Maher in the Mornings


 

 

Listen to Peter Maher with Don, Joanne & the Coach every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8:05am.

Peter Maher's blog will be right here every Monday for you to read and catch up on everything Flames!

 

March 27, 2017

It’s a heated debate around the National Hockey League on who should win the Norris Trophy as best defenceman – Brett Burns or Erik Karlsson.

Mark Giordano and Doug Hamilton don’t figure to get invitations to Las Vegas for the Awards Ceremony in June but the Flames blueliners may well represent the best defence pair in the league.

To be a Norris Trophy finalist a defenceman needs to finish in the top three among votes tabulated from the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association but nobody votes for top pairing.

Travis Yost in his blog for TSN last week wrote that Giordano and Hamilton are the league’s top defence duo. He notes that the Flames pair play roughly 20 minutes a game 5-on-5 “absolutely obliterating the opposition”.

Yost feels they are a big reason the Flames will be back in the playoffs this season.

Putting the two together was a decision coach Glen Gulutzan made on November 15 breaking up the long-standing duo of Giordano with T.J. Brodie.  The figuring was that Giordano and Brodie were both left-handed shots and that the conventional left-right pairing would be more beneficial.  It’s worked.  Hamilton’s play improved greatly when paired with captain Giordano.  That mid-November game corresponded with the Flames turned their season around after a dismal start.

The change of pairings came at the expense of Brodie, who hasn’t been as prominent this season, however, his play has picked up over the past month after he was teamed with Michael Stone following his arrival in a trade with Arizona.

The third blueline unit pairing late-season acquisition Mark Bartkowski with Derek Engelland has stabilized the back end. So much so that veteran Dennis Wideman is a frequent healthy scratch.

It remains to be seen if the Flames have a strong enough defence collection to have playoff success, but when one looks around the NHL it’s easy to agree with Yost’s assessment that Giordano and Hamilton are the best pairing.

Giordano is as steady as it gets on a nightly basis both defensively and offensively while Hamilton is a strong skater with a great offensive talent.

Burns is having a brilliant campaign in San Jose and while his defence partner, Paul Martin, is no slouch, the duo doesn’t match-up with Giordano-Hamilton.  Nor does Karlsson in Ottawa with Marc Methot or Nashville’s P.K. Subban with Mattais Ekholm. 

Analytic numbers give the Flames a huge advantage over opponents when Giordano and Hamilton are on the ice.  However, those advantages fall off greatly when they take a breather.

That could be the difference in the post-season but that’s a debate for next month.
 

March 20, 2017

During a recent Flame game a fan asked, “do you see any similarities between this year’s team and 2004?”

Upon close reflection, there are some resemblances from the last Flame team to go to the Stanley Cup finals and the current collection.

Obviously much more has to play out to see if this Flame squad can duplicate that highly unexpected conclusion from 13 years ago.

With three weeks left on the regular-schedule let’s look at parallels where, in some cases, it requires a bit of a stretch.

Like this season, 2003-04 began with a coach handling the team for his first full campaign.  The difference then was that Darryl Sutter had been behind the bench for the second half of the previous campaign. Now Glen Gulutzan was completely new in the fall after taking over from Bob Hartley.

The start to both seasons wasn’t very impressive. Both teams were in last place by the middle of November amid some observations a playoff spot was unattainable.  The turnaround both times came from a hot goaltender.

On November 16 of 2003, Miikka Kiprusoff was acquired in a trade with San Jose for a second round draft pick, which turned out to be defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The deal developed after the Flames start-of-season designated #1 goalie, Roman Turek, was injured following some struggling performances.  Kiprusoff beat Montreal 2-1 in his first contest and the Flames collected points in 16 of 18 games getting into the playoff race.

A hot goalie started to turn this season’s fortunes around in mid-November but in not quite the same manner.  Chad Johnson was signed as a free agent last summer to be the team’s backup netminder.  He was designated to be #2 behind Brian Elliott, who was obtained in an off-season trade with St. Louis for a second round draft pick and a conditional third rounder. 

Elliott had difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings and was the goalie the night the team plunged into last place with a mid-November home loss to the New York Rangers. Johnson then took over the net sparking the Flames to points in 12 of 14 games and into the playoff derby by mid-December. Losses in six of the next 10 games followed. That allowed Elliott to re-gain the #1 role playing brilliantly as the team collecting points in 14 of 15 games thrusting the Flames into a scramble for 2nd place in the Pacific Division, which if attained, would provide home ice advantage in the first round of playoffs. That’s something Sutter’s skaters didn’t have in 2004.

Like 13 years ago, goaltending wasn’t the sole reason for the reversal but it provided the impetus.  When the skaters have confidence in the netminder they can play more of their normal game knowing the goalie will likely bail out mistakes.

Both teams made some late-season player acquisitions adding some depth. The ’04 group were bolstered by forwards Chris Simon, Marcus Nilson and Ville Nieminen. This year’s team secured near the trade deadline defencemen Michael Stone and Mark Bartkowski plus forward Curtis Lazar.

The 2004 team entered playoff action with three players possessing Cup rings – Stephane Yelle, Martin Gelinas and Simon.  With the current squad, on the cusp of clinching a post-season berth, also has three Cup winners – Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer and Michael Frolik.

Among areas that aren’t the same is that the current group overall is a younger team with many of the best players in their early 20’s and in Matthew Tkachuk a teenager.  The ’04 crew was sparked by skaters in their late 20’s or early 30’s with no teenager.

Gulutzan’s gang has better scoring balance.  They lead the NHL currently having 12 players with 10 goals or more sparked by Sean Monahan with 23. During the regular-season in ’03-04, Jarome Iginla was by far the big offensive thrust.  He led the NHL with 41 goals which was 23 goals more than the #2 Flame goal getter, Sean Donovan.  That team had six players with 20-or-more tallies.  It also didn’t have a high scoring defenseman, which this year’s group has. Doug Hamilton has 47 points and is tied for third on the team. Jordan Leopold was the top scoring blueliner back then with 33 points.

The ’04 team clinched a playoff spot in the third last game of the season and then went on to upset three division winners before losing the Cup final in seven games against Tampa. 

This time, there’s a good chance they’ll clinch before Game 80 if they continue at the current pace.  It’s also a different playoff format now, so getting to the Cup final Our Guys won’t have to upset three division pennant winners.

But that’s getting away ahead of ourselves.
 

March 13, 2017

On the very day, last week that Gary Bettman’s threatening letter to Arizona legislators was revealed, I read a story in The Hockey News Future Watch edition stating the Coyotes were at the very beginning of a re-build process that would be a four-to-five-year transformation.

This maybe the team’s first re-build with the National Hockey League’s youngest General Manager, John Chayka, but a major reason the NHL hasn’t caught on in the Phoenix area is that the team is in a constant re-build.

Chayka is 27 years old.  He was six years old living in Ontario, when the Coyotes were born replacing the old Winnipeg Jets.  In the 21 years of playing existence the Coyotes have made one extended playoff run. This season is their fifth in succession without post-season action. In fact, during the 13 seasons in Glendale they’ve been out of it 10 times with the team having a winning record on only 4 occasions.

Those are the major reasons the Coyotes haven’t been darlings in the desert. 

Defenders of the NHL in the Valley of Sun, like Commissioner Bettman cite the lack of suitable arenas as reasons the Coyotes haven’t attracted crowds.  The current arena, in Glendale, is too far from where the hockey fans live, it’s been said.  The team’s first building in downtown Phoenix was built for basketball and has poor sight-lines for hockey.  Perhaps good arguments but would those excuses hold if the on-ice product was better?

There have been complaints that the Coyotes doesn’t market themselves well enough. Not sure about that one, but team marketing and sales personnel can promote the team until the coyotes come home but the very best marketing with any team is winning.  The Coyotes in their 21 seasons simply haven’t had nearly enough of it.

As the Flames fans are seeing now, the best method to produce a winning squad is drafting and developing players.  With the Coyotes, it seems, after they develop young talent, they are traded to another team and the cycle starts again. If you saw and/or heard the irritated reaction from Coyotes long-time captain Shane Doan the day veteran centre Martin Hanzel was dealt near this year’s trade deadline you know the frustration of players and faithful fans in Arizona.

Although it was Chayka that engineered Hanzal’s trade to Minnesota, perhaps he can change the team’s vision. Unfortunately, the Coyotes may not have the four-or-five-year window he suggests in Arizona.

Thus, the three-page letter from Bettman to state legislature leaders threatening to move the team if it doesn’t approve $225 million in public financing for a new arena in downtown Phoenix or the East Valley in a vote coming up later in March.

Stated Bettman, “the Arizona Coyotes must have a new arena location to succeed. The Coyotes cannot and will not remain in Glendale.”

The letter came, after a survey showed that seven of 10 voters oppose public funding for a new hockey arena.

Over the years despite numerous suggestions to transfer the team to a market where it would be embraced, Bettman has been steadfast insisting the Coyotes remain in Arizona.  So much so that any time he’s appeared at Coyote games in Glendale he’s been cheered by the crowd but hears boos in most other NHL arenas.

Off-ice issues have always clouded the Coyotes.  Maybe, if the on-ice product was much better that cloud would lift.
 

March 6, 2017

On the last day of February, with a game against the Los Angeles Kings hours away, Flame coach Glen Gulutzan met the media as he usually does.

He was asked if the game that evening against the Kings was “the biggest game of the year?”

It was a valid question considering the Flames held down a wild card playoff spot in the Western Conference with the Kings four points behind them but having played two fewer games.

Gulutzan didn’t play down the game’s significance but noted his Flames had loftier goals “we’re more concerned about catching and passing the teams ahead of us in the Pacific Division.”

It was the perfect response from the Flames first year mentor.  While just getting in the playoffs may satisfy some, Gulutzan aims higher perhaps even gaining home ice advantage in the first round of playoffs.

The Flames recent seven-game win streak and nine-game point streak has made finishing second in the Pacific a possibility despite the team’s poor start.

Being seven points in arrears, catching San Jose for the Pacific pennant may not be attainable but besting Edmonton and Anaheim for second or third is within the Flames realm.

In mid-November and even in mid-January just making it to post-season play was considered remote for Gulutzan’s skaters. However, as they became more familiar with the style of play the coach wanted the Flames started getting recognized around the NHL.

Over the final 15 regular-season games it’s possible a first round playoff series between the Flames and Oilers could evolve.  The provincial rivals haven’t clashed in the post-season since 1991.

How could such a confrontation come about after a 26-year absence? 

There are two possibilities.  The way the playoff format works now, the second and third place teams in each division are first round foes.  As of Monday, the Oilers are second in the Pacific, while the Flames are tied with Anaheim for third.

The other scenario, which isn’t as likely this season, would be should one of the Alberta squads finished first in the Pacific Division and the other qualify as the second wild card in the Western Conference.

A Flame-Oiler playoff confrontation would go a long away toward rekindling the rivalry between the teams.  If it comes about this spring, since the Oilers won all four games between the two teams this regular-season, they’d be favored. 

However, when the Flames qualified for the playoffs in 2015 and won a first round series, much of that had to do with the match-up. Of all the West teams in the post-season that year, Vancouver Canucks were the ideal foe for the Flames and they made the most of it.

The Oilers could well be the best match-up this time for the Flames.  Yes, the Oilers did win those four games earlier and likely will have home ice advantage but there are other factors to consider.

Thanks to the 11 post-season games they played in 2015, the Flames would have more players with playoff involvement than the Oilers. Many Edmonton players would be experiencing the pressures of Stanley Cup competition for the first time. That advantage starts in goal with the Flames #1 guy, Brian Elliott, has 37 games of post-season action. The Oilers goalie, Cam Talbot, has 46 minutes of relief action with New York Rangers from three years ago.  Plus, Talbot has had a heavy work load in the Oiler nets this season with almost 60 games to date and figures to finish with around 70 while Elliott will have played in the neighborhood of 45 games by mid-April. Thus, Elliott would the better rested of the netminders.

With a month of scheduled games to unfold, it’s too early to speculate but like coach Gulutzan noted there’s nothing wrong with aiming for the best. 
 

March 2, 2017 - Trade Deadline

An injury and an illness played big roles in the Flames augmenting their line-up at the National Hockey League trade deadline.

General Manager Brad Treliving struck early and late as the cut-off date approached making moves helping the team now and offering good future potential.

Despite the Flames recent run of success being the NHL’s best team in February, Treliving resisted the temptation to bring in an aging veteran as a rental.  He kept with program of continuing to build toward a contender.

Just over a week before the deadline, the Flames nabbed former Hitmen star defenseman 26-year-old Michael Stone from Arizona.  Then a half-hour before the trading time ended he plucked a just-turned 22-year-old forward Curtis Lazar from Ottawa. Both transactions were executed without the Flames giving up too much.

The price for Stone, who may have been the third best blueliner available, was a third round pick this year and a conditional fifth rounder in 2018.

Lazar, a Senators first round pick (17th overall) in 2013, comes to the Flames along with veteran pro defenceman Mike Kostka in exchange for recently demoted rearguard Jyrki Jokipakka and Calgary’s second round draft pick in 2017.

Both Stone and Lazar are free agents at the end of this season with the possibility both could return. Now they endeavor to help the Flames garner a playoff berth for the second time in three years.

A serious knee injury, which required major surgery, late last season had the Coyotes having second thoughts about re-signing Stone.  The injury kept him out of the Arizona line-up for the first four games of this season and when he returned, perhaps too early, didn’t perform well for one of the NHL’s bottom place teams.

Stone paid immediate dividends for the Flames.  The team won the first five games he played including Monday’s 2-1 overtime triumph over Los Angeles. In the five contests, Stone has collected two assists on the scoresheet while compiling a +4 plus-minus rating.  He’s been teamed with T.J. Brodie on the team’s number two defense pairing and Brodie, who has struggled most of the season, has showed immediate improvement.  Stone is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent this summer but if he continues his solid contributions Flames may be able to re-sign before July 1.

Lazar is a restricted free agent at season’s conclusion but the Flames can maintain his rights by making him a contract offer.  That gives them time to see if  he can get his game going after suffering mononucleosis at training camp, missing time and not being close to the player he was last season while trying to impress his new coach before basically asking to be traded. He admitted on Wednesday that he’d lost confidence in himself.

A key element for the Flames is that the coach Lazar had last season is now Flame assistant coach Dave Cameron. Under Cameron, for most of his first two NHL seasons, Lazar notched 12 goals and 35 points in 143 games. He has just one assist in 33 contests with the Senators this term.  Treliving researched Lazar’s character and “feels confident he has significant upside potential.”

He comes to the Flames immediately and where he plays warrants watching.  He played right wing with the Senators but when he excelled in the Western Hockey League with the Edmonton Oil Kings he was a centreman.  He also played that position with Team Canada in 2015 when the junior squad won the World Junior Championship.

Lazar is definitely the key to the Ottawa deal.  Kostka adds defense depth for the organization.  He’s 31 years old having played 85 games in the NHL with five different teams. He’s been playing with the Senators’ American Hockey League farm team and now joins the Flames’ AHL squad in Stockton.

Flame fans that have been hoping that popular all-time team scoring leader Jarome Iginla gets to end his NHL career with a Stanley Cup may be re-adjusting those sentiments now that he’s a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings, who acquired Iginla on Wednesday at the deadline, are a team the Flames are battling for a playoff spot in the Western Conference and Pacific Division.  The Flames, who have a six-point lead on the Kings in standing, have three games left with the LA skaters with two of them in the Scotiabank Saddledome – March 19 and 29.
 

February 21, 2017

A visit last weekend to Las Vegas brought back a memory and a look at a future NHL arena.

The memory has to do with a bet made in Vegas 13 years ago that almost paid off big time, which I'll explain after the next seven paragraphs.

Saturday night I stepped into the T-Mobile Arena for the first time and was impressed with the building which next season will be home of the Vegas Golden Thunder as they make their NHL debut.

When Flame fans visit the edifice located right in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip they'll acknowledge immediately why Calgary needs a new building for its NHL squad.  That is, if visiting that new structure in Edmonton wasn't enough convincing.

The building in Vegas has a seating capacity of almost 20,000 people for concerts and about 18,000 for hockey I was told.  It's an easy walking distance from the major hotels on the strip. For those not staying/living away from the hustle and bustle of the Strip public transit takes one to the area and it has great parking facilities.

Inside escalators provide access to the two concourse levels leading to the seating areas.  Concession stands are aplenty and so are wash room facilities.  The seats are comfortable and, although the event I took in was a George Strait concert, the sightlines were very good with a superb sound system. 

Who knows what ice conditions will be like for the players but it can't be any worse than the arenas in San Jose, Brooklyn, etc. which players say are the worst in the NHL.

Very few sightings of people on the Strip wearing Golden Thunder gear like caps or jerseys, but they are on sale in some casino shops and elsewhere so that will change once the team commences play as the NHL's 31st team in the fall.

Whether or not the Thunder will be a successful franchise remains to be seen but having a modern arena is a good start.
 



Just prior to the start of the Flames 2003-04 season, I spent the Labor Day weekend in Vegas attending a Rod Stewart concert among other events.

While visiting the Sports Book at the MGM, I noticed the Flames were 85-1 underdogs to win the Stanley Cup that upcoming campaign.  After some contemplation, I decided to make a $20 wager on those long-shot odds.

I took the ticket put it in my wallet and didn't tell anyone I'd made the purchase.  Gradually as that season went along I forgot about the gamble although a copy of the ticket came with me everywhere I travelled with the Flames tucked away in my wallet.

When Darryl Sutter's Flames ended a seven-year playoff famine in April of 2004 and I was yelling "Playoffs...Yeah Baby!!!!" the wager wasn't given a thought.

As the post-season upset series wins over Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose unfolded with Martin Gelinas scoring all those series clinching goals again the bet hardly entered my mind.

Then came the trip to Tampa Bay for the Cup final. On that five-hour flight the thought did occur that I had a potential prize possession in my back pocket.  I didn't look at it, still didn't tell anyone and tried to forget about it.  Like all Flame fans I was dismayed that Gelinas' possible Cup final-clinching goal in game six wasn't counted but handled the situation in a professional manner.

Then it was game seven back in Tampa with our guys somewhat worn down but ready to battle.  They fell behind 2-0 then Craig Conroy scored midway in the 3rd period to make it 2-1 before referee Kerry Fraser called a penalty against the Flames taking the momentum away and the Lightning took home hockey's greatest prize.

In the Flame dressing room I saw many Flame players with tears in their eyes as the absorbed the defeat in the last game of the season.  It wasn't until a little later while standing in the arena parking lot waiting for the bus to take us to the airport, that it really hit me -- the ticket I had in my wallet was now nothing more than $20 in lost wages.  I never did calculate how much of a payoff the 85-to-1 odds would have meant to my bank account.

Last weekend I visited the MGM Sports Book and noticed the odds on the Flames winning the Cup this season are now 40-1.  Did I place a wager?  Just like 2004, I'll never tell. At least not until the season ends.

What happens in Vegas...stays in Vegas.   
 

February 13, 2017

The Flames are back from another schedule break and now it has to be all business for the final 26 games of the regular-season.

...And they should be ready.

Before going to the "Negotiated Concession Break" or "Bye Week", Glen Gulutzan's guys won four of five games with four of those matches on the road.

When a team is that hot, the preference would be to keep playing and not take five days away from games as the Flames did prior to Monday's match with Arizona.  However, having played just four games in the 17 days leading to the clash with the Coyotes, they are well rested.

...And they'll need to be, those last 26 games will be played over 55 days.  Only once in this time frame do the Flames get three days off that's during a home-stand the first full week of March.

The schedule-marker offers other pluses down the stretch.  Only once do they play games on back-to-back nights that's February 23-24 at Tampa and South Florida. Of the 26 games, 14 are at the Scotiabank Saddledome where the Flames will need to be better than they have been in the 'friendly confines' so far this campaign.

Making the playoffs is the aim and attainable.  Despite playing just one game in seven days prior to Monday's tilt, Gulutzan's group didn't lose much ground in the battle for one of the two Western Conference wild card playoff positions.  While resting, they dropped below the playoff line but are just one point behind Los Angeles for the final position and three points behind Nashville for the first wild card.

The schedule also puts the Flames destiny somewhat in their own hands.  The three teams they are currently in the scramble with for the two playoff posts are the Kings, Nashville and St. Louis.  They have four matches left against Darryl Sutter's Kings, two against the Predators and one vs the Blues.

Vancouver, Winnipeg and Dallas also have outside chances to get into the race but all three have fallen back recently and will need big surges to become contenders for post-season berths.

The Flames would like to finish ahead of rival Edmonton but that's a long shot at this stage.  The Oilers look like they'll be one of the top three teams in the Pacific Division along with San Jose and Anaheim.  The Oilers entered this week holding a 7-point edge on the Flames with no regular-season games remaining between the provincial skaters.

The key is to get in the playoffs.  Otherwise, they'll have a real long break starting April 9.

February 7, 2017

St. Louis Blues players likely rejoiced last week when Ken Hitchcock was fired as their coach but I felt for one of the game's most successful bench bosses.

Many of skaters that have played for him may not have enjoyed his methods of preparing them but, in most cases, they couldn't argue with the results.

Hitchcock may have been tough on his players but he was an engaging guy with the media providing insights to the game that few others offered.  I learned something new and benefical just about every time I chatted with the 65-year-old, who departed the Blues needing just one more win to tie Al Arbour as the third winningest coach in National Hockey League history.  Likely as soon as next season he'll get the necessary two victories to pass Arbour and many more.

I got to know Hitch early in his NHL coaching career since he was friends with former Flame mentor Don Hay.  Regardless of where Hitch went as a coach he always knew my name and often confided about things happening in the game with his team and others including the Flames.

He was never head coach for Canada in the Olympics or World Cups but whoever was the main man always wanted Hitch as part of his staff recognizing his knowledge and how he'd be a healthy resource to have near at hand.

Hitch wanted his star offensive players to have a good contribution on the defensive side and when he piloted Dallas Stars to their only Stanley Cup title in 1999 a big reason was getting that message across to all-stars Brett Hull and Mike Modano.  

The hockey-lifer was put in an awkward position by Blues management last summer.  Mike Yeo, former head coach at Minnesota, was hired as Associate Coach and the public told he would be Head Coach starting with the 2017-18 season since Hitchcock would be retiring at least as a coach in St. Louis. That made Hitch a 'lame duck' leader. 

Occasionally teams can have success when the bench boss gets the 'lame duck' tag but not often. Having players knowing Hitch was gone in-time and Yeo was around to take over complicated the situation. It was a situation unprecedented in the NHL.

Some off-season player moves added to the dilemma.

When a team has a coach with Hitchcock's style it needs strong leadership among its players.  Leadership that doesn't allow player's commitment to waiver when upset with the coaches' tactics.  David Backes as Blues captain offered that along with Todd Brouwer, who is now a Flame.  Unfortunately, handicapped by the salary cap, the Blues couldn't afford to keep either this season and lost them to free agency.

They also lost goalie Brian Elliott to the Flames in a trade. Elliott had a strong season in goal in 2015-16 helping the Blues get to the Western Conference final before bowing to San Jose. The feeling in St. Louis was that Jake Allen would be the netminder long-term.

Hitchcock preaching defensive play again this season saw his Blues permit the least number of shots on goal of any team but the goalie's save percentage was among the worst after having the NHL's best a year ago. 

It all collaborated to failure and at the all-star break with the Blues slumping and in danger of not making the playoffs it was inevitable that Hitchcock, a future Hall-of Famer, take the fall.

Still, Hitch should stand tall.

...And, perhaps, if his old team in Dallas doesn't make the playoffs this season, he'll be standing tall in Texas again and doing so behind the bench.
 

January 30, 2017

"Johnny Hockey was built for three-on-three". That was the comment from more one person watching Sunday's NHL All-Star Game.

If the Flames are to compete in this year's playoffs, Johnny Gaudreau needs to be better five-on-five than he has been lately.

The leftwinger made an impact playing 3-on-3 on Thursday scoring in overtime at Ottawa in a 3-2 win ending the Flames four-game losing streak.

Then he went to Los Angeles and notched two goals and two assists in the All-Star Tournament competing for the second place-finishing Pacific Division squad as the lone Flame member.

Wednesday it’s back to 5-on-5 hockey as the Flames commence the final 30 games on the regular-schedule hosting Minnesota.

Gaudreau enters post-All-Star action standing fourth in Flame scoring 11 goals and 31 points.  He did miss 10 games with a broken finger otherwise he'd be higher on the team's scoring chart but he hasn't been vintage lately. His goal in Ottawa was his first in 12 games.  The Flames need more production from the Gaudreau, who has played in the All-Star Game in all three of his NHL seasons.

Toward that end, now that Johnny is back in Calgary he may want to sit down and have a chat with #2 all-time scorer in Flames history, who in his career played in seven NHL dream games.

Theoren Fleury has been seen around the Scotiabank Saddledome at a number of Flame games this season. He hasn't played in the National Hockey League since 2003 but he knows first-hand how a small player can have great success.

Until this season Gaudreau hasn't needed much advice.  He was a standout rookie in 2014-15 and last season finished fifth in NHL scoring.

Opponents are targetting Johnny Hockey much more now and he's having difficulty adjusting.  He leads league forwards in a couple of negative areas -- giveaways and worst plus-minus. Fleury could help.

While Gaudreau and Fleury are small, skilled players with outstanding scoring touches, they are different in other ways.  That's where Fleury could assist Gaudreau.

When Fleury started scoring goals and collecting assists as a rookie in 1989, opposing teams started to target him but they couldn't break the rightwingers resolve. In fact, he gave back almost as much punishment as he took.  He often initiated it to prove he belonged.

I'll never forget his first training camp in 1987 after the Flames selected Fleury in the 8th round of that year's NHL draft. Most 'experts' said he'd never make it because he was too small to compete in the league which was much tougher physically in those days.  From his very first scrimmage as a Flame, Fleury wacked, hacked and took runs at veteran players who were already established. 

A number of those players came to me during the first couple of weeks remarking, "who does this kid think he is treating veteran players from his own team this way."  My reply, 'you may not like it but he has to play this way if he's to have any chance of making this team."

Fleury didn't cease and then on New Year's Day 1989 he was summoned from the minors and never went back compiling a standout 14-year career, which hopefully will see him gain Hockey Hall-of-Fame recognition at some point.

In a recent interview ESPN interview in the U.S, Wayne Gretzky, who faced Fleury numerous times in the old Battle of Alberta, was asked who he hated to play against the most.  Without hestitation he replied, "Theo Fleury. I hated him so much but I loved him so much I wanted him on my Canadian team at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City."  

Gretzky was retired as a player then but was manager of the Canadian team. Fleury didn't let him down as he was one of his team's top players helping Canada win Olympic hockey gold for the first time in over 40 years.

It's a good guess that Gaudreau isn't the most hated player of any current NHLer.  That's where Fleury could help.  Johnny Hockey doesn't have the same temperament as Fleury and thus this season he's been badgered frequently most times without a penalty being called against the opponent.

If Gaudreau wants to get more room on the ice he has to whack and hack right back or get them before they get him as Fleury did in the 90's when he averaged over a-point-a-game in both regular-season and playoffs.

With just a small portion of Fleury's venom, Gaudreau would soon be getting more room to maneuver.  Then he'd start getting back to being among the top players in categories that matter positively.

Jarome Iginla not being included in the NHL's top 100 players last Friday was a bit of a surprise. The likely reason is that while he had 12-or-so great seasons the fact he played on not many good teams hurt him. The 2004 run to Cup final was really the only year in which the Flame gained great league-wide attention.
 

The fact the NHL included current all-stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith as part of six current players (the others Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Ovechkin) on the list of 100 clearly hurt Iginla's chances of being included as well as other current players, Joe Thornton and Zdeno Chara.  Kane, Toews and Keith have been outstanding players but it would have been fairer to have them play a few more seasons before giving such lofty stature.

January 23, 2017

Veteran hockey people will tell you that if a team has a really good goalie it's 70% of the team.

A top netminder covers up for blunders committed by players in front of him, wins games a team may otherwise lose plus gives added confidence to defencemen and forwards.

Teams have won championships without a bellwether in the nets but the chances are enhanced if you have one.

As the Flames hit the 50-game mark, they have a number of issues not the least of which once again is the goalkeeping position.

The best sequence Glen Gulutzan's guys have had this season was from mid-November to January 4 when Chad Johnson was providing sparkling netminding. During that span, the Flames went from last place in the Pacific Division to challenging for first place.

Then Johnson's game slipped.  Brian Elliott, who the Flames surrendered a second round draft pick to acquire from St. Louis to be the #1 goalie, got another opportunity to take the reigns.  Just like the beginning of the season, Elliott couldn't find the stellar play he exhibited with the Blues a year ago.

Thus, the Flames commenced this week before games in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa clinging to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Getting consistently strong goaltending over a sustained period is something the Flames haven't had for as much as they'd like. The get some good stretches from the position but nothing really permanent.  Even during the 2014-15 season when they made the playoffs they rode hot stretches with Jonas Hiller, Kari Ramo and Joni Ortio in the nets.

Over the team's 36 years in Calgary, they've essentially had only two great netminders over long periods of time.

Mike Vernon was that stopper from 1986 to 1993.  Over that span, he backstopped the Flames to their first two trips to the Stanley Cup final including the triumph in 1989 when he finished just behind Al MacInnis for playoff most valuable player.

The team had to wait 10 years before Miikka Kiprusoff came along in November of 2003 when Darryl Sutter acquired him in a trade with San Jose.  Kiprusoff took the Flames to game 7 in the 2004 Cup final and excelled until he retired after the 2012-13 campaign including a Vezina Trophy in 2006 as the NHL's top goalie.

Not getting quality goalkeeping isn't the only reason the Flames have floundered since January 6 but it's where it starts.

Johnson and/or Elliott still have time to grab the mantel this season but it has to commence very soon and last at least three more months.

Otherwise, goaltending shoulders 70% of the blame if the Flames fail to annex a post-season berth.
 

January 16, 2017

With each Flame game I watch I become more-and-more impressed with Matthew Tkachuk.

He’s not likely to win National Hockey League rookie-of-the-year honors this season. He doesn’t have Johnny Gaudreau’s flash-and-dash. Hasn’t been quite as good as the Flames best player so far this season, Mikael Backlund. But the just-turned 19-year-old left winger has the makings to be a very impactful player in the future.

In fact, most night’s now he’s had an extreme effect on Flame games. In many of them a difference-maker as he was last Wednesday (January 11) sparking the Flames to a 3-2 victory over the then top team in the Pacific Division, San Jose Sharks.  Tkachuk on the scores sheet had a goal and an assist and while he didn’t get an assist on the game winner by Doug Hamilton, he set up the screen in front of Sharks goalie Aaron Dill, which paved the way for the goal. He also agitated star defenceman Brett Burns getting him off his game.

The Tkachuk-led triumph over the Sharks vaulted the Flames to within four points of top spot in the division. However, weekend losses to New Jersey and Edmonton saw them start this week eight points away from top spot now held by Anaheim.

The Flames drafted Tkachuk with the sixth overall selection last June.  At the time my sources opinioned he would be a good NHLer but likely was a year away from playing in the league.

He’s gone about his business much quieter than Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine, who were drafted ahead of him, but his consistent overall play is getting recognition around the NHL.

Tkachuk has been a big help in making the “3-M Line” with Mikael Backland and Michael Frolik the Flames top unit and also the team’s shutdown line facing the oppositions best line frequently. They provide solid offense and defence on a nightly basis.

Tkachuk has been a great compliment to his veteran linemates. “Chucky”, as he’s referred to by teammates, standouts on regular statistics and among the advanced stats people as well.

Coach Glen Gulutzan sat Tkachuk out for two games early in the season to give him a look at analyzing the game from the media area overview.  Since he returned from that respite on October 25, Tkachuk has been the Flames top scorer in even strength play with five goals and 19 points. That’s five more points than Gaudreau and six more than Sean Monahan.  The kid, whose father, Keith, played 19 seasons in the NHL, also has been a big contributor on the Flame power play, which has been #1 in the NHL since December 1.

The ‘3-M Line’ have been one of the reasons the Flames forged into the Western Conference playoff race after a dismal start to the season.  On the game-night listing of Flame forward lines they continue to be listed as the #3 unit but performance has dictated they are #1. A 2-1 win on December 8 in Arizona is last time our guys won a game with the ‘3-M Line’ not on the score sheet.

In the tight race to make it to post-season play the Flames need this trio to continue but require top players like Gaudreau, Monahan, Sam Bennett, TJ Brodie and company to elevate their game.

That Tkachuk has been able to raise his game so rapidly is a huge testament to the guy.  Could he have a more productive career than his father?  If he continues to improve and not let his early success engulf him, it’s a possibility.
 

January 10, 2017

The Flames began this season losing both ends of a very rare home-and-home back-to-back set of games against the Edmonton Oilers and have been chasing their provincial rival ever since.

On the next two Saturday night’s they’ll have a two-game set offering the Flames an opportunity to gain ground on the Oilers if not pass them in Pacific Division standing.

The Flames kind of wrote off those 7-4 and 5-3 losses October 12 and 14 to the Oilers as adjusting to a new coach.

This time the skaters have a good grasp on the Glen Gulutzan system just beyond the halfway point of the season.

One month into the campaign on November 12, the Oilers held an eight-point advantage over the Flames.  Since then the Flames have collected five more points than the Oilers and the gap between the two as of January 10 is three points.

That could change before Saturday when the Alberta squad face-off in the provincial capital.  The following Saturday, January 21, they collide in the Scotiabank Saddledome.

At the beginning of this season, writing in this blog, I opinioned that perhaps as soon as the 2017-18 campaign Alberta’s teams could replace the California teams as the powers in the Pacific Division. Currently, San Jose and Anaheim occupy the top two spots in the division with the Oilers, Flames and Los Angeles Kings vying for the #3 position.

Unfortunately, the January 21 tilt is the last time the Flames and Oilers meet this season unless they happen to be playoff combatants which would be the case for sure in the first round if they happened to finish second and third in the Pacific.  Failing that, it’s just the four matches between the two.

Recently while speaking prior at the Flames’ promotion, Dressing Room Experience, along with Theoren Fleury. The team’s #2 all-time scorer recalled one season when the Alberta teams played 18 times against each other including pre-season, regular-season and playoff games.

It’s unlikely the two squads will ever have that many contests as opponents again in one campaign but more than four in the regular-season would be nice.

As recently as the 2011-12 campaign the Flames-Oilers faced off six times on the regular slate but after that a desire to have each NHL team play at least once in every team’s arena brought the reduction.

While Flame fans likely would relish not having to see teams like New Jersey and Buffalo on an annual basis the trade-off to see the Oilers more often would also mean NOT seeing the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh every year.

So, for now, relish these battles the next two Saturday’s and hope that come April the Battle of Alberta heats up big time with a first playoff series in 26 years.
 

January 3, 2017

Currently the Flames are going through the easiest portion of their schedule considering where their opponents are in standings.

Later they’ll have their easiest few games segment.  Then they’ll pay for it to close out the schedule.

On December 23 Glen Gulutzan’s crew began a stretch playing eight of 10 games against teams not in playoff positions with seven of those contests in the Scotiabank Saddledome. Plus just one set of back-to-back games.

After a 4-2 win over Arizona on New Year’s Eve, the Flames so far have won three of the first four contests in the current 10-game portion moving back into a playoff spot in the Western Conference after compiling a 9-4 record in December.  An amazing turnaround considering they were last in the National Hockey League on November 15.

Starting with Wednesday’s home assignment against the current NHL last place squad, Colorado, the Flames play a heavy slate of 13 games in 23 days to close out play in January.

Then some respites.

First it’s the All-Star break then a five-day ‘bye’ week. That means the Flames will play only four games in 17 days from January 27 to February 12.  The regular-season concludes with 26 games over the final 55 day. While that is demanding, a number of other teams have a more hectic finishing schedule.

The five-day ‘bye’ week is new this season. Each team gets the five days with no practices or games at various times beginning this week. For the Flames, that break is February 8-12 which comes seven days after they go five days without a game from January 27-31 for the All-Star stoppage but they’ll have practices on a couple of those days.

The second half of the Flame season is still to be played out but a significant difference from a year ago is a much better balanced scoring attack.

That’s underscored by the fact Mikael Backlund is the team’s top goalgetter at this juncture with 11.  In 2015-16 he finished behind Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan in that department.  By season’s end, the slow-starting Gaudreau and Monahan may well be on top but they are no longer relied upon to turn on the red light every night for team success.

Currently 12 players have contributed five-or-more goals.  At a similar juncture last winter only eight players had five-or-more tallies. 

Better goaltending also has been a key, especially since mid-November.  Brian Elliott has posted four-straight wins, including a #1 star performance on New Year’s Eve, after a poor start in his new surroundings after being traded from St. Louis. He and Chad Johnson, in tandem, could be the defensive keys to the Flames returning to post-season play after a one-year absence.

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