If not for some late game heroics from Johnny Hockey and Captain Gio against the Kings, the Flames would have entered the holiday break on a 9-game losing streak. The unlikely victory over the Stanley Cup champs managed to quell a tide of concern and anxiety rising amongst the general Flames faithful, where rumblings of how to “fix” the suddenly powerless Flames had begun to gain volume.
The reality of this season for Calgary, though, is that the overall results are incidental. While winning the cup is ostensibly the lone objective of every team in every season, the truth is the Flames are in the embryonic stages of an organizational rebuild and therefore not really at the “true contender” stage of their evolution. While wins and losses will always be felt viscerally by the players and fans, the focus of 2014-15 is progress, assessment and experimentation more than anything else.
With that objective in mind, there’s a lot to like about Calgary’s play so far. Here’s some key reasons Flames fans should be excited about the club and not so concerned about W’s and L’s.
1.) Giordano and Brodie
The Flames have a legitimately elite top defense pairing. There were clues this was true last season, but there was always the chance their incredible second half of 2012-13 was a flash in the pan.
Let’s be clear that the offensive outburst from both this season is a bonus, not the core of their value to the team. That is clearly illustrated in this player usage graphic from War on Ice:
The bottom axis shows zone start ratio – the further right, the more often a player starts in the offensive zone. The further left, the more often he starts in the defensive zone. Quality of competition is captured on the vertical axis – the higher up, the better the competition a guy plays.
Overall, that means the toughest assignments can be found in the upper left hand corner of the graph (more defensive zone starts, better quality of competition) and the easiest assignments are in the bottom right.
Finally, the colour of the associated player circle indicates his relative possession rate. Blue means a club’s possession improves with the player on the ice; red means it gets worse.
The graph shows NHL defenders this year with over 600 even strength minutes so far. There are big names on the list: PK Subban, Shea Weber, Erik Karlsson, Ryan Suter, Alex Pietrangelo and Drew Doughty. As is clear, pretty much no one plays tougher minutes than the Flames duo. The amazing thing is, almost no one shifts play as well as Giordano and Brodie, despite their circumstances.
The usage chart gives some idea of how incredibly rare and beneficial these results are. It’s difficult to draft for this level of influence from the back-end and it’s almost impossible to find it in free agency. Just ask the Oilers.
Giordano and Brodie are pillar talents. In most rebuilds, it takes more than a few bottom-five finishes and several more years to develop these types of guys (if it happens at all).
2.) Gaudreau is legit
We’ve been tracking the diminutive 4th rounder round these parts for years, so his success as an NHL rookie so far isn’t wholly unexpected. That said, there was always the fear Gaudreau’s game wouldn’t translate at the NHL level.
We’re only 30-or so games into his career, but it’s becoming clearer with each highlight reel filled contest that Johnny Gaudreau is a future NHL star. He’s already 3rd on the team in scoring, 2nd in NHL rookie scoring and becoming incrementally more central to the Flames attack with each and every shift. In addition, he’s already pushing the play north, with the best relative possession rate on the Flames. For some kids, it takes half a season, a season, maybe even two or three to become comfortable at the NHL level, assuming they take the leap at all.
It took Gaudreau about 12 games.
The kid’s tiny, but he’s a hockey super computer on skates with the ability to process the game at an elite level and, what’s more, execute with limited time and space. I think it’s reasonable to expect him to lead the club in scoring as early as next year (if not this year).
3.) Sean Monahan takes a step
The former 6th overall pick scored over 20-goals as a teenager last year, but he was severely sheltered by his coach and mostly outplayed in aggregate. There was a chance his success was percentage and circumstance based more than anything.
This year, though, Monahan is playing with the big boys. Absent the injured Mikael Backlund, Bob Hartley has moved Monahan to the front of the rotation and the 20-year old is hanging tough. Despite the vastly more difficult assignment, many of Monahan’s underlying numbers have improved over last year: a positive relative possession rate and an improved per game shot rate (from 1.87 to 2.69) which is currently the best on the club. His face-off win rate is also a respectable 49.5%, which is only marginally behind Matt Stajan (52.4%) for the team lead.
Monahan has less dazzle to his game than Gaudreau and he doesn’t exert the true game changing influence of a Mark Giordano, but his performance for a player his age is well ahead of the curve. If he can continue to improve at this pace over the year or two, he’ll be a heavy hitter by the time his next contract starts.
4.) The kids are alright
Bob Hartley and the Flames deserve a lot of credit for their willingness to give at-bats to many of the supporting cast hopefuls that are bubbling just under the surface. It wasn’t too long ago that this organization would stubbornly cling to tough guys and veterans in lieu of youngsters on the parent roster. That hasn’t been true this year: Josh Jooris, Markus Granlund, Michael Ferland and Sven Baertschi have had extended cups of coffee in the show, even at the expense of more established guys like Brian McGrattan, Devin Setoguchi, Brandon Bollig and even Matt Stajan.
The club has made a concerted effort to establish a positive developmental environment. Decision makers are always going to prefer veterans to kids to one degree or another, but the Flames are letting some of their better prospects find their legs, get a taste and maybe prove they deserve to stick around full time.
As a result, we’ve seen glimpses from guys like Jooris, Granlund and Ferland. Even Baertschi, who is still viewed with significant ambivalence by the club, seems to at least have made strides in terms of playing a complete game.
It’s not wrong to cheer for wins and hope the Flames somehow make the post-season this year, but let’s face it – this is still an organization that has a lot of work to do before they’re a legitimate contender. The good news is the club has a lot of arrows pointing in the right direction and are apparently well ahead of where they would seemed to be at the onset of this project.
The cupboards aren’t empty anymore. There’s established, pillar talent already on the roster. And there’s real competition amongst future NHLers in the depths of the organization. For the first time in perhaps a decade, there’s opportunity for the Flames to evolve and take real strides forward.