Opening week is in the books. Two losses and an overtime win. There's a multitude of reasons why it hasn't gone well this week, and while nobody is demanding scapegoats and sackings - we're only three games in - there's got to be something we can attribute it to.
We're all about fairness here though, and so we'll counter a negative with a positive.
Negative: Never earned, somehow still given
In an era where the mantra is "always earned, never given", there are some players out there whose selections continue to be beyond reason. Yes, I do mean Brandon Bollig.
Even ignoring "fancy stats", what is his point? He's getting roughly eight minutes a night, now on a line with Mikael Backlund, and his supposed "positive" attributes aren't coming into play. He's not being big and physical, he's not throwing hits, he's not giving the team energy. He's just there, and games are passing him by. Watch how many icing calls there are in a game where the puck has simply gone past Bollig and he's given it up.
I'm not saying he should get more minutes to prove his worth, I'm saying why is he in the team if he can't do his one job? When Josh Jooris is sitting, and Garnet Hathaway had a good pre-season, why is Bollig still in the side when he hasn't earned it?
Lance Bouma is another who has done very little to justify his selection this year - as his disappearance down the lines has shown (started on line two, ended on line four six days later). Hartley's (somewhat accurate) assumption that Bouma can only play well with Backlund has seen the Swede disappear down the lineup with him, with one of the Flames' main possession drivers from last season now playing "grit" line minutes. Is it really worth wasting Backlund's talents so far down the team just so Bouma can go "boom boom" and have someone covering for him?
The injury to Bouma is unfortunate, but it will give somebody a chance (such as the bewilderingly-scratched Jooris and the recalled Markus Granlund) to put their argument for playing across.
Positive: Surprising performers
Sam Bennett's been great, but we knew he would be. We knew the top line would come to play. We thought Michael Frolik would be pretty good, too.
Yet who expected Brett Kulak to look so much like an NHL player in just his third game? His performances, albeit in sheltered circumstances, have been fantastic, and he's succeeded where T.J. Brodie, Raphael Diaz and Ladislav Smid failed before them to make Engelland look like a decent third pairing D. Yes, you read that right, Deryk Engelland has looked steady and comfortable.
You'd think Kulak would make way when Brodie returns, but with the poor showings from Kris Russell thus far, coupled with Kulak's obvious ability, could mean it's Russell who makes way, and not the youngster.
Equally, on the forward line, who had Mason Raymond down to drive play and look an offensive threat again? He seems to be playing with vigour after being waived, trying to prove that he does belong. If he can keep it up, then the makings of some genuine secondary scoring could be there.
Negative: Overuse of players will tire them out.
On the subject of ice time, we're yet again seeing an over-reliance on Bob Hartley's "go-to" guys. Take the game against St. Louis as an example. Here's the TOI of the lineup:
|Flames TOI vs STL (data from nhl.com)|
|Defence||Mark Giordano||Dougie Hamilton||Kris Russell||Dennis Wideman||Brett Kulak||Deryk Engelland|
|OFF1+2||Johnny Gaudreau||Sean Monahan||Jiri Hudler||Mason Raymond||Sam Bennett||Michael Frolik|
|OFF3+4||Micheal Ferland||Matt Stajan||David Jones||Lance Bouma||Mikael Backlund||Brandon Bollig|
This probably looks fair to most people. The top defensive pairings have the most ice time, with the third pair taking the scraps. However, when the third pairing look arguably the most comfortable on the ice (yes, I am actually admitting to Deryk Engelland looking serviceable), what do you do then? Kris Russell has been shaky at best, lost at worst and is still getting more ice time than Mark Giordano. Granted, Dennis Wideman has come out firing to start the year, but his partner hasn't, and must be fearing the return of T.J. Brodie.
Look at the forwards. Again, the top line are superb, so you expect them to be on the ice the most, but all three over 21 minutes? Lance Bouma's ice time was restricted due to injury, but after that, I don't recall seeing Mikael Backlund on the ice. So one of the top defensive forwards missed pretty much an entire period because a player he manages to make look good wasn't there?
If this pattern keeps up, the entire team is going to suffer from burnout very quickly, just like they did in the playoffs. If Hartley trusts his players, which you'd assume he does if he's playing them, then he needs to trust them more to do more minutes. Would it really be that much of a problem if Sam Bennett (who has been superb) took a couple of minutes from Monahan? Hartley trusted him enough to play through the playoffs after just one regular season game, so he ought to trust him enough now to play a couple more minutes to ease the workload of a heavily-burdened top line.
Positive: The top line
They were always going to be the top performers in this side, but it's good that they've gotten out of the gate so quickly. Five of the Flames' seven goals have had Johnny Gaudreau's name attached to them, Jiri Hudler's two show he doesn't look like regressing from a career year just yet, while Monahan has played in all situations again, looking every bit the future captain I expect him to be. It's probably going to be hard to be able to keep all three come the end of the season, but for now, let's just enjoy what we have.
Negative: Penalty kill and defensive strategies
The blocked shots drum was banged all last season, and it now seems to have become the main tactic for defending in the Flames' own end. There are two examples in the game against St. Louis, in fact both of Colton Parayko's goals.
His first goal was on the powerplay. In the picture, you can see the vague look of a block attempt at the arrow, but all the players in the circle were screening Jonas Hiller. He never had a chance of seeing that shot because:
A) there was a Blues player standing right in front of him with nobody trying to clear him from the crease, and,
B) at least two of his own players were screening him from the shot, if not three, and another Blues player there as well.
I'm all for shot blocking if it works, but half-assed attempts don't cut the mustard. There's no actual attempt at shot suppression here, but as it was on the PK I'm willing to forgive it.
His second? Not so much.
Again, at the arrow there's a vague attempt at a hustle. The player is trying to close the shot down, to either stop it or block it. In that case, what are the three defenders in the circle doing? Russell and Wideman are standing, watching the play, a third Flame is in Wideman's line of sight, Hiller is being screened by the Blues player, and the entire defence is just so... passive. It's almost as if they've been told not to hustle, and that blocking shots will work. Well yes, it will work, if you actually make any attempt to block the shot.
As it is, everyone just got in the way.
The Blues game wasn't the only example though. Take the first goal conceded this season: Jannik Hansen's goal in Calgary.
It's easy to blame Engelland on this play, but I actually feel for him here. Look at the players in the circle. They're slowly skating into the zone and haven't covered back far enough to cover the passing lane. This leaves Engelland to try to do two jobs at once - he has to cover the lane AND try to suppress the shot. As it is, he ends up lying down, hoping to block a shot to the far post and stopping the pass going through. He's badly let down by his team mates on the goal, as he really can't do both, leaving Hansen to pick his spot (which Karri Ramo really should have had covered).
These are just small examples of how the Flames' D looks much more passive this year. They're not trying to stop shots, they're trying to deal with them. That's fine if your goalie is on a hot day, or your defence is doing its job of blocking shots, making life difficult for attackers, and breaking out - but the defence just isn't. Ramo had a poor game one, and Hiller was let down by his defence in game three. If the Flames are to be contenders this year, something has to change at the back.
Positive: Jonas Hiller
Negative: The goalie situation
Jonas Hiller is the best goalie the Flames have. Ramo makes more spectacular saves, and Hiller has his moments of madness, but over 60 minutes, Hiller will play a more solid game, and will bail you out more times than Ramo. Ramo gets his positioning often wrong, makes some bad judgement calls, and will concede more goals. I like Ramo, but he's not a starter.
Normally, this wouldn't be a problem, and he could be the backup, but Joni Ortio is currently twiddling his thumbs in the press box. He can't be sent down without being waived, so he should be the backup, as his development is going to stop if he isn't playing.
We should never have reached this point. If the Flames don't like Hiller, or think Ramo is a better prospect long term, then they should have shipped Hiller in the summer - cheaply if needed be. If that's not the case, and they trust Hiller, then they should never have re-signed Ramo. If they don't like or trust Ortio, they should ship him - but that would be madness.
Right now, it feels like they're playing a waiting game and seeing how good Jon Gillies is going to be in Stockton. Hiller and Ramo will both be UFAs come the summer, and if Gillies is ready by then, they might be fine with losing both and going with Ortio and Gillies. But in the meantime, Ortio is stewing and not playing in Calgary, Ramo didn't show he deserved to play in his one competitive game, and Hiller is clearly the starter the Flames need.
It's poor management of the situation. If they're willing to let one or both of Hiller and Ramo go in the summer, they should be looking to move them now, and getting some kind of return on the investment.
In the meantime, it's a big positive that Hiller isn't letting any of this affect him and is the personification of consistency. Which makes the decision to start Ramo in Winnipeg on Friday a head scratcher.
Positive: It's only early
We're only three games in. There's plenty of time to sort things out, figure out what works and what doesn't, and find a way to be involved. But if things aren't fixed, the Flames will miss out on the post-season party, which after having a brief taste at the end of last season, nobody wants to miss out on again.