Monday, January 06, 2014

Handing out the Calgary Flames Mid-Season Awards

Hey kids, ready for an awards show? The best part of this one -- no Miley Cyrus!

We are at the halfway point in the season and Calgary (14-21-6) has 34 points. Compared to the same point last year (16-21-4), the Flames have two fewer points. However, given they're without the likes of Miikka Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Tanguay, it really should be considered a resounding success.

Unfortunately, tarnishing the club's first half is the way it came to a close. Since Christmas, the last four games has seen the club's offence completely dry up -- one measly goal on the last 92 shots, over the last 245 minutes and five seconds. Even more concerning for Flames fans is the team hasn't played with the same spark lately as it did in the first 37 games.

Nonetheless, many fabulous movies have had bad endings -- don't let that last 10 minutes ruin the first 90 minutes. As the credits roll on the first half of the season, it's time to hand out the much anticipated (ahem...) Calgary Flames mid-season awards.

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Most Valuable Player

Winner: Mark Giordano
Runner-Up: Jiri Hudler

It's as if stitching the 'C' on Mark Giordano's sweater this season has given the 30-year-old defenceman super powers -- less the cape. In addition to being his regular dependable, tough-as-nails self in his own zone, Giordano is enjoying an offensive epiphany. His 17 points in 23 games has already surpassed the 15 points he had in 47 games last year. This growth in his overall game, combined with the impact he's had as the team captain, has put him into the Canadian Olympic Team conversation, which is a tremendous accomplishment considering he wasn't among the 17 defencemen invited to Calgary in August for the Olympic orientation camp.

Hudler has been the Flames most consistent offensive threat. With 33 points (11 goals, 22 assists)  in 41 games, he leads the club, 13 points better than Mike Cammalleri. Hudler's on pace -- especially if Cammalleri gets dealt, to win the team scoring race by the largest margin since 2007-08 when Jarome Iginla finished the season with 98 points and next best was Kristian Huselius with 66 points.

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Most Improved Player

Winner: Karri Ramo/Reto Berra
Runner-Up: Mikael Backlund

Here's an eye-popping before and after that shows exactly why Karri Ramo and Reto Berra share the honours in this category. Purposely left out is their win-loss record because that hardly seems their fault given the way the team has failed to give them any support of late.

As of Nov. 30
  • Berra - 3.51 GAA, .888 save percentage
  • Ramo - 3.52 GAA, .884 save percentage 
Since Nov. 30
  • Berra - 2.02 GAA, .929 save percentage
  • Ramo - 2.08 GAA, .926 save percentage 

Meanwhile Mikael Backlund, who seemed to be forever trapped on the fourth line -- was scratched one game and played just over eight minutes the game after, has been arguably the Flames best and most consistent forward since the start of December. In addition to his regular PK work, he's been on the power play and has been consistently logging the most minutes the 24-year-old  has ever played in his career. 

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Most Pleasant Surprise

Winner: Kris Russell
Runner-Up: Sean Monahan

Stunning to think that Kris Russell was acquired for a fifth round draft pick. Despite being undersized at 5-foot-10, 173 pounds, he plays much bigger -- leading the club in blocked shots at the time he got hurt (after missing five games, he's now two behind Chris Butler). He's also developed into the primary quarterback for the power play. For me, he's right there with Giordano and Hudler in the discussion of first half MVP. Recently when I sat down to talk to Flames assistant coach Martin Gelinas about the club's offensive struggles (he was part of Calgary's worst ever offensive slump in November 2002), he alluded to the absence of Russell as a big factor. "To me, I look at him, and I don’t want to put him in that category because he’s not quite there, but he’s a little like a Duncan Keith,” Gelinas said. “Speed-wise, smarts-wise, and defensively, he’s probably one of our best."

As for Sean Monahan, before the season began I fully expected him to be returned to junior so just being here still is surprise enough. Despite a drop-off in his play since missing seven games with an injured foot, he's still tied for second on the team with 11 goals, one back of Cammalleri. In NHL rookie scoring, he's third in goals behind injured Tomas Hertl from San Jose (15) and first overall draft pick from last June, Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon (12).

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Unsung Hero

Winner: Lance Bouma
Runner-up: Chris Butler

A regular on the penalty kill, throwing his body in front of shots with reckless abandon whenever he can, Lance Bouma has established himself as an NHLer and not just a fourth liner either. He's solid on the forecheck, plays physical, and sometimes when you least expect it, has exhibited a smooth pair of mitts. He's been a great story after missing almost all of last year due to injury.

Frequently the subject of public scorn due to his propensity to make a grievous giveaway at the most inopportune time, Chris Butler has been a flexible, under-appreciated defenceman that has played many different roles from top pairing to third pairing while the likes of Dennis Wideman, Giordano and Russell all missed extended time with injuries. Butler's played as much as 28:44 and as little as 12:24. Lost in the collateral damage reputation-wise of his occasional defensive gaff is a guy that has stepped up and played big minutes against top lines as Brodie's partner. He's been enormous on the penalty kill. He leads the team in blocked shots. He's a pending UFA and will likely be wearing a different jersey by mid-March and if that's the case, he'll be a guy the team will miss more than you think.

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Biggest Disappointment

Winner: TJ Galiardi
Runner-up: David Jones

TJ Galiardi came over with great promise as a guy looking to play a bigger role and really establish himself after making an impact with San Jose in last year's playoffs skating on a line with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. Galiardi looked great in pre-season play and carried that into the season picking up a goal and an assist in Calgary's 4-3 win in Columbus in the second game of the season. But he hasn't scored since in a drought that's reached 25 games. In fact, in a stretch that also included a stint on injured reserve and a string of healthy scratches, Galiardi hasn't been on the ice for a Flames goal since Nov. 20.

After scoring 27 and 20 goals the last two NHL full seasons (in 77 and 72 games respectively), I was admittedly one that looked at the three goals in 33 games for David Jones last year as an aberration. Well, maybe those previous two years were the aberration. In the last 15 games, he has no goals and one assist. All of Jones' six goals have come in losses with the club 0-3-2 when he scores.

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Most Exciting Win

Winner: Dec. 23 vs St. Louis, 4-3 shootout win
Runner-Up: Oct. 11 vs New Jersey, 3-2 win

It was partially the timing -- last game before Christmas so a festive atmosphere, partially the opponent -- a legit Stanley Cup contender, and partially the scenario -- trailing by two goals in the third period to a team that never, ever gives up a lead. Combined, those factors provided the backdrop for a thrilling comeback by the Flames who drew within one when Cammalleri scored halfway through the third and then dramatically tied it 3-3 with just five seconds remaining on a blast from Giordano. The tying goal culminated a frenzied final 1:37 in which the Flames had the power play, pulled Berra as well, and insatiably buzzed around the Blues net. Joe Colborne capped the thrilling victory with the only goal of the shootout.

With points in its first four games of the season, Calgary continued its improbable start to the season coming from behind twice to defeat the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 11. Trailing 1-0, Wideman tied it in the second. Trailing 2-1, Giordano tied it in the final minute of the second. Then, making it goals in four straight games, Monahan scored the thrilling game-winner on future hall-of-famer Martin Brodeur at 17:17 of the third to win it.

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Most Impressive Loss

Winner: Oct. 16 at Anaheim, 3-2 loss
Runner-Up: Dec. 21 at Pittsburgh, 4-3 loss

Off to an impressive 3-0-2 start, the Flames opened up a five-game road trip at the haunted Honda Center where they had only won once since 1999 (26 games). Additionally, in its previous home game, Anaheim racked up 56 shots against Ottawa. Calgary fell behind 2-0 early and trailed 3-1 headed to the third when they went on the attack. Flames outshot the besieged Ducks 17-4 in the third but only Hudler could beat Viktor Fasth. The final shots were 35-22 in favour of Calgary. It remains one of the biggest scares for Anaheim, which remains the only team that hasn't lost in regulation at home (16-0-2).

It was a similar script two weeks ago in Pittsburgh. In the final stop of a five-game Eastern road trip, Calgary fell behind 4-1 but didn't quit. Cammalleri drew the Flames to within two in the final minute of the second and Hudler scored a minute into the third. Calgary outshot Pittsburgh 12-5 in the final 20 minutes but couldn't coax the tying goal past Marc-Andre Fleury, although Colborne did put a shot off the goal post that would have tied it.

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Best Moment

Winner: Dec. 10 vs Boston, Welcome back Jarome Iginla
Runner-Up: Mark Giordano's tying goal vs St. Louis

For over two minutes, an appreciative jam-packed crowd at the Saddledome acknowledged Iginla's contributions in Calgary with a standing ovation. While it was a whole lot of awkward for Iginla with eyes and cameras affixed on him for that entire time as he stood on the Bruins blue-line and gave the occasional nod and wave of the stick to the sell-out crowd. It was well deserved and props to Flames fans for giving the franchise's most valuable player the send-off he never got last March.

Whether you point to Giordano's goal, or maybe Colborne's goal -- the only one of the shootout, or when Berra stopped Magnus Paajarvi in the shootout to end it and pumped his arm in celebration, that roller-coaster St. Louis game was as entertaining as a regular season game gets. Let's just make that entire finish to that game the runner-up for Best Moment.

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Best Single Game Performance

Winner: Reto Berra, Nov. 3 in Chicago, 3-2 overtime win
Runner-Up:  Mike Cammalleri, Oct. 26 vs Washington, 5-2 win

Welcome to the NHL, Reto Berra. The assignment couldn't have been much more difficult. First NHL start comes in the home building of the defending Stanley Cup champion. And it was just as advertised with the Chicago Blackhawks peppering Berra with 44 shots. However, despite seeing Marian Hossa tie it 2-2 with 4:19 left in the third, Berra would get the victory when Russell scored 1:32 into overtime.

The only three-point game Calgary has got from a player this year came on a Saturday night at the Saddledome. After a hot start, the Flames had lost four of five and were looking to turn things around and Cammalleri helped make that happen. He set up Russell's opening goal as the Flames jumped out to a 2-0 lead. Twice the Caps cut the lead to one and both times it was Cammalleri, who struck back to restore the two-goal edge. The final score was 5-2.

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Biggest Goal

Winner: Mark Giordano, Dec 23 vs St. Louis
Runner-Up: Mike Cammalleri, Nov. 30 vs Los Angeles

Mentioned the Giordano goal already as that was the climactic moment in the most exciting game of the year. It was also one of the loudest moments at the Saddledome in several years.

Cammalleri's clutch goal came on the road and made it an unlikely two wins in Los Angeles against Darryl Sutter and the Kings this year -- both games regulation wins with the winning goalie goal coming in the final minute. In the first game on Oct. 21, it was TJ Brodie with the game-winner on a power play. Six weeks later, this one coming at regular strength was that much more dramatic. Hard work along the end boards by Cammalleri, was followed by a terrific pass from Backlund and as you'll see, an even better finish from Cammalleri.

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Biggest On-Ice Story Line

Winner: So many close games
Runner-up: So many injuries

It's astounding how competitive Calgary has been. They've played 25 one-goal games. Additionally, five of its two-goal losses would have been one-goal if not for a late empty net goal. Add in a 5-2 win over Washington and a 4-1 victory over Phoenix and excluding empty net goals, 32 of the Flames games have been either victories or one-goal losses.

Calgary has been struck by significiant injuries to veteran players with Curtis Glencross the hardest hit. The embattled winger has suffered two long-term injuries, first a knee injury and now a high ankle sprain. A whole bunch of others have also been out for extended periods this year. The slew of injuries has resulted in the Flames mandating (of 'highly recommending') that players wear plastic foot protectors over their skates to try and prevent injuries when blocking shots.

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Biggest Off-Ice Story Line

Winner: Jay Feaster fired
Runner-up: The UFA conundrum

It wasn't necessarily a surprise. Although many agree General Manager Jay Feaster did a lot of good things in his time in Calgary, rescued the team from "salary cap jail" as he called it, drafted well, you got the sense when  Burke was hired that eventually he'd force Feaster out. That said, although it may not have shocked anyone, it was still a big day when it was announced on Dec. 12 that Feaster and Assistant GM John Weisbrod had been let go.

What is now up to Burke to sort out is what to do with the bevy of Flames pending UFAs. Tim Jackman was moved already for a sixth round draft pick, but that still leaves a whole bunch more. Do you trade them for picks and or prospects as we were expecting under Feaster or does Burke have a different plan in mind. Players that can walk away from the Flames this summer, if not re-signed or traded, include:

  • Mike Cammalleri - Injured to start the year. When he returned to the ice, he made an instant impact with nine goals in his first 14 games. Since then, He's got three goals in 19 games and has seen his plus-minus dip to minus-21, second-last in the NHL, ahead of only Edmonton's Nail Yakupov.
  • Lee Stempniak - Like with Cammalleri, there was a sell high opportunity early in the year. Before breaking his foot, Stempniak had points in nine of Calgary's first 10 games. Things have gone miserably since he returned. He's got two goals in the last 24 games and has no points in his last dozen games, which equals the worst drought of his career (goes back to his rookie season with St. Louis).
  • Matt Stajan - Has been solid all year as the Flames No. 1 and most reliable centre, and in an awfully tough role of facing every opponent's No. 1 line.
  • Chris Butler - Has frequently shuttled between first pairing and third pairing.
  • Kris Russell - Right up there with Giordano and Hudler as candidate for first half MVP.
  • Derek Smith - Rarely plays. Can you even get a draft pick for him?
  • Blair Jones - Recently underwent knee surgery, which is bad timing. He had a phenomenal year with Abbotsford with eight goals and 21 points in 16 games. After earning a promotion to Calgary, he may have turned himself into a guy you could get something for. Not sure now.
  • Kevin Westgarth - Just added via a trade. Provides zero offence but fits Burke's 'black and blue' mould. Is there a plan to keep him here or was this just a temporary addition?

How many, if any, of the above does Burke end up keeping? For what it's worth, Russell and Stajan would be No. 1 and 2 on my list.

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Biggest Soap Opera

Winner: As Sean Monahan's World Turns
Runner-Up: Days of the Life of Sven Baertschi

I'm on record as saying that taking a 12-game hiatus from the NHL grind to go and lead Team Canada at the World Juniors was the smart thing to do for  Monahan in the big picture. In fact, I identified 12 reasons why it would have been a good thing and explained them in this previous blog post. Obviously he didn't go, then his ice time ended up reduced (and Flames coach Bob Hartley said it wasn't because of any lingering injury concerns) where during a five-game stretch he averaged only around 10 minutes per game. As the Flames fall into a skid, and having watched Team Canada fall short of a medal, this soap opera will likely continue even though it should now be off the air.

Meanwhile, more controversy would hang over the head of a Calgary first round draft pick -- this one from 2011. When Burke arrived on the scene as the Flames President of Hockey Operations, he promptly gave Sven Baertschi the ol' Bobby Ryan by telling him in his own candid, frank ways that his 'three-zone game' was not very good. Baertschi bumped back and forth between the press box and the fourth line for a while, spent some quality time skating with Monahan and Hudler before being banished to the dog house once again.

When Feaster was fired, Burke's first order of business was to dispatch Baertschi to the minors where he's been the past three weeks. After going without a point his first four games, he's scored in two of the last three games although curiously for a playmaker, is still looking for his first assist with Abbotsford. His return date to the NHL is unknown but what is known is conversation about Baertschi and whether he was treated fairly or not, used smartly or not, will continue in syndication for the rest of the season.

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Best Trade

Winner: Joe Colborne
Runner-up: Ladislav Smid

Calgary has seen some of its first rounders leave the nest recently. 2006 first rounder Leland Irving departed in the summer. 2008 first rounder Greg Nemisz was dealt to Carolina last week for Westgarth. When you lose guys out of the system that were once that highly regarded, it's nice if you can replenish -- even if the players are similar projects.

On Sept. 28, Feaster acquired the Calgary kid Colborne from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for a conditional draft pick that will be a fourth round pick unless the unlikely happens and he scores 10 goals or 35 points, in which the pick becomes a third rounder. He's currently at three goals and nine points. Colborne was selected 16th overall by Boston in 2008, nine picks before Nemisz. He had only 16 NHL games on the resume when he came over, compared to over 200 games in the AHL, but the centre has been a fixture in the Flames line-up as he's shown his versatility, bouncing up and down the depth chart from second line to fourth line. While he -- like so many others, has struggled to find the net recently (0 goals in his last 17 games), he's demonstrated a deft scoring touch in the shootout with three goals in four tries.

As for Smid, he has pretty much come as advertised. He'll never be a top pairing guy but he's a solid, serviceable 4-5 option on the blue-line. It did cost the team young goaltending prospect Laurent Brossoit and that could turn out to be a regret but with Jon Gillies and Joni Ortio still in the system, it was a position that the team could afford to give up something and as they say, you have to give up something to get something.
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Most Impactful AHL Call-Up

Winner: Paul Byron
Runner-up: Chad Billins

Viewed as a throw-in in the Butler-Robyn Regehr trade with Buffalo a few years back, Byron had been in Calgary before but never made an impact. I challenge you to remember a significant moment from his previous stints with the NHL club. That all changed at the end of November when the diminutive Byron got another shot with the Flames and this time took the opportunity by the... well, you know... and ran with it.

It started with a brilliant play in his first game in Los Angeles when his aggressive forecheck on the penalty kill helped set up Blair Jones' opening goal in what ended up being a 2-1 Flames victory. After averaging 8-10 minutes his first two weeks, then the increased ice time came. By getting time on the man advantage and being elevated onto one of the top lines, Byron has seen his minutes increase to where he's now averaging 18 minutes per game while playing alongside the rejuvenated Backlund and Cammalleri.

When you see him off the ice, Byron reminds me of Screech from Saved From the Bell. He's listed as 5-foot-7, 153 pounds, although he maintains he's actually 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds. Nonetheless, for a guy that's small either way, his speed and smarts has made him an important part of the Flames line-up.

As for Billins, he was called up while the Flames were on a road trip and he chipped in with an assist in each of the two games versus Minnesota and St. Louis -- also his first two NHL games. His NHL stint ended there but he certainly did all you could have asked.

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Least Impactful AHL Call-up

Winner: Chris Breen
Runner-up: Lane MacDermid

We may very well have seen the last of Chris Breen, at least under Burke's rule. He recently cleared waivers, which is indicative of his demand from other teams. If he's not good enough to play on this hockey team, I'm not sure there's a very bright future, which is too bad as he's a genuinely nice guy. But that's how it goes.

As for Lane MacDermid, his four minute stint in his one game didn't exactly move the needle. As he now toils with the Heat, spending a sixth round draft pick to acquire MacDermid is looking like a questionable decision at this point.

Technically, having not gotten into a game at all, I suppose I say Markus Granlund was the least impactful AHL call-up but why pile on the guy. The fact that he watched the Flames score one goal in six periods from the press box and then got returned to the  minors rather than inserted into the goal-starved line-up is cruel enough treatment.

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