Calgary Flames Review - At the Quarter Poll
November 21, 2001
With 20 games on the season Calgarypuck.com provides a first term report card for the Calgary Flames.
This season the staff had to get out their erasers as the routine D's and F's from past season's starts no longer apply to the southern Alberta squad.
Each writer grades the team's goaltending, forwards and defenceman, as well as providing additional insight into the team's first quarter.
It was repeated over and over again throughout the summer that this was the make-it-or-break-it season for the Calgary Flames. As one quarter of the season has gone by, the consensus is that this team has made it. Big time.
13-2-3-2 after 20 games. Nobody could have possibly predicted success of this magnitude. In the past, the Flames have always had stretches where they get on a roll, but this is more than that. Usually the streak would last for periods of five to seven games, or it would be a segment of 15-20 games where the team plays slightly over .500.
The success enjoyed by the 2001-02 Calgary Flames has not been seen by an entire generation of hockey fans. To put it in perspective, a 15-year old today was eight or nine when the Flames last won their division.
This season is in direct contrast to the 1995-96 campaign, where, on the heels of a 1995 Pacific Division title, the club stumbled out of the gate to a 3-15-5 start. That particular team ended up with a 25-14-6 in their next 45 games as they clawed their way back from the hole they dug for themselves. No matter how the Flames do in the final three quarters of the season, their incredible start will pay a huge factor in the team's final standing come April.
Questions still remain on how the final 60 games will go. Will the Flames continue their climb up the ladder or go the way of the 1998-99 Phoenix Coyotes, who started the season at 17-3-3 and then faded fast. All three facets of the team--goaltending, forward and defence—have been good enough and consistent enough to believe that they will, in fact, not fade. But there is room for improvement.
Roman Turek has been everything the Flames have been looking for since Mike Vernon left the team for the first time in 1994. Since Vernon's departure, a countless number of goaltenders have tried their hand at the number one goaltending position in Calgary. Among them, Trevor Kidd, Rick Tabaracci, Ken Wregget, Fred Brathwaite, Grant Fuhr and even Vernon himself.
Turek deserves the highest grade attainable, A+, because he has solidified this team and turned it into a contender. He doesn't look spectacular back there, he simply makes the saves he is supposed to make.
He rarely, if ever, lets in an early goal that would put his team on its heels immediately. One of the biggest problems with last season's team was the alarming number of goals Vernon and Brathwaite allowed on the first shot of the game. The Flames were, and still are, a team with wavering confidence. Falling behind early did not help their confidence at all.
The other reason Turek earns an A+ is because he does not allow the "back breaking" goal that has plagued this team for the past half-decade. It always seemed that whenever the team would start to get back into a game in past years, they would allow a goal that put the game away for the opposing team. This year Turek keeps them in those games and they end up tying, or sometimes even winning, instead.
Goaltending receives an overall grade of A- because of Vernon. If he were sharper in the Blackhawks game he likely would have played in four or five games by now instead of two. Turek has yet to not earn a point in a game while Vernon has failed to earn a point. That is not a coincidence. The team has no confidence in him and the team has had to play Turek more often than they probably would have liked to as a result. In order for the Flames to continue to be successful this season, they're going to need Vernon to step up and play 15 or 20 games.
The Flames defence corps have done everything that has been asked of them all season long. Derek Morris and Robyn Regehr have emerged as legitimate first-line defencemen. Averaging 25:29 and 23:20 respectively, the two eat up a large amount of ice time. And even though both are almost always stacked up against the opponent's top line, they rate +7 and +2.
Denis Gauthier and Toni Lydman have both also come of age. Gauthier picks his spots now when hitting opponents and is rarely caught out of position. Lydman leads the team in powerplay points, one ahead of Morris.
Bob Boughner and Igor Kravchuk round out arguably one of the best defence corps in the entire NHL. They limit their mistakes and chip in with a big play every now and then to spark the club. Boughner is a +11 on the season, while Kravchuk is +7. The stats tell the story here about the value of each to the Flames.
But there is room for improvement. One goal is not nearly enough for Morris at this juncture in the season. As Iginla's production tapers off, the team is going to need Morris to step it up offensively. Lydman's –5 rating is worst on the team. Jamie Allison has not provided the insurance needed from a seventh defenceman.
Up front, the Flames forwards played far better than expected, and perhaps as well as this group could be asked to perform.
Still, the talent up front remains thin as Jarome Iginla carries their success on his shoulders. Beyond Iginla (33 points), Craig Conroy (20) and Dean McAmmond (18) the next ranked player is Dave Lowry, with eight points. Having Marc Savard back should help immensely but Rob Niedermayer and his seven points has been a terrible disappointment on the offensive side of things. Marc Savard, in only five games, has only one less point than Niedermayer.
Niedermayer has done well defensively, but he needs to produce—especially when Conroy and McAmmond start to cool off. Scott Nichol has been a great surprise and a solid contributor even strength and on the penalty kill.
As for the role players, Clarke Wilm and Ronald Petrovicky have been fantastic. They have chipped in offensively every now and then, and fore-checked tenaciously in every game, giving the Flames a spark.
Jamie Wright, Chris Clark, Craig Berube and Jukka Hentunen have been good, if not spectacular. Dave Lowry is only slightly behind last year's pace of 35 points and continues to be valuable.
The Flames forwards as they are, likely aren't capable of achieving an "A+" grade. As the season progresses, Craig Button likely needs to look into acquiring a front line forward to help balance the attack a little. It won't be long before teams start keying on Iginla and work to shut him down, and when he is rendered ineffective the rest of the team will find themselves suddenly struggling to win 1-0 or 2-0 games.
Will it last?
It has been asked time and again throughout the first couple months of the season. Are the Calgary Flames for real? And, if they are, how 'for real' are they?
Are they a playoff team; are they Stanley Cup contenders or simply a group of players playing well over their heads and due for a major downfall any day now?
I think the answer will come by the midway point of the season. The fact is, this club is much better than anything the city has seen since the 1993-94 season.
When they are on their game, they play a smothering defensive style that gives up very few chances to the opposition—and when they do get a chance to score Roman Turek is often there to turn the puck away. Calgary pressures the puck and forces their opponents to make a mistake. This is Flames hockey at its finest over the last 20 games.
When they are off their game, they are hard pressed to score a goal. They give up a lot of shots and are often caught running around while on the penalty kill.
Which team will show up the majority of the time from games 21 through 41? Only time will tell.
Overall Grade: B+
Where the heck did these guys come from?
That the Flames are better defensively this year and not only a top seven team on their own side of the red line as coach Greg Gilbert wanted but second overall isn't necessarily a huge surprise.
But most observers are amazed Calgary has been able to form an offensive mountain out of a relative molehill of talent.
Calgary currently ranks sixth in league offence when even the most optimistic of projections would have had them coming in the bottom 10 of a 30 team league.
Thanks to the goalscoring splurge, the Flames are 13-2-3-2 at the quarter pole. After 22 games last season, Calgary was 5-11-3-3 and, in my own words in last year's quarterly report, "fading, fading, fading . . . . ."
With only two regulation time losses in 20 games, the local boys have earned five stars on their report cards.
In spite of an off night against LA yesterday, it doesn't get any more "A" than a team .926 save percentage and a goals against average of 1.96, mostly on the back of Roman Turek, former "klutz" in the words of one St. Louis columnist now turned "saviour" in the eyes of most scribblers in Cowtown. We had Calgary's goaltending ranked a "B" at the start of the campaign but Turek has played above expectations, helped immensely by improved defensive play throughout the roster. And Mike Vernon . . . . . . well, he's been heroic and mercifully unlike Trevor Kidd, keeping his mouth shut while warming the bench. It's a long season and Vernon will get his chance, particularly when the schedule gets a little more cramped than it has been of late.
Another strength with the team and rated "B" in our pre-season measurement but we'll give them an "A" at the quarter season mark. The young people are progressing as one might hope while the older guys are providing a stabilizing leadership type influence. Bob Boughner has been worth every penny he was given for the intangibles, the invisible factors he brings to the team and the locker room. Toni Lydman still has much to learn but he's still 100% better than he was at this time last year. Derek Morris, who appeared to have seen his development stall for the last two years, is once more on a growth track while Denis Gauthier and Robyn Regehr are on a steep angle maturation curve. And Igor Kravchuk is quietly putting together a fine campaign.
Injury riddled, with the top three centres together for only three of 20 games this year, this group is doing something they haven't collectively done in more than half a decade - backcheck. It would probably be more appropriate to talk of the stunning Art Ross Trophy season of Jarome Iginla but the biggest contribution this group of forwards has made this season is to the defensive side of the game. Without them hustling deep into their own zone, the "A" grade of Calgary's defencemen would rapidly disappear, and probably the "A" grade of Roman Turek as well. We are pleased to note with some smugness that our mid-summer prediction that Calgary was building one of the fleetest lineups in the league, and that speed is the key to top notch defence, is playing out true to form. But the offensive performance of the forwards has been a jaw-dropping surprise and while much of that might be laid at the feet of Iginla, he is not the sole reason this team is on pace for a 40 goal improvement over last year. Craig Conroy has stepped up with a performance reminiscent of an earlier Doug Gilmour while Dean MacAmmond has provided grit and speed on the wing. We know they can play defence. But can they keep scoring? They've earned their "A" grade. If it's still there at the halfway mark we'll call it a trend.
Walking on air at the moment, so don't bother him. Like his team, Button has gone from zero to hero in a matter of months; his much criticized moves working out virtually without exception. He has to know that this miraculous start, while interesting, requires more than a one-man show from Iginla to be sustained at its current tempo. And so we expect some wheeling and dealing between now and March to land an elusive scoring winger. But we'll grant Button a terrific quarter and a further slap on the back for signing two key potential unrestricted free agents to affordable contracts.
The losses are starting to get a little painful, even for one of the most well-heeled ownership groups in the NHL. They have the dough but who likes to lose $10 million a year even if you're finally having fun? Give them credit for hanging in there when others might have walked. Better yet, keep the congratulations and buy tickets. A cloud on the horizon was the announcement yesterday of a paltry lottery arrangement with the province, a deal that looks suspiciously like capitulation on one of the four pillars ownership had identified as critical to the team remaining in Calgary. But they came up with the dough for Turek and they'll do the same with Iginla.
Where the hell are you guys? Time to step up. Or lose your team. There's nothing more to complain about.
A good start.
Three simple words, but quite honestly a must in today's parity stricken NHL. Come out of the gates slow and you play catch up all season, and with ninety points, or eight games over .500 as a target, often the up hill climb proves too steep to achieve.
The rhetoric coming out of Flames camp in each of the past three seasons has surrounded the "start".
`We never got that established. Last year we had five wins in our first 26 games. It was absolutely pathetic. I don't think that's going to happen this year", Mike Vernon told the Calgary Sun on the even of the season opener.
A fact echoed by Jarome Iginla when he uttered "Our starts have really hurt us, if we were .500 in October, we'd have made the playoffs some of those years. We know it's a big part of the season. We know how important it is. Not many teams battle back from terrible starts.''
But what is a good start?
Given the comparisons that can be drawn from the last few seasons one could make a case for anything close to a .500 record.
They've been that bad.
If you're a mathematician by trade a simple pro-ration of an 82 game 90 point season would suggest 22 points would be the pace needed to show signs of getting back to the post season dance.
What we've seen this fall however far exceeds the terms "start", or "streaky", or a "good run", a quarter of a season is a quarter of a season and the Flames sit unbelievably near the top.
So how has this happened? How could so many local and national print and television experts be so wrong about a team that has continued to defy logic and hold their lofty standing.
As is often the case, the reasons are plentiful.
Goaltending - A+
The Calgary Flames are quite simply enjoying the best goaltending the club has seen since Mike Vernon broke into the league as a rookie during the 1986 season. Roman Turek's performance to date may even exceed Vernon when you think about the team's current cast, and the type of offensive support Vernon was afforded in the 1980's.
The "Turek Factor" seems to be a cyclical phenomenon that has taken the team further than any other positive event in recent history.
Flawless goaltending breeds confidence which in turn breeds better positional play which leads to less chances on Turek, which leads to less of a need to stand on his head.
Even through some trying injuries, Roman Turek has continued to be a very reliable stopper, giving the team a chance to win every night, and snatching points from the opposition on his own on a couple of occasions.
Defence - A
You would think that a team with the league's second best defensive record would garner a defence grade of A+, but not in this case.
The young core, bolstered by free agent acquisition Bob Boughner have been great, but the man in the nets has played a larger role to goals against than the defenders.
They've been good, but Turek has been great.
Armed with a new found confidence due partially to early season success and a new head coach that seems to advocate creativity, the Flames defence core have stepped up their contribution to the offensive side of things.
To date the Flames defenceman sit 7th in the league in terms of scoring from the blueline, with 39 points in 20 games. Last year the Flames were well down the list in this category.
As a crew they are well matched with three puck rushers in Derek Morris, Toni Lydman and Igor Kravchuk, plus three physical defenders to offset the previous groups talents in Bob Boughner, Denis Gauthier and Robyn Regehr.
This group will need to continue to be a factor if the Flames are to stay in the hunt for home ice in the playoffs.
Forwards - B+
The acquisition of Roman Turek was supposed to lead to above average goaltending.
The formation of a solid blueline crew was supposed to lead to better team defence.
Though both of the above have even exceeded those expectations, there has been no bigger surprise than the Flames ability to put the puck in the net.
Led by the torrid start to the league's best young powerforward, Jarome Iginla, the team continues to score at a clip that no one could have envisioned.
Scoring by committee is often the plan from a team with no other options. It's an easy phrase to walk out to avoid the honesty approach of "we'd better trap them to death because I can't see us scoring more than a goal or two per game".
However in this instance it appears to be working. Goals from unexpected sources can happen in small spurts, but the Flames have found the ability to keep it up through one quarter of the season.
Maintaining the plan could prove the difference down the stretch however.
Some have lauded the Flames with praise, announced the arrival of a new formidable NHL foe, and given the spunky team full credit for their start.
Others continue to insist it can't last, and that hot goaltending and luck has carried them this far.
Bottom line is the points in the standings, and with 31 in 20 games the Flames now control their own destiny.
Win as many as they lose through the remainder of their schedule and the Flames are back in the playoffs.
Their "start" was that good.