Calgary Flames 2015-16 Season Preview: Great Expectations

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

This season was supposed to be one of modest expectations. One where the Flames, having bottomed out in the race for McDavid, began to take a few shaky steps back up the Western Conference ladder. A year where the org would still be considered sellers at the deadline, where the management would still be sorting through hopefuls and fringe NHLers. 

Instead, the cardiac kids defied prognosticators and analytics alike to emerge as the NHL’s unlikeliest Cinderella story last year, held up by the magic of late period comebacks and OT heroics. 

The incredible outburst of unexpected success revived a flagging fanbase and restored some luster to the Flames franchise. The question is, can the Flames manage to build on their 2014-15 and become legitimate contenders?

The Forwards

Even Brad Treliving admitted before the 2014-15 season started that goals would be hard to come by. The Calgary Flames were supposed to be one of least dangerous groups in the league. 

Instead, Johnny Gaudreau happened. The calder finalist joined Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler and the trio found magic together. Hudler and Monahan finished with career bests across the board. Gaudreau filled dozens of highlight reels.

Their potency seemed to spread to the rest of the club. Josh Jooris and Lance Bouma were suddenly double digit scorers. On the back-end, TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell all set career highs. More on them later.

This year, Sam Bennett and Michael Frolik join the fray up front. Bennett is a highly skilled, but still very young prospect. The 19-year old is expected to grow into a difference maker at some point, but hoping for it to be this year might be a little optimistic. More realistically, Bennett will need asome seasoning before he starts to crack skulls. 

Frolik, on the other hand, was one half of Treliving’s efforts to improve the Flames possession game this season. The former Blackhawk has been an above average possession winger forever and his addition should help shore up what is Calgary’s most glaring and undeniable weakness – keeping the puck at the good end of the rink. 

Despite boasting one of the hottest forward units in the league and a half dozen career high offensive performances, the Flames were nevertheless underwater in terms of goal differential at even strength in 2014-15. 

That’s because the club was grossly outshot at 5-on-5. 

In fact, only two teams were worse at it – the Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche. The Flames unforeseen potency allowed them to overcome this typically sizeable roadblock, but the club will only be a real contender when it doesn’t have to rely on rope-a-dope and counter punching to win. The modern NHL landscape is littered with past teams who figured they’d found the formula to outscoring bad puck control, only to be run over by the regression truck down the road. For an object lesson, see: Maple Leafs, The. 

Calgary’s improvement on this front doesn’t just land on Frolik’s shoulders, however. Mikael Backlund is the Flames resident “possession guy,” but natural development may improve the roster organically otherwise. Gaudreau, Monahan, Jooris, Michael Ferland and maybe Lance Bouma are all candidates to take a step forward. If Bennett is at least competent, Calgary might have more than one line of forwards who can push play forward for a change.

Gone are Curtis Glencross (traded at the deadline) and Paul Byron (recently lost to waivers). Glencross would have been a notable deletion three years ago, but his decline has been marked and steep. Treliving got out of the Glencross business at exactly the right time. 

Byron is a bit more of a loss – he was Calgary’s fourth best player in terms of puck control over the last two seasons and one of the few guys out of the bottom six who could put that on his resume. It’s probable the club will be able to fill his roster spot without too much problem, but having him leave for nothing is still less than optimal. 

The Defence

The Dougie Hamilton acquisition was the other half of Treliving’s plan to improve Calgary’s possession. The addition is a difficult one to overstate. The Flames organizational depth on the back end seemed to start and end at Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie (with apologies to Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman), with Gio as close to the back nine of his career as he is to his peak. 

Now the club has the kind of guy who can anchor a top pairing set to enjoy his best years in Flames colours. Hamilton’s addition also takes the weight off of Calgary’s exceptional first pairing and may help push Wideman and/or Russell a bit further down the depth chart.

Some may take umbrage with the latter point given the pairing’s apparent success in Giordano’s absence to end the season, but the truth is they rode the Gaudreau-Monahan-Hulder wave, which helped them outscore their faults. Though Wideman is still a capable offensive defender and Russell is certainly above average at blocking shots, the duo together gave up the most shot attempts and chances against of any pairing on the team last year. 

This is significant because they were given probably the friendliest circumstances of any regular duo on the team, but were still overrun south of the redline. Which is why, when asked, I tell people Wideman and Russell are perfectly good combination – providing they are the Flames third pairing. I’d break them up otherwise. 

Things get shakier beyond them. The bottom end of the rotation could prove to be Calgary’s weakest area this season, particularly if Ladislav Smid is healthy enough to return to active duty. He, along with Deryk Engelland, represent an utter black hole of ineffectiveness on the back-end. Although both players are committed warriors and favourites of the intangibles crowd, neither of them is above replacement level at either end of the rink. Each guy can deliver a check and is willing to block pucks with his face, but neither can skate, pass or handle the puck at the level required by defenders in the modern NHL. It’s off the glass and out, or panic and pray. 

Given that Smid may not play again, however, there’s a chance that it will instead be Engelland + partner this season, however. That partner is currently set to be surprise training camp stand out Brett Kulak, who suddenly represents a new bright spot amongst other pinpoints of light including Brandon Hickey, Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington. We don’t yet know if Kulak will last the year with the club, but his package of skills can be called “Brodie-esque,” which is encouraging. If Kulak’s emergence isn’t merely a product of the exhibition season, Calgary’s defence depth might improve via prospects from below as well as from Hamilton from above. 

In Net

Here’s where things get weird. The decision makers had a clear succession path laid out heading into 2015-16, with veteran Jonas Hiller signed for one more year and youngster Joni Ortio set to spend his first waiver eligible season as his back-up. 

For reasons still somewhat opaque to us, the team decided to retain Karri Ramo as well, resulting in a crease crowded with an unseemly three headed goaltender monster – a situation which still hasn’t been resolved and was one of the antecedents to losing Paul Byron on waivers. 

There are a lot of theories about why Treliving needlessly complicated matters by re-signing Ramo: from the coach and team souring on Hiller for a variety of reasons, to the decision makers preferring the younger Fin for performance related reasons. What we do know, however, is that Hiller was the better goalie last year and has always been the better goalie. 

Aside from the blueline depth and poor puck possession, this is the other area that could threaten to sink the Flames season. Ramo has always been a run-of-the-mill puckstopper and Ortio, while promising, is completely untested. If the team opts for that duo, they are likely setting themselves up for a year of average or worse puckstopping. Excellent to elite teams can get by with middling netminding, but the Flames aren’t there yet. 

Conclusion

It’s a year of both big question marks and great promise. There are numerous reasons to be excited and optimistic as a Flames fan. It’s been years – decades? – since the club boasted such an impressive array of young talent. The organization has a handful of elite or potentially elite players at both forward and defence. We might be witnessing the emergence of a post-Iginla era that promises to altogether overshadow the previous epoch.

That said, there are reasons to be wary as well. In the history of the modern NHL, no other Cinderella team who made the playoffs with similarly lousy outshooting numbers managed to replicate the feat. That means what Calgary is trying to do – avoid regression and take a step forward after donning the crystal slipper – hasn’t ever been done in the 30-team league. It’s a tall order. 

Buckle up Flames fans. Things are finally interesting again. Way ahead of schedule, to be sure, but keep in mind there might still be a bump or two left in the road.

  • The Fall

    Great summary Kent. A real pleasure to read a logically presented and thoughtful piece instead of the superficial posts your successor has been pumping out.

    • Nope. 2014/2015 numbers only.

      Hiller
      Games Started – 44
      Wins – 26
      Win % = 59.1

      Ramo
      Games Started – 32
      Wins – 15
      Win % = 46.9

      Hiller stops more pucks, more often, and as a result…wins more games.

      Technically, Ortio wins the Win % battle by winning 4 of his 6 starts for 66.7%, but his SV% was the worst of the 3, and his GAA was only a touch better than Ramo.

  • Burnward

    Great write up Kent. Solid as always.

    Quick question and asked with all respect.

    Has anyone ever looked at career averages of the current players on the roster and their expected offensive output?

    I just wonder if that should be our bar for “regression” or “progression” and not the team they iced last season.

    Or, maybe I’m craze.

  • cgyokgn

    “That means what Calgary is trying to do – avoid regression and take a step forward after donning the crystal slipper – hasn’t ever been done in the 30-team league. It’s a tall order.”

    I would agree if they kept the same lineup as last season. The additions of Hamilton, Bennett and Frolic should once again ‘supercharge’ the Flames.

    ….and the top line will be together the entire season with Johnny, Mony and Huds who will have a better season than last…

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    If the Flames improve their possession to the 48-49% range, yet miss the playoff by a few points, I would consider that significant progression. The majority of the fan base and the MSM won’t see it that way, but the following year we should be flying!

    Here’s to hoping we can still squeak in!

  • Parallex

    “If the team opts for that duo, they are likely setting themselves up for a year of average or worse puckstopping.”

    Not for nothing but I think the description would apply to really any combination of the three.

    It’s not like one of those guys is Carey Price. Average is what we’re going to get (either by keeping with the 1A/1B Ramo/Hiller rotation or by having one be the guy while Ortio (the one of the three most likely to deliver “or worse”) get’s spot duty as back-up.

  • supra steve

    ” I tell people Wideman and Russell are perfectly good combination – providing they are the Flames third pairing”.

    So what should the lineup look like? Assuming a top six/seven of Gio, Ham, Bro, Rus, Wid, and Eng/Smid (after injuries healed)…what should the lineup card look like?

    I agree with most that Engelland is probably not the best option at #6, but realistically–at his cap hit and contract length, I expect him to play more games than he sits this season. And I know a lot on this site despise the Bro/Eng combo.

    Smid may be done, or he may come back and play his best as a Flame. I’m assuming Smid doesn’t come back and perform as a legit #4.

    What should the lineup look like?

    • Bean-counting cowboy

      Gio/Hamilton

      Russell/Brodie

      Kulak/Wideman

      One of Smid/Egelland in the press box, the other waived (Oilers did it with Nikitin)

      Whichever one they waive gets bought out next year.

          • supra steve

            I’m not disagreeing with any of these suggestions, but to be just slotting Kulak in (1 NHL game played) as your #4 or #6 guy, how is that decision better than the alternatives? Time and experience may prove that Kulak is good for one of these rolls, but to put him above Eng/Smid at this time does seem a bit premature and unrealistic.

          • piscera.infada

            I would say it’s reasonable because we know a few things about the blue line situation:

            1)Hartley seems intent on keeping Russell and Wideman together.

            2)If Russell-Wideman are your second pairing, one of Gio, Hamilton, or Brodie has to be on your bottom pairing.

            3)A pairing of Russell-Wideman is not an ideal second paring. They haemorrhage chances against when they’re on the ice. As such, they’re likely better suited to third-pairing minutes, where their ice-time, zone-starts, etc. can be tailored to their weaknesses.

            4)Thus, if the first and second are true, Wideman-Russell is now your third pairing.

            5)Engelland is not a number 4 defenseman–he’s hardly an effective number 6…

            6)Thus, if you have a spot in your top 4, we know Russell-Wideman are not a top-4 pairing, and we know Engelland is not a top-4 player. Who is left to play in the top-4?

            The obvious answer is Kulak (at least while Smid’s injured–and when he comes back, based on the last two or three years of play, he’s not a top-4 defenseman either). Is Kulak a top-4 defenseman? Not that we know, but I’m willing to take his upside and youth (or Wotherspoon’s, for that matter) over Engelland or Smid.

    • Parallex

      They’re not… with this line-up. Of course the implied ideal solution would have been to acquire another legit top 4 guy push Russell/Wideman down to third pairing and rid ourselves of Smid/Engellend.

      I have a very bad feeling that the Flames are going to end up resigning Russell for too much money (for reference what he makes now is probably about right).

        • Parallex

          Engellend? Raymond? Bouma? Ramo?

          Treliving hasn’t earned the cred to say that yet. He’s been good in not handing out egregious term but he’s been fairly liberal on doling out dollars IMO.

          • Tomas Oppolzer

            Engellend: This signing has Burke written all over it. Also, in the summer of ’14 I wouldn’t be shocked if players demanded more money to sign in CGY (we weren’t exactly a good, attractive team).

            Raymond: He was coming off of what looked like a renaissance season in Toronto and we all liked the signing when it happened and really liked it after his hattrick in Shelbyville. It isn’t Tre’s fault Raymond turned out to be hot garbage.

            Bouma: The fact of the matter is this. Bouma would have gotten basically the same $$$ in arbitration. Tre screwed up the term with this one because he could have taken the arb. $$$ for only 1 year as a show-me deal.

            Ramo: The team, from mgt down to coaching, is obviously higher on Ramo than Hiller (I don’t know why)It’s only 1 year, basically another show-me deal.

          • Parallex

            C’mon… if you apply disclaimers, excuses, and discount the value of foresight to the job that every GM does then you can have them all come out smelling like roses.

            IMO it’s intellectually dishonest to just discount the bigger failures unless you also discount the bigger successes in order to evaluate on the basis of the more median transactions.

            Right now I would grade Treliving as a pretty average GM in regards to signings with both his successes and failures falling under the adjective “mild” (no big highs but no big lows either)… and IMO average doesn’t innoculate someone from concern.

          • Tomas Oppolzer

            You also have to apply context in order to evaluate. You can say Raymond’s contract is bad now. In the context of when it was signed though, it looked good. Applying context is not making excuses.

          • ronipedia

            Reasonable???
            Engellend & Raymond were signed as veteran placeholders while the brand spanking new GM evaluated where the talent level was with this team. You can’t play all rookies & there is a thing called the cap floor. You’re cherry picking your criticism of these signings. I see nothing wrong with the Bouma deal & if he hits another 15-20 goals again this season, we just got ourselves another 2 more years of a GlenX discount deal while he was in his prime. These two guys play very similar when they are on their game.

            Ramo contract???, unless you were in the Flames dressing room last playoffs & sitting in the exit interview Hiller had with BT, this 1 year contract can no way be rated, let alone be used to criticize the GM.

    • scoopz

      On the backend I would go:

      Gio/Ham

      Brodie/Wides

      Kulak/Russell

      Brodie will complement Wides very well, I think. He moves the puck in the right direction and can put wides in a position to do damage at the other end.

      You end up with the same situation on the third pairing as well. Russell is technically the better defender between himself and wides, and Kulak will be able to move the puck well.

      If Kulak can stay up all year, and you can sell Wides for a decent return, you have an opportunity to move up another body either at the TDL or next year.

      Guys like Wotherspoon and Culkin either need to be shipped out for return, or moved into a third pairing role for development reasons so that we can move out some of the cheddar clogging up the bottom four.

      Russell needs to be replaced with an ELC or RFA kid, Smid and Engelland need to be replaced with ELC kids, and we need to sell high on Wideman in order get value before he goes downhill.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Kent,

    Thoughtful piece but absolutely rotten with grammatical issues. Hard to make intelligent points when (some) readers find it hard to take you seriously. I will admit “run of the middle” drew a chuckle though, so there’s that.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I get a sense that the New Jersey Devils are going to be pretty not-good this year.

    I wonder what it would take to pry Cory Schneider out of there.

  • Tomas Oppolzer

    Realistically, who didn’t enjoy that magical season we had last year. Totally unexpected & a much needed injection of excitement for us Flame fans that had watched the team age & wither away into perpetual mediocrity.

    This year, scares me. Too many(MSM) think Flames are the real deal which equates to much too high expectations. I expect BB & BT & Hartley to have lofty expectations of their team, but as fans, reality should temper them just a bit. We need 1 more year to make the transition to expectations as lofty as they are pegging for this year. The pieces are just fitting into place. Hamilton needs a transition period, our goaltending needs to be crystal clear & several middle rotation forwards need to prove & progress what they accomplished last year.

    Observations for this year:
    -I don’t think it’s fair to lump both Wideman & Russell as bottom pairing based on the numbers Kent rolled out here. Yeah they were the worst at 5V5 shots against, they also were logging the most minutes, including more than Brodie from the TDL to the finish. They basically played top pairing minutes when the games were critical & teams were playing desperate. Russell will be cheaper than Wideman, Russell is younger than Wideman, so even though either one of these guys can play #4 when Brodie gets back, 1 has to go. Wideman would be the logical one to move & that will probably happen before Christmas barring any injury.

    -Bennett needs to have a Calder consideration year. If he does, we have the makings of our secondary scoring which will be critical. Equally important is Ferland must be able to play his style & keep healthy. If he does, we have answered our top 6 power forward need.

    -We need Kulak or Tspoon or Nakladal to be able to carry Engellend for 10 minutes a game & not have a dumpster fire on most nights.

    I hope there is a making of a deal with the Islanders, Hearing Okposo is finding himself as an odd man out. He is also a pending UFA at the end of the year. Halak is questionable to start. If his injury is ongoing chronic issue, they are in trouble. How nice would Hiller fit for Okposo. UFA for UFA, even if we had to add a 2nd & a prospect. How sweet would a Bennett/Ferland /Okposo 2nd line look allowing Backlund & Frolik to develop a chemistry. Win win for both teams.

    My final hope is that we will be able to enjoy an intense playoff race right to the last game & if we just miss, I would say that’s OK, this team is well on its way. Go Flames!!!

  • hulkingloooooob

    just to clear one thing up, i would put myself at least partially in the “intangibles crowd”, if that is to say i don’t believe all can be seen or explained with advanced stats, i’ll use Russell and sadly departed Byron as examples of a player who’s usefulness far exceeds his numbers *(though Byron had good possesion numbers, just not the points to go with it). but let me state here in BOLD:

    I DO NOT SEE INTANGIBLES IN SMID OR ENGELLAND! *(or at least not the kind that make you a good hockey player)

    GO FLAMES GO!

    oh. and do you think Ferkland can reach the 20 hit plateau after 2 games!? I’m hoping we at least get to see him try. but without bieksla it won’t be quite as much fun.

  • Parallex

    The Flames still aren’t loaded up with the kind of skill that teams like Ana, Chi, Pit, and other top rung teams are. They will need to continue to do all the little things right (finish checks, back check, D-men joining rush, timely goaltending, etc) that brought them success last year, to keep them in the convo this year. However, despite what many said last year, none of that is a function of luck. It’s a choice of the team and individual players how they prepare and execute the game plan.

    I might be one of the few out there who sides with Hartley and staff when it comes to having toughness and size in the lineup. This is the NHL and you need those things, this is not a European league with big a big ice surface that you can run around and hide on. The trenches are deep and the battles are fierce, every inch of ice is contested. I am ready to take in the battles with the fellas we put on the ice, both snipers and muscle, and everything in between.

    Screw the canucks, the oilers, and every other team that comes into our barn. This is our house and they are not welcome. Go Flames!

    • I might be one of the few out there who sides with Hartley and staff when it comes to having toughness and size in the lineup. This is the NHL and you need those things, this is not a European league with big a big ice surface that you can run around and hide on. The trenches are deep and the battles are fierce, every inch of ice is contested. I am ready to take in the battles with the fellas we put on the ice, both snipers and muscle, and everything in between.

      It’s a bit of false dichotomy. I don’t personally think toughness is useless, I just don’t weight it so highly that I’m okay with replacement level (or worse) players skating in the line-up “because toughness”. Might as well dress MMA and WWE guys then.

      Find functional toughness if your line-up needs it. Inserting guys who get outplayed all night because they’re big is counter productive.

      • Tomas Oppolzer

        There are those that suggest that Engelland really stepped it up the end of last season, after Gio was injured. I don’t recall a game where he was anything more than an anchor to Brodie. I would say we won in spite of him playing.

        The stats don’t show a good player, but I can’t even say that the eye test showed it either.

        I feel the same way about Bollig. I don’t recall too many games where he wasn’t singled out in a scrum and sent to the sin bin.

      • The Fall

        My point has always been that these guys don’t get the credit for the things they do well, but their alleged shortcomings are unforgivable. Bollig was actually pretty effective in the playoffs particularly against the Ducks (and not just because he scored a goal). In my opinion, his size and strength had a lot to do with that. I’m a huge fan of Monny and Huds, but lets face it, they weren’t as effective in the playoffs. Now I know people will be quick to assert that both these guys were not at 100% health wise, and by all accounts that’s true. My point is people will be quick to throw these players a lifeline whereas Engel and Bollig will have an anchor thrown at them so that they sink faster every time. These are the 2 guys who defend their teammates on the ice to a greater extent (ie fight for them) than any others. As a fan, I appreciate and value this, and would be willing to bet you any amount that players on that team appreciate and value it too. And let’s not blur the lines here, these guys are not McGratton. They bring more to the table when it comes to playing the game.