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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today

Flames playoff primer: The newbie’s guide to cheering for the Flames

Not everyone can watch every Flames game in a single season. There are a variety of reasons for that, all the way from real-life constraints to just plain not feeling like it, and all are equally valid.

Playoffs are a different story, though. Playoffs are meaningful. A ho-hum game in the middle of January doesn’t carry nearly as much weight or intrigue to it as April hockey does. The playoffs fall into the “must-watch” category, or at least as much as anything is going to.

If you’ve been around all season, this post is a refresher. If you haven’t, this is an introduction. And if you’re someone whose team has been eliminated and you’ve chosen to bandwagon the Flames, or you just really, really hate the Ducks (an understandable choice), well, welcome to cheering for this year’s edition of the Calgary Flames. Let’s run down who you’ve thrown your support behind.

Off the ice

Brian Burke is the Flames’ president of hockey operations. That means he is not, contrary to popular belief, the general manager. He’s one of the most recognizable figures in a hockey management position, but that does not automatically make him the guy. He does make for an easy scapegoat figure whenever the Flames do something both bad and dumb, though.

Brad Treliving is the Flames’ general manager, otherwise known as the guy actually in charge. He’s made some smart player acquisitions, including signing Michael Frolik and trading three picks for Dougie Hamilton. He’s also made some bad ones, like Troy Brouwer. It was under his watch the Deryk “that’s per year” Engelland contract was signed. Again: Brian Burke is a convenient scapegoat for such matters, though that doesn’t excuse Treliving letting Paul Byron go on waivers for no apparent reason. Then again, 23-year-old top pairing defenceman for a handful of picks. It’s a mixed bag that ultimately tips towards “we like this guy, he’s good; now stop letting Brian do things, supposedly.”

Glen Gulutzan is the Flames’ head coach. No, he’s not Jack Adams Winner Bob Hartley. He’s better, which means he should have, like, two Jack Adams, or something? Or maybe awards voting is just a farce? Either way, under Gulutzan the Flames stopped playing a style in which they had to block ALL the shots and started playing a style that saw them do things like actually carry and play the puck themselves. The Flames became a positive corsi team under Gulutzan! Corsi is good, therefore Gulutzan is good. We all hated him at the start of the season because the Flames were unfathomably bad and he was doing things like having a 23-year-old top pairing defenceman play with Nicklas Grossmann, but things got better as the season went along. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here talking playoffs.

On the ice

This is the Flames’ standard, default lineup:

Johnny Gaudreau Sean Monahan Micheal Ferland
Matthew Tkachuk Mikael Backlund Michael Frolik
Kris Versteeg Sam Bennett Alex Chiasson
Lance Bouma Matt Stajan Troy Brouwer
Curtis Lazar Freddie Hamilton
Mark Giordano Dougie Hamilton
T.J. Brodie Michael Stone
Matt Bartkowski Deryk Engelland
Dennis Wideman
Brian Elliott
Chad Johnson
Jon Gillies

Let’s go line-by-line, shall we?

Forwards

Line 1: The default assumption is whatever line Johnny Gaudreau is on is the top line. That hasn’t always been the case this season, but hey, he’s the team’s leading scorer and probably the most recognizable player (because everyone loves the talented tiny guys) (also – see All-Star, aka publicity, appearances three years straight), so it’s not outlandish to consider his the top line. He’s centred by Sean Monahan, who is known for having really nice hair and being boring. They’re probably best friends.

Feb 26, 2017; Raleigh, NC, USA; Calgary Flames forward Micheal Ferland (79) celebrates his second period goal with forward Johnny Gaudreau (13) and forward Sean Monahan (23) against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Gaudreau and Monahan have played together for several seasons now, but it hasn’t always been consistent. Certainly not this year, either; as the team struggled the lineup was in constant flux, but eventually, they were reunited. For the second season in a row Monahan is following up Gaudreau in team scoring, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? They’re gonna get high offensive zone starts because they’re the guys most expected to score. They’re here to create offence, not prevent it.

There’s been a problem since Jiri Hudler’s 2014-15 season, though: they haven’t exactly had a suitable right winger. Enter Micheal Ferland, who first became highly relevant two years ago in the playoffs when Kevin Bieksa decided to call him “Ferklund,” because reading is hard. Ferland is an absolutely incredible figure both on and off the ice. On the ice, he’s one of those tough guys – except he’s also got smarts, hands, and a fantastic shot. His numbers are low this season, largely in part because he toiled away on the fourth line until he was finally moved up with Gaudreau and Monahan – and then the Flames went on a 10-game win streak, so. This line is probably here to stay for the foreseeable future, and hopefully Ferland will continue to grow into that role, because it has the potential to be a great one.

Line 2: This is the fabled 3M line, consisting of Matthew, Mikael, and Michael. They are corsi demons. They almost always get the roughest zone starts. If anyone is going to shut down the opponent’s top players, it’s this trio. And they can put up, at minimum, half a point per game along the way – each. You want a two-way line? It’s these guys.

Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik
Mar 11, 2017; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Calgary Flames right wing Michael Frolik (67) celebrates his goal with teammate Calgary Flames center Mikael Backlund (11) during the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Frolik was first brought on for the 2015-16 season; he and Mikael Backlund, one of the longest-tenured and probably most loyal Flames, instantly clicked. If there’s such a thing as hockey soulmates, it’s those two. They’re both extremely responsible players – you’ll see them on the Flames’ top penalty killing unit, often creating shorthanded scoring chances. They can mix and match with other top players, too, but for the most part, Backlund and Frolik complement one another so well it’s obscene.

Which is why it made sense to put Matthew Tkachuk with them. Sure, the competition would be rough, but what better way to introduce a rookie to the game than by partnering him with the most responsible players possible? And it’s paid off in a big way, as he has not only benefited from them, but made them even better. The Flames’ shutdown line is a cohesive unit, and one that will be relied on heavily, even if Tkachuk’s presence has forced Backlund and Frolik into more scrums than they probably thought they’d be a part of. He’s a major pest – but it turns out, they’re really awesome guys to have on a team when they’re your guys.

Line 3: This one has only very recently been assembled, but it’s the correct call. Sam Bennett is having a disappointing season overall, but hey, he’s only 20 years old, as I’m sure Jim Hughson will remind us at some point. He’s also notably suffering from the Flames’ lack of depth. He played with Gaudreau for some time this season, and it had potential, but Gaudreau and Monahan was tried-and-tested; maybe he’ll end up with Tkachuk on his line in the near future, since they’re similar in age. Also, apparently he can fight.

Sam Bennett
Oct 14, 2016; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames center Sam Bennett (93) during the face off against Edmonton Oilers during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

In the meantime, though, he gets Kris Versteeg – a rescue from the Oilers’ training camp. Almost ending up in Europe, Versteeg has more than proven he’s still an NHL-caliber talent over the course of this season, as he’s been extremely versatile and reliable for the Flames, and has given Bennett a linemate he can at least keep up with. Versteeg ditched Edmonton to sign with Calgary the day before the season began, and we’re all incredibly blessed for it.

On the other side is Alex Chiasson, who has often unfortunately been thrust into positions way over his head. Who was playing with Gaudreau before Ferland? Well, Chiasson was one of those guys, only he’s not quite that good, and it showed. He’s thrived in a role with less responsibility, though – and his chemistry with Bennett on the penalty kill appears to have carried over to five-on-five play, at least for now.

The rest: Matt Stajan is the most relevant player on the fourth line. He’s overpaid for his role, but that doesn’t come up too much because there are worse contracts – namely those belonging to the wingers flanking him – and because he’s still capable of playing a good game.

Lance Bouma’s job is to be physical, and that’s probably about it, though he has the occasional offensive flair. Troy Brouwer has been a wreck for most of the season, but there’s this narrative being pushed that he’s a playoff performer, and if we say it enough times it must be true, right? Right???

Curtis Lazar is the Flames’ long-term acquisition who can’t be sent down to the AHL and apparently can’t be trusted to play a regular shift yet, but he has a nice smile and he’s the former Ottawa Senator who once ate those burgers being thrown on the ice for Andrew Hammond. Freddie Hamilton is Dougie Hamilton’s older brother. I’m pretty sure we don’t know anything else about him.

Defencemen

Pairing 1: If you like inspirational sports stories, then Mark Giordano is your guy. One of the longest-tenured Flames along with Backlund, he went from being undrafted to being one of the top defencemen in the game, and a guy who really should have a Norris Trophy or two by now were it not for injuries. Speaking of injuries, that’s what kept him from playing in the playoffs when the Flames made it two years ago, so you know he’s going to be really, really into this postseason matchup. It’s been 10 years since he played in the playoffs. It’s gonna be awesome to watch.

Dougiebomb
Mark Giordano scored the overtime winner in a wild 6-5 victory. Dougie Hamilton was feeling it.

Even more so because he’ll have Dougie Hamilton alongside him. Hamilton, younger brother to Freddie, is a bit more prominent on the team, mostly by way of being a top pairing defenceman at a young age with elite offensive abilities that are still coming into their own and a strong defensive acumen. Like, this kid is extremely good. That’s probably why Boston media tried to justify his being traded by insisting he was an uppity loner, or whatever it was – and what with that rash of Dougiebombs, it’s pretty easy to see why everyone hates him. Just disgraceful.

Mar 23, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Calgary Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie (7) lines up for a face off during the first period against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Pairing 2: Things get a little rough at this point. T.J. Brodie was partner to Giordano for several seasons, and those two were fantastic together, just as Hamilton and Giordano are now. The problem? Brodie is a left shot who prefers to play the right side – something that apparently hasn’t mattered to Gulutzan the entire season, which is odd, because you’d think playing players where they want to play would present an optimal lineup, but I guess not? Between playing on the left and being without Giordano, it’s been a rough season for Brodie. He’s still good – like, a lot of other teams would love to have him – just not as great as he was before.

Michael Stone was acquired to help beef up the second pairing in the meantime. Will that last long-term? Probably not, but for now, it’s the best the Flames have to work with. It was pretty funny, though, how he went from playing on the not-very-good Arizona Coyotes to the Flames right when their 10-game win streak started. Dude probably needed that more than anyone else.

The rest: Deryk Engelland is the main fixture on the bottom pairing, and sometimes he does stuff like this, so that’s always neat. “Deryk Engelland up on the rush” is a phrase you can probably expect to hear at points, and yes, it’s always odd, but he’s been a decent enough veteran lo these many years.

Matt Bartkowski is his regular partner at this point, brought up and out of the AHL to basically serve as expansion fodder for the Flames – he’ll fit the defensive exposure requirement, and that’s about it. Dennis Wideman, meanwhile, hasn’t attacked anyone in well over a year, but he’s unfortunately lost several steps and is all-around not super great anymore. He was Brodie’s partner before Stone came aboard.

Goalies

Mar 25, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; Calgary Flames goalie Brian Elliott (1) watches as the puck bounces off of the post during the second period against the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Elliott was supposed to be the saviour. The chosen one! He was supposed to bring balance to the Flames’ net. … And, after spending most of the season with a sub-.900 save percentage, he finally did just that, and resumed being the goalie we all thought him to be in St. Louis. He now unquestionably holds the starter’s reins, and with him in net, pretty much everything is possible – because he’s absolutely the kind of guy capable of stealing a series. His nickname is “Moose”, so no, nobody is “boo” or “boo-urns”ing him – it’s just Moose.

Chad Johnson was brought in to be the solid backup who could probably go on a run if needed – and the Flames very much needed him earlier in the season. He fell off as the year progressed, but he was absolutely fantastic in the earlier days. It also makes for a good story, as he’s from Calgary and grew up cheering for the Flames. What’s not to love about the kid coming home after playing for five different NHL teams beforehand?

Jon Gillies is a late addition to the mix, as Johnson suffered an injury in the Flames’ third last game of the regular season. It’s not expected to keep him out long, but you kinda need someone ready to back up in the meantime, and Gillies – one of the Flames’ top goalie prospects, and probably the top guy already playing in the pro ranks – is him. He picked up his first NHL win in his first start in the penultimate game of the regular season, which was awesome.

That’s the Flames!

And there you have it – the Flames as they currently stand, a lovable, underdog group. The hope is they won’t be underdogs for much longer, and there’s good reason to believe they’re on the cusp of turning the corner, and making the playoffs this season just the start of things. They’re missing a top four defenceman. They’re missing a little more offensive prowess to the forward group. They’re missing bottom end depth that doesn’t make you want to cry. None of this can be addressed now – that’s for next season.

But in the meantime? It’s not a perfect team, no. But it’s a team that can. And at this time of the year, that’s what we care about.

So come aboard; it’ll be fun, and there’s plenty to like here.

Quick hits

  • Some players have personalized goal songs. For example, Gaudreau gets Johnny B. Goode. Hamiltons get Guns and Ships from the musical Hamilton. I am partially responsible for that one and I will not apologize.
  • It is normal to be consistently amazed by Gaudreau. It is also normal to see several of his efforts go to waste. Do not be alarmed.
  • Any time Gaudreau hugs or is hugged by anyone else it’s incredible because he is so much smaller than his teammates. Versteeg is a lesser version of this, but it still applies.
  • One time Backlund jumped into Hamilton’s arms and I have never been happier in my entire life.
  • If you’re gonna list MVPs for the Flames by position it’s almost certainly Backlund, Hamilton, and Elliott.
  • Tkachuk is a saint and we will not hear otherwise. Backlund and Frolik are his surrogate parents who try, and often fail, to keep him out of trouble, but he’s been mostly better as of late.
  • If Tkachuk is mean to a player he almost certainly deserved it.
  • Backlund should be a Selke finalist at absolute minimum, but as we established above, awards are stupid.
  • A lot of this team will probably drop the gloves without a moment’s hesitation. Ferland is probably the most dangerous fighter. Most unexpected one? Versteeg.
  • Honestly Gaudreau is the only one I figure absolutely won’t drop the gloves at all. And that’s fair. We want him to keep the gloves on. So nobody else breaks his finger ever again. Ever.
  • Don’t slash sticks, slash hands. Apparently that’s the legal one. We were the first fanbase to be the most touchy about this.
  • Don’t be surprised when Gulutzan sends out Brouwer’s line to start a period. Also, don’t be surprised when that line gets scored on right away.
  • If Freddie Hamilton draws into the lineup the commentators will probably not bother to differentiate between Dougie and Freddie. It’ll only be Hamilton. Use contextual clues.
  • Number one contextual clue: Freddie Hamilton will probably not draw into the lineup.
  • Seriously, you will probably see Engelland up on the rush multiple times and it’s just better if you don’t question it.
  • Brodie has a bad habit of not really shooting all that much and no, we’re not entirely sure why he’s on the first powerplay unit, either.
  • The second powerplay unit should be the first one but it is not.
  • The Flames cannot enter the zone on the powerplay. If the other team clears it then they are screwed. Except for when the second unit comes on, sometimes.
  • If Wideman draws into the lineup he will shoot wide. Better to accept it now.
  • The Wideman Effect is not real. Probably. But it’s a great way to deflect blame. Also a good way: yelling at Bob Murray to shut up. Shut up, Bob.
  • Why isn’t a clearly superior prospect playing over a mediocre veteran? Because he’s a prospect and can’t be trusted. You will save yourself a lot of sanity if you don’t question it.
  • Unless, of course, it’s Eetu Tuulola. It won’t be, but when he was drafted, he suggested he might play in the NHL the following season, saying, “Everything is possible in this life.”
  • Everything is possible in this life and that includes the Flames winning. Don’t you forget it.