Hockey

It’s hard to believe that Mikael Backlund is only 30 years old. While that’s old in hockey years, we were hearing Flames fans’ excitement about him all the way back during the 2008-2009 season, even before the Hawks put the Flames to the sword in the playoffs. He only played one game that year, and perhaps he never lived quite up to the hopes of being a 1st round pick and a prized prospect for a while. But he’s definitely the cult favorite of Flames Nation. He’s the Fugazi of Calgary, where you only love him if you really know what’s going on.

Most of that is down to the years where he, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk formed one of the best lines in hockey. At least in terms of metrics it was. The 3M line started most of their shifts in the defensive zone, and ended most of them in the other end. They were one of the best possession lines in hockey, and the Flames asked them to do just about everything. And they did just about everything.

Starting last year though, Racist Ol’ Bill Peters soured on Frolik pretty quickly, and split that line up more often than you would think, i.e. at all. Lots of others moonlighted with Backlund and Tkachuk, but never quite captured the same magic. And Backlund’s metrics started to slide because of it.

It’s only gotten worse this year, and Backlund has often been used as a winger on the top line to help Sean Monahan and Johnny Gadreau keep the puck. But that’s not really what Backlund is, and it weakened the Flames down the middle as Elias Lindholm was tried as simply an offensive center than the Swiss Army Knife Backlund was and can still be. Recently, they’ve scrapped that and returned Backlund to the second center hole.

The numbers make it pretty clear that when Backlund is centering Tkachuk, things go well. When he’s on a wing with the others, they don’t, as his percentages drop. Seems pretty simple, but a lot of hockey coaches tend to outthink themselves.

The weird thing about Backlund is over the years he seems to do worse the more you start him in the offensive zone. It’s like if he doesn’t have ice to skate into he just backs up to find it. He’s more checking than scoring, though he’s consistently put up 40-50 points. Three years ago, he started just 35% of his shifts in the offensive zone and yet carried a 55% Corsi-share and 52% xG%. This year he’s starting 56% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and he’s below the team-rate in the analytics for the first time in a dog’s age.

Being the sole puck winner from a wing on the top line just doesn’t appear to suit him, and in recent games the Flames have returned Lindholm to that wing. They’ve won three of four with an aggregate score of 18-4 in those three wins. Seems pretty obvious the lineup needs to be tuned a certain way.

Either way, Backlund will remain the die-hard’s favorite, taking on the top lines of other teams and always getting the Flames out of it. At 30 and signed for a few more years could get sticky as he ages, as a $5.3M hit for a checking center seems a bit ambitious. Once Backlund’s scoring dries up there might be questions. But those are a long way off. Right now, he’s the Flames fans smallpox champion.

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

Some creatures fascinate science in how they came into being. And then some are viewed with the feeling, “Some questions are best left unanswered.” That’s the category @BookOfLoob falls into. Don’t ask, just let be.

What has new coach Bill Peters changed from Glengarry Glen Gulutzan last year? And why should it work better than it did in Carolina?
Outside of the team being able to do anything on the power play, effective players being frequently scratched for reasons like “shrug” and “felt like it”, goaltending ruining any chance of anyone ever dying happy, and being constantly reminded by his presence in the lineup that Garnet Hathaway is in fact a real person, everything is different.
It was nice to see Peters shed the mantra of “Old Ass Idiot Hockey Man” by actually making expensive, shitty Michael Stone ride the pine in favor of both Jusso Valimaki and Rasmus Andersson (who is perfect), and the team is generating so much sustained pressure offensively that Mike Smith really has to try hard to lose the game for them.
Which he is absolutely doing.
How’s that Dougie Hamilton trade working out?
You invited me to do this just to ask me that question knowing it would make me cry. Rest assured I will get you for this. (We feel it’s important that Floob express his emotions. -ED)
The short answer so far is “Mixed Results.”
Noah Hanifin, it turns out, is not that good, especially relative to what I believe is a Top-10 defenseman in the NHL in Dougie, but at least he’s not, and this is off the top of my head, Brent Seabrook. Everyone’s kinda hoping he can turn this around soon, and seeing as he’s 21 and it’s still early, he probably can, but underwhelming has been a word I’ve had pop into my head a lot whenever he’s on the ice thus far.
I will not make a museum joke. Much like most Calgary Flames, I’ve never been in one so I wouldn’t know where to start. (What about Amsterdam? -ED)
Elias Lindholm, however, I will walk with that guy forever.
Why does Peters hate Michael Frolik?
I don’t know, but give me two minutes with him and I’ll make him see the light.
There’s a weird thing going on with both Frolik and Austin Czarnik. Both are quality players. Both players have been scratched or benched frequently by Bill Peters. Both have last names that end with “ik”. But when either of them are in the lineup and getting a regular shift, they are on the ice with Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk, who are heavily relied upon to play the toughest minutes every game, and both Frolik and Czarnik thrive on the 3M or MMA line, whichever it happens to be that game.
Essentially Peters trusts them entirely, or not at all. I don’t really care, he’s not Bob Hartley, so they aren’t benched in favor of Kevin Westgarth and Brian McGrattan at the same time
James Neal, on pace for 12 goals.  So that’s going well. 
Do you guys want James Neal? You still owe us for Brandon Bollig.
Would the Flames be a playoff team if David Rittich took over the starting goalie role?
The only goalie I trust less than Mike Smith is Cam Ward, and he died 16 years ago, so I never have to worry about seeing him in a Flames jersey. I made a joke earlier this season about everyone being afraid of Mike Smith’s save percentage, because .789
Everyone had a good laugh at that because there’s no way an NHL goaltender in this day and age would ever be that bad. Then he let in four goals on like three shots the other night against Colorado and for a good chunk of the game it was literally .789. Life is hell.
They say if you have a good team, you only need league average goaltending to make any noise. David Rittich is my hero and I am building him a house on top of Mike Smith’s car, but he hasn’t played enough for us to know if he’s a league average goalie yet.
But I think this team looks good enough to win a bunch of games if the goaltending is only kinda bad, so even if that’s the bar Rittich needs to clear, I’m willing to retire his number right now. Best goalie since Chris Osgood.

 

Game #15 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Flames 26-18-8   Hawks 24-20-8

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

SONS OF OTTO: Flamesnation.ca

The following is getting into “Jimini Jillickers!” territory, but tonight begins a crucial stretch for the Hawks. If that stretch didn’t already start last Saturday. Or after the break. Or a month ago. I’ve declared so many of these fucking things it’s impossible to keep track. The bottom line is the Hawks need to kick this pick if the last month or so of the season is going to matter. And we’ll probably say that again soon.

The Hawks get seven of the next 10 at home, except that hasn’t been a panacea for anything for them this year. Three of those home games are against teams that are with them in the Western muddle around the last playoff spot, tonight against Calgary, next week against the Ducks, and Saturday against the Wild. They basically need to take all three in regulation, plus a few others. If they don’t eat well at home over the next three weeks, then you’ll know it’s over. There’s another thing I’ve said way too often.

Apparently Joel Quenneville gets the desperation, as he’s throwing more shit at the wall in the hopes of proving his geniusness once again. “GENTLEMEN! I HAVE INVENTED….THIS LINEUP!”

It has a new 3rd/4th line, depending on your point of view, of Saad-Hartman-Sharp. I guess there’s some benefit in cloistering your three biggest disappointments altogether, and hoping the mass ennui just turns itself into a positive force. I have no idea what it’s supposed to do, though Hartman and Saad could actually do something if they had a playmaker with them to get them in space where they perform better. Sharp is not that guy, but there aren’t any other options besides Wingels or Bouma so let’s just go with this. Give them the same instructions that have made Jurco-Kampf-Vinnie Smalls successful. Just do shit and do it fast, even if Sharp isn’t capable. Let’s not complicate this.

Of course, no desperate Hawks game would be complete without Q setting up his d-pairs while fingering his own ass, so out goes Connor Murphy again for reasons no one can understand. Especially when it involves giving Jan Rutta and Brent Seabrook more time. It’s ok, not like the Flames didn’t run circles around these two just last time out! Glass Jeff gets the start and poor rebound control.

As for the Flames, they have their own work to do as they sit outside both the wildcard and Pacific playoff picture, which are both open to them. They trail both by one point, and you have to believe this team is going to haul in the Kings because they’re not really any good and the Flames should be. Yes, they have depth scoring problems, though Kris Versteeg seems to be ready to come riding in on his donkey to save the day. Because you know Steeger would ride a donkey instead of a horse. Don’t play. They have the best pairing in the West, a goalie playing pretty well, and a genuine top six. This shouldn’t be that hard but they seem intent on making it so. They’ll be the “Team No One Wants To Play (TM).”

Worth watching tonight is how cute Q gets with his matchups. The top six of the Flames simply stinkfisted the Hawks top six in Calgary, and that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for Q to get both away from Monahan or Backlund. But there are going to be spots when that is necessary, because the Hawks really need this one. He did it on the road in Nashville and in theory it should be easier at home. But it’s not something he’s done a lot of lately, and we all know Rutta is going to start every shift in the d-zone against Monahan and Gaudreau because GENIUS TREE CUPZ YOU DORK!

Just kill me already.

Game #53 Preview

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 24-20-7   Flames 25-18-8

PUCK DROP: 9pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago here, Sportsnet up there

FRIENDS OF CAL AND GARY: Flamesnation.ca

It can get exhausting living this way. After most losses you pronounce the season over, only to build yourself back up by the next game to say the turnaround has to start RIGHT NOW, even though that’s what you said before the last game. The constant push and pull gets deeper every time, and no matter which side you’re on that day THIS TIME YOU MEAN IT. So it is with that in mind that we say once again, the Hawks have to start their attack run RIGHT NOW, especially considering the next four points on offer are four points they could deny a direct competitor in the Calgary Flames. They’re going to have to climb over teams, and they get to face Calgary, Anaheim, and Minnesota in the next two weeks. Biff it, and then we’ll know it’s all over but the shouting and we can get on to dreams of Yoan Moncada and a Kyle Schwarber renaissance.

And this might be a good time to catch the Flames, who appear to be a real mess. On the same night the Hawks were letting out a beer belch in Vancouver, the Flames were spectacularly blowing a 4-2 lead to the Lightning at home to lose 7-4. That probably doesn’t do it justice, either. Mike Smith gave up four goals in eight 3rd period minutes to blow that lead, and it was a singular meltdown. You probably saw the GIF of him breaking his stick against the post before being pulled, though we’ll excuse you if you can’t tell it apart from the dozens of other GIFs of Mike Smith going apeshit toddler on his posts and stick.

It broke a hot streak for Smith, who before that had only surrendered 14 goals in his last eight starts. Overall he’s been really good with a .922 SV% and a .943 SV% in January. And yet the Flames haven’t been able to get going fully, other than a seven-game winning streak which they counteracted by failing to win any of the six after that (four losses in OT or SO).

If Smith isn’t the problem, the offense is. Before the outburst against Tampa, they’d managed eight goals in five games. And Edmonton, LA, and Buffalo were part of that slate and you’re supposed to get goals against them currently. Basically if Johnny Gaudreau’s line doesn’t score, the Flames won’t. Michael Frolik has returned to reassemble the 3M line and give them something of a second option, and they’re slowly trying to fortify the bottom six with a couple kids like Mark Jankowski and Andrew Mangiapane. Also, Kris Versteeg looks like he might make it back before the season ends, but if you’re in a place where you need Kris Versteeg you’re probably in a place that has no running water.

The Flames aren’t clean on defense either. Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton have been just about the best pairing in the West all year. But below that, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic are in a competition to see which can turn the other more into unidentifiable ooze all season. Michael Stone lives below that and that’s definitely a place that doesn’t have running water. And for some reason Glen Gulutzan won’t play Dougie enough to make a difference. Strange days, indeed.

Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the Flames’ power play is also holding them back, and unlike the Hawks it has a couple natural QBs to run it. Their penalty killing hasn’t been as good either, and in this league special teams can make a huge difference. They won’t find much sympathy here, of course.

Now to the Hawks. There’s been yet another reshuffle, and it appears that Q’s patience with Brandon Saad has come to an end. Toews’s line remains the same (does anybody remember laughter?). Artem Anisimov moves back in between Schmaltz and Kane. On the surface this is a little frustrating, but then you remember that Wide Dick Arty is pretty much useless unless he’s playing with Kane and you have to maximize what you have. Saad is going to play with Wingels and Hartman as Q wants to keep Jurco-Kampf-Vinnie Smalls together, and with good cause. What a Saad-Wingels-Hartman line does is anyone’s guess, as we’ve said about the third line all season. What it might do is force Saad to start creating his own chances, which is in his holster but we don’t see very often. Or he can continue to drift aimlessly through games. He’s now gotten called out in the press by his coach, which is usually the last card Q wants to play. Now or never, bud.

It’s Judgement Day for the Hawks over the next couple weeks, as nonsensical as that sentence actually is. They face a bunch of teams around them. They could actually gain ground. But they’d have to put a streak together for more than three or four games, and that’s been beyond them all season. You turn enough corners, all you’ve done is end up where you were.

Game #52 Preview

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

We occasionally like to spend time discussing what the Selke, and Norris, award would really look like if voters didn’t used outdated methods to find their winners. Of course, this is all pie in the sky stuff. Hockey and “evolution” are infrequent dance partners. Perhaps one day we’ll get our King-Felix-wins-Cy-Young-with-13-wins moment, but it seems unlikely.

If it were to happen, Mikael Backlund may be the one who wins it.

For too long, coaches of the Flames were too fixated on what Backlund couldn’t or didn’t do. As a first round pick, he was (perhaps rightly) expected to be a #1 center who scored a ton. It wasn’t Backlund’s fault that until the arrival of Sean Monahan, there really wasn’t anyone else around to do the job. So it was foisted upon him at time, and it didn’t go so well. Backlund’s first six full seasons in the NHL never saw him amass 50 points, as well as deal with some serious injury issues. It looked to be that he was a bust.

It took the arrival of Bob Hartley, himself hardly a genius, and further expounded upon by current coach Glen Gulutzan Glenross to really unlock what Backlund is. And that’s one of the league’s best checking/possession centers.

If you’ve been tuning into hockey for the past couple seasons, you’ve probably heard all about the 3M like of Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk. They have been the biggest human shield line in the league. The Flames routinely send this unit out in its own end and against the toughest competition, and they routinely send the play the other way. Over the past three seasons, Backlund is fifth in the league in his relative Corsi. But of all the other players in the top ten, Backlund and his linemates get by far the worst zone starts, barely getting 40% of their shifts to start in the offensive zone. They have the biggest hills to climb, and they climb farther than just about anyone else.

Backlund has also added a scoring touch he didn’t have before. He put up 53 points last year and is on pace to break 50 again this year, with a bit of hustling.

This is the type of player more GMs should be seeking out, or converting underperforming centers to be. When most hockey minds think of a checking center, it’s some mattress like body that wins a lot of draws, blocks a lot of shots, but essentially is a trench for their team. Yes, they’re hard to pass but they’re also hard to move forward off of. Backlund is in the Marcus Kruger school. And there are others out there who could play this role.

Of course, some of this might be a problem for the Flames in the summer, as Backlund goes UFA. At 28, it’ll be his best chance to cash in long-term, and the Flames aren’t swimming in cap space .They can probably hand him most of Matt Stajan’s money that’s coming off the books and think that’s enough, but do they pay him as the #2-3 center that he is? Or the unicorn that he actually is? It’s a decision that’s going to be generating a lot of debate in Calgary, between cleaning the horseshit out of everyone’s boots.

 

 

 

Game #38 Preview

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

evil empire at The Flame

Game Time: 9:00PM Central
TV/Radio:  WGN, Sportsnet, WGN-AM 720
Learn How To Wear A Tie, You Fat Sloppy Irishman: Flames Nation, M & G

After four days off for everyone around the organization to prattle on about urgency and jump and turning on the switch and whatever other nonsense they can spew, the Hawks now take to the road in the northwest not to salt away a division, but to keep themselves out of a wild card position thanks to their own ineptitude.