3 positive trends two months in

Two months into the 2017-18 season, there are two glaringly obvious positives for the Calgary Flames: Mike Smith and the play of the number one line. While there are certainly things to be wary of, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see a few more positives beyond just their starting goaltender and top scoring line.

Of course, the negative trends are fairly glaring on the Flames, too. The team is getting virtually nothing from their bottom six forwards, the second pairing continues to really struggle, and the backup goalie situation is still very much in flux. More on that later, though, because today’s piece is a positive one.

1. The 3M line

If anyone worried last year’s outstanding work from Calgary’s shutdown line was a fluke, they can breathe easy. The trio of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk has picked up right where they left off.

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Player CF% Rank OZS% Rank
Matthew Tkachuk 58.8 1st 39.6 3rd
Mikael Backlund 57.9 2nd 40.0 4th
Michael Frolik 57.0 4th 41.3 5th

Just like last year, the 3M line is the team’s best two-way line and one of the best of their kind in the NHL. Tkachuk, Backlund, and Frolik boast three of the top four possession rates on the team and the three best amongst forwards. And, as per usual, they’re doing all of this with some of the toughest responsibility in the league.

Only two teammates have started more shifts in their own zone than this trio (Matt Stajan and Troy Brouwer), while no group of players sees tougher defensive responsibility on a nightly basis. The 3M line is truly a shutdown unit: they’re matched up against top opposition every single game and get the better of those circumstances far more often than not.

For whatever reason, though, there’s a sentiment among some that this line has taken a step back. I guess you can point to offensive production having decreased slightly, but even that’s not true across the board.

Backlund has actually been more productive five-on-five this season than he was last year; his points-per-60 is up to 1.74 from 1.67, which is impressive considering the role he’s playing. After finishing fourth in Selke Trophy voting last year, seeing Backlund end up as a finalist this June looks very realistic when evaluating his first two months.

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Tkachuk’s five-on-five rates have gone down slightly (P60 of 1.61 vs. 2.07), but thanks to increased production on the powerplay, he’s actually on pace for around 55 points this season as compared to last year’s 48. Finally, Frolik’s production remains consistent, albeit with a small dip from last season (P60 of 1.29 vs. 1.51).

Even with Tkachuk and Frolik scoring slightly less at even strength, this line still remains one of the league’s most formidable and consistent. Knowing the difficult circumstances they face every night, offensive production is just an added bonus to the stellar work they do that trickles down the depth chart. It just so happens the 3M line is still scoring on a fairly regular basis, so pass the gravy.

2. The top pairing

When Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton were put together early last season, many thought the pairing had the potential to be very successful. Well, those expectations were likely exceeded, as the duo turned into of of the league’s best in short order. Nothing has really changed through 24 games this season.

Player CF% OZS%
Mark Giordano 57.2 52.0
Dougie Hamilton 57.0 53.0

To date, Giordano and Hamilton own the team’s top possession rates for defencemen and sit third and fifth overall on the Flames, respectively. Even more impressively, those two also rank third and fifth amongst all NHL blueliners in the same category. Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse (first), Carolina’s Noah Hanifin (second), and Chicago’s Cody Franson (fourth) round out the top five, and all carry higher offensive zone start ratios.

Once again, as a pairing, Giordano and Hamilton continue to see some of the league’s most difficult competition, yet spend far more time on the attack than they do defending. I’m not sure when the 34-year-old Giordano is going to see things tail off, but he’s been stellar though the first quarter of this season.

Hamilton, on the other hand, still has a good number of detractors, which is difficult to comprehend. Whether he’s too “soft”, doesn’t defend well, or doesn’t look like he’s trying hard enough, there’s still plenty of anti-Dougie sentiment out there. The reality is, though, that Hamilton positions himself very well defensively, has good gaps, and transitions play out of his own end effectively. You don’t spend as much time at the right end of the ice as Hamilton does by fluke.

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More than anything else, Giordano and Hamilton make one another better. While Gio is more physical and never gives up on a play, Hamilton is a better skater and the two play off of one another well. This pairing was one of the NHL’s best last year and hasn’t missed a beat through the first two months of this season.

3. Brett Kulak

After sitting out the first seven games of the season as a healthy scratch, Kulak has dressed for 15 of Calgary’s last 17 games, and he’s winning people over left, right, and centre. Kulak has been steady, effective, consistent, and continues proving to me he’s an everyday NHL defenceman. It also seems like he’s winning over the coaching staff.

CF% Rank OZS% Rank
49.3 3rd 48.0 2nd

With the ranks above amongst Flames blueliners, Kulak trails only Giordano and Hamilton on the possession side, while only Michael Stone has started fewer shifts in the offensive zone. Dating back to last year, Kulak has consistently owned one of the team’s top shot rates, which becomes more telling as the sample size continues to grow.

An argument could be made for Kulak being this team’s third or fourth best defenceman this season, but that can be hard to quantify when you compare quality of competition. Here’s what you can’t argue: Kulak is one of the six best blueliners on the team.

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Matt Bartkowski has been Kulak’s main competition for playing time this year, but there really isn’t a comparison. The eye tells us that, first and foremost, but shot-based metrics back it up, too. Bartkowski’s 44.2% possession puts him well behind every other defenceman on the team, which is telling enough, but there’s even more convincing evidence.

Kulak and Bartkowski have played primarily with the aforementioned Stone on Calgary’s third pairing and the disparity is staggering. Take a look at how lopsided the outputs are when comparing Kulak-Stone as a pairing against Bartkowski-Stone.

Kulak-Stone Bartkowski-Stone
48.3 45.2 42.8 56.1

The way Kulak skates, and how he’s performed dating back to last season, makes me believe a top four role isn’t out of the question in the somewhat near future. Regardless, he’s more than earned a regular spot on Calgary’s blueline and has been one of the team’s most positive stories thus far.

    • Brent G.

      Wow, you are a real bundle of sunshine eh?

      Everything can’t be blamed on GG shoulders entirely. In fact Corsi has improved dramatically since becoming coach of the Flames

  • Skylardog

    Apparently the Flames need some counter propaganda for the wave of sentiment against the coach and the play of this team so far this season that is starting to flood this site and others.

    Pat, you are obviously reading the posts here, and appear to be taking a strong exception to what I have to say about the alarming trends that are starting to unfold. To counter that, you use the full season, and ignore the fact that the 3M line is beginning to get throttled on 5v5 in the last 10 to 12 games. They are a combined -14 in the last 11 games, with only 3 goals 5v5. Bennett, Janko, and Jagr have 4.

    The coach needs to go, but I know, “You are not ready to go there yet.”

      • Skylardog

        It is when Pat has read comments, refers to comments regarding certain players and lines in the article, then takes one or 2 stats to try and create a positive image for the Flames. He knows I have been posting regarding concerns, in particular concerns of the Backlund line in he last 10 games. He throws out the full season and uses the only positive stat, Corsi, to counter the argument presented.

        I used GF and GA when on the ice, goals, and points individually, broke it down by home and away games. And most of all, I explained how the concern is over the last 10 games. If that isn’t an attempt at propaganda, I don’t know what is.

        As for Corsi I will say this. Last year, LA was the best in the NHL. They didn’t make the playoffs. Their coach, Sutter, also is no longer their coach. How is that possible, they were the best.

        Or maybe Corsi is irrelevant.

        Corsi is one stat, that must be used in conjunction with a slew of other stats, to create a true picture of what is happening on the ice. On its own, it is useless.

        • BringtheFire 2.0

          “He knows I have been posting regarding concerns…”

          So this entire article is a reaction to…you. And what…you’re saying.

          We get it. You don’t like the coach and the numbers are pedestrian. I’m just not sure what you’re trying to accomplish, or why you’re so desperate to accomplish it.

        • Cfan in Van

          I think you need to step off of your high horse, and perhaps start a blog of your own, if you think “For whatever reason, though, there’s a sentiment among some that this line has taken a step back”, is a direct response to you. Pike doesn’t owe you any detailed retort to your posts. I don’t mind your analysis in the comment section, but you need to chill a bit. Going on about propaganda on a free sports blog is ridiculous.

  • buts

    Tho the CF% is good, what about the CBO%, CD%, CH%, CML%, TSS% also the OW%, DS% and OC%. These stand for can’t break out, can’t defend, can’t hit, can’t match lines, terrible special teams, out worked, dumb systems and out coached.

  • HAL MacInnis

    I’d love to give Gulutzan all the time in the world, but every month that goes by is a month lost of preparing the team for the playoffs. Any coach would love to be gifted the roster that the Flames have. Lots of talent, lots to work with. If we don’t get past the first round, I’d consider this year a disappointment.

    If Gulutzan is going to get fired this year, it has to happen before all the other coaches get scooped up. That was Treliving’s big mistake last time; firing Hartley way too late in the year and having very limited options.

  • Greg

    At the start of the season, I would have said the flames have great depth but lack elite top tier talent. It’s been the exact opposite though.

    Kulak has been the one bright spot in the depth category. I’d argue that everyone else in the bottom 6/4 is, at best, meeting expectations. Its time Bartkowski stops battling kulak for the “6th spot” and starts battling Anderson/Stone/hamonic for it.

    • FlamesFanOtherCity

      It’s time to end the Bart experiment entirely. There is no valid reaosn for him to be on the roster. Not by fancy stats, not by eye test, not by his stats. None. Would rather they pay Wotherspoon to sit in the stands than this tire fire. Also, it would remove the temptation to use Bart for injury replacement (see Hamonic injury) or for when Kulak is scapegoated for a lousy game by all defense.

  • IUsedToHaveAName

    I would consider putting Kulak with Hamonic for a few games. I was impressed with Kulak’s play with Engelland last season and I’m even more impressed with him now that he’s playing with a better partner in Stone and seems to have absolutely no problem keeping up.

    Dropping Brodie to the 5/6 pairing also gives him less responsibility to hopefully help him work through this funk he’s been in for the last ten games or so and provides him with an offence minded partner to play off of.

    Kulak’s skating ability would also allow Hamonic to be more aggressive after they get more comfortable playing together.

    Off the top of my head I have no idea how this screws with GG’s insistence on keeping the RH/LH pairings going but that plan doesn’t seem to be working all that well lately. I figure chemistry would be better for this D right now than how pretty the game cards look and as Pat alluded to above, breaking up Gio/Hammy would be pretty dumb.