Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Two Ways To Look at "It's Not Sustainable"

The analytics experts, the advanced stats gurus, they're all out in full force these days. In their scope is the explanation-defying, feel-good story of the NHL season -- the Calgary Flames, the should-be Connor McDavid contenders, who instead are contending for first place in the Western Conference thanks to a stunning 12-6-2 start.

The gist of their Tweets, columns and exposés -- often accompanied by colourful charts and graphs, is that what has just happened won't continue to happen. In the name of science, damn it, it can't continue to happen.

Remember as a kid when you still believed in Santa Claus? Well, these folks are like the mean neighbour kid next door, who ruined it. You know the type -- whiny, snot dribbling out of his nose, slingshot in his back pocket. The jerk that felt compelled to explain that: (a) Reindeer are unable to fly. (b) A chubby man can't wiggle down your chimney if you have an artificial fireplace. (c) Simple travel logistics don't not allow a sleigh to fly to every house in the world in one night.

But have these skeptics stood at Mark Giordano's locker and looked into the whites of his eyes and told him this is all a fluke?

Have they listened to him talk?

Have they stood nose-to-nose with Bob Hartley and heard him gush about this hockey club's leadership and character.

Have they watched his team play?

Calgary has outscored teams 27-12 in the third period and that's not solely because they've gotten some lucky breaks. That's a well-conditioned hockey team under the guidance of a demanding coach that is huge on conditioning, who skates them hard each and every practice.

It seems the more wins that the Flames chalk up, the louder the voices of opposition get. They are not a good team, Calgary is an awful team, this is not possible, it cannot continue. This line chart I just plotted proves it.

Remind me, is it the 'x' or 'y' axis that measures a player's heart?

Not Sustainable, Nor Does it Need to Be

In overcoming a two-goal third period deficit Tuesday night to beat Anaheim, the NHL-leading fourth time the Flames have come-from-behind to win a game when trailing after two periods, Calgary improved to 12-6-2 on the season.

The Flames reach the quarter-mark ranked third in the Western Conference. Over the first 20 games of the season, they're playing .650 hockey in terms of point percentage.

You know what, you're right, that is not sustainable. We can all agree wholeheartedly that Calgary will not finish the season with 106 points, which is the pace they're currently on.

However, we're overlooking a key thing. Playing at that clip is no longer a requirement either.

Let's not forget that with 12 wins already locked away in the vault, the Flames don't need to keep playing at that ridiculously high of a level.

In making the Stanley Cup playoffs last year as the Western Conference's second wild card team, the Dallas Stars reached the post-season with 91 points.

Calgary can finish this season with 91 points if they play .525 hockey the rest of the season. That's playing three games above .500 over the season's final 62 games.

So where the Flames just finished a 20-game segment six games above .500, they need only be one game above .500 in each of the next three 20-game segments to put themselves on a 91-point pace and give themselves a legitimate shot at the post-season.

It's time to back down from the 'they can't continue to play .650 hockey' soap box and ask the more relevant question of can this hockey team play 'slightly above .500 hockey' for the duration of the year.

The Good News: Other Things Are Also NOT Sustainable

While that particular segment of the hockey community obsessively points to the standings and emphatically shakes their head side-to-side while touting inadequate puck possession, elevated shooting percentage, inflated save percentage and yada, yada, yada, overlooked are other challenges that the Flames have had to persevere and overcome over the first six weeks that are also "not sustainable". These need to be included in the same conversation.

1. Injuries

The Flames have won seven of their last nine games and they've done so while missing four key veteran forwards, who have been on the IR for that entire span:
  • Mason Raymond - When he injured his shoulder, he led the team in goals with five in his first 10 games
  • Mikael Backlund - The first round pick finally arrived last year. Was Calgary's best forward over the final 2/3 of last season.
  • Joe Colborne - Had eight assists in his first nine games. At the time I wrote this piece on the former first round pick, he was tied for the NHL lead in helpers.
  • Matt Stajan - Leader, plays in a defensive shut-down line, key part of the penalty kill

Additionally, most of that stretch has come without Michael Ferland, a good-looking prospect, who was the team's best player in the AHL when he was called up -- only to end up sidelined in his first game with a concussion.

Tuesday's toppling of the Ducks also came without big winger David Jones -- playing his best hockey since he's come to Calgary and alternate captain Kris Russell, a key member of the Flames top four on the blue-line.

You want to talk not sustainable, this unlucky rash of injuries Calgary has persevered at forward is not sustainable. Colborne will return, Raymond will return and if they can get Backlund back as well, those will be significant upgrades over the likes of Devin Setoguchi, Max Reinhart and Brandon Bollig.

2. Inexperience

Calgary has played the first 20 games with an influx of youth. Entering the season, Johnny Gaudreau, Markus Granlund and Josh Jooris had a combined eight NHL games on their resume.

Now they're at 49.

While the goal-scoring rate for Jooris will fall off, I see no reason why Gaudreau -- who had zero points in his first five games, won't improve production-wise in the next 20-game segment. If you've watched Granlund play, his eight points in nine games does not look like a mirage.

The overall play from the three of them will only get better because that's how it goes with rookies. With experience, you get better. Every game, you learn. Every practice, you improve. Talk to them and they'll tell you that. These guys are feeling more and more comfortable every day.

So what's not sustainable or won't be the same factor the rest of the season is the first-month jitters or nervousness, the inexperience of rookie NHLers. While the production won't necessarily improve, all three of these players will be better all-round players in games 21 to 40 and beyond.

3. Glencross Slump

Let's not forget that the Flames fast start has come without Curtis Glencross contributing as he normally would. In fact, far from it. Sure, the 31-year-old has 10 points but during his previous seasons in Calgary, he's been counted on more so as a goal scorer and he's proved he can be that.

If not for injury, Glencross could easily have had two 30-goal seasons already to go along with a couple 25-goal seasons. He is a sniper, who has yet to get going this season with only two goals so far. You do not score at the proficiency he has over the past four seasons and suddenly turn into a 10-goal scorer.

Is he a 30-goal scorer? Probably not. But he's definitely a 20-goal scorer. He's getting chances, he's hit a bunch of goal posts this year. I think it's safe to say his current drought is also not sustainable. When he does break out of this slump, he will provide the Flames with a new source of offence.

4. Bad Goals Against

Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo have given the Flames some superb goaltending this season. This past 7-10 days has been a regression of sorts. Oh, they've mixed in some highlight-reel saves, for sure, even one or two game-savers. However, over the last four or five games, it seems like there has been at least one bad goal allowed each night if not two.

I would argue that after 15 games of stellar goaltending before that, this penchant for surrendering a bad goal is also not sustainable and that the level of goaltending Calgary has been getting the last few games will revert back to closer to what we saw in the first 15 games.

Calgary has been winning lately despite some tough goals allowed. I would expect less bad goals for the team to have to overcome in the weeks ahead.

Optimism + Pessimism = Realism

In 2001-02, backed mostly by Roman Turek's goaltending, the Flames reached the 20-game mark with an unbelievable 13-2-5 record for 31 points. It's the only season in the past 21 years that Calgary has gotten off to a faster start than this year.

That season, under coach Greg Gilbert, the wheels began to wobble right about now. Starting with game No. 21, they went on a 0-4-2 skid and by the time the season was over, they had missed the playoffs in the Western Conference by a whopping 15 points.

With that as a historical case study, this year's Flames haven't assured themselves of anything quite, far from it.

That said, I'd suggest epic implosions like what happened 13 years ago, are also something that is not sustainable or would be considered 'the norm' for this organization. There will be a regression, there is no doubt about it, but given the strong leadership this club has and the work ethic and culture Hartley has established, plus the impressive fact that Calgary has gone over 50 games -- dating back to mid-January of last year -- since they last had a three-game losing streak (longest such streak in the NHL), it's hard to imagine a spectacular regression of that type of magnitude happening this year.

If you're a Flames fan, there's no way you could have asked for anything more from the first 20 games. All this from a team, which as I explained in this piece two days ago, is very much one of the have-nots of the NHL.

The good news is they play the games on the ice and not on paper and as a fan, that's a good thing. Besides, it's also far more entertaining that way.

Is the playoffs possible for this team this season? I remain skeptical but what I do know for certain is playing .525 hockey the rest of the year is far more likely than playing .625 hockey so the required marks to get accepted into the playoffs has come down. If they don't make it, they've certainly assured themselves of being in the race for far longer than most of us ever imagined.


Recent Related Flames Reading
  • LISTEN - The archive from my guest appearance on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio on November 19 when I joined Jim 'Boomer' Gordon and we talked about the Flames fast start and discussed that popular question: Is it sustainable?
  • 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.
  • Strike up the Polka Band: Sven is Happy, Happy, Happy - Baertschi is back. Or, at least he sure is playing that way. After picking up his first NHL points in over 11 months, I caught him with him one-on-one to discuss his need to be a part of -- and feel a part of -- the offence and the swagger he draws from being on the ice for Flames goals.
  • Sweet 16: Sixteen Reasons for Flames Fans To Smile - Sixteen games into the season and the Calgary Flames are the talk of the NHL and so they should be with an improbable 9-5-2 record. Here are 16 reasons for Flames fans to enjoy this season's early success. 
  • 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. 
  • A Different Kind of New Era in Flames Hockey: Wave Bye Bye to 19,289 - It happened quietly and without any fanfare during the last home-stand. A stretch of 392 consecutive sell-out crowds at the Saddledome, which dated back over 10 years, is now over. I took a look back at the streak and ponder what's next?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Wrong Side of the Tracks, Right Side of the Standings

If the 2014-15 NHL season was an 80s movie, it would be cast something like this:

The rich kids would be played by first round picks Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. With their perfectly-styled blond hair and driving their Camaros and Mustangs, they're always wearing a polo shirt, argyle sweater and Tommy Hilfiger jeans.

The poor kids would be played by third round pick Lance Bouma, sixth round pick Paul Byron and undrafted Josh Jooris. Driving their Pinto or their parent's station wagon, they're decked out in a concert t-shirt, faded jean jacket and orange tab (not red tab) Levi's.

And right now, just like John Hughes would have scripted it, the poor kids are the ones dating the gorgeous cheerleaders. Calgary -- very much the have-nots when it comes to high draft picks, is off to a terrific start this season while its provincial rival three hours up the highway -- loaded with a bevy of top notch talent, continues to scuffle.

Seems unfathomable but there is a very real possibility that the Flames could reach the 20-game mark and be in first place in the NHL's Western Conference, while at the same time the Oilers would be mired in last.

Stunning Isn't a Strong Enough Word

Here's a scenario that could play out on Tuesday: If Calgary beats Anaheim at the Saddledome and St. Louis (at Boston) and Nashville (at Toronto) both lose in regulation, the Flames would wake up Wednesday morning in top spot, or the polar opposite position to where many people thought they would be this year.

Now this isn't to suggest that will happen -- the Ducks just got Corey Perry back and are angry after a 6-2 spanking at home by Florida. Nor is it to suggest what has happened with the Flames so far this season will continue to happen for another 62 games. However, the mere possibility that this could happen says all you need to know about the fight in this club, which wasn't supposed to be very good to begin with, never mind all the injuries the club has sustained to key forwards.

“It shows the amount of character we have as a team in the dressing room," said Paul Byron after scoring his third goal in his last two games in Saturday night's 4-2 win over Ottawa. "With how many injuries we've had, the team just keeps finding ways to win hockey games."

Calgary has won six of its last eight, a stretch that has come without the services of Mikael Backlund, Mason Raymond, Joe Colborne and Matt Stajan, who all continue to be on injured reserve.

"Guys have done a great job of stepping up," said left-winger Lance Bouma, who tied his career-high with his fifth goal against the Senators. "We've had some young guys come in and they've played awesome, they've given us some great minutes. Guys are rolling and feeling good about themselves."

One of those "young guys" although not so young in comparison to some of the others has been 24-year-old Josh Jooris, who played his first NHL game on October 17. He's played a dozen games with the Flames and put up some impressive numbers with four goals and three assists. This coming after scoring only 11 goals and 27 points in a full season in Abbotsford last year, his first year as a pro.

"It's unbelievable and it's a dream but it's a long year and things can change quickly," said Jooris, when asked about his personal success. "Next week, things could go south real quick, that's just the nature of this game. I'm doing my best to stay even keel and try not to pinch myself. I just want to keep moving forward and getting better every day."

As you can see, the production Calgary is getting out of its supporting cast is off the charts right now:
  • Calgary: Byron, Bouma and Jooris have an average age of just over 24. For their combined annual salary of $2.4-million, they have scored 13 goals.
  • Edmonton: Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins have an average age of just under 23. For their combined annual salary of $18.0-million, they have scored 16 goals.

Lots of Bang for the Buck

Part of Calgary's charm is the construction of its roster. There are not a lot of fancy resumes. Most players have gotten to where they have through hard work and determination, which is not unlike how the team plays.

With Mikael Backlund injured and playing hurt when he was playing earlier in the year, the only homegrown first round draft pick, who has played a significant role on the Flames from the start of the year up until right now, has been sophomore centre Sean Monahan.

First round pick from 2011 Sven Baertschi started the season in the minors and just recently strung together a couple solid games. Acquired first round pick Joe Colborne was having a excellent season until he got hurt. Former Oilers first round pick Ladislav Smid is a third pairing defenceman.

Most of Calgary's premier talent are guys that came from the 'other side of the tracks':
  • D Mark Giordano - Undrafted
  • LW Curtis Glencross - Undrafted
  • G Jonas Hiller - Undrafted
  • D TJ Brodie - 4th round pick
  • LW Johnny Gaudreau - 4th round pick
  • G Karri Ramo - 6th round pick
  • D Dennis Wideman - 8th round pick

Even right-winger David Jones, a ninth round pick by Colorado, has been contributing. Last week, he matched his career high with a three-game goal streak.

Analysis: The NHL's 'Rich' vs. 'Poor' 

Going into games on November 17, here are some lists I compiled that help paint the picture of how Calgary's roster is built and where the offensive production this season is coming from (and not coming from):

Fewest Games Played by 1st Round Picks

1. Detroit, 71
2. Calgary, 75
2. Boston, 75
4. Chicago, 81
5. Dallas, 101

Fewest Goals Scored by 1st Round Picks

1. Boston, 5
2. Calgary, 8
3. Detroit, 10
4. Nashville, 12
5. New Jersey, 16

Fewest Points from 1st Round Picks

1. Boston, 14
2. Detroit, 27
3. Calgary, 28
4. New Jersey, 35
5. Nashville, 41

Most games played by 4th Round Picks or Later

1. Calgary, 200
2. Vancouver, 186
3. San Jose, 184
4. Montreal, 169
5. NY Rangers, 166

Most goals scored by 4th Round Picks or Later

1. Calgary, 31
2. Vancouver, 30
3. Tampa Bay, 26
4. Pittsburgh, 24
5. Montreal, 20

Most points from 4th Round Picks or Later

1. Calgary, 91
2. Tampa Bay, 75
3. Vancouver, 68
4. Montreal, 59
4. Detroit, 59

Don't Worry, Be Happy

As I've stated before, this remains only a fast start for the Flames and nothing more. There is still four-and-a-half months of regular season left. If things go south and head that direction quickly, Calgary could be in last place by Christmas.

However, considering Calgary's penchant under coach Bob Hartley for bouncing back from a loss, an impressive 7-0-1 record this year. Plus, add in the fact the Flames have gone longer without a three-game losing streak than any other NHL team -- it's been over 50 games dating back to mid-January of last year, it's not very likely things will fall off the tracks suddenly. There's just too much character in that dressing room under Giordano's leadership.

While you whistle some Bobby McFerrin, I leave you with three cautionary viewpoints to take into consideration:
  • Analytics Guys - They will argue Calgary's winning record has included a lot of luck that is unsustainable. They point to unusually high shooting percentages and save percentages to name just a couple of areas. They predict a regress to 'the norm' any time now.
  • Schedule Realists - They will point to a relatively soft schedule so far in terms of tough conference opponents. Calgary has played only two games against the eight teams that made the playoffs in the West last year. They have yet to meet up with any of the California teams, which has become the NHL's measuring stick. 
  • Jaded Historians - The Flames are off to their third-fastest start in the last 21 years. The only two seasons over that period that they started off better were 2001-02 and 2009-10. However, as I nostalgically (albeit tragically) documented in this piece a week ago, they ended up missing the playoffs in both of those other two seasons. 

What has made the first seven weeks of the season so intriguing for me and so enjoyable for Flames fans is starting off 11-6-2 was completely unexpected. Calgary entered this season five years removed from the post-season and a huge underdog. Because of that and their easy-to-root-for blue collar work ethic, an affinity for this team has developed that isn't unlike the appeal that set in with the 2003-04 squad as they started to string wins together.

What you need to keep in mind is this team will be viewed differently in a couple years. As more 'rich kids' graduate to the NHL like first round picks Emile Poirier and Sam Bennett -- both likely to become fixtures on this club in 2015-16, there becomes a greater expectation to win and that changes things. The pressure rises, fan expectations rise and things aren't quite as loose and fun any more. When teams expected to win don't win, it's not 'thank you for your hard work' from applauding fans as we see in Calgary today, it's furious booing (and sometimes jersey-throwing) from fans like we've observed lately in Edmonton where they rightfully have much higher expectations for their hockey team because of all that elite talent.

I've stated it before and I'll say it again. Enjoy the moment. There still may not be playoff hockey this spring in Calgary so treat the next couple months as a playoff "starter kit". The team is playing some really entertaining hockey. Enjoy it!


Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Strike up the Polka Band: Sven is Happy, Happy, Happy - Baertschi is back. Or, at least he sure is playing that way. After picking up his first NHL points in over 11 months, I caught him with him one-on-one to discuss his need to be a part of -- and feel a part of -- the offence and the swagger he draws from being on the ice for Flames goals.
  • Sweet 16: Sixteen Reasons for Flames Fans To Smile - Sixteen games into the season and the Calgary Flames are the talk of the NHL and so they should be with an improbable 9-5-2 record. Here are 16 reasons for Flames fans to enjoy this season's early success. 
  • 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. 
  • A Different Kind of New Era in Flames Hockey: Wave Bye Bye to 19,289 - It happened quietly and without any fanfare during the last home-stand. A stretch of 392 consecutive sell-out crowds at the Saddledome, which dated back over 10 years, is now over. I took a look back at the streak and ponder what's next?
  • Reality Check: No McDavid? No Eichel? No Problem - It's only been a couple weeks but from what I've seen, it's time for Flames fans to give up on the McDavid/Eichel watch and just enjoy this hockey season. Wherever the Flames end up drafting, that's where they'll draft.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Strike up the Polka Band: Sven is Happy, Happy, Happy

As I frantically pounded out my game story for The Canadian Press on Thursday night, I had to stop for a second and listen. Is that what I think it is? I cocked my ear in the direction of the vacated lower bowl below me. Is that an accordion I hear?

Now I've heard the ol' squeezebox at the Saddledome before. But it was in 1988 during John Mellencamp's Lonesome Jubilee tour and it was being played by the late John Casella, one of the band members. The accordion in Cherry Bomb, just awesome.

But where was it coming from on this night, nearly an hour after the Flames game had ended, and who was it?

Wait, hang on, I thought to myself. I wonder if it's Sven.

After all, Sven Baertschi's Swiss heritage is a pretty good fit. Plus, I had just talked to him a half-hour earlier and he was pumped after collecting his first two NHL points in over 11 months. Dare I say, I thought he did have a little polka in his step.

Offence is Baertschi's Fuel

While I was unable to determine the source of the music, what I was able to confirm on Thursday night -- and something most of us suspected anyway, is the root of Baertschi's confidence lies in his involvement in the offence.

"If you get points and you're out there for goals for, it gives you a certain kind of comfort and allows your mind to just play the game and not think too much," said Baertschi, who had the primary assist on both of Paul Byron's goals.

Baertschi said it's not even about being on the score sheet, it's just being on the ice when the team scores. 

"Especially as an offensive guy. I've always relied on those things," said Baertschi, who had zero points in his first four games after being recalled from Adirondack during the Flames last road trip. "We all want to be out there for goals and it gives me a certain kind of swagger that I need in my game. Sometimes all it takes is a goal and the rest of the game looks different."

Baertschi returned to the line-up after missing Monday's 4-1 loss in Carolina with a virus, which sure didn't sound very comfortable.

"My hands were burning and my feet were burning and I had a sore throat. It was a little something that most of the time, kids get it, and I think it got passed around in Glens Falls," said Baertschi, who had no goals and three assists in 10 games with the baby Flames when he got the call. "You just have to get through it. Usually with viruses, you lose tons of fluids as your body is trying to work it out and it takes so much energy."

But it's gone now and he says he's feeling much better. From Wednesday to Thursday, he gained back four pounds that he had lost.

"I feel good now," said Baertschi. "This morning, I felt more like 90 percent but then throughout the day, I had some more rest and I slept a little bit and going into the game tonight, I felt fine. it felt like any other game."

While it may have felt like any other game, it sure didn't look like any other game. 

Playing on a newly formed line with rookie Josh Jooris at centre and the energetic but snake-bitten Byron on the right side, the trio had an excellent evening.

"Sven, Jooris and Byron, that line for us was flying,' said Flames coach Bob Hartley. "Sven was skating. I felt he was feeling it. He held the puck, he was making plays, he gave us a great offensive game and that's who he is. He's a playmaker.”

He demonstrated his offensive skill on Byron's second goal. Darting over the Arizona blue-line with the puck, Baertschi threaded a perfect cross-ice pass to Byron on the far wing, who cradled the puck and then wristed a shot past Mike Smith.

"Confidence is everything," said the 22-year-old former first round pick. "When things don't seem to go your way and you lose confidence and such, the stick feels heavy, the puck feels really heavy but then as soon as you make something happen, most of the times it's a greasy goal that you have to score, and then all of a sudden you get going."

Confidence Booster

His first NHL point since December 10, which was also his last game before he was sent to the minors for the duration of the season, came halfway through the first period. Hard after the puck down low, Baertschi was able to knock it back to Byron in the high slot, who snapped it past Smith.

From that point forward, like flicking on the lights in a pitch-black room, you could see Baertschi's game noticeably change. His renewed confidence was palpable.

On his next shift, he went out and drew an Arizona penalty thanks to his hustle.

Right after that came a shift on the power play. Not an unusual thing you would think, yet in his first four games, he had seen a grand total of three seconds of ice time with the man advantage.

“He had a great game. He brought a great compete level," complimented Byron. "This game is a lot different when you're playing with confidence and for him, I think that's something he has to keep playing with and keep creating out there. It was definitely a good step forward for him.”

While Baertschi still only played a little over 10 minutes on the night, it was by far his most impactful game of the season and he's determined to pick up on Saturday night against Ottawa where he left off against the Coyotes.  

"I want to build on this now. It's something positive. It's been a while since I've had any points in the NHL and for me, it's huge," Baertschi said.

Loves Home (Dome) Cooking

He also credits playing on home ice. He hadn't played at the Saddledome yet this year but it is a place he says he feels comfortable. In his last eight games he played in Calgary last year, he had one goal and four assists. 

"I was excited coming back here to Calgary and I was excited about the crowd and to show what I can do," said Baertschi. "I know there are so many fans that have been behind me and that gave me huge confidence for the game tonight."

Next thing to strike off his list is getting a goal. 

Going back to last year when he finished the season with Abbotsford and including the playoffs, Baertschi has gone 22 games since last lighting the red lamp.

Yet I wouldn't be surprised if that goal he's dying to get comes during this five-game home-stand and maybe even next game. It's a pattern we've seen before.

After Baertschi was sent down last year, he struggled out of the gate with two goals and two assists in his first 15 AHL games. But after that, his offence picked up, finishing the regular season on nearly a point-per-game pace, amassing 11 goals and 14 assists over the final 26 games.

If he can regain that scoring touch, that would be a major boon for Calgary, a huge step for Baertschi and to be honest, it would be exciting for me, personally.

Strike up the Band

As a long time player of the accordion myself back in grades 4-9 -- I have some Scandinavian heritage on my mom's side, I truly enjoy the instrument and I look forward to tapping my toes to more accordion music coming from 'somewhere' in the bowels of the Saddledome over the next couple of weeks.

If I can put in a request also, the Beer Barrel Polka, the Liechtensteiner Polka and the Clarinet Polka were always three of my favourites to play. Give each of them two minutes of your time and you'll know why (seriously, the YouTube videos linked above are absolutely priceless).

Points, confidence and polka music, it's all infectious and a good infectious at that.


Recent Related Flames Reading

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Sweet 16: Sixteen Reasons for Flames Fans To Smile

Sixteen games into the season and the Calgary Flames are the talk of the NHL and so they should be with an improbable 9-5-2 record.

Here are 16 reasons for Flames fans to enjoy this season's early success.

1. Still Plenty in the Pipeline

Optimism abounds right now in Calgary and you can understand why. Not only are the Flames winning, but they're getting huge contributions from young players that will be the foundation for this club for many years to come. I'm talking about the 24-and-under crowd of TJ Brodie, Sean Monahan, Johnny GaudreauJoe Colborne and Lance Bouma. Add in in the contributions from recent arrivals Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund and the future looks bright.

Yet, that's just a sampling.

Michael Ferland has shown he's ready for prime time and brings a coveted blend of size, skill and tenacity. There's the speed and peskiness offered up by Gatineau graduate Emile Poirier, who scored 50 goals in 72 QMJHL games last season. Just back from shoulder surgery, the right-winger is off to terrific start in his rookie year at Adirondack. You can't forget about Tyler Wotherspoon either, biding his time in the AHL while he awaits a full-time opening on the Calgary blue-line. Also, there's arguably the most exciting prospect of them all in 2014 fourth overall pick Sam Bennett.

With the ETA for Poirier, Wotherspoon and Bennett likely being 2015-16, there is plenty of reason for Flames fans to be excited not just about who's here now, but who's on the way.

2. Better Draft Lottery Odds

Connor McDavid is an alluring talent, no doubt. He has 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists) in 17 OHL games, which is ridiculous. To put his start in context, it took Sidney Crosby 22 games to reach 50 points in his draft year.

When the NHL changed the draft lottery rules last summer, it was supposed to negatively impact the Flames with the crux of the changes being that the bottom four finishers in the overall standings saw their odds of winning the lottery go down. Now it seems the Flames could end up a benefactor of the new draft rules instead in which the odds of all the other higher placing teams winning the lottery increased -- and of course, if you win the lottery, you jump all the way to No. 1 pick.

In the end, there are a few reasons to be encouraged if you're one of those infatuated Flames fans, who goes to bed dreaming every night about Sam Bennett's former minor hockey linemate ending up in Calgary:
  • Once you crunch the numbers, there's only a one-in-three chance (33%) that the team finishing 29th or 30th will actually win the lottery. Thinking about you, Buffalo.
  • Obviously, this means the odds are twice as good (or 67%) that the lottery will instead be won by a team that finishes somewhere between 17th to 28th overall. 
  • If you look at the lottery percentages, you'll notice that they really flatten out quickly. For example, the difference in odds between finishing 23rd overall (5%) and 28th (11.5%) isn't all that big so if at the end of the year, the Flames fall in that range somewhere, you cross your fingers and see what happens.

3. No Sophomore Slump

Remember last year when Sean Monahan captivated the city by starting his NHL career with a scorching hot six goals in his first eight games? It seemed like every time he touched the puck, it went in the net.

Well, don't look now but after a quiet start to the year as he battled a stubborn, energy-sapping flu, the 20-year-old has suddenly put together the exact same streak from a year ago -- six goals in eight games. That's moved Monahan into the team-lead in goals and has him on pace for over 30 goals and nearly 60 points this season.

Also of note, his 28 career goals has him tied with first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon for the most of anyone from that 2013 draft class. Not bad for the guy Calgary grabbed at No. 6.

4. Comeback Kids

A great testament to the character and leadership on the Flames is the fact that Saturday marked the third time already this season that Calgary has trailed a game entering the third period and ended up winning, which ties them with Montreal and the New York Rangers for the most comeback wins. How good is that? Consider that last year, there were four teams (Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Toronto) that only came from behind in the third period to win twice -- and that was all season.

For additional context, here is what the Flames record has been in recent years when trailing to begin the third period:
  • 2014-15: 3-5-0
  • 2013-14: 4-27-2
  • 2012-13: 1-19-1
  • 2011-12: 4-22-6

The only thing negatively impacted by this is the revenues from Saddledome restaurants and bars that are now seeing patrons clear out of there before the second period intermission ends, so they can get back to their seats in time for the climactic final 20 minutes.

5. Johnny B. Great

Apparently, adjusting to the NHL took Gaudreau all of five games. The turnaround for Gaudreau since he was a healthy scratch on October 17 in Columbus has been astounding.

  • Before the Scratch: 5 games, 0-0-0, 1 shot, plus-2, 12:56 average TOI
  • After the Scratch: 10 games, 3-9-12, 23 shots, plus-7, 15:38 average TOI

Gaudreau has quickly climbed into second in rookie scoring behind Nashville's Filip Forsberg (6-9-15) and you sense it's only a matter of time before he takes over the No. 1 spot.  Of his nine assists this year, it's noteworthy that six have been the primary helper with Saturday's slick set-up of Monahan the latest exhibition of Gaudreau's sublime passing ability.

He is a game breaker unlike any other the Flames have had since maybe Theoren Fleury and while he may go unnoticed for parts of games, he can completely turn a game's momentum around with a single shift.

6. Giordano is Pretty Good

Consider this. Just 15 months ago, Giordano was viewed as no better than the 18th best Canadian-born defencemen in the NHL.

As a refresher, Hockey Canada executives met in the summer of 2013 and came up with this list of 17 possible defence options to invite to Canada's Olympic orientation camp. Marc Methot, Travis Hamonic -- both of them were there, but no Giordano. If that isn't astonishing enough, that August camp was held right here in Calgary in Giordano's backyard.

It's staggering to think about considering he's now in the conversation as one of the NHL's very best at the position. With 18 points (5 goals, 13 assists), Giordano leads defencemen in scoring and he also woke up Sunday morning tied for fifth overall behind Sidney Crosby (7-17-24), Jakub Voracek (6-16-22), Tyler Seguin (10-9-19) and Phil Kessel (8-11-19).

It's as if the Flames training staff not only stitched on the captain's 'C' last summer, but they also sewed a superhero's cape to the back of his jersey. In 80 games since being named captain of the Flames, Giordano has 65 points (19 goals, 46 assists) and is a plus-20. Mercy.

Giordano has one year left after this season on his contract, which is paying him a thrifty $4-million annually. You've got to think extending him will be Treliving's top priority next summer.

7. Lots of Love for Lance  

One of the last RFA's to sign last summer, inking a one-year $775,000 deal, Lance Bouma will get a raise next year and surely some well-deserved contract term too. He may not be the face of the franchise but more than anyone else, he epitomizes Calgary's blue collar work ethic.

Among NHL forwards, Bouma ranks third with 16 blocked shots (was second last year) and with those mostly coming on the penalty kill where the 24-year-old has excelled, they are badges (or bruises) of honour. He is also 16th among NHL forwards with 39 hits, which has him on pace for a team-leading 200.

But wait, there's more.

Bouma's first career game-winning goal on Saturday -- and a beauty at that, blasting a one-timer inside the goal post with 2:18 left in the third, gives him four goals already. He's on pace to score 20 after notching five a year ago. Add in his leadership qualities and ability to play both wings as well as centre and No. 17 is the type of player that all Stanley Cup contending teams need.

8. The Kids are Alright

I've already mentioned Gaudreau, but also filling in admirably with veterans on the sidelines have been unheralded right-winger Josh Jooris and centre Markus Granlund.

Bringing speed and an aggressive forecheck along with an unexpected dose of finesse, Jooris was the feel-good story of training camp and as the first player recalled from Adirondack, he continues to impress. In his first pro season a year ago, his third goal in the AHL didn't come until after Christmas -- December 27, to be exact. That was his 30th game. He already has three in the NHL in nine games and each one of them has been highlight reel-worthy

When Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan and Joe Colborne all went down, Granlund was the obvious choice to be brought up and now that he's here, he could very well be here to stay. He has four points (2 goals, 2 assists) in five games and Saturday he played a career-high 20:33. He's talented, he's dependable, he's the consummate 200-foot player and he badly wants to be better than his older brother Mikael, the ninth overall pick by Minnesota in 2010.

9. TJ Brodie is Locked Up

Getting TJ Brodie's name on a five-year contract extension (for just over $23-million) as early as he did may go down as one of general manager Brad Treliving's shrewdest moves.

The other half of the Flames vaunted top defence pairing, Brodie has been just as good as Giordano and that says a lot. Having already equalled his career high of four goals, he is now forging his way into discussions around the NHL's as one of the top rising stars on the blue-line.

Among NHL defencemen, he currently ranks fifth in goals (4), third in points (14), second in road points (12) and second in plus-minus (+11). He plays 25 minutes a night and there is a sense of calm that sets in for the team whenever he and Giordano are on the ice. What makes it all that much more impressive is he has achieved all that while often matched up against the opposition's best forwards. It's hard to believe he was a healthy scratch in the Flames season-opener just two years ago.

Last home game, I saw a fan wearing a No. 7 Bertuzzi jersey. Seriously dude, you already have the number and you've got four of the six letters required. Just grab an 'o' and a 'd' and a needle and thread and fix that that thing up properly.

10. Reinforcements are Waiting

The only thing more surprising than who the Flames are getting offensive contributions from during this fast start is who the Flames aren't getting contributions from. Curtis Glencross -- just two goals. Mikael Backlund -- only one goal before landing on injured reserve. David Jones -- just scored his first goal since last February. Free agent signing Devin Setoguchi, the 27-year-old former first round pick and one-time 31-goal scorer -- zero goals.

The biggest question entering the season after the departure of leading scorer Mike Cammalleri was would Calgary be able to score enough goals? Getting next-to-no contribution from Glencross, Jones, Backlund and Setoguchi was supposed to be a death sentence, but it hasn't been. Losing Joe Colborne -- tied with John Tavares and Ryan Getzlaf for the NHL lead in assists a couple weeks ago was supposed to hurt. It hasn't. Remember Mason Raymond? Scored five goals in the first 10 games to lead the team but then he landed on the sidelines. No worries.

When Glencross gets going, Colborne, Backlund and Raymond return, Calgary has shown that they have more depth than you think and when other injuries inevitably strike, they can keep going without missing a beat.

11. Casual Fans Can Watch Them Play

As I documented in this story last weekend, the Flames sellout streak of 392 consecutive regular season and playoff games came to an official end last home-stand. I say "officially" because there have been rows of empty seats in the third level of the Saddledome for most games for a couple years now with Sport Chek apparently unable to unload all of its tickets.

While the end of a sell-out streak that had lasted over 10 years is not good news for the club, it is great news for casual Flames fans without season tickets as it confirms that the ability to buy a ticket and go to the game exists and presumably that could mean sitting closer to the action than the nose bleeds if you so choose. Considering how exciting this team is playing, you might just want to go and check out Gaudreau and friends from the lower bowl if you haven't seem him up close yet.

12. Great Goaltending

The constant in net between last year and this year? Karri Ramo.

What has changed for the better this season is his running mate. Last year, it was split between Joey MacDonald and Reto Berra. Now it's proven veteran Jonas Hiller, who has been excellent in racking up a 7-3-1 record with a 2.07 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.

Ramo's first game in two weeks on Saturday didn't go great. A mixture of bad goals and bad luck resulted in him getting the hook halfway through the second period. It sparked the team, Hiller stopped all nine shots he faced and the Flames picked up another win.

That's how your goaltending partnership is supposed to work, one picking up the other. Ramo will get another chance in the near future to get back in a groove and undoubtedly he'll seize it as he showed in the latter half of last season and early this year that he is also a solid NHL goaltender. Plus, you know this city's penchant for Finnish puck stoppers.

13. All Thrills, All the Time

What more can you ask for if you're a hockey fan than your team being in pretty much every game. My definition of being 'in the game' for the purpose of this exercise is you're close enough near the end of the game (e.g. within one or two goals) that you pull your goaltender to try and tie it.

With that as the criteria, the Flames have been 'in' 15 of 16 games this year. The only decisive loss on the docket was that 4-1 setback to the Blues in the third game of the season. That said, that was far from a blowout, it came against a really good hockey team, and that game played in St. Louis was Calgary's third game in four nights.

As a Flames fan, if you can drive to the Saddledome or sit down in front of the TV to watch a game, knowing there's upwards of a 90 percent chance Calgary is going to either win or at least it will be a close, entertaining game, that's really all anyone can ask.

Calgary has played seven one-goal games so far and if you exclude empty net goals, that number would be nine. That's over half of the games they've played and a similar pace to a year ago when they had 49. As they say, come early and stay late.

14. They're Winning!

At 9-5-2, the Flames are enjoying the third fastest start in the last 21 years -- going back to the lockout shortened 1995-96 season.

Today, they woke up in in 7th place in NHL's overall standings.  Here is where Calgary sat on November 9 in recent years:
  • 2014-15: 7th
  • 2013-14: 24th
  • 2012-13: N/A (lock-out)
  • 2011-12: 23rd
  • 2010-11: 25th

While it's true they haven't played the three divisional heavyweights from California yet, they have beaten teams that are off to good starts.

Calgary has wins over Montreal (10-4-1), Nashville (9-3-2) -- twice, Winnipeg (8-5-2) and Chicago (7-6-1). On the flip-side, there is no shame in their regulation losses to Tampa Bay (10-3-1), St. Louis (9-4-1) and Vancouver (10-5-0).

In the summer when I wondered aloud if the playoffs could be possible, I pointed to the Flames record last season after the famous John Tortorella dust-up in Vancouver. Calgary played like (and accumulated the points of) a legitimate playoff team from that point until the end of the year. Add in the start to this season and in that stretch dating back to January 18 of last year, the Flames are now 28-19-3. At 50 games, that sample size is getting pretty big now too. That's a pace that over 82 games would extrapolate out to 97 points.

15. Trophy Chasing

In recent years, not only were there no Flames in the running for NHL hardware, there were no Flames even getting votes for NHL hardware. But it's looking like that's about to finally change.


The names of three Calgary Flames players are engraved on the NHL's Calder Memorial trophy for top rookie but it's been a while. All three won it over a five-year span in the late 80s:
  • Gary Suter (1985-86)
  • Joe Nieuwendyk (1987-88)
  • Sergei Makarov (1989-90)

Last year, Sean Monahan finished eighth in voting. The way Gaudreau's going right now, you have to expect him to be in the hunt this season.

James Norris

The award for top defenceman does have the name of one former Calgary player on it, but he didn't win it while playing for the Flames. Al MacInnis won it in 1998-99 as a member of the St. Louis Blues.

Last year, Giordano finished 10th in voting, which like the Calder, is done by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can guarantee Giordano will finish higher this year and he should be in the top five, for sure.

Jack Adams

Voted on by the NHL Broadcaster's Association, a Calgary Flames coach has never won the coach of the year.

Last year, Bob Hartley didn't even crack the top 10 in voting but with a higher finish from the team this year, especially considering the players on the IR right now and how Calgary is winning games, surely the recognition around the league he deserves will finally come.

For a guy in the final year of a three-year contract, winning the Jack Adams would be a nice bullet to add to the resume for Hartley, come negotiation time -- although surely he'll have been already extended by the time that award will ultimately be announced.

16. Pairing No. 2

Freshly anointed as alternate captain, Kris Russell is playing his finest hockey of his career and Dennis Wideman is playing his finest hockey since Calgary signed him to that enormous five-year, $26-million contract three years ago. Add what they're giving you to what the club is getting from Giordano and Brodie and make no mistake, the engine of the Calgary Flames right now that is making them go is this core group on defence. They have been leading the offence with a combined 14 goals and 34 assists and between the four of them, they are also playing upwards of 45 minutes per night.

As long as they stay healthy and can maintain the high level of play that we've seen, that group will single-handedly keep the Flames in the playoff conversation for a lot longer than anyone would have anticipated, maybe even into April.

In Conclusion

The Dallas Stars made the playoffs last season as the second wild-card team in the West with 91 points. Calgary can reach that total by playing five games above .500 for the duration of the season. That could be 32-27-7, or 33-28-5, or 34-29-3.

It's not necessarily a probable outcome yet the way they have opened the season, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility either. After all, they've already played the first 16 games at four games above the NHL's break-even mark.

Either way, regardless of how this season ends, the Flames are chalking up tons of experience right now that will serve them very well in the future. When it comes to expediting a rebuild, this is how you do it.


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