Random Thoughts – Some Questions, Potential Answers

random thoughts

The Flames first full value regulation win of the season occurred November 7, a full four weeks into the season. The victory over the Penguins has quieted calls for action and panic to mere murmurs, but only briefly. If Calgary can’t replicate that level of performance with some consistency, the rancour will swell again and will likely claim at least one victim. 

So who will be burnt in effigy if the disappointment continues? And what will improvement look like anyways?

– The first guy on the firing line could be Bob Hartley. It seems unconscionable to sack a coach in the wake of a Jack Adams and two year contract renewal, but higher expectations can be a cruel mistress. In a way, Hartley was fortunate to operate in an environment free from hope for his first three years in the organization. His coaching was viewed through the same lens as a conventional 4th line: people were satisfied as long as everyone seemed to be giving an effort. Results were considered a bonus. 

Of course, it’s not just the team’s turn as Cinderella that have upped the ante on Hartley. It’s also his GM’s performance during this summer, where he landed two of best players available in Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik. Suddenly Hartley had a roster that not only won a playoff round, but also theoretically improved in the offseason. 

– So now a real step forward is in order. As I laid out in the Big Gainers series, Calgary meets many of the factors of previous big gainer teams, with the sole exception of a new coach (for now). And if Hartley can’t fashion a strategy that goes beyond “sit back, counter punch”, then he needs to move on. 

– Real improvement doesn’t necessarily mean matching or exceeding last season’s point total. It means a fundamental improvement in the way the team plays. If Calgary controls play to even a middling degree by the end of the year I’ll be satisfied, even if they finish on the outside looking in. 

In the big gainer series (see previous link), we saw that it typically took a couple of years for a club to move from basement dweller to contender, sometimes with limited success in the intermediary years. Which is to say, if we see Calgary take that interim but fundamental step towards contenderhood, I’m okay with a bit of delayed gratification when it comes to the playoffs. 

– I think we can probably say now that the Flames coaching staff did not find some magical way to influence the percentages, which is always the a guiding theory when it comes to teams who grossly outperform their underlying numbers. Calgary currently has the worst PDO in the NHL (95.5) after finishing with the third best in the league last season (101.0). The Hockey Gods giveth and the Hockey Gods Taketh away. 

Which isn’t to say the Flames are going to finish with the worst SH% and SV% in the league, but it just goes to show how capricious the percentages can be. Which is why the decision makers need to find a way to influence shot volumes, rather than hoping for a high SH% and comebacks to get them back to the show. 

– Despite the club’s rather awful start to the year, there are some (admittedly small and ambiguous) indications they may be improving. Right now, the Flames have a corsi for (CF%) of 49.0%, which is mediocre but far superior to their second worst 44.0% from last season. 

Caveat emptor – it’s still very early and Calgary has spent a lot of time trailing, which can skew things upwards in such a small number of games (playing from behind tends to elevate your possession numbers). Still, given that so many of the team’s big game players stumbled out of the gate, it’s encouraging that they are nevertheless controlling play better than they did last season.

– Up until the Penguins victory, one of those big game players was Sean Monahan. The former sixth overall pick had an abysmal first month by almost any measure. His average shots on goal plummeted to 1.4, which is worse than his rookie season (1.87) despite ample ice time and opportunity every night. He has also been a bottom-5 forward in terms of possession most games, which means Monahan’s line has spent way too much defending rather than attacking this year.

With the exception of his impressive performance against the Pens, everything about Monahan has been pointing to giant step back so far. Here’s how it looks graphically (via War on Ice):

Monahan

As you can see, Monahan is playing easier competition and starting more often in the offensive zone than last year, but getting outshot a lot more often this season. Those are concerning results for a supposed cornerstone player entering his third season in the league.

Of course, we’re only talking about 15 games and Monahan is a 21-year old with a pristine pedigree. If he is similarly struggling after 70 or 80 games, then we can start getting legitimately worried. For now, it’s wait and see time. The big game against Crosby was encouraging.

– On the other hand, it might be time to get excited about Sam Bennett. Sure, everyone was already excited by Bennett, but the kid is already putting up remarkably good results for a teenager in this league, which is far more important than simply being a high draft pick. He’s scoring at better than 2 ESP/60 at even strength (1.8 is the typical top-sixer) and he has better underlying numbers than Monahan in his rookie season (or this season, for that matter), despite relatively tough circumstances. 

Again, we’re only talking about 15 games, but the early returns are stellar.

– If Monahan can find his footing, then the club should have at least two legitimate top-6 forward units, with Bennett either centring the second unit or playing wing with Backlund and Frolik (please let this combination stick). What Hartley needs next is Dougie Hamilton to find his way and club back into the top-4 rotation on the back-end.

In part because his results in Boston suggest he’s the kind of player who can shift play like a Giordano or Brodie. Just as important, however, is that Hamilton’s elevation would restrict the minutes of Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman. 

As predicted, the Wideman and Russell pairing has been exposed absent the sky high SH% that floated them last year. For example, Russell is currently the 9th worst regular defender in the entire league in terms of shot differential, even though he starts more often in the offensive zone than the defensive zone. At -7.16% relative corsi/60, Russell is almost twice as bad as the next worst defender on the team (Dennis Wideman at -3.94%).

I think Russell will improve as a matter of course, because he’s not this bad. But still, he’s being asked to play way over his skis by Hartley, who still has a lingering love affair with the player after his percentage fuelled 2014-15. Even with his very clear and evident struggles, Russell is currently second on the team (!!) in terms of average ice time per game (24:06) behind on the sublime TJ Brodie (24:31). Giordano has played exactly as much as Russell this season (seriously) and Wideman is only marginally back of the three leaders (23:52). Hamilton, in contrast, plays five minutes less per game than Russell (19:15). 

At some point, the minutes for Brodie, Giordano and Hamilton should climb, while the time for Wideman and Russell should come down. We’re more than three years into the Russell and Wideman era here in Calgary and there’s one thing we can say for certain: they give up a lot of shots while they’re on the ice. The decision makers need to find a way to limit that damage moving forward. 

  • cberg

    Kent, a bit of a strange article. First you start with unsubstantiated speculation (Hartley firing) and comments about same systems, no improvement when you know very well both are faulty which you prove when you bring out the facts later in the article (eg Corsi).

    I would have thought you’d be ecstatic and all over the System changes (D coverage changes) and MASSIVE improvements in their possession game versus last year, which you and most of the other writers on this site were stating as all-important last year.

    • I don’t mention “no improvement” in the initial Hartley point. I mention that expectations have been raised for a number of reasons, which put him on the hot seat.

      I then go on to say that there is at least some evidence of improvement, but that evidence is, at best, ambiguous because of score effects and small sample concerns.

      I haven’t seen big improvements in the systems, frankly. At least until recently, the team was still too reliant on stretch passes and collapsing in the defensive zone for my taste. The special teams systems are a mess right now as well (the diamond PK in particular makes me extremely nervous).

      • cberg

        Thanks for the reply. You specifically focused on improvement here:

        “Real improvement doesn’t necessarily mean matching or exceeding last season’s point total. It means a fundamental improvement in the way the team plays. …”

        The way I read it was that you were implying you haven’t seen any, which of course you contradicted later when you pointed out the Corsi gains. Like I said earlier it just seemed a strange way to put things…

        In any case, perhaps we can mostly agree that some changes have happened, getting back Brodie has made a huge difference, and that whatever we deem the reasons of how or why we got to where we are now, continued improvement is required moving forward.

  • TheRealPoc

    …did the first poster not watch this team through their first 10 games or so? It was stretch after stretch after icing after stretch, which was a carbon copy of last year’s approach.

    Interested to see what adjustments unfold through November and December, but let’s not pretend the start to this year was anything that what it quite clearly looked like: a complete tire fire.

    • cberg

      Its NOV 10th, and we’re well past the first 10 games. If this article was written two weeks ago I’d probably feel differently, but it wasn’t. I’m commenting on the current situation. If you want to reflect back, fine…

  • PrairieStew

    Aside from the struggles of Monahan and Hamilton, what this team lacks is that 6th top 6 forward and the 4th top 4 defenceman.

    I still hope for an in season hockey deal in which organizational depth can be translated in to players that can contribute more than those currently playing higher in the lineup. The chips are: one of the goalies, those players playing over their heads ( Russell, Colborne) plus other veterans (Jones, Smid, Stajan) plus our B level prospects (Granlund, Wotherspoon, Culkin, Agostino). If 2 separate 3 for 1 deals can be made it is possible to significantly improve the lineup.

  • al rain

    As I’ve said before, it’s all filler on this site in between Kent’s articles. Sure, sure there’s some appetizers and dessert, but Kent brings the mains.

  • Hubcap1

    @Prairie Stew

    Calgary have several potential number 4 defencemen playing in Stockton. Kulak should have been paired with Dougie to see what they were capable of.

    The bad contracts in the D corps are holding the team back because better players aren’t playing. The same is not necessarily true of the forwards. Stajan and Jones have both played relatively well (overpaid, but still).

    I don’t think your 3 for 1 deals will or can get done.

    • ville de champignons

      Kulak is effective when playing with a stay-at-home defender like Engelland. I would argue that Culkin is overall a much better puck mover, defender and offensive d-man, but he will need some time to get back up to speed.

      Unless we move out Russell, there won’t be much change in the deployment. Russell will still be over-played and likely match up with Hamilton. The third pairing will be two righties, Wideman and Engelland. Brodano will still get the most ice.

      Smid really needs to accept a conditioning stint in the AHL, but with his young family and work ethic, I doubt that happens.

      Let’s face it, the biggest problem with the defense is Russell. His shot block mask the inability to defend. His snowman impressions are a result of a panic move that he used in his first season here. His breakout passes are a carbon copy, and rarely hit the tape, which results in a loss of possession. There is not a lot of sense in extending him, so why not trade him to a team lacking depth on D. In a different system, he could excel.

    • PrairieStew

      Potential #4 d men yes. But no certains. And several of them – so they are not all going to play. Some will be squeezed out – as Granlund is currently experiencing at forward. Finding the sweet spot of development and depth and turning it in to better assets is the challenge.

      Kulak has only one year of pro; half of it in the ECHL. I think more seasoning is a wise move.

      Are you suggesting that there are guys on the farm now that are better than Smid, Engelland, Russell, Wideman ?

      • wot96

        Yes. I think Nakladal at least would be a better number 4 and possibly Kulak. I admit that Kulak probably does need more seasoning, but I still think that teaming him with Dougie makes a ton of sense.

  • Burnward

    I’m of the mind that we just forget about those first ten games. That was absurd on so many levels.

    Last five has been more representative of the team they are methinks.

    Next fifteen will be interesting.

  • flamesburn89

    I think we need to remember is that Hartley’s system was built on the transition game & focused on Gio & Brodie being elite at making snap decisions of whether to carry the puck with speed out of our zone or make tape to tape stretch passes when the opportunity arose. They did it so well, it started their identity & other players elevated their games to the system as well. I always golf better when I play with good players versus when I play with some of my hack friends.

    Since Brodie has been back, the team has started executing the system better. The wild card on all this is that expectation of the return of a healthy Gio & addition of Hamilton would have bridged the Brodie absence. It didnt for many reasons. I think coaching has quickly realized that Gio had a lot of rust on him & Hamilton needs a significant adjustment period before we start to see what has been advertised from him. I too really hope they keep that Bennett/Backlund/Frolik line together. Monahan will come around, too much talent not to. I hope we can see if Russell & Hamilton can grow in that 2nd pairing.

    Expectations have been torpedoed from this horrible start. Cant change that so lets put it behind us & see if we can start winning 7 game sets again. Starting on this road trip. No panic moves, no firing the coach, just make the smart moves if you were rebuilding & astute cap management signings & trades. I would love to see us repeat last years TDL where we were sellers & acquired picks but improved the team anyway from within. I believe that can be done.

  • cberg

    With Colorado looking to make some changes and needing to upgrade their D, what kind of a Russell package could we put together to land Duchene? Maybe Russell and a prospect or mid round pick?

    • flamesburn89

      A package for Duchene that includes Russell?

      Maybe something like Duchene for Russell, 2016 1st, 2017 1st, 2018 1st, 2019 1st… until the end of time.

      🙂

    • Tomas Oppolzer

      What would it take for a team to pry one of Monahan, Gaudreau, or Bennett out of CGY? It would take least that to get one of Duchene, Landeskog, or MacKinnon out of COL. Russell plus spare parts would NOT get it done. If I was Sakic and I got that trade proposal I would think it was a prank call.

      • cberg

        To be fair, he did say a Russell+ PACKAGE, which could include virtually anything. Adding in top picks or top-level prospects certainly could get it done IF the Avs wanted to go that way. Secondly, just remember, the Avs have traded away/lost to UFA their #1 and #2 Centres over the past two years. Something isn’t right there.

        • PrairieStew

          Colorado would be the type of team to target, someone who needs to improve everywhere. I’d be more inclined to target Landseskog, but it would take Russell, Colborne, a young d man, a first round pick and either Poirier or Klmichuk. Having said that they are not moving him – especially not to us.

          Columbus and Toronto are the east teams to look at.

        • Greg

          True. But you don’t start that package with Russell as the cornerstone.

          That’d be like Colorado calling us and saying “I hear monahan is having a bad year. What would it take to get him? Nick Holden + what?”

          You start with 1st, good prospect, plus what? Do you have any interest in Russell? No? Ok then…

  • beloch

    As disastrous a start as the Flames have had this season, they’re still just 4 points out of a playoff spot, although the Coyotes do have a game in hand. That is far from insurmountable. The Pacific division is a good place to be for a change!

  • Toofun

    Hopefully the first 10 games reminded Calgary that a great deal of their success from last year came from out-working their opponents night after night. It was that desperation and fear of failure that made us all fall in love with the find-a-way Flames.

    This year it looks like they sipped too much of the cool-aid and decided that they were an elite high-skilled team and that winning would come more easily.

    The Pittsburgh came was great but it was a pretty well rested Calgary club against a road-team coming off a winning streak playing their 3rd game in 4 nights. If Calgary expects to keep winning, they have to show the desperation from last year.

  • ville de champignons

    Come TDL time, I think a Russel + Raymond offer could get a piece and a pick that would improve the Flames. We’d probably have to eat some salary (in Raymond’s case), but still.

    I liked Raymond’s game when he was a cnuk – consistent, honest effort most of the time. He’s just never developed anything more as a Flame.

  • flamesburn89

    Flames playing like crap, including the franchise’s worst start ever and yet still ahead of the Oilers in the standings. That will always make me feel a little better.

    • flamesburn89

      I read the comments over on ON after their lost to the Hawks. They were once again disappointed. They always seem to believe the off-season hype, and subsequently always receive a reality check after the first 10ish games.

  • cberg

    For those of you who have a hard time reading English. My prior post didn’t say Russell and a draft pick would get it done. I clearly put “?” Which implies its a question and YOU suggest what it would take… Geez. I read Colorado is willing to part with Duchene which is COMPLETLY opposite of the Flames as we are NOT parting with our young players. So making comparisons to jonny or monohan don’t apply. Colorado needs D and for some reason teams are calling on Russell to upgrade their D. If Colorado happens to be 1 of these teams, then could there be something? Stranger things have happened and this is Colorado. So again with this knowledge Colorado maybe looking to move Duchene…what could the Flames offer up to possibly make this happen??? —–notice the question marks this time Tom

  • wot96

    Keep in mind this the same GM who traded O’Reilly and McGinn for a second round pick and 2 prospects whom couldn’t even get in the line up on a terrible Buffalo team. Zadorov was just sent down again. Im sure people expected they would get more for a 2way 30 goal scoring Center

    • cberg

      Absolutely, they also let Statsny walk as a UFA for nothing while he was their #1C, and traded a 2nd for Berra. Elsewhere who would have thought Boston would give up Hamilton for three ~draft picks, Sequin for the package Boston got and so it goes.