from the ice to their dressing room.
I don’t think any NHL club has ever just thrown in the towel and simply left the building before the third period, but the Oilers sure look like they wish they could some nights. If the Oilers sh% corrects and a dependable starting goalie is brought in the Oilers should start climbing up the standings. It’s too late to make the playoffs, but they need to start progressing as a team. However, knowing Lowe and MacT, I wouldn’t be surprised if they stay the course and tank for McDavid. So, given that I’m not surprised at how bad the Oilers are, am I surprised at how far ahead of them the Flames are? Yes actually, but that’s entirely because the Flames are in the league’s top ten right now.
Justin: Neither. Edmonton has had poor luck and still only has one top-4 defenseman. The Flames have two elite defenders and (at least) above-average goaltending to go along with a sky-high PDO. Doesn’t seem too farfetched to me.
Kent: Being this far ahead is fairly shocking. Calgary’s in the onset of their rebuild and went into the season with one of the cheapest rosters in the league and no expectations, so to have doubled Edmonton’s point total in the first quarter is astonishing (or appalling, depending on who you cheer for).
Flames season about to start. Do you have your rearview mirrors dusted off, Oilers fans?
— Dan Tencer (@dantencer) January 20, 2013