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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Entertaining, Compelling, Unexpected: Enjoying the Calgary Flames Season For What It Is

When I buy a book, I don't flip straight to the final chapter to read what happens in the end.

When my favourite TV show is over and they say, "Stay tuned for scenes from next week", I don't stay tuned.

And those movie trailers -- especially the two-minute versions, which reveal way too much of what happens, no thank you. I'll either look away or leave the room.

Why?

Because for me, I love a good mystery. Reading, watching television and going to a movie, it's just entertainment and I find it most enjoyable when I don't know what's going to unfold next. I find it most compelling when I can strap myself in, invest myself emotionally and just savor the journey and all the twists and turns in the plot that I know are forthcoming -- some good, some maddening, some agonizing.


When Did Hockey Become So Serious?

Ten days ago, at the one-third mark in the season, the Calgary Flames were 17-8-2.

For the so-called common fan -- Flames jersey on, cold beverage in hand, riding the roller-coaster game by game, it's been as entertaining of a two-month stretch of regular season hockey as this team has played in over two decades.

The Saddledome does not get any louder than it does during a furious third period comeback. It can be deafening. In franchise history -- so we're talking 42 years and counting, seven is the most times in one season the Flames have won a game in which they trailed after two periods.

There's been six of these fantastic finishes already this year with four of them (Nashville, Anaheim, New Jersey, Colorado) happening on home ice before a frenzied crowd of over 18,000. If you were fortunate enough to be at those games, you won't soon forget them.

Then there's the refreshing style of hockey this team is playing. This is not the slow, plodding hockey that we've seen over the years from cap-ceiling editions of the Flames with much greater star power, this blue collar cap-floor group plays the game at high speed. They have a tenacious forecheck, they force turnovers, the defence are active all the time, jumping up into the rush. Is this just a clever way of masking a team's lack of high-end talent? Probably, but it's rarely boring.

That game a couple weeks ago against Colorado, when Calgary came from behind in the third period not just once but twice, was like the close of a chapter.

It's reaching that point in a book or a movie where you're completely satisfied with what's happened yet if you click 'info' on your PVR, you see that there is still over an hour left in the movie. Or you realize that there are still over 200 pages to go in your book.

It's a great start, but you know you're not anywhere near the ending yet so you press on, bracing for the worst, yet hopeful. After all, you've seen the movie Hoosiers, why can't there be a sequel.


Don't Have to be Good to Be Entertaining

You'll notice that no where have I said these first two months have been the "best" hockey the Flames have played in the last couple decades.
  • Entertaining? Yes. 
  • Compelling? Absolutely.
  • Surprising? Stunning is probably more appropriate.

Are even the common fans naive enough to expect the team to finish the year with 18 third-period comebacks? Was anyone really thinking Dennis Wideman was going to score 30 goals? If I asked you four months ago who Josh Jooris was, many would have said he was a clerk at 7-Eleven. Are people suddenly believing 25 goals is a realistic possibility?

My often-far-too-serious friends in the advanced stats community point out ad nauseam that Calgary's shooting percentage is unrealistically high and not sustainable, that the Vezina-worthy numbers early in the season from Jonas Hiller -- who the Ducks dismissed in favour of a rookie in the playoffs last year, wouldn't continue.

It's as if the breaking news is that the Flames rebuild -- less than a year-and-a-half in, isn't complete yet and they still have work to do. No kdding. Thanks for the reminder. These are all true things yet isn't that even more reason to enjoy the unexpected prosperity?


Nothing More Charming Than an Underdog

In 2003-04, Calgary finished 42-30-7-3 to make the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Just five points back was the ninth place Edmonton Oilers. That season the Flames went 4-0-1-1 in six tight games against their provincial rival. If Edmonton would have won the one game that ended in a tie. If just one of the three one-goal Calgary victories (1-0, 2-1, 2-1) would have been a one-goal loss instead, it's Edmonton that makes the playoffs that season instead of the Flames.

The margin was that razor thin yet Calgary got in and went all the way to game seven of the Stanley Cup final before losing to Tampa Bay -- and in the minds of many, they actually should have won the Stanley Cup in game six -- see Martin Gelinas.

As the lower seed in all four playoff series, was Calgary the best team in the NHL on paper that year? Nope. But do you think that mattered in the slightest to the thousands of people, who were celebrating on the Red Mile after every victory. Nope. They found a way and that's all most people cared about.  In fact, pulling it off with the odds stacked against them made it that much more satisfying.


One of the Better Losing Streaks in Club History

The Flames just accomplished something they haven't done in nearly 20 years. They lost four games in a row in regulation time while outshooting their opponent in all four games.

The last time that occurred was November 1995 -- back when Paul Kruse wore No. 12 for Calgary.
  • Nov. 17, 1995 - Lost 5-3 to Stephane Fiset and the Avalanche at the Saddledome, despite a 47-26 edge in shots. Trevor Kidd with the loss.
  • Nov. 18, 1995 - Lost 5-2 to Fiset again, this time in Colorado. Outshot the Avs 30-29. Rick Tabaracci with the loss.
  • Nov. 21, 1995 - Lost 3-2 at home to Guy Hebert and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, despite a 34-26 edge in shots. Kidd in net for Calgary.
  • Nov. 24, 1995 - Lost 5-2 to Bill Ranford and the Oilers at the Saddledome. Held a 42-24 edge in shots. Kidd, in relief of Tabaracci, with the loss.

Does this mean fans should be positive about what's now a five-game losing streak after Sunday's 2-1 loss in Chicago? Of course not. They're falling behind early -- they've led for only 11:52 during the past five games, they're being outplayed at even-strength, the goaltending has been shaky, the third defence pairing has been a point of constant consternation.

The shot clock can mask some bigger issues, that's absolutely true. The nature of when shots in a game come -- e.g. when trailing, can skew statistics. So can the quality of shots, etc. However, are there still positive things to take out of this losing streak? Absolutely.
  • They Didn't Give Up - Over the past 19 years, there have been plenty of long losing streaks in which they not only got outscored, they got out-shot also and sometimes badly. Instead of surrendering and passively cruising to the end of the game, they dug in instead and fought back and that's worth something. The result has been the same -- a 'L' and 0 points in the standings, but if you put any stock in the character of a team, you'll gladly takes the group that fights to the finish knowing those traits will benefit the team down the road.
  • They've Been in Every Game - San Jose - one-goal game, Toronto -- essentially a one-goal game. Buffalo - one-goal game. Pittsburgh -- one-goal game into the 18th minute of the third period. Chicago - one-goal game.
  • They've Played Red-Hot Opponents - Let's be honest, they're not exactly losing to the runts of the litter right now. Here is the recent record of the teams that handed them defeats: San Jose (7-1-0 in last eight), the road set backs to red-hot Toronto (9-1-1 in last 11), Buffalo (9-3-0 in last 12), Pittsburgh (6-2-2 in last 10), Chicago (9-1-0 in last 10).


What Comes Next

The rebuild isn't over and I don't know anyone that has made that declaration. People are enjoying the unexpected success and my god, why wouldn't you. It's not like Calgary's got a long rich history of winning that can make Flames fans so choosy. Besides, if you're not going to enjoy the victories, how are you going to be when the losses start stacking up?

Deserved or not deserved, the wins they have so far won't be confiscated, they're already in the books and two points is two points whether it was a Rembrandt in terms of its beauty or not.

Prior to this losing streak, I had elevated the Flames odds of making the playoffs to 25 percent -- and that was probably overly optimistic. I haven't changed my view. The post-season this year remains possible but not probable.

But through it all, take solace in the fact that Sam Bennett is still coming. So is Emile Poirier. So is Michael Ferland. So is Tyler Wotherspoon. Sean Monahan's had a great sophomore year and there's no reason to think that won't be the same a year from now for this year's rookies Johnny Gaudreau and Markus Granlund and maybe even for Jooris, who's unexpected success has epitomized this entire season for the Flames.

Why wallow in the numbers, the underlying stats, that suggest Calgary's not good right now. Instead, enjoy what's happening right now, realizing that this team is only going to get better.

When the Flames played in Chicago on Sunday night, there were graphs that suggested what should happen, spreadsheets that stated what will likely happen, but truth is, anything could have happened and nearly did. The winning goal late in the game comes on an off-man rush after Johnny Gaudreau loses an edge and turns the puck over. That's a pretty random and unlucky event.

You'll remember back on Oct. 15 when the Flames were out-shot 50-18 by the Blackhawks yet won 2-1. It was about as ugly of a way to win a hockey game, yet it was thoroughly entertaining. Last night's game was also fun to watch and this time the shot disparity was much closer at 28-24 in favor of Chicago.

Close, entertaining games should be the theme for this season. Just enjoy it for what it is.


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Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Eight From 80 Feet: PK is Killin' It, Pre-Christmas Exam and More - A round-up of eight thoughts on the Flames from the past week.
  • Bennett Happy With How His Recovery is Going - The Saddledome has turned out to be a pretty exciting workout facility for injured prospect Sam Bennett, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. He spoke about how his rehab is going, what his timeline is and the excitement around how the Flames are playing and the club's bright future.
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Latest Random Musings About the Flames - Comprised of a blend of anecdotes -- sometimes quirky, recaps, statistics, analysis and with some opinions or predictions sprinkled in as well, it's a round-up of random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames. In this edition, you'll learn at least two things you didn't know before.
  • Two Ways To Look at "It's Not Sustainable" The analytics experts are out in full force these days. In their cross-hairs is the explanation-defying Calgary Flames, the should-be Connor McDavid contenders, who instead are contending for first place in the Western Conference. I explain that Calgary can't keep up it's current pace, but nor does it need to.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks, Right Side of the Standings - If the 2014-15 NHL season was an 80s movie, the Flames with Byron, Bouma and Jooris would be cast as the poor kids, up against the rich kids in Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins. So far, the poor kids are dating the gorgeous cheerleader.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Eight From 80 Feet: PK is Killin' It, No Goalie, No Problem, Pre-Christmas Exam, and More

Welcome to the second edition of a new content feature -- Eight from 80 Feet.

Comprised of a blend of anecdotes, recaps, statistics, analysis and maybe an opinion or prediction sprinkled in as well, it's a round-up of random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames.

If you missed the first one from last week, which examined topics such as Calgary's NHL-best ability to avoid losing streaks, Sean Monahan's shootout prowess and his lofty ranking in the NHL all-time, and the American Thanksgiving myth, you can find it here. The content is still very much relevant.


1. Winning!

Full disclosure: This is about as far away as you can possibly get from advanced hockey analytics so if you're one of the extremists in that crowd, save your energy and your angry tweets, and just chill out for a minute. Trust me, I am not proposing this as a new way to evaluate players.

I've always found it interesting to see how the team fares with different players in the line-up so I decided to compile this rudimentary data. The impetus for doing this came with the scratching of Sven Baertschi on Saturday for the first time in 11 games, which also coincided with the Flames losing for just the third time in 11 games. In fact, the last time Baertschi was in the press box -- Nov. 10 in Carolina, Calgary also lost.

In what I'd classify as more coincidence than correlation, here is the Flames W-L record along with points percentage when various Flames players are in the line-up. This list is comprised of guys that have been in/out of the press box, were recalled from the minors, or have missed significant chunks of the season due to injury:

  • Sven Baertschi 11-3-0, .786
  • David Jones 11-3-1, .767
  • Markus Granlund 12-5-0, .706
  • Michael Ferland 6-3-0, .667
  • Raphael Diaz 7-4-0, .636
  • Josh Jooris, 12-7-2, .619
  • Mason Raymond 5-4-1, .550
  • Joe Colborne 5-4-2, .545
  • Matt Stajan 5-5-2, .500
  • Brian McGrattan 4-4-0, .500


Sometimes pairing up guys can result in even more extreme results -- one way or another, and in an example of that, the Flames are 1-4-0 in games in which both Stajan and McGrattan suit-up.


2. Pre-Christmas Exam

Thanks to a productive first two months in which Calgary has already stashed away 36 valuable points in the vault, the Flames have put themselves in a position where they will remain in the mix for a playoff spot if they can play .500 hockey for the remainder of the year. However, is that a reasonable expectation?

These next eight games leading up to Christmas could be a good indicator.

Given the calibre of opponent and the circumstances, eight points over the next eight games should be considered a pass on what I'm calling the Flames pre-Christmas exam.

Here's a closer look:
  • Segment 1 - Four-game road trip with stops in Toronto, Buffalo and Pittsburgh (back-to-back nights), and then wrapping up in Chicago. With all four teams on a roll lately (Maple Leafs 5-2-0, Sabres 6-3-0, Penguins 5-2-0, Blackhawks 6-0-0), Calgary should be very happy if it can net four points and three points would be acceptable also.
  • Segment 2 - Home games against the NY Rangers and Dallas. A couple tough match-ups as the Stars are one of the Western teams Calgary has to beat in order to make the playoffs. Winning both of these games won't be easy but depending on how the prior road trip goes, that might be necessary. A split, at minimum, is a must.
  • Segment 3 - The final two games before Christmas are road games in Vancouver and in Los Angeles. That game with the Kings is the first of five meetings this year with the defending Stanley Cup champions. A split would be very good but more than anything, at least one point and avoiding two regulation losses will be key.

The start of the season has been a nice story but if the Flames want to silence their many critics, who are blaring "lucky" and "unsustainable" from their megaphones, then these next two weeks is their chance to do just that. Otherwise, this same group will soon be chortling, "I told you so."

Here is the rubric on how I'll grade this pre-Christmas stretch of eight games:
  • 12 points or more - Change your late April/May vacation plans
  • 10 or 11 points - Time for the skeptics to shut-up
  • 8 or 9 points - Excellent
  • 6 or 7 points - Satisfactory
  • 4 or 5 points - Concern creeping in
  • 3 points or less - Uh-oh. Sound the alarm.


3. Keep Killin' It on the PK

As the analytics folks have been so kind to point once or twice, Calgary's scorching hot goal-scoring is off the charts right now and will level off eventually.

When that happens, whether it's an average of half-a-goal per game or whatever, they'll have to make up that difference in other areas if they hope to continue their success. One way to mitigate scoring less goals is by giving up less goals and the team's penalty killing, which has struggled much of the season, provides that opportunity.

Entering the game against Anaheim on Nov. 25, Calgary's penalty killing ranked 29th in the NHL. That's going to make this area of their game a serious liability over 82 games. However, things have been on the uptick since then with the Flames perfect on the PK in the last six games.

Sharing in the credit can be the remarkable discipline the club has shown. Over that span, Calgary has been shorthanded just eight times. Another positive is the return to the fold of Matt Stajan, who will help on face-offs and give the Flames more penalty killing depth.

Saturday night against San Jose and the NHL's third-best power play, a key kill of a 5-on-3 late in the third period is what turned the game's momentum around and allowed Calgary to nearly tie it up. It's not just about preventing the opponent from scoring, but it's about wrestling back the game's momentum and a clutch kill can be one of the most galvanizing rallying points in a hockey game.


4. No Goalie, No Problem

It's been a fascinating story line so I set out to take a closer look. Specifically in the circumstance of trailing late in the game and pulling the goalie for an extra attacker (as opposed to pulling the goalie during a delayed penalty), Calgary has played 15 minutes and 26 seconds with an empty net this year.

In what is the least sustainable of any of the Flames gaudy statistics at this point, it's Calgary's success in these scenarios that continues to astound.

Here's a full breakdown of how they've fared in this scenario:
  • Flames lead 4-2 in goals.
  • Three of the goals came in eventual wins (two against New Jersey, one against Colorado).
  • All four goals have been even-strength (so at 6-on-5).
  • Top scorers are Jiri Hudler (2-1-3), Curtis Glencross (1-1-2), Mark Giordano (0-2-2)
  • Hudler is the lone player to be on the ice for all four goals. Others: Glencross, Giordano, and TJ Brodie (3). Sean Monahan, Josh Jooris (2). 
  • Flames hold a 14-2 edge in shots on goal. They are led by Giordano (3), Wideman (3), Hudler (2) and Gaudreau (2).
  • Flames hold a 27-5 edge in shots attempted (includes shots blocked, and missed shots).
  • Monahan has been the go-to guy at the dot taking 11 of 16 face-offs, winning six of them.

If Calgary's stunning third period dominance (outscoring teams 39-16) are Playboy magazine, their furious last minute comebacks have been the centerfold.


5. MG4MVP

The trophy for the player voted the most valuable player in the NHL is called the Hart Memorial Trophy. Considering the importance of the position, it seems criminal that Chris Pronger (1999-00) is the only blue-liner to have won this trophy in over 40 years.

In fact, Bobby Orr (three times -- 1969-70, 1970-71, 1971-72) and Pronger are the only two defencemen to have won it in the last 70 years. It's hard to fathom considering the MVP went to a defenceman seven times in a 12-year span just prior to that, back in the 30s and early 40s.

The reason this is topical is last week, Mark Giordano was named the NHL's first star of the month for November. If you're the best NHL player for a month, you've pretty much won a miniature Hart Trophy. Since the NHL started naming its three stars of the month in 2006-07, a defenceman has never been named first star of the month until Giordano last week.

In chronolgical order beginning with the most recent, here is the full list of defencemen, who have been named one of the NHL's three stars of the month. While it may be a short list, it's a pretty impressive group:
  • Nov 2014 - Mark Giordano, CGY, 1st
  • Mar 2013 - PK Subban, MTL, 2nd
  • Feb 2012 - Erik Karlsson, OTT, 2nd
  • Jan 2011 - Keith Yandle PHX, 2nd
  • Dec 2010 - Niklas Lidstrom DET, 3rd
  • Feb 2009 - Mike Green WSH, 2nd
  • Jan 2009 - Scott Niedermayer, ANA, 2nd
  • Oct 2008 - Shea Weber, NSH, 3rd
  • Oct 2006 - Scott Niedermayer, ANA, 3rd

Giordano's announcement also came on the five-year anniversary of the last Flames player to be named one of the three stars for a month. For his performance during November 2009, Jarome Iginla was named the NHL's first star after a torrid month in which he went 13-7-20 in 14 games and helped Calgary go 10-2-2.

If not the Hart, the Norris Trophy for the league's top defenceman should definitely be a possibility for Giordano this season. If there was a Late Bloomer Award, that would be awarded to the undrafted Flames captain in a landslide.


6. Offensive Defensemen

I was remarking the other day as we watched the Flames play San Jose that it's absolutely amazing how many times you look up and see a Calgary defenceman behind the opposition net. Often, it's Brodie, but it's been Giordano also. Wideman or Wideman have been spotted there as well and even Smid has been spotted lumbering around behind enemy lines.

With this aggressive deployment of their blue-liners, it's no co-incidence that Calgary leads the NHL by far in goals and points from its defence. Plus, it's a style of play that teams are struggling to counter. Watch the Flames break out of their own end and with the speed of a Brodie, Giordano or Russell, they jump up into the rush to turn a harmless 2-on-2 into a 3-on-2 or a 3-on-2 into a dangerous 4-on-2. They provide an additional passing option that teams can't seem to defend.

It's a style of play that you need the right personnel to succeed at and Brodie is perfect for it as whenever he's the first player up the ice, he's usually one of the first two guys back if the puck turns over.

It makes you wonder how much more effective Jay Bouwmeester could have been in a Flames uniform all those years if the team played a similar style and he always had that green light. With his smooth skating and ability to go 200 feet in a handful of strides, he would be loving this style of game Calgary is playing and probably thriving in it too.


7. Oh Canada, No Calgary

Just twice in the last dozen years has Calgary's prospect cupboard been represented at the World Junior Hockey Championships in the form of a forward on Team Canada. Those two were Greg Nemisz (2010) and Dustin Boyd (2006). This year, Morgan Klimchuk has a chance.

The Flames 2013 first round pick, who plays for the Regina Pats (WHL), will attend the Team Canada World Junior selection camp in Toronto beginning on Dec. 11. The Calgary native is one of 17 forwards and 29 players invited to try and make the 22-player team. This year, the always popular event is on home turf, taking place in Toronto and Montreal.

Muddying the picture is not included on the invite roster are four additional eligible forwards playing in the NHL right now. Each of these players could be released by their team to attend -- Bo Horvat (Vancouver), Curtis Lazar (Ottawa), Jonathan Drouin (Tampa Bay) and Anthony Duclair (NY Rangers).

Unfortunately, due to his shoulder surgery, Flames prospect Sam Bennett - fourth overall pick in last year's draft, will not be able to participate. If you missed it, Bennett talked with the media for the first time on Friday since his operation. Here's my story on that as he discussed his rehab routine, what he has thought of the Flames season so far, and excitedly speculated about the club's bright future.

Here is the complete list of Flames prospects that have played for Team Canada at the World Juniors:

  • 2013 - Tyler Wotherspoon
  • 2010 (Silver) - Greg Nemisz
  • 2007 (Gold) - Leland Irving
  • 2006 (Gold) - Dustin Boyd
  • 2005 (Gold) - Dion Phaneuf
  • 2004 (Silver) - Dion Phaneuf
  • 2002 (Silver) - Chuck Kobasew
  • 2001 (Bronze) - Jarret Stoll*
  • 1999 (Silver) - Robyn Regehr^, Blair Betts, Rico Fata, Daniel Tkaczuk
  • 1998 - Daniel Tkaczuk
  • 1996 (Gold) - Denis Gauthier, Jarome Iginla
  • 1995 (Gold) - Marty Murray
  • 1994 (Gold) - Joel Bouchard, Marty Murray
  • 1993 (Gold) - Joel Bouchard
  • 1992 - Trevor Kidd
  • 1991 (Gold) - Trevor Kidd, Kent Manderville
  • 1990 (Gold) - Trevor Kidd, Kent Manderville
  • 1988 (Gold) - Theoren Fleury
  • 1987 - Theoren Fleury
  • 1986 (Silver) - Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts
  • 1985 (Gold) - Brian Bradley
  • 1983 (Bronze) - Mike Vernon
  • 1982 (Gold) - Bruce Eakin, Pierre Rioux^
  • 1981 - Denis Cyr
  • 1978 (Bronze) - Brad Marsh#
  • 1977 - Brad Marsh#

* Was a Calgary draft pick but never ended up signing.
^ Was not yet Calgary property but became so shortly after and made his NHL debut with the Flames
# Was an Atlanta Flames draft pick but made his NHL debut with Calgary


8. Looking Into the Goalie Pipeline 

Jon Gillies is putting together a pretty nice season in his third year at Providence College and you would have to think that unless he falters, the Flames will be very anxious to sign the 2012 third round pick this summer and get him into the organization where they can begin working with him more closely.

Since the beginning of November, Gillies has gone 6-3-0 with a stingy 1.01 goals-against average and a tidy .967 save percentage.

With Joni Ortio on a one-way contract for next year that will require him to pass through waivers in order to be sent to the AHL, that likely means he'll be in the NHL. Thus, Calgary would love to have Gillies, who turns 21 in January, become the new No. 1 for Adirondack in 2015-16.

Gillies is a long way away from being NHL-ready but if he keeps up how he's been playing, it will be important for his development to turn pro and bump up the level of competition and that comes with a jump to pro hockey and the AHL. He could be there for at least a couple seasons before he will legitimately compete for a job in Calgary. Also, signing him him after three years like Calgary did with Johnny Gaudreau eliminates any flight risk concerns that are associated with a player choosing to play his full four years at college.

Ortio got off to a shaky start to the season in Adirondack but as the baby Flames have heated up, so has he. In his last 10 starts, he is 8-2-0 with a 1.91 GAA and a .934 SV%.

You'll recall last year when the Flames controversially used their second round draft pick, 34th overall, to draft Mason McDonald. I still understand Calgary using that pick at that time for all the reasons I listed here.

Playing in the QMJHL for a middle-of-the-pack team in the Charlottetown Islanders, McDonald has had an up-and-down season statistically. In mid-November, he won three straight games while giving up just four goals on 86 shots. Along the way he was named one of the QMJHL stars of the week. However, in his six starts since, he's been scuffling. He's been pulled twice and has gone 2-4-0 with a 4.87 GAA and a .856 SV%.

I wouldn't expect to see McDonald turn pro for at least two more years so while it makes for great conversation, it's far, far too early to draw any conclusions just yet on where McDonald will fit in and what his timeline will be.


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Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Bennett Happy With How His Recovery is GoingThe Saddledome has turned out to be a pretty exciting workout facility for injured prospect Sam Bennett, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. He spoke about how his rehab is going, what his timeline is and the excitement around how the Flames are playing and the club's bright future.
  • Flames Rookies Rubbing Off on the Club's Veterans - Josh Jooris and Johnny Gaudreau have been great. Their play has not only been a big part of the Flames success but also has veterans like Dennis Wideman and David Jones feeling invigorated. 
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Latest Random Musings About the Flames - Comprised of a blend of anecdotes -- sometimes quirky, recaps, statistics, analysis and with some opinions or predictions sprinkled in as well, it's a round-up of random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames. In this edition, you'll learn at least two things you didn't know before.
  • Two Ways To Look at "It's Not Sustainable" The analytics experts are out in full force these days. In their cross-hairs is the explanation-defying Calgary Flames, the should-be Connor McDavid contenders, who instead are contending for first place in the Western Conference. I explain that Calgary can't keep up it's current pace, but nor does it need to.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks, Right Side of the Standings - If the 2014-15 NHL season was an 80s movie, the Flames with Byron, Bouma and Jooris would be cast as the poor kids, up against the rich kids in Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins. So far, the poor kids are dating the gorgeous cheerleader.


    Friday, December 05, 2014

    Sam Bennett Says He's Happy With Progress After Shoulder Surgery

    The Scotiabank Saddledome has turned out to be a pretty exciting workout facility for injured prospect Sam Bennett, who is recovering from shoulder surgery.

    The injury-riddled Calgary Flames, arguably the NHL's biggest surprise this season at 17-8-2, sit one point back of the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks for the lead in the Western Conference entering Friday's games.

    "It's amazing being part of a rebuild and how much success we've been having," said Bennett, selected fourth overall by Calgary in this year's draft. "It's been awesome..."

    As this story ran on The Canadian Press wire, click here to access the full story.


    ------------------------------------------------

    Recent Related Flames Reading
    • Flames Rookies Rubbing Off on the Club's Veterans - Josh Jooris and Johnny Gaudreau have been great. Their play has not only been a big part of the Flames success but also has veterans like Dennis Wideman and David Jones feeling invigorated. 
    • Eight From 80 Feet: The Latest Random Musings About the Calgary Flames - Comprised of a blend of anecdotes -- sometimes quirky, recaps, statistics, analysis and with some opinions or predictions sprinkled in as well, it's a round-up of random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames. In this edition, you'll learn at least two things you didn't know before.
    • Two Ways To Look at "It's Not Sustainable" The analytics experts are out in full force these days. In their cross-hairs is the explanation-defying Calgary Flames, the should-be Connor McDavid contenders, who instead are contending for first place in the Western Conference. I explain that Calgary can't keep up it's current pace, but nor does it need to.
    • Wrong Side of the Tracks, Right Side of the Standings - If the 2014-15 NHL season was an 80s movie, the Flames with Byron, Bouma and Jooris would be cast as the poor kids, up against the rich kids in Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins. So far, the poor kids are dating the gorgeous cheerleader.
    • Flames on a Roll: Buckle Up, Hang on Tight and Enjoy the Ride - Calgary is playing exciting, competitive and winning hockey. As a fan, isn't that what you signed up for? My examination of the Flames fast start includes reason for optimism, but mixed with realism. 

    Wednesday, December 03, 2014

    Flames Rookies Rubbing Off on the Club's Veterans

    One game shy of the one-third mark of the NHL season, the Calgary Flames have a lot of reasons to smile.
    • They're sitting one point behind the Western Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks.
    • At 16-8-2 for 34 points, they're off to the second-fastest start since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989 (were 17-6-3 for 37 points in 2009-10).
    • They've won seven of their last nine games with the only blemishes being one-goal setbacks to Anaheim and Chicago.
    • They've only had one losing 'streak' all year and that was a mere two games in length -- and one of the losses was in a shootout so they still earned a point.

    From the clutch goaltending to the production from the defencemen to this uncanny third period domination (now outscoring opponents a ridiculous 37-14) -- and all the furious comeback victories that have come along the way, you could make a case for any one of those things to be the primary narrative thus far in the Calgary Flames 2014-15 season.

    Yet, there's one thing that trumps them all. That would have to be the impact that youth has had on this hockey club -- offensively, defensively and subconsciously.

    Rookies Johnny Gaudreau, Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund have not only made the club better through their significant contributions individually, they're also making everybody else on the club better through their infectious and youthful exuberance. New to riding on charters and five star hotels, visiting NHL cities and arenas for the first time, there's an energy that naturally flows with kids in their first year in the NHL and the whole team has come to embody that.

    In notching his first NHL hat-trick Tuesday night and his first three-goal game since the first game of his freshman year at Union College over four years ago, Jooris was the game's offensive star. Co-starring was Gaudreau, his linemate, with two assists. You can read about their night and hear their perspectives on the 5-2 win in my game story right here for The Canadian Press.

    What I'm focusing on here is the the ripple effect their inspired play has had on Calgary's older players.


    Two Forgotten Players a Year Ago 

    Dennis Wideman, 31, is the Flames highest paid player at a cap hit of $5.25 million for two more seasons after the current one. The former Capitals and Bruins defenceman is coming off a disappointing year in which injuries limited him to 46 games and seemingly indifferent play limited him to four goals and 21 assists.

    This season, however, after picking up two helpers against Arizona, Wideman already has eight goals and 15 points. He looks and sounds like a completely different player from a year ago.

    "This year has been exciting for all of us. Young guys are coming in, obviously they're excited because it's their first year. For us, it's a fun team to play on," said Wideman, with a smile. "We're having a lot of fun, we're playing the right way and we're playing hard and for the older guys, it makes it exciting to come to the rink."

    Wideman is impressed at the way the Flames rookies are contributing.

    "I was asked today what the difference is between this year and last year and why we're winning so much more and I think it's guys like Jooris and Johnny Hockey and the other young guys are contributing this year," said Wideman, rather matter-of-factly. "We're still working hard like we did last year but we're getting goals from these guys and they've added a secondary scoring punch to Mony and Huds and make us a little more dangerous."

    How much more dangerous? A lot. Consider that Calgary's 16th win last season didn't happen until January 13, which is 41 days away. This year's edition of the Flames is 12 points up on where they were on this same date one year ago.

    "We're getting real good efforts from the young guys," said Wideman. "They've stepped in and they're playing great. They definitely don't seem like they're rookies, that's for sure."


    Developing a Bit of a Swagger

    David Jones, 30, is another example of a Flames veteran that looks rejuvenated.

    After missing a bunch of time due to three different injuries last year, Jones was hampered by an injury this year in October and then suffered another injury in November. Jones may just be settling back into the line-up but he has begun to play the type of power forward style that fans have been yearning for and dreaming about since the big 6-foot-2 right-winger was acquired by Calgary two summers ago.

    Jones, who has four goals on the season -- all coming in the last seven games, is also having a bounce-back year after scoring nine goals in 48 contests a year ago.

    "We've got a good thing going here. We're playing good hockey," said Jones, who along with Curtis Glencross has formed the Flames top line with super sophomore Sean Monahan as the centre. "Our team is working hard and all the guys are buying in and it's great to see a guy like Josh get a hat-trick tonight. All the young guys are chipping in. It's been great."

    The result as exhibited on Tuesday night is a new-found confidence emanating from that dressing room that hasn't been felt around Calgary in quite a while. For example against the Coyotes, despite seeing a 1-0 lead erased and then a 2-1 lead evaporate also, the Flames didn't change their game and kept playing that high tempo, aggressive forecheck style and sure enough they got that all-important next goal, which put them ahead for good.

    "It comes with winning. We're developing a little bit of an identity and a little bit of swagger," said Jones. "Not to get too far ahead of ourselves but these points are so important. We've just got to keep it going."

    Despite admitting he didn't like Jooris much at first -- "He went to Union and I went to Dartmouth so we're big rivals", he's a big fan now.

    "He's on a torrid pace right now with goals," Jones said. "Since he's been with our team, he's been playing great and that's awesome."


    Impact Has Been Palpable

    Monahan's birth certificate may say he's 20 but he's got the demeanor of a salty vet. Yet even 'boring' Monahan cracks a little smile when talking about the team's rookies -- Jooris in particular.

    “That’s always good to see. Josh is a hard-working guy and it’s something he earned and we’re all happy for him," Monahan said. "You go on those streaks and that’s what good teams have got to do. Right now we have a good feeling in the dressing room. We’re starting to roll and really coming together as a team.”

    They're on a roll alright and Flames coach Bob Hartley says as long as they stay focused on the task at hand, they should be able to keep it going.

    “It comes by waves. Your penalty killing's going to get on a good wave, your power play's going to get on a good wave or a bad wave. You're going to get scored on first for a while. The most important thing we're focusing on now is to win some hockey games," said Hartley. "Whether we come back from two goals behind or we're entering the third period with a one-goal lead, our approach is slightly different, but the guys are so focused on their job."

    Calgary will try to keep this improbable run going on Thursday night when former Flames Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay come calling to the Saddledome.


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