The Calgary Flames were firmly in control of that game.
Did they lead the entire time? No. Did it get dicey towards the end? Yes. But these are the Flames we should expect to see, and hopefully as often as possible. Not perfect, but a team capable of at least hanging with their opponent and often controlling the play.
A team still with an incomplete defence, with a handful of kids finally starting to get it going again (and another we’re waiting on), and a forward group that still needs some more pieces before they can really elevate themselves to contender status.
But they’re getting there. Progression is not linear. This season has not been linear. But it’s been much, much better than before.
The road to 50+
The Flames now have two players with 40 or more points: Mikael Backlund (43) and Johnny Gaudreau (40). They’ve also got Matthew Tkachuk, Dougie Hamilton, and Sean Monahan sitting at 39 each (Hamilton really benefited from that three-point night, and he remains the leader on the blueline in everything but ice time).
Backlund is on pace for 58 points. His career high last season was 47, and he’s already this close to matching it. Gaudreau is on pace for 56, which is a down season for him, but that’s with 10 games missed; a full season would at least see him hit his rookie number again.
Tkachuk and Hamilton are both on pace for 53 points, which would be the first 50-point seasons for the two of them – and, considering their relative youth, with probably many more to come. (Hamilton’s one away from his third 40-point season in a row. And he’s actually getting opportunity this year, which you couldn’t say too much about last season.) Monahan, meanwhile, is on pace for 52 points: a down season for him, but better than where he was at not too long ago.
That’s five Flames on pace for 50+ point seasons, four of whom are 23 and under, two of whom have had down years. Even if this season doesn’t work out – though the idea of a playoff berth looks more and more realistic with each passing day as of late – there’re a lot of in-house reasons to be excited for next year.
This sure looks like a team turning the corner, at least.
Roll the lines
This wasn’t a blowout like the game against the Coyotes was. It wasn’t a loss to a goalie like the one against the Canucks. And it wasn’t a track meet like the one against the Predators.
This was a much more measured game, and the Flames were able to play just about everyone in their lineup as a result. Gaudreau led the way with 17:56 in ice time, including 4:41 on the powerplay; Lance Bouma played the least at 11:09, though he had a fight. Null Bouma – also because he’s Bouma, and easily the weakest forward dressed – and Matt Stajan’s 12:26 was the least.
On the defensive end of things, T.J. Brodie was king with 25:17 played, including 4:30 on the powerplay. Mark Giordano followed him up with 22:15, and then Hamilton with 19:57. Deryk Engelland got more ice time than Michael Stone, but he had the penalty kill to thank for that; if you go strictly by even strength ice time, then Stone was second only to Brodie.
Matt Bartkowski was the odd man out on the backend, playing a paltry 13:29 – which is still more than bottom pairing defencemen had been trusted with before his arrival.
Still need a top four defenceman
It’s hard to judge a defenceman off of just two games, especially when one of them was as frantic as the game against Nashville, but Stone so far still doesn’t look like the answer.
He’s not as bad as some other options were, but a 40% 5v5 CF in a game the Flames largely controlled is not ideal for someone who’s supposed to be getting big minutes. If the Flames keep him beyond this season, then it’s going to cost a fifth, and you hope that they find a real partner for Brodie by that time. A fifth for a bottom pairing defenceman for the next season doesn’t sound horrible, but if the Flames are going to take the next step forward, they’ll still need someone better to take those minutes.
We can say in Stone’s (and Brodie’s) defence that they had just 10% in offensive zone starts, by far the lowest of all the defencemen. And again, I’ll caution for small sample sizes, but Brodie went from a 40% CF player with him to 80% away from him. That doesn’t mean Stone isn’t the best option in the immediate – but it is starting to caution that he won’t be for the long term.
Powerplay personnel needs tweaking
Remember when the Flames couldn’t score on their powerplay, then suddenly scored a lot on their powerplay? Yeah, they’re pretty much back to the first part now, having gone 21 powerplay opportunities in between goals.
They’re still 12th in the NHL with a 19.9% success rate – a far cry from the miserable single digit slogging pace they were at months ago – but it could be better.
Hamilton scored the Flames’ lone powerplay goal of the game. He (and Giordano) played 3:10 on the man advantage, compared to Brodie’s 4:30. Brodie has 23 points on the season. As stated above, Hamilton is tied for third on team scoring. If your top unit is going to be four forwards and one defenceman, there’s little justification for anyone other than Hamilton being that defenceman, if only for his shot alone. (Him being fourth out of all NHL defenders in shots helps justify this, too.)
Also, Troy Brouwer getting the third most forward powerplay ice time is just absurd. In his last 20 games, he has four points: two goals and two assists. Two of those points came 20 games ago. He’s not producing. He’s on pace for 27 points this season. The number one saving grace to his signing was that he should be able to put up at least 40 or so points; he’s scoring at his rookie pace right now. He’s the third most expensive forward on this team. There are another three years of that contract to look forward to. The signing is already cratering, but he doesn’t have to take powerplay time away from, say, Micheal Ferland or Sam Bennett, who definitely have more potential at this stage.
And Brian Elliott stays in
Funny how much better a goalie looks when his team shows up for him, isn’t it? The first goal he let in was tipped, the second goal was on the powerplay, and sprinkled in between he had a handful of game savers. Not a bunch of showstoppers, but that’s a testament to both his steady play and the skaters in front of him not giving pucks away like hot grenades.
It would’ve been nice to just limit them to the one goal, but the .920 save percentage works, too. It hasn’t been a good season overall, but if Elliott can keep this up, then he’ll probably at least get back above .900 on the year.
Unless the Flames can get an absolute steal for the future, they should probably just stick with the tandem they currently have, especially when it’s showing signs of improving. Why mess with that in hopes of a fleeting upgrade if it’ll cost assets?
Past history and recent play strongly hints to us that Elliott is capable; concentrate on the areas of the team that aren’t.