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FN Mailbag – March 27, 2017

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With the victory of the St. Louis Blues, the Flames’ chances of making the playoffs grew to over 99% according to Sports Club Stats. They’re in.

What we’re left with now is talking about match-ups and challenges, strengths and weaknesses. There are no soft touches in the Western Playoff picture at this point, so no matter who the Flames end up facing in the first round, it’s going to be a challenge. What’s more, Calgary is a team of extremes – with big strengths and key weaknesses that may either carry them past their initial opponent or sink them inexorably.

This week we look at potential adversaries and talk about the Flames depth issues.

The playoffs are difficult to handicap in the West. The San Jose Sharks and the suddenly surging Blackhawks (after half a season of just so-so underlying numbers) might be at the head of the class , but after a couple of teams at the top, there’s a huge middle class in the division currently. Of which the Flames are a part of. There are no juggernauts like the Penguins or Capitals out East.

Every team from the Ducks and Oilers down to the Blues and Predators has clear strengths and obvious weaknesses. Calgary, Edmonton, and Anaheim, for instance, are separated by just 0.6% CF% when adjusting for score and venue.

My preference for the Flames in the first round is still the Oilers. They boast perhaps the best forward in the NHL in Connor McDavid and some okay forward depth, but their blueline is exploitable. They also have some of the worst underlying numbers amongst playoffs teams in the West, although the difference between them and the rest of the pack is minimal.

Calgary’s chances of success will come down to how well Glen Gulutzan juggles his lineup. The Flames have a great top end with the 3M line, Monahan, Gaudreau and the Giordano pairing. But they also have an abysmal bottom end of the rotation that can be targeted on the road.

As such, I think the Flames could win a round this year, depending on who they play and how well GG can manage his bench. I wouldn’t, however, bet on them getting past round two. Calgary has yet to attain true contender status.

Anaheim. They have a bad head coach, slightly worse underlying numbers than Calgary, and questionable goaltending depth (with a starter prone to missing time). The Sharks’ top-end scares me a bit more as well.

Right now, there really is no comparison between the two. Matthew Tkachuk is younger, but superior from all angles. He scores more at even strength, suppresses shots, generates shots, impacts his teammates, everything you can name – Tkachuk is way out in front. Bennett will have to take a huge step forward to be within the same vicinity as Tkachuk.

Part of that is likely circumstances, however. Although there are ways to “correct” for usage, they likely can’t fully factor in playing with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik versus Troy Brouwer all the time. In addition, Tkachuk isn’t just better than Bennett at these various measures – he’s better than most rookies, indeed most players in the NHL this year. According to Own the Puck, Tkachuk is in the 99th percentile in the league in terms of shot generation and possession impact:

Tkachuk HERO Chart
Tkachuk HERO

This is a crazy good chart for any player in the NHL, but for a 19-year old rookie, it’s absolutely bonkers. If Tkachuk really is this good, the Flames will have the equivalent of a first overall talent.

As for Bennett, his step back this year is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Flames’ season. Even if we grant that he hasn’t been put into the best position to succeed, his skill set and pedigree all suggested he would become a difference maker sooner rather than later. Instead, he’s currently a guy who can’t drive his line or rise above lackluster teammates, even if he’s sheltered.

Bennett’s season has been so underwhelming I think the organization has to at least be questioning his future as a center in the NHL. The player is still young at just 20 years old, but he has consistently floundered as a pivot at this level, both this year and during his rookie season.

Bennett needs to improve just to be a solid middle rotation support player. Tkachuk is a well above average, bordering on elite, forward already.

Re: Bennett, hopefully not after this season (aka: please expose Troy Brouwer in the expansion draft).

So yeah, Calgary’s depth is a mess. Tkachuk’s arrival and the formation of the Gio-Hamilton pairing have given the Flames one of the very best five-man units in the league. Monahan and Gaudreau are good enough scorers to play clean-up duty after the 3M takes the heavy lifting. But it is mostly a dumpster fire after that.

Calgary’s third line and third pairing gets creamed almost every night in terms of shots and chances. The Flames’ second defense pairing is passable if they are on the ice with the club’s good forwards, but they sink like an anchor otherwise.

Although the club has one of the best five-man units in the league, they also have some of the worst forward/defense combos as well. For example, when Brouwer skates with Engelland and Bartkowski at even strength, the Flames’ shot share plunges to just 37%. In isolation, a team can probably get away with a Brouwer or Bartkowski or Bouma or Engelland alone, but when you start putting them on the ice all the same time, things go south in a hurry. Sam Bennett’s aforementioned struggles have really put an exclamation point on the team’s depth issues this season.

Calgary is poised to become a contender in the next few years, as long as Brad Treliving can effectively surround his burgeoning core with at least passable support players. The club’s third and fourth lines and second and third defense pairings don’t have to face the top guns or even dominate other depth players. All they have to do is saw things off in relatively sheltered roles. It’s not a huge ask, but it’s something a lot of NHL GMs fail at because so many of them stop asking if a guy can play hockey at the bottom end of the rotation and instead start picking players according to intangibles or toughness.

This is definitely Brouwer’s worst season in the league. His even strength production has fallen off a cliff and his presence on the ice harms everyone around him from a possession perspective. Up until recently, Brouwer was mostly just mediocre at all this stuff (with a dash of good PP production).

Maybe it’s just a weird blip, but it’s more likely that Brouwer has entered the final phase of his NHL career. For a lot of NHLers, this happens very quickly after they hit 30 years old. Think of Flames examples like Mason Raymond, Curtis Glencross, and even Jiri Hudler. It only took a couple of seasons for each guy to go from a solid NHL contributor to basically drummed out of the league (assuming Hudler won’t be a hot commodity this summer). Of note: none of these guys had underlying numbers as bad as Brouwer does this year when they were demoted, waived, unsigned, etc.

As for McPhee, I can’t really guess what he thinks of Brouwer. We can only hope his affection for the player (and a need to make it to the salary cap floor) motivates him to take Brouwer. If the Flames expose him at the expansion draft, of course.

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  • Bean-counting cowboy

    “It’s not a huge ask, but it’s something a lot of NHL GMs fail at because so many of them stop asking if a guy can play hockey at the bottom end of the rotation and instead start picking players according to intangibles or toughness”

    Hate to be ‘that guy’, but how good would Paul Byron look on Bennett’s line right now? Byron/Bennett/Versteeg

    • kid presentable

      but we needed bollig’s toughness/intangibles! just like we need brouwer’s toughness and intangibles somehow despite having much better leaders than brouwer will ever be in gio and backlund.

  • RKD

    Anything can happen in the playoffs, let’s see the last two runs a trip to the Stanley Cup final and the last time we won a round and made the playoffs when no one expected us to. Some of the top teams are coasting now, the Wild and Sharks have really struggled recently and could be ripe for the picking. The Flames will be pretty battle hardened just look at the last few games and how tight it has been plus Elliott could steal a round for us. Though Bennett and Brouwer are struggling they may turn it up in the post-season.

  • Zalapski

    Last years 3 goalie/Bollig debacle definitely hurt the teams depth. Losing Byron was tough and I could only imagine what it would be like have Bennett/Byron/Versteeg playing together. I want the Flames to win and seeing Brouwer score 2 goals in 3 games is nice but doesn’t damper the frustration of watching him. The 2 times all season he’s had the puck near the net he finally scores, The major problem is he doesn’t get there enough. Versteeg has also been underwhelming with some of the cuter plays he tries to make. I like the creativity and the vision but sometimes he just needs to cycle the puck or dump it in. I’d like him re-signed though. Here’s hoping the flames expose Brouwer, sign a legit top 4 dman and let some other young players fill out the roster next season. I’m tired of played out veterans with zero upside. We need some more youth in the lineup.

  • Kevin R

    We have some Cap space freeing up this summer, Wideman,Smid,Engellend,Johnson alone equal almost 13.5 mill. Our 5,6,7 spots next year have to include Kulak,Bart & one of our young guys on the farm. The cap hit on those guys won’t be much more than 2.0 mill. I see one of our young guys backing up Elliott (depending on his ask) next year. Not opposed to getting Darling or Raanta if Elliott wants too much $$$ & too much term. Who knows, the market is tough on goalies, may be have an opportunity to score Bishop for a few years at a great price. If we can entice Mcphee to take Brouwer at the expansion draft, we can target a #4 D & a top 6 forward for Benny. I don’t totally agree Flames are that bad on bottom 6 depth when we haven’t been giving our younger, cheaper, hungrier players much of a chance to show what they have at the NHL level. Stajan is a warrior & thank goodness he has only 1 year left or I would say he needs to get bought out, same as Bouma. You can’t pay guys this kind of money on your 4th line if you want to have a scoring higher end 3rd line. I have no problem paying the Chaissons & Versteegs 1.0-1.5 mill to play the 4th line as they are versatile enough to move up the line up but we need young guys on cheaper ELC’s as well. No more veteran signings for Tre anymore, we need every dollar to get this team to a contender status.

    • PrairieStew

      Offer Elliott 2 years @$3.75 per or 3 years at $3. Offer Johnston a repeat contract , one year $1.8. Stone signed for 2 years $2.5 per. Resign Wotherspoon and offer him as incentive for Vegas to take Brouwer. Assuming Vegas doesn’t take Bartkowski you have Kulak and Kylington pushing him, but you still need a Rh 3rd pair guy so don’t be surprised if Engelland is back at $1m per.

  • Greg

    New rule: all players we acquire must have a first name starting with “M”. If not, their last name must not start with “B”.

    That alone would eliminate about 75% of the roster issues we currently have.

    • L.Kolkind

      I dislike Brouwer as much as anyone, (probably more than most) but I am still completely willing to take on more “B” last names as Brodie, Bennett, and you may have heard of Backlund, more than make up for Brouwer.