FN Mailbag – November 16, 2015

Mailbag

“Nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain…”

– The prophet Axl Rose

The month of November has featured almost all of the Flames best performances this season. The problem is, there hasn’t been enough of those yet. Even with the unexpected OT win over the Capitals recently, Calgary currently sits second last in the West, ahead of only the Edmonton Oilers (ha!). The Flames are third last in the entire league, with only the Columbus Blue Jackets trailing them from the East. Yes, even the Buffalo Sabres are ahead of the Flames right now (by four points. In two fewer games). 

It’s been rough sledding. The Flames magic from last year not only dissipated, but imploded inwards. Their league best shooting percentage cratered. Their three-headed goaltending monster turned out to be a paper tiger. The “league’s best blueline” seems leakier than a roach motel sink.  

All is not quite lost just yet, however. There are hints of improvement. The club’s possession rate has been marginally better. Pucks are starting to go in again. The goaltending is starting to look at least average. 

That said, the Flames have dug themselves a very deep hole. It will take an astonishing turn around to get them back into the playoff picture. So the question is…at what point should the team call it a day and start concentrating on next year?

We look at this (and related questions) in the mailbag, as well as the trade deadline, Mark Giordano and Sean Monahan.

With just 13 points in 19 games, it means Calgary will need to collect 82 points in the remainder of the season (63 games) to get to the assumed cut off point of 95 points to make the playoffs. That roughly corresponds to a record of 37-18-8, which is a win percentage of 59% or a point rate of 1.30/game (currently they are at 32% and 0.68, respectively). 

Those aren’t impossible goals, but they are…improbable to say the least. So while I wouldn’t say it’s time for the Flames to give up on 2015-16 just yet, especially because they play in the weakest conference in the NHL, we should start dreaming of June  if they are in the same position by this time in December.  

As for trades, there really isn’t a single deal that can turn Calgary around right now, outside of somehow pulling a Sutter and acquiring another Miikka Kiprusoff. 

The Flames’ problems are twofold: bad bounces, resulting in the league’s worst PDO; and systemic/execution problems caused by strategy, coaching decisions and player underperformance. For the first, the team will just have to play through the dry spell – sometimes it’s just your turn to spend some time at at the tail end of the league’s bell curve.    

For the second, the Flames coaching staff has to figure some stuff out. The defensive schemes right now are largely ineffective, both at ES and on the PK. There are gaps and missed assignments everywhere on the ice. Calgary is easily stuffed when they try to exit the zone. The team is currently 3rd last in terms of surrendering corsi events against (all shots at the net) at even strength (58.6/60) and 5th last by the same metric while short-handed (110.0/60). 

Part of that is the focus on collapsing and stuffing shooting lanes (rather than man-to-man coverage and/or boxing out), part of it seems to be on-going confusion amongst players about how to execute (there are veteran, established defenders on this team losing their check all the time) and part of it is just deployment decisions (Kris Russell continues to get way, way too much ice time). 

Coaching is a culprit here because: 

1.) the Flames stunk at this stuff last year too, and  

2.) given the roster, they shouldn’t be as lousy as they are south of the redline. While the organization should still be operating under relatively moderate expectations given where they are in the rebuild, Calgary’s roster is too good to be this bad at suppressing shots.

The Flames blueline is worth nearly $30M in cap space this year and features some of the best players in their respective age groups, including Dougie Hamilton (22), TJ Brodie (25) and Mark Giordano (32). There are teams doing much more with much less, even if we grant that guys like Dennis Wideman and Russell aren’t helping matters much. 

The Sabres, for instance, allow 8 fewer corsi events per hour at ES than the Flames. 

The Buffalo Sabres. 

Here’s their back-end:

Josh Gorges, Zach Bogosian (injured), Cody Franson (should have signed him), Mike Weber, Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Carlo Coailacovo. 

Carolina, Columbus, Detroit and Arizona…all of these teams are better than the Flames at denying shots. Some of them are much better. It shouldn’t be this way.

In most cases, there isn’t much difference between most NHL coaches. Like goaltenders, there is huge middle class where the separation between Guy A and Guy B is negligible.

However, just like goaltending, there are huge differences at the margins. If you go from a lousy coach to a great one, it can have a massive influence on a club’s results, just like if you traded the worst goalie in the league for the best.

As such, we’ve seen teams take big strides thanks to a coaching change at times in the past. The Penguins move from Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma resulted in a near instant turn around in terms of results and underlying numbers, for instance. In the summer, I looked at the few “big gainers” we’ve seen in the league over the last decade or so. Almost every one of them experienced explosive growth after a notable coaching change, including Quenneville in Chicago, Sutter in LA and Hitchcock in St. Louis.

The Flames have 5 pending UFA’s: Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Kris Russell, Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller.

For Hudler, my guess is his ask is going to be significant, even if he doesn’t have the kind of season he did last year (looks like that will be the case). This will be the player’s last chance to cash in as a free agent, so he’s going to go big: 5+ years and $5M+ per year. 

I don’t think that makes sense from a Flames perspective given their impeding cap crunch and Hudler’s age. As such, they should probably move him for the best return possible in March (first rounder?), assuming the team isn’t in the playoff race. As for Jones, you might be able to keep him around on a good deal, but if not see if you can move him for a mid-round pick.

That said, if both Jones and Hudler are traded at the deadline. Calgary has a lot of question marks on the RW. With the loss of Byron to waivers, that would leave the club with Joe Colborne, Michael Frolik and Josh Jooris. There’s currently nobody in the system who is more than a replacement level player beyond those guys (Emile Poirier and Drew Shore are maybe the closest). So if Treliving is going to trade both those guys, he will need to have a plan for shoring up the Flames’ RW in the off-season.

Trading Kris Russell is a no brainer. His reputation far outstrips his on-ice effectiveness. He’s going to be looking for a significant raise, which is something the Flames can’t really afford with their current blueline anyways. If I was the GM I’d be taking calls on Russell right now (because then Hartley couldn’t play him all night long).

As for the goalies…you keep one to finish the season and take whatever you can get for the other one.

I can only speculate, but Friedman’s insistence that sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make in the wake of that rumour suggests it was probably a big one featuring one of the Flames’ young or cornerstone pieces. I agree with Friedman in spirit even though I don’t know the potential trade’s details: the Flames shouldn’t be panicking and trading a class A asset from a position of weakness right now. As I mentioned above, it’s unlikely any one trade is going to turn the season around anyways.

As for Duchene, I can’t imagine the Avs would be eager to trade him in Conference unless the return was significant. Colorado needs a lot of help on their blueline, so I imagine they’d be asking for Hamilton, Brodie or Giordano at least. Given Calgary’s defensive problems and lack of notable depth after all of those players, I’m not sure it’s a move that makes sense for them.

While playing with Brodie no doubt helped Giordano, I think it’s a stretch to say Brodie was carrying Giordano. The Flames captain has been a legitimately good player for years before Brodie came around (hidden by usage and deployment) and is definitely one of the best offensive defenders in the league.

He’s certainly had a slow start to the season, however. And there is the lingering question of what kind of value he’ll be able to provide on his next deal as he ages. I think Gio is owed the rest of the season to see if he can regain the form that saw him challenge for the Norris last year, or at least something close to it. If he continues to struggles to this degree for the rest of the season, the Flames can look into dealing him this summer if necessary.

I think what’s emerging with Monahan is a bit of an identity crisis or, rather, a mismatch between perception and reality. Monahan was tabbed as an excellent two-way centre coming out of junior and his advanced maturity as a young man seemed to confirm that reputation.

But the truth is, Monahan hasn’t been a good two-way player in the NHL. He’s been a sniper, which is, of course, extremely valuable in its own right.

Many fans will balk at the claim that Monahan isn’t great defensively, but the evidence is everywhere. Amongst regular Flames centres this year, no one gives up more shots against at even strength than Monahan (61.47 corsi against/60), even though no one starts as often in the offensive zone than him. As a result, he has the worst relative possession rate of centres on the team (-5.16%/60). 

If we look at his Hero Chart, which encompasses his entire career to date, we see that Monahan scores like a first liner, but has the two-way game of an average third line forward:

Monahan_Hero

Monahan doesn’t just struggle according to the math. I’ve watched him closely this year, particularly in his own end, and the 21-year-old still has problems keeping up with the pace, effectively marking his man and anticipating coverage. There are a lot of moments in the middle of the opposition cycle where Monahan appears suspended in the middle of the ice, covering no one in particular, clearly not quite understanding exactly what to do or where to be. 

It may be that the player is still too young to be given the sort of assignments he is right now (even with the big zone start bump Hartley gives Monahan, the kid still sees a lot of stars most nights). It could be that he’s just not fast enough, in terms of skating or just thinking that game, to be a good two-way player (Jarome Iginla never really was either). It could be that the coaching staff has failed to really articulate to Monahan what his role in the defensive zone is. It could be a combination of all of these things. 

Whatever the cause, this season should help to answer the question of what Monahan is and therefore how he should be deployed. Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll know if Monahan is a defensively suspect sniper who needs some shelter to be effective, or just a great overall pivot who needed a bit more time to find his two-way game at this level. 

  • SydScout

    Is like to know how much BT and BH communicate.

    BH seems to be terrible at player utilisation. His usage of Backlund (not enough) and Russell (too much) in the third v the Hawks is an example. So while his mantra of always earned etc and the hilarious sound bites for the press are nice, it appears that he can’t efficiently utilise his cattle.

    BT on the other hand seems more systematic. Around the draft I recall comments to the effect that he has modelling and process in how he best expects to achieve success with the Flames. Is he happy with his resigning of Backlund gets used poorly?

    Question / thought: if that is true, how long can these two be in the same organisation? And how much influence is BT putting on BH (it would appear v little)? I can’t imagine BT is happy to see a great deal of talent be used in what appears to be (my amateur eyes) quite inefficient.

    A successful organisation is one that everyone is on the same page, working to the same system.

  • Brent G.

    IMHO it seems the question marks surrounding Monahan and Gio are a little early. When the entire team is playing like it has, it’s really hard for any player to look good. That being said, ideally Bennett is their first line C of the future with Monahan being an excellent 2nd line C. Of course these designations will go out the window if/when Auston Matthews is drafted.

      • The Last Big Bear

        Here is a quote I posted on Oilersnation at the end of Monahan’s rookie season.

        @ The Last Big Bear

        I agree wholeheartedly that Monahan’s rookie season was not as good as his 22 goals would have you believe. He was able to do very few things at an NHL level. He couldn’t set up plays, couldn’t snipe, his defence was what you’d expect from a teenage OHL’er, etc.

        But he did whatever it took to deliver the goods and deliver the goals. Crashing the net, picking up garbage, standing in the crease, making the tips, etc. There is a skill to this kind of “at all costs” goal scoring. Guys like Ryan Smyth have made outstanding careers from it, and if nothing else we know that Monahan has it in spades.

        We will have to see which of Monahan’s other skills translate to the NHL as he develops. But his nose for the net is there, and that’s a heck of a place to start.

        He stayed in the NHL because Monahan was leading the Flames in scoring at the end of his 9 games. I feel his development may have been better served in the OHL, but you can’t send a kid down when he’s leading your team in scoring. You would effectively be saying to everyone in your system that “It doesn’t matter how well you perform, or what you do on the ice, we’ve already made up our minds about you as a player and your play has no influence.”

        So he had to be kept up.

        I then made some trash-talk about Draisaitl.

        But the point is that Monahan has never been as good as the picture that his goal scoring numbers paint. He’s a very valuable player, but not an elite #1C.

        • Brent G.

          offensively Monahan might be but I honestly believe Bennett will be ready to take the #1 C role from Monahan next season. It’s no knock on Monahan, Bennett just looks really really good. I’d put him top 3 today (with Gaudreau and Frolik) for most consistent forwards on the Flames.

          • Kevin R

            I agree, I think we see Bennett get the top centre line role next year. He needs a full year to get comfortable & confident at the NHL level. & he’s doing a heck of a good job at this point. I see Monahan settling in as 2nd line centre & as a sniper, he & Bennett should be on the PP with Gaudreau. I wish the heck Hartley would give us a little bit of that this year.

        • ChinookArchYYC

          Your thoughts are in line with my own. It’s too soon to choose Monahan’s long term path. I wasn’t in favour of keeping him up after his 9 game start, but it was the right decision in retrospect. He will continue too improve as an NHLer, but in my view his development would be better served outside the top line. If the Flames depth was a bit deeper, it would be ideal to place Monahan in a 2nd line role to allow him learn and grow into a top line player.

  • mattyc

    We actually have no coaching. Our breakout is basically give it to Brodie or Johnny, the stretch pass or dump it in.Defense is just block shots. Any coach can come up with that. We never hear of how Hartley wants his d to do something specific, or how he’s changing this or that. Only cliches about more effort and stuff. I wonder if BT goes after Boucher in the off season.
    3 headed goalie returns which means their confidence goes out the window cause they’ll start looking over their shoulder.

    Matthews here we come.

  • Kevin R

    Holy smokes, how fickle are fans to start questioning Monahan. Kid has been fighting the puck to start this season, a little unlucky on bounces & we are questioning his two-way game??? Really?? He has more points than Crosby. The kid is a sniper, he is our Brett Hull. He knows how to position himself & has the hands of a scorer. Look at the list of players at 20 years old that scored 30+ goals at that age & see what names come up. FFS!! Leave him alone, we have much bigger problems to deal with. Monahan will be a 50 goal scorer with the Flames & I could give a rats freaking a$$ about his 2 way game.

    Forget about last year, start looking toward the draft & near future of this team. Mission is to acquire as many 1st round picks as possible, Hudler, Russell (might have to add to get that 1st back) & then try to get a top 5 pick at the draft(if we can’t luck out Oiler style). I would target Bernier. That poor guy probably wakes up sweating over nightmares of Maple Leaf jersey wearing zombies. Flip them Hiller & Granlund & maybe a 4th for Bernier. He’s an RFA so we can get 1 more bridge prove it deal out of him, we can let Ramo walk & go with Ortio & Bernier or if Ortio doesn’t get back in his grove, resign Ramo for another year & fly with him & Bernier next year. Roll the dice on Bernier finding his game like Duby did with the Wild.

    Doesn’t make sense some of Hartley’s decisions not being consistent with the GMs acquisitions/signings. Going to be an interesting conversation at the end of the year & we didn’t break the 80 points mark.

      • Kevin R

        No argument, I was thinking along the line for a later 1st rounder. He would be a great TDL acquisition as a rental & potential for resigning for a playoff contender, at that point his cap hit is minuscule. Ive seen rentals get pretty good returns.

  • mattyc

    I suspect that much of Mony’s defensive expectations can be attributed to his similarities to Jonathan Toews. They have similar offensive upsides and, in many respects, the same demeanor (quiet leader, seemingly humourless interview style, etc.). I can understand why people think he’s almost like the second coming of Toews.

    He’s a smart kid with plenty of upside. I agree that there’s time to learn whether he’s capable of Selke-calibre seasons but, if not, then a perennial 70-pt, 40-goal sniper isn’t too bad either.

  • Ari Yanover

    Paul Gaustad was once traded for a first rounder!

    Though it’s probably better to err on the side of “I’m overvaluing my team’s assets”. At least from a fan perspective.

  • Greg

    So, I just noticed the current playoff pace in the Pacific is projecting to a mere 86 points! Presumably, that will improve, but if not, it means 2 things:

    1) it’s going to take a lot longer than it should for Flames Mgmt to be able to clearly decide it ain’t happening this season and

    2) there could be 2 sub-90 point teams in the Pacific semifinals this year, meaning at least 1 of them is going to be in the second round! That’ll be something…

  • Bob's Hockey Stick

    We have to remember Monahan’s young. He didn’t have a normal rookie sophmore slump. Maybe this year is Money’s “Sophmore jinx” ? if so then we can afford to ride this out. I think were over reacting and maybe have too high of expecations. Let the kids play, they’ll make mistakes. They’ll learn and be better for it. Look out next season :-).

    If were tanking this year. Maybe the new slogan be “mayhem for Mathews!” or too early for mathews talk.

  • MontanaMan

    I made the same comments as Kent about Monahan a few days ago and got trashed to death but I guess that’s the upside of being a former Nations Overlord!! As for Bennett, I’m a big fan and think he has a higher ceiling than any centerman in the Flames system. Having said that, he has alot to learn regarding his defensive responsibilites and can look lost in his own end at times. Of course this is a critique of a 19 year old and a 20 year old. Patience is the key with both as both will have long and prosperous careers in the NHL.

  • MontanaMan

    The obvious move here is to fire the coach. To say he hasnt been able to implement his system assumes there actually is a system.

    What we are seeing is poorly executed stretch passes beyond that no real breakout strategy. (Sometimes a total lack of urgency leaving the zone. Thats stupid – When I play hockey I want to get out of the zone as fast as possible so that I can go score a goal.) As Kent mentioned they refuse to play the man and let snipers walk right in.

    What really boggled my mind is that Hartley has failed to try anything new other than line mixing. Lame. Its not working so…..

    My boiling point was his post game interview after the Florida where he talked about being unable to come back. We gave up 4 that game. Is that our strategy? To get down and come back?

  • The thing that I see most with Monahan is that his hands and offensive instincts are very, very good (not ready to call elite yet). Never thought much of his defensive prowess though hopefully that will develop. His faceoffs also seem to be improving though I don’t know the numbers offhand.

    Seems to be tracking towards an decent first line centre or a real good second line centre.

    • piscera.infada

      I think the Flames will be hesitant to fire Hartley within the season provided things don’t go any more sideways. This is probably two-fold; they don’t want the optics (reigning Jack Adams, and all), and there aren’t immediate “name-brand” options available.

      That said, I think (or, hope) they would approach a coaching change in much the same way the approached the GM change–explore all options and make the right choice for the right decision, as opposed to defaulting to a “name-brand” guy. I think you’ll see a highly thought of, but relatively new coach chosen, and surrounded by experienced assistants.

      This organization really needs progressive coaching for a progressive core.

        • piscera.infada

          Is Boucher really that good? All I really remember about his time in the NHL was his reliance on the trap. I’m not sure that’s really the direction I’d want to go in.

      • piscera.infada

        I thought they hired they first guy they interviewed?? I have vague memories of them not looking at anyone other than Treliving. Just hope they put more into looking for a coach if they take that road (not that Tre has been bad or anything).

        • piscera.infada

          That’s entirely possible. I guess what I’m trying to convey is that they didn’t just go big name hunting. I think they made a really good pick in Treliving as well, and I have no doubts he’ll make the right decision on a coach when that time comes.