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Monday, October 20, 2014

Reality Check: No McDavid? No Eichel? No Problem

We've all been obsessed with someone at some point in our lives.

For me, back to the early 80s, it was all about Catherine Bach and Christie Brinkley. I was smitten. I had posters of both of them, photos cut from magazines. Both the same age, I always told myself I'd be happy to end up with either one of them.

But alas, I grew out of those delusional early teenage years and now it's time for you to move on also.

Starting now, I implore Calgary Flames fans to reach the same realization I reluctantly came to back in 1983 with Daisy Duke and the hot blonde in the red Ferrari from the movie Vacation. That is the cold, harsh reality that the two objects of fans' undying affection -- Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, are not going to end up in Calgary.

Oh, your heart will ache for the next few days, I've been there. But it's time to accept the situation and move on. Unlike Patrick Dempsey in Can't Buy Me Love and Ralph Macchio in Karate Kid, it's looking increasingly likely that the nerd isn't going to end up with the cheerleader in this movie.

This may seem rash. After all, the NHL season is less than two weeks old and the Flames have stepped foot on Scotiabank Saddledome ice only once. But I don't think it is.

The impressive 4-2-0 mark on the recently completed road trip -- Calgary's first four-win road junket in nearly five seasons (since going 4-2-0 from Nov. 27 to Dec. 7, 2009), demonstrated to me that like it or not, these Flames are not capable of being bad enough to be in the running to land (or at least be one of the lottery favorites to get) one of those aforementioned 17-year-old uber-prospects, who will go first and second in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Here are a few reasons why it's time to stop dreaming, stop getting frustrated with Flames wins and to start enjoying them instead.


1. Giordano and Brodie are Too Good

Captain Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie, the Flames dynamic top defense pairing, who log 25 minutes per night and typically do so against the most difficult of opposition forward lines, is as underrated as they come. This is no longer two guys you merely dismiss with a 'best of the rest' descriptor, they blew by that point some time ago. Now they're right up there among the best pairings in the NHL and are worthy of being mentioned in the same conversation as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Shea Weber and Roman Josi, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin, Zdeno Chara and Dougie Hamilton, etc.

With seven points (3 goals, 4 assists), Brodie is tied with Mason Raymond for the Flames scoring lead and is also tied for the NHL lead in points by a defenceman. With six points (1 goal, 5 assists), Giordano is right behind. Always threats in the attacking zone, they are even better in the defensive end where they anchor Calgary. They play the penalty kill, they're on the power play, they're two star players and no matter how bad the cast is around them, they're single-handedly going to keep Calgary from being in the NHL cellar. There's just no way with them playing at the level they are that the Flames can finish in the bottom two.


2. Goaltending is Too Good

It's one thing to have a good goalie -- someone you can rely upon every night to keep you in the game and who will sometimes steal you a win. It's quite another to have two of them.

When you only have one goalie that is proven, like the Colorado Avalanche with Semyon Varlamov and the Nashville Predators with Pekka Rinne, you can be in a heap of trouble when that goalie gets hurt. However, it appears the Flames are in really good shape between the pipes this season with two accomplished goaltenders in Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo, each of whom have gotten off to tremendous starts.

Let's face it, goaltender is the most important position on the ice. They can turn great teams into average teams as longtime Philadelphia Flyers fans can attest. They can also turn mediocre teams into good teams, which in this city we know about first-hand from the many seasons Miikka Kiprusoff was the Flames starting goaltender and savior.

Recognizing a need to upgrade in net, adding a proven veteran goalie was the modus operandi for Flames general manager Brad Treliving on July 1 and the mission was successful, signing Hiller, 32, to a two-year/$9-million deal.

Backstopped by Hiller and Ramo, who had a strong second half last season, the Flames enter this season with goaltending as one of their strengths and biggest areas of improvement and we've seen that play out so far. Hiller (.942) and Ramo (.920) have combined for a .934 team save percentage (excluding empty net goals) through Sunday's games, which ranks Calgary sixth in the NHL:
  1. Minnesota, .955
  2. Los Angeles, .954
  3. Detroit, .949
  4. Nashville, .948
  5. Ottawa, .944
  6. Calgary, .934

Based on what we've seen, this duo is just too strong for Calgary to finish at or near the cellar. And even if an injury was to occur, there's always Joni Ortio waiting in Adirondack. The 23-year-old Finn showed last season he's a capable NHL goalie also and while his first month this season was a bit rocky, he stopped 36 of 38 shots on Saturday night in Adirondack's win so he's returning to form.


3. Bob Hartley is Too Good

As you'll all remember, the Flames played 49 one-goal games last year, which equaled the most a NHL team had ever played prior to last season.

Early signs this year are that coach Bob Hartley will once again have his team competing to the final buzzer every single night.

On Sunday, it was overcoming a 1-0 first period deficit to storm back and defeat Winnipeg 4-1. On Friday night, after falling behind 2-0 less than six minutes into the game and trailing 3-0 after two periods, Calgary rolled up its sleeves, dug in, and started chipping away. Suddenly there they were, within one goal near the end of the game and absolutely pouring on the pressure. That puck was in the Blue Jackets end for the final two-and-a-half minutes and the Flames were extremely unlucky to not tie the game.

Even on nights when they get dominated territorially as they did earlier in the trip in Chicago, this club seems to always find a way to hang around and stay in it. It's a quality that will earn them extra points throughout this season via extra-time losses and shootout victories, many of which will come in games in which zero points was the expected outcome.


4. Flames Prospects are Too Good

The Flames dipped into the minors for the first time the other day and brought up Josh Jooris. The training camp sensation had an immediate impact in Columbus scoring a beautiful goal, generating three shots, had another two-on-one chance that could have also resulted in a goal. Hartley was so pleased with Jooris' game, he sent the 24-year-old in his first NHL game over the boards with 2:07 left in a one-goal game. That stuff rarely happens, especially under Hartley. But it nearly paid off too.

If Hartley and the organization continue to be true to the motto of 'always earned, never given', there is too much talent in the Flames farm system for them to lose at the pace they'll need to in order to finish in the NHL's bottom two. This is not the Flames organization of six years ago when your minor league options when injuries struck were guys like Brett Sutter, Warren Peters and Kyle Greentree.

Waiting in the wings this season, dying for a chance to come up and show they are NHL-ready (as they already showed in the pre-season) are talented players like Michael Ferland and Markus Granlund. I would also include Max Reinhart, who has looked really good with the baby Flames so far. On the weekend for Adirondack, the three of them played on the same line and were excellent, even dominating at times.

When the Flames need to call up someone from the AHL now, they may even end up improving their team, depending on who is being replaced.


5. A Bunch of Other Teams Are Not Too Good

While it's easy and amusing for folks in Calgary to pick on the last place Oilers while they can, I think Edmonton should eventually be fine. Surely. The real threat to secure 30th place and guarantee themselves one of McDavid or Eichel are the Buffalo Sabres. With 2014 second overall draft pick Sam Reinhart looking like he might be jettisoned back to the WHL soon, it has already been a tough start for Buffalo and I just can't see their fortunes turning around. Recapping the Sabres season so far:
  • In four home games, they've scored two goals
  • They've been outshot 227-141 so far, that's an average of 38 to 24
  • Their only win was a shootout win against a not-very-good Carolina team

In addition to Buffalo, other teams that are going to be awfully hard for the Flames to get under are the Jordan Staal-less Carolina Hurricanes. If they trade away older brother Eric Staal, that's going to make them even worse. In the West, there's Edmonton but perhaps an even bigger threat to the bottom three is Winnipeg, who did not look very good at all on Sunday night and have lost four straight. The Jets scored six times in their season opener but have scored only twice in four games since. They're missing Evander Kane and with goaltending a giant question mark, it wouldn't be a shock if the Jets are right in the thick of the 27th, 28th, 29th place mix.

Don't forget about Florida either. While they're better, they're still the Panthers and there's not exactly a culture of winning around that hockey club.


6. Draft Lottery Odds are Not Too Good

The way the draft lottery works now, after the NHL introduced changes this past summer, is even if the Flames were to finish in 29th place, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres, that still leaves Calgary with just a one-in-three chance of selecting in the top two.

It seems like funky math at first but it's true. Finish second-last and the odds of dropping a spot in the draft order are twice-as-good as staying at No. 2 or moving up.

Huh?

Allow me to explain. As you'll see in the chart below, the cumulative odds of a team ranked 17th to 28th in the overall standings winning the lottery is 66.5% and if that happened, that team would jump up to No. 1, knocking Buffalo to 2nd and Calgary to 3rd pick in this scenario.



Now it should be noted that third pick in 2015 isn't a bad spot to be in either, considering the Flames positional need. Giant Boston College blue-liner Noah Hanifin is highly touted and would make for a nice consolation prize. However, you're only assured of him as a worst-case scenario if you finish in 29th place and I just can't see that happening for Calgary.

It would only take one of the Hurricanes, Panthers, Jets or Oilers to finish below Calgary for the Flames to finish no lower than 28th. In this scenario, despite that bottom three placing, the odds of dropping to 4th pick are still greater than 50/50 at 55 percent to be exact.


Final Thoughts

If you're going to get frustrated every time the Flames lose this season or send a game to overtime, you've got a long, agonizing six months ahead of you. Just give up on that pipe dream right now and instead, sit back and enjoy watching Calgary begin to turn the corner. Soak up the entertainment of close games, the one-goal losses, the overtime victories, which are all building blocks towards an eventual return to the playoffs.

Continue to enjoy watching Brodie and Giordano shut opponents down. Just like seeing your own kids grow up and mature, fondly watch for continued improved play from youngsters like Joe Colborne, Lance Bouma and Sean Monahan. Enjoy seeing Mikael Backlund take another step. Be on the edge of your seat to see Johnny Gaudreau find his way. Revel in the scoring prowess of Mason Raymond, who will be here for at least three years and is looking like a real find with five goals already -- second in the NHL behind only Rick Nash. Get excited about Kris Russell, the Flames new alternate captain and a shifty little player, who is fun to watch.

Will Calgary be able to keep up the pace from this strong start to the season? Doubt it. Are some offensive droughts coming? Probably. Do the Flames have a realistic shot at making the playoffs? Not really.

But it's time to move past the infatuation with McDavid and Eichel and be prepared and happy to accept whoever the Flames get at wherever they end up picking -- just like the Flames ended up with Monahan two years ago and Bennett last season. (And who knows, maybe Calgary finishes 25th and wins the draft lottery. The odds of winning the lottery for teams that finish 17th to 26th have gone up with those changes made to the lottery.)

Let's not forget there is already plenty of talent in the pipeline already that I haven't yet mentioned in the likes of Sam Bennett, Emile Poirier, Morgan Klimchuk, Sven Baertschi, Bill Arnold, Hunter SmithTyler Wotherspoon, Patrick Sieloff and Jon Gillies. While also adding one of the two best prospects of the 2015 draft class would have been icing on the cake, we're still talking about a pretty good ice cream cake already in existence here.

With such a strong draft class at the very top for 2015, that inevitably means some pretty darn good players are going to be available at picks No. 4, 5, and 6 also. You may not know their names right now but you will and that player chosen will become yet another important piece. Heck, when I was 13, even I had a back-up plan I was more then content with: Elisabeth Shue, Heather Locklear, or Belinda Carlisle.

My best advice for this season is don't over-think it and just sit back and enjoy the moments... all 82 games of them.


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Monday, October 13, 2014

Happy 20th Birthday: Sean Monahan Finishes Second for Goals by a Flames Teen

Sean Monahan turned 20 on Sunday. But while he was a teenager, the centre racked up the second-most goals in Calgary Flames history.

Monahan wasn't able to add any more to his total in the first three games this season -- his final three games as a 19-year-old, but his 22 goals last year were enough to pass Jarome Iginla.

The Flames all-time most prolific goal scorer as a teen was Danny Quinn, who did it 30 years ago. Before Quinn reached his 20th birthday, the Ottawa native scored 39 goals in 128 games over two NHL seasons.

Monahan ended up suiting up for 78 NHL games as a teenager.


Danny Who?

If you're under the age of 35, you likely have little to no recollection of Quinn, the exciting 5-foot-11 centre, who was drafted 13th overall by the Flames in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. However, if you are a female in your 40s and you grew up a hockey fan in Calgary, you quite likely had a crush on Quinn back in the day. Here's a quick backgrounder on the Flames old No. 10.

As happened back in those days, Quinn started the 1983-84 season playing major junior with the Belleville Bulls. He nearly made the Flames with an impressive training camp but coach Bob Johnson chose to begin the year with Doug Risebrough, Steve Tambellini, Mike Eaves and Jim Peplinski as his four centres. However, after piling up a ridiculous 23-36-59 in 24 games to lead the OHL in scoring, the Flames called up the 18-year-old. He scored 19 goals in Calgary's final 54 games, added three more in the playoffs, then scored another 20 the next season.

At age 21, Quinn was traded by general manager Cliff Fletcher to Pittsburgh. That trade on Nov. 12, 1986, was a one-for-one exchange for centre Mike Bullard. The next season, Quinn scored 40 goals for the Penguins, playing on the same team as hall-of-famers Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey.

Bullard spent two years with Calgary before being part of the package shipped to St. Louis on Sept. 6, 1988, to acquire Doug Gilmour and Mark Hunter, who would end up being two key members of the Flames Stanley Cup-winning team in 1989.


Top 10 Calgary Flames Goal Scorers - As a Teen

1. Dan Quinn (1983-84, 1984-85) - 39
2. Sean Monahan (2013-14, 2014-15) - 22
3. Jarome Iginla (1996-97) - 21
4. Robert Reichel (1990-91) - 19
5. Kevin LaVallee (1980-81) - 15
6. Richard Kromm (1983-84) - 10
7. Derek Morris (1997-98) - 9
8. Oleg Saprykin (2000-01) - 7
9. Robyn Regehr (1999-00) - 5
9. Brian Glynn (1987-88) - 5

Notable Others: Sven Baertschi (3), Al MacInnis (1)


Other Candidates 

News last week that Sam Bennett would be undergoing shoulder surgery was unfortunate. While he was most likely destined to return to Kingston (OHL) this year anyway, it was possible he could have appeared in a few NHL regular season games before that occurred.

Bennett has a very late birthday. He only turned 18 a week before the Flames made him the fourth overall selection in the 2014 NHL Draft.

Assuming there are no complications and the recovery from his surgery goes well, I would expect Bennett to be a member of the Calgary Flames in 2015-16, a year in which he'll play the entire season as a 19-year-old.

Given his skill set, a full season should land him top-five on the all-time teen scoring list and he would definitely have a shot at supplanting Monahan for the number two spot.

Emile Poirier is the other candidate at the moment, who could make this list. He doesn't turn 20 until Dec. 14. However, he also had shoulder surgery and is not yet healthy. He is hoping to join the line-up in Adirondack by the end of October but given the circumstances, the odds of the first-year pro getting recalled and into some NHL games before mid-December is highly unlikely.

Of course, depending on how this season goes and how the draft lottery goes, Jack Eichel will turn 19 on Oct. 28, 2015, so should he end up a Flame, he'd be a threat as well. Meanwhile, Connor McDavid won't turn 19 until Jan. 13, 2016, so he could be looking at a season-and-a-half in the NHL as a teenager.


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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Absolutely Disgraceful. Why Trevor Gillies Should Soon be an ex-Flame

Disgraceful. Shameful. Deplorable. Embarrassing.

There are many adjectives to describe the actions of Adirondack left-winger Trevor Gillies on Friday night -- opening night of the AHL regular season, and all of them would be accurate.

Looking more like Ogie Ogilthorpe of Slapshot fame, Gillies' assault spree began after a whistle deep in the Flames end with 3:09 left in the third period and the hometown Rochester Americans leading 5-1 at the time.

With Adirondack's Patrick Sieloff and Matt MacKenzie squared off in a shoving match in the corner, Gillies skates over to the two of them and from behind throws a vicious overhand left to the side of the head of the unsuspecting MacKenzie.

And he was just getting started.

Gillies then gives a shove to the chest of Swedish forward Johan Larsson, the next Americans player he encounters, and then continued by attacking William Carrier and proceeding to pummel the rookie, who was playing his first AHL game. The beating continued as Carrier dropped down to the ice on his knees -- gloves still on, stick still in his hands, defenceless.

But wait, there's more.

If all that wasn't enough, before he skated away, he put an exclamation mark on the despicable act by grabbing the 19-year-old Carrier by the shoulders and slamming his head on the ice.

Awful.

For his actions and you can watch the entire sequence for yourself right here, Gillies was tagged with 27 penalty minutes: an instigating minor, fighting major, and two game misconducts -- one for being the instigator in the game's final five minutes, the other for being the 'aggressor' under rule 46.2 of the NHL Rule Book.



Now that the referee has done his job, it's time for the league to step up and do its job and suspend Gillies for a long time. It's also time for the Flames to do the right thing and release this guy before he does something stupid again.


Surely There are Better Sources of Leadership

I've never talked with Gillies. I've heard he can be a decent guy off the ice. But let's be honest, he's an idiot when he's on the ice and no amount of goodwill off the ice can justify what he did last night.

If it's veteran leadership the Flames organization is seeking for an inexperienced Adirondack forward group that has loads of talent but are all very young, surely there are plenty of far better options out there.

Gillies rap sheet from over the years, as you can see (and watch), pretty much speaks for itself:

Since turning pro 15 years ago, Gillies has amassed 3,054 penalty minutes in 696 games that have come while playing for 20 different teams. Hopefully there won't be a 21st team.

If you are wondering if maybe playoff experience is the intangible that he brings. Nope, guess again. He's appeared in only 20 playoff games in that decade-and-a-half and hasn't picked up a point while racking up 43 penalty minutes.


Could That Have Been Johnny Gaudreau?

One overlooked angle to the earlier debate around whether talented but tiny Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau would be better off starting in the AHL or in the NHL is what would be best for his own safety.

The NHL is a changing place. There is no better example of this than the encouraging sign that came out of Toronto last week when the Maple Leafs cut Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren and opened the season without a dedicated enforcer.

However, where did those two noted pugilists end up? The AHL. Down there, they join the likes of Gillies, Zack Stortini, Jay Rosehill, Cam Janssen, Steve MacIntyre and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. The AHL is becoming a landfill for ex-NHL goons.

Who is to say that on Nov. 26 when Adirondack are to play the Toronto Marlies for the first time that the tables wouldn't have ended up reversed from last night.

After all, who was William Carrier anyway? He was an innocent bystander caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's a highly touted second round draft pick by the Blues, who was acquired by Buffalo in the trade package for Ryan Miller last year. He had all of five fights in his four full seasons in the QMJHL. It's not his thing but Gillies was not on the prowl looking for a guy whose 'thing' was fighting, he was merely looking to ragdoll anyone he could find.

Imagine the conversation in Calgary today if Gaudreau had been jumped by Orr and beaten into the ice.


Does Playing the Same System Mean This?

It's been stated that coach Ryan Huska will have Adirondack playing the same system that Calgary plays under Bob Hartley this year to ease the transition on players when they're brought up to the NHL.

I thought by that, they were referring to roles in the defensive zone, responsibilities on the forecheck, etc. But, perhaps that also means icing a marginally skilled fourth line with guys that bring little other than belligerence, truculence and all those Brian Burke terms I've grown really tired of hearing about.

In playing Gillies last night on a fourth line centred by agitator Mathieu Tousignant, Adirondack left speedy Turner Elson, young Bryce van Brabant and intriguing 25-year-old German prospect David Wolf in the press box.

Wolf, while no angel himself -- he's had more penalty minutes in Germany than anyone else over the last three years, at least he has decent offensive skills and an all-round game. As I wrote about Wolf here, he played with two skilled guys in Germany and was among the team's top scorers. There's two dimensions to his game and there's room in the NHL -- plenty of room, for guys that can do both. But Gillies, he's about as one-dimensional as you can get. In those 15 pro seasons, he's scored 11 goals.

One can only hope that eventually the Flames will realize that they'll need more from their fourth line if they're going to be a legitimate contender. The enforcer is becoming an endangered species but unlike the giant panda, there is no need to put it on a protected list. The game is too fast now to count on just three lines while deploying a fourth line for just a handful of minutes.

Lance Bouma, Bill Arnold, Josh Jooris. Now that would be an excellent fourth line in my eyes. All guys that can do multiple things -- defend, kill penalties, bring energy, and play physical and scrappy, but without needing to drop the gloves and beat the crap out of someone.

Once that day happens here in Calgary, hopefully that same 'system' will be reflected across the organization, so in Adirondack too.


Conclusion

Adirondack got a lot of negative publicity on Thursday when they unveiled a new mascot named Scorch in a poorly thought-out video in which Scorch appeared to be dancing around the corpse of a fireman. Also, Scorch is ridiculous looking.

But the type of negative public relations Adirondack got one day later from Gillies is 100 times worse and don't kid yourself, it not only embarrases the baby Flames, but the entire Calgary Flames organization.

Rochester coach Chadd Cassidy said it best after last night's game. "If there's room for that in hockey, I'm not sure I want to coach anymore."

Calgary Flames content on YouTube has been on the rise lately and for all the right reasons -- thank you, Johnny Gaudreau. We need more of that and not the type of dubious YouTube infamy that Gillies just provided.

My goodness, if you need to make a choice Adirondack, keep Scorch for gods sake and get rid of Gillies. It's a no-brainer.


UPDATE:

On Saturday afternoon, the AHL confirmed an automatic one-game suspension for Gillies, a result of being assessed an instigator penalty within the final five minutes of the third period of a game. The AHL added that "any further supplemental discipline will be announced following the league’s official review of the game."

Also on Saturday afternoon, Gillies apologized via a statement on his Facebook page. "I would like to apologize to my family back home for embarrassing the family name. To my teammates and the organization and the fans in the hockey community. I crossed the line. Thankfully the kid is okay. I'm not taking this lightly or easily and promise it won't happen again. If you want to bash me I get it. I will just take my medicine with no response. Again I'm truly sorry. Gillies"


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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

10-Step Survival Guide to the Calgary Flames 2014-15 Season

After going 116 days without NHL hockey (or 177 days in this particular city), a new season is upon us and it's about time.

That said, what lies ahead for the Calgary Flames will not be one of those signature seasons like we saw in 1985-86, 1988-89 or 2003-04. More so, it's the other, less talked about signature seasons that this year may come closer to mirroring.

Does anybody remember 1997-98?

Under the guidance of coach Brian Sutter, backstopped by the goalie tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Rick Tabaracci, and featuring the likes of Andrew Cassels, Jim Dowd, Ralph Macchio-lookalike Marty McInnis, Tommy Albelin, Cale Hulse and a 20-year-old kid named Jarome Iginla -- who scored all of 13 goals, that edition of the Flames was statistically the worst team in Calgary's history finishing 26-41-15 for 67 points.

As we get underway and face the very real possibility that this season will turn out a lot more like 1997-98 than the glory days from the decade before, here is your 10-step survival guide to help get you through the winter.


1. Keep Your Eyes Affixed on No. 13

Maybe the debut of Theoren Fleury over 25 years ago. Maybe. That's the last time the Flames line-up featured a young player as exciting, skilled and creative with the puck as 21-year-old Johnny Gaudreau. However, save for the fact neither are tall enough to ride the Calaway Park log ride without an adult, they are two very different personalities and two very different players.

Similar in stature but at least 20 pounds heavier, Fleury was stronger, sturdier and had a playing style that was more aggressive and edgy. Where Fleury would shove you down, slash you, and then steal the puck. Gaudreau is more the quiet, pickpocket type. One second you have the puck, the next second you don't and No. 13 is long gone.

Search for 'Johnny Gaudreau' on YouTube and you get 4,530 results, and that's a much bigger number than it was at the start of September. He's played one career NHL game yet he's already reached the point where you expect him to do something electric every shift and if he doesn't, you're almost left disappointed. What? No new videos on YouTube? Must have been a lousy period for Gaudreau. Truth is, if he was generating scoring chances every shift, he'd be a candidate for the Hart Trophy, not just the Calder.

'Worth the price of admission' is an overused and cliche way to describe a player, but not with Gaudreau. He is exactly that and more. Every night, count on a few shifts where he'll do something spectacular that will have you on the edge of your seat, if not out of your seat -- and thank goodness. Considering the Flames have just one player on the roster that scored 20 goals last year and only four that reached 15, Gaudreau is going to be counted upon to spark the offence and while that's a big load to put on his small shoulders, I don't doubt he will deliver.


2. Relish One-Goal Losses

While sometimes they may do things that make you scratch your head, NHL general managers -- generally speaking, are not dumb. A good GM is not just thinking about what his team will look like this season but also what it could look like next year and also the year after that.

Publicly, expect to hear all the right things this year from Brad Treliving and Hartley -- a desire to improve in points, to make the playoffs and yada yada yada. But take a close-up look at the Flames roster this season and compare it to other teams in the Western Conference and reality sets in. This team just does not have the same talent.

Don't get me wrong, there will be plenty of 'try' in this bunch, just like last year. They will play hard, battle from the opening drop of the puck to the final buzzer each and every night and I wouldn't expect anything else from a Hartley-coached team. But I'm just not sure how many games they'll actually win. The Flames played 49 one-goal games last year and won 25 of them. But subtract last year's leading scorer in Mike Cammalleri and some of those overtime/shootout wins may not get to extra time this year. Those one-goal regulation losses may be become two-goal setbacks.

Set your bar at 35 wins (last year's total) at your own peril. If I were you, I'd consider counting the number of close games instead and be prepared to extract the positives from those. Not only are close games exciting to watch as a fan, lots of player development can occur also. Learning how to defend a lead in the late going, how to win the important face-off in the final minute when you're down a goal. It's all good experience and lessons that will help down the road.


3. Keep Your Eye on the Prize

If the best you can hope for with the talent you have is to languish in the bottom third of the NHL's standings, this is a good year for that because the consolation prize for finishing last or next-to-last is as compelling as it's been in quite some time.

In case you've been living under a rock the past couple years, there are two potential franchise-altering players up for grabs in the 2015 NHL Draft and interestingly, both kind of have connections to the Flames:

  • Connor McDavid - The 6-foot-0 centre used to play minor hockey in Ontario on the same team as Sam Bennett. Just imagine how good those teams must have been. He is entering his third year with the Erie Otters after being granted 'exceptional player' status in order to play in the OHL at age 15 (just the third to receive such distinction -- John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad the others). Last year as a sophomore, McDavid finished fourth in league scoring with 28-71-99. Making that feat even more remarkable is he played a dozen less games than the players ahead of him.
  • Jack Eichel - The 6-foot-1 centre, is entering his first year at Boston University. Also on that same campus for his first year after two seasons in the AJHL is Flames 2014 third round draft pick Brandon Hickey, a defenceman. Last weekend, the two combined to set up a goal in the Terriers first game, a 12-1 win in which Eichel had five assists and Hickey finished with three helpers. For all the viewing that will occur this year, I'd expect the book on Eichel to be pretty thick by year's end.


While the revised NHL draft lottery rules mean getting first pick is hard -- finishing dead last only gets you a 20 percent chance of picking first, the availability of more than one generational-type player means win or lose the lottery -- literally, will still feel like winning the lottery -- figuratively.

One other draft-eligible player getting a lot of attention is 6-foot-3 defenceman Noah Hanifin, who is in his freshman year at Boston College. Treliving admits that defence depth is an area of great need for the organization so Hanifin is another name to follow closely this year.


4. Scoreboard Watching Begins Now

Calgary is going to win its fair share of games. Coaching for a contract, you know Hartley is going to conjure up some magic with this team and they'll once again overachieve. For you extremists so fixated already on next year's draft that you cringe with every Flames victory, you'll be able to enjoy and celebrate them a little bit more and do so guilt-free if the other teams Calgary is 'chasing' are also winning.

As a pastime, scoreboard watching generally becomes more popular later in the season but really, you should get into it this year right off the hop. Those wins the Sabres and Hurricanes might sneak this weekend could end up being huge come the end of the year.

Here are five teams, all threats to finish last, which you should be passionately rooting on this year.

  • Buffalo - They were last a year ago and most experts feel they've gotten worse.
  • Carolina - Jordan Staal's broken leg has lowered the Hurricanes into the 30th place mix.
  • Ottawa - This is the 'Woe Canada' era in the NHL and Ottawa could be in trouble this year.
  • Winnipeg - Some nice pieces are in place but they've got to get decent goaltending.
  • Florida - Are developing a nice team but at the end of the day, they're still the Panthers.

The 'advantage', if you will, for Calgary is the strength of the Western Conference. The Flames could have a better team than a few teams in the East yet could finish behind them in the standings.


5. Cheer Your Ass(ets) Off

So far, the arrival in Calgary of right-winger Devin Setoguchi for a mere $750,000, has been greeted with about the same adulation and support that the $470,000 giant blue ring got when it was installed on that overpass over Deerfoot Trail.

However, given his alluring resume -- eighth overall pick, only 27 years old, one 30-goal season, two more 20-goal years, he's probably not going away anywhere for a while.

If you're a Flames fan, the best case scenario is Setoguchi resuscitates his career, builds up value and makes himself a trade chip at this year's trade deadline. You're probably not going to get much for him but the more draft picks you can acquire, the more bullets you have come draft day and sometimes it's through quantity of picks that you can unearth that occasional late-round steal.

Other pending unrestricted free agents at year end, who could be flipped at some point for a draft pick (and/or prospect) include:

  • LW Curtis Glencross
  • G Karri Ramo
  • D Raphael Diaz
  • D Corey Potter
  • RW Brian McGrattan

Glencross is the name on this list that would command the biggest return. He does have a no-trade clause but if he can bounce back with a healthy and productive season, a Stanley Cup contender could come calling in March if not before, and I'd think that could be a pretty tempting opportunity that he'd consider. 



6. Closely Monitor the Core Pieces

Let's face it, there are a handful of players on the Flames season-opening roster, who will not be around when this team returns to the playoffs in a couple years. OK, maybe a couple of handfuls. You can guess who some of those veteran players are.

Meanwhile, the Flames are grooming a solid core group of young players to lead this team back to respectability. These are the guys you want to see have excellent years in 2014-15. So keep an eye on Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, TJ Brodie, Lance Bouma and Joe Colborne, and hope you see each of them take another giant stride forward.

Backlund, Brodie, Bouma and Colborne are also restricted free agents after this season so the incentive to perform well this year is very high for them. Backlund and Brodie in particular -- both entering the second year of modest two-year bridge contracts, could both be looking at really rich paydays next summer so we'll see if they can pick up where they left off last season.


7. Cheer on the Adirondack Flames

I noted the other day that the average age of the Flames roster to start the year is 27.6, which is the exact same as last year. Someone quipped that doesn't sound like a rebuild and while I get the point, the reality is, and what I told him, is that the rebuild is happening, just not in plain view. The construction is going on two times zones to the East in Adirondack. At some point, just like moving a house, they'll jack it up, load the rebuild on a flatbed trailer and move it to Calgary.

Before we get into what -- by Calgary standards, is an embarrassment of riches toiling for the baby Flames this season, let's do a refresher on what the Flames prospect landscape looked like not that long ago.

Here is what the Flames AHL roster looked like five years ago in 2009-10. You may want to cover your eyes. If you're in the middle of eating, grab a bucket.



There are some decent players there if journeymen are your thing, but in terms of franchise building blocks, future NHLers, there was not much there. Backlund was the lone legitimate NHL player to emerge from that entire group assembled under the watch of former Flames general manager Darryl Sutter.

On the flip-side, the Flames prospect landscape has changed significantly. If you look at Adirondack's roster this year, there are 12 Flames draft picks on it and we're not talking about 7th and 8th rounders like David Van Der Gulik and Cam Cunning. There are two first round picks in Sven Baertschi and Emile Poirier, three second round picks in Tyler Wotherspooon, Patrick Sieloff and Markus Granlund. All of the above are all highly regarded. Let's not forget about other guys packed with potential too like Bill Arnold, Max Reinhart, Michael Ferland and Brett Kulak.

There is no guarantee of immediate win-loss success with this group in Adirondack as the AHL is a man's league and you don't just stroll in there, fresh out of major junior or NCAA and dominate, that's one of the myths of the AHL. Teams with experienced players tend to rise to the top. But the baby Flames are going to have a highly skilled and exciting team to watch and as the year goes on, I'd expect the frequency of wins to only increase and by the spring, this team could be poised for a long Calder Cup run and wouldn't exposure to high-stakes playoff hockey be a good learning opportunity for the future.


8. Be the Guardian of "Always Earned, Never Given"

It was the motto we heard about all training camp -- "Always Earned, Never Given".  While many fans wanted to see this concept enforced to the letter as soon as training camp wrapped up, it was not a surprise to see a guy like Setoguchi -- freshly signed to a $750,000 deal but also the most popular target of fan disdain, be given a bit more time to get his game back after going pointless and minus-2 in five pre-season games.

Given the glaring lack of scoring pop on the Flames, expect management to show some patience and provide a biggie-sized audition to Setoguchi in hopes the 27-year-old former top 10 draft pick can figure things out and resurrect his career.

But should he squander away his regular season opportunity when it comes, or if anyone else should flounder, who will 'earn' that next call-up? This will be a situation to monitor all season long.

Will it be Josh Jooris, the hard-working winger and surprise of training camp? Or, will it be Sven Baertschi that gets another shot? Perhaps it's Markus Granlund, who might well have made it anyway if not for his concussion. Along with Michael Ferland, those four are probably the front runners right now but if that call-up doesn't come until mid-November, September performance reviews aren't going to get it done alone, they'll have to keep earning their way to the top of the resume pile through their play in Adirondack's regular season games, which begin Oct. 10.

Meanwhile in Calgary, will we see opportunity and ice time go to those that 'earn' it and not be 'given' to others? It can be viewed as encouraging that it seems to have started off that way so far with Setoguchi and David Jones the two scratches for the season-opening game against the Vancouver Canucks. The scratches for the next night in Edmonton was also reassuring.
There will be several opportunities to 'earn' ice time and increased roles throughout the year. Can Matt Stajan get off the fourth line by earning a top nine role?  Will Lance Bouma earn more playing time?  Will Joe Colborne earn a top-six scoring role or be relegated to a checking line? Will Paul Byron earn the right to stay in the NHL and not be squeezed out by a call-up?


9. Appreciate the Small Things

If you look at salary by position, Flames forwards with a payroll of $27.4-million are ranked 30th while their goaltending duo ranks sixth with a combined salary of $7.4-million. Thus, it's no surprise that the consensus is that Calgary will struggle to score goals but will also get solid goaltending from the duo of Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo.

Anticipating a lot of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 games, take this season as an opportunity to evolve how you watch a hockey game. While there may not be many goals scored, there are plenty of other noteworthy things happening throughout a game that will give you some insight into who is playing well, who Hartley has confidence in, etc.

Here are just a few suggestions of what else to watch for on any given night:
  • Which line and defence pairing is put out against the other team's No. 1 line? How do they do? In some match-ups, a good shift isn't necessarily getting chances, it's preventing or limiting chances against.
  • When Calgary gets trapped in its own end, what defence pairing is out there? What forward line is it? 
  • Who is sent out to take important face-offs late in a period or in the game? Are they winning them?
  • If there's a 5-on-3 penalty kill, who is tasked with the responsibility of being the lone forward? You know that guy is highly trusted by the coaches.
  • Are offensive players creating offence? Perhaps Gaudreau has just one shot on goal but did he set up four or five other chances that may or may not have resulted in an actual shot on goal? 
  • Are blocked shots coming five-on-five (i.e. A by-product of being hemmed in your own end) or are they while you're on the penalty kill, which changes the context entirely.


10. Stay Calm and Rebuild On

There are going to be points this winter where the Flames are going to drive you crazy with their play, their personnel decisions, their line combinations, their player usage, etc. A steady diet of losing and/or offensive futility is only going to cause additional wear and tear.

What you need to keep reminding yourself is that next year will be different and while that phrase may have rung hollow in seasons past, how can it not be different next year?

There are going to be some really talented players that will be arriving in Calgary next training camp, all of whom will have no intention of ever leaving. We're talking about Bennett, Poirier, Granlund, Ferland, Baertschi (if he's still in the organization), Wotherspoon and Sieloff and that's just a start.

While it will be easy to get caught up in the moment as this season unfolds, realize that how this season unfolds will have little bearing on what the expectations will be heading into next season when making the playoffs starts becoming a legitimate possibility. Could a team featuring some of that aforementioned group of talented prospects plus the likes of Gaudreau, Monahan, Backlund, Brodie and Giordano be an 8th place team in 2015-16? Why not.

So keep the big picture in mind, don't get too hung up on the current picture, and keep reminding yourself that the future remains bright and the Red Mile will be returning sooner than later.


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Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Always Earned, Never Given: The Challenge of Walking the Talk - The players talked about it. Bob Hartley talked about it. This year, you need to earn a job on the team because you won't have a job given to you. I exam a great slogan but the difficulties in applying it.
  • Bennett, Gaudreau and Monahan: Be Excited About the Flames Bright Future - These are exciting times in Calgary and my message to all those long-suffering hockey fans is enjoy it, damn it. As you'll see from Flames trios in past years going back to 1980, Bennett, Gaudreau and Monahan make up the most exciting forward trio in over 25 years so enjoy it!
  • Desperate for McDavid: 12 Things That (Mostly) Need to Happen for the Flames to Get Him - A look at a variety of scenarios that should they all/most occur this season, will make Calgary a virtual lock to land phenom Connor McDavid in the 2015 NHL Draft.
  • Huska and the Role of the AHL: Preparing Players for the NHL - Johnny Gaudreau looks like he's ready. Markus Granlund says he's ready. Sam Bennett thinks he's ready. But are they? Ryan Huska explains there's more to being ready than just on-ice skills. Also, Granlund, Michael Ferland and others talk about what they've learned about the AHL.
  • Meet New Flames Radio Voice Derek Wills - Derek's long journey to the NHL has been anything but easy. He's been rejected, left on the curb by Claude Julien, and in the early days -- with his Dad and Grandma paying his costs, he resorted to buying his own air time and creating his own play-by-play job. Meet Peter Maher's successor and appreciate his 20-year journey to the NHL.