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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

FlamesNation Roundtable: Reevaluating at the halfway-ish point

It’s been an eventful 50-odd games for the Flames so far leading up to the All-Star Break. After the lethargic end to the 2017-18 season, Brad Treliving spent what little capital he could to make changes for this year’s campaign. So far, they appear to have paid off: the Flames are second across the entire NHL, win even when they play poorly, and when they’re playing well they look near unstoppable.

As we wait for Flames hockey to return (and anticipate the actual excitement that will be the NHL trade deadline in a month!), let’s take a look back on the season so far. Have our expectations lined up with reality? Who’s the team MVP? And just what should the Flames be doing at the trade deadline, anyway?

Feel free to chime in with your own answers as well in the comments!

What were your expectations for the Flames at the start of the season? What are your expectations now?

Ari: I thought they’d finish about second or third in the Pacific Division. Now I think they’ll finish first – and that they’ve got a very good shot at finishing first in the Western Conference (and, dare I say, might just challenge for first in the NHL).

Ryan: I had the Flames pegged as a team that could finish in one of the two wildcard spots fairly easily, and maybe push for a divisional spot if things broke their way. They’re definitely punching above what I thought their weight was.

My expectations now are for them to be in the race for the division title for the rest of the season. They’ll probably finish first or second in the Pacific.

Christian Tiberi: I figured they might be second in the division behind the Sharks. I don’t want to set super high expectations, but I think finishing first in the division is the minimum and winning the conference is the cherry on top. Coming within two points of Tampa would also be nice.

Mike: A playoff team, most likely the second or third seed in the Pacific. It’s not irrational to have accepted that San Jose was projected to be the top team in the Pacific. Besides a few early season hiccups (the 9-1 thrashing by the Penguins), the Flames rebounded and capitalized on some inconsistent play from the Sharks (predominately goalie driven) to become what they are now.

Nothing has changed, frankly. The excitement of what they’re achieving when compared to 1988-89, with the additional parallels of the 2003-04 season haven’t changed my objective opinions. I hope they can make a push this spring and make a run for it. If they don’t, it’ll hurt from the fan-based perspective; if they do, I will hang this over every Oilers fan I know here in Edmonton. I love this team, I love what they’re doing, but I refuse to get lost in the clouds just yet.

Christian Roatis: My expectations coming into the season were similar to those coming into last year – finishing in a Pacific playoff spot and challenging for first – but with much less confidence. Last year was a real shock in many ways, because I genuinely thought the Flames had what it took to make the playoffs and that they inexplicably imploded after an extended PDO swoon really seemed to erode their confidence. I liked most of the changes they made in the offseason but again, was unsure how it would all come together after seeing how easily things fell apart in 2017-18.

Now, after seeing things truly come together, my expectation is they challenge Tampa for the President’s Trophy and win the West. This team can win any type of game, and those teams are the type that challenge for, and win, banners.

Bill: At the start I thought the Flames would play important games right into the postseason with the last games in of the season determining whether they’d finish third in the Pacific or in a wild card spot. My expectation now is that they should look to lock up the Western Conference. They’ve pulled away from everyone except for the Jets, but even so, Winnipeg is chasing.

Karim: My only expectation for the Flames entering the season was to earn a playoff spot. Setting expectations too high can lead to crushing disappointment, something I learned last year, and with all the turnover of key pieces in the offseason, I just wanted to see this team make the postseason. Now, I don’t think there’s any reason not to expect them to win the West. They have separated themselves from not only the Sharks and Golden Knights in the Pacific, but also the Jets and Predators in the Central. They’re showing no signs of slowing down and I fully expect them to finish atop the West.

Ramina: After last season with how they gave up everything because it was “supposed to be their year”, I was extremely cautious. I had very low expectations, mainly because I didn’t want to get my hopes up like I did last season. I was hoping to maybe sneak in a playoff spot, but I honestly didn’t even know if I expected them to make playoffs. Now, I’m still vigilant because it’s the Flames and they can go on a 10-game losing streak any day now, but this season seems different. And not like a “everything that can go wrong will” type of season. So at this point, while I’m not fully set on finishing first in the West, I’m expecting at least first or second in the Pacific.

Who’s been the biggest surprise of the season?

Ari: Elias Lindholm. I think everyone knew the Flames were getting an upgrade on forward with him, but seeing him pass his career highs in just half a season was definitely surprising. Secondary shoutout to all of Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington, and Juuso Valimaki – having three prospective defencemen ready to take the big step into the NHL pretty much right away was huge.

Ryan: I’m fairly blown away by how consistent and composed David Rittich has been. Elias Lindholm was a pretty good player in Carolina who exploded offensively, but Rittich started 2017-18 as an AHL goalie and seemed like he’d top out as a solid NHL backup. He’s definitely grown his game and it’s helped the Flames immensely.

Christian Tiberi: I’ll say a different answer than everyone and say that Oliver Kylington would be my surprise. I’m a big fan, but I thought he would likely be in the AHL all year. Him being a solid third pairing guy with three nice goals is far above my expectations for him.

Mike: It’s Big Save Dave. I think a lot of folks knew to an extent that Lindholmn would see a boost in an elevated role, with extremely skilled, offensive-minded players. That said, for me personally, it’s been David Rittich. There were reasonable, well thought out questions about what he would be this season. Is he just a backup? Can he be a 1B? Can he challenge Mike Smith? For the most part, those questions have been answered, but we need to continue to see his sample size grow.

He is doing things that we haven’t seen since 2004 and the parallels from a storytelling perspective have been an amazing journey to follow. He’s a great story not just because of his play, but because of the person he is.

Honorable mention goes to Bill Peters’ continued trust and development of the kids on the blue line: Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki, and Oliver Kylington.

Christian Roatis: David Rittich, hands down. I wouldn’t have complained much if the team elected not to re-sign him last summer after watching him crumble when handed the starting reins. This is why I am not general manager of the Calgary Flames and Brad Treliving is. Rittich has played at an incredible level since his first start in Colorado where he allowed two early – and questionable – goals and has shown no signs of slowing down. Given the cliff jump Mike Smoth (no typo [ed. – inside joke]) has taken this year, Rittich has no doubt salvaged the Flames’ season and is as integral to the team’s success as the five-headed monster has been.

Bill: David Rittich. I felt there was a bit of uncertainty with what type of goaltender he’d be for Calgary, and I think a majority of people felt like Mike Smith wouldn’t be the answer for this season. So seeing Rittich rebound from his end-of-season struggles when Smith was injured last year and put together the type of season he has had so far, that’s a welcomed surprise.

Karim: Elias Lindholm is a close second, but it has to be David Rittich. When I predicted what the Flames’ opening night roster would look like, I only had Rittich as the backup because he was waiver eligible. In my mind, Jon Gillies was ahead of him on the depth chart and he would only increase the separation between him and Rittich this year. Not only was I completely and utterly wrong, but Rittich has risen to the number one goalie in the organization. Nobody can say they predicted that happening.

Ramina: Definitely Elias Lindholm. When the Flames traded for him and with how much he was signed for, he seemed like a second-third line guy. Maybe he could have been a slight upgrade from Michael Frolik on the 3M line, but at the least, contribute to some secondary scoring. I definitely didn’t expect him to be part of one the best lines, if not the best line, this season. And I definitely didn’t expect him to already surpass his career high by 13 points just 51 games into the season. With Carolina too, it’s not like he was necessarily bad. Things just didn’t go his way, and I was worried the same would carry on in Calgary. But it’s gone so much better than I could have hoped.

Who’s been the biggest disappointment?

Ari: James Neal, though that’s not even entirely his fault. For one, I thought he’d be playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, not Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett. For another, he’s still getting chances – he just truly has had abhorrent luck. I still believe the signing pays off in the end, but you can’t deny it’s been a brutal start.

Ryan: I’m not sure if it’s possible to say anybody but James Neal. He’s been much better in recent weeks, but hasn’t been anywhere close to a consistently dangerous offensive presence.

Christian Tiberi: Disappointment is Neal. Of course, Lindholm being great kind of displaced Neal and put him in the bottom six, but he simply hasn’t been doing a lot with the opportunities he’s had.

Mike: James Neal. I don’t want to talk about him right now. I recognize some of this is shooting luck (don’t discount it, folks), but my frustrations with him as a player this season go beyond his inability to produce.

Christian Roatis: James Neal is the easy answer, but I didn’t expect him to set the world on fire after back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances (didn’t expect him to suck eggs either, to be fair), so I’ll go with Mike Smith.

Despite being at least a league average goaltender for the entirety of his career, Smith looks like he’s forgotten how to be a goalie on most nights. He just flops around hoping the puck hits him, is never square to the puck and actively creates scoring chances for the other team with his puck handling. I knew the risk of a cliff jump was present with a 36-year-old, but after seeing his work during the first half of last season, I never imagined the fall would be this stark and sudden. Age curves, man. They’ll get ya.

Bill: James Neal. It’s no secret that he’s struggled this season, but I think there’s still plenty of upside to having him on the team. He’s an NHL veteran and the type of player he is is well-known. He can definitely score, he’s just been so severely snakebitten. To offer a bit of extra context, his last two seasons with Nashville and Vegas were both 100+ game seasons, both teams making it to the Stanley Cup Final. That has to take its toll on any player, and I think we’ve seen a bit of shift in Neal’s on-ice performance as of late. His looks hungry and poised for hot streak. Wishing him all the best in shaking off the snakes.

Karim: James Neal is the obvious choice here. He was supposed to score 20 goals. There’s almost no chance of that happening at this point. Hopefully he’ll be a useful playoff player but he’s definitely the biggest disappointment of the regular season so far.

Ramina: I’m in between James Neal and Mike Smith. Neal for obvious reasons that everyone has already said. But I trust Ari with everything in my being and it feels wrong to go against Neal when she’s still very pro-Neal. She also keeps saying “wait until playoffs for him” and because of that, I’m getting excited to see playoff Neal. [ed. – My big refrain has been “It’s gonna pay off in June! Just you see!”]

Smith, again, for obvious reasons. After last season and how he basically fell off after getting injured, I was hoping that after a full summer of rehabilitation, he could get back to the Smith we saw in the first half of last season, but he hasn’t and he’s been mediocre, at best, and only on some nights.

Who would you say is the season MVP thus far?

Ari: Gaudreau. The Flames have a bunch of great players, but he’s managed to pull himself far and away above the rest; he’s just such a unique talent offensively, and his defensive game has upped itself over this season, as well. Runner up to Mark Giordano: that he’s the best defenceman in the NHL as a 35-year-old is a testament to how incredible a player he really is.

Ryan: It’s almost a tie between Mark Giordano and Johnny Gaudreau for me. I’m leaning Giordano because he touches every part of the game – playing even strength and both sides of special teams – and he’s been excellent in every situation.

Christian Tiberi: David Rittich. I think goaltending was the biggest worry of the offseason and he put all those to bed. Having a clear starting goalie means you don’t have to pay through the nose to get another one should everything go wrong. He’s been a saviour, on and off the ice.

Mike: It’s probably a two-way tie right now between Rittich and Johnny Gaudreau. Both have just been incredible throughout this season and if either gets injured, the dynamic of the roster changes dramatically. Rittich’s ascension to starter and Johnny’s ascension to the forefront of the Hart Trophy discussion are worth of ample dissection for why they’ve been successful this year, but let’s keep it short and sweet here:

Both of them have been absolute treats to watch as they grow and take the next levels in their professional careers. I love this damn team.

Christian Roatis: David Rittich. I’m going off the board a little just to make a point on a pet peeve of mine. MVP stands for Most Valuable Player and is described as being awarded to the player who is deemed to be most valuable to his team. Without David Rittich, the Flames would roll out a tandem of Mike Smith and Jon Gillies. They’d be nowhere near the spot they’re in with that. I doubt they’d even be in a playoff spot quite frankly.

Johnny Gaudreau has undoubtedly been the team’s MOP (most outstanding player) and the Hart Trophy is often treated as an MOP award, not the MVP award it’s claimed to be, but I think there’s enough depth and other pieces to stay afloat without Johnny Gaudreau. They wouldn’t be as good, maybe in similar circumstances as they’d be without Rittich, but David Rittich has been their most valuable player this season by my estimation.

Bill: I initially had Johnny Gaudreau, who should 100% be considered for the Hart Trophy. Not to discredit his stellar season, I think he’s been phenomenal and his game and on-ice impact is at an all-time high. However, I think Rittich deserves another look for being the MVP. This goes back to my earlier point, where I think that had Rittich crumbled in net when Smith was shaky in October, November, December, and January, the Flames’ season would have gone in a very different direction. Instead, Rittich has looked as calm as ever in the crease, and has provided the team with many chances to win games on a nightly basis. I don’t recall any game where we’ve seen him have a truly bad outing.

Karim: Johnny Gaudreau. His ability to create offense each and every shift is a treat to watch, and his 100+ point pace is what is driving the well-oiled Flames offensive machine this year. Rittich is another strong choice, but it’s hard to overlook Gaudreau’s career year.

Ramina: I’m also going back and forth on this one between Gaudreau and Rittich. When I was getting ready to answer, I was dead set on Rittich over Gaudreau. My thought process on that was, “Well, with how great Gaudreau has been, if the Flames didn’t have Rittich, they would absolutely not be in their position right now.” But then I thought about, well if Gaudreau gets injured, the Flames are completely screwed as well. This one’s a tough one for me, but I might still give it to Rittich. Only because I think the Flames could still have some options, say if Gaudreau does get injured (*knock on wood*). They could move Matthew Tkachuk to that top line, or even try Neal or Bennett. But the Flames are truly screwed if Rittich gets injured.

What should the Flames do at the deadline?

Ari: Get a backup goalie, for sure. I’d also look into adding another forward; the Flames have room for one, considering how none of their AHL players have really grabbed hold of that final forward spot. There, it depends on who’s available and how much they’d cost: if you can swing a trade for a big forward, go for it, and honestly, the way this team is going, worry about next season’s cap later. If not, at least get someone who can solidify and even add to the bottom six. I don’t think adding any defencemen should be a priority.

Ryan: I’m thinking they should stand pat. Their best players are primarily young, improving and signed for a long time. It makes sense for them to hold onto their futures and give themselves a chance to prolong their window of playoff contention by having the ability to fill in their roster with inexpensive depth via the draft and their farm team.

Christian Tiberi: I’m cautious. They’re already second in the league, and they don’t have much in the prospect pipeline, so giving up valuable assets to make the team just a little bit closer to the top doesn’t make that much sense. They are also going to have an expensive offseason, so they can’t really re-sign whoever they trade for. But if there’s a great deal for a top notch player, it’s going to be hard to say no.

Mike: Keep their first round pick; try to package out Mike Smith, preferably with a later pick, or an asset to acquire a better backup option. It’s difficult given the salary Smith makes, but it should be explored. He ain’t coming back next season so get him out of here. Other options include adding a cheap, cost-effective 7/8 to help provide insulation on the blue line. Maybe a guy like Justin Falk or another aging (but still capable) defenseman is needed.

The goal should be adding an asset that doesn’t hurt their chances this year or financially next season.

Christian Roatis: Tinker, unless a Matt Duchene or Mark Stone can somehow be acquired without sacrificing one of the young NHL D or Dillon Dube, which I suspect is impossible. The Flames have a great thing going, and can solidify it with some depth moves. Big moves at the deadline rarely pay dividends at playoffs’ end, and require a heavy futures price that the Flames can’t really afford at this time. They’ve expended significant future assets to get to the team they ice nightly already, and I’m not convinced they desperately need to add an impact player to contend.

Bill: Again going back to my earlier point, Smith’s time as an NHL goaltender is rapidly dwindling, and I think the Flames breathe a lot more easily if they are able to find someone else to back up Rittich. I think that should be the number one priority for the deadline. The Flames should be buyers this year, and their first action should be solidifying their goaltending.

Karim: I would like to see them add a middle six forward, preferably at center or on the left side. As Christian Tiberi pointed out in one of the FN mailbags, acquiring a backup goaltender is a common choice here, but it doesn’t really help much in the playoffs unless there’s a big injury, in which case the Flames are probably hooped anyway. With added forward depth, they have more options within the middle six and can ride the hot players through hopefully four rounds.

Ramina: It’s hard to say. They could always rent a top six forward like a few have mentioned, but if they are going to make a move, which I don’t think they will, they need a goaltender. While I love Rittich and I’m the biggest Rittich fan, we saw how he did last season when Smith got injured. I’m not sure if it was nerves or knowing there wasn’t an experienced NHL goalie to back him up, but he wasn’t the same. And while he’s been excellent this season, it’s hard to say if those same type of nerves won’t creep up again in the playoffs.