Five things: We’re really doing it

1. Flames at the half

Well the Flames have now officially meandered through the first half of the schedule (and then some) so now seems like it’s good a time as any to kick the tires on where they stand.

As I write this, ahead of last night’s games, they’re three points out of the last divisional playoff spot, and two out from the last wild card. However, the Canucks, with two games in hand, stand in their way for both those slots in the standings.

And anyone who’s watched this team since that PDO-fueled hot start has to understand fundamentally that this is a bad team that just got very lucky at the beginning of the year. Not because they worked hard or got to good areas, but because even bad teams get lucky for as long as 60 or even 70 games over the course of a season. The Flames began the year 17-8-2, and have gone 5-10-1 since then. And they have a brutally hard schedule coming up over the next month (three vs. San Jose, two vs. Los Angeles, one each vs. Pittsburgh and Anaheim and Boston — and have played the 12th-most difficult schedule in the league to this point.

They’re a plus-9 in terms of overall goal differential but minus-2 at even strength. And since that hot start came to an end on Dec. 6, it’s minus-5 because the goaltending continues to be at least somewhat decent even as the goal scoring drops off considerably.

But the problems remain the same: The team isn’t good enough to have the puck for even half the game, and in fact to this point have the third-worst possession in the league (44.1 percent corsi-for), ahead of only Colorado (44 percent) and Buffalo (37.5 percent). They’re not even as good at holding onto the puck as the Maple Leafs, which should tell you everything about this Flames team.

Do they have some bright spots? Undoubtedly, especially among the younger players, but the overwhelming data on this team says that it’s not good enough to compete with all but a small handful of the league’s 30 teams on a night-in-night-out basis. You can chalk some of that up to the fact that they’re still rebuilding, but I think it’s clear now that the club is a lot farther away from being realistically competitive than many observers crowing abut their success early in the season are probably still ready to admit.

All the numbers suggest that even if the goaltending holds up this team is going to lose a lot of games the rest of the way. And it’ll probably finish in the bottom five or six in the league once again. But I hope bringing aboard all those, ahem, useful veterans was worth missing out on a legit chance at a generational talent.

(Or are we still pretending no one in the Flames Nation comment section said, “This team plays well enough in its systems that it can get outshot every night and still be a playoff team!” for the first quarter of the season, only to miraculously change their expectations back when the team lost eight in a row? I forget.)

2. All-Star selections

I wasn’t really either elated or upset with the two guys the Flames are sending to All-Star Weekend. I think if you’re required to send one guy from every team, the most reasonable candidate the Flames had to hand was Mark Giordano (though I will once again say that I think TJ Brodie is just as deserving, even if he doesn’t have the offensive numbers). It is good and right that he should make the team.

And if you also have to bring a bunch of rookies, the number of them that you should be able to call before getting to Johnny Gaudreau is, at most, two. Filip Forsberg, obviously, and in fact he’d be a regular All-Star if it were up to me. Then if you absolutely positively had to bring a second one before Gaudreau, Aaron Ekblad is the obvious answer.

I saw some people making noise for Jiri Hudler as well but that was obviously never going to happen. He’s not even the best forward on his own team even if he is the most entertaining.

I’ve said this elsewhere before but the only thing worth watching at All-Star Weekend is the Skills Competition, because only one actively cool thing has ever happened in the actual All-Star Game itself (that, of course, being Owen Nolan calling his shot). Gaudreau will be perfect for it because he’s basically the living embodiment of fun and skill in hockey, so watching him stick handle around cones and participate in breakaway competitions and the like is going to be great.

I don’t know what you think Giordano is gonna do there — maybe make an effort in the hardest shot competition before Shea Weber blows him out of the water — but Giordano’s a fun invitee mostly because people who watch Flames games know that what he’s good at is the opposite of what play looks like in an All-Star Game. He’ll probably rack up some points on the power play but this isn’t His Game. Seeing him play it could be delightfully weird.

3. Demoting McGrattan and the “death” of the enforcer

Lots of sad media members in Calgary this week — as there always is when a goon who has a lot of time to think up loquacious stuff to say because he plays four minutes a night or gets scratched — because Brian McGrattan was waived and sent down to the AHL. (Hopefully never to return again.)

McGrattan hasn’t been good enough to play in the NHL in a few years, if he ever was to begin with, and so this roster decision was a long time coming. Why the Flames re-signed him I will never know (unless of course the answer is “just Brian Burke” in which case I do know but do not in any way understand).

But another thing I don’t understand is everyone saying, “Now even the Burke-run Flames are moving on from employing an enforcer.” I had to check the roster two or three times to make sure I wasn’t misremembering their acquisition of Brandon Bollig (useless) and Deryk Engelland (slightly less useless) over the summer. Turns out I was right: These two guys who are not going to be utilized in most situations — hence their average TOI per game is 8:55 and 13:08, respectively — are in fact just glorified enforcers the team actively sought out this past offseason.

Weird. How am I the only one who remembers this?

4. The Shore trade

This week the Flames traded Corban Knight back to the team from whence he came a few years ago, and in return got prospect Drew Shore.

Ostensibly, the Flames got the better of the deal on paper, because Knight is older and less productive at the AHL level than Shore (24 to Shore’s 23, and 0.61 points per game in 93 AHL appearances to Shore’s 0.71 in 134). Shore also has a little more versatility to his game, with the ability to play either up the middle or on the wing. Shore also has a bunch more games at the AHL level under his belt.

Obviously roster flexibility was a motivator here; Shore’s next NHL game — presumably tonight — will mean that he has to clear waivers to be demoted once again, and this is not the case for Knight. But still, this is the kind of trade you like to see a rebuilding team make, because it preys on some concerns of better teams (the Panthers are better than someone? I still have to get used to that) and means that Brad Treliving is making savvy moves to improve his organization at minimal cost. Not that Knight was worth nothing, but if you have to send Shore down to the minors in a week or three, it’s a reasonable gamble to give up a prospect who probably doesn’t have much of a future with the club in order to kick the tires on a former second-rounder who could be a decent contributor in the bottom-six.

And in fact, here’s some WOWY data — or, perhaps, WOWIE data, because man those numbers are good — from Panthers blog Litter Box Cats last summer that show how dominant everyone was when he got into games; the data further suggests that his demotion might have been the result of bad luck (93.9 PDO). He was probably playing soft competition, but if you’re pushing around even fourth-liners with favorable zone starts to the tune of plus-5 or 7 CF against someone’s other numbers, you’re doing something right.

Given that, you’d have to imagine this kid gets a serious look.

5. Johnny Controversy

For some reason people were upset or giggling over the fact that Johnny Gaudreau is trying to copyright the term “Johnny Hockey” in much the same way Johnny Manziel copyrighted “Johnny Football.” While there was a good amount of, “Good for him, maybe he can sell some t-shirts,” or something like that, I saw a surprising amount of people who more leaned toward, “What a disrespectful jerk.”

Hmm, maybe he doesn’t want people making money off his name without getting a cut. 

You’d think both Johnny Sportsnames got their fill of that when they played in the NCAA.

  • Ramskull

    1) We all pretty tired of the same old comment just reworded every week. We get it. The flames get out possessed. You don’t even need math to tell you that. It’s obvious with the eye test.

    This team still has a chance for a generational talent just like they still have a chance to make the playoffs. PDO and Corsi lack precision in their predictive nature and they do not perfectly align with the league standings. No matter how many times you say it reality has proven that your prediction of a bottom three team to be incorrect. Give it a rest.

    2) Gio’s going to the all star game because he’s played like an all star. Johnny’s going to the all star game because he’s fun to watch. It’s really that simple.

    There is nothing about the all star weekend worth watching other than seeing Phil “the greatest 40 goal scoring to never score 40 goals” Kessel get picked last.

    3)What? You were right? What’s seldom is wonderful isn’t it Ryan.

    Rappa, as a “skill” guy, is not really performing any better than either of the “goons”. Fourth liners and 7th D-man on a mediocre team are mediocre. Who knew?

    The league is full of guys that blossomed when they were given a chance. I really don’t mind the flames trying to find a diamond in the rough. Sometimes you come across as thinking that you can just go out and get the exact player that you want. Like it’s simple or something.

    4) I was never a big fan of Knight and really questioned his ability to reach the next level so this was a welcome trade. Plus I believe you can never have enough right hand shots in what is predominately a left hand game. The fact that the fancy stats point to Shore being the better player was just icing on the cake.

    5) Good for Johnny. Sport is big business and the last thing you want is someone else making big money off your accomplishments without getting your cut.

    You know Ryan I am still of the opinion that you have the talent and ability to be one of the best hockey critics in the business. My biggest criticism of your articles is that you ignore the burden of proof in many of your assertions. Without it you are just building fallacious straw man arguments.

  • Reidja

    I for one welcome Lambert’s assessments. If so many people here are up in arms about him not cheerleading the flames, they perhaps should think back on how awesome it was to finish a few points out of the playoffs every year. It suuuuucks and for that reason I wasn’t too pleased about the Hiller add either.

    • Reidja

      Okay, let’s explore that… Why were you against the Hiller signing? You think Ramo was ready to be handed a starting roll? You think Ortio should have been on the bench? Or starting? You had a better FA in mind (Marty)? Or because you hoped the team would suck?

      If the later is your wish for the franchise then you really have no clue. Show me where tanking on purpose has worked. If that were the way to build a great hockey team you could have monkeys or pigeons as GMs.

  • Reidja

    Here’s what I’m not understanding with Lambert’s position. The only player signed in the off-season that I feel has made a positive influence on the team’s standings is Hiller. For the Flames to be guaranteed a “generational talent” (assuming this is in reference to McEichel), the Flames would need to finish dead last (second last is only a one in three chance). To currently be in last place in the league, they would need to have dropped 18 points along the way thus far. Does anyone really believe that Hiller has been 18 pts better than Ramo/Ortio would have been? The current Flames team, regardless of who was added in the off season, still would not be a last place team. Is Lambert suggesting BT tank by trading away our top end players? Are we asking the Flames players to throw games?

    If we’re acknowledging that we would never have been Oilers-bad this year regardless of who we added last offseason, is the argument over percentages to win the lottery? Even if we accept that Hiller won (and will win if he gets hot again) a few more games than Ramo/Ortio would have. And we accept that we’re not asking BT to give away top end assets or asking the players to throw games, what are we really talking about here? Finishing fourth worst instead of tenth worst? That’s a six percent swing (9.5% vs 3.5%) in odds of winning the lottery. Lambert is getting riled up over six percentage points? Even if Hiller gets red hot down the stretch and he carries us into the playoffs, would anyone seriously trade these young guys (and us fans) experiencing the playoffs over a one in ten chance to get a McEichel?

    I just don’t understand the frustration here, it’s not like we get nothing if we don’t win the lottery. Maybe the stats guys see something in the percentages that I’m not seeing.

  • MarbledBlueCheese

    Hmm, I don’t know, I think there is a difference between “signing as many FA to be as good as possible right now” and “sucking on purpose.” I’m happy that we are not developing a losing culture. However, I liked that #4 pick so much last year, that I’d like another top-5 this year. The many years of surrounding 2 all-stars with aging FAs has me skittish. I’d choose a fun team that plays their balls off and loses with an eye on the future over a repeat of the late Iginla years, personally.