Photo credit: Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports
It’s games like these that make you think: wow, the future is bright.
Granted, the quality of opponent wasn’t stellar: the Canucks are right in the very same basement the Flames are. But wins against bad teams count just as much as wins against good teams do, and while the two points picked up last night were, ultimately, probably meaningless, it was fun to watch the team get them: and particularly fun to see the way a handful of players just clicked.
Sure, they’ve got the young kids in the pipeline. There are first round picks of past years, not to mention fourth round picks. There are exciting players who have yet to play a professional game, and there’s still the upcoming first round pick to come. And all the while, they’ve got some solid depth present as well: depth that can, on occasion, take over a game.
Mikael Backlund’s line
A goal and an assist across the board for the new-look line, including one goal in which all three came together: albeit it came as a result of the puck bouncing around near the net, kicked off by Jakub Nakladal’s efforts to get it in the area. (So really, Joe Colborne stole a point from Nakladal. Not really, but.)
Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik are hockey soulmates, and it doesn’t really matter who ends up being their third linemate: it’s going to be a good line. Mason Raymond performed well with them prior to Frolik’s injury in December, even.
Sam Bennett, who got moved to his own position at centre – finally – got hit a little hard in their absence, and was the Flames’ worst even strength corsi player, coming in at 29.17% CF. It was just one game, though, and playing mostly alongside Micheal Ferland and David Jones was a downgrade in linemates – but there are always going to be bumps in the road, so we’ll see how it goes.
The Flames’ first goal was so much Backlund, though, pulling Canucks away with him as he left the puck teed up in the slot for Colborne. The second goal was Backlund benefiting from being in the right place at the right time; it could’ve happened for anyone. He wasn’t on the ice for Frolik’s goal, but that was a lucky bounce off of Matt Bartkowski’s foot, anyway.
But when it took the Flames not even two minutes to get on the board, and it all kicked off with a T.J. Brodie pass and Backlund’s beautiful move, well, it was hard not to be impressed.
It kinda reminded me of this goal from way back when, if only because it was Backlund showing exemplary effort early on in a game to victimize the Canucks. Which then reminded me of the time he did a feature with FlamesTV where he played NHL11 with Mitch Nybo, made Nybo be the Canucks because “I hate them, I wanna beat ’em,” and called then-Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo “shi– terrible” like, a week before he scored that goal. I swear I’d link the video if I could find it again, but NHL.com’s garbage redesign has done an excellent job of making that impossible.
… That little tangent was just another reason to love Backlund off the ice. Earlier we were discussing Johnny Gaudreau’s probable lip service, but I’ve never seen a player deliver lip service to an organization or its fans nearly as well as Backlund has. And when he performs like this on the ice – and especially when he has Frolik alongside him – that’s easy, round-the-clock love to give him.
But back to T.J. Brodie
So… Brodie had a three-point night, matching a career high. His three assists brought him up to 36 points on the season: tied with partner Mark Giordano, but in nine fewer games played.
Brodie doesn’t have a reputation as a scorer, and it’s easy to see why: he’s only taken 56 shots on net all year. He didn’t even register a single shot in this game. And yet, he’s become one of the Flames’ best offensive players. If he were able to play a full 82-game season, he’d be on pace for 62 points: just seven goals, which wouldn’t even be a career high for him, but 55 assists.
He may not shoot, but he creates offence. He’s the only player on this team I really trust to employ a stretch pass, he’s a phenomenal skater, and he does just about every single little thing right. He’s not flashy in the slightest, which is why it’s kind of surprising he’s only three points back of Sean Monahan for second in team scoring, and has a higher point-per-game reach than everybody not named Gaudreau (who still sits at a point per game, alone at seventh in overall NHL scoring).
Pro-rated for points, Brodie would be seventh in NHL defencemen scoring. This is petty, but: look at mainstream media World Cup roster projections, and how they might list Giordano, but you’re lucky to see Brodie’s name as an honourable mention. This is a guy who would be fourth overall in Canadian defencemen scoring, and it isn’t even his scoring ability that’s most impressive about him. How on earth would he not be a lock to make the team?
There was an extended shift towards the end of the game that saw Brodie and Gaudreau just hang out in front of the opposition’s net the entire time. Fourth round picks unite; Brodie just isn’t a flashy one. He’s only the most important one to this team.
The rest of the defence
The Flames are not healthy on the backend, and they may actually be better for it. Dennis Wideman’s suspension is my least favourite drama of the winter television season, Kris Russell’s ailment comes at an inopportune time but his team hasn’t necessarily missed him out on the ice, and you want nothing but the best for Ladislav Smid but his contract is way too much and he’s easily replaceable.
There were no wild ice times to be found last night, though. It does help that the Flames had a 3-2 lead early in the second period, and could afford to get away with distributing minutes across the board, but they never really broke down.
Brodie and Giordano played north of 23 minutes. Dougie Hamilton and Deryk Engelland were both 20-minute players. And that left the Stockton duo, Nakladal and Tyler Wotherspoon, with to come close to 16 minutes each, and even saw Nakladal’s first point – not really directly relevant to the play, which was all Lance Bouma and Josh Jooris, but considering his role on the Flames’ second goal, definitely deserved.
(We’ll have more on Wotherspoon a bit later today.)
Giveaways and high event counts
I do want to talk a bit more about Hamilton for a second. He led the team with three giveaways, including one that resulted directly in Jake Virtanen’s goal; he also led the way with six shots on net (and even blocked five, for everyone who loves shot blocks). He had a very eventful night.
But giveaways aren’t necessarily a bad thing in and of themselves. I mean, yes, they are – but they’re also an indication of just who has the puck. You can’t give it away if you don’t have it, right? The player with the most giveaways this year is P.K. Subban; if you aren’t Michel Therrien, you probably take him on your team in a heartbeat. Drew Doughty and Brent Burns follow. Our own esteemed Brodie is 10th in the NHL with 62 giveaways; Gaudreau is 13th with 59, the third forward on the list (behind Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, and tied with Jamie Benn: three other forwards you take on your team without question).
So yeah, giving the puck away is bad; it’s especially lethal when it burns you as directly as it did Hamilton. But when you’re flying out there and trying to create, it’s going to happen. As Bobby Orr said of Erik Karlsson: he’ll get caught, but ultimately, the good will outweigh the bad. Hamilton isn’t Karlsson, but the same philosophy generally applies to such a high event player.
Hamilton is fourth on this team in shots, and that’s with him having to fight and claw his way for a regular shift in the top four – something that can still be in question with a fully healthy defence – and top power play time all season long. And remember, he’s 22 years old. We’re in for another five years of the ride he has to offer; he’ll get better.