We’re through the first 21 games of the 2015-16 Calgary Flames season and the results have been mixed. After playing terrible ice hockey for their first 10-ish games, the Flames have been playing much better of late and began the second quarter of their season with an emphatic victory over the defending Stanley Cup Champions on Friday night.
To commemorate the first 25% of the schedule with their thoughts – and so we can re-use my favourite image on the site – please welcome Ari, Kent, myself, Byron, Mike, Taylor, Beloch and Christian for the latest edition of the FlamesNation roundtable!
The Flames are off to one of the worst starts in franchise history. What’s the single largest factor, in your eyes, that has caused this epic stumble out of the starting blocks?
ARI: The Flames aren’t as bad a team as the one that started the season. Really, though, it falls back to goaltending. Keeping three players up with no clear plan. Constantly changing the starter, opting for pretty much no leash. No patience with them (is it a coincidence now that Karri Ramo has gotten to play a bunch in a row, he’s looking respectable?). And just plain bad bounces every now and then, as well as the frequent appearance of horrific defense (occasionally spurred on by an overuse of shot blocking, which has burned the goalies multiple times). But this team doesn’t have a -25 goal differential if they simply get the stops they need. The losses to Winnipeg and Florida in particular were terrible – that’s four points left on the board right there that weren’t the result of a team-wide failure.
KENT: A combination of things, really. Misfortune in the form of the worst percentages in the league. They also had a handful of top players struggle out of the gate.
RYAN: The Flames have been a team prone to brainfarts in key game situations, a big improvement over their status early in the season as a team that played terribly in their own end in all stages of the game.
BYRON: Huge mistakes at wrong times. The start of the season they had many instances where they were applying the pressure when they were tied or down by one and then they make a massive mistake going the other way (arrant pass to nobody, not covering an open guy, really bad goal let in by the goalie, giving up too many rebounds in front) and they get scored on. Recently it’s been mistakes later in games. Gio’s penalty with 5 to go against Tampa and leaving Stamkos open seconds later. Not being hard on MacKinnon late in the Colorado game. Not tying up Jagr better and giving him too much space.
MIKE: Defense. It’s been dreadful. Clearly the talent is there, but brain farts are pervasive throughout the line-up. Those brain farts happen at the worst times and they’re never able to get themselves back in the game.
TAYLOR: In terms of the single largest factor? I would have to say goaltending. I don’t think any Flames fan would have expected any or Ramo, Ortio, or Hiller to contend for the Vezina, but their collective collapse has been devastating to a pretty fragile defensive team. The defense has been bad but the goaltending has been awful.
BELOCH: Even though Ramo has delivered a few quality starts recently, the Flames average sv% is still the worst in the league. With league average goaltending the Flames would have allowed about 1 fewer goal against per game. That’s significant given that the Flames have lost a couple one-goal games and a few more games that would have been one-goal games were it not for empty netters.
CHRISTIAN: Other teams have figured out the Flames’ laidback defensive system and reliance on the stretch pass, and are exploiting it. Bob Hartley refused to adapt early on, and combined with putrid goaltending, the Flames got thoroughly roasted.
How have your expectations for the Flames changed between the beginning of the season and now?
ARI: Well, my original expectations were they’d be in a tight battle for the final playoff spot in the Pacific, but just miss out; now, my opinion is they’ll still be in a battle for the final playoff spot in the Pacific (but maybe not as tight anymore), and they probably won’t make it. So they really haven’t changed by much. I’m still more interested in the team growing and developing.
KENT: I kind of expected them to compete for a playoff spot, but I think the hole is too deep for that now. I think improvement is inevitable, but they could be in the running for a lottery pick anyways.
RYAN: My expectations are downgraded a bit. If they can string a few good games together, I don’t doubt they can eke their way into the playoffs given how bad the Pacific Division looks to be this season.
BYRON: Drastically changed. I expected them to if not make the playoffs (because the pacific is no good) be right in the running. Right now they’re 4 games below .500. Already puts them quite a ways back. They’re not out of it yet but without a strong finish in November their chances will be pretty slim.
MIKE: At the beginning of the season I figured they were a shoe-in for the playoffs. Now I’m just hoping for entertaining and close hockey because the playoffs are going to be tough to achieve.
TAYLOR: I can see why being a fan of a perpetually rebuilding team can have its upside. When a team isn’t burdened by expectation, losses don’t sting the same way. However, I had expected this club to be competing for a spot for the majority of the season and that simply hasn’t happened yet. Even though the Pacific isn’t very good, they’re gonna need to hop over a bunch of teams and crawl out of the cellar at the same time. My pre-season optimism has nearly faded completely. If the Flames can correct their possession problems this year and win home games against Edmonton and Vancouver, I think I’ll be happy.
BELOCH: Surprisingly little. The team’s possession stats are already better than they were last season. They’re giving up fewer high-danger scoring chances than they were at the start of the season. The other Pacific division teams are off to a similarly horrible start, so the Flames aren’t as far out of a playoff berth as you’d expect.
CHRISTIAN: My only expectation now is that the Flames make a coaching change. I had a lot of expectations at the beginning of the season but I’ve dropped all of them, and am solely hoping for a change behind the bench. I was a big Bob Hartley fan at the beginning of the year but all of his vices have been shining brightly early on this season.
What would you do regarding the team’s pending UFAs and RFAs between now and the end of the season?
ARI: Don’t even entertain the thought of keeping Kris Russell or Jiri Hudler. Maybe see if you can find a suitor for Joe Colborne, too; he shouldn’t be a priority. The real priorities are, obviously, Sean Monahan, and especially Johnny Gaudreau. David Jones could go either way at this point, depending on how much he wants for his next contract, but to keep him, he’ll need to come cheap; if he wants too much, it’s the trade deadline for him. Probably hang on to Josh Jooris, too, unless the plan is to just Paul Byron him next season, in which case, at least try to get something for him.
As for the goalies, it’s a total tossup at this point. Normally I’d have said hang on to Joni Ortio, but what’s the point of doing that if he’s never going to get played? Ideally you recoup some assets and end the season with two of them at most.
KENT: I’d trade Russell immediately. I’d shop Hudler and the goalies at the deadline and maybe Colborne too. I’d talk to Jones about a short, cheap contract. As for Monahan and Gaudreau – those will be long negotiations better saved for the summer. I’d re-sign Ortio to a cheap, 1-year deal.
RYAN: I’d sell off Russell and Hudler for assets, try to re-sign David Jones at a reasonable ($2.75 million or thereabouts) deal, and start trying to extend Gaudreau and Monahan. Nobody else is a high priority.
BYRON: Russell and Wideman try to find a suitor immediately. Jones, Colborne and Hudler wait to see where they are by the Christmas break or the trade deadline. They’re not completely out yet so I wouldn’t want to sell everything useful but it’s getting close.
MIKE: Hudler and Russell need to be traded for futures. This is still a rebuild despite last year’s success. That can’t be forgotten. However, David Jones is still a solid third-line guy and has deserved another contract with the Flames. Many of the RFA’s still have promise, even guys like Elson who have been in the organization for a while.
TAYLOR: If the season isn’t resurrected in a big way, it’s obvious that the Flames will be a big-time seller come February. Trick is, will the sellable pieces be healthy and productive then? If someone comes asking for a guy like David Jones earlier than February, I would hope the Flames have the good sense to move him. Though he has been a fairly reliable winger for the Flames over the past few seasons, the Flames are still in asset acquisition mode and if they have a player on a hot streak that can fetch value, I wouldn’t risk injuring him later in the season.
BELOCH: Treliving will sign Monahan and Gaudreau, but he needs to free up cap space to do this. Hudler is worth enough that I doubt he’ll be allowed to walk as a UFA. That might mean he winds up being traded at the deadline. You can’t trade everyone if you’re pushing for the playoffs though, so guys like Jooris, Jones, and Colborne may stick around even if the Flames might have difficulty signing them next summer. Russell, if he continues to suck, will likely walk in the summer. I have no clue what’s going to happen in net. None of the Flames’ three goalies have made a strong case for a new contract just yet. There was very little turnover this summer, but next summer will likely be different.
CHRISTIAN: I would try and trade both Hudler and Russell ASAP for futures, everyone else is still under evaluation in my eyes.
Which Flames player has really impressed you with their play thus far?
ARI: T.J. Brodie, in that I thought he’d need a bit of an adjustment period after returning to the lineup, but he stepped on the ice as the best player from the get go. Johnny Gaudreau is making it really hard to determine just what his ceiling is. I wasn’t expecting David Jones to have the season he is, but, well, he’s been really great in his role (although that’s an awfully nice shooting percentage he has classing up the joint).
KENT: I’ve liked Brodie and Sam Bennett recently. I think Ferland has had flashes since coming back from injury as well. (And Gaudreau, who looks like he’ll be an elite offensive player for a long time.)
RYAN: Gaudreau, Bennett, Jones, Stajan and Brodie have all been consistently good throughout the season thus far. Everyone else has some work to do.
BYRON: Gaudreau, Bennett, Frolik and Brodie.
MIKE: Gaudreau, Frolik and Brodie have shown up to every game of the season despite their team’s lack of success.
TAYLOR: I literally cannot believe I am writing this. I have been impressed with Deryk Engelland, if only because I, like many others, have been so outspoken in their criticism in these last weeks, months, years, lifetimes, about his play. I know I have low standards for him, but Engelland seems…steady this season. As I am writing this, he’s a positive possession player (even though he’s only averaging fewer than 13 minutes a game but still!) and has moved the puck effectively out of his zone at times. The same cannot be said for Dennis Wideman, who has been dreadful this year.
BELOCH: Most of the guys who were supposed to be good have been good, so there’s no point gushing over Gaudreau, Brodie or Bennett. Instead, I’m going to single out the spare-parts line: Colborne, Stajan, and Jones, for defying all expectations. This line has somehow become more than the sum of its parts in the last several games. It’s handling the toughest assignments (Backlund gets more shelter!) and has frequently hemmed top competition into their own end, creating high ground for the rest of the team. This line is chewing bubblegum and kicking ass.
CHRISTIAN: TJ Brodie. I knew he was good, I did not know he was this good. TJ Brodie is the best defenseman on this team, and on some nights it isn’t even close.
Which Flames player has disappointed you with their play thus far?
ARI: Jiri Hudler has been bad. Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton haven’t had the best start to their seasons. Kris Russell has been an exceptional level of awful. Sean Monahan is still scoring goals, but he doesn’t seem to be taking any steps forward in his overall game.
KENT: Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton had a really rough start to the season. Both have been gradually getting better, but neither has looked like difference maker. Jiri Hudler seems to have returned to his 50-55 point form. He’s invisible for long stretches, which was actually typical of his previous seasons in Calgary before last year’s outburst. Finally, Sean Monahan looks like he has taken a giant step backwards so far. He’s getting killed at even strength most nights and it’s making me wonder what his real ceiling is.
RYAN: Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman make me sad when I watch them play. Hudler also hasn’t been that good at all.
BYRON: Hudler hasn’t done much; Gio and Monahan have had flashes of brilliance but have looked off a lot of nights. Hamilton and Gio didn’t work to start things off. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed by Hamilton’s play so far it’s just not 100% there yet. Ask me again and mid-season and we’ll have a better idea.
MIKE: Giordano and Hudler headline the disappointments category. In no way, shape or form do they look like a Norris candidate or a Lady Byng winner. They’re a large part of why this team is where it is.
TAYLOR: Earlier in the season, I would have said Monahan who had looked awful but seems to be turning a corner in a big way as of late. Presently, I will say Jiri Hudler who just looks tentative, slow, and passive in the offensive zone to start the year. This is bad news for the Flames as they might be trying to sell Hudler at the deadline or before it. Hopefully Hudler can fetch a return based solely on the production of years past.
BELOCH: Kris Russell. If you made a highlight reel of giveaways in the slot for each defender, Russell’s would probably be twice as long as that of anyone else. He’s been truly terrible. I hope he’s not hurt bad, but a few games off with the video room guys might be good for him.
CHRISTIAN: Jiri Hudler, and to some degree Sean Monahan. Hudler has been absolutely awful this season, and I don’t understand why. His ineffectiveness has led to his removal from the powerplay and a steady deterioration of his minutes. Ever since he took that savage crosscheck to the arm from Robyn Regehr in the penultimate game of the regular season, Jiri Hudler has been a different player.