FN Mailbag – March 6, 2017

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The Flames couldn’t have asked for a better-timed hot streak. And yes, it’s mostly a coincidence that it happened to correspond with Dennis Wideman’s exit from the active roster.

It’s taken a long time for Brian Elliott to discover the form many Flames fans (and members of management) expected to see when he was acquired. In addition, pucks that weren’t going in for Calgary in January have started to find the back of the net over the last few weeks. Throw in some OT heroics and you have yourself a winning streak.

With L.A. losing a crucial game on Saturday night to the Vancouver Canucks (covert Flames operative Sven Baertschi scored two in the win), the Flames inch ever closer to guaranteeing a playoff spot. But who is the ideal first round opponent? And did Brad Treliving do enough to shore up the club’s deficiencies?

Let’s take a look…

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(For all those asking about the Curtis Lazar gamble, I will have a more in-depth examination in an upcoming article.)

In terms of playing time, it will depend on a few factors: health and success. If the Flames stay healthy and relatively successful, Lazar won’t be making an appearance anytime soon. An exception to this will be when/if the club clinches a playoff spot. I imagine they’ll be more willing to experiment if that happens before the end of the season.

Otherwise, he may need to wait until there’s an injury up front before he can slide into the active lineup.

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We still don’t really know what Kulak is, unfortunately. He has superficially good underlying numbers in the NHL so far, but we’re talking about a small amount of games in a sheltered role. Plenty of guys appear passable under those circumstances, only to fall down when the heat gets turned up a bit.

The most we can say about Kulak is he has earned a longer look. It’s entirely possible he’s as good as (or better than) Matt Bartkowski or Deryk Engelland, but we can’t really be sure at this point.

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Probably nothing since it would be folly to re-sign Michael Stone before the expansion draft occurs. My guess is if they want to keep him they’ll put a tacit agreement in place to re-sign him after the draft.

The one wrinkle here is Los Vegas gets a brief window before the draft to talk to pending free agents. So there’s a chance they could try to sign Stone before the draft anyway (if they do, they can’t take another player from the Flames roster).

Frankly, I’m not sure Stone will be on the Knights’ radar anyways. This is a 26-year-old depth defender with 11 points in 51 games so far this year (and a dreaful first half to the season). Unless he has a really, really noteworthy last quarter and/or playoff run, Stone probably won’t stand out enough to be a concern.

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This is mostly the same team as the one who struggled to .500 in January, albeit without the chaos element of Dennis Wideman on the backend.

Calgary’s main issue is the same as it has been all year – their third line struggles to outplay other teams’ depth options, their first line is defensively suspect and their third pairing is weak at both ends of the ice. That means the Flames are highly reliant on the 3M line and first pairing to do a significant amount of heavy lifting.

If Mikael Backlund gets injured at any point, it will greatly impact Glen Gulutzan’s current match up schemes and likely sink the Flames, since they don’t have another C who can reliably go power vs power. Ditto an injury to Mark Giordano or Dougie Hamilton.

Even if 3M and the first pairing can stay intact, however, Calgary is still susceptible on the road and against teams with quality depth.

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Despite their record against them this year, I wouldn’t mind a first round against the Edmonton Oilers. Up front, you have to worry about Connor McDavid and to a lesser extent Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl and Jordan Eberle. The Oilers blueline, however, remains rather uninspiring and their winger depth falls off quickly. Just as the Flames could be exposed by a Backlund injury, a McDavid injury does serious damage the Oilers’ chances of winning.

Then there’s Cam Talbot and Edmonton’s total lack of a proven backup. If Talbot tweaks a knee, Edmonton has to rely on rookie Laurent Brossoit to carry the mail.

As for the rest of the conference, I wouldn’t mind seeing the St. Louis Blues in the first round. They traded one of their best defenders at the deadline, have suspect goaltending, and have struggled to keep their head above water despite fairly impressive forward depth.

Another team who may be in for a let down is, surprisingly, the Chicago Blackhawks. They have some of the worst underlying numbers amongst playoff teams in the West, but have been floated by a PDO of nearly 102 this year (mostly driven by Corey Crawford’s elite goaltending). The Hawks still have a very intimidating top of the rotation up front, but the depth dries up quickly and their blueline gets shallow quickly after their top pairing.

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The Flames are enjoying a percentage spike/hot streak right now, so it’s hard to rationally assess any of the new guys (everyone looks good when your team is winning). We’re also talking about a tiny sample size, so caveat emptor.

Stone and T.J. Brodie have certainly seemed steadier and more dependable than the Brodie/Wideman pairing. What’s interesting is that although the two duos have about the same score adjusted possession rating so far, Brodie with Stone has a far superior scoring chance (67% vs 49%) and expected goals ratio (59% vs 48%) than with Wideman.

In addition, Gulutzan has been giving the new pairing slightly tougher circumstance than the previous one, which is good news given they are managing better results.

The Engelland/Matt Bartkowski pairing, however, is a different story. They are getting eaten for breakfast. They have a sub-40% corsi ratio, a sub-30% scoring chance ratio and an expected goals percentage of just 33%. To put that in plainer numbers, the Flames have been out-chanced 18-5 at even strength with this duo on the ice so far (only a PDO of 109 has saved them).

Again we’re only talking about a handful of games (about 70 minutes together), but it was probably folly to expect a 28-year-old free agent from the AHL to come in and fully stabilize a suspect third pairing. My guess is their underlying numbers improve marginally over time (because those are some near league-worst numbers right now), but expect this area to remain a clear weakness for Calgary.

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Lazar is kind of on the team by default. He isn’t waiver exempt anymore and the organization gave up a fairly decent asset to acquire him. He’d have to be terrible not to be at least the 13th forward out of camp in 2017-18.

As for Daniel Pribyl or Emile Poirier, neither guy has done enough in the AHL to make a case to make the show. Pribyl has been merely fine as middle rotation forward for the Stockton Heat (15 points in 32 games), but Poirier is now a regular healthy scratch under Ryan Huska and has taken multiple steps backward in his progression since a noteworthy rookie season. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Flames find a way to move on from him this summer.

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