Flames poised to be contenders

Though things haven’t gone as swimmingly as
we would’ve hoped in the last little stretch, the Calgary Flames have
nonetheless taken a marked step forward this season, and continue to be
progressing – which is, at the end of the day, imperative for a still-rebuilding
team. 

Their even strength possession
stats are now in the top half of the league, and light years ahead of where
they were last season (47.9 vs. 50.9 in CF% as of the writing of this article). On some nights, they even look
downright dominant. Following in the qualitative observation column, they also
look like a far more structured and methodical group than they did in years
past under Bob Hartley.
  

Glen Gulutzan
took a lot of heat for the Flames’ clusterfunk start, but theories that the
discombobulated first month of the season was due to a complete and utter
overhaul of systems – and the complications that come from that – seem to have
been correct. Since October, the Flames have evolved into a far better team
both visually and statistically. Granted, they still have their warts – like
young, developing teams do – mostly tied to inconsistencies and random
breakdowns throughout the course of a game that end up costing them points. 

And
goaltending. That remains a question mark on a night-to-night basis.

The thing that
piques my interest the most though, is how hilariously split this roster is in
terms of talent. One portion of the team is, for the most part, good. They’re
not all super stars, but they fit in their roles well and would be good pieces
moving forward. The 3M line (duh), Gaudreau, Monahan, Versteeg, the top three defenceman, Ferland and I would even suggest Stajan in his bottom six role. The
fact that some are GROSSLY overpaid for such roles is a different discussion
altogether.

Then, you have
the bottom side of the roster which, on most nights, is very bad and sometimes
even costs the team points. Your Boumas, Engellands, Widemans and
Jokkipakkas, who are not good.

I yielded from
putting Chiasson in a category because I’m of the opinion he would make a very
nice fourth line winger, he’s simply being misused due to circumstance right now, and Bennett because he’s still finding his way and hasn’t really
been good or bad. Troy Brouwer is a guy who, by the eye test, seems fine in a
third line role (to me, at least), but his underlying numbers suggest he is not fine in that role, or any role in
the National Hockey League. He’ll always be overpaid, but I’m willing to give
him a little more of a chance to prove he’s a competent bottom-sixer. Maybe I’m
just a nice guy.

The great thing
about this split is that, minus Versteeg, the good half is locked up (or RFA),
and the bottom half already has a foot out the door, with all but Bouma set to
be free agents on July 1. It’s the latter fact that gets me more
excited about the Calgary Flames than I have been in a very long time.

A summer of supplementation

The Calgary Flames officially embraced the
rebuild in 2013 when they traded away Jarome Iginla, meaning 2017 marks the
fourth year of Rebuild I (specification required since the Oilers are on Rebuild
III). The general thought is that a rebuild, if done properly, should see a
team go from selling to competing in about five years. As Kent Wilson
revealed in his Big Gainers series last summer, successfully rebuilt teams create a core of players from within.

The two
constants across every team profiled in the series is that right before they
became Top Dogs they took a big step in their possession numbers, and they
added a key piece via trade or free agency. As it stands now, four years into
the Flames’ rebuild endeavour, they are in the midst of that big possession
step, and have created perfect circumstances for themselves to add that last
big piece.

A
very formidable skeleton of good players
has been assembled. Don’t mistake this for the “core” of the team, I’m simply
referring to players who fit a certain role well and aren’t glaring problems
every night. Players you would be mostly okay moving forward with. No team is perfect, but the really good teams have as little imperfections as possible. 

Those who
are glaring problems every night are on the cusp of leaving the team, and their
departures will leave a little financial flexibility for the Flames to position
themselves to be contenders next year.   

Assuming
the Flames re-sign Versteeg, Bennett, Ferland and Chiasson at combined cap hit
of ~7 million (~5 for Versteeg and Bennett and ~2 for Ferland and Chiasson), and
the salary cap stays constant, they would have about $15.4M for a bottom three defence group – numbers four, five and six defenceman, at that – and a top nine forward, though a top six forward would be ideal. 

For the purpose of this
exercise I am ignoring goaltending because it’s a mess and deserves its own
article altogether quite frankly.

The forward

The 3M line
isn’t to be touched, leaving six spots open to fill out the top nine. Gaudreau,
Monahan, Bennett, Vertseeg and Brouwer are the five current bodies I would deem
acceptable for top nine designation, and as we have all painfully witnessed
recently, the presence of that sixth body is being sorely missed.

The
expansion draft has left a number of teams with a surplus of extra top nine forwards vulnerable, and the Flames would be wise to attempt snapping one of them up
to fix their issue. They can either acquire a winger, and continue the Sam
Bennett At Centre experiment, or an actual centreman and allow Bennett to play
on the wing, which has been the only place he’s found any type of success in
the NHL to this point. Doesn’t have to be a tremendous pivot; a third liner who
drives play would do, too.

Names such as
Jakob Silfverberg, Tyler Toffoli and Jason Zucker have been tossed around as
trade targets potentially available due to the expansion draft, but keep in
mind a quality add won’t come cheap. The Flames are missing another impact
forward, and although they could make do with just a good one, finding a way to
add a legit top six option could really transform this forward group.

If
the trade route doesn’t prove viable, the Flames could explore the dangerous
world of free agency. Problem is, this year’s forward crop is very mediocre,
and given the nature of free agency, will be expensive. Another Troy Brouwer signing wouldn’t be
ideal, to say the least. If the Flames do go the free agency route, they’re
likely signing a low-impact forward.

The defenceman

This is where
things get a little more interesting. The Flames most likely won’t address this
issue at the trade deadline – for a mix of roster, salary cap and expansion
draft related reasons – meaning the heavy lifting on the blueline will come in
the summertime.
 

Without a doubt,
the top priority in this respect will be finding a proper partner for T.J. Brodie
who has limped along this season with Dennis Wideman (we are so sorry for you,
T.J.). There are a number of very interesting names that could fill that second
pairing spot, none bigger than Kevin Shattenkirk. The likely headliner of the
2017 NHL free agent class, the Blues rearguard would be a game-changing addition
for an already stacked top-of-the-rotation blueline group in Calgary. 

However,
given the defence-starved state of the NHL and Shattenkirk’s resume, a savage
bidding war will all but certainly ensue, and the Flames would be wise to bow
out if the price begins to exceed Dougie Hamilton’s $5.75 million cap hit. It
almost certainly will, so tempering expectations for Shattenkirk would be wise.

That isn’t to
mean the Flames would be left without options. Cody Franson leads a formidable
second tier of options for the Flames that includes the likes of Michael Del
Zotto, Dmitri Kulikov and former Calgary Hitmen captains Karl Alzner and
Michael Stone. Their price tags will vary, but all would be an upgrade on Wideman, needless to say. Personally, I think Franson and Stone are
fascinating options on a pairing with Brodie.

As for the
bottom of the defence rotation, there will be countless reasonable options
available for signing, and I suspect the Flames will leave a spot open for
their prospects to battle for. Brett Kulak – if re-signed – would be the frontrunner
for that spot but don’t count out Oliver Kylington and Rasmus Andersson.

With cap
flexibility and a healthy list of quality options, the Flames could completely
remodel the bottom half of their defence, and remedy one of their starkest
weaknesses in one fell swoop. What they mustn’t do, however, is throw money
blindly at their problem and hope it goes away, like the Lightning did with
Matt Carle and Jason Garrison and now find themselves in cap hell with a very
mediocre blueline. 

Of the names I mentioned above, Alzner is a potential
red flag, seeing as he’ll demand a healthy contract despite approaching 30 fast
and sporting atrocious underlying numbers. When I say atrocious, I mean atrocious.

Conclusion         

At the end of
the day, things might be looking bleak, but the reality of the Flames’
situation isn’t nearly as grey. They’re an improved roster from years past
despite inconsistencies, and are fast approaching a window of flexibility few
teams are privileged with. 

Think about it, how many teams are approaching a
summer where almost all their bad money comes off the books, and their needs
don’t lie in “elite” players which are impossible to find on the open market?
The Flames will enter the 2017 NHL offseason needing depth help on defence and
a scoring forward, and will have a bundle of cash to find it with. That’s an
enviable situation if you ask me.

There’s
certainly room to completely fumble this opportunity and sign a bunch of incompetent
contracts and completely muck up the situation, but Brad Treliving has, for the
most part, earned enough goodwill with his performance to this point that I,
personally, am not concerned about that.
 

So,
as the Flames play out the stretch of their 2016-17 campaign – for better or
for worse – keep this fact on your mind: that things will only improve from
here. 
And for the record, I hope Brad Treliving
is the one to see it through. 

  • Ogie Oglethorp

    Watching the Ducks/Oiler game. Russel just threw himself in front of a 1 time bomb from the point on the PK. He crumpled in pain but blocked it perfectly. He tried to get off the ice for 30 seconds but got trapped. Barely able to stand, he just perfectly covered and won a puck battle with 6’4″ Perry out front of the net to 100% save a goal. Then he limped off.

    A minute later, Edmonton scored.

    That is what making decisions based on advanced stats without considering heart, effort, battle gets. I miss Kurt. He wanted to play here.

  • Christian Roatis

    I’ve taken plenty of heat over the years for my pessimism, but never for optimism. The timing of this piece is ironic and I find the reaction quite amusing.

    Fear not fellow Flames aficionados, better times are ahead. I assure you.

    • slats-west

      3-6-1 in last 10

      Essentially shutout in last 2 games

      Beaten by a goalie for his first ever win in the NHL, to your provincial rivals, getting blown out 7-3….

      ….but a ray of sunshine that our bad cap money is falling off and all will be well soon for us… that’s a lot of hope pinned on unicorns and rainbows…

      Where are all these players coming from to replace this bad $ players? How are we getting them in an expansion year?

      2017 is wee bit premature for the “optimism”…… more like 2018 or 2019….

      • Christian Roatis

        Young teams struggle and go through periods of dysfunction where they lose their confidence, but eventually work their way out of it.

        What is amusing is how nobody wants to hear about positivity right now, for whatever reason. I’m not trying to be facetious, a troll, an ass, etc. I truly believe what I wrote and the rebuild is not lost just because of a bad stretch. And I’m certainly not alone in this thinking.

        Also, in response to the possession quips: I personally use possession as an indicator of future success, since it’s proven itself in this manner over and over. Comparing Dallas Eakins to Glen Gulutzan because they quote their teams’ possession numbers is pretty disingenuous considering Eakins was boasting about improvement (from horrible to bad) while Gulutzan is referencing strong (top half of the league) numbers. The Oilers weren’t over 50% under Eakins, while the Flames are. They’re outplaying their opponents – even during this stretch – they’re just getting sunk by bad luck and confidence problems stringing from that and crappy goaltending.

        • jupiter

          Fair enough. I wish I had your optimism in regards to possession stat’s. I see a team that is predictable and being stopped in it’s tracks because the opponent is also predicting there moves. The goalie knows exactly where to be and the shot hits him in the crest. There are very few quality shots as a result. I don’t see a team taking advantage of openings and creatively attacking them. They just stick to there system and fire puck after puck at the goalie’s chest or over the net. Something has to give as its been the same repetitive result for awhile. I honestly don’t think that this system will achieve better results if the players play harder as BT suggests.

          As far as what goes on and went on in Edmonton, I could care less and pass over the trolls comments.

          We have some great prospects that are being stifled under this system.

        • Ogie Oglethorp

          Everything wrong with advanced stats is in this comment. You say they are “outplaying their opponents, even during this stretch”. Have you watched the games?

          This is what happens when you put stats into a vacuum and try to evaluate teams.

          I posted earlier about watching Russell in the Oilers game last night. 1 shift last night, through nothing but guts, heart and willpower he stopped a goal. I’m sure he got out-corsi’d that shift, and his posession was brutal, and all the rest of the math stats. But none of that measured the fact that he blocked a slapshot with his body, won an epic battle in front of the net vs 6’4″ Perry and then hobbled off after single handed saving a goal. When he arrived at the bench the coach and 2-3 players were WAITING at the door to pat him on the back clearly showing the team dynamic all Russell’s bad positioning and bad corsi got him.

          1 minute later the Oilers scored, then they win 4-0.

          But oh ya, I remember… Russell’s underlying stats say he is the worst and we needed to get rid of him because it can’t measure heart, battle or team, things that matter in the real world and would stop anyone from ever saying that the Flames have outplayed anyone at any point in any part of any game. To say otherwise is just crazy.

  • Pond Hockey

    The Trade Deadline is approaching and the Oiler players are all working their asses off in the hope that can increase their trade value and get the hell out of there!

  • everton fc

    Perhaps related…

    Thinking of draft prospects… I really like Isaac Ratcliffe of Guelph. 6’6” 195 lbs… Can skate, shoot, forecheck..

    He’d be a nice addition as a LW prospect.

  • Pond Hockey

    FN Mod: maybe we should start talking about a ban…

    Stay on topic.

    No personal attacks.

    Pretend your mother is reading over your shoulder.

    You’re not 8 years old. Figure it out.

  • testyesty44

    I remember when the oilers had great ” possesion”
    …….
    what we now have is possession of Connor McDavid.
    Thanks Eakins.

    oilers domination to follow

    I thought flames fans were smarter then this??
    JK

  • Tanner

    I do not think the Flames should toss Glen Gulutzan overboard. I agree with the author. I think the Flames have improved markedly in certain areas under Gulutzan. They look more structured to me and this has led to much better possession results (ex: the 3% improvement in CF%). I’ve heard there is about a 70% correlation between being a good Corsi team and winning so the Flames’ improvement in puck possession will never guarantee wins, but it does make them more likely.

    As for the comparisons of Gulutzan with Eakins, I remember the Eakins era in Edmonton because I am a Flames fan living in Edmonton and I have many Oilers fans for friends so I watch a lot of their games. Eakins’ Oilers did not have structure. It’s ludicrous to say they had possession not success because McLellan’s Oilers, who are very successful, are way better than Eakins’ Oilers in possession.

    In fact, I’ll throw this in there. McLellan’s Oilers were not very successful there 1st year. However, I remember watching them, celebrating their losses, but I had to grudgingly admit that the Oilers under McLellan were definitely better than the Oilers under Eakins. Part of that was key additions on the cheap: Maroon and Kassian, for example (oh, and the league’s leading scorer). But I think some of the success can be attributed to greater structure and, by extension, possession under McLellan.

    Back to the Flames, I think Gulutzan could be going through some of the same first year woes that McLellan did. I think the Flames should keep him for year two because of the improvements in structure and puck possession. That, combined with a few key additions with additional cap space this summer, and the Flames might just follow the Oilers into being a really good team.