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Flames still looking to develop identity

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.

OFFENCE

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.

DEFENCE

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.

GOALTENDING

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.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    Last night was the first time in a long time that I saw Bennett smiling on the bench. I am sure he came into this year wanting to show management that he was worth more than what they signed him for. He has put so much pressure on himself that he has struggled.

    I am not convinced Bennett can produce consistently at the NHL level. Last night he was fortunate to get 2 secondary assists, however one could argue that he has been unfortunate to not get any points in some of his games. If you think back to Bennett’s last 2 goals that he scored you can’t help but be concerned. His goal this year came off a scramble in front of the net while the other came last year in the playoffs glancing off his foot.

    It wasn’t long ago that Bennett had a 4 goal game, yet it is hard to see the same player.
    I am pulling for the guy but While I feel he will be invaluable in the playoffs, I don’t see anything to convince me he will produce consistently. But with the mentorship of Jagr and a little confidence he could be a force

    • Azim

      Call me an optimist, but I still have hope that Bennett will carve out a successful career. I just hope it’s mostly with the Flames. His production has gotten better of late: six points in his last 10 games (About 50 pts in a 82-game sample), after a complete zero the first 15. It’s a long season; but as the author says here, how well Bennett and that third line play this year could determine this team’s ceiling.

    • Rudy27

      I think Bennett has skills, speed, and toughness that is lacking with many of the other skilled (and non-skilled) players on the Flames (other than Byng). Therefore, there is definitely value in having him on the team, considering I fully expect him to pick up his game offensively over time. I was very high on him initially and thought he could become our #1 Centre, but this year I’m thinking he just might not have as high of a hockey IQ as our other young guns like Tkachuk, Monny, Janko, and Johnny.

  • Lucky 13

    Great summary MacFarlane!

    I think you said what most of us were thinking. I can’t remember when I felt so positive at the beginning of a season. We signed Hamonic and re-signed Stone. We picked up Jagr the hall of famer. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was elated.

    Fast forward to today and I’m inexplicably confused more than anything else.

    Is Hamonic really a great fit? Are we just witnessing a transitional phase that happens between new defence partners?
    Wasn’t Stone one of the reasons for our solid defence with Brodie last year? How can we be this inconsistent? Why are we getting so many shots against us this season?

    I have more questions than answers at this juncture.

    GG said we should expect Bennett to have a breakout year. I drank the same Red Bull he was selling, I thought for sure Bennett would have wings’ with the hall of famer at his side.

    Maybe my expectations weren’t real. That’s on me.
    However when your 1st line represents 50% of the offence it starts fire bells ringing. Is that sustainable for a full season?
    If our 3rd line comes to life like we know it’s capable of, then perhaps this wouldn’t be a concern. But for now , it is.

    Remember how most of us believed if Smith could give us averge league goaltending we’d be just fine? Well to say he’s been nothing short of magnificent is an understatement. Thank you Mike Smith! What would our standings look like without him!

    I guess the real question or concerns I have are the same as most Flames fans. Are we really a postseason team? Is our Modus Operandi identifiable?

    If we do become postseason candidates, will we have any success? Thank goodness we have 50+ games to get this right.

  • Rudy27

    It should be easy for this team to find an identity. Just watch the game film from those games where we played great, determine what made us play great, copy and paste to every game you play thereafter!

  • Thunder1

    I’ve got a feeling we have just started to scratch the surface of how well Benny/Janko/Jagr do for the rest of the season. If Jags can stay healthy, the points are going to come. That line owns the puck more often than not.

  • BendingCorners

    So are more scoring and better defense the keys to developing an identity? Or is developing an identity the key to more scoring and better defense? What identity are they trying to develop? How are they attempting to do so? The article is a good summary of the team’s performance but provides zero insight on its ostensible subject.

  • freethe flames

    This team does not have an identity because the system being used does not fit the personal or the other way around. Secondly it does not have an identity because it has a number of players who cannot live up to any identity that makes sense in today’s NHL. Thirdly it does not have an identity because the coach has no personality.

  • Flint

    Man, there is a lot of narrative creation going on @ Flames nation. By the numbers, Travis Hamonic is the third best defenseman on this team, feel how you may about that. Bart is terrible. He faces tougher competition and plays much more than Kulak. Has better numbers than Stone and Brodie. Yes, he’s worses than Gio and Hamilton.

    He’s playing better every game it seems, and was the best player on the team corsi against the yotes. However, a few numbers without context and we’re branding him an anchor. Check my comment in the article Christian wrote and it has the stats or look em up yourself. Hamonic is by all measures but points, playing better than Brodie, yet now we have posts linking previously inaccurate posts continuing the false narrative.

    • Flint

      “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”

      The last bit, referencing WOWY is simply untrue. Brodie is essentially the same without Hamonic as he is with him (49% Corsi). Hamonic is better without Brodie than with Brodie (51%).

  • Kevin R

    Does anyone know what our options are with Lack? Can we potentially buy him out down in the AHL or are buyouts only allowed during that window in the summer? Can we assign him to KC & bring Parsons up to work with Gilles in the AHL. Just curious what options we have with Lack & the fact we need to get Parsons to Stockton….stat!

    • freethe flames

      The Flames could release him and pay out his salary but it would still be a cap hit, I believe the Flames could send him to KC if he struggles in Stockton but he did not in his one start. I suspect they are using Stockton as way of increasing his value if his game comes around but if indeed he struggles there I think they would move him to KC. But that is just speculation.

      • Lucky 13

        Maybe I’m a bit confused. I was under the assumption that once a player had cleared waivers that they could only be loaned to their AHL affiliate club as that is the only one the NHL recognizes.
        I believe players on ELC’s can be sent to the ECHL but are paid their AHL salary.

        As far as buyouts, the Flames can buyout Lacks contract (why) like Neimi was and he’s now playing in Montreal.

        • BendingCorners

          Buyouts happen only in the summer unless a player breaks his contract. Lots of ways around it but the cap hit remains, just reduced and spread over more years. Lack is on a cheap expiring contract and the team gets credit for 1.075 million off his cap hit for sending him to the AHL. As the other respondent noted, if he plays well down there he becomes a trade chip.

  • Lets Get Something Clear

    They’ve been downright awful at points this season, but I think there’s reason to be optimistic that Hamonic and Brodie will come around. Brodie seems to have a bit of the yips but we’ve seen better out of him before. And a lot of people were ready to see Hamonic fail because of the cost to acquire him. It takes time to learn a new system (remember when Hamilton got here? Good thing the Flames gave up and traded that bum…).

    All that said, how much better would it have been to acquire Methot to play the left-hand side as the defensive anchor and let Brodie prowl the right?

  • freethe flames

    What are the Flames really? They are not a fast team although they have some guys who are, they are not a physical team although there are few guys who are, they are not a skilled team although a few guys are, they are not a grind it out possession team although a few guys are, they are not a deeply skilled team even though a few guys are highly skilled and they are not deep just look at forwards 10-14 ad even 8&9 have struggled significantly. So it’s not hard to understand that they have no identity. My choice would be to go young and fast in the bottom end and build that identity.

    • Kevin R

      Youth is the way of the NHL these days & to go deep you need to hit a home run or two with young guys that embrace the opportunity & raise their level of play. To have the cap space & 4 th line committed to 30+ vets is a waste. If you want experience & leadership it is best served by your best players. I would only acquire vets like Stajan & Brouwer on expiring contracts at the TDL. Otherwise you are best served going like the leafs with lots of youth & have 4 lines that are young & capable. Let them compete for more minutes & PP time & by God, if they perform let them have the minutes. You realize that cap space of Brouwer & Stajan could be replaced by young guys on ELC’s & the extra 6.0 mill could score you a pretty good top 6 forward.

  • Derzie

    The Flames are a reflection of their GM, coach and captain. Serious demeanor with some good plays and bad ones. Can look the part and be terrible on the same night. Can really show some hustle and leadership when its needed.

  • Korcan

    At what point do we acknowledge that maybe Brodie is the problem and not everyone he is partnered with? TJ is a rover, much like PK in Nashville. These are the hardest defencemen to play with because they are very unpredictable and thus difficult to anticipate what they are going to do so you can position yourself accordingly to support them. One reason Giordano makes his partners better is because he plays a traditional style of defense, making him easier to play with. TJ has not been impressive since leaving Giordano’s side, regardless who he is partnered with. At some point need we ask, “Maybe it’s him”?

  • Skylardog

    “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.”

    Very accurate, and also concerning. This is why I have a beef with this team. If it ends so quickly and in such a frustrating manner, like it did last year, I will probably lose my mind. That really is where we are headed right now, is it not?

      • Skylardog

        Still tied for 19th in regulation decisions, 1 game below 500, tied for 12th in the West with the powerhouse Colorado.

        You are agreeing with me.

        The fact we are in a playoff spot as you point out – that is the first part of the quoted statement. The regulation record points to the second part of the quoted statement.

        BTF – I think what that means is you mostly agree with what I had to say. Apparently Hell has frozen over.

  • McRib

    Stepan Falkovsky 4 Points in last 6 GP +4, not to mention he is only 23 days from being a U20 1997 Birthday. Craziness, what horrible asset management that was by Treliving, I hope we just didn’t let a stud walk away.

  • smatic10

    I know this can be said for all NHL teams, but I can’t help but think it when I watch our Flames: they’re simply not playing as well as they’re capable of playing. There is far too much talent at all positions in our line-up to be THIS inconsistent. And despite that, we are 14-10-1 (a winning record). If Brodie-Hamonic figure it out and the third line starts scoring somewhat regularly we can be a much more dangerous team. Ideally, we bring up Mangiapane too so our 4th line can be effective instead of the eyesore it has been. But we know that’s not going to happen so I guess we just have to live with it.

  • The topic has been existing since the writer has stepped on Canadian soil. Despite substantial transitions, nothing seems to have changed technically. Yet, no one has taken the initiative to focus or delve on the prime issue.
    For the most part, Matthew Tkachuk has been the player who has risked making incredible plays; and despite his outstanding efforts, he was being insinuated as the most *dirty* player being unfairly penalized and suspended on two occasions. He is often targeted for wrong doing while the opposition gets away with murder so to speak.

    Retrospectively, somebody seems to dislike the Calgary Flames team and its successes; and the reasoning remains a mystery. It is sad to note that players like Kris Russell and Mike Cammalleri (the Ex-Flames) are now performing for other teams and excelling there. The question remains…why? Why are other teams allowed to have the best players when the Flames cannot.
    Net minding is another issue. Brian Elliott aced as the goal tender for the St.Louis Blues and had performed impressively during the playoff runs. Yet, as a Flame’s net minder his performance had plummeted to zero. Now as a Philadelphia Flyer he seems to be excelling again. Surprise? Indeed it is. The same applies to Mike Smith; but what remains critical is the coaching decisions.
    – Why was Mike Smith not pulled out at the end of the first period on Saturday after allowing three goals. Why did David Rittich not replace him then? Isn’t it harder to win after falling 5-1?
    – Why was Mike Smith given the net minding duties against the Flyers?
    Kris Versteeg being placed on IR (injured reserve) also comes as a surprise. Why are exceptional players not being maintained by the team?
    In closing it has been heard that the Stanley Cup will be won by Canadian teams. If this is so, then it is clear that championships are predetermined and not earned by competence. Should it really matter whether Canadian or American teams accomplish victories?. No it doesn’t, but what matter is that games should be fairly judged. This has been the prime issue to date.
    Of note, the Sportsnet logo states: “United by Sport”. Really? or should we say “pinned by biases”