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FN Mailbag – Have the Flames improved enough?

This is the year the Calgary Flames’ contention window opens.

The organization has assembled a strong core of young talent, with a handful of guys on the way. Mark Giordano is still well above average at 33, while  Sam Bennett (21), Sean Monahan (23), Johnny Gaudreau (24), Dougie Hamilton (24), Micheal Ferland (24), T.J. Brodie (27), Travis Hamonic (27), and Mikael Backlund (28), are all at or near peak age.

So the time to try to win is now. The rebuild has progressed to the degree that expectations of the players and management must be raised beyond merely competing for a playoff spot. We can see this reality reflected in Brad Treliving aggressively plugging roster holes by spending future assets this summer. The Flames’ focus has reasonably shifted from the distant horizon to what’s in front of them.

But will it be enough?

It’s less about how the Flames finished last year and more about the acceleration of their improvement. Here’s how their possession rate has risen over the last three seasons:

  • 2014-15: 44.46% (28th)
  • 2015-16: 46.12% (21st)
  • 2016-17: 50.56% (10th)

To put that in perspective, two seasons ago the Flames’ total attempted shot differential was -828. This past season, it was +76. That’s a +900 shot swing over the course of three years, which is substantial. Keep in mind, Calgary’s first four-to-six weeks were putrid (CF% of 47%) and not at all indicative of the team through the rest of the season. In fact, the Flames managed the sixth best score adjusted possession rate in the league between January and March 2017.

Another 2% jump would likely put them inside the top five teams in the league in terms of possession. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but teams with a CF% at or above 52% tend to make the playoffs over 70% of the time. Absent a major defect (like goaltending) they tend to be contenders or favourites.

In my previous Big Gainers series, I showed how a team can go from basement dweller to contender in a relatively short period of time. In my investigation, a “big gain” was more likely if a club could accomplish these four things: draft elite talent, win a big trade or two, develop internal depth, and add a strong coach. We’ll go over this more in detail later, but the Flames seem to check all of the boxes.

It’s difficult to be certain, but… probably better. By replacing Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland with Travis Hamonic and Michael Stone, Calgary’s blueline should, in theory, be drastically improved. A more balanced backend means Glen Gulutzan should have a lot more flexibility when it comes to managing his matchups. Oh, and assuming GG learned his lesson, Troy Brouwer won’t spend three-quarters of the season sinking the results of guys like Sam Bennett, Kris Versteeg, and Sean Monahan.

That said, there are two wild cards in the equation:

  1. Internal development. Can guys like Brett Kulak, Matthew Tkachuk, Bennett, and Ferland take a step forward this year? Calgary’s youth could go a long way to turning a pretty good roster into a very good one.
  2. Can goaltending hold up? Mike Smith and Eddie Lack are both gambles for one reason or another. There is no sure thing between the pipes, despite the assets used to re-populate the position. As such, we can’t really be sure if the Flames’ puck stopping will be adequate or not.

If I was Brad Treliving, I’d still be in the market for a quality, depth forward. Jussi Jokinen would have been a good target, but he was recently signed by the Oilers, unfortunately. Unless the Flames want to re-enter the trade market with their dwindling future assets, they are left surveying a landscape of mostly flawed or older options like Shane Doan, Thomas Vanek, and Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr might be the best guy left, but he’s at an age where he may fall off a cliff completely (45). It also seems unlikely that he would have much interest in relocating to Calgary for a single year.

There may be nothing Treliving can do this summer to address the winger gap. The club has greatly depleted its stock of tradable assets, although they could still dip into the high-end defenders and goalies they have on hand if needed.

That said, sometimes it makes more sense to wait for an opportunity than desperately jump on less than ideal solutions. Calgary’s other option is to keep their powder dry for the rest of the offseason, bide their time, and then strike when a more appealing opportunity reveals itself.

Calgary has about $9.86M in cap space currently. The main RFAs in question are Bennett, Ferland, Kulak, and Curtis Lazar. Here’s a best guess of where their salaries will land:

Ferland: $1.85M

Bennett: $2.25M

Kulak: $0.925M

Lazar: $1.125M

Total: $6.15M

Even if I’m off by a few hundred thousand here and there, this gives us a ballpark. As you can see, Calgary probably has around $3M in cap space, give or take, to play with after their main RFAs are signed.

I seriously doubt it. It would be a weird reversal of the Brandon Bollig demotion (and Lance Bouma buyout) to turn around and put Luke Gazdic, who isn’t even as good a player, on the roster.

Even if the Flames don’t sign or trade for another veteran, they have guys like Lazar, Garnet Hathaway, Freddie Hamilton, Mark Jankowski, Hunter Shinkaruk, and Spencer Foo battling for spots on the parent club. Aside from the fact that he’s nowhere near NHL quality, I’m not even sure where Gazdic would fit on the depth chart.

Chances are, the player was signed to patrol the tough guy-strewn AHL to keep an eye on the kids as they develop.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find out the decision makers have Mark Jankowski’s name penciled into the starting lineup. Janko is turning 23 years old this September and has already had a long soak as a prospect. He led the Stockton Heat in goals (27) and points (56) last year and is NHL size at 6’4″ and 205+ pounds.

The team has a bit of logjam at C with Monahan, Bennett, Backlund, and Matt Stajan in the hopper, but that can be solved by either moving Jankowski to the LW or shunting one of Stajan or Bennett to the left side instead.

Luckily our own Christian Tiberi has already done the work for me. In this post, he names 15 historical comparisons for Foo, including Jimmy Vesey, who was the big college UFA catch last year. For a summary, consider:

  • Eight of the 15 players in question never made the NHL (with Spencer Foo and Mike Vecchione as unknowns).
  • The best player out of the sample is Andy McDonald, who scored at a 0.71 PPG pace in the NHL.

CanucksArmy also put Foo through their extensive prospect evaluation process this summer and found that 40% of his comparables went on to become NHLers.

For a more direct comparison, consider Jimmy Vesey and Drake Caggiula from this past season. Both were sought after NCAA free agents and both played in the NHL for their respective clubs. Vesey scored 16 goals and 27 points in a support role for the Rangers while Caggiula seven goals and 18 points in 60 games for the Oilers.

Those aren’t great results, but they aren’t terrible either. That said, both guys got run over from an underlying numbers perspective:

Yikes. Because college free agents are older and NHL teams have had to battle to “win” the right to sign them, sometimes there is internal pressure to play the guy at the NHL level right away. This look suggests neither Vesey nor Caggiula were really ready for NHL prime time last year.

That doesn’t mean Foo won’t be, but it shows how hard it can be to leap into the league directly from college.

    • Rockmorton65

      I suggest you get comfortable, Wally. The fact that the Flames were one of the best teams in the league towards the end of last year, players have bought on and management seems to like him – I’d say he’s here for this season and a chunk of next year as well. My bet is at least 100 games.

      • Skylardog

        So true. If they don’t come out of the gates flying there could be real trouble. If they try to get Brouwer going GG could be on the unemployment line. Just don’t have room in the first 13 to try and make things work.
        Looked like 10 tough in the first 13, but Dallas is much improved now and may contend again and Carolina is better as well. Going 4 and 9 is not out of the question with a slow start.

        • Raffydog

          Especially if you consider that Tre is going all in this year, missing out on the playoffs is unacceptable to say the least, since we traded all our draft picks away

  • The GREAT WW

    Kent; you need to address the comment section disaster;
    Need the edit function back.
    Need to know who people are replying to.
    Need to be able to order comments by time posted, so we can look up most recent posts, not by comment string.

    You know; the way the old comment section was before it was “improved”….

    WW

    • Thunder1

      As usual, Walter. Some of what you say is bang on, but your fixation on coaching changes in the organization leaves us baffled. The boys, by any measure, turned into a top-ten team during the second half of the season. Did they struggle early… sure. But by all accounts, the players bought 100 percent into GG’s system and it paid off. Now, the mood in the organization is the most positive I personally have seen in an off-season in at least a decade.

      Sometimes I think you beat the coaching change drum. Erely to attract attention. That’s a shame because you have some pretty astute observations without the noise. You’re still the only commenter I’ve read who called the McDavid no Calder award in advance.

      • Puckhead

        WW backed off on his Backlund disdain so hopefully GG is next in line. After some of the teams and mediocre hockey that the Flames have iced over the years, players and fans are optimistic again.

        Walter, I believe you indicated in a previous post that you would allow GG a grace period. Why don’t you do that and back off for a while. It gets really tiring…

    • Ari Yanover

      Kent isn’t in charge of any of that stuff. None of us are. Those who are are aware and working on it but it’s taking them a really long time and there isn’t really anything we can do about it. Sorry.

  • buts

    If we get off to a bad start I would give GG 30 games tops. IMO there was too many players having below par seasons to not look at the coach. His player usage as well as the teams fragility in tight games were evidence to GG’s coaching ability…..any coach that doesn’t address the team after a win or loss like GG does is suspect. Then it would probably be Mr. Tippett as a replacement. I hope BT doesn’t sign a vet as by leaving a spot open in the forward ranks it would escalate competition in camp immensely.

  • oilcanboyd

    I do hope that the Flames give the boys on the farm equal opportunity to make the team before they make any more moves. No special treatment for Foo, Lazar….

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      I agree. The positions need to be earned but not just by having a good training camp. Janko has done everything that has been asked from him and so much more. Lazar will get to stay up because he requires waivers but Poirier, Shink, and Klimchuk should be able to battle for the spot.

  • Greg

    That $3M becomes something like $10M by the trade deadline. If Jagr wants to come on a 1 year deal, go for it. Otherwise, keep the powder dry for now. See how Ferland, Lazar, Foo, and Jankoswki fair first, and how Bennet and Tkachuk progress (and maybe Brouwer comes back to life?), not to mention how Smith and Lack hold up, then you’ve got better info to decide at the trade deadline.

    • Parallex

      While that’s true that the cap space will be larger at the deadline the fact is we don’t have the assets (picks) to take on any big money rentals at the trade deadline so there really isn’t any need to “keep the powder dry”. The assets we break camp with will likely be the assets we take into the playoffs.

      • Greg

        We’ve still got that 1 first rounder in 2019 lol.

        But seriously, if the flames really do take the next “big gainer” step this year and look like legit contenders, and the biggest hole is still wingers, you’d have to entertain parting with that and/or a prospect to plug that gap too.

        • Newbietwo

          We are not trading our 2019 first rounder.. I do not see much in waybof future trades the flames will make for two years.. by 2019 season the likes ok Anderson and Kylington will make the flames trade Stone for assets and a first rounder you watch.. in the end you will see that what we end up getting for Stone when we trade him will make the cost of Hamonic line a 2nd rounder max

  • Puckhead

    Kent, I noticed that you didn’t include Poirier in your list of prospect hopefuls vying for a place on the roster? Was this an oversight or something else? Thx

    • supra steve

      The kid is just back from his personal leave, after a few disappointing years in the A, he needs to re-establish himself as a top prospect in the A before he gets a sniff in the bigs.

      • McRib

        He looked a step ahead of everyone to me at developmental camp, even if his finish is rusty with most of last year off, we could really use his wheels and aggressiveness in a bottom six forechecking role.

  • Ole YELLEr

    Even though I’d rather the Flames pass on the veteran wingers listed (no Hudler?), let’s say the Flames get Jagr, where does he slot in? I see 3 choices, rw with JG and SM, KV and SB or with MT and SB. I’d go with MT and SB, he’d be a great mentor. Having said that please don’t do it BT.

    • Parallex

      No, please DO do it BT!

      As for where Jagr would play, if we’re lucky enough to get him, I see him slotting in on PP1 regardless of where he suits up at EV. As for EV… I don’t know. I figure he and Versteeg would fill out 1RW (With JG &SM) or 3RW (With Ferland and Bennett). My instinct would be to put him with Ferland and Bennett for a more power inclined puck protection unit.

      • Puckhead

        The problem with bringing in a top line RW is that he would be a stop-gap solution and we will be faced with the same problem next year. Better to find out if we have an in-house solution.

  • Kevin R

    Like everyone else I think Flames are much improved as things stand. Allocating Widemans, Smid’s(yes he went to LTIR but his 3.5mill impacted any longterm players to replace him) & to some extent Engellends (I didn’t mind Engellend except when him & Bart couldn’t get the puck out & we were hemmed in our end for 2 minutes). Hamonic, re-upping Stone & Kulak to our big 3 is a huge upgrade.

    It’s exciting to have a better team & still introduce new players that could potentially put both hunger & talent into our lineup. Janko & Foo seem like the best chance we see two young guys at some point this year. Jagr would be cool & I see lots of value of his influence on some of our young players. I would be ok if we sign him but not disappointed if we don’t do anything.

    The goalie scenario is the most intriguing. I am probably in the minority that I really like Mike Smith, way more than Elliott even though the stats might say Elliott had the better numbers. Last year, I had zero confidence in Elliotts stats at game time. By the time I was starting to believe in him he crapped the bed in the playoffs. He has floated around the league as a high end backup/1B tender. Smith is a bonafide #, yes he’s older but his size, compete, nastiness just seems to exactly what the Flames need in a goalie. I am a little undecided about the Lack acquisition. Personally, I really wanted to see Gilles & Rittch scrap for that backup, but I do understand why Tre did it. I just really want to see Gilles & Parsons sharing the net in Stockton with potential call ups during the year. I realize Rittch actually had a better year than Gilles but I am partial to Gilles because of all the expectations from his College years. Bottom line, Parsons should be in Stockton next year & Lack is blocking that hope if Rittch is re-signed. Does anyone know where that is at?

      • everton fc

        Foo does seem like a guy w/quiet confidence, maturity… Intelligence… He may indeed push for a spot in Calgary if he has a strong training camp and can score in pre-season.

        I also think the move for Mike Smith is going to be one we all applaud very quickly. His drive to win, his compete-level… If Lack falters, he can either be waived and re-assigned for one of Rittich/Gilles (I still think Rittich is more “ready”). I see Smith playing a lot of games and staying healthy. We shall see…

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      I am luke warm on Lack as well maybe he finds his form or maybe he is out shined by Rittich or Gillies and finds himself sent down. I would not be surprised if Parsons has the best camp of the bunch… But there is no way he stays up.

    • TurkeyLips

      Huge faith in Smith. Other than OEL, he’s been a standout member of the Coyotes in the last decade.

      Check out his performance in the only deep playoff run Phoenix ever enjoyed. Are these half a decade removed from relevance? Sure, but the guy who made them remains, and hopefully surgically repaired to be similar to his pre-injury form. As per wiki:

      “In the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, Smith led the Coyotes to their first playoff series win since 1987, beating the Chicago Blackhawks 4–2 in the series. Smith and the Coyotes went on to defeat the Nashville Predators in the Western conference semi-finals, winning the series 4–1. The Coyotes then faced the eventual Stanley Cup champions Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals, losing the series 4–1.[7] He posted a superb 1.99 GAA and a .944 save percentage, some of the best numbers for starting goaltenders in the playoffs.”

      He carried that team into a respectable playoff run many years ago. Those number show elite level skill, unlike Elliott there wasn’t necessarily world-class defense in front either. Hopefully skills can reemerge and compliment our team for a deep run or two before we settle on a permanent rookie TENDER.

    • Skylardog

      Based on last season, I am looking forward to what Smith can do, but very concerned with Lack as the backup. He will need to play 20 to 25 games, and we need a solid effort from the backup in those games. Not sure he is better than the backup of 1B from last year.
      And if Smith goes down…

  • DoubleDIon

    I would actually take a short term flyer on Vanek for a year. He’s productive when he plays with good players. Let Ferland skate with the Mikes and Tkachuk with Bennett.

      • McRib

        We’d have to keep Vanek out of the Casino, apparently he has quite the gambling addiction. If he was more focused off the ice he is far more talented than he has shown the last few years, but it’s doubtful he gets it back together.

    • everton fc

      The only UFA forward that remotely interests me right now is Jagr, one a one year deal. If we had more cap room, Tomas Tatar is also an interesting player. Perhaps a package that includes Kylington and a goalie prospect (I know that wouldn’t be enough, just thinking out loud here) could be put together for him?

  • OYYC

    There is no way that Treliving brings in an outside player for the roster to start the season. One, he doesn’t have the cap space; and two there is exactly one open slot on the roster (with Brouwer still on the team) and that slot figures to go to Jankowski. Bringing in any FA would be a big mistake.

  • OYYC

    The player who intrigues me the most is Josh Healey. A bottom 6, lefty defenceman – eventually the team will miss Engelland’s physical play, and his ability to give an opposition player a tune-up if necessary. Sure, Healey loves to run people over, but can he back it up by fighting in the pros?

    If his foot speed is up to par, and he is not a detriment on defence like Bartkowski was at the end of the year, maybe Healey warrants a call up later on in the season.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    Maybe it is just me… But I have a much better feeling going into the season than I had last year. Johnny and Monny” contracts, missed training camps, a new coach, bad PTO decisions, and the World Cup of hockey were just some of the distractions that took place.

    There are 2 significant contracts that are still pending, namely Bennett and. Ferland but neither player has a lot of leverage so I don’t see a lot of risk. I thought, Elliott was going to make us competitive but I have always felt that Smith is an elite goalie so I see a big upgrade.

    My only concern is who will be the late UFA signings, and how will this impact the path of the prospects. If we do decide to bring in a PTO make it like Versteeg and not Grossman. I would be fine if we could sign Jagr otherwise Iwould like to see an battle for open spots. If Janko has a good camp that plus his AHL season earns him a spot.

  • The Fall

    Are The Flames a better team this year than last?

    Yes.

    Flames finished middle of the West in GF (222), GA (219), and GD(+3)… As much as shooting metrics are a proxy for goals, I still look at goals.

    As noted, we should expect growth from Sean, Johnny, Matt and (especially) Sam: +20 GF
    No Flame forward had a real ‘breakout year’ offensively, and no Flame forward should be seen as ready a huge regression candidate: +/- 0 GF
    Lazar in place of Bouma: + 10 GF
    TJ had a horrible season last year he will be a positive (+/-) next year: – 15 GA
    The third pair will be less exposed: -5 GA
    Elliott gave up a goal from centre ice and Smith will score an empty netter: -1 GA, +1 GF (net +2).

    I see a Goal Differential around +55 for next season — Thats top 5.

  • Skylardog

    Love how the article starts by talking about possession and how it is the key indicator of where we are headed, not standings.

    Shall I remind everyone that 4 of the top 10 possession teams, and 5 of the top 11, missed the playoffs. That LA was tops and missed.

    Six teams that made the playoffs were in the bottom half of possession in the league, including the Stanley Cup Champions. 3 of the 4 conference finalists were also in the bottom half of the possession ratings.

    Only 2 of the top 13 possession teams made it to round 2 of the playoffs.

    Strangely enough, 16 of the top 16 teams measured by standings made the playoffs (It doesn’t have to work out that way by the way).

    Quit throwing out possession as the key to success. It has no merit. It indicates almost nothing that translates into winning during the season or as an indicator of playoff success.

    And if you want to throw it out as to why GG is great…

    We will have that discussion 13 games into the season.

  • HOCKEY83

    Ferland: $1.85M
    Bennett: $2.25M
    Kulak: $0.925M
    Lazar: $1.125M
    Total: $6.15M

    This is low.
    Ferland between 2 and 2.5 mil – He deserves to get paid for first line time
    Bennett between 3 and 4 mil – He deserves at least Brouwer money and that’s what he’ll be arguing
    Kulak – 1 to 1.2
    Lazar – 1.5 to 2 if anything less than this he will want 1 year deal to prove himself.

    All of you seem to think that a prospect d and a prospect forward will be making the team so that will be another 2 mil. 1 extra press box forward and D that are not currently figured into the cap at capfriendly. low end of those equal the cap. there is no room add anyone else barring a trade. You can’t just choose to go low because you think that’s what they deserve you got to go with the comparibles at capfriendly. Players get overpaid. look what brouwer got for being a 30 to 40 point guy at his age you don’t think Bennett who’s younger and has a greater upside will warrant as much money.

    • Lucky 13

      Ferland is the only player seeking arbitration, Bennett never filed, same with Lazar.
      With the exception of Ferland, because we don’t know what the final number will be, all the rest are good… unless I missed something?

    • The GREAT WW

      If Brouwer was the right comparable for Ferland, every player in the NHL could say: “Look I’m at least as good as Brouwer, so I should get at least 4.5 for 4 years.”
      NHL minimum wage would be $4.5 million….

      WW

  • Slowmo

    Tell me WW how can you blame a bad start to any one other than bad goal tending and perhaps learning a new system sounds like your pretty knowledgeable on Hockey how come you don’t understand the way hockey goes? For example if a team starts a whole new system and they have only say lease than a month to get ready to adapt to the new system plus you have your top player not at the rink due to money issues and you also have to bran spanking new goalies who at the start couldn’t stop a beach ball how do you put the onus on the coach? please explain curios minds would like to know?