“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.
— smtorsch (@smtorsch) November 13, 2015
@Kent_Wilson I already think the season is a loss, I don’t see a trade turning things around to make playoffs. Thoughts?
— Jeff (@nhlflamesfan) November 13, 2015
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.
@Kent_Wilson how much of a difference would a new coach make?
— Loubo Express (@DomeBeers) November 13, 2015
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.
@Kent_Wilson if BT decides it’s tank time, who do you shop and how cheap would you let them go?
— Andrew Ovens (@andrewovens) November 13, 2015
@Kent_Wilson Is Hudler gone at the trade deadline? Or can we find a way to keep the Hobbit in the fold?
— Cameron Hilton (@cameron_hilton) November 13, 2015
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.
@Kent_Wilson do you have any idea what non-trade Friedman alluded to on the radio this am?
— Sapp Macintosh (@MacSapintosh) November 13, 2015
@Kent_Wilson Is there a trade for Duchene tha makes sense?
— Cameron Hilton (@cameron_hilton) November 13, 2015
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.
@Kent_Wilson Has Brodie been carrying Giordano the last two years? If ‘yes’, can/should we trade Gio while his value is highest?
— Cameron Hilton (@cameron_hilton) November 13, 2015
@Kent_Wilson I just put out a question, if season is over (it is) trade gio?
— Sane Opinion (@sane_opinion) November 13, 2015
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.
@Kent_Wilson are we simply seeing a “junior” slump from Monahan, or were his past two years just flukes? I really hope it’s the former…
— Thomas Kellner (@altokells29) November 13, 2015
@Kent_Wilson at what point do we all collectively begin to worry that sean monahan has no semblance of “two-way” game?
’cause he isn’t good
— AOL Keyword: Mike (@mikeFAIL) November 13, 2015
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 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.