1. What if?
A quick look at the standings as I write this ahead of Wednesday night’s game against the Sharks shows the Flames in eighth place in the West, with 59 points from 51 games. That put them somewhat comfortably ahead of a cluster of four teams with 54 or 55 points, though most have a game in hand.
And what I learned from some research I did last week, being five points out of a playoff spot this late in the season are effectively out of it. While some teams may be making a little bit of a hard charge lately — Colorado and Minnesota chief among them — and Los Angeles at least has the building blocks to do the same if they can ever recover from this woeful slump (just five wins from their last 21 games, which seems impossible), it’s looking increasingly likely that the Calgary Flames will against all odds make the playoffs this year.
In fact, headed into last night, Sports Club Stats had them making the postseason in 79.8 percent of scenarios the rest of the way, ahead of the slip-sliding Jets in terms of having a relatively secure position. Right now there’s nothing guaranteed and it’s very possible that this team could stop winning any game it enters the third period trailing, which has been the case for much of the season (they, in fact, lead the NHL in this category in terms of wins at nine). They’re also tied with Buffalo and Edmonton in terms of entering the third period with a deficit, at 25, and are one ahead of Toronto.
A lot of statistical categories, in fact, show the Flames are one of the four or five worst teams in the NHL, but here they are anyway.
Given what we know, then, we should also assume that this means any expected sell-off of players ahead of the trade deadline simply might not happen; while I’m not sure the Flames’ brass has any delusions that this is a Cup competitor, I do wonder just how much appetite they’d have to get rid of veterans who, ostensibly, might be able to help them solidify that spot.
2. What does that mean for current players?
Everything runs through the lens of “How does management see this team?” The Flames say they utilize analytics and we have no reason to disbelieve them, but the way in which they do so is unknown. Thus, that could mean that they evaluate current roster players on bases other than their ability to produce points sustainably and drive possession in the right direction.
The Flames currently have 19 guys on the roster who have played at least 300 minutes at even strength this season, and nine of them — slightly less than half, you understand — have positive corsi ratings relative to the rest of the team. None of them are actually north of 50 percent. This strikes me as worrisome. It should also come as no surprise that this is also true of scoring chances: No one is on the ice for more for than against, but nine guys are at least on the positive side relative to their teammates.
Some of the names on that latter list are a little surprising to me, though. Josh Jooris and Paul Byron rank third and fourth behind the expected leaders Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie. Curtis Glencross is a shock fifth before getting to more expected Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau, the latter of whom I never suspected would be that low.
So that leads one to wonder whether, say, Glencross or David Jones (who’s also in positive territory) is actually viewed by management as a trade piece, in addition to some of the more conventional pieces the team might think about moving. Glencross of course is a Flames lifer, more or less, but I don’t know that he’s ever going to have as much value again as he does this year; certainly re-signing him in the summer seems like a foolish move given his age and the ways in which his production is trending.
But if they do choose to not-trade him or some of the other marginally tradable veterans before the deadline, what does that portend? The Flames are, after all, ostensibly in a rebuild, and anyone who mistakes this PDO-fueled run of luck as anything besides unsustainable is going to find to their woe that hockey simply doesn’t work the way they think it does. The Flames don’t do anything that the Avs didn’t do last year — well, except “get worse goaltending” I guess — and even if they sneak into the playoffs, this is still a project that should take another few years before they even realistically think about competing.
But if they make it, and don’t trade the veterans, that means they either have to re-sign/retain them, or risk losing them for nothing when their contracts expire. This is something that constitutes poor asset management, but teams do that all the time in pursuit of illusory goals that aren’t actually within their grasp.
The other problem, obviously, is that this team doesn’t have a lot of turnover if they don’t trade people before the deadline. Only three UFAs, by my count, and that’s Glencross, Rafa Diaz, and Karri Ramo. Only one of those guys is likely to be back, meaning there won’t be too many spots open for the kids in this organization who might actually deserve a shot at the NHL level.
3. What does it mean for the prospects?
Which complicates things.
The Adirondack Flames aren’t exactly ripping the AHL apart — entering last night tied for sixth in the Western Conference and 13th in the entire league — but there are some very solid contributors. Obviously what Joni Ortio is doing down there is likely to earn him a job with the big club next year, and Karri Ramo is also seeing to that at the NHL level as well.
But Drew Shore looks like someone who’s primed to grab an big roster spot soon. So does Emile Poirier. You could also probably say that of a few more guys who have shuttled between the AHL and NHL this season.
The problem is that if this team makes the playoffs and presumably views the team as closer to being competitive than it actually is, then these kids might find the job of making the NHL roster next summer a little more difficult.
It would be unfortunate if for example David Jones, who has no real future with this club beyond his current contract, is still holding onto a roster spot for another year beyond this one. I think you have to get rid of him for whatever you can — well, if you can — because he’s a) not very good, and b) standing in the way of potentially better players.
This is a rebuild and part of a rebuild is getting rid of the veterans that are holding you back from being greater by being only marginally good, if that. Unfortunately for Calgary Jay Feaster, Brian Burke, and to a lesser extent Brad Treliving have built a roster pretty full up of the latter type of player. Go down the list and see how many guys you don’t really want or need on an NHL team that’s going anywhere any time soon.
4. What does it mean for the summer?
And making the playoffs could further inform decisions made in the free agency period. Whether that means retaining a guy like Glencross, who shouldn’t be retained, or pursuing Veteran Help as a means of propping up whatever they think this team is (but in point of fact is demonstrably not in any way but wins and losses over what has been, to this point only about three-fifths of a season).
This, too, could pose a problem for younger players who are otherwise poised to contribute at the NHL level. The list of UFAs who might actually consider coming to Calgary is going to be thin to begin with, unless the club is really willing to make a Dennis Wideman-level overpayment for a middling talent. I don’t see the Flames being able to make much headway toward actual competitive hockey via the UFA market, but that likely will not prevent them from utilizing it to at least stock the bottom of the roster. Now, you can get good bottom-six guys on the open market for relatively low prices in a lot of cases, but the pursuits made in free agency last summer don’t exactly fill me with hope for smart decisions this coming July.
However, what I’m not arguing against is any sort of transaction for a young difference-maker who can be acquired in trade, either ahead of the deadline or over the summer, or by offer sheet. There are plenty of rumors about the availability of potentially very useful young players who might have played themselves out of favor with or are just undervalued by their current clubs, and if the Flames could put together a package for that — even if it includes a middling first-round pick (again, assuming the playoffs are a relative lock) — then I’m all for that on a theoretical basis.
But if these transactions are being made at the expense of the youth movement, then I think that, too, is foolhardy.
5. That promised additional NCAA update
Last week I said I’d have more for you on Brandon Hickey, whom I hadn’t seen play in a while.
Well, I’ve now seen him twice in the last week — with more viewings scheduled for Friday and Monday — and I can report that he’s not doing anything more or less well than he has been. He’s still getting shots through pretty effectively, and shooting the puck a lot. He attempted 11 shots at even strength in the last two games, and 19 in all situations. Eight of those got on net, including two goals, both of which were on the power play. He’s also very solid in his own zone despite being relatively inexperienced at the college level, and can transition the puck well.
I asked Hickey’s coach, David Quinn, about his development on Friday night, which turned out to be a 9-5 win. In it, Hickey was on the ice for two power play goals for, and one for at ES; as well as two against at evens and one against on the PK. It was a wacky game that featured 16 power plays, including a five-minute major and multiple 5-on-3s.
“He can really shoot the puck. I don’t know if there’s a guy in the league who gets more pucks through than him. He keeps it low, and he can shoot any type of puck. You don’t have to have to put it on a platter for him.
We were actually talking about this during the week. We had some guys working on their one-timers, and I asked them who had the best one-timer on the team. They both said — actually it was Jack [Eichel] and [draft eligible defenseman and occasional Hickey collaborator Brandon] Fortunato — but they both said Hickey. The thing about Hickey is he can hit a one-timer no matter where the puck is put towards him.
So, he’s done a great job getting pucks to the net, and he’s dangerous on the power play.”
I’ve been a big fan of his all season, and it would seem both his teammates and coach agree.
Meanwhile, some of you also expressed an interest in a quicker look at Jack Eichel, who at this point seems incredibly unlikely to become a Flames prospect. So here it is: I’ve seen him nine live times this season, and he has flat-out dominated every single one of them to a ludicrous extent. As an 18-year-old playing in a league with guys as old as 25, Eichel has 15-25-40 in 24 games and will almost certainly become the highest-scoring draft-eligible freshman since Paul Kariya in 1992-93.
But beyond that, I’ve been tracking his on- and off-ice corsi-for percentages, and they are off the charts. These numbers are at even-strength only:
Almost all of those are against nationally ranked teams that sit well above .500 (Maine and UMass are the only exceptions). For reference, I saw Johnny Gaudreau play 15 times last season and his corsi was somewhere in the 58-60 percent range. Gaudreau also played with much better linemates and was two years older. So yeah, this Eichel kid is okay.