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.
— Adrian DeCorby (@decorbs) March 24, 2017
— Rollin' Nat 1 Life (@LiamIsNotDead) March 24, 2017
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.
— Sasha Smooth (@konnie7889) March 24, 2017
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.
— Kaka (42-28-4) (@depoisdacurva) March 24, 2017
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:
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.
— Ed (@Ed_Ward42) March 24, 2017
— Mitch Wheels (@Mitch_Wheels) March 24, 2017
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.
@Kent_Wilson Is Brouwer a different player now then when he was when he was a capital? Really hoping that McPhee still likes him.
— James Foster (@YKJFosterYYC) March 25, 2017
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.