Hockey

It’s been a stuttering season for the Flames, who only recently rejoined the playoff spots in the Pacific when that should have been an automatic before the season. They also had to deal with the little side-story of their coach turning out to be a racist gasbag and moving on from him in the middle of the season and suddenly. And that’s certainly helped them.

But this team has had trouble scoring, and a big reason is their first line just hasn’t been very good so far this year. And that starts with Johnny Gaudreau.

Playing Calgary doesn’t lend itself to immense popularity or awareness, given that it’s where Canada goes to ranch and shovel horseshit. So you might not realize that Gaudreau put up 99 points for the team that did amass the most points in the West last year. That came after he racked up 84 the season before, and established himself as the main scoring threat for what was considered a young and exciting team ready to establish itself around the championship picture for a bit.

Hasn’t been nearly as rosy this year. Johnny Hockey only has 30 points in 41 games, and metrically it’s a much uglier picture. He and running buddy Sean Monahan have been getting run over possession-wise all season, with a 45.9 xG% and an in-the-red Corsi number. They used to regularly be in the mid-50s in both categories once they started playing together.

Individually, Monahan has seen drops across the board. His shots are down from the past two seasons per game, as are his attempts. The tempting thing to do is to point to the cratered SH% and blame that for all his scoring woes, but it’s not that simple. Gaudreau simply isn’t getting the chances he used to. His expected-goal individually is down, and his scoring-chances and high-danger scoring-chances per game are way down. Quite simple, Gaudreau isn’t getting anywhere near the net.

Gaudreau is also taking far more penalties than before and not generating as many takeaways. Some of this is a product of not having the puck as much. But it also suggests a player who’s not working as hard as he used to. Gaudreau’s outrageous skill-level will cover a multitude of sins, and he can look like he’s taking it easy out there when it is just that easy for him. But this has gone a little beyond that, and it hasn’t abated with the coaching change.

There were even whispers in the Calgary media earlier in the year about the Flames seeing what the market would be for Gaudreau, which is probably patently ridiculous. This is an elite-level scorer at just 26 and signed for a reasonable $6.7M for the next two years, given that he can give you 90 points in a season or more. But still, something is off here.

The Flames have too many pieces in place to consider moving Gaudreau, which would constitute something of a restructuring. The defense is a touch old and Rasmus Andersson or Oliver Kylington haven’t really shown they’re going to take over for Mark Giordano as he declines, and maybe that’s the fear. Maybe it’s just one of those year. But Gaudreau is the type of player you’d struggle to ever get equal value for in a trade, especially with that contract.

Gaudreau can start a turnaround by getting to the middle of the ice more instead of his current Getzlaf-impression. The Flames hold the last wildcard spot and you’d think they’re going to have to fight off the Preds for it, as well as some others. But the Coyotes should make for easy catching, as well as the Oilers in their own division. They can do that if Johnny Hockey comes back, instead of this Johnny Floaty that he’s been.

Hockey

Did you forget that the Flames finished with the best record in the West last year? You probably did, because if you cut a loud fart and winced you missed their playoff appearance. They were done in five games against the Avs, as they watched Nathan MacKinnon do a full Cirque de Fuck You and were helpless to stop him. They even got a good playoff performance from Mike Smith, which didn’t matter because Mac K was taking 40 shots per game just by himself. Will it get better this season? Let’s find out…

2018-2019

50-25-7  107 points (1st in Pacific, lost in 1st round)

3.52 GF/G (3rd)  2.72 GA/G (9th)  +66 GD

53.9 CF% (5th)  53.2 xGF% (7th)

19,3 PP% (18th)  79.7 PK% (21st)

Goalies: After a season where the fans were clamoring for “Big Save” Dave Rittich to take over for Mike Smith, he eventually did and wasn’t really all that impressive. That left the door open for Smith to take the playoff starts, which went well for him but not the team. This time around, the Flames will give the job to Rittich full-time and hope his career .909 in 66 career games are just a starting point and not an indication of what he is. At 27, one wonders how much room there is for growth, and if this is his prime, it might not be enough to take Blasty through multiple rounds in the spring. Given the way Bill Peters teams play though, it can probably get them through the regular season.

The interesting card here is Cam Talbot, who will start as the backup. Talbot simply died of exhaustion in Edmonton, getting 73 and 67 starts in successive seasons before coughing out most of his organs the past two seasons. But it was only two seasons ago that Talbot was putting up .919s and .924s with the Oilers, and possibly with spot starts at the beginning of the season he can rediscover some type of that form. He could be just cooked, but he’s worth the risk as a backup and safety net.

If neither work out, the Flames will definitely be in the market for a goalie at the trade deadline, or pray to God that Tyler Parsons lights up the AHL and can be rushed up to Alberta. But that would be the height of desperation, and even their ability to get anyone at the deadline is going to be complicated with their cap situation.

Defense: This seemed like the strength of the Flames all season…and then MacKinnon burst through the walls and declared he was here to fuck shit up before flipping over the whole buffet and draining the keg himself. And now the Flames appear to just be running it back.

They have to do that, because the plan was to introduce Juuso Valimaki into the lineup, but his knee when blooey while training in Finland in August and now the Flames are fucked without the customary enjoyment. The only hope for change is continued growth from Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington, which they actually should get. If one or both can start to take on second pairing responsibility, the Flames should be ok.

Maybe. Because even though Mark Giordano put up a Norris campaign, he was nowhere near the Avs top line in that first round immolation. It looked exactly like when Joakim Noah won Defensive Player Of The Year with the Bulls and then spent the playoffs getting his neck stepped on by Nene (now let’s all picture MacKinnon with Nene’s dreads). Gio is 35 now and if the spring was some kind of signal of a tumbledown the hill, the Flames could be in serious trouble. And it can happen fast. Ask Duncan Keith. Gio has already proven he’s dragged around TJ Brodie to any kind of competence, and if he can’t do that anymore then this unit could be in serious trouble.

Forwards: The big question is when, and possibly if, Matthew Tkachuk is going to rejoin the fray, as he’s still unsigned. More and more RFAs seem to be coming into the fold, but it’s now crunch time to get him in before the season.

Without him, this outfit is even more top-heavy than it already was. There’s Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan at the top, and Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik on that unique checking/scoring line, but that’s about it. Elias Lindholm can join either, and put up 78 points at 23. They’ll need Dillon Dube to show a lot more than he did in his first toe-dipping at the top level. We’re talking about a team that took Milan Lucic on, so you know there are major holes in the bottom six. Which only get larger if someone has to rise up to replace Tkachuk. And if he’s anything like his dad–and he’s everything like his dad–he’s going to go into the tank as soon as the ink is dry on the new paper (or more accurately, demand his bathtub of chicken wings in the dressing room).

They’re short up top, but in Gaudreau and Monahan and a hopefully not-blob-like Tkachuk can mostly outscore it.

Prediction: Lucky for the Flames, the division still blows. San Jose and Vegas will be good, but they can harvest on Vancouver, EdMo, LA, Anaheim, and Arizona enough to comfortably remain in the top three. You could squint and see where if Giordano is stumbling through a quick decline, and Rittich isn’t up for it, and Tkachuk never matches last year, it could be a disaster. All of that is possible, but I wouldn’t bet on likely. 107 points again seems a bit beyond them, but a comfortable 98-100 is probably still on the table, given that Peters always has his teams getting more chances than they give up. And in Calgary, unlike his Carolina days, he has the horses to finish them. But this team needs or needed one more half-step to truly become a power. Maybe it was Valimaki. Maybe it’s another goalie. Maybe it’s a player from nowhere. It doesn’t feel like they got it.

 

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

New Jersey

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia 

Pittsburgh

Washington

Boston

Buffalo

Detroit

Florida

Montreal

Ottawa

Tampa Bay

Toronto

Arizona

Everything Else

It would seem odd that the Flames would want to detract from the strength of their team, which is their blue line. However, with $14M in cap space, and a now very expensive Garbage Son Tkachuk to re-sign, the Flames might be looking to jettison either Travis Hamonic or TJ Brodie to make room. Especially with Oliver Kylington and Rasmus Andersson both up next year and big parts of the future, if everything works out. There have been rumors the Flames are kicking the tires on what they can get for each. And because they’re looking only to get rid of money, they’re probably a little more open to just getting picks and/or prospects back and not too worried about something that can go straight on the roster.

We’ll start with TJ Brodie. Seemingly he is more of what the Hawks need than say Ryan Murray or Jacob Trouba. He has feet, can push the play, and is left-handed. Generally though he has preferred to play the right side, as he did all of last year being paired with likely Norris winner Mark Giordano.

And that’s the rub with Brodie. It’s kind of hard to know what he is because generally, he’s sucked when away from Mark Giordano and been really good with him. So yeah, his metrics from this year are pretty glittering, when he was paired with #5 all season. The season previous, when it was Dougie Hamilton with Giordano and Brodie with Hamonic, very much less glittering. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2015-2016 to find the last season Brodie had where he was above the team-rate in possession and expected goals, and wouldn’t you know it that was the last season previous to this one where he was paired with Giordano for most of it.

I hate to break this to you, but there’s no Mark Giordano here. The Hawks might think there is, they might even think that Duncan Keith is still Mark Giordano, but he’s not. Now, perhaps Keith can claw back some of his faded glory with a mobile partner who can clean up the greater amount of messes he leaves around these days, and Brodie is certainly mobile. But Brodie hasn’t responded well to doing most of the puck-carrying in the past, when paired with Hamonic or Big Money Wides, as he was in the past. Keith doesn’t really handle the puck up the ice, or at least shouldn’t, preferring to try and make plays happen at the line still (which he can’t do nearly as well but we’ve had that talk). So Brodie is an odd fit.

Hamonic is clearly a different player. Much more stationary, much more the road grater, and even more of what the Hawks probably don’t need. He had a much improved season last year in Calgary, but he still was behind the team-rate in the metrics we look at. He was paired with Noah Hanifin, who everyone agreed has a very rough season in Alberta, but Hanifin’s numbers improve away from Hamonic, so you deal with that. Hamonic’s metrics are always going to suffer because he’s been used in the defensive zone the most of any team he’s been on for the most part, and he’s not a puck-mover. Neither is Hanifin, but Brodie was supposed to be in ’17-’18 and that didn’t go well for anybody. Then again, the Flames were coached by a moron then in Glengarry Glenn Galutzan, but Hamonic has been around now for a while and we know what he is.

If you could put a left-sided puck-mover with Hamonic, it’s just crazy enough to work. Again, the Hawks might think that’s Keith, and Hamonic would be an improvement on Seabrook in that area, but that’s also a pairing asking for a ton of trouble. He’d be the perfect partner for Gusatfsson if Gus actually had feet, which he does not. He’s basically slower Connor Murphy, which the Hawks don’t need.

Still, there are appeals. One, both are on the last year of their deals and neither are very expensive. Brodie clocks in at $4.6M and Hamonic at $3.8M. Given their contact status, and age, they really wouldn’t be that expensive in a trade. Maybe a lower round pick and a non-Boqvist prospect is enough to get it done. Then you get a year to see what it looks like, if you’re not really planning on doing much this year anyway (which the Hawks still might be), and if it doesn’t work you send them on their way with the cap space in tow.

But again, these are middle of the road moves that don’t address the top of the roster which needs addressing. The Hawks don’t have the pieces that would help Brodie or Hamonic maximize their usefulness, which is now why I totally expect this to happen.

Everything Else

How do you say goodbye to something you barely knew was there?

Sure, Calgary was the West’s #1 seed, and you probably treat that revelation with an, ‘Oh…riiiight,” response. You knew it, somewhere in the back of your mind, and then forgot it, much like whether or not there was cream cheese in the fridge. You’re just as likely to buy more and then come home to realize you have even more cream cheese you’re probably not ever going to get to. And that’s the Flames. They’re in the fridge, but you always forget, and they’re just in the door until they go green.

Honestly, Calgary is the Canadian team that makes up the numbers. They’re not hilariously run and bad like the Senators or Canucks or Oilers. Their fans don’t make the spectacle of themselves that Toronto’s or Winnipeg’s do. They’re not constantly crying for attention and think they invented the sport like Montreal. They’re just there, kicking the horseshit around their town and not really bothered. Oh sure, they’ll have an arena debate every few months just to remind everyone they’re still alive and maybe act like a big boy. But that’s about it.

Oh, how they tried to make their goalie failures everyone’s problem. But they didn’t do it as well as San Jose, and everyone was like, “No, we already have a contender with no goalie in the fridge, thanks.” They tried to claim that Matthew Tkachuk’s upcoming restricted free agency was a real problem, but the Leafs had that market cornered. And they tried to tell you how good Sean Monahan was…until he died right before the first round. Sky point. So they’re left to try and scream about how Mikael Backlund is the most underrated player in the league, and you look at people spending time talking about Mikael Backlund and you can’t help but wonder who hurt them in life.

There was the Mark Giordano Lifetime Appreciation Tour, and his fellow Norris finalists all might be done in the first round. It’s a cursed award. They retired Jarome Iginla’s number. It was an emotional night for those in Calgary to praise their team’s greatest ever player and an emotional night for everyone outside of Calgary how such a gift of a player could toil in a city that was such an afterthought for so long. Connor McDavid watched the ceremony and wept, knowing there was no way his career would go any differently. And he probably won’t even get a couple gold medals to make it better. Enjoy that trade to Carolina when you’re 35, Run CMD. But that’s not why you called.

The Flames were actually entertaining for a while. They spent the first part of the year just not playing defense, and then wondering why Mike Smith couldn’t bail them out. Recurring theme with Bill Peters teams. Then they seemed to figure it out with either Big Save Dave or Smith, except the former went back to being a goalie you’d never heard of and Mike Smith was Mike Smith.

Then Peters, in his first playoff series as coach, showed up with a plan that consisted of, “Uh, do some shit?” It didn’t contain any notes on how to contain Nathan MacKinnon, who proceeded to mirror Nene when he made Joakim Noah’s Defensive Player Of The Year Award look like the dumbest possible decision in NBA history. Nene! You go ahead and accept that Norris there, Gio, though some one is going to have to hold it for you while you’re in the burn unit. Also, Nate went that way.

Of course, the most interesting thing about the Flames was that after all the kvetching about Smith or from Smith, he was clearly the Flames best player in the 1st round. Perhaps they were just too surprised and kept letting the Avs through to barrage Smith to make sure what they were seeing was real. “No, this can’t be right, not after the last six months. Here, J.T., why don’t you go on through and try again and we’ll sort this out.”

Peters answer for all this was…well, we’re still waiting for an answer. Always has to be encouraging for a team and organization when your coach throws his hands in the air right after his team is eliminated when asked what happened. It’s not like his job to know or anything. This is exclusive to hockey coaches. Imagine an NBA coach trying this. Steven A. Smith would turn puce. But hey, Bill is a good Canadian boy so it can’t be his fault he doesn’t know. Hockey’s weird!

What happened was his defense is slow, and while his top six is quick, it’s not MacKinnon quick. And Monahan died. Other than that, everything is fine.

And this is the team they’ll basically have going forward, partially thanks to James Neal having four years left on his deal. Stationary shooters age so well in a speeding-up league, it’s a wonder this didn’t work. Tkachuk will gobble up most of the space, and if he’s anything like his old man will spend the rest of the time gobbling up whatever is on the table in front of him. The Dreaded Laramie is going to become The Bloated Laramie.

So toodles, Flames. You were here, I guess. No one’s sure why. And you still will be in the seasons to come. And no one will know why then, either. It’s the role you play. Sadly, you’re basically the Oilers or Islanders but only a quarter of the faded glory. Nice threads, though. You’ll always have the Oilers to laugh at, and the Canucks, in your weird little Western Canada cabal. It’s probably going to suck when Seattle comes in and is immediately better than all of you. Probably should have done something anyone can remember. Maybe you can get Daymon Langkow to punch Iggy on his lawn again.

Everything Else

We’re getting to the business end of the 1st round, and thankfully most of the bullshit and cock-holding has started to fade a bit. Some things will get decided this weekend, so it’s time to focus on what really matters. Here’s where we stand.

Toronto vs. Boston (2-2)

You hear less moaning and whining from Toronto now that Tampa won’t be waiting in the second round after spending a week filing their nails, as we all thought would happen. Still, you can easily see a scenario where the Leafs finally vanquish the Bruins, are overjoyed with their first series win since the Model-T was in fashion, and then get atom-smashed by the Jackets in four or five games. I’m almost kind of hoping this happens.

Anyway, this series has been as close as 2-2 would suggest and neither really finding anything to exploit on the other. The Bs really kicked around the Leafs in Game 2, and the Leafs kind of did in Game 4 without getting the result. Sometimes the other guys makes 38 saves.

For the most part, whether home or road, Patrice Bergeron has been matched up with John Tavares, and has gotten just this side the better. You wouldn’t expect that to change tonight in Boston. And much the same, the Matthews-Krejci matchup has been a standstill, though if you had to bet Matthews is the slightly better bet to pop off. But where this might get decided is the Bruins bottom-six has been getting devoured possession and chance-wise by Toronto’s, and if Nazem Kadri weren’t a galactic moron he’d be odds-on to make that count instead of his replacements. Still, that’s what I’d watch for the next two or three.

Avalanche vs. Flames (Avs 3-1)

This one doesn’t take much science. The Flames don’t have an answer for Nathan MacKinnon, even though by some miracle the goaltending has essentially been equal. It’s just that Mike Smith has faced 108 shots the past two games. Giordano and Brodie are getting blistered, and I can’t talk about what’s happening to Hamonic and Hanifin without asking any children in the room to leave.

On the other side, Sean Monahan hasn’t come close to answering what MacKinnon’s line is doing, and if that continues the Flames here are toast. Bill Peters, or Pill Beters if you prefer, at home tonight has to get Backlund out against MacK every chance he gets. Yes, Backlund had a nightmare end to Game 4, but he’s still one of the best checking centers in the league and there doesn’t seem to be much option. Still, no one on the Flames is carrying an xGF% over 45% except Tkachuk. That’s a big one, that’s a bad one.

Stars vs. Predators (tied 2-2)

If you haven’t watched this one, good for you. It’s been like watching the DMV. The Stars have turned into Trotz Ultra, and the Predators don’t really have the firepower to easily get through it. They play just enough defense to usually be ok, except when they don’t bother to show up as they did in Game 4. With Bishop and Rinne, and the way the Stars play this, the margins are awfully thin and this one could easily be decided by something hitting someone’s ass and going in. Just don’t cut time out for it, you’ve got better things to do.

Blues vs. Jets (Blues lead 3-2)

It’s rare you see a team try and out-Blues the Blues, but we live in strange times. The Jets, who I’m convinced have been trying to get Paul Maurice fired since November, had it in their hands last night. Up two goals at home and the Blues really doing nothing. But because they stopped playing defense long ago in that attempt to get their coach canned, they let them back into it. Also having an aging and even more-uncaring Byfuglien out there will lead to messes on the rug, evidenced by Oskar Sundqvist walking around him like he was roped off by caution tape for the equalizer last night. Jacob Trouba seems intent on costing himself money by the day, and the Jets are a mess.

This is still the Blues though, who also had the series in their hands and then kept tossing Colton Parayko at Mark Scheifele. This has truly been the debate of Mooseylvania, where each keeps pushing the the win back toward each other.

Hurricanes vs. Capitals (2-2)

It’s funny, but basically the Canes have kicked the crap out of the Capitals for most of this series and can’t seem to solve Holtby. only Game 4 was close in terms of possession or expected goals, and the Canes carried a 57% share in that one anyway. Again, as we’ve said with the Canes for years now, as fun as they are and as much right as they do, the lack of premier firepower is costing them. With it, and this one might already be over.

Still, it’s the former champs and you’d trust Braden Holtby more than Petr Mrazek, even though Mrazek has been good for months now. The Canes have to continue to dominate possession to make up for the snipers they don’t have, stay out of the box, and they can pull the upset. Oshie is going to be a big miss here, because his kind of finishing is the difference between these teams. Without him, that difference becomes smaller. And you know Aho is going to go off in one of these games.

Sharks vs. Knights (Vegas leads 3-2)

This one’s simple enough. When the Sharks get any saves whatsoever, they win. When they don’t, they don’t. They haven’t been outclassed or dominated for any stretch here other than maybe Game 3, but in the middle three games whatever chances the Knights got went in and the Sharks were always chasing. Jones played well last night, the Sharks won relatively easily, but that was also the case in Game 1 and then he went to the zoo for three games. There’s no margin for error now. Fleury has only been ok in this series, but he’s only had to be ok. Vlasic’s return also clearly makes a difference.

You’ll know by the 1st period on Sunday if this one’s over or not. If Jones hasn’t crapped out a chicken, the Sharks have every chance to get it back to Cali for a Game 7. If he has, pack up the cats.

Everything Else

These could be the most NHL playoff-iest of the NHL playoffs. One division winner, THE division winner, was kneecapped in four games. One is trailing 3-1. The Predators laid an egg big enough last night to feed a few villages. Even the Caps are somewhat lucky to be up 2-1 on the Canes, and were just trucked to the tune of managing all of two shots in the final 40 minutes. If you love an underdog, this is for you. Even the Islanders, though the higher-seed, were probably not the bookies’ favorite heading into that series. That’s what some people love about the NHL Playoffs, though it doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. Last year, the chalk pretty much won every first round series, and arguably every second round series. Even if the Caps getting by the Penguins was a surprise simply because of history and the connotations of the two in our heads, they were the higher seed.

But still, while we can debate whether the actual results are good or prove anything at all or if they render the regular season even more meaningless than we thought, the undercurrent here is that the two results in the books and one or two others on the cards have been a result of negative, boring-ass hockey. Barry Trotz teams are successful, they are not entertaining. The Nassau Coliseum (where they come to see ’em) might make it seem like they are, but you sat through enough Predators games in the day to know. I don’t expect or want Isles fans to care. The rest of us can, though.

The Jackets aren’t quite the same bore, as they at least turned their trap up to 11 and moved it up the ice, but it was still a trap. The results were stunning and enough to convince you the process was actually lively, but believe me it wasn’t. The Stars, giving the Preds everything they want and more, are possibly playing the most boring and conservative style still left, and will happily tell you so.

It’s sports, not television, and no team is under any obligation to do anything other than what’s best for their team. That’s all their fans care. But I can care, and I do, because I’m not invested thanks to whatever it is they do on Madison St. these days.

Which is why the best series to watch, and despite all the scary undertones for Hawks fans, has been the Avalanche’s utter destruction of the Flames the past two games. Oh sure, last night’s game went to OT, and if not for Phillip Grubauer’s spot-on Cristobal Huet ’09 impression, the Flames walk out of Denver with a tied series and home-ice back. They also gave up 52 shots, 45 at even-strength. That’s betting your ass kicked. More so when it’s the second straight game they’ve surrendered 50+ shots.

And the Avs have gone the opposite way of the Isles or Jackets. They’ve just turned everyone loose, seeing a kind of slow Calgary defense beyond the top pair. And they don’t have to worry about the top pair, because Nathan MacKinnon has ground their bones to make his bread all series. Whereas the Jackets didn’t bust over 25 shots at evens until Game 4, the Avs have done it the past three games and by some distance. They have a goalie playing well, so they’re not too concerned about needing him from time to time, and have bet that if they turn up the heat on every game, the Flames can’t hang. And they haven’t been able to.

They even took their defenseman out of college, Cale Makar, and figured by replacing Samuel Girard with him they could even play faster. He played 20 minutes last night. They don’t care about his age or experience, he just helps them do what they want to do.

After a season of a jump in offense, goals, and overall fun, it stood to reason there would be a group of coaches looking to snuff that out when things got important. It’s how this always goes, and that’s not exclusive to hockey. Look at the last Super Bowl for evidence of that.

Sure, it portends to a future of the Avs pounding on whatever process the Hawks come up with in the next few years, but that’s life. Perhaps the reputations that Trotz and Tortorella have to uphold play a part, whereas Jared Bednar doesn’t have one yet. But rare is the coach who shows up in the playoffs and says, “We can go faster.” Rare is the NHL coach who has no compunction about tossing a 20-year-old into the playoffs when he was in college last week, no matter how special the prospect he is.

Mostly, Bednar has not coached out of fear of what might happen to them, but out of expectation what could happen for them. That is refreshing, and the kind of thing that should be rewarded. I may hate Vegas, and I do, but that’s a speed of series we should probably all want to catch.

Until they run into Trotz, of course.

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE

Game 1 in Calgary tonight, 9pm

Game 2 in Calgary Saturday, 9:30

Game 3 in Denver Monday, 9pm

Game 4 in Denver Wednesday, 9pm

At the top, this one seems the most cut and dried of the West. Then again, we said that about the Jackets and Lightning, and even though that might still turn out that way after a blip, this is hockey after all and rarely does anything work out as it appears it should. It is the unruly toddler of sports. And the Flames have the one crack that can make any series turn goofy, and that’s goaltending, or lack thereof. The Avalanche’s time is next year and beyond, but are certainly good enough to walk through the door if Mike Smith keeps opening it and kicking them in the direction. Our last preview, let’s go.

Goalies: Phillip Grubauer was pulling a mini-Jake Allen for the first half of the season, as the Avalanche wanted him to have the job but he just wouldn’t take it. He and Semyon Varlamov were kind of Duck-Season-Rabbit-Season’ing it for the schedule’s first half. And then right about the time the Avs ruined the Hawks playoff hopes the first time, Grubauer finally relented and accepted, and he’s been brilliant ever since. A .955 in March would certainly qualify as that.

The problem for Grubs is he’s been here before, a year ago exactly in DC. And he hacked up a hairball, Braden Holtby took over, and you know the rest. Maybe that experience steels him for this. But until you do it in the postseason, everyone’s going to ask if you’re the guy or not. So he’s got some history to shed.

The history Mike Smith has to shed is much more recent, and much worse. He’s been a bitchy, wandering suckbag most of the season, and that’s when he could be bothered to actually be in the net. And the leash will be short, which probably will only make him even more of a malcontent. Considering how hard the Avs forecheck, he’s going to fuck up with the puck once in the first two games, but of course it won’t be his fault. This is the first team Smith has played on that mattered since 2012, and we all remember what happened then. But that was a long time ago with a much younger man. No amount of dives are going to save him this time.

If he fumbles it, or more to the point fumbles more than the Flames are already expecting him to, David Rittich will get tossed into the fire as a savior but with no safety net. Rittich faltered badly in the season’s back end after screaming to get the job full-time in the first portion. The Flames might just be Cup-worthy everywhere else, but they are depending on a moody dipshit and an untested rookie to navigate these seas. Hey…the 2010 Hawks did it?

Defense: The Avs defense will be good, possibly better than that, when Cale Makar and possibly what they add in the draft with Ottawa’s pick arrive next year. I still remain unconvinced of this one. Tyson Barrie rules, and beyond that I just can’t see it. Erik Johnson has made a career out of being fine and really unable to be picked out from the scenery. It’s not that it’s a bad defense, it just doesn’t distinguish itself, even if the numbers are middle of the pack to slightly better. At some point, tossing Ian Cole (BAYBAY!) over the boards consistently has to end in paper cuts and stains.

The Flames on the other hand have this year’s likely Norris winner in Mark Giordano, even if it’s more of a lifetime achievement award than for a career season (though it is that offensively). Going back to play with Gio has revitalized T.J. Brodie, which is a huge shock I’m sure. Travis Hamonic has had a bounce-back season. The third pairing is either some very green kids in Andersson or Kylington, or some very puce (sure?) vets in Fantenberg or Prout. But you can hide a third pair in the playoffs if you have to.

Forwards: The Avs are getting Mikko Suave back, and they’ll probably keep him on a line away from Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel LaxativeLog. I doubt that lasts long. The Avs are still one line, no matter that J.T. Compher looks like the lovechild of Rick Tocchet and Jim Brown against the Hawks. Carl Soderberg…whatever. That line can do a whole lot of things, but it’s probably going to have to do them all in this series if the Avs are going to pull the upset.

The Flames have no such problems. They have two to three lines, assuming they’re still not trying to make Michael Frolik feel like the dog who just left a puddle on the floor. Gaudreau and Monahan are as good of a combination as you’ll find, and you’ll have to silence your cellphones, hold your applause, and shut your damn mouths to WALK WITH ELIAS. Whether Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk get Frolik as a third or not, that’s still the most dominant possession line in hockey with some of the worst zone starts. In the playoffs, that should be an enormous weapon. The Flames fall off after that, and if they don’t come out of the West this will probably be the area they address immediately after goalie. Sam Bennett is a useful third center, who doesn’t have to do the checking things because Backlund does. Garnet Hathaway has been a contributor. Mark Jankowski as well, but as third lines go you’ll see better in the playoffs.  But it is more than the Avs have.

Prediction: The Flames goaltending can overturn them at any time. And one bad game at home could see a pretty young team with little playoff experience get jittery in a hurry. And yet this team amassed 107 points without a goalie. Against a more sustained attack, it would be a bigger problem. But the expectation is that Giordano and Brodie can play MacKinnon to even close to a standstill, and from there the Flames are just better with more weapons. Their goaltending may get them. It’s just not going to be here.

Flames in six. 

 

Everything Else

If you looked at the score and thought, “Four goals? DEY GOTTA START WARD MY FRENTS” let me just tell you to shove it right up your ass. Collin Delia played an exceptional game against one of the best teams in the league right now, and oh yeah one of those was an empty netter so I don’t want to hear any shit. To the bullets:

Box Score

Corsica

Natural Stat Trick

– This game was fast and entertaining. The first period had a combined 28 shots, and both goals were beauties. Gaudreau’s was the result of a defensive breakdown (SHOCKING) as Dahlstrom got mesmerized by a scrum in the crease and left Gaudreau alone with a wide open net. He made it look easy. So too did Patrick Kane near the end of the period. A quick pass from Anisimov at the blue line, Kane skated it in alone, and David Rittich let the backhand by him with barely even a wave of his arm. Both goals would have been prevented by better defensive play but both were damn enjoyable to watch.

– In the second, the Flames came out a little flat and the Hawks actually took advantage of this with yet another beautiful Kane-to-DeBrincat scoring play. Watching this, hell, writing this, makes me want to curl up in the fetal position while thinking of how Top Cat and Kane could be a permanent second line with Dylan Strome, but I’ve done enough agonizing over the decisions of Chicago coaches for one week, thank you very much.

– In addition to that goal in the second, the Hawks were leading in possession with a 67 CF% at the halfway mark of the period (I’m referring to the second period only; they actually were underwater in possession in the first). Delia made some solid saves and the Hawks were driving the play, until Dylan Strome took a penalty during the very power play he caused by drawing a penalty. Cosmic, no? Anyway, the 4-on-4 seemed to ignite the Flames (SEE WHAT I DID THERE) and Monahan tied it up a few minutes later on yet another penalty, this one by Gustafsson.

– Despite that penalty, Erik “Scoring Machine” Gustafsson continued his point streak tonight with two assists, bringing it to six games with at least a point. He had a 56.8 CF% to boot, so if it weren’t for that dumb penalty I’d have actual nice things to say about him.

– OK, let’s talk about Collin Delia. He finished with a .929 SV% and he faced 42 shots, 18 of which came in the third. The first goal was, as already mentioned, the result of his defenders leaving one of the best players in the league with the entire net to himself and about 15 minutes to sit there thinking about scoring. The second goal was a power play goal, and it took multiple tries for Tkachuk and Monahan to elevate it past Delia, because when they tried their point-blank passing play and shot, Delia was in the perfect position and made the save. The third goal was the result of the shittiest change possible when three Hawks just ignored Gaudreau AGAIN and left him literally at center ice, alone, with the puck. None of these can be pinned on Delia because to get it past him the Flames had to be at their very best. And had it not been for Delia, this easily could have been 7-3. I’m happy to see Delia look calm under pressure and clearly be able to handle a barrage of shots thanks to this Swiss cheese they call a defense. But listening to Jamal Mayers and Steve Konroyd in the pre-game talk about how the “hot hand” should play, and how it really should be Ward if this weren’t the second night of a back-to-back, is just mind-numbingly infuriating.

– OK, enough of that. God damn the Flames’ top line is dominant. Not only did Johnny Gaudreau score twice, and seemingly at will because for some reason the Blackhawks kept ignoring him or pretending he wasn’t real, but he, Monahan and Lindholm had an 81 CF%. This isn’t news; I just had to say it.

Brandon Saad was nearly having a minor resurgence of the bad old days where he couldn’t score to save his life. How he didn’t score on the open net in the second I’ll never understand, although credit to Sam Bennett who poked the puck away from Saad, and Rasmus Andersson who tied him up just long enough to deny him the rebound opportunity. He got the third goal with seconds to spare in the game, which unfortunately was pointless, but there is nothing to panic about with Saad.

David Kampf hit the god damn post. Sometimes I marvel at the synchronicity of the universe but in this case I’ve had just about enough.

– The Hawks’ resurgent power play? Nonexistent tonight. It in fact did revert to the bad old days. I’ll leave it at that.

Brandon Davidson had a couple nice plays tonight, including a nice stretch pass to Kane and preventing yet another shot on goal as Delia was getting pummeled in the third. It almost made me feel bad that we’ll never see him again once Jokiharju gets back from partying with the Juniors team.

It’s annoying that the Hawks blew a lead and couldn’t even salvage one point, but the Flames are a genuinely good team so that’s just the world we live in. We got another one in just 48 hours…onward and upward.

Photo credit: Chicago Tribune

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Flames 26-13-4 (1st in Pacific)   Hawks 16-21-7 (6th in Central)

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

FRIENDS OF CAL AND GARY’S: FlamesNation.ca

It’s a cruel world, this NHL. After the Hawks played what was maybe their best game of the season in Pittsburgh last night, outplaying the hottest team in the league, their reward is to wheel it back out there again tonight against another first-placed team who has been waiting for them. And one that’s already beaten them twice this season. It ain’t all waitin’ on you, as Sheriff Tom Bell’s brother told him at the end of No Country For Old Men. 

All seems pretty right in the world for the Calgary Flames, who are at least almost all of the way pivoted to David Rittich in goal, which was their biggest issue. The top line has gone absolutely bonkers, with all of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias (I SAID WWE STANDS FOR….) Lindholm in the top-20 in scoring in the league. Matthew Tkachuk is having quite the free agent hear with 49 points his own damn self from the second line, where Mikael Backlund continues to beat anyone about the head and face possession-wise. They even get contributions from the bottom-six, even if James Neal will soon require a Hazmat treatment to be around.

The defense is the real key, where Mark Giordano‘s normal Norris-worthy year has been joined by a rebound from T.J. Brodie, and a bigger rebound from Travis Hamonic on the second-pairing. They’re even letting child Rasmus Andersson freewheel on the third-pairing, and he’s got wheels for days (and you got ass for weeks yeah yeah yeah).

Earlier in the year, the Flames were having defensive issues, even with that personnel. That seems to have cleared up a little, as only the Sharks give up less attempts per game at evens, and they’ve improved to middle of the pack in xGA/60 from near the bottom where they were. Any middling goals-against numbers are mostly the result of having Mike Smith and his arms that don’t work on the roster, and insisting on playing him any other time than when Rittich has the plague. As with most Bill Peters led teams, their metrics are glowing and this all appears to be real.

Whether the Flames can negotiate their way far in the spring depends on if Rittich is the real deal when it really counts, and if they can finish top of the division. Do that, and you only have to beat one of the Knights or Sharks to get to the West final. Don’t and you have to go through both, and that’s going to be a real trick.

As for the Hawks, they’ll turn to Collin Delia tonight, and you’d have to imagine given the Flames firepower he’s going to be awfully busy. In his limited NHL experience, this is about as good of an offense he’s seen, barring the uncaring Jets at the end of last season. Sure, the Avs have their top line but the Flames have that and then more. So this will be an interesting test, especially behind a tired team.

Shouldn’t be any other changes. Would expect Chris Kunitz to stay in the lineup after not being a toxic waste dump last night. Henri Jokiharju did fly back to Chicago last night and could play but I think Wednesday is more likely. They’d want at least one practice or morning skate, if only to figure out where exactly he slots. But you never know. Other than that, Drake Caggiula makes his home debut.

If the Hawks are going to get anything out of this one, they’ll need the special teams just like they did last night. The Flames aren’t a great PK team, and their power play is not as good as you’d think given what they have on it. A power play goal or two are close to a requirement.

 

Game #45 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Much like his father, Matthew Tkachuk is extremely annoying. Apple doesn’t fall far from the fuckstick and all that. He has pissed off pretty much every fanbase and player in the Pacific Division, and if he isn’t already he will soon reach Ryan Kesler levels of vitriol by anyone who has to deal with him regularly.

And much like his father, he’s a real weapon. Keith was a center you couldn’t move from around the net, when he wasn’t busy yapping about how much money he was making. You can’t move Matthew much either, and he could soon be yapping about how much money he’s going to be making. Which might make the Flames a little nervous.

Tkachuk is on a real heater this season, He’s at 18 goals and 29 assists, good enough for 47 points. His career-high in points is 47 set last year. So the 90 he’s on pace for now obviously blows that out of the water. Which makes him awfully expensive, as it just so happens that he’s coming out of his entry-level deal.

This is where the Flames might not want to hear the word, “Nylander.” As he’s reset the market for players coming out of entry deals, there are going to be others who want to take advantage of that. Keep in mind that William Nylander only put up 61 points in his year before his extended holdout. Tkachuk looks a good bet for at least 80. $7 million might not even be the upper-limit for what he seeks. Tkachuk can’t even be knocked for benefitting from playing with Johnny Gaudreau or Sean Monahan, as he’s spent most of his time taking on much harder assignments with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik in the 3M line you’ve heard so much about. Tkachuk’s agent will be thinking about a lot more than 3 Ms come the summer.

Which will put the Flames structure and policies under the microscope. Gaudreau earns $6.7M per year, signed out of his entry-level deal. He’s clearly the Flames top star. Monahan comes in behind that at $6.3M. Are they in a hurry to pay someone more than him? We like to pretend these aren’t big deals in NHL dressing rooms, but we also know that’s a fallacy.

The Flames aren’t blessed with a ton of room, with somewhere around $14M available next season. Tkachuk will eat up about half of that next year, or he could. Both of their goalies are free agents, and while they’ll be delighted to send Mike Smith on his way, if Big Save Dave Rittich takes them far in the spring he’s going to need a lot more than the $800K he’s getting now. The season after next both TJ Brodie and Travis Hamonic are up, and the Flames are going to require a second pairing. Brodie especially could command a raise from his current $4.6M.

Man, what a burden it is to have a lot of good young players in the NHL.

It’s another example of just how hard the line is to balance. Looking it over, the Flames only have one really bad contract on the books. That’s James Neal‘s free agent deal from this past summer. But they’ll still have to figure out how to fit Tkachuk and others around that in the next two summers, while adding so they can get over whatever obstacle presents themselves. One more bad deal, to either their own or another free agent, and the Flames could start losing talent.

Which makes the hardball Tkachuk could play this summer a real adventure for them.

 

Game #45 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built