Four big questions facing the 2016-17 Calgary Flames

For all intents and purposes, the Flames roster for 2017-18 is set. The club has come a long way since the inception of the rebuild back in 2012, but there’s still a lot of room to grow. The young core seems to be set and the team is moving forward with a fresh, younger coaching staff. 

Calgary is exiting the lower expectations of the early rebuild phase and is entering its window for contention. While no one expects the Flames to suddenly jump up to the top of Western Conference this year, the club should be making clear, demonstrable strides given their cap situation and growing maturity (and resultant expense) of their younger assets. 

The Flames are still a work in progress. Here are the four major questions facing them this year as they strive to break out of the Western Conference basement: the RW, the defense, the “other” kids and, the new coaching staff.

The right side

Brad Treliving performed major reconstructive surgery on the Flames’ right wing this year, but the overhaul hasn’t really strengthened the club’s starboard side. Gone are Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Josh Jooris and Joe Colborne. In are Troy Brouwer, Alex Chiasson and Daniel Pribyl. 

It’s arguable if the change will be good for the Flames, but for my money they’re now weaker on the RW. Pribyl is an unknown entity, so it’s possible (though not probable) he moves the needle. Alex Chiasson might rediscover a scoring touch he briefly displayed in Dallas, but all indications are that he’s a third or fourth liner at best. And Troy Brouwer, well… we’ve discussed him at length.

If Brouwer meshes with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and Pribyl makes the team and is a legit top six player and/or Tkachuk jumps straight out of the OHL and into the top six, maybe the Flames can avoid a drop off. The right wing is definitely the club’s lone major weakness up front currently.  

The defense bottom three

Calgary has a great top three defense corps in Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. In fact, it might be one of the best top three groups in the league. 

Unfortunately, that can’t be said of the current bottom end of the rotation. Defensively speaking, the trio of Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid might be one of the worst groups in the NHL. 

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The operative section of each HERO chart is the shot suppression section. As you can see, none of these players even register on the charts, meaning they are below the average third pairing defenders at denying shots against (i.e.; they’re replacement level defenders). 

That puts a huge weight on the Flames’ top three and makes the club’s defense rotation grossly top-heavy. There’s a good chance Smid will be LTIR’d for the season, but that still leaves the highly dubious pairing of Wideman-Engelland as Calgary’s in the rotation. Or it means one of them has to move up to a second pairing role, which is way above both of their heads at this point. 

The tragedy of the Flames’ blueline is they’ve had cheaper, better options pass through the organization recently. David Schlemko could have been kept for peanuts and Jakub Nakladal is probably a better bet than any of the three incumbents. An object lesson that the opportunity cost of bad money isn’t just about taking up valuable space – these types of guys tend to clutter the roster and make it more difficult to sign replacements or move kids up. 

Treliving still has time to fix up the blueline (moving Wideman, re-signing Nakladal, etc.) but if things remain unchanged, you can expect to see Giordano and Brodie once again get buried by some of the toughest minutes in the league.

The “other” kids: Ferland, Shinkaruk, Tkachuk

Gaudreau, Monahan, and to a lesser extent, Sam Bennett, have established themselves in the show. There’s little question they will all be very good NHLers moving forward. However, the Flames will likely need to see some of their other youngsters take a step or two forward in order to be competitive this year. 

The main candidates are Micheal Ferland, Hunter Shinkaruk and Matthew Tkachuk. If at least one of these players can move up and be effective in the top nine, it will take a lot of pressure off the rest of the crew, from Gaudreau to Frolik. 

As established, the club’s RW is probably going to be less than impressive. Aside from a Pribyl surprise, the other way the team could compensate for that is a very strong port side with Gaudreau, Shinkaruk/Tkachuk and Ferland picking up the slack. Shinkaruk and Tkachuk are very good prospects but relative unknowns at this level. 

Ferland, however, is an excellent break out candidate. If he can become a legit, two-way winger it would be a huge boon for the club. Otherwise, the LW suddenly depends on Gaudreau and a fresh-faced rookie doing all the heavy lifting.

The new coaching staff

Last but not least are the new bench bosses. Given Bob Hartley’s struggles to improve the Flames’ defensive game and special teams, moving on from him was the right move. However, we still can’t be sure that Glen Gulutzan and Paul Jerrard are going to be a meaningful improvement. 

Aside from improved goaltending, the coaching staff has the potential to make the biggest difference to the Flames’ results next year. If they can improve the defensive systems, transition game and special teams efficacy, the club could make huge strides in just a short time. As I noted last summer in my review of “big gainers (teams who went from basement dwellers to contenders in the space of three seasons), a change in coaches often precipitated the jump from pretender to contender. 

Conclusion

The Calgary Flames should be a better team this coming season, if only because of an inevitable improvement in netminding. Getting better goalies was Treliving’s primary objective heading into the offseason and he no doubt achieved it.

There remains very clear question marks heading into 2017, however. The right side is questionable, the blueline is top-heavy, at least one of the kids needs to take a jump and the coaching staff has to make real strategic improvements. 

Not all of these issues have to necessarily be answered this year, of course. That said, if they all simultaneously break the wrong way, the Flames may well be battling in the basement again. However, a few lucky breaks in one or two areas and Calgary could be playing in the post-season.

  • Parallex

    I think it’s imperative for the coaching staff to promote a blueline this year. As mentioned the bottom three is terribad… the good news is that all three come off the books after this season. While that may be the good news it’s tempered by the fact that NHL coaches/management are by nature risk adverse and I find it doubtful that they’d go into a season with even just a bottom pair of all rookies… so unless they can find some way to get a young D man’s feet wet I fear we’re going to be facing a bad UFA deal next offseason.

      • supra steve

        Ideally, both Nak and Wotherspoon get into more than a handful of games this coming season. I’m convinced that Smid is done. If they can find any way to move Wides (or Engelland), then the doors are completely open and you have Nak, Wotherspoon, and Kevin all logging significant ice for the Flames.

        • DoubleDIon

          Jokipakka is fine. He slots in at the right price point and is good on a bottom pairing. He’s exactly the kind of affordable and effective guy we need at the backend of our blueline. Smid, Engelland and Wideman are the problems.

          I do think we could flip Wideman at the deadline for something though. The Oilers got a pick for Schultz and Wideman is better offensively and defensively than he is.

        • Parallex

          Not really… Jokipakka is probably a decent 3rd pairing guy. He’s also probably going to be asked to be a 2nd pairing guy (where he’ll probably be forced to play above his talent level) AKA not the bottom three. The only way Jokipakka is in our bottom three is if…

          A: The Flames sign/acquire a legit #4 (Can’t because of the Cap), or

          B: Young prospect takes the #4 spot (highly unlikely when their being blocked by the big $$ bad depth)

          The Flames should have bought out Wideman instead of Raymond. We’d have had enough $$ to sign Nakladal shorter-term and a roster spot for a young D-man to ease his way into the NHL.

          • I’m interpreting “bottom 3” to mean the (for lack of a better word) ‘worst’ d-men to dress for a game and probably play the lowest minute totals. Jokipakka dressing probably means that Smid doesn’t; ere go, the bottom 3 is improved.

            Am I missing something here? How does Jokipakka being “a decent 3rd pairing guy” not improve our bottom three.

            Edit: I think I understand now. You’re including the 7th D in the bottom 3.

          • Parallex

            See that doesn’t make any sense to me… if you do that you’re setting an odd demarcation point since by necessity one of your top 3 and one of your bottom 3 will be playing together.

            To me your “bottom three” are your 5/6/7 they’re quite literally the bottom three guys on the depth chart. What’s more they’ll all play similar circumstances, have similar ice time, play similar match-ups whereas in your evaluation one member of the “bottom three” has severely different usage.

          • It all stems from Kent’s ‘top 3 vs. bottom 3’ though. The three implied groups are then Top 3, Bottom 3, and Middle 1? In any event it’s a pointless thing to debate, what you were trying to say is clear, and I think we’re more or less on the same page.

            The reason I brought it up in the first place is because the article doesn’t seem to factor Jokipakka into the defense hierarchy at all, and I for one hope the guy keeps one of the three less-than-great options mostly on the bench.

          • flamesburn89

            Another alternative is that they could have bought out Engelland instead of Raymond. By buying out Engelland, the Flames could have freed up a roster spot for one of the other options (Nakladal, Wotherspoon) and also saved some cap space.

    • Styxx

      “NHL coaches/management are by nature risk adverse and I find it doubtful that they’d go into a season with even just a …(sic) pair of rookies”

      Per your comment I too had continued to hope that Hartley would, as part of his mandate coaching a young re-building team, focus on developing prospects and giving a rotating group of them ice time with the big club.

      However it was not to be. To be fair initially the farm system was barren and had few prospects worthy of NHL time. However 2 years ago and especially last year a number of worthy prospects got little opportunity despite being well out of the playoffs, while replacement level vets continued to receive ample ice time.

      Optimism has turned to festering pessimism that this club supports developing it’s own prospects while other successful teams regularly do (ANA, PIT etc).

      Let’s hope this pessimism is misplaced under new leadership.

    • Greg

      Hadn’t thought of that, but particularly if JJ gets picked off in the expansion draft, you’re likely right that they’ll use any cleared cap space to add another veteran D-man. And they’ll need to if none of the D-kids show they can hold their own by the end of this year. Will be nice if that happens because they really need to be able to shift some of that cap space up to the wingers (not to mention goaltending won’t be so cheap next year either).

  • redwhiteblack

    If Ferland and or Shinkaruk can make a development jump it would be nice to see. If Pribyl can contribute that would be an awesome thing also.

    At least we have some cards in the mix. Hopefully one of them helps fill the gap up front.

    Tkachuk has Monahan to inspire him to do the same. What else is there to do in the OHL? When you score the overtime cup winner it must feel like you closed the door on junior. Hopefully he is inspired by that to make the jump up.

    Fast forward one year on Defense. Room for another couple Nakladal types. One or both of Anderson, Kylington and that position is better overnight much like goal.

  • The Fall

    This is a very naive question from me, but totally genuine: Why not move Johnny to the right wing instead of asking lesser players (Hunter, Ferland) to play their off wing? Seems to me he could adapt better due to his high skill level….

    • ClayBort

      I wouldn’t be for this. I would think having Johnny play where he’s comfortable vs where he’s uncomfortable would be a larger point differential than the same for a Ferland or Shinkaruk, based purely on his much larger relative impact on the team (a percentage decline multiplied by higher point totals is larger than the same percentage multiplied by lower totals).

      A top down approach to roster construction is ideal. You optimize your best players first and get the most out of them, then you work your way down and fill holes as best you can. Bottom up just leads to using a good player as a bandaid, which is suboptimal.

    • jakethesnail

      No way Jose! Johnny and Monny work best with Johnny on his left…end of what ifs…

      We need Wotherspoon to make the team in place of Smid. Wideman could be dealt before TDL.

    • FoE

      He played off wing when they lined up with Shink, would be interested in any underlying stats for those games but not much sample size. I still agree with Claybort, not ideal, but it’s a solution.
      One name off the “other kids” list was Poirier, was he really that bad last season? He actually can play both wings and has good speed. Admittedly I wasn’t overwhelmed by his play on his call up game. Could he challange Chaisson or Vey?

    • Baalzamon

      Because if the Flames move Gaudreau to RW, then LW is weak. In fact, it’s much, much worse than the right side is with Gaudreau on the left (the left side doesn’t have Frolik or Brouwer).

      I mean think about it: Who do the Flames have on the left after Gaudreau? Ferland, Shinkaruk, Tkachuk, Bouma… I’d be much more comfortable moving Ferland or Shinkaruk to the off wing than Gaudreau.

      • #97Train/McDavidCopperfield

        I know you guys don’t agree with me but I have been saying all summer that Calgary weakness is depth on the wings . For the Flames to make it close to the playoffs a lots of things have to go right. There are just to many ifs on the wings and unless they make some moves they will be on the outside looking in.

        After Gaudreau and Monahan sign there is not much money to work with unless a team picks up Wideman . That won’t happen till after his battle with Bettman comes to an end.

        • I’d argue that depth on the wings is fine and that we just need a bonafide top RW to bump everyone down a ranking.

          A lot of bad money is coming off the books after this season and BT can make a play for a big trade or free agent next offseason. Until then the mandate should be getting comfortable with the new coaches/systems/goalies.

  • gvitaly

    I actually find the RW improved this year. The main reason – versatility. Hudler was a great offensive player, but his production fell of a cliff when he was apart from Monahan and Gaudreau. When he was with them they ended up chasing the puck way too much. Colborne had a good offensive year, but he found his scoring touch on Backlund’s wing. It would have to be left wing if we intend to keep Frolik and Backlund united.

    When we consider Brouwer his style seems to compliment well either the top line, or Bennett’s line. You get someone that can get in the face of defenders that rough up Gaudreau. You also get a Right shot on the PP, which will be a huge threat. What else? he can actually win face-offs on his strong side(57% over the last 2 seasons). Having the puck more often of the draw will instantly improve the PP, and PK. The only real downgrade is the Shootout, but hopefully with the way the Flames play in OT we won’t see too many of those.

    As for Jones, Jooris, and Chiasson. I think that they are all 4th liners/depth wingers. Pribyl won’t see any NHL time until we have some injuries on the Right side.

    As for Defense a lot depends on which Wideman are you going to get. The one of last season, or the one of two years ago. Engelland was actually very steady at the back end this year. He lead all defense-man in +/- with a +7 rating. I think Engelland and Wotherspoon will make a very decent third pairing. A Wideman Engelland pairing has disaster written all over it though.

  • jakethesnail

    The Fifth Question!

    Will the new Goalies play substantially better this season or will they succumb to poor team defense that the Flames were displaying last season?

    – Either of the new Goalies should perform better than Hiller who let the team down game in and game out…a soft goal in and you could see the players slump on the bench.

    – Should be better and if they are, the Flames are in the playoffs!

    • FoE

      This is the question being harangued by all the August off season dribble. I want to say yes, but I think it’s so closely linked to question 4 re: coaching, we won’t know till we see them play. Theoretically, Gulutzen sounds like he likes Quenvilles approach. I.E. All five men in a tight, fast moving unit (you should see all five jerseys within the center ice wide shot). With the assets the Flames have this is an ideal structure, but it falls apart if one of the five can’t keep up (cough* England cough* Wideman cough* Smid). This gets rid of the stretch pass and that might reduce the scoring chances against.
      I do agree 100%, eliminate the softy, improve the team play.

  • JumpJet

    I would consider Frolik more of a RW than a LW, although he is a left shot. I believe when he was playing with Backlund and Colborne he was on the right side. Adding Frolik to Brouwer, Chiasson, Vey (who is likely more of a winger for the Flames) and Pribyl makes the RW a lot stronger. Maybe even Poirier will be in the mix.

  • DoubleDIon

    The bottom pairing and the amount of cap space it’s taking up is why this year we can’t address the wing position significantly. We’re paying a combined 6.417 million for two guys who are replacement level or below at everything except fighting in Engelland and Smid and 5.25 for a guy who is replacement level at everything except offense. That’s 11.742 million in roster allocation for a pairing that should have 3 million dollars in money tied up. You can get 2 pretty nice top 9 wingers for the extra 8.7 we’re spending on bottom pairing defensemen.

  • Just.Visiting

    I’d posted these posts last week re the possibility of JG being moved to RW:

    1. For context, this is my first comment on the site, and this question is what ultimately prompted a long time lurker to join.

    My favourite player as a kid was Yvan Cournoyer. For those of you not familiar with him, he was a smallish left hand shot who played the right wing and was one of the best RW in the league for many years.

    Given the many concerns raised about a lack of depth on the right side, I’ve wondered for some time whether JG should be switched to RW. This would position him to weave his magic closer to the centre of the zone and make it easier to bring the Flames mobile defence into the play. In addition, he would be better positioned to avoid blind side hits.

    I seem to recall data showing that many of his shots and goals were from the right side of the zone anyway, notwithstanding the position at which he lines up for a face-off.

    Thoughts?

    2. In response to a valid concern that this would see JG receiving passes on his backhand:

    Yes. I had thought about that just after I did the second post.

    You are correct on the straight rush when he is in full motion, albeit this would see the passer passing from the forehand in most cases.

    I was thinking more about the situation in which he is hovering in the neutral or offensive zone and turned almost sideways, positioned to advance himself or pass again.

    The potential benefits are more when he is hovering in the offensive zone in quarterback mode, like on a PP. When there is time, he is often turned almost sideways to have the flexibility to move to the net, pass to someone moving to the net or the defence.

    Attacking from the RS offers a better vision as he does his magic.

    Ultimately, the question comes from some data about his shots and goals that I thought had been posted here some time ago and his propensity to be attacking from the RS, notwithstanding his notional LW position.

    I think that it would be very interesting to see that data again and look at it through a different lens to assess the degree to which the data confirms the hypothesis….

    Notwithstanding how he lines up, my sense is that he doesn’t actually stick to playing the left side. Can we see the data again re his shots and goals, so that we can put this to bed or look a little deeper?

    Thanks.

    • cberg

      Excellent job for your first post! I don’t have your answers but appreciate the well thought out discussion. I note the Flames have others who prefer to play their “off-wing” e.g. Brodie and Poirier as two examples.

  • MontanaMan

    Wondering if there are still a number of “filler” roles to be determined in the league. Russell is a classic example of a player who will play for somebody this year but rosters haven’t quite shaken out to a point where one team will make the move. To a much lesser extent, the same may be said about Wideman and/or Engelland, who I still believe may get moved before the start of the next season. Ideally Wideman is moved with most of his salary, allowing the Flames to sign Nak. With Nak, Wotherspoon and Engelland filling the last two d-spots, there’s good competition, enough grit for the conference games and backfill for injuries.

  • OKG

    Hero charts for the D do paint some of the picture but also obscure parts. For example if all those players are playing together they are going to drsg each other down exponentially, and rel stats are going to push them down further when Giordano/Brodie are playing together on a pair. Also Engelland’s xGA60 is more favorable than his CA60, is there anything to be learned from that? I guess what I am saying is let’s see how Gulutzan tackles the issue

  • freethe flames

    The issues outlined here are ones that we have been discussing for awhile now. The RW position has not really improved yet and is really dependent on whether Brouwer will be a fit with either Johnny/Monny or Bennett; personally I think he will be a better fit with Bennett. We are also quite dependent on reclamation projects; if Bouma and Chiasson regain most of their best seasons we will be fine but if not there will be issues. Beyond that we are still waiting on forwards to really live up to expectations: Vey, Ferland and Pribyl as well as the kids Shinkaruk and Tkachuk. These are all huge “ifs” and only time will tell.

    The issue on D is simple we have too much money tied up on three 6/7 defenceman and not enough room for the kids to develop. Smid’s issues will be resolved through LTIR but that does not help the team in the off season. Again I think you can get by with one of Wides or Engs as a 6/7 but not both of them playing together or either of them in your top 4. I have made it clear that I am in the Nakdaddy camp but it has yet to happen.

    I have no idea what to expect from the GG coaching staff. He needs to figure out what he has, he needs to develop a game plan and systems that his team can play and improve both the PK and PP.

    I also think there are other issues as well; my major concern is that there is little depth at center beyond the top 3. Monny is a legitimate top 6 center and Backs is a very good middle 6 center. Bennett is going to be a very good center but only has a small sample size at center and will need to be sheltered in the early going. Then there is Stajan and IMO his game has dropped each of the last 3 years and for he is the key to having an effective 4th line. After that we have F Hamilton and Janko(another rookie with 8 AHL games). I honestly believe the Flames need to bring in a couple of NHL caliber center’s on PTO’s to training camp and that purging the AHL center ice position earlier this summer was a mistake.

    If I could have a magic wand I would see the Flames move Wides for draft picks to NJ and then use some of the cap space to sign Nakdaddy(2/3 years at @1m) and Pirri (3/4 at@2.3m) and keep the remaining cap space. I would also strongly consider bringing in one of the following on a PTO Cullen, Stoll or Hodgson to training camp.

    • cberg

      Although your discussion was fine enough as is, I think its way too much “glass half full” thinking rather than the reverse, or even a balanced view. This type of view is pretty much dominating all the discussion on these boards during the otherwise slow Summer.

      Take Wideman as an example. Two years ago he was one of the very top D scorers in the league, and did a very admirable defensive job for the team when Gio got injured and he had to play 1st pairing. Last year he played basically the same but the scoring was way down and now all of a sudden he’s a bum and people act like he’s worth nothing. Crazy, I know. Yes he’s earning too much if he doesn’t score but that’s just $s.

      Its pretty much negative across the board for everyone else you mentioned. That may happen, but the opposite could as well. Perhaps we need to all take a breath and go hiking or something for a month then come back refreshed when there is actually something new to discuss?

      • freethe flames

        Actually I don’t see it as negative as you; I just see it as realistic. I am hopeful that some of these guys bounce back but the problem is we are hoping on a lot of “if’s”.

        As for Wide’s I am fine if he plays as the 6th and second PP but he is not a top 4 defender. Playing both he and Eng as a unit is scary. Again his salary (Eng’s, Smid’s as well)prevent them from moving forward.

    • RealMcHockeyReturns

      I agree mostly about the D comments, we just need to be careful how the 3rd pairing plays and we could be solid overall. But seriously…You’re kidding about the Centre depth right? We have lots of 4th line C options to take over for Stajan and he is just fine for now…hilarious! As for wingers, yes if we had cap room I would get another scoring option but that can happen near TDL if Flames appear to be in contention. The coach needs a chance to get all the old and young players accustomed to and working well with his system. With Jerrard on PK duty and maybe “Life is so Damm Frustrating Face” Cameron (?) or committee doing the PP work, I expect better things this season to come!

      • freethe flames

        No, I am not kidding about the center position; here’s the list after Stajan of players signed at center:
        Bouma(converted to play LW), Shinkaruk(converted to play lW), Pribyl(signed to play RW and no NA experience so an unknown), Janko (1st year pro with 8 AHL games and I’m hopeful will turn into an NHLer) and Hamilton (AHL who could be a stop gap measure) that’s it. If you think that is depth then you have been drinking the kool aid for far too long. There may be good prospects coming up after this but they will likely be 2-4 years away.

        Stajan’s counting numbers have been declining and I believe his fancy stats are not that good. Can he still play in the NHL; sure but is he good enough to help make the team a playoff contender, I’m not sure.

  • Petzl

    Just bury Wides and use engelland as a 7th.

    Gio – Brodie
    Joki – Doug
    Spoon/Kulak – Nak

    The team is paying people to not play, but at least the play will be better