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Five reasons the Flames are probably better than we think

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.

Bottom line

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.

  • Eggs Bennett

    I wonder if they’ve thought about bringing back iggy to fill that RHS RW PP hole. Can’t be worse than banging your head with Brouwer still… at least iggy has a wicked one timer.

    • flames2015

      Facts > Nostalgia. Iginla has not seen game action since the beginning of last April. He’s had hip surgery and only started skating at the end of Nov. We are already spending a million on a guy whose spending half the season injured with no foot speed. He has other intangibles cause he’s Jagr. Brouwer actually has a decent shot, if management is insisting on playing him on the pp, he needs to be ultilized in position to shoot.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    Special teams. Someone has to step up in Kris’ absence. Someone who can be double shifted on the PP like Tarasenko in St. Louis. Do that and we’re a rocket ship.

    It’s on the players.

    • JoelOttosJock

      Now is a good time to find a replacement for Versteeg. He shouldnt have been resigned to begin with..let alone be brought back next year. I wouldnt mind seeing Frolik moved for a possible right hand shot that could fill in on any top 3 line and be on the PP.

      • MontanaMan

        Frolik belongs on a third line and should’t be anywhere near the top two lines or be counted on for generating offence. His goals are for the most part tap ins and he’s not a set up man. Leave him in a checking role while chipping in with the odd goal.

  • Lucky 13

    Mirror mirror in the room,
    GG’s coaching spells our doom,
    Calls out Johnny, calls out the team,
    Can’t you see that’s his theme,
    It’s our coaching, not our team,
    Treliving should fire them,
    That’s my dream!

    • MontanaMan

      So he shouldn’t call out players despite clear mental lapses? If Scotty Bowman or Mike Babcock does it, he’s a genius. If GG does it, he’s a bad coach. Got it.

      • BendingCorners

        It wasn’t a mental lapse. Johnny ran out of room and turned the other way. No teammates available to pass to, the Shark knocked him down, the play went south. Even then it was only a 3-on-3 until Janko decided to cover the forward that Stone was already covering. Blown assignment by a rookie was the proximate cause of the Sharks’ winning goal. Call out the right player instead of expecting miraculous perfection. Even after watching the replay on his tablet GG misread the sequence.

      • Cheeky

        @MontanaMan – I’m ok with it as long as he calls out everyone else (Brodie or Brouwer anyone?). Even in the media his bias and favoritism comes out. I’ve never heard him say “Stajan needed to hold onto that puck, he should not have fallen down and then tripped the guy in the offensive zone, that cost us a penalty and momentum”. If he did that I’d be ok with it…

  • Lucky 13

    Five reasons why Gulutzan and Cameron should go.

    1. No concept of player utilization
    2. Copy cats- with ineffective bump -back power play
    3. We have no identity as a team. Other then turnover kings
    4. Troy Brouwer on the PP since the beginning of time
    5. Cares more about his hair, then our players

    After Christmas, when we are below.500 (although technically we already are excluding OT, SO)
    Treliving will have no choice.
    Don’t believe me, that’s fine?
    Just wait…

      • Lucky 13

        Raven, I kinda feel bad for joining the ‘fire the coach’ but after he called out Johnny who was obviously trying so hard to make a difference in our game against SJ, I had enough. We’d be nowhere without Gaudreau’s contributions this season.
        Jagr builds up Gaudreau, GG chose to tear him down.

        Sorry my thoughts are no longer positive, I wish I could feel confident with our team, but I don’t anymore. It’s sad, cuz I love our Flames so much.

        I’ve been pretty vocal these days, maybe I should tone it down?

  • ChinookArchYYC

    The overall sentiment of this is correct. The Flames are average in results and above average in a lot of metrics that will eventually come around for better ‘earned’ results.
    The 2 aspects of the Flames current play that needs to come around is defensive scoring contributions and (obviously) a better power play (as in, at least league average). I like the top D pair, but neither has produced much in goals and that has to change.
    I’d also like to see Jagr as the net front presence going forward, since Brouwer has been largely ineffective in helping the power play to do anything but sit in front of the net. For me this is a major reason why the PP is so predictable and not creative. Jagr would be better at moving in and out of the pocket and therefor provide better passing options.

    • EhPierre

      I sadly do not share the same optimism that you have for our PP. There is nothing about our current PP that suggests it will improve; we are rightfully at the bottom because our PP is definitely deserving of that rank. It’s entry is way too simple and readable, our zone setup is garbage, the player utilization is baffling and ironically, going on a PP seems to sap away all momentum that the Flames were able to generate upto that point. The solutions to fixing the PP aren’t that hard to make yet for some odd reason, management does not want to make the changes.

        • Chucky

          First idea might be to try something different. The first unit is the same 3 high one shooter and a pylon in front of the net that teams figured out last year. The entry method is the same carry to the neutral zone and drop back to Jonny as last year. It is bad enough that they do the same thing over and over, but when it is not working because the other team can predict every move it is shameful that they are not allowed to change.
          Anyone who thinks that Brouwer in front of the net rather than Ferland is an absolute idiot. Ferland has never played the point on a PP, why would the solution be to take him from in front of the net where he was effective and put him on the point. Is that because the team does not have an effective right point man? Tell Stone that he can’t shoot from the right point. Great zone time the once that Janko played point and Ferland took the front of the net.
          There are all kinds of possible solutions that jump to mind, they might not work but going back to a set-up and personnel (Brouwer) that have demonstrated no ability to make good things happen is just stubborn.

          • EhPierre

            Chucky was on the right track. Taking Brouwer off the PP is step #1. Put in Ferland who is a big body and can help out on the boards and has a good shot, attributes that Brouwer do not have. Next step would be fixing the entry. Having a drop pass to JG and have dance through the zone is not effective due to its predictability and the fact that the remaining 4 Flames players are just standing on the blue line waiting for JG to dance in. Brodie/Hamilton are great at entering the zone so you incorporate that and have a three man unit moving up the ice instead of just JG. This gives you options and makes it harder to defend. Not using Hamilton on the first PP is just mind boggling. Gio and Hamilton deserves those minutes. The second unit would then be Bennet-Backs-Tkachuk with Brodie and Stone/Janko.

            Just because GG is a “professional” coach does not mean he is competent at his job. You don’t have to be a professional to point out simple fixes that would definitely help the team. You just need to be an avid fan that watches the games.

          • Jumping Jack Flash

            I like Ferland as much as the next guy and while he has shown some scoring ability he does not have the soft hands needed on the top PP. Ferland bobbles the puck under pressure more than most. He has a deadly wrist shot but not a quick release, he has an average slapshot and one- timer.

            I am not sure who has the best one- timer on the team but I know it is not Brodie. It could be Stone but good luck finding players to stand in front of the net with his lack of control. There is a switch in Brodie’s head that prevents him from taking high quality shots. When Brodie and Johnny are on the same side, it seems easy for the opposition to pressure that side without any fear of shots.

            With no threat of shots from the point, teams can focus on the pass to Monny in the slot. Tkachuk seems to be the best option in front of the net except he does seem to get knocked to ice more than most.

            I would try Backlund and Gio on the back, Johnny and Janko on the boards and Tkachuk in front of the net. Why? Backlund has an under rated shot a high hockey IQ and the speed to chase down attackers in the event of a bobbled puck. He also has the second best zone entries so he takes Versteeg’s role.

            Janko can shield the puck along the boards and is an under- rated passer under pressure. He can slide into the slot to release his wrist shot or stay on the boards to one time a pass. This is usually where Monny would be but it has not worked. Tkachuk has great hand-eye coordination, creativity and ability to shield the puck behind the net.

            I like Ferland as much as the next guy and while he has shown some scoring ability he does not have the soft hands needed on the top PP. Ferland bobbles the puck under pressure more than most. He has a deadly wrist shot but not a quick release, he has an average slapshot and one- timer.

            I am not sure who has the best one- timer on the team but I know it is not Brodie. It could be Stone but good luck finding players to stand in front of the net with his lack of control. There is a switch in Brodie’s head that stops him from taking the shot. When Brodie and Johnny are on the same side, it seems easy for the opposition to pressure that side without any fear of shots.

            With no threat of shots from the point, teams can focus on the pass to Monny in the slot. Tkachuk seems to be the best option in front of the net except he does seem to get knocked to ice more than most.

            I would try Backlund and Gio on the back, Johnny and Janko on the boards and Tkachuk in front of the net. Why? Backlund has an under rated shot a high hockey IQ and the speed to chase down attackers in the event of a bobbled puck. He also has the second best zone entries so he takes Versteeg’s role.

            Janko can shield the puck along the boards and is an under- rated passer under pressure. He can slide into the slot to release his wrist shot or stay on the boards to one time a pass. This is usually where Monny would be but it has not worked. Tkachuk has great hand-eye coordination, creativity and ability to shield the puck behind the net.

  • MontanaMan

    Bit off topic but reading the final roster for Canada’s world junior squad, Tampa Bay has four draft picks playing for Canada on a 22 man roster. Unbelievable drafting for a squad in the upper half of the standings every year. Some teams have none including the Oilers. Calgary has one. The future is bright in TB.

    • Stu Cazz

      Stevie Y is shrewed and surrounds himself with a strong supporting cast especially his scouting department. In Calgary we have an assistant GM that thought Mason McDonald should be taken in the 1st round….

        • The GREAT WW

          Demko was the number one G in the 2014 draft, rated by everyone.

          You would have to be an absolute moron to draft McDonald ahead of him.

          And I’m not telling you that with 20/20 hindsight, I told you that the day he was drafted…..

          WW

        • Carl the tooth

          I think Mcdonald was a second round , he did get Johnny and mony for under good contracts . . He got a good goalie in smith and so far Rittich . He is bit hit and miss .

    • HOCKEY83

      Calgary has 1 on team canada and but they also have
      Ruzicka for Slovakia
      Valimaki for Finland – Tuulola announced as a bubble player
      Fox team USA
      Lindstrom could possibly make it for Sweden – bubble as well

      The Flames have plenty of prospects going to the Tourney. Looking for to watching Fox and Dube battle it out. Thankfully the Americans don’t have Parsons this year.

  • Why do you want my name?

    Can the fine journalists here maybe look in to how many teams have won Cups with players that played on their offwing compared to teams that had more proper RHRW/LHLW alignment like GG insists on having? I’m interested in seeing the stats but too dumb to find it myself.

    • Just.Visiting

      Montreal did more than a little bit OK with Yvan Cournoyer. Chicago has done well with Kane. I’d still love to see the stats on the location of JG’s shots, as I’d look at him on the right side.

  • Cfan in Van

    “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.”

    Is this actually the case? I ask, because I’m in Vancouver and my only concept of Flames fan response comes from my own current frustration, similar frustration from my dad in Calgary, and the feedback on this site. From these accounts, our results and apparent “progress” aren’t cutting it at all, in the first go-for-it season this team has seen in a while. Does the majority of the fan base think that we’re doing OK, because based on some of the talent that’s been put together, I see a team that isn’t being guided it’s potential. Not even close.

    • IUsedToHaveAName

      No. We’re not. I’m not sure what the feeling is in Calgary but for those of us in the Red Deer area, we’re not happy about how the season is going and how the coach refuses to adjust. The PP is the one constant complaint among the fans that I personally know.

      • Cheeky

        Majority of folks (on here and about town) are not at all happy with this team under GG and his amateur coaching staff. Even if they managed to win most, the consistency is lacking. No faith…however there are some on here that are like fair weather fans, when we lose badly there are jumping in with the rest of us that the team is poorly coached, but oh my if we somehow manage to squeek out a win and the pom poms come out cheering on GG and trashing those still see the faults (yes I’m looking at you BTF2.0). No true FLAMES fan (through thick and thin) are at all satisfied with this wasted season and poor showings…

        • IUsedToHaveAName

          Being happy about a Flames win while still calling for the coaches head is not hypocracy When the Flames win it’s often IN SPITE of the coach, not BECAUSE of him.

      • Cfan in Van

        If this was replying to me, my three sources:
        My own: frustrated, dissatisfied.
        My Ol’Man in Cowtown: frustrated, dissatisfied.
        FN Comments: frustrated, dissatisfied (for the most part).

        I don’t think I’m being misinformed by the above…

    • BendingCorners

      Hi CFAN,
      No, we’re not okay with it. The team is playing below it’s potential and except for some exciting stretches has done since GG arrived. Since the next coach won’t be hired until the off-season, fans are tuning out. We keep our fingers crossed but our expectation is for a wasted season.

    • Kevin R

      Nope & many Flame fans I know are all choked about the performance of this team & lack of identity. Personally I am not convinced this team is built properly, not enough grit on the backend & we could use some on the top 9 as well. Ferland does sometimes but the grit we do have no one wants playing even on the 4th line, cough Glass…
      These 3 point games are going to play a bigger & bigger factor & Im sorry, we need to win visional games in regulation tme not hope we get to OT. I do believe we have enough talent to be a top 3 team in our division but this coach is incapable through his systems & stubbornness to get us there. I hate to say it but I see us finishing in 9th or 10th place in the Conference this year. I have lost a lot of the excitement I had for this team going into the season. Too bad because this could have been better & Treliving is going to wait & he will have to clean the coaching house in April when we miss out.

    • Cfan in Van

      Thanks for all the responses, that’s exactly what I would expect but the way this article started, you’d think perhaps the general populous or local media had the wool pulled over their eyes, or at least rose colored glasses. Nobody who closely follows this team should be satisfied with where we are at the moment.

  • Thatz Nuckin Futz

    Some eastern teams ( & Van) did us some favours last nite. But I really don’t want to start scoreboard watching this early in the season. Seems to me its come down to this already. Time to take care of business ourselves. It sure would be nice to get on a roll and build some momentum going into the Christmas break and then start up with some confidence and renewed enthusiasm.

  • Thatz Nuckin Futz

    Twas the week before Christmas, and all thru the Dome,
    General Gel was searching for his special comb,
    Fans pleaded “change up the power play if you dare”
    In hopes that a playoff spot would soon be there

    B.T. & Burkie were snuggled up at their desk,
    While Johnny and Byng tried their best,
    Sweet visions of a new PP danced in their head,
    Flames Nation peeps said “We’re good as dead”

  • buts

    I care about the flames and I’m not ok with how thing have gone so far. You can go up and down our roster and only a few players are having good years. Brad Treliving has to see the numbers from his players. Stajan and Lazar with zero goals, the struggles of Bennett, Brodie, Frolik and so many more. Why has this group under performed? The answer is so obvious. I find myself hoping for a losing streak so that a move behind the bench will happen soon so that maybe we salvage the season.

  • deantheraven

    I liked this week’s post much more than last, Steve. However, a couple of points to pick at:
    1.Patience can apply to Hamonic, but not to Brodie. He was dynamic, even scary with the puck in the first 10-15 games but has fallen into some kind of sleep state since. Ok, the last 3 games Brodie hasn’t actually killed us with a bad choice or mishandled puck, whereas Hamonic seems to be continuosly improving toward our expectations. When GG was talking about “unforced errors”, we all know it was largely Brodie who was responsible for the most fatal lapses in recent weeks, but he seems to be simplifying things and forcing less. Hopefully the patience continues to pay off.
    2. Shooting %. As with all stats, numbers go up and down over the course of a season. What I’ve seen lately is the ‘fire pucks at the net’ mentality has led to higher volume but not higher quality chances. But that’s where it gets foggy. A goalie who can control rebounds and/or smothers muffins from the just-inside the blueline or otherwise unobstructed can drive down the shot %. High shot volume works best if there’s traffic to screen or pick up rebounds. We’ve seen too many examples of Flames firing shots from low danger areas and not getting a chance to capitalize on them because of the lack of net-front presence. The Flames lost to SJ because they threw shots at the net and they got a whistle, but lost the draw and had to back peddle on the next sequence. We have some guys with size who should be on their way to the net as soon as the puck gets carried into the O zone.

  • Vernon30

    Cameron has been a failure as the PP architect. Give that duty to someone else. I agree that several bounces/breaks going our way earlier this year would put us about 10 points higher.

  • buts

    This team is a hell of a lot better than a wildcard team. And the reason we are not near or at the top is behind our bench. With the goaltending we have had it’s a clear indication that this coaching staff should be replaced while there’s still time and games left.

  • Cheeky

    You can see it in the player’s performances and shoting percentage – each year under GG each player is worse. Unbelievable that the Management team loves stats and numbers but obviously ignores these declining ones…It was exciting to watch the less talented Flames under Hartley (win or lose), than under this clown staff…

  • WildfireOne

    The problem isn’t on the bench.
    The problem is behind the bench.
    And if that’s the case, the axe needs to fall as soon as possible, like now.
    Because if GG et al (Cameron, especially Cameron) are fired after not making the postseason, or after a crash in the 1st round, my argument is that we just wasted half a season when the players could be learning the new coach’s systems.
    Just saying.