We’re just over halfway through this season of Calgary Flames hockey, and the season is both clearer than when it started, and murkier as well. The Flames set themselves behind with a horrific opening month, but since then have rebounded to respectable play, putting them in contention for a playoff spot – but, at the same time, a lottery pick.
What’s a hockey team to do? We’ll find out, but in the meantime, here are thoughts, reflections, favourites and least favourites of the 2015-16 season to date, as brought to you by Flames Nation’s arsenal of writers.
Halfway through the season, the Flames are simultaneously teetering on the edge of a playoff spot and bottom-five finish. Which would you prefer: playoffs or a high draft pick? Why?
ARI: I’ll preface this by saying that by absolutely no means am I ever rooting for the Flames to lose a game. That said, over the course of this season it’s become increasingly clear they’re lacking in elite forward options. While the Flames have had some success later in the draft, it’s still more likely to get those players right at the beginning. In the interests of long-term success, I’d much rather an extremely good shot at a high-level forward than making the playoffs largely on the basis of being in a terrible division and, with that, likely losing in the second round again. (Though that isn’t to say I’m against making the playoffs!)
RYAN: If the choice is between ekeing into the playoffs and following the rebuild plan, they need to follow the plan. The Flames aren’t yet at a critical mass of prospects in their system, so it probably behooves them to continue amassing young bodies until they have too many good ones.
KENT: Bit of a false dichotomy. I’ll prefer the playoffs if the Flames legitimately belong (i.e.; they are fundamentally a playoff contender), but not if they sneak in because of a weak division or some weird run of luck. Otherwise, I’d prefer another high draft pick.
PAT: Playoffs. Whether there was substantial good fortune involved, they were still a playoff teams last year and should aspire to be one again this year. Hell, they even won a round last year. At this point, making the playoffs should on an annual basis be an organizational goal, because that’s a step along the way to being a Stanley Cup contender.
MIKE: High pick, but only because I’ve wrestled with this thought all season. The last thing you want is this Calgary Flames team being a bubble team like they were for a decade. Acquire talent, grow, and then make strides to be a powerhouse. The playoffs were fun, but you know what’s more exciting? Some new, exciting, high caliber talent on the wing. Klimchuk and Poirier are likely none of these aforementioned things. You know who is? Jesse Puljujärvi, Patrik Laine, or Alex Nylander.
TAYLOR: That’s a tough question, because it pits my heart against my brain. I know that what this team needs is premium talent, especially on the right side, and that only comes from the draft. But damnit, the playoffs are so much fun. *sigh* I suppose the pick.
CHRISTIAN: Given this year’s Pacific Division, I lean to a high draft pick because making the playoffs with a .500 record just to get spanked out of the playoffs and pick mid-draft doesn’t seem like a healthy thing for the rebuild, and also because this draft caters to the Flames’ biggest need like nothing else: big, skilled wingers. While playoffs would be nice – and is obviously the goal from the start of the season – I think the Flames would be better served to bite the bullet and get one last quality prospect to augment their young core.
BYRON: Playoffs. Forever and always. Even if it sets us back a few years not getting that high draft pick … my preference specifically is hockey in May because it’s so wonderful.
BELOCH: The thing about picking early is that most teams doing so really stink and desperately need the help. I’d prefer that the Flames become a team that can consistently draft well with later picks, develop talent, and make the playoffs every year for decades at a time. Let certain other teams pick first time after time and remain wasteland wanderers. I’d like to see the Flames succeed with more players like Gaudreau and Brodie.
BEN: Playoffs. I’ll take the player mentality: you want to play as much hockey as possible now, not wait to rebuild.
What’s been your favourite thing about the Flames through the first half of the season?
ARI: T.J. Brodie and Johnny Gaudreau’s establishment as two of the best in the NHL is pretty hard to top. The Flames have been a completely different team ever since Brodie came back, and it’s thrilling to see Gaudreau up amongst the league leaders in only his second season. Both are beyond vital to this team, and because they’re so young, we only have more to look forward to.
RYAN: I’ve really liked Johnny Gaudreau’s poise this season. In just a year and change, he’s gone from a shaky on-ice presence to one of the most impactful and assured hockey players in the league. And considering his age, he’s probably gonna keep improving here and there for a few more seasons.
KENT: Aside from Johnny Gaudreau making a case for being one of the elite offensive players in the NHL, I’ve really liked TJ Brodie becoming the Flames’ top defender. Throw in Frolik’s play (when healthy) and the development of Micheal Ferland, who looks more and more like a legit NHLer.
PAT: Johnny Gaudreau’s emergence as one of the league’s upper echelon offensive players is most significant to me. It bodes so well for the future and has been fun to watch in the present.
MIKE: Michael Frolik’s immediate impact. No one (prior to his injury) could drive play in an individual sense and impact his teammates’ performances. He is everything you want in an NHL winger in this era, with an affordable contract. With the lapse of talent on the wings, his value is increased exponentially. Plus, seeing him score a hat-trick live against the Oilers is a beautiful moment I’ll surely never forget. Move over Curtis Glencross hat-trick in an 8-1 thrashing I witnessed, you’ve been usurped by a superior man.
TAYLOR: I have to say my favourite thing about this season is T.J. Brodie. The dude is absolutely worth the price of admission each and every game, and in my mind is the most irreplaceable player on the Flames.
CHRISTIAN: Without a doubt the emergence of Johnny Gaudreau as a bonafide superstar. It’s just a sense of pride to see the things he does on the ice and then think “yeah, he plays for my team.”
BYRON: Gaudreau emerging this year exactly how many contributors and commentators of this site expected he would … a bonafide superstar.
BELOCH: I have the memory of a goldfish on smack, so I’m going to have to go with Bennett miming the action of throwing a monkey off his back when he scored on Monday, and then going on to score four goals against Florida. Gaudreau is the better player right now and more fun to watch, but he’s been regularly rewarded for his efforts while Bennett had a terrible pointless stretch despite some excellent performances. Here’s hoping we can look back on the last two games as the moment when Bennett finally arrived as an offensive juggernaut. In general, watching the Flames’ youngest players progress this season has been a lot of fun.
BEN: I liked Regehr retiring as a Flame, thought that was a nice touch, and a great story. I enjoyed watching Gaudreau evolve this year to become one of the most exciting players in the league as well.
ARI: Bizarre player usage. From the goalie situation – awarding Joni Ortio a spot based on youth and then refusing to ever play him, in particular – to how long it’s taken to start giving Dougie Hamilton the minutes he deserves to inexplicable forward usage, from Joe Colborne getting so much time on top units to Sam Bennett’s extended stint on the third line. It’s been frustrating to watch.
RYAN: It’s a tie for me between the foolishness of the three goalie rotation – when they had three goalies with no confidence – and the team’s shaky play within their own zone. For some reason, they’re allergic to quick and simple clearing plays out of their own end.
KENT: The continued dependence on less than optimal options by the coaching staff, both on the blueline and up front. Hartley’s roster choices have gradually improved as the season has gone on, but he still seems to have a higher regard for a few guys (Russell, Colborne) than I think is warranted.
Oh, and the special teams. There has been some improvement lately, but they were legitimately awful for a long time.
Finally, the apparent step back by Sean Monahan this season is disappointing. His offensive game has stalled at best, while his two-way game has become more suspect than it was last year. I hope this is just a bump in the road rather than indicative of a plateau.
PAT: The somewhat expected but still disappointing drop off of Jiri Hudler. I think we all knew last year was an outlier season in terms of points, but his regression this year has been painful. Hudler has likely been the team’s least effective player in comparison to what he’s been capable of in the past. Regardless of a predicted step back, that’s been disappointing.
MIKE: Three-way tie between Byron being waived, Jooris being healthy scratched lots, and the Flames’ PK. All are related in various ways, all are compounded by each other. The penalty kill is improving slightly, but it’s a far cry from being acceptable still. I think last year’s amazing penalty differential impacted my own belief that the PK was acceptably capable, when in reality it was very average at best.
TAYLOR: I would have to say the amount of patience given to marginal players like Colborne and Bollig, while the organization lost a useful player (Paul Byron) to waivers. It’s like banging your head against a wall sometimes.
CHRISTIAN: The frustrating start is the easy one, but I’ll go with Hartley’s player usage, because it’s STILL driving me up all the walls. Colborne leading forwards in ice time, Monahan being overplayed, Bollig existing on the ice still somehow, Jooris’ life sentence with no trial, Frolik playing the least of all forwards on some nights. It drives me mad sometimes.
BYRON: Line combinations/usage.
BELOCH: The situation in net is still precarious. For a while it seemed as though every time the Flames gained some momentum, a particularly terrible goalie performance would bring things to a screeching halt. A month ago Ramo could have fallen dead and Hartley would have had him strapped to the crossbar instead of playing anyone else. While Ramo has delivered the occasional good performance, he’s still a huge step behind where he was last season, and Hiller had fallen into an even deeper pit. More often than not, the Flames have effectively been playing without a safety net under them. Some nights, it’s just painful to watch. As a runner up, I’m also not a fan of how things have gone with the farm team this season.
BEN: I thought a number of players had a tough time getting going at the start. I’ve also thought the line combinations haven’t been stellar.
What should the Flames do at the trade deadline? Who should they go after/try to sell?
ARI: Sell sell sell. Buying makes no sense at this stage of the game, even if the Flames go undefeated between now and the trade deadline to really cement a playoff spot. Jiri Hudler and Kris Russell are the must-gos as they’re both most likely to fetch the most and be too expensive to re-sign, but really, any impending UFA should be on the table, as well as the usual burdens – Mason Raymond, Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland, Ladislav Smid – if any takers can be found.
Shopping around any RFAs not named Sean Monahan or Johnny Gaudreau could be a possibility as well, but only if you’re able to get a superior young player in return.
RYAN: I’d sell off Kris Russell and Jiri Hudler, shop around for a goalie, and maybe see if they can swing a deal to open up some cap space by moving one of the bottom three defenders (Wideman, Smid or Engelland) out of town. And I’d focus on picks and prospects unless the chance emerges to add an asset like Dougie Hamilton – somebody that fills a hole on the team and is between 22 and 25 years old.
KENT: The Flames should definitely shop both Jiri Hudler and Kris Russell at the very least. Hudler is getting older, will probably cost more to re-sign and could probably get the Flames a nice asset (assuming he gets healthy and improves on his questionable first half).
As for Russell, his reputation greatly outstrips his utility and he’s going to cost too much to re-sign anyways, which is a big concern for a team with a fairly expensive blueline already.
PAT: From what I’ve seen this year, I don’t think the Flames are a player or two away from a Cup run. As such, I don’t think “buying” makes a lot of sense this year. It’s all about the pending UFA’s on the sell side, but I don’t think a decision needs to be made yet. There is a threshold where keeping a player beyond the deadline is more valuable than getting a so-so return, at least for me. It’s case-by-case if the team is still in the race. If they’re not, then yeah, I say take what you can get.
MIKE: Sell more so than acquiring ready-assets (players who can slot in and play). Names like Kris Russell, Jiri Hudler, David Jones, and Dennis Wideman all have some discernible values. The main thing is, especially with all this chatter of acquiring a Drouin or a Johansen is realizing these four aforementioned names have value, but not what you perceive. Receiving picks in any capacity (a second round pick for example) would be great.
If the Flames are looking to acquire talent (say on the wing), there isn’t much out there that is cheap enough, under contract, and not going to cost you a small fortune. Cam Atkinson is a player that comes to mind, though he’s loved by Torts so it’s unliley he is moved.
TAYLOR: I think the only sensible course of action is to sell on all the impending UFA’s and perhaps even (through some miracle) finding a suitor for Wideman, even if that means eating some of his dough. I’d even shop Colborne and see if he’s worth something to someone. He’s tall!
CHRISTIAN: Aside from moves that will significantly help them in the future (Drouin, Rychel, Andersen), they should be full fledged sellers. Not only because this season has proven they’re not a great hockey team yet and they have expiring UFA’s, but also because they have a myriad of teams to sell to. There are a ton of teams still in the mix for the playoffs, so if you’re getting first round picks for Hudler and a Glencross-like deal for Russell… Sell Sell Sell!
BYRON: They should definitely trade off pieces like Russell, Hudler and/or Wideman (especially because I’m not sure they really help either way). If they can acquire a top flight RW (preferably one that shoots right) like Okposo that would be nice.
BELOCH: Treliving needs to either trade or extend (for cheap) Jones and/or Hudler. It will hurt losing either of these guys down the stretch but, at this stage in the rebuild, the long-term interests of the team have to come first. Russell and Colborne are less critical guys who should be shopped around too, but they’re not so valuable that the team will be badly hurt if they walk away in the summer. As for what to buy… Treliving should be kicking the tires on goalies every chance he gets. Given how things have gone for pretty much every goalie in the Flames’ system this year, the Flames need more warm bodies in that position PDQ.
BEN: A top line RW would be nice. I’d like to see young talent added to the roster to help complete the rebuild.
What do you think actually happens at the season’s end? Is it different from what you thought at the start of the season?
ARI: At the start of the season, I thought the Flames would make the playoffs as third in their division, albeit just barely. We’re still not too far off from that, but now I’m more of the opinion that they just miss, again based on the state of the division and not due to their performance. At the very least, staying in the playoff conversation is a good way for this season to go.
RYAN: I figure they keep sliding back week by week and then they throw in towel and sell things off at the deadline. Considering I thought they had the horses to challenge for the division crown at the beginning of the year, I think this season is a standings disappointment. That said, I won’t be all that disappointed unless they veer away from their rebuilding plan.
KENT: I think they will be in the conversation for a playoff spot, which is what I figured would be the case at the onset of the season.
PAT: I think they’re a couple of points either in or out of a playoff spot. That was my expectation in training camp and remains the case now.
MIKE: Given how pathetic the division is, if the Flames get in (which probably will happen seeing as how they’re not that far off from last season at this time), it’ll be either a catastrophic defeat in the first round or another second-round exit. The latter being extremely likely being Los Angeles won’t drop off and everyone else is that clear liquid floating on the top of ketchup. Initially I predicted this team a playoff team on the bubble, and I don’t think much as changed, though injuries or a massive trade could change that depending on how the team is by the trade deadline.
TAYLOR: The team is about where I figured record-wise, but I didn’t expect the pacific to be such garbage. I think the Flames will finish about five points out when all is said and done.
CHRISTIAN: No clue. I was convinced they’d be a playoff team no problem and I was proven sorely wrong to kick off the season, but now that the dust has settled and the division is the way it is, I could still be right. My heart wants playoffs, but my brain wants Jesse Puljujarvi.
BYRON: Flames end up in fifth place … just outside of top five pick category.
BELOCH: At the start of the season I said the Flames would be in the bubble. A quarter of the way through the season, when things were looking bleak, I stuck to that prediction because the rest of the Pacific Division was doing so poorly. The Flames are back in the bubble now, and I was expecting them to take longer to fight their way back in. Given all this, I think we’ll be biting our nails right into April.
BEN: I think getting into the playoffs will be a tough road to get to. I don’t think playoffs are out of the question if key players like Brodie, Giordano, and Gaudreau continue on the right path. I’d like to see a bit more out of Dougie Hamilton too.