November 25th, 2002
Calgarypuck.com Season Review
The Quarter Pole
It could be worse.
That’s likely the most positive statement that could be drawn from the first quarter of the Calgary Flames’ NHL season. On the bright side, despite all their struggles—which included a seven-game losing streak—the Flames are only five points back of a playoff spot.
The only other bright spot would be the emergence of the team’s defensive game during the slump. If the team can continue to play well defensively and start scoring at a clip of three goals a game, it’s not out of the question to expect the Flames to start skyrocketing up the Western Conference standings. If Chris Drury returns to the form he exhibited earlier this year and Jarome Iginla starts playing like he did last season, the Flames could become a very dangerous team to play against in the second quarter of the season.
Without further ado, here’s how the Flames stack up at the quarter-pole mark.
Goaltending – B-
Goaltending has been very good so far this season, but there remains some room for improvement.
Turek had a bit of a rough start to the season but just before his injury and in the one game since he returned he’s rounded back into form. His save percentage has climbed from the high 80s to .908 and is destined to go even higher.
The big story in goaltending has been the play of backup netminder Jamie McLennan. With the exception of the 5-0 drubbing against Detroit, McLennan has given the Flames the opportunity to win every single game he started in Turek’s absence. Unfortunately, his 2-8-1 record is clearly a product of the team’s inability to score goals (1.27 goals-per-game with McLennan; 3.00 goals-per-game with Turek).
The only other issue with goaltending is the fact neither Turek nor McLennan have effectively "stolen" a game yet.
Defence - C
Make no mistake, Derek Morris is missed by this hockey club.
There have certainly been some bright spots as Robyn Regehr has bounced back from his minus-24 campaign of a year ago and currently ranks second among blueliners with a +3 rating. Toni Lydman has also stepped up and claimed the role of number-one defenceman. He’s been very strong defensively and leads all defencemen at +4. With two goals and four assists as well as three powerplay points he’s also played well offensively but needs to be better.
In Colorado, Derek Morris has 12 points and seven powerplay points while the Flames have the worst powerplay in the NHL. Jordan Leopold has shown some flashes of brilliance but has also been very error-prone leading to a minus-10 rating.
As expected, Bob Boughner and Denis Gauthier have been steady and Petr Buzek has been a pleasant surprise on defence for most of the season. As a call-up, Steve Montador has also played very well.
If the defence could contribute more offensively this upcoming quarter, it may be enough to bump their rating up to an A. That may be too much to ask from this crew, however.
Forwards - D
Up until eight games ago, the Flames’ forwards were looking at a grade of B+ or better. Since then, they’ve fallen on hard times and have seen their mark drop with their play.
In the off-season, Craig Button acquired a number of players in an effort to boost offensive output. Chris Drury and Martin Gelinas have both played to expectations—and both were exceeding them until the offence dried up eight games ago. Both are on pace for 24 goals. Gelinas also leads the team in plus/minus with +5. Chuck Kobasew is on pace for 24 points which is below the expectations of a 20-goal, 40-point season.
But the biggest disappointment has to be the play of Jarome Iginla. Last season when the team was winning regularly it was because Iginla threw the team on his back and dominated opposing NHL players. He has not shown that same kind of confidence level at any point this season and currently boasts one of the lowest shooting percentages in the league (4.9%).
The biggest surprise has been the outstanding play of the team’s third line. Chris Clark and Stephane Yelle each have nine points at this stage of the season. Pro-rated over the entire season that puts both players close to 40 points which is exactly what the Flames need to be successful.
If only they could get that same amount of production of supposed second liner Rob Niedermayer. With no goals to this point in the season, he’s picked up right where he left off in 2001-02. Some nights Niedermayer has shown the ability to be a force and create plays but he hasn’t had any sort of touch around the net since becoming a Flame in the summer of 2001.
What could the Flames expect heading into the second quarter of the season? For a good portion of the first quarter everything that could have gone wrong did, so logically with a little bit of luck and some improved play from Iginla there’s no reason why Calgary shouldn’t be in a playoff spot at the midway point of the season.
If they find that five-point gap widening over the next 10 or 15 games, without question Craig Button is going to have to make some serious decisions about the direction of the team.
It was the best of times … it was the worst of times.
When Charles Dickens brought the above passage to popular culture he likely had more troubling issues to contend with then a hockey team’s on ice frustrations, but hey it still fits.
The first quarter of the 2002-03 hockey season literally had it all.
A team that came out of the blocks scoring goals and giving them up on a dizzying pace, not seen in Calgary since the 1980’s, then not one but two record setting streaks of futility making the goal-fest at the beginning seem more like a dream than reality.
The Flames top goaltender Roman Turek went down with a busted finger and missed ten games, but unlike past seasons the Flames actually showed some depth in this position when Jamie McLennan stepped in and did the job admirably.
The newly acquired Chris Drury and Stephane Yelle had starts to the Flame chapters in their careers that greatly resembled the team itself - offensive leadership early then a barren desert to follow.
So where do they stand? How good a team is this?
Lord only knows.
When the season started I had mentioned that a more even flow to a season, with ten game segments featuring 10 to 12 points apiece was the way back to the playoffs for the Calgary Flames. Not the burst out of the gates followed by a swoon of last season.
All was well in the first ten game segment with exactly ten points (3-3-2-2) captured. However the second segment featuring a cryptic seven game slide (2-6-1-1). A streak that was finally halted with game one of the third segment with a 3-1 victory of the Hawks.
When the dust settled the Flames found themselves in a three-way tie for 12th place in the Conference looking up at teams they simply must pass in Edmonton, Anaheim, Columbus and Chicago.
The even keel approach to the season is now out the window as the Flames will have to make up for a brutal second segment.
Anyway a look at the particulars ...
Defence was likely the most intriguing area of the club to keep one’s eye on when the season began. With the perennial number one man, Derek Morris, surgically removed from the lineup each and every remaining defenceman was asked to take a step up. They did. Toni Lydman and Robyn Regehr each made quantam leaps towards their potential making the loss of Morris nominal. The addition of rookie Jordan Leopold should prove to be a shot in the arm for the powerplay, that is if the kid can bury half of the chances he is getting to date.
If told before the season began that Roman Turek would go down to injury missing exactly half of the club’s first quarter – I think I’d cringe and insist on not watching the horror play out. The Calgary Flames simply can’t afford injuries to their key players, and Roman Turek is likely the key of keys. To everyone’s surprise, however, the newly acquired backup Jamie McLennan stepped in and did an unbelievable job – but didn’t get the wins he deserved because of the club’s feeble offence. The experience, with Turek now back in the fold, was a positive one, setting the Flames up with their best one/two combination in decades.
Great early … simply terrible since. A payroll in the bottom third of the league isn’t expected to blow teams out on a nightly basis, but the Calgary Flames slid a fair bit further into offensive oblivion than their lineup should suggest. The addition of Martin Gelinas, Chris Drury, Stephane Yelle and rookie Chuck Kobasew should have given the club the necessary components to build a second line and support 2002 all stars Craig Conroy and Jarome Iginla. The problem? The first went into a funk giving the club literally no offence at all. Jarome Iginla is a good person, but his big contract suggests a certain level of a production, and he isn’t coming through. He needs to find a way to deal with the pressure and get back on track or he alone will sink this club this season. Murphy’s Law has to be on the Flames’ side on this one.
Stop me if you've heard this one before ... the Calgary Flames are not as bad as their record dictates. The team has depth at all positions for the first time in memory, but the depth just isn't coming through on the offensive side of the puck. It's a long season, and quite often these things have a way of evening themselves out. But the hole has already been dug. At three games under .500 the Flames will have to play 13 games over .500 for the remainder of the season to lock down a playoff spot - that's a record similar to 32-19-10, no easy feat.
Tale of Two Seasons
It’s amazing what a difference three weeks can make. On November 6th, the Calgary Flames sat comfortably in a playoff spot with a 5-3-3-3 record. Less than three weeks later, the team is coming off one of its worst slumps in franchise history, and is only trailed in the NHL standings by Atlanta, Buffalo, and Nashville.
It remains to whether the Flames can regain their scoring touch which saw them score at least three goals in 12 of 13 consecutive contests earlier this season. If they can, it shouldn’t take the team long to get back into the playoff race in the tight Western conference. It may be hard to believe, but the Flames are only four points out of a playoff spot at the quarter pole of the season.
Here’s how I rank the team through the first quarter.
It’s hard to fault either Roman Turek or Jamie McLennan for any of the Flames’ woes this season. Turek has performed as expected -- steady, but unspectacular -- while McLennan has been outstanding as a fill-in. However, neither goaltender has been able to steal points for the team this year. This will have to change if Calgary hopes to get back on the winning track.
Everything has fallen in place for the blueline so far this season. Toni Lydman has replaced Derek Morris as the #1 guy, Jordon Leopold has stepped in and played over 20 minutes a night, while Robyn Regehr is arguably the most improved player on the team. However, the defensemen have shown their lack of experience at times and have not been able to create offensive chances. Depth as always, has been an issue, and the Flames have been forced to play two rookies on the blueline on nine different occasions this year. I won’t be surprised if Craig Button adds a veteran to this group via a trade or a signing.
Individually, there are some solid performers. But as a group, two goals in a span of seven games is completely unacceptable. Jarome Iginla has been very ordinary, Craig Conroy has looked out of place on the top line, and Chris Drury has all but disappeared in the month of November. The grinders, especially Chris Clark, Mattias Johansson, and Blake Sloan, have provided some hope… but the numbers don’t lie. Only Nashville has scored fewer goals than the Flames, and this has got to change if Calgary hopes to turn their season around.
While the players need to be held accountable for their performance so far, it’s hard to overlook the 30th ranked power play and the (seemingly) daily line combination changes. Greg Gilbert needs to take control of this team and have them in a playoff position by Christmas if he wants to keep his job.
General Manager (B)
Craig Button’s preseason moves have all looked pretty good. Martin Gelinas, Chris Drury, Stephane Yelle, and Jamie McLennan have all played a key part in the Flames season. His only real mistake, in my opinion, was not moving Marc Savard this summer, even if the return was minimal. Despite these positive moves, Button’s job is also on the line, and his return to Calgary next season is doubtful if the Flames fail to make the playoffs.
If the coach is on death row you know it hasn't been a good 20 game segment.
Only three weeks ago the Flames looked to be recovering from a so-so start, their record 5-3-3-3, a couple of key road wins under their belts, points in nine of ten games, scoring three or more goals in eight straight, the goals against average finally in retreat . . . . . . and then the bottom fell out.
Or parts of it did, primarily offence, but proved such a drawback that the gaping mah of a bottomless well was the only floor being provided in a horrific and demoralizing seven game losing skid.
They're sub-.500 and gazing upwards at a playoff spot.
GOALTENDING - Jamie McLennan, in the minors all of last year, was the feel-good story of the quarter, coming in after an injury to number one man Roman Turek and providing a classic performance by a back-up, giving up two or fewer goals in nine of 11 starts. And Turek's return on the weekend was highlighted by a gem in a 3-1 win over Chicago. An indifferent start to the year by Turek shouldn't hide the fact he and McLennan have been the least of Calgary's problems the last month. Grade B+
DEFENCE - The Flames are ascending the NHL ladder in defensive proficiency, stalling through the month of October in the bottom third of the NHL but finishing the quarter 14th overall after giving up two or fewer goals (minus two empty net goals) in 10 of their last 12 games. Robyn Regehr has likely been Calgary's most dependable rearguard night in and night out and who would have thought that after last year's confused mayhem where Regehr was one of the worst plus/minus performers of the season. But his teaming with another seriously improved and underrated rearguard, Toni Lydman, has created one of the NHL's better combo's. Denis Gauthier is the guy who was eventually given the unenviable task of covering for the hyper-talented but still high-risk rookie Jordan Leopold, the latter learning as he goes and you-know-what-that-means in the NHL on the defensive side of the puck. The much-maligned Petr Buzek has been surprisingly steady the last few weeks, paired first with Bob Boughner and later Steve Montador, but settling down into a workmanlike performance after a rough start. Grade B
FORWARDS - They scored three or more goals in eight straight games and were ranked 11th overall in the league offensively until three weeks ago. Then they went cold. Real cold. Arctic cold. Three goals in seven games, all losses. Even when things were going well they weren't for Jarome Iginla, on pace now for an improbable, if not disastrous, 16 goal season. How do you rate this Jekyl and Hyde performance? With an F for failing to provide anything in the way of support during those critical seven games when two goals or more would have produced points in six of them. Are there a few bright spots? Take out the wow lack of finish recently and we can see Chris Clark and Chuck Kobasew each on pace for 20 goals, both providing the extra support to the efforts of the first line GM Craig Button had identified as an off-season priority. Mattias Johansson is finally a European experiment going very right for the Flames. Stephane Yelle is a significant upgrade over Jeff Shantz. But where are you Rob Niedermayer? His play may have improved significantly on the physical side but his appalling lack of finish continues to be an anchor. And Martin Gelinas is off on one of his patented cold strings, a fixture of his career no matter where he's been. He'll be back, because he always comes back, but sooner would be better than later. And Chris Drury looked like the second coming of Peter Forsberg then was gone for seven games like the rest of them. Then again, who knew the first line would disappear so badly and so thoroughly for the entire quarter? The guys being paid to score have been hurting this team. Grade F
COACHING - Here's the rub. The up and down. The penalty kill has moved into the top half of the league after being a disaster under four different coaches, including the current one. The numbers have been helped significantly by a stunning turnaround in team discipline, a squad that couldn't kill penalties taking scads of them but now virtual choirboys night in and night out. Team defence, which we had identified here as another point of contention last summer, has improved significantly in the past month. But the power play is 30th and is killing them. Dead. Just as the more favourable points above are pluses for the coaching staff so to is the powerplay a knock against them. But coaches are eventually weighed on one category only though - wins and losses. The methods (The Great Savard Debate) are only questioned when the latter outweighs the former and a seven game losing skid, however bizarre it might have come about, is enough to generate unwanted scrutiny and perhaps, inevitably, more serious action. What have you done for me lately? Grade D.
GENERAL MANAGER - His off-season moves, as well as most moves during his tenure, have been well-regarded but sometimes a lack of movement can be equally illuminating. With the Chris Drury swap still a hopeful thought he chose to delay action on a Marc Savard trade request, until it became an unwanted distraction for everyone concerned. And he may still be called on to make a big mid-season trade or take action on a new coach if the Chicago win on Saturday hasn't ended the recent lengthy swoon. Grade C, the Drury/Yelle pickups, the Mattias Johansson signing, all offset by the lengthy resolution to the Savard situation.
FANS - I always like including this category because a team that has gone 13 years without a playoff win - think of a team with a Phil Housley-like playoff record - and faces a seventh consecutive year out of the playoffs but can still draw 15,000 plus on a nightly basis must have some great fans. Or Calgary is loaded with wealthy manic depressives. Grade A