As the season goes along, I’m going to pass along my biggest observation on the Calgary Flames every ten games. With the first ten in the books, let’s get into the first instalment of a new feature.
It’s safe to say the first ten games of the season in Flamesville hasn’t been very positive. Calgary is out to a 2-7-1 start, and while I was one of the many to warn about regression, I didn’t see things being as bad as they’ve been. I was fully expecting certain parts of Calgary’s game to fall back to the pack. I was also hoping progression in other areas would help counteract any statistical regression we might see. That counterbalance hasn’t been there through ten games, though, and that’s my biggest takeaway from the start of this season.
Kent did a great job of delving into the reasons behind this horrid start on Wednesday, and I think it’s must read material. For me the start to this season has been punctuated by the Flames not getting away with the things they were able to overcome last year. That in and of itself isn’t surprising because eventually those habits were going to catch up to Calgary in the win-loss columns. What is more surprising is the fact that we haven’t seen much, if any, improvement in the team’s overall game.
The magic of the 2014-2015 season was going to be difficult to replicate. The Flames weren’t going to be able to count on multiple miracle comebacks and a sky high shooting percentage. Where they needed to improve was in their possession game, because that would help offset the natural regression of being an outlier team the year previous. That hasn’t happened, which is slightly frustrating, because I think there were reasons to think it could.
I had hoped the acquisitions of Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik along with the addition of Sam Bennett on a full time basis could really help move this possession train forward. Hamilton had strong underlying numbers in Boston last season, Frolik came with a proven track record of solid two way play, and Bennett was coming off a stellar postseason as an 18-year-old.
On the bright side, Frolik has been as advertised for the most part. Calgary’s big free agent signing this past summer has seen plenty of defensive responsibility (46.5% OZS) while still being one of the team’s best play driving forwards. His 49.19 CF% is fourth on the Flames among forwards and he’s also fifth on the team in scoring with five points. The problem here is that it’s hard for Frolik to help move things forward when other key forward contributors haven’t been pushing in the same direction. More on that later.
As I wrote earlier this week, I’ve quite liked Bennett in the role he’s been asked to play. Other than Wednesday’s game in Ottawa, Bennett hasn’t been put in spots overly conducive to offensive production. That said, he’s done a nice job in the defensive situations he’s been put in, specifically knowing he’s a rookie. To this point, though, he hasn’t made a significant impact on the club’s ability to possess the puck, at least not yet.
The biggest stunner is Hamilton. While I thought it might take some time for him to adjust, I didn’t think that feeling out process would be as painful as it’s been. I firmly believe Hamilton will figure it out, but I think his struggles to start the season have played a part in Calgary’s below average offensive zone time stats.
The good news is that, in this category, there’s really nowhere to go but up. Bennett is only going to get better as he matures physically and as an NHLer. Hamilton, on the other hand, likely can’t be a whole lot worse than what he’s shown in the early stages of his Flames career.
Even more exciting than the additions Calgary made in the summer was the potential for core players to play an even bigger role in this team’s success. I was specifically looking forward to seeing how players like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Jiri Hudler, and TJ Brodie could improve on their stellar 2014-2015 campaigns and thus help the Flames take a step forward in their possession game. To this point, that hasn’t happened, at least not to the extent it could.
Gaudreau is exempt from this conversation because he’s been dynamite. Brodie, meanwhile, has only played one regular season game, so he also gets taken out of this conversation. That leads Monahan and Hudler, two players who have been underwhelming so far this season.
I’m fully aware that this Monahan and Hudler have 15 points combined in the first ten games, but they weren’t the ones driving their line with Gaudreau before it was split up. Gaudreau has been the catalyst and the most dynamic of the three and I think you can credit him for the nice point totals so far for Hudler and, to a lesser extent, Monahan.
Now in his third NHL season, Monahan has really struggled through his first ten games. At 46.15%, his possession rating is the fourth lowest on the team. To make matters worse, his 56.2% offensive zone start is the third highest on the team, further painting a picture of how relatively ineffective Monahan has been so far this year. He’s making bad reads and plays are dying on his stick, both things we did not see much of at all last season.
The way things were pointing last year, it looked like Monahan was pointed at becoming one of the league’s premiere centres in the rather near future. That’s why his body of work in the first ten games of the season is so disappointing. I still think he’s a stud and is the team’s number one pivot going forward, but his struggles have not helped the team one bit.
Hudler is right there with him. Currently boasting the most offensively tailored minutes on the team (58.8% OZS), Hudler has spent only slightly more time in the offensive zone than Monahan has. His 47.15 CF% is one of the worst on the team and the eye test hasn’t helped him either. Hudler hasn’t looked overly dynamic this year and I’m really quite surprised to see the points he’s been able to put up. I guess that’s what a stupid amount of skill can do for you.
The next ten games of this season for Calgary will be very interesting. I can’t see Monahan’s struggles continuing indefinitely. If and when he returns to the form we know he’s capable of, he and Gaudreau should form one of the league’s most dangerous forward pairings once again. Hudler is a different story, but if Monahan gets his game figured out, Hudler will be just fine if the team decides to keep him on that line’s right side.
Brodie’s return should be huge, too. Getting Brodie back reunites the team’s top duo last year with Mark Giordano, and gives them something they haven’t had to this point: a true number one pairing. The minutes that Giordano and Brodie are capable of playing, and playing well, has a significant trickle down effect on the rest of the blueline. Players like Russell, Wideman, and Hamilton will all benefit if Brodie and Gio can play near the same level they did last year.
The Flames do have the ability to help even out this painful return to reality, but they’re going to need their best players to step up. Monahan and Hudler need to be better while Hamilton needs to figure it out on the back end. The season isn’t irreparable yet, but if we don’t start to see progression in the next ten game segment, we might be in for a really long stretch of this team playing out the string.