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Flames Through Ten - M&G Roundtable

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For many reasons, the first 10 games of the season is at once the most important ten game stretch of the season and also the least significant. Most important, because it's the first (and, at the moment, only) information we have about the new team and we humans just love to elevate first impressions. Least relevant, because all sorts of screwy things can happen in a 10 games sample in the NHL season - moreso at the start of the year, when clubs are still ironing out kinks, trying out line combos, auditioning rookies, etc. As such, let's keep in mind that we probably haven't really seen the real team just yet.

With that in mind, the Flames have been...conflicted through the initial decade of contests. Some stats are outstanding (GF, PP) while other are downright lousy (SA, GA, PK). Time and regression will smooth out the peaks and valleys to some degree, but perhaps in the background there is a faint outline of what we can expect from the Flames going forward. Robert, Richard and I asked three questions each to see if we could better identify that outline.

Kent's questions:

1.) Ridiculous SH% aside, it looks like the depth players are going to be full value again this year. Excepting from Rene Bourque - who may be the star of the first 10 - which sub $2M player were you most impressed with?

R O: Dustin Boyd. He's been given middling responsibilities this year (weaker opposition, middle-of-the-pack in terms shift starting locations) and delivered with several games of consistent scoring chance generation.

Robert: Mark Giordano. He didn't look out of place as Bouwmeester's partner against top opposition, and if the Flames ever decide to move Sarich to free up cap space for a forward, I think the braintrust should take his good play into account.

2.) What's to be done with this Olli Jokinen?

R O: Jokinen's getting a bit jobbed by the bounces (shooting at a 5.7% clip) but he's not doing anything to help himself either (averaging 1.7 shots per game). He's an anchor but these ten games are probably rock bottom for him. Best case scenario is Sutter trading him for a servicable forward and a pick. Realistically I think (hope?) he won't be re-signed.

Robert: I can't really add much to Richard's assessment. He's here until the end of the year, and I hope he gets back to some sort of normal (3-ish shots a game, 10-12 SH%). He's still a lost cause in his own end, and I hope he doesn't play with Iginla, because those two are lethal together, and not in the good way.

3.) Thoughts on Aaron Johnson?

R O: He's only played two games for us so it's hard to say, but his PK work against the Oil did not impress me. On the first goal he was covering Penner in the slot. He then decided to abandon him to watch Gagner pass to Hemsky, and completely missed the backdoor. Granted it's not his responsibility to cover the backdoor but he didn't anticipate it at all, and if the pass had gone to Penner instead he wouldn't have been there either. And that cross-check to Jacques bugged me.

He's a bottom-pairing D and at the end of the day his mistakes probably won't cost us too many points. From an organizational viewpoint I'd prefer to play the D that we developed in-house (Pardy).

Robert: Anton Stralman is a better hockey player. So is Adam Pardy. Staffan Kronwall isn't any worse. He's more likely to play than Kyle Greentree was, so the trade is OK from that regard, but that doesn't make him all that useful. If he's nothing but injury insurance for the rest of the year, I'd be fine with it.

R O's questions:

1.) Among the defencemen, one player stands out as having had the toughest workload - toughest comp, worst zone starting shifts, and his shots for/against haven't been great. Among the forwards, one player has similarly been assigned the most work, and his shots for/against have also suffered.

The defenceman is Jay Bouwmeester, the forward Jarome Iginla. I sure have seen the former good and the latter bad. Your thoughts?

Robert: I'm of the opinion that Iginla suffers a bit when we assess him due to the halo effect of his earlier career. By that, I mean that we all remember him as the guy who smoked all comers up until 06/07, and killed decent comp in 07/08. At some point, we might have to accept that he can't do it alone any more. He's clearly struggled, but he's not in the prime of his career any more, and having a slipshod center like Jokinen did him no favours. He might be a guy that needs to play second lines to get going again. That's not likely to be the answer that people want to hear, but it happens to players as they age, and I'm not sure even having Langkow as his center would be a cure-all.

Bouwmeester's been OK. I try to keep in mind that he spent much of the early part of the year behind Jokinen/Iginla, and those two couldn't drive possession. If a team's top forwards aren't driving things, whoever plays behind them will have their SH for/against be the recipient of collateral damage.

Kent: I think Bouwmeester has been as good as advertised. His underlying numbers reflect playing against the big boys a lot, behind a forward group that couldn't handle the heavy lifting. As the Flames settle in and the match-ups get worked out, I think his stats will improve.

As for Jarome, his ability to win battles and make decisions with the puck in the offensive zone has been lacking. The play dies on his stick a lot right now because he skates into coverage or tries to force low percentage passes. His circumstances have stunk, but he's been part of the problem too.

2.) What are your thoughts on why the Flames struggled at EV out of the gate?

Robert: We're hard on Jokinen and Iginla, for good reason, but the second group hasn't gotten much going either, with the notable exception of Bourque. Langkow in particular hasn't looked quite right, and if your top six are struggling or in the case of Moss, hurt, you're likely hooped at EV. That's been the case. Throw in the fact that the team's number one shut down defender, Regher, looked like he was stuck in the mud for the first 7-8 games, and that about covers it. I don't think it's adjusting to the system or anything of that sort. The jury is still out, at least for me, on the line switches. If the Flames can get away with Jokinen playing third-level comp, I'd expect those EV numbers to come around pretty quickly.

Kent: As Bob suggests, I think it was mainly Sutter learning hard lessons about what sort of players he has. In Jersey, he rode Parise-Zajac-Langebrunner in a power versus power role at ES and clearly he thought he had similar weaponry in Iggy/Jokinen this season. Unfortunately, that's not the case, so the club suffered through his learning curve. In addition, with the break up of the Moss-Conroy-Glencross threesome, Calgary no longer boasts a third line that can drive possession in such an efficient manner. Conroy et al. were amongst the league leaders at moving the puck forward last year, which enabled the higher lines (particularly Jarome) to enjoy a whole lot of offensive zone draws.

3.) Do you notice any differences between the new coaching staff and the old coaching staff? Specifically in terms of ice time distribution as well as "systems" play (breakouts, forecheck, D zone coverage).

Robert: This system stuff makes me laugh a bit. It isn't magic out there. What might change between two coaching staffs could be the level of attention to detail, and what the consequences are for poor play. Sutter's been pretty good at rewarding good play from guys like Boyd, and hasn't played Joker/Iggy into the ground when they've been poor. That's what most of us would have liked from Keenan last year. He rewarded freelancing from his top players, as we all know, and I think the team suffered a bit for it. It's hard to expect discipline from people when you won't hold them accountable, and ice time is the one hammer a coach has in the modern game.

Kent: Aside from more blocked shots, I don't see any notable difference between the two coaches system wise. What is different, however, is Sutter's willingness to cede his assumptions to reality and make changes when the results demand them. That's in direct contrast to Keenan's "ride your favorites no matter what" strategy .

Robert's questions:

1) The Flames have a much tougher schedule in November, and Curtis McElhinney is likely to feature more prominently than he has to this point. If he falters, do the Flames simply play Kipper into the ground, call up Irving, or go outside the organization for help?

Kent: I think the Flames will bank on Kipper until he himself falters or gets injured. There isn't much out there right now, so I don't see a better option popping up anyways.

R O: I think they go outside the org. Maybe this is false hope but I know Sutter has the stones to fix a goaltending hole (e.g. getting Kipper in the first place as an alternative to Turek, getting CuJo in 07/08).

2) Dion Phaneuf has some pretty nice boxcar numbers. Is he actually playing better than in the past?

Kent: Phaneuf's offensive game looks the same as ever to me. His numbers are good because just about everything he sends at the net is going in right now. His defensive game has looked "quieter" than usual thus far, and I mean that as a good thing. I don't know if playing with Robyn Regehr (now that he's more like himself) against second tier competition has helped him or if it's a real turn around, but I guess we'll see.

R O: Agree with Kent on the offense. On the defense, I find it hard to come to conclusions because he's not accumulating a lot of minuses, and of course that's when we'll best remember his mistakes. I do know he's let his man go a few times (probably the worst instance being against Chicago) but every D does that.

3) Miikka Kiprusoff currently sports a .903 SV%, which is exactly how he finished last year. Is he playing to the same level?

Kent: I think Kiprusoff looks stronger at ES, which is supported by his .920 ES SV%. That said, I don't trust 10 game samples for judging goalies, because just about every tender in the NHL went through a couple of weeks of looking like an all-star (Kipper had his turn in February). I'm encouraged by his efforts thus far, but he'll have to continue indefinitely to convince me he's halted the decline.

R O: It depends on what theory you subscribe to. Last year he was worse at EV but better on the PK. One would intuit that PK goaltending is harder (and it is) but special teams analysis is like looking into a crystal ball. His EV number is a definite arrow in the right direction. His game still looks chaotic (e.g. he recovers from a save attempt at the speed of glass) but I trust the numbers - ten save percentage points is basically a goal every five games which I'm not sure any fan can pick up. That said, we are drawing a lot of conclusions from ten game-lines of data.