FN Mailbag – March 13, 2017

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After the Flames’ difficult opening month this year, few people would have believed the team was on course to make the playoffs, let alone to set a franchise record for consecutive wins. Calgary’s unprecedented hot streak has not only been enough to propel them into the postseason, but they are now battling for home-ice advantage in the first round with Edmonton and Anaheim.

Huzzah! From contemplating another lottery finish to jockeying for playoff position in the space of four months. The Flames haven’t quite arrived as true contenders just yet, but this season represents a solid step towards that goal.

If the T.J. Brodie, Michael Stone pairing continues to work out, the Flames’ two main weaknesses will be their third defense pairing and their third line of Sam Bennett, Troy Brouwer and Kris Versteeg. Matt Bartkowski and Deryk Engelland have survived while the Flames have been hot, but it’s been entirely due to goaltending. In just 90 minutes together so far they’ve been outshot by 33 shot attempts, giving them a shot attempt ratio of 41%. That’s with the other two pairings doing most of the heavy lifting.

As for the Bennett line, their struggles are well documented by now. Together this year, Bennett and Brouwer have a CF% of 45 and a GF% of 42. The Flames have given over 60 more shot attempts than they’ve generated with Bennett and Brouwer on the ice together this year, despite facing mostly second and third lines and getting more offensive zone starts.

The real danger for the Flames is when the third line and third pairing end up on the ice together. If we throw Engelland into the Brouwer/Bennett mix, the Flames’ CF% drops to 41.

As a result, getting home ice advantage in the first round would go a long way to improving the club’s chances of victory. That way Glen Gulutzan has more opportunity to match lines and hide his lesser lights in the Dome.

There isn’t much separating CGY, EDM and ANA from an underlying numbers perspective. On paper, each team has clear strengths and weaknesses which the other could potential exploit.

The Oilers have Connor McDavid and a pretty good top end attack. They also have strong goaltending in Cam Talbot. Their depth forwards and most of their blueline, however, are less than enviable and they have no contingency plan in the crease if Talbot struggles or gets injured.

Anaheim, on the other hand, doesn’t have quite the top end up front. While Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are still very good, they are no longer dominant and not in the same league as McDavid. I have time for Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg, and Ryan Kesler (puke), but the Ducks’ true strength is the backend.

Anaheim’s blueline features a handful of young, big, effective defenders and puck movers. Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, and Cam Fowler is a quality, core group of guys.

In terms of matchups for the Flames, I might like the Oilers a little bit more. If Mikael Backlund’s line can at least slow down McDavid for a full series, it gives the rest of the Flames’ attack a chance to overwhelm Edmonton’s so-so depth and mediocre defense core.

We’ve pondered this question for months, but this is the first time it looks like retaining Brian Elliott is a real possibility. After a dreadful first half of the season, Elliott is suddenly one of the hottest goaltenders in the league and finally resembling the guy who put up one of the best save rates in the league last year.

Although he’s not going to continue this torrid pace, management will likely be very interested in another contract if he manages to be a quality starter down the stretch and into the postseason.

As for Johnson, it may depend on what the player wants out of his next contract. If he wants the chance to be a starter, he may have to look elsewhere. Otherwise, I can see the club re-inking him to another short-term deal as a backup.

The new second pairing featuring Stone and Brodie has been better, while the third pairing (as mentioned) has not. The real difference right now – and the thing driving perceptions in the MSM – is the Flames’ red hot percentages. When a club is riding a 110+ PDO over a few weeks, almost everything about the team looks great. The question is how will they look when the percentages regress?

We still don’t have a lot of info on these players, of course, but we’ll go with what we’ve got so far.

Brodie and Stone have a good possession rate (51.5%) as well excellent scoring chance (63.6%) and expected goal (57.0%) ratios. The latter two numbers will begin to fall towards their possession rate over time, but if they can stay at or above 50% by all of these measures, then it’s a big improvement.

Bartkowski and Engelland, however, are getting run over. They have sub-40% possession and scoring chance rates and a sub-30% XGF. No one has noticed this year because Elliott has stopped over 98% (!!) of the shots the third pairing has seen so far. Once he ceases to be super human, the duo is going to look hopelessly lost.

Aside – Engelland’s best partner over the last two season by these sorts of measures has been Brett Kulak. I suspect this is due, in part, to very careful management by GG when the two are together, but nevertheless one wonders why the team hasn’t given them another look.

This is tough because the top six with 3M and Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland is probably where you want them to be. I am not terribly sure what to do with the bottom six in order to markedly improve it. I’d likely consider bumping Brouwer to the fourth line or the press box give his deleterious effect on just about everyone he plays with. That would bump Alex Chiasson up to the Bennett line with Versteeg, which is likely only a modest improvement.

Curtis Lazar is a wildcard but given his results this year is unlikely to be an improvement over Lance Bouma or any of the other tweeners in the org (like Freddie Hamilton or Garnet Hathaway).

Bennett is on pace for just 27 points this year after a 36-point rookie season. He is currently 10th on the team in scoring and is likely to be caught by Micheal Ferland (one point back) before the end of the season. That means he’s not going to have much leverage in negotiations beyond his pedigree as a fourth overall draft pick.

As such, I don’t think either party is going to push for a long-term pact. The Flames will likely argue for a two-year bridge deal and maybe Bennett’s side lobbies for a one-year contract. Either way, it wouldn’t surprise me to see his cap hit settle somewhere around $2.5-3.0M.

(For those unaware, here is the Big Gainer series: Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Conclusion.)

Right now the Flames are sitting at 50.94 score adjusted CF% according to Corsica Hockey. That’s more than a three-point jump over last season (47.77) and nearly a seven-point jump over the season before that (44.10).

That level improvement definitely puts them in line with some of the teams I looked at in the Big Gainer series. For example, the Chicago Blackhawks jumped up just under 10 points over their three-season shift to contenders, whereas the Kings and Blues each jumped up about 5% over three years en route to contender status.

If the Flames finish the year with a CF% of about 51%, it will mark them as a team on the ascension. Of course, to take the next step into legit status, they will likely have to make one more move above the 52% ratio.

  • Greg

    I’m wondering what the right $ amount is for signing Elliot, given it’ll also cost us a third round pick.

    If he comes in at $4.5M, say, do you look at other options? How much more would you pay for Bishop to save that 3rd rounder?

    • Jessemadnote

      I actually see Bishop and Elliot as quite similar moving forward. Over the past 5 years Bishop has a .921 with a 2.28 GAA while Elliot has .920 with a 2.10 GAA. Bishop is slightly younger and has demonstrated an ability to handle a big workload but I think the equipment rules will impact him more as a bigger guy. I would rather spend 4.5 on Elliot and 2 on Johnson than 6.5 on Bishop and 1 million on Rittich or whatever.

  • everton fc

    If we can sign Bennett for 2.5-3mill., for 3 years… That would be a really good deal for the Flames, as I think Bennett will find his game sooner, than later. Even is he only gives us what he’s giving now, that deal doesn’t hurt us, and can be easily moved.

    As for Elliott… I hope he doesn’t play hard-ball. He’s not been “nomadic” for some time, as he spent quite a few years in St. Louis. Hoping he prefers stability versus being a “Man in a Suitcase”.

      • Parallex

        If he wants a decent raise he will. That’s the only point of leverage he has in negotiations with the club. I mean he could sign a 1 year deal… but he’ll lose dollars on the first year if he does.

        • class1div1

          I agree. The only leverage he has is the length of the bridge contract, and I think he is confident enough to go for a 1 year deal.The 1st year money lost will be made up in the next deal.

    • joey joe joe jr shabadoo

      Unfortunately Bennett has little, if any, leverage to exercise here. The flames will decide the terms. I have a hard time calling anything over two years a ‘bridge’ deal. I’m certain the flames will sign him to a one or two year deal based on other contract negotiations.

      If I’m Bennett I would be looking for a two year deal in the 2.5 range & look to take a big step forward in each of the next two years. The disappointment of this year will cast a shadow for a while. He is very much in ‘prove it’ territory. One good year won’t shake this one.

      If I’m the flames, I want to see two years of marked improvement before addressing anything long term.

  • everton fc

    Also… I think Hathaway would give more production on the RW than Brouwer. And maybe Chiasson, though Chiasson’s showed some nice skills the past few games. He’s also a bit of a grinder, which I like.

  • The 1988-89, 1992-93 and 2005-06 Calgary Flames each had a winning streak of eight games. The 2016-17 Calgary Flames won a ninth consecutive game on Sunday. A win tonight over the Pittsburgh Penguins means they tie the franchise record of ten consecutive wins that was set by the 1978-79 Atlanta Flames in October 14 to November. 3, 1978. This nine game winning streak has boosted them to 5th in the West (second in the Pacific) today after being ninth in the West as recently as February 12.

    All of this is an amazing turnaround. I know a season ticket-holder who was already calling for Gulutzan to be fired back in December 2017 who now can’t even argue with me when I suggest that Gulutzan will be a Coach of the Year nominee.

    • Kevin R

      I wouldn’t be anointing GG Coach of the Year this quick. Is it coaching or have the players just started to execute & start playing to the levels that got them their contracts? If GG wins 2 rounds in the playoffs, i could maybe get behind him being in the running of that award.

      Right now I would be a little scared to sign Elliott to a long term deal based on what I saw earlier in the year. Now if he backstops us to a playoff series win over the Oilers, then again, he can stay as long as he likes :-}

      Benny is going to have a better year, as soon as next year. Mark my words here! I would love to sees Backlund type of deal where we gets 4-5 year deal in the 3.5-4.0 range. Gives him some security & chances are he will be a steal by year 2 of that deal. If he doesn’t perform, with the pedigree & young age, that would be too hard of a contract to move in a worst case scenario.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    Yup…..Haynes is my go to source as well. He seems to possess a real calming effect when things seem to be spiralling out of control. He was quick to qualify the importance of patience with a new coach and systems.
    I must admit, I went over to ON to read their take on the latest surge by the flames and the crumbling of the Oilers. They now have the ” the sky is falling” sentiment that we had. The Oilers should have seen this coming…Talbot was absolutely stealing games while McD and Drai were providing timely scoring. That can only carry a team so far. So… Would you rather have the better player or the better team.

    • Kevin R

      Yeah I went over for the first time in a long while last night after the Montreal loss & whoa boy, if they keep losing & LA keep winning, there is going to be a lot of dry mouth swallowing going on there. I did notice their boards usually get hundreds of comments trashes & props on the old site & on the new site , they kind of look like ours. Is it the new site that is causing this?

    • piscera.infada

      With regard to Haynes, I don’t necessarily disagree. He’s a good writer. He generally does a decent job with respect to perspective–as your anecdote about new coaches states. The problem is, he’s very beholden to confirmation bias, and I’m not sure he’s as robust in his analysis as some like (say) Kent Wilson is. He’ll throw out the type of narrative I eluded to above: “Flames are 7-0 with Stone in the lineup.. must have a lot to do with Stone”, but he often doesn’t take the next step: “why is that the case? is it actually Stone, or is he a part of it? how much of the team success should we realistically ascribe to the Stone addition, and why?”.

      My over-arching argument here, is not that MSM is inherently bad (unless it’s Eric Francis…), but that the source of argument matters. Every single journalist is prone to biases, but corporate media structures being what they are, place added emphasis upon that. Haynes’ blog may not fall prey to the same extent because it is outside the framework of MSM, but he is heavily influenced by his past experience being within that framework.

    • Burning Ring of Fire

      I checked out ON as well and there were some real arshole trolls letting them have it. I wish they wouldn’t do this as it becomes a never ending two way street. It’s one think to log on with some insightful dialogue that adds to the conversation but it ruins the blog environment entirely when a few people ruin it for everyone else. I wish there was a way for all the sites to filter out the spam which ultimately turns a certain percentage of readers away.

  • redwhiteblack

    “Bennett is on pace for just 27 points this year after a 36-point rookie season.” Was expecting a breakout year for Sam. He looked good in Pre-Season. A backward step is concerning. He looses puck battles on the wall or makes a bad first pass often. Tkachuk is younger but much stronger on the puck. What a gem. It may be unfair to compare him to Benny. Some of it is Brower, but at the same time Benny simply looks unconfident. Hopefully he can turn it around for the playoffs. We need a better winger for him. What about putting Janko on his wing for a few games? Be awesome if can we could have 3 scoring lines going. Might have to wait until next year and free agency to build that 3rd line into something better.

    • Damm shame

      I remember at the beginning of the season the few games he was with Johnny he looked real good and there was talk of him replacing mony there. I think his production is on his line mates more than anything. He’s still gonna be a top 6, 50 point guy for years to come I think

  • L13

    Re. the question of why Kulak isn’t in the NHL propping up Engelland, the only encouraging answer I’ve seen so far is that maybe the front office are hoping to hide him from Vegas by keeping him in the AHL. I don’t know how likely that is, but it does bring up another question: How are they going to manage the four call-ups available to them if the Flames make the playoffs?

    If it were up to me and assuming no injuries (which is a big assumption, granted), I’d call up Kulak and Jankowski because I think Kulak would be an improvement on any of Wideman, Bartkowski and Stone and guess/hope, based on his playing style, that Jankowski would be a decent possession player even if he didn’t generate goals and could strengthen the fourth line. But if Treliving is hoping to hide expansion draft-eligible players like Kulak and Shinkaruk from prying eyes, that might limit his options. Do you think that will be a strong consideration?