Sunday, August 24, 2014

Flames 2014-15 Roster: Dwindling Opportunity But Part of the Master Plan?

  • Flying time from Calgary to New York City: 4.5 hours
  • Driving time from JFK International Airport to Glens Falls Civic Centre: 3.5 hours
  • Miscellaneous (check-in, customs, bag carousel, rental counter): 3 hours
  • Time zone change: 2 hours

If you want to watch the Calgary Flames brightest prospects in action this year -- or at least to start the season, it seems this is what it will take.

It's still leaving the house at 6 o'clock to get to the arena for a 7 o'clock game -- as would be the case if you were headed to the Saddledome, only we're talking about leaving at 6 a.m. now and heading for the airport.

Sven Baertschi is in Calgary right now. On Sunday, he signed autographs and dropped the puck for the 'big game experience' that wrapped up the Sport Chek - Calgary Flames Development Camp going on at SAIT. The volunteer-driven weekend hockey school for 60 disadvantaged kids from around Calgary is the brainchild of Sportsnet Radio's Rob Kerr. It's an excellent camp in its third year that takes kids that cannot afford to attend a hockey school and teaches them not just hockey skills but also about fun, leadership, respect and teamwork.

While it's terrific to see Baertschi helping out in the community, I can't imagine his reaction when he heard the news on Saturday that the Flames were adding another veteran to their NHL roster in unrestricted free agent Devin Setoguchi. Well, cross off another roster opening. Insert 'exasperated sigh' here.

Perhaps this is a sign of more roster changes still to come, a trade or two forthcoming. After all, new general manager Brad Treliving has said all along that he's been trying to get some things done. But if not, it's not looking very good if you're one of the Flames many prospects hoping to make this hockey club this September as they're simply aren't going to be many jobs available.


Examining the Flames Potential Starting Roster

I took an educated guess as to what Calgary's opening night 23-man roster could look like and as things stand today, there really is only one opening at forward. One!

This link will take you to my projected Calgary roster on CapGeek, which is my best guess to how the Flames will open up the season. You'll see I've included unsigned restricted free agent Lance Bouma (the $1.1-million salary is just a guess) as he will eventually be signed and be on this team.

In summary, here is how it breaks downs:
  • Starting Forwards (12) - Backlund, Bollig, Bouma, Colborne, Glencross, Hudler, Jones, McGrattan, Monahan, Raymond, Setoguchi, Stajan
  • Extras (2) - Byron, Reinhart
  • Starting Defence (6) - Brodie, Engelland, Giordano, Russell, Smid, Wideman
  • Extras (1) - Cundari
  • Goalies (2) - Hiller, Ramo

First of all, spoiler alert: Sam Bennett will not make this team. Having just turned 18 -- nine months younger than Sean Monahan was at this same time, I've said all along he'll go back to junior for another year and now especially, I see Bennett as a virtual lock to play this season in Kingston.

Secondly, you're probably wondering why Max Reinhart instead of the uber-skilled Johnny Gaudreau?

The philosophy with this hockey club has always been and I doubt this changes under Treliving -- and it makes sense, is they want their prospects playing. In particular, their 'grade A' prospects. This, along with the other many reasons I identified back when Gaudreau signed, is why he likely opens this season with Adirondack.

If you look at those 12 starting forwards, that's who is going to play if they're all still here and healthy come Oct. 8 when the Flames open the season at home against the Vancouver Canucks.

You may not agree but seriously, who would coach Bob Hartley scratch out of that group?
  • Lance Bouma? Nope, just coming off a terrific year, excellent fourth line player.
  • Brian McGrattan? Against the Canucks? Have you already forgotten the night of the brawl? Not a chance.under the current management regime
  • Brandon Bollig? They just traded for him, that's not happening.
  • Devin Setoguchi? They didn't sign him to bring him here and not play him.

Given that, the last thing you want to do is keep your prized prospects up with the NHL team and then not play them. That means the jobs as extras up front go to Paul Byron and Reinhart. The latter is my choice to get the one Flames job opening at forward as at age 22, he's a bit older than the others and with two full seasons in the AHL under his belt, he's got more pro experience than the others. Also, let's not forget he was one of Abbotsford's top players last year with a breakout 21-42-63 season in 66 games to lead the team in scoring.

(For more on Reinhart's emergence last year that included a shift from centre to left-wing, here is my story on him written last April when I spoke with him right after Abbotsford's regular season concluded.)


A No-Risk Signing, But Not a No-Cost Signing

Getting back to the signing of Setoguchi, who will wear jersey No. 22, there are a lot of things to like about what's being billed as a reclamation project:
  • He's 27 years old, which is still very young. Many players would just be entering their prime.
  • He's played 459 games so he brings lots of experience.
  • He's a right-handed shooting natural right winger, joining only David Jones and McGrattan with that distinction.
  • At $750,000 on a one-year deal, he's also ridiculously cheap considering his $3.25-million NHL salary a year ago.
  • He's a former first round pick, drafted 8th overall by San Jose in 2005
  • He's an Alberta kid if you put stock in that.

We know there is talent there. In his sophomore season, he scored 31 goals as a 21-year-old. Let's not forget the Flames top scorer left over from last year's team is Sean Monahan, who had just 22.

However, how good could any bounce-back season possibly be? Could he play well enough to fetch the Flames a mid-round draft pick at the trade deadline? Maybe, but hard to imagine them getting much more.

Reasons for scepticism would include he's coming off a season in which he scored 11 goals. He's a natural right wing in a league where the right side is very much a wasteland for many teams -- part of the reason there was so much interest in Kevin Hayes. Yet, Setoguchi signs the type of cheap deal in Calgary, which would have been attractive to many cap-crunched playoff contenders seeking RW depth. Why did they all stay away? This young, experienced unrestricted free agent theoretically entering his prime was dangling out there for 54 days before finally accepting a one-year deal with the 27th place Flames.

At that salary, I fully agree there is no risk, but I'd also argue there is still a cost and that is to the development of the club's young prospects.


Prospects Need a Chance to Play

For the Flames to expedite the rebuild, they need to keep progressing their prospects each year and seeing what they have at the next level. You can't just drop five prospects into the NHL line-up a year from now and watch them flounder.

With the likes of Sam Bennett, Emile Poirier and Patrick Sieloff all likely carrying NHL ETA's of 2015-16 -- and Gaudreau could very well be on that same time line too, this season would be the ideal year to begin the prospect auditions and in addition to Reinhart, get guys like Markus Granlund, Michael Ferland and Corban Knight a long look. Same goes for the sometimes forgotten Baertschi, whose trials and tribulations I documented here. Get him back up in the NHL and see where he's at.

Now granted, there will be injuries and that will lead to a handful of opportunities and at least some of those players closer-to-ready should get their chance eventually, but with the Byron re-signing earlier in the summer and now Setoguchi, the number of open roster spots and legitimate chances to make this team out of training camp is quickly dwindling.

Now I could be wrong but you've got to think that surely there won't be any more player additions at this point -- at least up front. The knock on this organization for so long during all those mediocre years is there was not genuine opportunity for young players to make the team due to too many veterans on one-way contracts. It can impact the psyche of your kids when in their eyes, they see a scenario where no matter how good their training camp is, there is no realistic chance of making the team.

Earlier this summer, I wrote a piece in which I looked back at the Flames history of successfully graduating players from the AHL. In this article, which you can read here, their success rate has been particularly awful lately with just four players (Bouma, Byron, TJ Brodie, Mikael Backlund) having made the jump over the past five seasons.

Young players, especially on a team that is rebuilding, need to know there is genuine opportunity. Legitimate roster openings increases motivation and generates internal competition that makes everybody better.


Perhaps There is a Bigger, Secret Master Plan

The other day I wrote about the 12 things that -- if they happen, would result in the Flames drafting Connor McDavid next June. The Setoguchi signing further supports my third point in that story and that was that all of Calgary's best prospects end up playing this season in the AHL (or OHL).

Although this will never be stated publicly, you can't help but wonder if the Setoguchi signing is part of a bigger, master plan to finish in the bottom two this year and have a shot at one of the two much-ballyhooed and potentially franchise-shaping generational players eligible for next year's draft in McDavid or American Jack Eichel.

Perhaps the Setoguchi signing -- a no-risk pick-up that has only upside and yada, yada, yada as stated publicly by the Flames, is also being viewed internally, behind closed doors, as more of a 'may work but we're fine if it does not' move than a 'win now' move. I won't characterize it as a 'lose now' move as that's not the culture being cultivated here but not-winning may ultimately be the end result, no matter how hard you're trying, if you end up icing a team that just doesn't have the talent.

There is a cost to stunting the growth and development of some of the older prospects by keeping them in the AHL again this year -- and if this team finishes in 24th place in the process, that could set the rebuild back even further.

However, if it all results in this team being so 'not good enough' in 2014-15 that they end up drafting McDavid or Eichel, then instead of hurting the rebuild, you've now expedited the rebuild with the addition of an impact player that would likely step right into the Flames line-up next season.

A second year in the minors for Markus Granlund, who looks ready now, or a year in the minors for a player like Gaudreau, might delay by a year how quickly they become an impact NHL player but the bottom line is extra time spent playing in the AHL is never going to hurt you. The AHL is a superb development league and for the benefits of such, you just need to look at Detroit. The Red Wings have always been very patient with their young players. Like marinating a steak, the longer the better sometimes. Gustav Nyquist, for example, spent 137 games in the minors before breaking through last year and having a huge season.

Just think. All this time by saying he wanted to speed up the rebuild, perhaps this has been the master plan all along for Brian Burke, the Flames President of Hockey Operations. Never to be admitted to publicly, of course, but ask yourself, is Calgary really trying to get back into the playoffs on the coat tails of Byron, Setoguchi and Engelland for that matter. Or, are the odds of an expedited return to the post-season far better on the back of an 18-year-old stud like McDavid, which a line-up filled with journeymen/placeholders like Byron and Setoguchi, over Granlund and Gaudreau, might ultimately lead get you?

Knowing this city's infatuation with McDavid, I know what you're hoping.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Desperate For McDavid: 12 Things That (Mostly) Need to Happen for the Flames to Get Him

FF + CM

The initials are etched into picnic tables at Peter's Drive-In, carved into trees at Princess Island, and scribbled oh-so-eloquently on the bathroom walls of sports bars around town.

In each instance, they're in the centre of a heart.

Flames Fans love Connor McDavid.

The 2015 NHL Draft is still over 10 months away yet all of Calgary is smitten over the strapping young centre from the OHL's Erie Otters, who has been hyped by salivating draft pundits for over a decade. OK, it hasn't been quite that long, but it sure feels that way you hear his name so often.

After all, his credentials speak for themselves:
  • Granted Exceptional Player status to play in the OHL at age 15. He was just the third to receive such a distinction. John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad were the others. 
  • Stands 6-foot-0, 185 pounds, and is still growing
  • Last year went 28-71-99 to finish fourth in OHL scoring, doing so in just 56 games -- a dozen less than the three players ahead of him. 

All that and he was only 16 years old most of last season. Sixteen! Goodness.

The other day with the sun shining bright, birds chirping, kids laughing, I wrote a piece you can read here entitled "Dream a Little Dream". In it I identify 12 things that (mostly) need to happen for the Flames -- a playoff team over the final 34 games of last year, to be a playoff team over 82 games this season. It's not likely, but as you'll read, it's also not as inconceivable as you might think.

While the enthusiastic (Stanley) Cup-half-full audience roared its approval, saying yes -- this is possible, this can happen, the (Stanley) Cup-half-empty folks were chagrined. No way, they implored. Don't let it be. These are the guys and gals that have fallen for McDavid and fallen hard.

In fact, one person went as far as to declare: I don't care how the Flames could make the playoffs, just give me the 12 things that need to happen for us to get Connor McDavid, that would be something I'd read.

OK, here it goes.


12 Things That -- If They (Mostly) Happen, Should Result in the Flames drafting Connor McDavid  


1. Hiller Also Wins Just One Game in Regulation 

Jonas Hiller has yet to put on a Flames jersey yet he has just one fewer regulation win than his Swiss countryman Reto Berra chalked up with Calgary and he was here for four months before famously fetching a second round draft pick from the Avalanche at the trade deadline. Twenty-nine games, a 9-17-2 record, but just one win that didn't require overtime or a shootout.

It's unrealistic that Hiller will repeat that dubious feat considering he's here on a $4.5-million ticket and will play a lot, but if he doesn't end up with more than a handful of wins -- regulation or otherwise, that would be an indication Anaheim knew what they were doing last year when they eventually demoted him to be the back-up to the back-up. It will likely also mean the Flames aren't winning much either because while Karri Ramo was good at times last year, he also spent plenty of time behind Berra on the depth chart so expectations should be tempered.


2. Mason Raymond Leads the Flames With 23 Goals

Excluding the lockout-shortened season, Mike Cammalleri's 26 goals last year was the lowest total to lead the team in scoring since the Flames arrived in Calgary in 1980 -- and exactly half of them came in his torrid hot streak over the final six weeks. It also equalled the franchise record for futility set by former Calgary Cowboy Bob Leiter, whose 26 goals made him the top marksman for the Atlanta Flames in their expansion season in 1972-73.

Obviously this is a vastly different calibre of team and playing in a different era from the 1988-89 Stanley Cup-winning team, which had just as many 50-goal scorers as the Flames had 20-goal scorers last year, but my goodness, Calgary is going to have to find some more offence from somewhere.

Remaining from last year, the three top goal scorers are Sean Monahan (22), Mikael Backlund (18) and Jiri Hudler (17). Mason Raymond is here now but in seven seasons, he's broken 20 only once, and surpassed 15 only twice. If nobody reaches 25 this year, expect Calgary to be scraping the bottom of the league standings.


3. Adirondack wins the Calder Cup

A fantastic place to be watching hockey this season is the Civic Center in Glens Falls, New York. The new home of Calgary's American Hockey League affiliate, they've inherited a team that last year in Abbotsford was an impressive 43-25-8. That team should be even better this year, bolstered by the potential addition of Johnny Gaudreau and the probable additions of Emile Poirier, Brett Kulak, Kenny Agostino, Bill Arnold and David Wolf. The latter, who I wrote about recently right here, is one of Calgary's oldest (will soon turn 25) and most intriguing prospects.

With Markus Granlund and Max Reinhart both potentially returning also, Tyler Wotherspoon back after some NHL seasoning, maybe a re-focused Sven Baertschi and a full-season from Patrick Sieloff and Michael Ferland, that's one good-looking Adirondack team to be guided by newly-hired skipper Ryan Huska. The better the Jr. Flames line-up is, the worse off Calgary's line-up will be and that could mean some long, cold snaps coming up this winter as the Sr. Flames try but potentially struggle to get things done with a line-up chockful of guys merely keeping seats warm for the prospects that are on the way.


4. Chris Stewart is Right, Buffalo is Playoff-bound!

"I think on paper right now there's no doubt in my mind that we're a playoff-bound team."

Those words came from Buffalo Sabres forward Chris Stewart and no, he didn't utter them on April 1. He actually said it just last weekend in this story on NHL.com.

Well forget the playoffs, one doesn't need to be that delusional. For the Flames to have their best shot at McDavid, they merely need Buffalo to finish ahead of Calgary. Perhaps 29th spot for the Sabres accomplishes that feat.  But man, it's not going to be an easy task. The Sabres were 14 points back of 29th place Florida last year. That's not even in the same area code. And some would argue less Ryan Miller, they've gotten worse.

Calgary hockey fans didn't like him much when he single-handedly dismantled the Hitmen in last year's WHL playoffs but it's time to move on and get behind Sam Reinhart in hopes he steps into Buffalo's line-up and makes a huge impact. You'll also need Matt Moulson to score a ton, Cody Hodgson to keep getting better and Swedish goaltender Jhonas Enroth, age 26, to be the second coming of Henrik Lundqvist. Then maybe, just maybe, the Sabres will be good enough to climb out of the cellar and give up that spot to someone else. That 'someone else' could be the Flames.


5. Deryk Engelland is Calgary's Iron Man

One player played in all 82 games for the Flames last year. That was Chris Butler.

If that title is taken over by Deryk Engelland this year, that will be good news for Engelland and also good news for fans hoping for the worst as it means the rest of Calgary's roster -- aka the better half, were all injured at times and the more games missed by a team that isn't very deep, the harder it will obviously be for this team to win hockey games.

Calgary deployed 44 players last year during the regular season. By comparison, Los Angeles used just 28. Every player except TJ Brodie and Joe Colborne suffered a significant injury and in some cases -- see Curtis Glencross and Dennis Wideman, guys got hurt more than once.

Injuries are very much a luck thing. Does that puck hit you on that one particular place where it fractures your ankle, or just a half-inch away where it glances off the shin pad. McDavid seekers will hope the Flames are indeed lucky... by being unlucky.


6. Less People Return Than Depart on the 'Trade Deadline' Roadie

On Sunday, Feb. 22, the Flames will head to New York to begin a seven-game Eastern road trip. The number of players that pack a second bag just-in-case will say a lot about where this team is at in the NHL standings and if they're looking out the front window or into the rear-view mirror.

Why is that? Halfway through that trip will be the NHL trade deadline. Calgary will likely be in Philadelphia on that particular day.

The more players that don't end up returning to Calgary, the better the odds are that this team does not repeat last year's ill-timed hot stretch to close out the season but instead limps to the finish line.

Curtis Glencross and Karri Ramo are both pending UFAs so they're obviously two names that will be on the block. Glencross has a no-trade contract but if given a chance to join a Stanley Cup contender, those things have a way of working themselves out.

Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid, the list goes on and on of veterans who could end up being shipped away.

Remember, the failure to unload Mike Cammalleri last year nearly came back to bite the Flames. It was only Leon Draisatil's rise to prominence, Sam Bennett (Central Scouting's No. 1 ranked player) falling to No. 4, and the Flames just barely staying in that bottom pack of four teams that 'salvaged' would could have been a huge missed opportunity from a draft perspective.


7. Payroll Suddenly Goes Up

What is that old expression. One man's trash is another man's treasure?

The Flames are dead last in the NHL in payroll. They have plenty upon plenty of space to be creative and general manager Brad Treliving is trying to leverage that space and turn it into assets, he's told us that much multiple times already.

If he can grow Calgary's payroll but taking on a couple short-term but problematic contracts from other cap-crunched organizations, those hefty contracts likely won't be accompanied by players that will put the Flames over the top. More so, it may have the opposite effect. It would drop a couple overpaid veterans into Calgary's line-up, which in turn will keep two of the Flames top prospects suppressed in the AHL. While this scenario is not great for the season ticket holder, it could increase the odds that Calgary gets another great building piece -- and a monumental one at that, in the 2015 NHL Draft.


8. Flames Win the Lottery

This season is the 40th anniversary of the year the expansion Washington Capitals went a woeful 8-67-5. Oh my. That was 20 points worse than the second-last Kansas City Scouts and 30 points behind another franchise some of you will never have heard of called the California Golden Seals.

The problem is the Flames could repeat that dreadful Caps season or somehow even be worse -- heck, they could be last place in the NHL by 40 points, yet Calgary would still have an 80 percent chance of losing the lottery and falling to No. 2 pick.

This reduction in the odds of winning the lottery as the 30th place team from 25 percent to 20 percent was part of the changes the NHL announced on Tuesday. The teams impacted by the changes are the teams that finish in the bottom four spots overall as there is now a reduced chance for them of winning the lottery. To get McDavid, the Flames not only have to be bad and finish in last place to maximize their chances, they then have to be lucky and hope the 5-to-1 odds of winning the lottery come through.

Of course, finishing last would still guarantee Jack Eichel as a consolation prize and from all reports, he's right there in the McDavid conversation, but this story isn't about getting Eichel, it's about getting McDavid!


9. Bob Hartley is Fired

There were some great coaching performances in the NHL last year but given what he had to work with, the level of compete Bob Hartley got out of the Flames in his first full season behind the bench was nothing short of remarkable.

From game one to game 82, from minute one to minute 60 and often beyond, the blue collar Flames rolled up their sleeves and worked their tails off. Officially, Calgary played in 49 one-goal games. Unofficially, there were another dozen or so that would have been one-goal games if not for a late/empty net goal. The end result was a much better and far more entertaining season than anyone could have imagined as the fans rallied behind a team that was short on talent but long on heart.

But can he conjure up such magic again? If you've seen Hartley run his practices, you'll know he is a demanding coach. There is enough leadership on this team and prospects playing for job that tuning out the coach shouldn't be an issue already yet it seems to inevitably happen to every coach eventually, it's just a matter of when.

Further, circumstances are not ideal for Hartley in 2014-15. Despite the support voiced publicly by the Flames management regime, Hartley is a Jay Feaster hire, who is entering the final year of his three-year deal and that puts him in a precarious spot.

With just the tiniest bit of drop off, those shootout wins and overtime losses become regulation losses, those one-goal losses become two-goal losses, and talk of a contract extension becomes debate about whether he lasts the year. When that conversation starts occurring, it will be reflection of a team mired at or near the basement of the NHL standings and you know where patience ranks on Brian Burke's list.


10. Sophomore Slumps Strike

Former first round picks Sean Monahan and Joe Colborne were two important parts of the Flames success last year. We're not just talking about their proficiency in the shootout either.

Both rookies played pivotal roles in the Flames top nine. Monahan, 19, was second on the team with 22 goals in his first NHL season. Colborne, 23, turned into a real pleasant surprise, especially after shifting to the wing, finishing with 10 goals and 28 points.

For the Flames to be better or even tread water, both of these guys need to take another step forward. If one or both experience the ol' sophomore slump, that's going to big a big blow and would likely propel Calgary in the wrong direction in the standings.


11. Sam Bennett Wins the OHL Scoring Title

If Sam Bennett is leading the OHL in scoring, that means he's not in Calgary. That means the Flames ultimately are a worse-off team. Now that may not be the case initially. If everyone is healthy, does Bennett make the Flames a better team this October? Probably not. He's too young, too raw, and still a little too lean.

However, it's a long season. By the second half of the year, with three months of NHL experience under his belt, Bennett is now a better player and he is an upgrade over what Calgary might be deploying in the top nine. Mix in a month with Canada's World Junior team over Christmas, and that only further raises his confidence.

With Bennett settling in and leading the Flames with his Doug Gilmour-like qualities, now the Flames are winning games in February and March that maybe they wouldn't otherwise. Unexpected wins is not the formula for dropping in the standings and increasing your odds in the lottery.

If you want a shot at McDavid, you hope McDavid is in a scoring race against Bennett -- and that race is next year in the OHL. It should be a good one too. In similar number of games, Bennett was just eight points behind McDavid last year. Who knows, perhaps in a few years, they'll once again race each other for the scoring lead, only this time it will be the Flames scoring lead.


12. TJ Brodie Signs Another Bridge Contract

If the bridge contract conversation with TJ Brodie happens again next summer, you'll know things went south in 2014-15 after Brodie's excellent season last year alongside Mark Giordano.

As it stands, with a similar season to what he turned in last year, Brodie is in line for a long term contract offer from the Flames that could be north of $5-million per year. That will have been two-and-a-half seasons of excellence from the now 24-year-old and there would be no need to wait for a larger sample size, just a desire to get his name inked to a long term pact before he gets anywhere near PK Subban's expensive neighbourhood.

However, if both sides resort to a second bridge deal next summer, it means a sharp decline in his play -- as seen by our eyes and proven out by deeper analytics, has left the two sides unsure of what the future holds. There is no way that this team survives Brodie's play faltering. His role on that top defence pairing is critical and the Flames are in heaps of trouble if he falters. Although, their draft positioning would reap the benefits.


So How Does it End?

In this piece and in the preceding one, I've very much visited the two extremes of what could happen. Most likely, the actual truth will fall somewhere in the middle, which is familiar territory Calgary fans know all too well. In the last 25 years, the Flames have made it past the first round of the playoffs only once. They've also been bad enough to select in the top five of the NHL Draft just once. Mediocre, middling, so-so, average, unremarkable... what you get out of that is what you've got -- a franchise five years removed from the playoffs yet in the early stages of a rebuild.

The best chance for the Flames to get the No. 1 pick, draft McDavid and set this team up for a very, very bright future, may very well hinge on the fortunes and potential turnarounds of other teams. That, along with a healthy dose of luck come lottery time. We've already talked about Buffalo. But more so, what about the others that hung around the bottom of the standings last year?  Florida, Edmonton, New York Islanders, all of these teams should be better this year.

The ideal scenario for the Flames is to remain competitive and entertaining, and perhaps even improve, all while dropping a few notches in the standings thanks to even greater improvement by everyone else.

Considering what's at stake, even the most ardent of Flames fans would probably accept that outcome, knowing that in 2015-16 when the likes of Bennett, Poirier and maybe, just maybe McDavid also, all pull on a Calgary Flames jersey for good, the tone of that annual summer 'what if' conversation will very much change.

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Recent Flames Reading

  • Dream A Little Dream: Can the Flames be a Playoff Team? - How soon we forget that over the final half of the 2013-14 season, Calgary was a playoff team. They were a top eight team in the west over the final 34 games last year. That was better than Chicago and LA. Here are 12 things taht need to (mostly) happen to repeat that.
  • David Wolf: Hard Knuckles, Soft Hands - Get to know 24-year-old German winger David Wolf, who is known for being big and bad but is proud of the finesse part of his game also. What to expect in his first year in North America.
  • Sven Degrees of Separation: The Trials and Tribulations of Sven Baertschi - He came out of junior hockey with such acclaim. Yet after so much promise, what has happened to Baertschi. I look back at seven things that have gone wrong for Sven over the past couple years. 
  • Debut of the Stick TAP - My Q&A Mailbag - You guys submitted some great questions: How many NHL games this season will Sam Bennett play? How will playing time unfold for Calgary's goaltenders? In this new 'cleverly' named content feature, I responded to these and other reader-submitted questions by providing my own Thoughts, Analysis and Predictions.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dream a Little Dream: What Will it Take for the Flames to Make the Playoffs in 2014-15?

This season, the Calgary Flames will finish ahead of the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.

It's an outlandish statement and is the type of claim that might get one committed to the nearest mental institution. To be clear, it's also not a prediction. But I lead with it for a different reason than just testing your sobriety.

Consider the following: For the final 34 games last year -- that's over 40 percent of the regular season, the Flames were a better team in the standings than both of those aforementioned Western Conference finalists. That's right, Calgary had a better record over that span than the eventual Stanley Cup champions. 

Don't believe me? Go ahead, check for yourself.

 

With many of the residents of Flames nation more consumed at the moment on whether or not Calgary will finish in the bottom two this year to potentially get a shot at drafting the uber-hyped Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, what seemingly has been forgotten is one hell-of-a run this club went on in the second half last year. Beginning the night of that infamous line brawl in Vancouver on Jan. 18 that ended in a 3-2 shootout loss, Calgary was in the top half of the NHL's 30 teams over the final three months.

So, while it may be preposterous to think that over a full 82 games, Calgary can stay ahead of the deep and talented Kings and Blackhawks, it is not out of the realm of possibility that this team could finish eighth in the Western Conference, just like they did over the final 34 games last year.

Then once you get in, of course, anything can happen in that first round. Heck, the Kings won the Stanley Cup three years ago after slipping into the playoffs as the West's No. 8 seed. Lest we forget the charm of the 2003-04 Flames, who won over the city as well as the entire country with their Cinderella post-season run in which they entered every series as the underdog.

So, what will it take for Calgary to crack the top eight? I know a few of you just uttered, "a miracle"' and I get that and yes, a lot of things need to go right and by that, I mean a lot. But that said, nothing I'm about to mention is inconceivable.

12 Things That (Mostly) Need to Happen for the Flames to Make the Playoffs in 2014-15:


1. Ramo Plays Out of his Mind

Looking strictly at their price tags, your first conclusion would be that Jonas Hiller is now the guy in Calgary. Set to haul in a hefty $4.5-million next season, the team's second-highest paid player behind Dennis Wideman, surely Hiller was not given that type of coin on July 1 to merely sit on the bench in a baseball cap and open the defencemen gate.

That said, he's also not the guy that gets this team into the playoffs. Hiller turns 33 in February, his usage (or lack of) by Anaheim in last year's playoffs spoke volumes about where they think he is on the career arc. He'll be good, dependable, and if things fall right, he could backstop the Flames to 12th place in the West. However, that type of mediocrity doesn't get you much other than a lengthy wait before your first pick come the next NHL draft.

For this team to climb at least four more rungs higher, they don't need good goaltending, they'll need great goaltending and of the current candidates, Karri Ramo is the most likely to conjure up such sustained magic. He's older at 28 but given his many years in Russia prior to last year, his ceiling is still very much shroud in mystery. If Ramo can play 55-60 games, win 30-35, and place in the top 10 in the NHL in save percentage, then the Flames will be onto something. Of the extra victories Calgary has got to pick up this year to hang with the big boys in the West, the goalies are going to have to steal a few of them on their own.


2. 'Same Old, Same Old' From Johnny Hockey

Johnny Gaudreau  has done nothing but prove people wrong at every level, throughout his career. That can happen when at five-foot-eight, you look like more like a child sitcom star than a budding pro hockey player. His most recent successes:
  • He dominated US college hockey. In his third and final year at Boston College, he won the Hobey Baker by going an unconscious 36-44-80 in 40 games.
  • He joined the Flames for the final game of the NHL season and just like that, he scored Calgary's only goal. Easy.
  • He went to the IIHF World Championships along with a bunch of seasoned pros and was just fine going 2-8-10 in eight games against a decent calibre of international competition. 

Conventional thinking including my own -- the many reasons for such I outlined here back in April, is that Gaudreau will at least start this season with Adirondack in the AHL. In so many ways, this seems to be the wise and prudent thing to do. Plus, every time the topic is raised with Flames management, you get the sense they will be ultra conservative with their diminutive but talented left winger.

That said, his sublime offensive skill set is unlike many others. If he shows in training camp that the NHL is, indeed, where he should be honing his craft, then he may just very well stick around Calgary and what a boon that would be for the team offensively. A rookie season of at least 20 goals and 35 assists doesn't seem out of reach with regular power play duty and a spot in the top six and if that's how it unfolds, the presence of No. 53 (or more likely, No. 13 by that point) instantly makes the Flames better and more competitive.


3. No Sophomore Jinx for Monahan 

With 22 goals last year in his rookie season, Sean Monahan had the best year offensively a teenager has ever had in a Calgary Flames uniform.
  • Sean Monahan, age 19, 22 goals in 2013-14
  • Jarome Iginla, age 19, 21 goals in  1996-97
  • Dan Quinn, age 19, 20 goals in 1984-85
  • Dan Quinn, age 18, 19 goals in 1983-84
  • Robert Reichel, age 19, 19 goals in 1990-91

So now what? What's the next level for Monahan? This is as far as you can possibly get from an advanced stats analysis but it seemed to me with a few of his goals, Monahan was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. Expecting him this year to take a giant step forward from his 22 goals last year would be a tad optimistic. On the other hand, his assist total of just 12 was one less than TJ Galiardi and only three ahead of Sven Baertschi. That just seems flat-out unlucky and I'd expect that number to climb significantly.

Monahan suffered a fractured foot in November that cost him seven games. Then he returned to the line-up and didn't play a whole lot for a while as coach Bob Hartley took a cautious approach while he finished mending and worked his way back. For the Flames to be in the chase, Monahan will need to take on more responsibility in the form of more ice time, more power play time, and even more penalty kill duty, which he started to receive late in the season. If he can put up 20 goals and 30 assists and become a real force on the ice defensively, Calgary becomes a more dangerous team.


4. More of the Same from Giordano and Brodie

Together, this defence pairing was dynamite. They drew most of the tough assignments and handled them impressively. Giordano nearly made the Canadian Olympic team, he was in the Norris Trophy conversation and that's all conventional evaluation-driven -- the so-called 'eyeball test' and traditional statistics. Digging into their advanced stats reveals these accomplishments came under challenging conditions -- often sent onto the ice for face-offs in their own zone and consistently matched up against the opposition's No. 1 line.

For Calgary to play into late April this season, this pairing will need to be everything they were last year and a little bit more. That's logging 25 minutes a night as the No. 1 unit. They'll have to be steady and reliable with no room for regression. Also, staying healthy will be a must. Brodie has been an iron man, missing just two games in the last two years -- and one was as a healthy scratch (while Derek Smith played) in the season opener in 2012-13. Early last year, Giordano missed 18 games with a broken ankle, a stretch in which the team went 5-11-2, this after the the Flames new captain had helped guide the club to a superb 4-2-2 start.


5. Backlund Earns that $5-Million Contract

Sam Bennett is too young, Sean Monahan is not quite ready and Matt Stajan is not the right guy. For the Flames to have a chance at being playoff-relevant this year, Mikael Backlund needs to seize the job as Calgary's No. 1 centre and play at the same level, if not higher, than he played at over the final two-thirds of last season when he established himself as one of the league's better two-way centres.

Playing out the final year of a two-year deal that will pay him a modest $1.5-million this season, Backlund is due for a massive pay hike in the summer of 2015 if he repeats his performance from last year. In this in-depth analysis piece I wrote earlier this summer, I examined his performance last year in several facets of the game and my findings is he was right up there with many of the NHL's stars. I made the case that Backlund could very well be a $5-million player when his current deal expires next summer. And for the Flames to have a realistic shot at the post-season this year, they'll need him to play like a $5-million player and not just for 50 or 60 games either, they'll need that level of performance consistently from him for all 82 games and that is a big ask considering his history of not being able to stay healthy. He has missed time in recent years with finger, arm, knee and hand injuries.


6. Raymond Replaces Cammalleri's Offence

The goal total last year for veteran Mike Cammalleri ended up pretty gaudy when all was said and done. But much of it came while the the Flames were playing out the string in April. An educated conclusion you'd draw from Cammalleri not being dealt at last year's trade deadline was the pending UFA's trade value at that point was not very good. That's understandable considering he was in the midst of an ice-cold stretch of three goals and six points in 24 games. Then all-of-a-sudden his fortunes changed and he had a ridiculously good April that ultimately earned him an eyebrow-raising $5-million, five-year deal with the New Jersey Devils this summer.

Cammalleri's offence will be missed, no question. His 26 goals have to come from somewhere if the team is going to challenge for a playoff spot. When the team is playing in all those close games this year, perhaps the guy that will step up and deliver the clutch goal will be newly inked free agent Mason Raymond.

He's not on that same level as Cammalleri, especially not the April version, but can he match the production the Flames got from Cammalleri from December through March? Why not. We know as a visiting player the Cochrane native enjoys playing in Calgary. His eight goals in 14 career games at the Saddledome includes a pair of hat tricks while he was with the Vancouver Canucks.

We'll have to wait and see what Calgary ultimately gets from Raymond but what they need from him to be a playoff threat is for him to match his career-high of 25 goals and if they do, don't be surprised if that's in the neighbourhood of what Cammalleri ends up with in New Jersey -- and that from a younger guy making $2-million less per year.


7. Must Stay Healthy

The hard-hitting, never-say-die, throw-yourself-in-front-of-shots style that coach Bob Hartley had the blue collar Flames playing last year does take its toll physically. The only player to appear in all 82 games was Chris Butler.

It's going to be difficult and will take some incredible good fortune but Calgary needs to have a far healthier year if they're going to stay in the mix for a playoff spot this year. They just don't have the type of depth that is NHL-ready right now to overcome long term injuries to key players.

Take for example, the blueline. It's not a great defensive corps overall with a huge drop-off after the top pairing. But if Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell can play a decent 18-22 minutes nightly and Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid can be serviceable at 14-16 minutes, they'll be OK. Tyler Wotherspoon showed last year he's capable of stepping in and can backfill a number of different roles so there's a tiny bit of wiggle room if someone goes out long term. But multiple injuries would result in them summoning additional bodies from the minors and considering where the other blue-line prospects are at -- Patrick Sieloff and Brett Kulak are not quite ready yet, rushing them could hurt both the team and the player's development in the long run.

Up front, it's a similar situation. The future looks bright with the likes of Emile Poirier, Morgan Klimchuk and Sam Bennett but this is not their time yet. Even older college guys like Bill Arnold, Kenny Agostino, Bryce van Brabant and Corban Knight need to adjust first to the AHL. If any bottom-six forwards go down, there are some viable options in Ben Hanowski and David Wolf but if the Flames were to lose Monahan, Jiri Hudler, or Raymond for extended periods, then they're in deeper trouble.


8. Baertschi Bounces Back

He's gone from my pick last year to lead the Flames in scoring to being just one of many Flames prospects that 'hopefully' pan out. A star coming out of junior, I recently examined the trials and tribulations of Sven Baertchi over the past couple years and identified seven key events that have happened that have contributed to where Baertschi is today, which feels in a way like he's become estranged from the franchise he was drafted by three years ago.

We need to remind ourselves repeatedly that Baertschi is only 21 years old and if he figures it out, talk about found money. Here's a first rounder you likely weren't counting on to contribute this year and if he can step up and play a big role on the team, this team is instantly better. As a bonus, his return to form could elevate the games of other on the team also. It was only in glimpses we saw them last year but personally, I'd like to see Monahan and Baertschi re-united on the same line for another trial this season.


9. Shootout Prowess Continues

Last year was an epiphany for the Flames when it came to the shootout, especially on home ice. Consider Calgary's shootout record at the Saddledome was a feeble 6-21 prior to last season. Then last year, they were a perfect 5-0. In one season, they nearly matched the number of shootout wins on home ice they had over the previous eight seasons. Just think about that for a minute. Wow.

So why the sudden turnaround in shootout success? Two reasons: 1. Better goaltending from Karri Ramo (and Reto Berra). 2. Greater individual success, particularly by newcomers Joe Colborne and Sean Monahan.

Colborne, who turned into Hartley's 'lead-off hitter' in the skills contest, was a tidy 4-for-9. Monahan was even more clutch going 5-for-8 with four game-deciding goals -- second in the NHL behind TJ Oshie and Anze Kopitar, who each had five. Remember Jarome Iginla's struggles with the shootout? Those nine combined goals on 17 shots for Colborne and Monahan match the nine goals Iginla had for the Flames on 36 shots over his eight seasons.

Overall, Calgary was 7-3 in the shootout last year and they'll have to be just as good this year to stay in the hunt because they're not going to be blowing anybody out. Just like last year, I'd expect a bunch of nail-biting one-goal games once again. Last season the Flames played in 49 one-goal games going 25-17-7, tying them with the 2010-11 Florida Panthers for the second most one-goal games in NHL history. The only team to play in more was New Jersey, who last year played in 50.


10. Glencross Bounces Back

There's this thing in hockey. It's a little bit weird but I also understand and appreciate the premise. It's that when players are injured, they're kept away from the team. They come to the rink early to get their treatment. If they skate, they do so early, often before the others arrive. They typically don't travel with the team on the road. They just aren't seen around the team all that often.

The idea is since that player is not available to help the team anyway, keeping them at a distance is a message to the healthy players that they have to suck it up and go on and try to win without them, no excuses, etc.

Considering Curtis Glencross missed 44 games last year -- 29 with an ankle injury and 15 due to a sprained knee, he has very much become a bit of a forgotten man. With those long interruptions, you got the sense his season last year never really got going. But let's not forget, this guy can flat-out score.

Add up his scoring stats from the past four seasons and Glencross averages 28 goals for every 82 games. That's good. Scoring at that clip would put him in the top 30 in the NHL. The advanced stats community will look at his shooting percentage and contest that such production is unsustainable. However, it's also been four years at that rate, not four weeks, so if it is an anomaly, who's to say he can't have another anomaly season this year and score another 30 goals.

If you can get a healthy and productive season out of Glencross, who enters the year motivated to have a good year as he's a pending UFA, you have a real nice addition to a team's forward group that played much of last season without him.


11. Start Fast and Sustain It

Last year, Calgary got off to a splendid start. They busted out of the gate 4-2-2 and had some early momentum going behind rookie sensation Sean Monahan. But then Mark Giordano got hurt and that put the team in a hole they never were able to fully dig themselves out of.

Huge this season is not just having a good opening week, or a great October, but they need to stay in the playoff chase through the end of December and then find their second wind in successfully navigating through the dog days of January and February. Then we'll see where they are come March.

If they can remain near striking distance of the top eight, that puts the season and the NHL Trade deadline in a whole different light. Now, instead of shopping pending UFAs like Ramo and Glencross -- assuming both have turned into pivotal figures, perhaps the Flames decide to add bodies instead. Calgary has plenty of cap space so we know that's certainly not a concern should they be close enough that the decision is to go for it.


12. Need Help From Both Sides of the Continent

This may sound odd but for the Flames to have a shot at the playoffs this year, they need Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg to be much improved also. If the conference turns into a hierarchy of have's and have not's where the Canucks and/or Oilers and/or Jets become the whipping boys for their American peers, then it's very unlikely the Flames will be able to win enough to hang with that upper echelon.

Calgary needs the Western Conference to turn into a 14-horse race (or more plausible, a ten-team race for the final four playoff spots) in which Canada is no longer a pawn shop to pick up cheap wins. That will flatten out the next tier beyond the heavyweights -- Anaheim, LA, Chicago, San Jose. With these second-tier teams beating up on each other all year, the point total for making the top eight in the West could come down to around 90 points and every bit helps.

In that same vain, the East will also wield some influence on the West race. In those interconference games, every East regulation win over a West contender is a bonus for the Flames and conversely, if Calgary can rack up points when playing Eastern opponents, that will help them stay within reach of the peloton -- or even be at the front of it.


Peering into the Crystal Ball

To make the playoffs, the Flames will probably need to be 15 points better this year. That's everything they achieved last year plus a couple more bonus points and six or seven more victories. That's asking a lot. I mean, A LOT.

However, if this exercise has taught us anything, it's a reminder that there are some really nice pieces in place with this Flames hockey team with Giordano and Brodie anchoring the blue-line, Backlund and Monahan up the middle. While the odds of making the playoffs this season are steep, I'd argue the odds of finishing in the bottom two are even more extreme.

Of the dozen possible scenarios outlined above, none of them are inconceivable. Even if only half of them occur, the Flames will still be a better team and will hang around the Western Conference cut line a lot longer than people expect.

While the Buffalo Sabres look like a safe bet to be in the NHL's cellar once again this year, the saving grace for Flames fans focused on the 2015 draft is the teams around Calgary have gotten noticeably better. While I realistically expect the Flames to come in at around 80 points (last year they had 77), that likely isn't enough to finish ahead of the improved Panthers, Islanders and Oilers.

Short of making the post-season for the first time in six years, surely the ultimate goal for this playoff-starved city, the back-up goal would be be playing a competitive and entertaining season, seeing overall improvement from the team as well as from its young players, yet still finishing 29th. In terms of what's most realistic, that would be an excellent outcome for Calgary.

I'm just not sure it's going to happen. The pride and fight-to-the-finish attitude that made this team as likeable as it was last year is not going to allow them to plummet to the very bottom -- unless the team's core players end up spending long stretches on the IR.

While missing out on the 'big two' next draft would be disappointing for some, there is a positive to be gleaned from an improved record this season that keeps the rebuild needle pointing in the right direction. Accomplish that, while integrating youth into the line-up, and that will only mean good things for 2015-16 when a playoff spot becomes an expectation, not just a hope.


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Monday, August 11, 2014

Goalies Should Also Be Afraid of This 'Big Bad' Wolf

Right now, in one of the northern most hockey rinks in Germany, training camp is already well underway for one of the newest members of the Calgary Flames.

With its first game in the newly formed Champions Hockey League quickly approaching -- an Aug. 22 tussle with Swedish club LuleƄ, the Hamburg Freezers are hard at it in preparation. With two on-ice practices every day as well as one off-ice workout, there's undoubtedly plenty of sweat as players get back into it after several months off the skates, a lengthy layoff not uncommon for European players.

Panning the roster of those running through drills at the O2 World arena in Hamburg, ardent hockey fans may recognize some of the names from NHL past -- Matt Pettinger, Duvie Westcott, Christoph Schubert, Phil Dupuis and Sebastien Caron. However, it's an intriguing 24-year-old left winger, who has yet to play an NHL game, that is of most interest to Flames fans. His name is David Wolf and after signing a one-year, two-way contract on May 12, he is about to take his game to North America for the first time.

But first, the veteran of five seasons in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) will spend August training with his old team, whom he played with for the past three years.

"For one month and the whole preseason, I go with my old team," said Wolf last month, when he was in Calgary for the Flames development camp. "Then in early September, I'll come here, skate 10-15 days with the guys in Calgary and then I hope I'm prepared for main camp."


The Prototypical Burke Player

The two attributes that immediately leap off the page when it comes to the native of Duesseldorf, Germany, are his size -- 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, and his time spent in the sin bin. He amassed more penalty minutes (415 PIMs in 143 games) than anyone else in the German league over the past three years including being the league-leader two of those years. One would assume that is evidence of a surly character packing the pugnacity and belligerence that Flames management covets.

However, while being afraid of the 'Big Bad' Wolf is an irresistible story line thanks to famous Grimm fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, Wolf insists one shouldn't be too quick to judge this book by its cover.

"Guys over here, when I signed, they watch the penalty minutes and they see that I'm a tough guy and I would say I'm pretty tough: I stand up for my teammates when I have to, I fight when I have to, but I'm not out there looking for it," said Wolf.

Overlooked is the fact Wolf was also second on his team in points each of the last three years. He showed a glimpse of his diverse skill set during one of the development camp shootouts when he raised eyebrows by being the only player to attempt a spin-a-rama. He didn't score although came darn close, just failing to jam the puck past the outstretched pad of Mason McDonald, as he completed his 360.


Hard Knuckles but Soft Hands

"I do have some finesse too, although I've got 'summer hands'," laughed Wolf, who at the time hadn't skated in nearly three months.

On the ice, Wolf looks like a cross between Milan Lucic and a football linebacker. A hunch in the back, broad across the shoulders, if he can finish around the net as he has proven he can do in Germany, he could be a good fit to eventually play on a line with some of Calgary's undersized skilled guys. Mason Raymond, Jiri Hudler, Sven Baertschi and Johnny Gaudreau are a few names that immediately spring to mind.

That type of role would be a familiar one for Wolf, who was 14-26-40 in 48 games last year skating on a line with ex-WHLer Garrett Festerling -- a former linemate of Jordan Eberle in Regina, and 2008 Maple Leafs fifth round draft pick Jerome Flaake -- Hamburg's top marksman with 25 goals.

"That was my part back home. I had a really good sniper on my line and I had a little playmaker on my line. I was getting the puck to them and going to the net. I would get a lot of goals in front of the net, rebounds and stuff," said Wolf. "Of course, when you play with two skilled guys, you learn something too and you get more confidence in your game and your skill level gets better."


Keeping it Simple

First impression of Wolf at development camp is he's a guy, who is deceptively quick, is filled with energy, and who is not afraid to get in aggressively on the forecheck, which can be an intimidating package for a defenceman to ward off.

"David's an interesting guy. He's like a walking fridge," described Flames GM Brad Treliving after seeing him live for the first time in July. "He's got a straight-ahead approach and he's a big body, who does everything well. He'll be an interesting guy to see, come training camp."

After a month of working out intensely with Hamburg, Wolf is hoping he'll be in a good position to compete for one of the one or two open spots Calgary currently has at forward. He admitted his conditioning in July was "pretty bad", which is natural when it's your first time on skates in over three months.

"You can run as long as you want in the woods, but when you hit the ice, it's just different," said Wolf, who said nearly all the rinks in Germany take out their ice during the summer. "These kids over here, they can run, they can skate, they skate all summer long. But with the European guys, who are not on the ice that much in the summer, they need to get their conditioning back."


Fan Favourite in the Making

Engaging and personable off the ice and possessing a German accent that sounds remarkably like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you get the sense Wolf will quickly establish himself as one of the more popular players with fans, wherever he plays.

What's left to determine this September is whether that will be in Adirondack or in Calgary. Or, as he adjusts to the smaller North American rink that he has had little experience on, perhaps he starts off in Glens Falls, New York, and then joins Calgary.

Either way, this September, the Wolf will be back... and he'll be hungry.

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Recent Flames Reading

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  • Debut of the Stick TAP - A Q&A Mailbag - You guys submitted some great questions: How many NHL games this season will Sam Bennett play? Will the Flames be in the running for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel? In this new content feature, I responded to these and other reader-submitted questions by providing my own Thoughts, Analysis and Predictions.
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