FN Mailbag – November 30, 2015


It’s end of November and the Flames are tied for last in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. They have just three regulation wins through more than a quarter of the season and they have the worst special teams and goaltending in the league. And the second worst score-corrected possession rate. Yuck. 

It’s safe to say Calgary won’t be visiting the playoffs again this year. While I don’t think the current results accurately reflect the team’s true talent (seriously bad goaltending will always salt in the field), the Flames haven’t made enough real strides to turn the horse around in such a short period of time. Calgary’s probably not this bad, but they aren’t good either.

So the rebuild is back on. Start daydreaming about Auston Mattews, Matthew Tkachuk or one of the big Finnish kids everyone. 

In this edition of the FN Mailbag, we talk about the future of Bob Hartley, the club’s untouchable players, trade deadline and what to do about the Flames goaltending. 

Bob Hartley is a sore subject for many Flames fans right now. On one hand, he was the apparent architect of Calgary’s miraculous run last year. He won the Jack Adams trophy as a result of his club exceeding all reasonable expectations. 

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to resurrect the magic this year. Quite the opposite, in fact – all the things that enabled the Flames to outpace their rough possession game in 2014-15 have disappeared entirely. The Flames are literally the worst in the league at a handful of important measures. 

The only reason for fans or management to have loyalty towards Hartley is the assumption that his system somehow enables the Flames to drive things like SH%, SV%, penalty differential and/or “clutch play”. That combo of uncanny abilities are what allowed Calgary to win while being relentlessly outshot 12 months ago. If Hartley’s system doesn’t do that – and it’s looking increasingly likely that is doesn’t – then he’s just a guy who watches his team get outplayed 3 out of every 4 games. 

My personal test for Hartley this year was to see if he and his staff could transition from a collapse/counter punch based system to something more conducive to controlling the play. It hasn’t happened. The Flames look utterly lost in their own end most nights, even with an apparent embarrassment of riches on the blue line. 

That’s a long way of saying…no, I don’t expect Hartley to be the Flames coach next year. 

As for how to apportion blame, I think we can say the roster isn’t quite there yet either – the blueline depth needs reconstruction behind the top-3 guys and the Flames still can’t quite put together a tough minutes forward option – as can be expected from a team at this juncture of a rebuild. That said, they shouldn’t be fundamentally struggling to the degree they are now. There should be real steps forward being taken by this roster, but it’s not happening. 

Bennett before Monahan I would say. If Sam isn’t a better player than Sean right now, he will be inside a year or so. And I would say if Monahan’s overall game doesn’t start to progress that he’ll be dropped from the untouchable list as well. Which isn’t to say I’d put Monahan on the auction block tomorrow, but at some point his reputation will outstrip his utility if his two-way game continues to stagnate.

Maybe add Dougie Hamilton to the list. I know his debut for Calgary has been inauspicious, but everything we know about the player prior to this season suggests he’s going to be very good for a long time.

There’s probably no one else who can be called untouchable at this point. The only other asset the Flames should put behind a vault is this year’s first round pick.

No. I think the team will start to experiment more and more as the playoffs grow out of reach. They’ve stated they want to develop Bennett at centre, so at some point there’ll be no reason not to play him as a pivot to see how he does.

The NHL trade market tends to be fairly flaccid until at least the third quarter of the season, so I imagine Treliving won’t be actively selling until about February. That’s the time when demand starts to pick up and it tends to peak right around the deadline, so that’s when the team will want to leverage a few assets for the best return possible.

I don’t know if any of the Flames prospects are notable assets, aside from obvious ones like Kylington, Gillies, Andersson and Mangiapane. Maybe Jankowski has worked his way back into that conversation this year, but I don’t know if the club will gain much by moving young players out.

First, I’ll say that I don’t think Gillies was ever considered the answer in the short term for the Flames. He’s more of a long term investment, as most puck stoppers are. 

As for next year, the Flames are going to have to go shopping in the UFA and trade markets to adequately fill the net. This upcoming summer, James Reimer, Cam Talbot, Anton Khudobin and Antti Raanta are all set to become free agents. That’s not a killer’s row of superstars, but there’s some at least adequately netminding ability in there.

If none of those guys are available or if the team doesn’t like any of them enough, there will also be a handful of guys they could trade for. In the near future, players like Jimmy Howard, Ben Bishop and Brian Elliott might be available for a song given cap and/or depth pressures in each of their respective organizations.

Good question. From my perspective, the Flames are having a lot of trouble with zone penetration and puck retrieval right now. They don’t seem to have a solid way of gaining the zone, outside of trying to make Johnny Gaudreau skate the puck through a wall of players. Their shoot-ins typically fail because it’s too easy for the bad guys to turn around and ice the puck.

Another issue is the Flames don’t seem to have any high percentage set plays. Some teams have strategies that set up a back-door pass to a defender or wide winger sneaking behind coverage. Other teams, like Washington with Alex Ovechkin or San Jose with Brent Burns, have a set up that favours a one-timer from inside the face-off circle by a guy on his off-wing. 

All I see the Flames attempting right now is: get a big guy in front of the net for a screen. It’s not a very sophisticated plan and it’s certainly difficult to execute if you can’t gain the zone or establish any real pressure.

Tough one. Since this season is more or less lost and I don’t see any one move righting the ship, I’m not sure I’d suddenly and drastically change course if I woke up on Treliving’s office tomorrow. Long term, here’s some stuff I’d consider:

  • Fire Bob Hartley if the team continues to struggle at own zone and transition hockey. Find a coach who can get the team out of its own end (and maybe teach special teams too).
  • Permanently demote Ladislav Smid to the AHL.
  • Put Kris Russell on the auction block and trade him to the highest bidder.
  • Ditto Jiri Hudler at the trade deadline.
  • See if anyone will give us anything for Dennis Wideman.
  • Give Nakladal and Kulak a longer look at the NHL level.
  • Continue to pursue Travis Hamonic.
  • Start calling around on goalies.
  • Look for more solid two-way veteran forwards.
  • Find at least one more scoring winger.

That would be my “action item” list for now. 

  • I might be being cheeky, but isn’t Hudler a “scoring winger”?

    I get demographics and all that but it seems weird to sell an asset only to have to pick up the same thing. All depends on what Jiri is looking for I guess.

    • piscera.infada

      He doesn’t really fit the age of the “core” moving forward.

      He also hasn’t done a lot this season to really make the organization want to keep him. He was great last year, so there’s that. You would want to see really anything positive from him this season before you resign him, and you haven’t yet.

      • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

        Kent, what was your opinion on Gio prior to him being extended?

        As a rational analyst you must have wanted to get what we could for him knowing that we were still years away from being a Cup contender?

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    Is getting rid of Backlund not on your list because he is one of those “solid two-way veteran forwards” you have on the list as a need?

    Or is he not on the list because it is nearly to the point where his trade value is so little that he has become what he is, which is just a “blah” player on a “blah” team?

    That guy is being paid $3.75M for 2 more seasons and then is going to get a raise (because that’s just how it goes, not that he will have earned it), but there is NO WAY I want him on my team at anything over $2M.

    I have actually come to the opinion that I would rather have Byron than Backlund and that they are in actual fact the same player in some ways.

  • piscera.infada

    To the powerplay, I agree that there are two real issues: gaining the zone, and generating chances.

    As far as gaining the zone, I think it’s the perfect embodiment of the systemic issues plaguing the Flames so far this season. They can’t generate any momentum through the neutral zone, simply because they spread themselves too thin. They basically end up with one player actually playing with speed, and 2, 3, sometimes 4 players standing at the blue line waiting for that one player to gain the zone. They did this last year, and it annoyed the hell out of me time and again, but somehow it seemed to work more effectively than it has this season. The name of the game during the breakout and neutral zone (on the powerplay, and at 5v5) should be puck support. It just isn’t with this team for some reason, and I don’t know who, exactly, is to blame there.

    With generating chances, once they do actually get set-up–which again, is way too few and far between–you basically have 5 players standing around. Gaudreau, Bennett, and to a lesser extent Giordano, Hamilton, and Brodie, move around the zone on the powerplay. The rest of the team, not so much. That’s roughly 2 players on the ice at a given time that actually play the powerplay correctly. The problem is, when the Flames don’t move, they don’t create space. Everything gets funnelled from the point, and no lanes are created through to the net. That results in no rebounds, and worse, no passing lanes down low because team’s don’t have to respect the point-shot as much as they did last year. Teams play an incredibly tight box, and it’s very, very effective.

    I posted on a earlier article that the Flames need to sell out on one of their powerplay units in an effort to get the thing going. Play four forwards (I argued Gaudreau, Monahan, Bennett, Ferland). Put Gaudreau on the point, and allow him to create with the most time and space possible. Rotate your players around the offensive zone–make teams defend you differently. At this point, I really don’t care if having four forwards gives up more short-handed chances against, because what’s happening right now is almost as ineffective.

  • Kevin R

    I think Bob gets the rest of the year as coach but he is going to have some hard answers with management at locker clean out day. We see a similar start next year & the Hartley watch will be well documented. I have a hard time painting him with responsibility brush when the poor bastard wasn’t the one donning the goalie pads. Goaltending this year reminds me of the goaltending we were getting at ground zero when we traded Iggy & JBO. When a team has confidence in the last line of defence, well that’s huge. Players are more stressed, they don’t get second chances when if they make 1 stinking mistake it winds up 80% of the time in the back of the net. It changes the play & doesn’t allow your players to play to their talent level. Look at Nashville, Rinne makes that team look like a perennial winner.

    No doubt goaltending will be addressed & be top priority for BT. Right now, I don’t think Berniers value could be much lower, Leafs are talking about waiving him. If I’m BT right now, I would be calling Leafs & offer them Hiller & a 3rd for Bernier. Yeah I know, why trade with the Leafs, never has worked out before. I get it. But after watching Hiller Saturday night, it couldn’t be any worse. Both goalies obviously need changes of venue. Just saying, a pretty cheap option to perhaps changing the goalie venue around this team with someone that used to be regarded pretty high. For a 3rd & an expiring contract this year, Leafs would probably do that deal, especially because Reimer has a minor injury right now.

    I’m going to start pounding the drum of Backlund to Washington for Tom Wilson, maybe we can extract another 2nd out of Wash to throw in that deal. The kid is big, nasty & is 1st rounder pedigree. Wash need a 3rd line centre something fierce.I would move Bennett to the 1st line with Johnny, & maybe throw Ferland or Wilson there, drop Monahan to 2nd line with Hudler & Frolik & when Hudler is sold at the TDL, move Ferland up with them. Note these are moves for the future not for playoffs this year.

    • Kevin R

      Why offer Hiller and a 3rd for a goalie they are “thinking of waiving”? Hiller for Bernier would be a fair offer, if you want to go that route.

      Consider replacing Backlund with something other than another center. How about Backlund and Russell for Beau Bennett and Perron? We get two top 6 wingers for a center and a D-man. Pitts has defensive needs, and Russell could help them. Maatta is out again.

      • RealMcHockeyReturns

        Great comments. I think Hiller for Bernier works BUT Bernier was 1st round 11th overall in his draft so maybe need to add a pick. I really like the Backlund/Russell trade idea for Beau Bennett & Perron…always liked Perron.

        • RealMcHockeyReturns

          Bernier has been a steaming pile of poop this year..hasn’t even won 1 game! And he has one more year at 4.15 million cap hit and salary..NO THANK YOU! Note: It is not where you were drafted but how you peform in the NHL….and you want the Flames to cough up another pick? OMG!

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    The time for the promising kids to start replacing the veteran placeholders has come. Guys like Shore, Granlund, Agostino, Grant, Nakladal, Wotherspoon, and Kulak need to start replacing players like Raymond, Stajan, Hudler, Bollig, Jones, Russell, Wideman and Engelland.

    Younger, faster, cheaper and better. Grab what you can from now to the deadline. Replace Hartley in the summer with a coach who can teach and works well with youth and knows systems. Add another elite forward prospect at the draft. Find a league average goalie. Ortio gets a real chance next season because Hiller and Ramo are both gone.

    What vets you can’t move this season or in the summer you finish moving next season or bury for their final contract year in the minors. Whatever it takes. Four balanced lines of youth, speed, compete and skill.

  • RKD

    Unfortunately it is time to let Hartley go. He was a decent guy to bring in at the time and at that it was the right time to bring in a motivational coach. Good coach to start a rebuild undef but he is not going to help us emerge unfortunately.

    He is not a developmental coach in that he is not teaching these guys to play good hockey. He is not an x o guy as our PP and PK can attest to. This is an important time for our young players – they need to develop and learn the right way to play and learn good habits.

    Hartleys system was fine for our transition period into the rebuild in that it played to our strengths but now this team needs a teacher.

  • piscera.infada

    I hate to be a pessimist, but I think it is as bad as it appears.
    Our really only bright spot has been Johhny, now if you factor in that 2 or 3 of his goals have come in OT in a 3v3 setting and approximately 5 of his points have come in 3v3 Overtime…it is pretty bleak. Johnny can easily be a point a game player but his linemates and the rest of his teamates seem to be a step behind especially on the PP.

    Teams are just keying on Johnny, they don’t see any other threats. In fact, against Arizona they tried everything to not let Johnny get the puck in OT because once he has it, the game could be over. The ideal line for Johnny should be with a Policeman….like a young Iggy or young Lucic. Ferland has show glimpses but not enough. Calgary is asking Johnny to win the puck in the corner on a dump in which is never your best option.

    Other players like Bennett and Frolick have shown flashes but not enough, goaltending and defense are the biggest concern. Last year was the first year in the last 7 that I felt like when we went down a goal we were still in the game, this year is back to the old days. I hope the organization overplays Granlund on one of the top lines to see how he is as a top 6 forward…there really is not much to lose experimenting.