Now in the second quarter of the season, the Calgary Flames are still next to impossible to figure out.
Built around their defence, which was predicted in the preseason to be among the very best units in the league, they’re actually among the worst in keeping shots away from one of their key offseason acquisitions — goaltender Mike Smith. Yet the Flames have improved their possession play since last year, according to the NHL’s advanced stats metrics.
That counter-intuitive contrast may be because of how dominant Johnny Gaudreau has been early this season, before his current three-game point drought.
But teams often develop their identity by this time of year, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone inside or outside the locker room who can tell you exactly what that is at the moment. Tuesday’s ugly loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs followed by the shutout victory on Thursday over an inferior Arizona Coyotes only further confused the issue following their season-long road trip the previous week.
The 3-2-1 record on that lengthy roadie was collected in every way imaginable. A complete disaster in Detroit, where an 8-2 obliteration might have been their worst effort of the season. A second regulation loss almost as disturbing, with giveaways galore in Dallas. They went 1-1 in extra time, claiming an overtime win in Philadelphia and losing in Columbus without scoring a single goal.
A pair of regulation victories were more along the lines of what head coach Glen Gulutzan expects to see. A 4-1 win in Washington might have been their best overall effort of the year. The trip’s closer in Colorado was a classic road win, with the team allowing just one even strength goal against while playing well in front of a backup goaltender.
Since returning home, the loss to the Leafs and win over the Coyotes were great examples of how bad they can be or how good they can look.
This isn’t the plucky Flames team from just a few years back that outworked everybody and refused to quit. It’s also not the defensive juggernaut everyone expected after the Travis Hamonic deal and re-signing of Michael Stone gave them one of the best bluelines assembled on paper this summer.
The Flames are in a decent position in the standings, but you can say that about all but a couple of teams in the Western Conference at this point. If the Flames play to their high end potential, they should finish in the top three in the Pacific Division, and we could even see them host a playoff round. If they stumble the way they did in January last year, they could just as easily fall to 12 or 13th in the conference.
In order to objectively guess where they might land, let’s look at things from the optimistic and pessimistic viewpoints and predict how things might turn out.
Glass Half Full
Until this week, the Flames have been getting timely and consistent production from their top line, with Gaudreau still on pace for 35 goals and 112 points. The last time the team had a 100-point player was 1992-93 when fellow little big man Theoren Fleury netted 34 goals and 66 assists to hit the century mark on the dot.
Gaudreau has dominated many of the Flames’ wins and has scored multiple points in nearly half his games so far. And he’s been taking his linemates along for the ride. Sean Monahan already has 14 goals, with five of them game-winners, putting him within reach of 50 for the first time. And Micheal Ferland’s current pace would double his career high.
The second line has been decent, too, with Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk sitting third and fourth in team scoring while also shutting down the competitions’ top lines.
Defenceman T.J. Brodie has been a top powerplay provider and Dougie Hamilton is their best point-producing blueliner at even strength.
Overall, they’re a middle-of-the-pack offence with a stellar top line that has carried it so far.
Glass Half Empty
The top line has covered a lot of blemishes. That trio has produced 35 of the team’s 71 goals (49 percent), and 58 percent of those contributed by forwards.
If Gaudreau gets hurt or his current cold snap becomes an extended one, the team could have trouble coming up with goals. Aside from a couple of outbursts, including a two-goal night from Mark Jankowski on Thursday, they aren’t often coming from the bottom six forwards or the defence at even strength.
Despite some of the top offensive zone starts on the team, the third line of Sam Bennett, Jankowski and Jaromir Jagr has been a factor in just three games this season. And a fourth line features Curtis Lazar, Matt Stajan, Freddie Hamilton, Troy Brouwer and now Garnet Hathaway walking through a revolving door.
Prediction: Don’t worry too much about that top line. Barring serious injury, Gaudreau is going to average a point per game as a minimum. The secondary scoring is still a serious concern but that third line holds the key. If they get it together consistently, the Flames have the potential to become one of the better offences in the league.
Glass Half Full
Like the forward group, the top pair on the back end are the only ones to live up to their billing. Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton have been stellar as a pairing this season.
Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire has a great analytical piece up on the best pairings in the NHL using Corsica.Hockey information as a basis, and the Gio/Hamilton tandem has the best underlying numbers among the league’s top partners. The goals and points total hasn’t been high thus far, especially for Giordano, but once the rewards come, they’ll further cement their status as a top defensive duo.
Brett Kulak should never be benched for Matt Bartkowski again, averaging nearly 13 minutes a night. His partner, Stone, has become one of the team’s top penalty killers alongside Giordano.
Including possession in this category, because the other team isn’t going to score while they have control of the puck, the Flames have a 51.76 SAT% to sit ninth in the NHL this year. As a group, that’s an improvement over last year’s 50.54%.
Glass Half Empty
Yeah, but Brodie and Hamonic. The second pairing on the blueline has been problematic to say the least. They’ve both made brutal giveaways that directly led to goals against, appear to be unable to communicate on the ice and trust each other, and Brodie is even worse with Hamonic than when they’re apart — which contradicts every belief about bringing Hamonic in as a reliable defensive anchor to allow Brodie to take the offensive risks and produce some points.
Turns out Hamonic is an anchor, but not in the reliable, stay-at-home way.
Bartkowski’s appearances are a head-scratcher, whether you’re relying on metrics or the old-fashioned eyeball test. When we figure out why, you’ll be the first to know.
Also, the team is allowing 32.8 shots against per game, up from 28.7 they averaged last season. They sit sixth worst in the league right now and that is a tough thing for a goalie to continuously have to overcome.
Prediction: Because Giordano and Hamilton have been so strong together, the abysmal second pairing will likely be given a very long leash. If they can’t figure out how to play together without coughing the puck up regularly, Stone might get a chance to move up into the top four — not a popular notion because of his awful possession numbers, but some of his better games have come recently. Trade isn’t likely an option at this point but internal promotion could happen if the team decides to move Bartkowski down and bring up Rasmus Andersson for a more extended look. He’s having another great year with the Stockton Heat in the AHL.
Glass Half Full
Mike Smith has been a revelation after toiling in relative obscurity in the desert for six seasons. His .924 save percentage is ninth best among those who have started at least a dozen games this year. This despite facing the second most shots in the league behind Toronto’s Frederik Andersen.
The 35-year-old has missed just one game so far and has handled the heavy workload with poise. He’s aggressive, athletic and covers a lot of net and has been the team’s co-MVP along with Gaudreau.
Glass Half Empty
Eddie Lack looked fairly decent when he first came on in relief of Smith this season, but things went downhill quickly with him. So the notion that David Rittich is the saviour of the all-important backup spot is a little premature.
Part of what makes Smith a great goaltender is his competitive and fiery nature, but how long does that remain positive fuel if he continues to watch so many bad giveaways and bad bounces end up behind him in the net? You can see some of the frustrations he’s feeling underneath that mask. It hasn’t seemed to affect his play yet, but it’s a concern.
Prediction: As long as he’s healthy, Smith gives the Flames a chance to win. He’s arguably their best and most confident starting netminder since Miikka Kiprusoff. The backup situation was at least addressed after Lack showed he wasn’t capable of quality starts after sitting for long periods.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The key so far has been their two best players. Without Johnny Gaudreau and Mike Smith, The Flames would be in serious trouble. The positive spin to that is there is a good chance this group can be much better if the supporting cast can start chipping in with regularity. Barring a devastating injury to one of the top players, this is a playoff team at worst.
Without better depth performances at every position, though, they won’t be able to do much damage when they get there.