I have managed to watch the vast majority of Calgary Flames games this season. Unfortunately, due to mountainous academic obligations (love the grad school) I have not had the time to write on the Flames, other than some fun conversations on the Twitter. I have had plenty of things to think about throughout the season, so here is a collection of random thoughts I have on the Flames, as we near the Holiday Break for the NHL.
*Note: This was written prior to Calgary’s glorious 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues.
1) Mike Smith has been exceptional this season. He has flat out won the team a handful of games already this season, which was something the Flames could not reliably count on throughout the past few seasons.
2) I was not a fan of Smith as the starting goalie target, but he has won me over. I did not feel optimistic about his recent play and figured there would be better options in the market, but as it turns out, Treliving looks to have made the right call here.
3) Despite Smith’s great play so far this season, he absolutely needs to play less games. The guy is 35 and has been injured many times in his career. He plays an aggressive game and if the Flames still have aspirations of going on a run in the playoffs, the coaching staff needs to do a better job managing his workload.
4) David Rittich could make it possible for the Flames to do this. Eddie Lack had a rough go of it throughout the pre-season and start of the year (as well as the recent years of his career). Lack was a low-cost, bad bet and it did not pay off. That is fine. Rittich is up now and looks like a stabilizing force behind Smith. Play him every 4 or 5 games, Smith cannot play 70 games and be at his best.
5) If you just look at Jaromir Jagr’s box score totals, they do not look very impressive (1 goal, 6 assists in 19 games). However, watching the games, you can see what an excellent player he still is. A career 13.6% shooter, he is currently sitting at 3.6%. I think we have a big enough sample size to know that he is a more productive shooter than that, even as the oldest player in the NHL.
6) Jagr is 45 and has a 54% CF. He finds ways to keep the puck in the opposition’s end. He wins all the puck battles. The top-9 should be left intact for the time being as its working the best it has all season, but he really is not being utilized properly by being left on the 4th line with Matt Stajan and Troy Brouwer. In the game against the Canucks, he set them up for golden opportunities twice and they completely whiffed on their chances.
7) I am stoked that things turned around for Sam Bennett. I have been higher on him than most throughout the past couple of years, but I was starting to have some serious doubts by the time game 15 had rolled around, he had zero points and was creating nothing. I am glad I stayed off the trade Bennett train, as he is starting to look like the dominant NHLer we all hoped he would become one day. The trick now is to see if he can maintain this level of success on a consistent basis.
8) The Bennett-Jankowski-Hathaway line is really fun and they have been really successful together in the handful of games they have played so far. If they can keep it up, the Flames have the luxury of being able to roll 3 lines of serious offensive threats up front.
9) It is baffling how in year 3 of Dougie Hamilton’s time in Calgary, he is still dramatically under-utilized. He is the most talented offensive defenseman on the team, but he continues to get the scraps of powerplay minutes. Gulutzan refuses to play him at 3-on-3. I truly do not get it.
10) I think Matthew Tkachuk is my favourite player in the NHL. He is a phenomenal agitator for still being a kid. He makes grown men so upset with ease. He is also incredibly talented. He is one of the best possession players in the entire league and is also putting up solid offensive totals. He is shooting the puck a lot more this season, which really helps because he has a great release.
11) I have been really enjoying seeing Brett Kulak on a regular basis since Gulutzan finally gave up the dream of Matt Bartkowski being an NHL regular. He is not a huge threat in the offensive end, but he is really good at moving the puck out of the zone and up ice, which has made Michael Stone much less of a liability.
12) Speaking of Michael Stone, he has 3 points in 34 games and is not breaking even in shot-attempts at even-strength. As Tyler Dellow of the Athletic pointed out, Stone has been one of the most sheltered defensemen in the league. Seems like a whole lot of nothing for a guy who is being paid $3.5 million for the next 2 seasons after this one.
13) Especially when the Flames have such an excellent prospect seemingly ready to go in the AHL. Rasmus Andersson is having a phenomenal start to the season with Stockton. He had 16 points in 22 games and is playing big minutes. If he is not already ready to make the jump, it should not take long for that to happen.
14) Dillon Dube has made Canada’s World Junior Team for the second straight year and it looks as if he is going to be put in a position to play in a scoring role and receive powerplay minutes. It is a great opportunity for a player who is extremely versatile, to show his offensive ability.
15) Dube already has 18 goals in just 27 games this year. Last year he had 20 in 40 games. He keeps improving. It seems inevitable that one day he will be playing for the Flames in some sort of middle-six role. A nice get as a result of moving on from Kris Russell.
16) Sean Monahan’s production has quieted down the last few games, but seriously, what a start to the year for him. He has an unreal shot and gets to the areas around the net to pick up goals. Even with his recent goal drought, he is still on pace to score about 40 goals.
17) Another promising factor alongside his offensive production, is that for the first time in his career, he is seriously moving the possession needle in a positive way. As of Tuesday, he was sitting at a 55.1% CF, about 5% higher than his previous career high.
18) 18 points in, it is time to talk about Johnny Gaudreau. He is fantastic and we are unworthy. We must find Johnny a Calgary Wife so that he never leaves this team.
19) Seriously, Gaudreau has been incredible to watch. Alongside Monahan, he kept this team afloat for the majority of the start of the season until other players started figuring out how to find the back of the net. As of December 18, 2017, he was tied for 4th in NHL scoring at 40 points. He is on pace for 97 points, which would obliterate his previous career high of 78 in 79 games, in the 2015-16 season.
20) The fact that NHL referees finally started to call slashing penalties again was a huge difference maker. Gaudreau is able to enter the zone with a controlled entry virtually whenever he wants. He can effectively attack the middle of the ice and either get a scoring chance or draw a penalty. He is thriving and we are lucky to be watching one of the most skilled players in the NHL on a nightly basis.
21) Speaking of skilled players, Mark Giordano is still Mark Giordano. He produces offensively, plays the toughest minutes and is currently sitting at a whopping 57% CF, nearly halfway through the season. That is absolutely incredible, especially considering that he is 34-years-old. I know there was some consternation about how the backend of his 6-year-deal would pan out, but he is so talented and smart a player that I think it is reasonable to believe that he will age gracefully. What a player.
22) Another reason we should not be so concerned about Giordano’s contract, besides the increase in the Salary Cap each season, is the Flames amazing group of defensive prospects. Rasmus Andersson has already been discussed, but Oliver Kylington and Juuso Valimaki are both having terrific seasons themselves. While Adam Fox has not had as productive a start to the season as he did last year at Harvard, it really is not a cause for concern at this point. I do not agree with everything Treliving has done, but under his watch, the Flames have done an excellent job acquiring defensemen.
23) Curtis Lazar is not an NHLer. It still boggles my mind why the Flames thought he was worth a second-round pick. He never produced like a first round pick when he was in junior. He was never effective at the NHL level with the Ottawa Senators. Shockingly, he is completely ineffective at the NHL level with the Calgary Flames. He has no goals in 24 games and the only players that have worse relative possession stats than him is Tanner Glass, Matt Bartkowski and Freddie Hamilton.
24) It was an ill-advised move to acquire him and the Flames should cut bait rather than perpetuate this experiment. Some think of him as “Young Curt Lazar”, but the fact of the matter is, he was drafted the same year as Sean Monahan. He really is not that young and he has not proven anything to suggest that there is a bright future coming down the line from him.
25) Marek Hrivik, Andrew Mangiapane and Morgan Klimchuk are all having strong seasons in the AHL and I think it is completely reasonable to believe that any of them would fare better in the NHL than Lazar. They would probably fare better than Troy Brouwer, Freddie Hamilton and Matt Stajan too, but I digress. I can see an argument for keeping Mangiapane in the AHL, he is young, producing and it does not serve him well to play a depth role with the Flames at this point. But Marek Hrivik is 26, a reliable player and producing at over a point-a-game in the AHL. That seems like the exact sort of player worthwhile to bring up and be given a shot. I really think it is important to optimize every spot on the roster and the Flames have not done that this season.
26) It is really cool to see Mark Jankowski getting the job done in the NHL. For such a strange draft pick and the whole gong show surrounding it, he has turned out to be a pretty damn good player. He is on the Blake Wheeler career path, where nothing happens on a normal timeline, but the patience for the player is really paying off and he is still improving on a weekly basis. His chemistry with Sam Bennett is really starting to shine through. He has a heck of a shot.
27) If I had time to write earlier in the season, I would have written about how bad T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic have been as a pair. Happily enough, by the time I have actually been able to get to writing this, they seem to have sorted out a lot of their struggles. This is promising, as the Flames were getting shelled earlier in the season when Giordano and Hamilton were not on the ice.
28) I really like Hamonic as a person and there are some really nice aspects to his game, so if he can keep up his stable play, that would be huge for the Flames. It is really nice that the Flames can send out 3 solid pairings at this time.
29) I find the hate for Glen Gulutzan so perplexing. The team has a rough game and social media is flooded with “Fire Gulutzan” “this coach is so bad” and the like. I truly believe he has done a remarkable job with this team. When they are on, they play with great structure and can go head to head with any team in the league. His personnel decisions are not always great and that is probably my biggest criticism of him, but systems wise he is a really good coach. I cannot help but laugh when people fondly reminisce about Bob Hartley, whose coaching provided no tangible structure.
30) It is pretty crazy to me that Hockey Canada would not even give Matthew Phillips an invite to their World Junior Camp. Sure, he is a small player, but the dude has 53 points in 36 games. One of the most productive players in the WHL. Some of the guys that made Team Canada are just at a point-a-game. The size bias continues.
31) Another season of Mikael Backlund being Mr. Everything for the Calgary Flames. Despite a really low PDO (95.7), he still has 19 points in 34 games. He is sitting at a 56.8% CF despite being buried in offensive-zone starts and playing the tough competition. I really do not care what it takes, Treliving needs to sign Backlund to an extension before July 1st. He is completely irreplaceable to this team, the Flames have nobody in their organization who could even remotely fill his skates should he move on.
32) As it stands, the Flames are on the playoff bubble, just 1 point out of a playoff spot. Between the tough start to the season and a run of being incredibly unlucky of late, they are still in a pretty good spot and if they can keep up their solid play, they should be a playoff team.
33) The LA Kings are for real and are 9 points ahead of the Flames. I don’t think Calgary will catch them at this point. However, the San Jose Sharks are only 1 point ahead and the Vegas Golden Knights are 7 points ahead. I do not buy into the “Vegas is for real” school of thought. I don’t think they’ll be there at the end of the season. Second in the Pacific is something the Flames have a real shot at if they can keep their current play going.
34) I think this is the best roster the Flames have had since I began following the team in 2003. They have incredible high end forward talent, one of the best 2-way lines in the league, strong depth on defense and are actually getting goaltending. For all the frustration that has occurred at various ongoing events this season, I think this team has really bright potential and I am optimistic about what they can accomplish should they keep this level of play going as we move into the second half of the season. They certainly are a fun and intriguing group to watch.