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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Homegrown Flames: Boasting Strength up the Middle for the First Time in a Long Time

It's been over 20 years since Calgary boasted a line-up in which their top three centres were all homegrown. Add drafted by the Flames to the criteria and you need to go back nearly 35 years.

But that could be on the verge of changing.

With Sean Monahan (1st round in 2013) and Mikael Backlund (1st round in 2007) already entrenched up the middle, as soon as Sam Bennett (1st round in 2014) is shifted back to his natural position of centre -- possibly at the start of next season, the Flames will brandish a top three all groomed by the organization for the first time since 1994-95.

Now that was a while ago so if you don't recall that lockout-shortened season, Calgary's depth chart at pivot consisted of Joe Nieuwendyk (2nd round pick in 1985), Robert Reichel (4th round pick in 1989) and Joel Otto (signed out of US college in 1984).

Now consider this. In the 20 years since, the Flames have made the playoffs just seven times. That speaks to the importance of the position and how badly Calgary has struggled to adequately stock it.

But before we explore that, let's begin with this unabridged historical listing of the Flames top three centres for every season going back to 1980. I needed to go back that far to find the last time all three were also Flames draft picks. It was in 1980-81 and 1981-82 and all three were Atlanta draft picks -- Kent Nilsson (4th round pick in 1976), Guy Chouinard (2nd round pick in 1974) and Jim Peplinski (4th round pick in 1979).

I will say that assembling such a list was not an easy undertaking and took quite a bit of research -- especially the early days. Rather than black and white, I found there is plenty of grey most years in trying to identify a top three. You have players coming and going via mid-season trades (e.g. Craig Conroy for Cory Stillman in March 2001), role changes due to significant injuries and players sometimes switching between centre and wing (e.g. German Titov). Nonetheless, this is what I've cobbled together so roll with it. (In yellow are playoff seasons.)






1

2

3

2014-15

Sean Monahan

Mikael Backlund

Matt Stajan

2013-14

Mikael Backlund

Matt Stajan

Sean Monahan

2012-13

Mike Cammalleri

Matt Stajan

Mikael Backlund

2011-12

Olli Jokinen

Mike Cammalleri

Matt Stajan

2010-11

Olli Jokinen

Brendan Morrison

Matt Stajan

2009-10

Daymond Langkow

Matt Stajan

Craig Conroy

2008-09

Olli Jokinen

Daymond Langkow

Craig Conroy

2007-08

Daymond Langkow

Craig Conroy

Matthew Lombardi

2006-07

Daymond Langkow

Craig Conroy

Matthew Lombardi

2005-06

Daymond Langkow

Matthew Lombardi

Stephane Yelle

2003-04

Craig Conroy

Matthew Lombardi

Stephane Yelle

2002-03

Craig Conroy

Chris Drury

Stephane Yelle

2001-02

Craig Conroy

Marc Savard

Rob Niedermayer

2000-01

Marc Savard

Cory Stillman

Jeff Shantz

1999-00

Marc Savard

Cory Stillman

Jeff Shantz

1998-99

Jeff Shantz

Cory Stillman

Andrew Cassels

1997-98

Andrew Cassels

Cory Stillman

Michael Nylander

1996-97

Dave Gagner

Robert Reichel

Cory Stillman

1995-96

Michael Nylander

German Titov

Cory Stillman

1994-95

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Joel Otto

1993-94

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Kelly Kisio

1992-93

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Joel Otto

1991-92

Joe Nieuwendyk

Robert Reichel

Carey Wilson

1990-91

Joe Nieuwendyk

Doug Gilmour

Joel Otto

1989-90

Joe Nieuwendyk

Doug Gilmour

Joel Otto

1988-89

Doug Gilmour

Joe Nieuwendyk

Joel Otto

1987-88

Mike Bullard

Joe Nieuwendyk

Joel Otto

1986-87

Mike Bullard

Carey Wilson

Joel Otto

1985-86

Dan Quinn

Carey Wilson

Joel Otto

1984-85

Carey Wilson

Dan Quinn

Mike Eaves

1983-84

Kent Nilsson

Mike Eaves

Dan Quinn

1982-83

Kent Nilsson

Guy Chouinard

Doug Risebrough

1981-82

Kent Nilsson

Guy Chouinard

Jim Peplinski

1980-81

Kent Nilsson

Guy Chouinard

Jim Peplinski



Draft Disasters

Not surprisingly, failure at the draft table has played a prominent role in centre being such a thin position for this club for so long. A look back reveals numerous misses when it came to selecting potential incumbents via the NHL Draft. The following list are picks (along with their Flames NHL totals) expended on centres in rounds 1 and 2 from 1993 through 2010, which did not pan out -- at least in Calgary.
  • 2008, 2nd round, 48th overall - Mitch Wahl, Spokane, WHL
  • 2008, 1st round, 25th overall - Greg Nemisz, Windsor, OHL (15 gm, 0-1-1)
  • 2002, 2nd round, 39th overall - Brian McConnell, Boston U
  • 2001, 2nd round, 41st overall - Andrei Taratukhin, Russia
  • 2000, 2nd round, 46th overall - Jarret Stoll, Kootenay (didn't sign)
  • 1999, 2nd round, 38th overall - Dan Cavanaugh, Boston U
  • 1998, 2nd round, 33rd overall - Blair Betts, Prince George, WHL (35 gm, 3-5-8)
  • 1997, 1st round, 6th overall - Daniel Tkaczuk, Barrie, OHL (19 gm, 4-7-11)
  • 1995, 2nd round, 46th overall - Pavel Smirnov, Russia

Of 10 centres the Flames drafted in the top 50 picks over those 18 years, Backlund is the only one that worked out in Calgary. The other nine combined for just seven goals in 69 games in a Flames uniform.

Two of note that did enjoy NHL success, just not with the team that drafted them, were Stoll, who did not sign and went back into the draft and was selected two years later by Edmonton. The other was Betts, who went on to play 442 NHL games with the Rangers and Flyers after spending most of his three seasons with Calgary in the minors, Betts was traded to New York in 2004 as part of a package to acquire Chris Simon


Formidable Top Three

Backlund has played the best hockey of his career the last two seasons. In particular, the best part of his 2014-15 season came in the playoffs when he spend most of his time centring an effective line with Bennett and Joe Colborne. He led the Flames in shots on goal with 30 and was third among forwards in ice-time behind Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Backlund is a pending restricted free agent and what he re-signs for and how long, assuming that happens and he's not traded, is a fascinating situation to monitor this summer.

A year ago I wrote in this piece that Backlund, if he was able to play a full season this year like he finished up last year, could be in line to make as much as $5-million annually in his next deal. Instead, he suffered an abdominal injury while training in the summer -- something the Flames were not happy about -- and essentially missed the first three months after eventually succumbing to surgery.

Once he returned, he was a key part of the Flames top six forwards and presumably would be in line for similar responsibilities next season. Bennett is not yet 19 so I would not be surprised to see coach Bob Hartley either keep him on the wing for a while longer or, if he chooses to move him to centre, play him on the third line to give him sheltered minutes, similar to how he handled Monahan in his rookie season.

So while I'd expect Backlund to remain one of the top two centres for at least one more season, how will all his time missed affect his asking price this summer? It seems only a matter of time before Bennett wrestles away his spot and drops Backlund to the third line. But having Backlund as a third line centre given his solid all-round game would leave Calgary in great shape. Before long, those three would represent Calgary's most formidable centre trio since Doug Gilmour joined Nieuwendyk and Otto from 1989 to 1991.

While Backlund said quite bluntly on locker clean-out day that he wants to push to be the No. 1 centre and is not content with just being a second or third line guy, the third line is probably the career path he's on in Calgary given the pedigree of Monahan and Bennett. As I see it, should the Flames be able to sign Backlund for south of $4-million in annual average value and with four years of term, Calgary would be wise to do it and with a fist-pump as they'll be set up nicely up the middle for years to come.


Similar Model to Tampa Bay

One of the most exciting young and talented teams in the NHL these days are the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their quick-strike offence they've showcased against the New York Rangers has been mighty impressive. If you look at the age of their top three centres and compare it to the age of what Calgary's young trio will be as of October 1, 2015, see if you can spot the pattern.

Calgary
  • Sean Monahan, 20 
  • Sam Bennett, 19
  • Mikael Backlund. 26
Tampa Bay
  • Steven Stamkos, 25
  • Tyler Johnson, 24
  • Valtteri Filppula, 31

As you can see, the age gap is exactly the same between all three -- except Calgary's trio is collectively five years years younger across the board. This staggered age thing isn't the be-all and end-all, by any means, but I like the idea of two young stars in the top six and a solid veteran to complement them. I think those are pretty good ingredients for success.

Having a guy like Filppula or Backlund in that third line role gives the team a very good replacement when injuries strikes to the top two, or gives you options should you choose to move someone to the wing for a brief period as Tampa Bay has done these playoffs with Stamkos, elevating Filppula into the top six.


Backlund for Less Than $4M with Term is Ideal

Centres are expensive, that's just the reality, and it's not a position you want to skimp on. Monahan and Bennett are both going to earn hefty pay hikes with their next deals.

While a third line centre making $5-million becomes a little rich, if general manager Brad Treliving can lock up Backlund for several years at around $3.75-million, that gives the team time to come up with a succession plan as they'll need one for when Backlund's next deal expires or even prior to that if you end up in a cap crunch.

A look around at the other three teams still alive in the NHL playoffs gives you a sense of a few different ways that succession planning at centre tends to go and how salary constraints can force decisions.

New York Rangers
  • Top Two - Derek Stepan, 25. Derick Brassard, 27.
Dominic Moore, 34, has been playing third line minutes in the playoffs but with one year left on his deal before he would become a UFA, a replacement is in the pipeline in 22-year-old JT Miller. New York's 1st round pick in 2011, it appears Miller is being groomed to take over a top nine role.


Chicago Blackhawks
  • Top Two - Jonathan Toews, 27. Brad Richards, 35.
Toews will be a Blackhawk forever having signed a deal that runs through 2022-23. However, at a rich $10.5-million per season, a 2-3 of pending UFAs Richards and Antoine Vermette, 32 -- as is the case right now, is not feasible. Enter 20-year-old 2012 first round pick Teuvo Teravainen and maybe even Andrew Shaw, 23, as top nine incumbents.


Anaheim Ducks
  • Top Two - Ryan Getzlaf, 30. Ryan Kesler, 30.
With Getzlaf signed long term and Kesler with another season to go on his deal, the Ducks are in really good shape for next season. Big Nate Thompson, also 30, is a nice piece to complement them. However, keeping Kesler beyond 2015-16 could become too expensive. Thus, the Ducks have 2011 first round pick Rickard Rakell coming along nicely. He could be ready to be a top six centre for Anaheim in 2016-17.


First Build a Foundation, Then Patch Other Holes

There is a school of thought out there that between Markus Granlund, Josh Jooris, Drew Shore, and Joe Colborne that there could be a Backlund replacement in that mix and the Flames can afford to deal the Swede in a trade this summer. I just don't see it. Say Bennett re-injures his shoulder and misses three months. Without Backlund also, now you're looking at one of the above as your second line centre?

While I have no doubt Matt Stajan can give the Flames another season of decent top nine minutes as a poor man's alternative to Backlund, I feel going that route and dealing Backlund would be a gamble. What about the year after? And the year after that?

It's absurd to be so close to being locked and loaded at the centre position for the next several years and have one of the best trios in the league, to throw that all away and start searching once again for something you just had.

In missing the playoffs five straight times prior to last season, the Flames gave season-long auditions to eight different players to see if they could be that coveted top three centre. Contrast that with the stability at the position Calgary has enjoyed in the years they have made the playoffs and it's clear that centre is not a position to be constantly fiddling with.

Sign Backlund for four or more years and then turn your attention to addressing the team's other holes. A solid foundation up the middle like that can cover up a lot of blemishes and leave this team perennially dangerous for years to come, even while they work on addressing other positions such as the blue-line.



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Recapping the 2014-15 Season (Part 2): Ten Storylines That Defined the Year

As documented right here in Part 1 of my 2014-15 season recap, there were plenty of impactful individual performances by Flames players this season.

There were a lot of terrific hockey games also. The biggest of the bunch came on December 22. Trailing 3-0 to the Kings and well on their way to a ninth straight loss, Calgary got the game back to even on a natural hat-trick by Johnny Gaudreau, the latter two coming with the goalie pulled late in the third period. Then, Mark Giordano scored the dramatic overtime goal to win it.

While that stood out as the most important road win during the regular season on my list of the 12 most impactful games, the terrific spell of hockey fans saw at the Saddledome late in the year was some of the best of the last decade. First came the playoff spot-clinching win against the Kings in the final home game on April 9. Then, making it two of the best home games of the past 10 years in a span of 10 days, Calgary came back from down 3-0 to defeat the Canucks in game 6 and win the first round series.

It was quite a season. Here is a summary of what fans will remember about this season.


Ten Storylines from the 2014-15 Flames Season


1. So Many Third Period Comebacks

In the end, the Flames finished with 13 wins in games in which they trailed after two periods -- pulling it off a team-record 10 times in the regular season and then three more times in the post-season. To put the playoff number in context, Calgary was 3-3 in games in which they trailed after two periods this season. In the previous 19 years (dating back to 1996), Calgary was 1-23 when facing that scenario.

Further, over the last four regular seasons, Calgary has only come back to win when trailing after two periods a total of 14 times. There was a never-quit attitude that was a trademark of this year's team and it made each and every one of their games something you had to watch until the very end.

The greatest example of this wasn't even a game they won. Back on March 8 in Ottawa, at the tail end of a gruelling seven-game road trip in which they had lost their captain for the season, down 4-0 with less than 14 minutes left, the Flames stormed back to tie it before losing in OT.


2. Return of the 'C of Red'

By this, I'm not just talking about the incredible spectacle that was the Saddledome on game night, row after row of fans outfitted in authentic red Flames jerseys, but all over the city -- in office towers, in restaurants, on Stephen Avenue, there were jerseys everywhere. Flames car flags returned, productivity in work places sagged on game days, it was a rallying point for a city that embraced this blue collar team and supported them with pride.

Also, the Red Mile became a thing again and as a tribute to Calgarians, was a a well-behaved thing with plenty to celebrate over their three weeks of playoff action. You get the sense this year was almost like a dress rehearsal for all this becoming once again a rite of spring around Calgary, just like it was in the glory days of the late 80s.


3. Hartley Presses All the Right Buttons

It's why Bob Hartley should be a slam-dunk for the Jack Adams for NHL coach of the year. To put things in the context of baseball, Hartley isn't an American League manager, just idly sitting back with his hands in his lap, watching his team roll four lines. He's more like a National League manager, always involved, always tinkering to find the right mix prior to each game and then further adjusting mid-game as we'd see ice times rise or fall depending on who was going that particular night.

Hartley wasn't afraid to bounce back and forth between his 1a and 1b (in some order) job-sharing goalies nor was he shy about pulling either one of them and doing so early when he felt the team needed a spark. In fact, Hartley was especially good at knowing just the right time to insert his back-up into a game. Remarkably, three times during the season including game 6 against Vancouver, Calgary rallied back to win a game that the Flames were losing when Hartley inserted his back-up goalie.

In a year where the Flames had five rookies play significant roles, Hartley set them up for success rather than failure. He waited until the right time to play them and when he did, he put them in the line-up in a spot where they could succeed. The number of players that had career seasons also reflects favourably on Hartley, whose confidence on the bench never seemed to waver nor did his support and confidence in his team off the ice.


4. Overcoming the Loss of Giordano

At the time of the injury in late February, Mark Giordano led all defencemen in scoring and was a leading candidate for the Norris trophy for NHL's best defenceman. At the time, the Flames weren't even in a playoff spot. Losing the heart and sole of their hockey club was supposed to be a death sentence.

Instead, the Flames went a remarkable 12-6-3 to finish the regular season and ended up 17-11-4 overall with No. 5 absent from the line-up. Extrapolate that over 82 games and you have a 97-point pace (and with a harder-than-normal schedule), which is absolutely stunning considering they basically did that playing only five defencemen.

With Giordano on the blue-line, the Ducks are still a better team than Calgary on paper. However, so often this season it was not so much about who was the better team, but it was about the Flames ability to find a way to win.

We'll never know but it's not that outlandish to think that the series with Anaheim might well have gone back to Honda Centre for game six if Calgary was able to get Giordano back in that series. Instead, expect a seriously motivated Giordano next season.

You sure do feel back for Giordano though. With only four playoff games in his NHL career, he deserved to be in the line-up this post-season as the team's transformation came under his reign as captain and by all accounts, he was instrumental in how quickly it happened.

As Hartley often said, the team had Giordano the captain, they just didn't have Giordano the player. Well, they needed the player. The remaining big three turned in a yeoman's efforts and Deryk Engelland gave all he could and more, but you simply don't replace a player of his value.


5. Brad Treliving Standing Pat

The first impressions weren't terrific. Trading a third round pick at the 2014 draft for Brandon Bollig, the gigantic free agent contract issued to bottom pair defenceman in Engelland, the signing of Devin Setoguchi. But, give GM Brad Treliving the benefit of actually getting to know his team personally and reserving judgement until after he's actually making moves based on his own assessment rather than the suggestions of others (and computer reports) and his body of work gets significantly better.

There was the willingness to ship Brian McGrattan to the minors upon realizing that the NHL game had suddenly evolved into a much faster game in 2014-15. He got some terrific work done early in the year, realizing what he had and re-signing both TJ Brodie and Hartley to extensions. Some shrewd negotiating got him a second and third round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft for Curtis Glencross, who disappointed in Washington, as well as a second round pick for an unhappy Sven Baertschi, who declared he wasn't going to re-sign with Calgary anyway. The non-move of not mortgaging the future for a quick fix for Giordano, a move unlikely to have gotten Calgary any further anyway, may turn out to shrewdest move of all.

With some interesting RFA situations to deal with and six draft picks in the top 90, more exams are coming up for Treliving but I'd assess it as a good rookie season.


6. A Playoff Series Win

Let's face it, it hasn't happened often. Since Terry Crisp coached the Flames to the Stanley Cup in 1989, this season was only the second time Calgary has made it beyond the first round. That's in a span of 26 years.

To put that in context, Hartley is the 11th different coach during that period (and that's excluding interim coaches). The importance of that achievement, as nominal as it may have felt after a five-game exit to Anaheim, cannot be overstated. Just like how the 22 games without a win in Anaheim is a streak that transcends generations of players yet still seems to cast a shadow over the team whenever they play at Honda Center, the futility of this organization when it comes to playoffs has also been very well documented and had put a tremendous burden on the team. Getting over that hump this season will bode very well for the future.

Maybe a win in Anaheim will be next.


7. The Anti-Analytics Team

All season it was essentially a gang war between the advanced stats community and a loyal Flames fan base. The stats guys, armed with charts and scads of historical data, adamantly told fans that Calgary won't keep winning, they can't, what they're doing is unsustainable. Meanwhile, Calgary's fans defiantly pointed towards the scoreboard/wins column, saying 'oh yeah?'

Was there a winner? Reaching the final eight in a 30-team league can hardly be construed as a failure so that's where I would lean. Was there a lot of luck along the way? Sure. But did the team's refusal to ever quit in a game also play a role? For sure.

There's also something to be said about Calgary's quick transition game and defence-led offensive attack. Designing a game plan for the personnel they had -- quick forwards, puck-distributing defencemen, and coming up with a playing style that's not that prevalent, the Flames found a way to scrap out goals and wins, both of which are the metrics the NHL uses for success. While not saying it won't happen, it would be naive and premature with a young, growing team with an evolving roster to automatically pencil them in for a regression next season. Mind you, such a slight may be the best thing for Calgary, who seemed to thrive on the fact nobody expected them to do anything this season.


8. Unsung Heroes

While so much was made all year, especially in the second half, of the line of Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler, it was a season in which so many others stepped up and took a turn in the spotlight. Who will forget David Schlemko'spectacular shootout goal in Boston in his first game in a Flames uniform. Then there was Raphael Diaz notching a beautiful go-ahead goal in a pivotal win late in the year in Dallas. Fast forward to the playoffs and you had Engelland surviving his epic 3:32 shift-from-hell in the clinching win against the Canucks. Then you had Brandon Bollig and Joe Colborne with clutch goals in game 3 against Anaheim.

Arriving out of nowhere, Josh Jooris was a key contributor all season including a hat-trick versus Arizona on December 2. Joni Ortio arrived rather suddenly also and promptly won four straight starts in January.

It seems cliché to say every single person contributed along the way but in this instance, if you look down the Flames roster, it's true. Every role player delivered in the clutch at some point in the season.


9. Youth Movement All Year Long

The season was 1996-97, the year after Sam Bennett was born. That was the last time the Flames had a cast of rookies that collaborated to score as many goals during the regular season as this year's rookies did. And that's not including the contributions from sophomores Monahan and Colborne. The youth getting things done was definitely a recurring theme all year.

Calgary finished the season with 46 goals from first-year players, the most since since 1996-97 when the Flames got 50 -- Jarome Iginla 21, Jonas Hoglund 19, Joel Bouchard 4, Chris O'Sullivan 2, Todd Simpson 1, Cale Hulse 1, Dale McTavish 1 and Hnat Domenichelli 1.

However, if you're familiar with Calgary's history, you'll know that wasn't a playoff year for the Flames so 50 was the net total. Not the case for this year's group. With five of the team's 12 forwards opening night of the playoffs being rookies -- which is flat-out ridiculous -- the contributions continued into late April and May with 10 more goals for a full-season total of 56.

That's the most regular season and playoffs combined since 1987-88 when the Flames got 84 -- Joe Nieuwendyk 54, Brett Hull 26 (before being traded to St. Louis), Brian Glynn 2 and Shane Churla 1.

To put the post-season success in context, Calgary had only deployed four rookie forwards in the playoffs total since Iginla's debut in 1996 and those four -- Eric Nystrom, David Moss, Matthew Lombardi and Chuck Kobasew -- had combined for one goal.


10. Good Goaltending Despite Not Having a No. 1 

The goaltending situation for the Flames is one of the most fascinating stories to follow this off-season. The two guys under contract for 2015-16 are Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio. Hiller has one year left on his two-year, $9-million deal signed last summer and Ortio's contract for next season converts to a one-way deal in which he's also now waiver-eligible. Essentially the Flames must keep him in the NHL or they'll probably be claimed by another team if they try to demote him.

But the guy, who finished both playoff series and turned in a magnificent performance against the Ducks in particular was Karri Ramo, who at age 28 is also four-and-a-half years younger than Hiller. There's a lot to like with Ramo's athleticism and while neither he or Hiller may ultimately turn out to be the goaltender of the future, Ramo sure looks like the better of the two in terms of goaltender of the current. But to be that in Calgary, the pending unrestricted free agent will need to sign here and that would seemingly only make sense for all parties if Hiller is then peddled.

Two starters, two back-ups, however you want to view it, Hartley flipped back and forth between the two of them often and it seemed to work out just fine as to the team's benefit, when a goalie got hot, so did the Flames.


Final Thoughts

While there may be particular elements of Calgary's game that are unsustainable -- the third period comebacks, for one, the getting grossly outshot on some nights but still winning is another, there are reasons to believe the rebuild is still progressing nicely. First, you look at the impact on the playoffs of Ferland and Bennett, who were not a meaningful part of the regular season at all, especially Bennett, who didn't draw in until the season's final game in Winnipeg.

The future does look promising. 2014 second round pick Mason McDonald had a good year going until he got injured in the playoffs. Highly-touted Jon Gillies won the NCAA championship and promptly turned pro by signing with Calgary. Joining him in Stockton of the American Hockey League next year will be Austin Carroll, a seventh round draft pick, who has an attractive upside. Also up front you have Markus Granlund and Emile Poirier. Don't forget about Morgan Klimchuk either, the third of the Flames three first round picks in 2013, who finished the season strongly with Brandon. The recent re-signing but this time to an NHL entry-level contract of Garnet Hathaway also bodes well. He is a big guy, who is a banger, and you can bet on him making some noise next training camp.

On the blue-line, Calgary successfully wooed free agent Kenney Morrison. Despite his ability to gain Hartley's confidence this season, Newly inked 27-year-old Czech blue-liner Jakub Nakladal is an intriguing situation also and Tyler Wotherspoon remains very much on the radar. Looking a couple years down the road, Brandon Hickey at Boston University is progressing very nicely, the exorbitant ice time he got as a freshman -- and on a good team -- speaks volumes.

It was a compelling season from start to finish and there's more to come. I'd even suggest the best is still to come.



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

They Said It: 20 Takes on 20 Topics (A Compilation of 'Garbage Bag Day' Quotes)

Season over. Officially.

On Tuesday morning, Calgary Flames players returned to the office one last time. On their 'to do' list today were three separate meetings.

1. With general manager Brad Treliving.
2. With coach Bob Hartley.
3. With the lovely and adorable (and plentiful on this day) local media.

For media members, 'Garbage Bag Day' as it's become known -- although I never saw one player exit carrying an actual garbage bag -- is a lot like a game of hockey.

For one, the action can come in spurts. You could have two or three players all emerge from the dressing room at nearly the same time (typically wearing a backwards baseball cap unless you're a European goaltender). This results in instant chaos.

If you're fortunate enough to be there in numbers like the Calgary Herald (Scott, Kristen, George), the Calgary Sun (Wes, Randy, Eric, Scott), Sportsnet960 Radio (Pat, Rob, Ryan, Josh, Derek, Peter), or CalgaryFlames.com (Ryan, Aaron, Torie, JJ, Kristin), you have the luxury to divide and conquer.

If you're like me, it feels like you're suddenly defending a 5-on-3. Who do you cover? Where do you go? Active voice recorders are a must in this moment as you bounce from scrum to scrum, hoping to catch the best parts and avoid being that guy that asks the exact same question that was just asked a minute earlier.


Rush Seating

By the way, if you haven't partaken before, every scrum begins like rush seating for an Aerosmith concert -- everyone racing into position, jockeying for the best vantage point. One wrong turn, any hesitancy and all, and you're dead. You'll end up trampled over and stuck on the outside of the pack, watching the Johnny Gaudreau interview going on 10 feet away from you through the viewfinder of the TSN camera that's blocking you.

Of course, scrums diminish in size as the minutes pass, usually the TV cameras are the first to pull out and that's great news for me for a couple reasons. For one, I can rest my hyper-extended elbow by getting way closer to the interviewee so I can actually hold my voice recorder comfortably. Secondly, this is the 'gold' time for quotes. When the glare of the TV camera lights go off and it's just a handful of us print scribes remaining, I've always found players loosen up and you get the better quotes. Heck, I even waited out everyone and got a couple one-on-one's today, a rare coup.

Between those bursts of action, there are these long, agonizing lulls where nothing is going on. It's a bit like the intermission but without the sumo suits or the Zambonis.

With laptops crammed onto folding tables near the dressing room area, down time is opportunity to transcribe some quotes while always remaining at the ready. As soon as more players emerge, then it's go-time once again.


The ol' Kipper Routine

Today, the longest wait and the last player to emerge (excluding Jiri Hudler, who pulled the ol' Miikka Kiprusoff and slipped out the back door) was also the most anticipated player -- Sean Monahan.

Once we were done asking a variety of cleverly-worded questions in a failed attempt to get him to confess to playing with a broken, sprained, dislocated, about-to-be-amputated shoulder injury (all of the above being wrong, although he said he did have a sore leg for a while), the final order of business is the coach/gm duel press conference and for that, we retreat to the Ed Whalen Media Lounge and a far more conventional and civil set-up.

Overall, I found it to be a real interesting and enjoyable day. There will be a lot of stories over the next couple days as all the above news outlets pound out copy.

To tackle things a bit differently, I thought I'd package up in chronological order some random highlights from my travels today. I didn't get everyone, missing the likes of Sam Bennett, Michael FerlandKris Russell and Dennis Wideman, but I got most everyone else -- and all four of the aforementioned players did come up in conversation with others.


20 Takes on 20 Topics


1. Jonas Hiller - On Splitting Time in Net

Hiller admitted that while it worked great for the team, splitting time in net is not so great for the goalies.

"Sometimes it was tough because you felt good about your game and then you didn't play for a while so it wasn't easy," he said.

Hiller said getting pulled in game 1 against Anaheim and then not getting back in again was an example of when it gets frustrating.

"You always want to play. It was tough because I thought I had a really good series against Vancouver and I never got the chance again to play against Anaheim."


2. Mason Raymond - On His Frustrating NHL Season

Playing his eighth NHL season, Raymond called it the most frustrating of his career. He got off to a fast start with five goals in his first seven games and then got hurt and missed six weeks. He never really got on track after that, a few times sitting out as a healthy scratch including the first game of the playoffs.

"One of my worst years statistically," said Raymond. "You think you're learned so much and then another year goes by and you've gained so much more experience. I've been through experiences this year that I haven't really experienced at all. You take those and hopefully learn from them."

While inconsistent ice time and no set role played a role, Raymond said he points the finger at himself for not being able to work through that.

"It's a combination of a lot of things, but anybody is in the wrong if they don't look at themselves first and take it upon themselves that they can be better."


3. Joe Colborne - On Being More Like Backes

"You look at a guy like (St. Louis Blues 6-foot-3 captain) David Backes, that's the type of player I want to be. The type of player that can go against top players on the other team and be hard to play against and have guys that don't want to play against you," Colborne said.

On his to-do list for the summer, in addition to getting his ailing wrist and thumb healed, is getting bigger by putting on the "right amount of weight" and also working on his leg strength. He says he learned a lot from watching the Ducks.

"That top line of theirs was dominant out there. When you get three guys of that size going and playing that way, it's hard to play against and that's something we want to build here."


4. Matt Stajan - On Mentoring the Young Centres

Monahan, Bennett, Markus Granlund, Josh Jooris. All young men, who spent at least a little bit of time at centre this season. All in either their first or second NHL season.

"I just try to be myself. I look at veteran guys I was lucky enough to be around when I was young," said Stajan, 31. "Mats Sundin was obviously one guy, but  I was lucky enough my first year to have Joe Nieuwendyk as my roomate. So not only was he a centreman on my team, he was my roomate all year. He was in his late 30s and I was 19 or 20 years old so it was a big age gap but it was great. I could ask him anything and he would help me out a lot."

Stajan says he appreciated the opportunity really helped out

"At the time, you don't realize how much that year helped. It helps you as a person, as a player. You just try and watch people around you. That's how I learned the most, just by watching the way these guys handle themselves.

That same absorbing took place this year only this time with Stajan in the role of the elder.

"You want to help young guys, particularly with face-offs and supporting the puck in the middle of the ice. It's so important as a centre man," Stajan said. "So we talk and I try to be there for the guys. But they're all like sponges. They all listen and they all gained a lot of experience this year and that's the number one thing for learning quickly at this level."


5. Johnny Gaudreau - On Going Back to School

You could say the last eight months -- first year in the NHL -- has been like being in school for Gaudreau but he returns to actual school later this month. Yep, back to Boston College, where he left fled after three years to sign with the Flames last spring.

"Mom's going to make me go back to school and get my degree," said Gaudreau. "She was pretty keen on me going back to school."

Flying back to Boston on Thursday, he'll sign up for his classes on Friday.

"Classes start pretty soon. I need to get back into school mode," said Gaudreau, who is also looking forward to seeing his old buddies. "My senior class is still there and they're graduating on the 18th so I'll be able to be there and watch them graduate."

What is he studying? Communications! That got a roar from the assembled media.

"I might need an internship with one of you guys," Gaudreau quipped.


6. Paul Byron - On His Medley of Injuries

Now we know why Byron fell off the radar late in the year and also why when asked, Bob Hartley only referred to Byron's ailment as a "body" injury.

"Sports hernia started with a tight groin, right after the father's trip. Game against Boston, I got hit from behind, jammed my wrist, broke my toe. It was a mixture of all three injuries that hit me at the same time," Byron said.

The 5-foot-7 winger had surgery a few weeks ago for the hernia. He's also going to have Arthroscopic surgery on his wrist to see if it also needs to be repaired.

"To see your season end that way when you're day-to-day for two-and-a-half months, it's tough."


7. David Jones - On His Down and Up Year

The season got off to an awful start for Jones with the indignity of being made a healthy scratch for the season-opening game against Vancouver.

"I had a good camp then I was scratched the first game of the season. I was pretty choked about that. It's tough. As a veteran player to come in and not have a spot on the opening roster, especially when you think you had a pretty good year the year before," said Jones. "They obviously wanted more and they got it out of me afterwards. The first 20 games, I had a tough time finding where I fit. I was up and down the line-up a little bit."

But after he got some clarity with his role and consistency in his linemates, his season turned around.

"Once I got settled, myself, Boums and Backs were a strong line for us down the stretch," said Jones.

He enjoyed similar success skating on a line with Ferland and Stajan in the playoffs. Jones says playing opposite a big, banging winger is perfect.

"Just knowing when the puck goes on the other side of the ice, you know that guy is going to put someone on their ass, it's nice," said Jones. "You don't have to run over there and try to get a hit yourself. But you have to keep your head up too. A few times (Ferland) almost caught me there trying to hit the same guy. It was so much fun playing wih those guys and having that impact."


8. David Jones - On the Potential of Micheal Ferland

"Sky's the limit for him. It's incredible the way he came into the playoffs," said Jones.

Jones laughed as he reflected back on a conversation Ferland had with him prior to game 1 against the Canucks.

"He told me before the playoffs started, he's like, 'I'm going to be running around out there and hitting everything that moves'. I'm like all right buddy, I'm excited to watch it."

It was quite a show and Jones says you can see why he instantly became a fan favourite.

"You just listen to them announce him before the game, they love him here and he's got a bright future if he keeps playing that way."


9. Karri Ramo - On the Situation He's Looking For

"The most important thing for me is I'm wanted. that the team wants me to be there, that the team thinks that I can be part of the group and I would be a big part of the team. You want that responsibility," said Ramo.

Ramo did say he doesn't put too much stock in a team's goalie situation realizing that it can change quickly.

"What I have learned is in the NHL, things that are set today are not set tomorrow. Everything changes so quickly. It doesn't matter if at the start you're not even the goalie in the line-up. In a couple weeks, you may end up playing every game."

He says he'd certainly consider Edmonton just like he's consider any team if he doesn't end up back with Calgary.

"Obviously, they've had struggles but I'm sure they're going to go the right direction sometime soon," Ramo said. "They've had a few bad years but it's not a bad place. There's no bad places in the NHL"


10. Deryk Engelland - On What he Saw From TJ Brodie

After Mark Giordano's season-ending injury, Engelland jumped up to the top four to play alongside Brodie. That puts him in a pretty good position to evaluate the Flames rising star blue-liner.

"He's great. He can skate forever. He's fast. He makes plays. He's good defensively as well. He can play in both ends and that's the biggest thing for him. He's not just a one-dimensional guy," said Engelland.

He adds that Brodie's conditioning is something else.

"He's usually out there a little longer and he's jumping a lot more than me. Every time I come off the ice, he seems to have more wind than I do. It's amazing," Engelland said. "We definitely haven't seen the top of his game. He's a great player, he's still young, has a lot of years left and he'll just keep growing as a player. He'll be a dominant force for many years here."


11. Mark Giordano - On the Team's Three Young Stars

"The reason we made the playofs this year is because we had young guys step into our line-up and have such an impact and that's what you need now with all the moving parts and the salary cap every year," said Giordano.

"You need to have young guys develop in your organization that are impact players. We feel really good about ourselves because Johnny and Mony are there already, they're basically first-line guys for a lot of the year and the way Benny came in at the end and jumped straight in to the playoffs, that's a tough thing to do. In a lot of those playoff games, he had a big impact. Right away in that Vancouver series, he created some needed depth for us whether it be second or third line."

Giordano says their ability to deliver in the clutch and handle the spotlight is also huge.

"Johnny, you can just see it in his played. He wants the puck in those big moments. Benny as well, he has it. Mony is the even-keel guy who never gets too high, never gets too low. People were wondering if he'd get back to 20 goals this year and he got 30."


12. Mikael Backlund - On His Good Playoffs

"I'm happy with my season but I know I can play better," said Backlund.

Of course, a big contributor to that was missing all of November and December due to an abdominal injury suffered while training in the summer.

"I played way better in the playoffs," Backlund said. "I felt the playoffs I was playing the game that I know I can play at and it's the level I want to play at all year next year."

That included playing with an edge. It made for an enjoyable post-season run.

"I'm going to try and find a way to play with the same physicality and be just as aggressive as I was in the playoffs,  I love those games. The playoffs is the best time of the year. It was the most fun I've ever had in hockey."


13. Lance Bouma - On Proving He Is What He Is

As an RFA last summer, it took Bouma a long time to sign before he settled for a $775,000 one-year deal. After scoring 16 goals, he's in line for a bit pay raise this season after showing the consistency that was asked of him.

"Just that I can do it for a full year. Obviously, the goals are a nice bonus. but at the same time, I played the same game that I played last year. I was more physical this year. Blocking shots and I was still doing those things. I played the same way and got rewarded," Bouma said.

The popular winger hopes to sign a long-term deal.

"I'd love to stay here as long as I can, for sure."


14. TJ Brodie - On Playing so Much Down the Stretch

After Giordano went down, Brodie along with Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell played huge minutes. That amounted to a lot of mileage and scads of ice time over the final three months as Bob Hartley played them a ton.

"It was a little tough at times. Finding a balance between jumping up and knowing when to stay back and try to conserve some energy was big," Brodie said. "Obviously the other guys helped too. Guys stepped up."

Although all Brodie would reluctantly reveal was that he had a minor "lower body" injury, GM Brad Treliving later on confirmed it was a sprained ankle.

"The body feels good," Brodie said. "Rest for a bit and get back to training."


15. Sean Monahan - On the Difficulty of the Playoffs

Much was made about the drop-off in production from the Flames top line but Monahan points out it's hard to find space come the post-season.

"It's obviously a big difference. You're playing a team and you could play them seven games in a row. Guys are on top of you and they want to get a hit on you to make sure they leave a mark," Monahan said. "When you have the puck in the playoffs, it's much different than in the regular season. Space closes, gaps close and you need to get things done a lot quicker."

It took some prodding but Monahan eventually admitted he took a lingering injury (or two) into the playoffs.

"Ya, maybe a little but I would say everybody's hurt. I had a sore leg for a little bit and a couple other bumps and bruises but nothing too severe."


16. Brad Treliving - On his Biggest Priority this Summer

"Mark Giordano is the No. 1 priority for this summer," said Treliving, without hesitation.

With one more year left on his current deal, extending Giordano can't take place until after July 1 per the CBA but it sure sounds like if he has his way, it won't be too long after that when it happens.

"Everybody in this room knows what Mark means to this team both on and off the ice," said Treliving. "He's a culture-setter for our group. You can't win on the ice until you have the right culture off the ice and he sets that up for us. He's the priority. We plan to get to work at it. We've done some preliminary work at it. That is one that we hope to get wrapped up very, very quickly this summer."


17. Brad Treliving - On Benefits of Playoff Experience

"There are things you can prepare people for but there are certain things that you have to experience," said Treliving. "You can prepare guys for how hard that is but going through the playoffs, those are experiences you can't garner any other way other than going through it."

Treliving said it sets up the team nicely for next post-season.

"The deeper you go, the later you go in the season, the game changes. The rink becomes smaller, there's less room. There's all sorts of things you have to deal with," Treliving said. "You can sit and talk about that and Bob can show it on video but until you live it, you haven't lived it."


18. Brad Treliving and Bob Hartley - On Getting Bigger

Treliving said that once Ferland and Bouma got back in the line-up in game 4 against the Ducks, he liked the size of his team. They could still be bigger but those two additions made a huge difference. He also said you have to exercise caution when pursuing size.

"You have to be careful with size. We'd all like them to be 6-foot-4 and skate like the wind and shoot it a million miles-per-hour. You can't just get lost in size for the sake of size. They still have to be able to be players and be good players," Treliving said.

Treliving said speed is most important.

"Look at the teams still playing, there's one characteristic -- foot speed. The game is not getting any slower," Treliving said. "We would like to combine good speed and size. You can't just get bigger without getting better. You have to be careful. You can't just get a big guy because he's a big guy. He has to be the right player."

Hartley says the game and that prototypical fourth line isn't what it used to be.

"Whether it's 7, 9 or 12 minutes that your fourth line is going to get, we're in a game right now where they need to be quality minutes, they can't just be clock killers," said Hartley. "The days in the NHL to have a tough guy sitting on the bench just for one job, those days are over. They need to be able to skate."


19. Bob Hartley and Brad Treliving - On Tyler Wotherspoon

Wotherspoon kept getting called up this season, but it took forever to get in his first game and when he did play, he didn't play much.

Many were alarmed considering Wotherspoon had played well in 14 NHL games last year. What had gone wrong? As it turns out, nothing went wrong. It was as simple as last year, the Flames were out of the playoff race, it was a different situation. This season everything was on the line and Hartley preferred to go with a veteran.

"The maturation for a goalie, for a defenceman, is a lot longer than for a forward because of the responsibilities that go with that position," said Hartley. "He's right on track, following the curve and we're very happy with him, but obviously like every young player, training camp will be a big one next year."

Treliving added that don't overlook the impact of the major shoulder surgery Wotherspoon had last year. It kept him out of training camp and as a result, Treliving said it took him a while to get up to speed in the AHL.

Treliving said that in his exit meeting with Wotherspoon, he challenged him. He said next year in camp as a guy that's been here a few years now, he has to come in and take charge.

"You're coming in to earn a job, not star gaze and take home underwear for the summer that has a Flames logo," Treliving said. "That's what I told him, you have to come in with the mentality of winning a job. You have a full summer to get bigger stronger and all the things that young players have to do but you have to come in here like you're ripping one of these seven spots away. He'll be ready."


20. Brad Treliving - On the Flames Two Weaknesses

While Hartley shrugged off the question of what his team's weakness is -- saying it's his job to cover up those weaknesses, Treliving was more forthright on two areas he'd like to address.

First is depth on the blue-line.

"We need to become deeper in that position. To go deep in the playoffs, we need to upgrade there," Treliving said. "An upgrade might be Tyler Wotherspoon coming in and stealing a job. It might be like how David Schlemko came in and did a good job for us, that's something we'll look at it. Maybe it's something that comes from the outside be it an acquisition or something. Those three guys (Brodie, Wideman, Russell) looked like drowned rats most of the year, they played so much."

The other area, which would also help the blue-line, is to have the puck more.

"Need to spend more time in the offensize zone and that's holding on to pucks, protecting pucks," said Treliving. "Defencemen can play 27 minutes if 10 of those minutes are standing at the offensize blue-line and not defending behind your goal line."

Only good things can happen from more puck possession.

"Being a team that can hold onto pucks, play more time in the offensive zone, obviously limits the chances you're going to give up and will create more offence."



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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