If you’re celebrating this weekend, the FlamesNation crew would love to wish you a very Merry Christmas. Things haven’t been perfect in Flames land through the first three months of the season, so to get into the holiday spirit, I thought I’d present a spin on a somewhat annual tradition.
From a legend’s health to a massive contract extension, let’s see how greedy we can be with our 2017 wish list.
Jaromir Jagr’s health
While opinions differ on the effectiveness of the smiling man above, we can all agree he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in his first season with Calgary. I made my opinion known earlier this month: Jagr makes this team better when he’s in the lineup. Unfortunately, that just hasn’t happened anywhere near enough, so let’s wish for the nagging lower body injury plaguing him to clear up in short order.
Possession, high danger scoring chances, and scoring rates at five-on-five all tell a similar story about Jagr’s effectiveness. He’s a top eight player when looking at shot rate and points-per-60 and, most impressively, he’s been on the ice for the greatest percentage of high danger scoring chances on the team.
At this point, it seems like Jagr’s lower body ailment might need some extended rest before he can be an everyday player again. That’s okay, though, because an unimpaired Jagr down the stretch is something that could really help this team. He makes the team better, but he can only do so if he’s healthy.
A win over Edmonton
How many Flames fans would love to make sure we don’t see any more of that image? While Santa probably can’t ensure Calgary never loses to Edmonton again, we can at the very least ask for no more losses the rest of this season.
The Battle of Alberta has taken a cruel turn for fans in southern Alberta over the last two seasons. Since the start of the 2016-17 campaign, the Flames have lost six straight games to the Oilers, including a 7-5 debacle earlier this month. Calgary has been outscored 30-16 during that span and has only been in a position to win once (a 2-1 shootout loss in January of 2017).
No one in this city denies how dangerous the Oilers are capable of being, and a true BOA means both teams have to be competitive. However, to see Edmonton win six straight games with relative ease is a little hard to take for most Flames fans.
A Mikael Backlund extension
While I don’t think there’s any reason to worry about the long-term future of Calgary’s top two-way centre, getting a deal done in the near future is a realistic wish this holiday season. I think the team and Backlund will get a deal done, but what is that contract going to look like?
Backlund has been just as important to the Flames this season as he was last year when he ended up fourth in Selke Trophy voting. Backlund is doing typical Backlund things: he’s fifth on the team in possession (57.3 CF%), has the third lowest offensive zone start ratio (43.6%), and is still taking on the top opposition every single night. Backlund’s offensive totals remains solid, too; he’s on pace for a third straight season with 45 or more points.
Whenever I think about Backlund’s next deal, I also think Frans Nielsen and his contract in Detroit. Nielsen signed a six-year, $31.5 million contract as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016. Knowing the two players are virtually identical in so many ways, you have to think Backlund’s camp is asking for something in that neighbourhood, at the very least.
It’s pretty simple for me when it comes to Backlund. If the Flames truly want to be a high end team while their window is open for the next few years, Backlund has to be part of the equation. And, after signing team friendly deals in the past, I don’t think Calgary is keeping Backlund without making a long-term investment.
More AHL recalls
Brett Kulak, Mark Jankowski, Garnet Hathaway, and David Rittich all have something in common. All four players have never been NHL regulars prior to this season, and yet all four have also surpassed veterans on the depth chart to earn their spot. If we’ve seen it four times already this season, why not wish for more of the same?
Jankowski and Hathaway have moved past players like Matt Stajan, Troy Brouwer, Curtis Lazar, and Freddie Hamilton. Kulak, on the other hand, has left Matt Bartkowski in his dust while Rittich has relegated Eddie Lack to an AHL backup. It’s fair to think history could repeat itself before this season comes to an end.
Names like Andrew Mangiapane and Marek Hrivik come to mind immediately in this conversation. First off, both are having strong seasons in Stockton. But the Flames also have vulnerable players at the bottom of their roster right now.
Lazar and Hamilton are replacement level forwards, while it’s hard to make a strong argument for Stajan and Brouwer being legit everyday players. Why not try Hrivik or Mangiapane or both, and see if they can follow the same path as the players referenced above?
For the first time since Dec. 6 in Toronto, Calgary scored a meaningful powerplay goal in their final game before Christmas. So many things are trending positively for this team right now, but the powerplay is a glaring exception.
Using the loss of Kris Versteeg as an excuse for recent woes on the man advantage is both accurate and frustrating. There’s no doubt the Flames have been significantly less effective on the powerplay since Versteeg went down with a hip injury. But the loss of a player of Versteeg’s stature also shouldn’t have the detrimental effect it has.
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Friday’s loss in Montreal notwithstanding, Calgary has been doing a lot of good work at five-on-five of late. But for them to make a sizeable move in the Western Conference standings, the Flames are going to need to figure out their powerplay in short order. With what we’ve seen lately, maybe Santa is the only real answer.
More David Rittich starts
Calgary’s backup goaltender is hard not to like. He’s easygoing, always smiling, very affordable, and most importantly, wins games when Mike Smith needs a night off. For those reasons, and for the residual effect, I think it’s fair to wish to see Rittich a little more after Christmas.
Rittich is crushing it at the plate right now, because he’s three for three. In his first trio of NHL starts, Rittich has yet to post a loss (he does have a loss on his record when relieving Smith). While expecting that winning clip to continue is unrealistic, Rittich has proven he can give Calgary a chance to win from the backup position. Lack was not doing that earlier in the year, to put it lightly.
The residual benefit is decreasing Smith’s heavy workload, which theoretically would keep him fresher for the playoffs (if they get there). With 31 starts already, Smith is tied for the league lead in that category and is on pace for around 70 this season.
Sixty seems like a far more ideal number, which means Rittich would need 17 more starts between now and the end of the season. Even if 65 is a more realistic total for Smith, that still means 12 more Rittich nods. With the way the Czech product has played, increasing his playing frequency doesn’t seem like the scariest thought.