During the Darryl Sutter regime, there was a saying down in the belly of the Saddledome that “Just OK is not OK.”
The constant pressure caused a great deal of anxiety at times. Eventually it even took the fun out of winning.
Right now, the Calgary Flames are Just OK. The majority of people around the team and in the city that lives and breathes by their wins and losses seem to be relatively comfortable with that… for now.
Their record has them on pace for around 90 points, which likely won’t be good enough for a playoff spot, but at the moment puts them in a pack of about eight teams hunting for a wildcard position. Despite the loss to the division rival Sharks, they’re still just a couple of points behind them for third in the Pacific Division.
So the question, more than a third of the way into the 2016-17 season, is are they going to be better than just OK the rest of the way?
There are signs amid the inconsistencies lately suggesting they’ll be one of the teams capable of pulling ahead. If all the elements of their collective game come together at the same time more often, and growth takes place in some of the areas that haven’t yet shown glimpses of greatness. (*cough* Brodie and Hamonic cough*), this team should bump up its point pace.
Let’s look at a handful of reasons the Flames are probably a little better than they’ve shown to date.
1. The spread offence
During the first quarter of the season, the top line was the only consistent source of offence. Johnny Gaudreau had 11 goals and 34 points in his first 22 contests and was in on more than half of the scoring plays at the forward position. But others have stepped up during his modest slump. (He’s got a pair of goals and five points in his last 10 games.)
It may be a little unfair to describe the dip in production as a real slump when you consider the points Gaudreau is contributing are often critical — like the overtime setup to Sean Monahan for the game-winner in Montreal — and he does appear to be coming out of it with points in back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 20.
Although, technically, his goal in the 3-2 loss to the Sharks was as part of the third line as Garnet Hathaway set Gaudreau up while Sam Bennet joined Monahan and Micheal Ferland.
The team has seen its goals-per-game average drop a little during Johnny’s Drought, averaging a modest 2.50 goals per game with 25 in the last 10 contests. But while the top line (Gaudreau, Monahan, Ferland) has been timely with eight of them, the third line (Bennett, Mark Jankowski, Hathaway) has nearly as many with six.
The second line (Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik) owns six as well. Fourth line winger Troy Brouwer has a pair in that stretch, too. The other three have come from defencemen (Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and Michael Stone).
They’d like more of a contribution from the blueliners, but having three forward lines contributing at the same time would be a huge positive for a team that so heavily relied on just one for its early wins this season.
2. Call for backup
We already know that Mike Smith is a solid goaltender, and we can thank Flames GM Brad Treliving for showing us exactly how great the competitive 35-year-old can be by bringing him over from the Arizona Coyotes and giving him a fresh start. Why the Flames are likely even better than we have seen has as much to do with the man playing behind Smith as the starter himself.
Arguably the toughest spot to fill on any team, a backup has to be spectacular in practice and prepared to play his absolute best with large breaks in game action in between. That’s a huge challenge, physically and even more so mentally because of the routine involved. The pressure they feel is immense as the guy who has to get things done while the preferred guy gets a break.
How the backup responds to this challenge is a massively important piece of a team’s chemistry and confidence — and that may not be more evident anywhere in the league than Calgary this year. The team has changed since David Rittich came on board in place of American Hockey League-bound Eddie Lack.
Rittich has won both of his starts, almost two weeks apart, since joining the team in late November — allowing just four goals on 63 shots (a .940 save percentage) against the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 25 and Montreal Canadiens Dec. 7.
It’s a small sample size but stabilization at that spot is extremely important and it’s possible that if Rittich’s strong play continues, he’ll get more opportunities to play in order to ensure Smith stays healthy and energized later in the season.
3. Patience is a virtue
There is no denying the pairing of Brodie and Hamonic has been brutal on the backend for most of the year. They’ve shown little to none of the chemistry management and coaches were hoping to see after the offseason acquisition of Hamonic. Instead of a second shutdown pairing with two-way talent, they got a disastrous duo for the first third of the season.
That put a lot more pressure (and a heavier workload) on the goaltender, who faced lot of quality scoring chances against on many a night when Brodie and Hamonic were on the ice in front of him.
But some perspective here. In addition to Hamonic entering a new system for effectively the first time in his NHL career, Brodie is only in his second year under new head coach Glen Gulutzan’s regime.
It has taken some time, but over the past four or five games, the combination has worked much better and Gulutzan’s patience in keeping the two together seems to be paying off. The defence as a group has improved and Gulutzan told the Flames site it has been a big area of focus.
“We’re trying to get rid of the unforced errors, which we have done a really good job of the last four or five games —I think the best we’ve done here since I’ve been here,” Gulutzan said Wednesday. “If we continue on this path, analytics or no analytics, just looking at it, we’re going to get results.”
The team is allowing nearly 32 shots against per game so far, but are far superior recently. They let the Maple Leafs have just 29 in Toronto, the Canucks 24 at the Saddledome, and the Wild 22 in Minnesota.
Improvement from Brodie and Hamonic would go a long way in giving the Flames the dream team on defence it envisioned, and the trickle-down effect would be felt throughout the lineup.
4. Not-so-special teams
Including another oh-fer night that saw the Flames go scoreless on three powerplay chances against the Sharks, the Flames have now scored twice in their last 28 chances on the man advantage. Things have only gotten worse for the team with Kris Versteeg going down with injury (3-for-32 in that span) with the team often playing Troy Brouwer on the top unit.
They got away from that a little on Thursday with Ferland, Gaudreau and Monahan playing more than any other forwards. But Brouwer was still in the mix along with Backlund, Jankowski, Frolik and Tkachuk as Gulutzan searched for an answer to the powerplay problem.
Literally scratching his head over the failures, Gulutzan noted they couldn’t even win a draw during a two-man advantage on Thursday.
The point of all this? There is nowhere to go but up for this team while on the man advantage. Turning things around with the edge in manpower will lead to more points in the standings. There is way too much top-end skill for the Flames to continue to languish in the bottom half of the league in powerplay percentage and continue on such a torrid pace of terrible. In the same way that Bennett became one of the team’s better forwards after a disastrous start to his season, the powerplay has plenty of time to turn things around.
Maybe more Bennett is the answer to that problem as well.
5. Shots fired
That shooting percentage. If they keep getting the volume they’ve been pumping out at opposing goaltenders, more pucks have to start trickling in. The Flames are in the top 10 with 33.09 shots on goal per game, sit second in total shot attempts so far this year, and are third in unblocked shot attempts according to the NHL’s stat keepers.
They’re offering plenty. That volume doesn’t always equal high percentage scoring chances, but those are rising of late as well. So when you consider the team’s 10th lowest 8.40 shooting percentage, there is hope the number will rise at least closer to the 9.29 it had last season, or 9.54 from the 2015-16 campaign.
Tkachuk had a 9.2% as a rookie and is shooting 7.9 now. Frolik’s 7.6 is his lowest since 2012-13. Bennett’s career average is 11 including his dismal 6.9 this year. Brouwer underwhelmed in Calgary last year for the contract size, but at least shot at 15.1% last year. He’s at 6.1 at the moment.
Jaromir Jagr has only been under double digits in four of his previous 23 seasons but is 3.8 now (worst by far among forwards who have at least a goal). Among those without a single goal? Matt Stajan and Curtis Lazar, who have both played at least 20 games.
And that defence? Giordano (at 5.3) is well below his career average of 7.5. And Brodie’s 4.3 is under his career average of 6.2. Hamilton posted 6.3 and 5.9 in his first two seasons as a Flame but is firing at 3.1% this year.
A lot needs to go right for a Flames team that has dropped five of its last seven games despite playing some of its best 200-foot hockey this season. But it’s certainly better than it has showed so far this year.
And there is a lot of season left.