For all of his faults, former Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley had a very astute assessment about worrying about players that are absent due to injury or other factors: you can only coach using the players you have available to you.
As of this writing, it is three days until the National Hockey League’s opening roster deadline and four days until the opening night of the NHL calendar. Flames restricted free agent winger Johnny Gaudreau remains unsigned, meaning that unless circumstances change dramatically in short order the Flames will have to begin the season without their star sniper.
The message that permeated the on and off-ice activities at the Saddledome on Saturday morning was two-fold: the show must go on, and these guys can’t get off to the dreadful October start that sunk them last season.
Practice lines, courtesy our pal Pat Steinberg, looked like this:
Matthew Tkachuk – Sam Bennett – Troy Brouwer
Lance Bouma – Mikael Backlund – Michael Frolik
Micheal Ferland – Sean Monahan – Linden Vey
Brandon Bollig – Matt Stajan – Alex Chiasson
Chris Higgins – Freddie Hamilton – Lauri Korpikoski
Mark Giordano – Dennis Wideman
T.J. Brodie – Deryk Engelland
Jyrki Jokipakka – Dougie Hamilton
Nicklas Grossmann – Brett Kulak
If you presume that the fifth line and fourth pairing are extra bodies come October 12 in Edmonton, that’s probably a decent preview of the game set-up – though head coach Glen Gulutzan did note that they’ll be trying different combinations in practices on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, so things may change.
Asked whether figuring out training camp schemes without Gaudreau was a distraction, Gulutzan had a pretty pragmatic answer that echoed Hartley’s old catchphrase.
“It hasn’t been a distraction for me because I haven’t had him at all, and going back I haven’t had him at all,” said Gulutzan. “So when you’re putting together practices and training camp in his absence, you’re just kinda putting together lines and trying to find fits that work with the players that are here.”
Gulutzan praised his team’s work on learning the new playing system. The new possession-based system seemed to go reasonably well in preseason – goal-scoring woes aside – with the Flames out-shooting their opponents in five of seven games and holding a Corsi edge in four of seven (often by large margins). If you want to be optimistic, living in a Gaudreau-free world has forced the Flames to focus on playing a different type of game than one that relied upon a single sniper.
“In the short-term what we’ve done here, I thought we’ve done a good job defensively and we’re gonna have to rely on that,” said Gulutzan. “And when we do get all of our players back, we’re better suited because we’re gonna have to learn to play in tight games, and I think that’s something that this group has to learn to do and it may benefit us. It may not, but you always have to look on the right side of things.”
Matt Stajan echoed what seems to be a general sentiment in the locker room: they’re disappointed in last season and feel they have something to prove coming out of the starting blocks on Oct. 12.
“First off, the way last year went nobody’s happy,” said Stajan. “Second off, we have a new coach, new system, we gotta come together as a group and make sure we get off to a good start. There’s no secret Johnny’s not here, and we don’t know where that’s gonna go. The odds are stacked against us with that, too, if he’s not here. So we definitely have something to prove, and the best way to do that is to come together as a team.”
For the Flames to avoid another 3-8-1 October, they’re going to need to embrace a team game and the “score by committee” approach; the lines from Saturday suggest perhaps they’re going to try to roll as balanced an attack they can for the time-being. That might be the best they can do until they eventually get Gaudreau under contract.
Gulutzan noted they’ll make their final few roster decisions shortly, “within a day or two.”