October 12th, 2016 | Posted in Commentary
By: D'Arcy McGrath
Every writer in every hockey city is asked to predict in some form or another the results of the hockey team they cover.
In some situations it’s easy. A Chicago writer can probably predict with some degree of certainty that things will go pretty well in the Windy City for the Blackhawks this winter; as they always seemingly do.
Other scribes are in denial and predict a playoff performance for their club, either because they drink the cool-aide or perhaps they fear for their jobs if they don’t, but those are pretty easy to see through.
But for most teams in most cities, there are always a healthy collections of “ifs” that exist, tipping points that when many go right or many go wrong the season can turn on a dime.
Up until 24 hours ago the Calgary Flames had an insurmountable “if” hanging over them, one that made any of the prediction game a complete waste of time. The Flames without Johnny Gaudreau to start the season, and for how long? Clearly a hazy black cloud that would weigh down the remainder of the parameters and make the whole exercise futile. With that hanging in the balance I sat on this prediction piece, knowing there was no point with the big white (ok, little) elephant in the room.
However now that the face of the franchise has landed a team friendly 6 year $40.5M contract it’s time to actually look at this team and what we can expect this winter.
What Could Go Wrong?
Slow Start – Always such a key to any team that looks to be on the bubble of light and darkness when April roll around. How teams start come down to a myriad of factors including; the schedule, the injury list to start a season, age of the team (mental toughness). Currently, the biggest worry for the Flames is the fact that their first line hasn’t had a shift of preseason time together, not a whiff. Gaudreau signed and back in the fold to join a Sean Monahan that has only played on dress rehearsal, and likely Kris Versteeg who just jointed the team on game day. This could mean the offence may be thin to start the season. However, they certainly look better than they did on Sunday with Linden Vey and Micheal Ferland on the top line, so that’s something. The Flames may have a rebuilt second line with a chance to pitch in, but without Gaudreau said 2nd line would have essentially be a first line putting way too much pressure on both Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk.
Too much change – starting a season with a new coaching staff is a tough adjustment period. It sends you head first into new defensive systems, a different forecheck, a new break out, plus completely revamped special teams. Some players learn quickly, others take a lot more time to learn the ropes. Once again, missing Gaudreau and Monahan for training camp only hurts the club’s chances to get off to quick start in a new structure. … That’s not the end of it though; the Flames are pushing the envelope further by breaking up their top defense pairing to avoid the cliff that is the third duo while also moving Brodie to the left side. The idea is to build three pairings that can play instead of two with an exposed third pairing. An interesting theory unless it marginalizes all three pairings. Time will tell. I’d imagine they’ll settle on a rotation that has the Giordano pairing, Brodie pairing and Hamilton pairing followed by a rotation of Brodie and Giordano together, but we will see.
Key Injuries – the ultimate cop out as injuries will kill most NHL franchises should they happen to the wrong players at the wrong times and for punishing durations. The Flames of 2016-17 have more depth. They could probably handle an injury or two this year, at least more than in seasons past. They have a capable backup, three solid centers, a few wingers that can score, and three solid defensemen that can carry the load. But I wouldn’t push it …
What Could Go Right?
A solid foundation – last season couldn’t chart any direction but poorly when you look back at it. The year started with three goaltenders wondering who would be #1 (the answer ended up as none of them by the way), which was bad enough. But the next line of help in front of them featured a captain recovering from a refastened bicep, TJ Brodie on the sidelines with a training camp injury, and the newly acquired Dougie Hamilton looking like a deer in headlights with the weight of the planet on his ginger shoulders. How could it not go into the tank? … Fast forward to this camp and you have all three defenseman healthy, Hamilton coming off a great second half and feeling very much a Flame. Plus the foundation of two veteran goaltenders with clearly defined roles and unlikely to be shaken or looking over their shoulders after a bad start or two. Huge change.
More Depth Up Front – The Flames got behind the playoff eight ball early a year ago, but when they were going well they had a top line that was firing on all cyllinders and a second line that featured Michael Backlund, Michael Frolik and a converted winger out of young center Sam Bennett. The team fell off a cliff after the top six, but they were solid enough to win some games and move the team into the top ten in goal scoring last season. This year much in the way that Scotty Bowman ran his team’s through the decades, the Flames feature a trio of pairs that look to have balanced out the top three lines. With Monahan and Gaudreau, Bennett and Troy Brouwer, and Backlund and Frolik the Flames have the makings of three solid lines to throw out in waves when things start for real tonight. They key will be the rotation of the other bodies through the slots to make the trios effective. The trickle down effect should make the fourth line a little more sand papery as well as all of Lance Bouma, Matt Stajan and Alex Chiasson are strong enough defensively to hold their own.
A Healthy Cavalry – the Flame’s system has come a long way in the past five seasons. From trying to get your head around writing the “Eric Nystrom” article every summer (prospect feature) to a team that has a well stocked farm system with players approaching NHL ready. Should the Flames run into an injury or two they have answers at all positions; from Jon Gillies in goal, Tyler Wotherspoon and Oliver Kylington on the blueline, to Mark Jankowski down the middle, or Hunter Shinkaruk and Emile Poirier on the wings, there are players ready to jump in and prove they shouldn’t be sent back. This is to say nothing of the big question mark surrounding Daniel Prybil.
My puck! – Sure a new system could be a boat anchor for the month of October, but what if said coaching staff is cerebral and modern enough to use the club’s roster to it’s most effective use, with a plan to keep the puck and push the play? The Flames have mobile defensemen, strength through the middle, young talent that love to create, and veterans like Micheal Backlund that own the possession game. Could be a great recipe for success if Glen Gulutzan is the man to push the buttons to take the Flames to the next level.
Summing it up …
I think by now I’ve shown enough cards to make it pretty clear I’m picking the Flames to improve this season. That’s hardly a surprise however, given the team’s tire fire of a 2015-16 season. With the improvement in goaltending, the maturation of young players like Monahan, Gaudreau and Hamilton, the ascension into stardom expected for TJ Brodie, and the expected break out looming from Sam Bennett, the Flames are going to move up the standings this season.
The question is how much?
Most central predictions this season have suggested the Flames at 90 points (thereabouts) and a spot just outside the playoff teams. That would hardly be a disappointment as the young team would have improved enough to suggest better things are afoot for the franchise.
I’m aiming higher however.
I see a 95 point season and a wild card race for the ages. There’s a chance that the Ducks could fall on their Randy Carlyle butts and push themselves out of the division safety spots as well, but either way the Flames will go down to the final weekend and either squeak in or lose in heart breaking fashion at the wire.
Buckle up y’all, it’s going to be a fun ride this season!