5 X-factors for the Flames this season

The 2016-17 season looks to be one of transition for the Calgary Flames. No, they aren’t ready to contend – not yet. At the same time, they need to move up from the bottom of the barrel. High draft picks are only fun in June; for the other 11 months of the year, they’re a miserable reminder of just how much your team of choice has failed.

The goal this year should be to be on the playoff bubble. Preferably inside the playoffs – and it’s possible – but at least being just on the outside looking in would be a sign of improvement. It wouldn’t carry the baggage of hopelessness like it did at the start of the decade, either; not now that this team actually has a collection of good young players and prospects.

It’s a big ask, though. This is a team that finished in the bottom five in the standings the season before. We’re asking them to ideally jump up 10 slots or so.

Here are five players who could be key in that happening.

Troy Brouwer

When you’re a team’s most expensive free agency add, being a key player in how the season turns out is a given. Soon to be the third-highest paid forward on the team – assuming Johnny Gaudreau, you know, signs at some point – Brouwer, 31, is likely about to enter the downswing of his career. That said, he should still be good for at least 30 points; could probably hit 40 if things go well.

Here’s the real question with Brouwer: where does he slot in? Does he take over Jiri Hudler’s old role of filling out the right side with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan? Does he take over Hudler’s other old role of helping out younger players by playing on Sam Bennett’s wing? Does he get bumped further down the lineup?

If Brouwer has a good year and is one of the Flames’ top offensive players, chances are the Flames are going to be looking pretty good themselves. If he doesn’t, then that’s a rather expensive price tag to be carrying.

Sam Bennett

When we boast of the Flames’ newfound depth at centre, Bennett is a major part of that conversation. He’s only played one NHL season, but we’re fully anticipating him to be a top two centre in this lineup – and a key part in adding more impact offence to the Flames’ top scoring lines.

Before, Bennett had to contend with Bob Hartley, who had previously demoted him in favour of Lance Bouma in the playoffs and played Markus Granlund over him in the regular season. Bennett put together a solid rookie year with 36 points over 77 games – including that one awesome four-goal game – but even then, it felt like he was being severely under-utilized and we were only seeing glimpses of his potential as a result.

Bennett should absolutely have a better season this year. We’ll see how Glen Gulutzan chooses to use him and what linemates he ends up with, but Bennett’s transition to a surefire top-two centre will be key in the Flames’ transition to contender status.

Micheal Ferland

Micheal Ferland shot at 3.3% last season. He has good underlyings, and was even able to, for the most part, keep up with some of the better players on this team. He’s 24 years old, he fills the role of functional toughness, but the kid just could. Not. Score last season.

Though he certainly showed flashes of skill and soft hands. There’s more to Ferland than met the eye in 2015-16. He probably can’t always be the Ferland we saw in his first playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks, but if we can get that guy every now and then with the rest of the year being occupied by a steady, physical player, then nobody’s going to complain.

This will only be Ferland’s third season. He’s probably not a 3.3% shooter. There’s every reason to expect more from him, and if he’s able to put it all together this season, then that’s just another young player the Flames can rely on for the foreseeable future.

Personally, I’m in favour of placing him with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik on an all-Mike shutdown line that can score, but it’s easy to see a positive turn in his fortunes landing him a spot alongside the offensively talented forwards a little younger than him, too.

Dennis Wideman

Dennis Wideman is probably never going to score 50 points again. He’s 33 years old, he’s now got a mess of official-related baggage to carry, and he doesn’t look to be much more than a powerplay specialist on a team that already has three defencemen, all younger than him, that we probably can reasonably expect 50 points from this season.

But just because he’s redundant on this team now doesn’t mean he has to have as awful a year as he did in 2015-16. For the first time, he failed to score 20 points; he also shot a career-low 2.7%. The 8.7% he shot at when he had a 56-point season in the Flames’ playoff year wasn’t the real Wideman, but the flip side should be true, too: why would we assume the 2.7% guy is who he is?

Wideman still isn’t an ideal player to have on the Flames at this point in time. His contract is too expensive and he’s part of the logjam holding back the growing line of prospects trying to work their way in. But if the Flames can’t get rid of him – and if they could, surely they would have by now – then we can at least hope for a good season from him.

Worst case scenario, it would definitely help at the trade deadline, at least.

Brian Elliott

Let’s save the most obvious for last!

The Flames had the worst goaltending in the league last season. Brian Elliott had a .930 save percentage. He had a .934 SV% at even strength; he was .906% on the penalty kill. The best the Flames could offer in 2015-16 was a .917 SV% from Karri Ramo at even strength and .860% on the penalty kill.

Even a moderately good Elliott drastically improves the Flames’ fortunes, and Elliott has been a notably good player for years now. Elliott may not be the most important player to the Flames as they work to become contenders – not with his expiring contract, not to mention the part where he’s 31 years old – but for success in this season alone, he’s probably the most important of them all.

  • Greg

    Regardless of which side of the playoff bubble we’re on, I’m hoping to see us trade out everything that isn’t bolted down at the deadline. Specifically Wideman, Englland and Smid (if he’s playing), but even guys like Bouma and Stajan if there’s interest. This is still a team trending upwards, not contending, so getting future assets for expiring contracts should still be a priority. Getting picks for Glencross was a great trade despite the playoff race, and I hope we do it one more year.

    If we’re just outside and trying to push in, or just inside trying to hang on, I’d still rather play the last two months with young call ups… Better to see if they are ready for next year or if we still have holes to plug in July, and if playoffs are questionable, I’d rather risk dropping further to get one last top 10 pick than hanging on to veterans and risk missing anyway.

    Unless of course we’re easily top 3 in the division and seems to be a dark horse.

  • redhot1

    Hope Ferland has a good year. I thought he was borderline invisible for long stretches last year. Putting him with JG and SM to sounds like a good idea to me

    • Primo

      I give Ferland a pass on what you call “invisible streaks”…this kid was having some serious concussion issues to deal with and still worked his tail off on every shift….

  • jakethesnail

    I would prefer to have Ferland with Backlund and Frolik…if and when Tkachuk makes the team try him at right side of Johnny and Monny, if Brouwer can’t connect with them.

  • smatic10

    “Preferably inside the playoffs – and it’s possible – but at least being just on the outside looking in would be a sign of improvement.”

    I think we should have been on the “outside looking in” last year. But a crumbling of special teams and goaltending caused our team to plummet.

    I really believe that we have a strong chance of making the playoffs this year as long as some proper structure is introduced to our special teams along with decent to good goaltending. We have impact players at all positions on the roster (Gaudreau, Monahan, Brodie, Giordano, Elliott), young up and comers (Bennett, Hamilton, Shinkaruk, Tkachuk?) and depth (Brouwer, Jokipakka, Backlund, Frolik, Ferland, Johnson).

    I think we may surprise the league this year.

  • Kensington

    To me the Flames don’t have any great prospects to move in on d. for this year. Our two best prospects both need at least one more season in the AHL. With possibly Oliver K. ready for next season. We all know Wideman is gone after this season but in my mind baring a miracle trade he is our best bet for a second pairing d man with Gio. Spoon and or Kuk are mostly likely 5/6 d man at best even after development time. I don’t see anyone else on the team that has the ability to step in and make a respectable 2nd pairing.Lets face it Wideman plays well with Gio and TJ plays just as well with Hamilton as Gio or at least thats what the stats say.

  • Stan

    In regards to Wideman, I absolutely hate reading this:

    “But if the Flames can’t get rid of him – and if they could, surely they would have by now”

    There is an absolute myriad of possible reasons why Wideman hasn’t been moved. Maybe the Flames want to see what he looks like in camp before moving him, maybe other teams want to see what he looks like in preseason before spending to acquire him, maybe GMs want to see what there own players and PTO invites look like in camp before offering something up in a trade, maybe GMs are interested but want to wait until the baggage with the officials has been dealt with before acquiring him, maybe another teams offensive Dman gets injured in preseason.

    Who knows.

    I still think its possible that Wideman could be moved, especially if BT retains salary or includes a draft pick. Its unlikely, but I think its definitely possible in the early season or at the TDL.

    • al rain

      I’m not as confident that Wideman can be moved but like you, reading this type of thing (and it’s common on FN) offends my sense of logic.

      I’ve said it before: We’re fans and what we know is pretty much what we see on TV, read online, maybe build in our own little spreadsheets. We don’t know what’s going on with the team behind the scenes which is to say, the majority of stuff.

      To read certainties about what coaches are thinking or why someone hasn’t been traded is getting annoying. We’re all free to dream and speculate, but let’s call it what it is.

      • wot96

        I agree with you.
        I think the other thing that needs to be remembered is that whatever else, Wideman was a good soldier and the team may feel a need to support him and probably doesn’t want to be seen as an organization that discards players that make mistakes.

        You may recall the reports of him asking the team whether he had done the interview right (i don’t recall his exact words) after he hit Don Henderson. The team didn’t handle his health properly after he returned to the bench but Wideman was clearly trying to do the right thing for the organization. While that may have been a mistake it would also be a mistake for the organization to just kick him to the curb as it is a bad precedent and other players will notice.

        Don’t misunderstand me, would I like for a younger and better defender to be in his position? Yes. But this may be an organizational decision that the team feels is in its long term better interests.

        • al rain

          Copy that.

          And to be honest, I hadn’t thought about that angle.

          And that was kind of my first point, that there are always angles that we haven’t considered.

  • Parallex

    What I’d really like would be to get Kris Versteeg in on a PTO/ultra cheap one year contract (Provided he’s healthy enough). That would give us the option of returning Tkachuk to London for the year and set us up better for the future with likely little impact on the now given that Versteeg’s average career numbers are probably in line with what we could expect from a rookie Tkachuk.

    • jakethesnail

      But long term – is it better to develop Tkachuk at the NHL level with proper usage – not the Hartley treatment that Bennett got- than a temporary plug who will be gone before the end of the season.