Calgary Flames Review -
Half Way Home
Well that seemed more like home didn't it?
Writing up the quarterly review was a truly
odd experience for the Calgarypuck.com writers.
Goaltending was exceptional, defence was
great, scoring by committee was working and the special teams were sound.
What fun is that? No chance to dice the
team up, kick a squad when they were down, and shout "I told you so's"
from the hill tops.
Then along came December.
Gentleman ... start your word processors!
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Flames Review - Quarter Pole
The Calgary story through the first half has been one of two distinct seasons, a Spring upwards followed by a Fall of epic dimensions.
With another half yet to go and a playoff spot being occupied by a tenuous thread, Flames fans are left wondering which team they'll be seeing though the final 41 games of 2001-2002.
Still, an 18-13-8-2 record to date, if offered up at the same point last year, would have been grasped by most like a Titanic life preserver.
As emotionally draining as this season has been, a glance back at the first half of the season reveals undeniable glimpses of overall improvement.
For the first time since 1994, the Flames are at the halfway mark of a season occupying a playoff spot.
But a 13-2-3-2 first quarter followed by a 5-11-5 second has left owners, management, coaches and fans wringing their hands first in delirium then angst.
But we're not judging this group on the first half. It's the last quarter that's in the spotlight and the results were grim.
Some have speculated that a fat wallet dragged Roman Turek back to earth but in reality a steady parade of defensive gaffes exposed both he and Vernon to the kind of shots most goalies shouldn't see. The team played terrible in front of them and, inevitably, the confidence of both goaltenders began to wilt under the pressure. Both began to give up some bad goals at inopportune times and exacerbated the Flames slide. Goaltending, generally, is only as good as the defence being played in front of it. The Flames have a good one in Turek, as his efforts against Buffalo last night amply illustrated, but he needs some help from his teammates to bring that out.
With Derek Morris spending most of the quarter in sick bay and the backchecking diligence of the forwards going AWOL, its hard to be too tough on these guys. I've always espoused the theory that defencemen are only as good as the forwards slowing up attackers. Far too often in the quarter Calgary goaltenders were exposed to point blank opportunities and while it would be easy to lay that blame at the feet of defencemen there are also three other guys on the ice just as responsible. But there is also little doubt this group went soft in front of their own net through the last 20 games, an issue that needs to be address. The Flames ended the first quarter as one of the top defensive teams in the NHL but were one of the worst in the second quarter. In the end, it will be their ability to keep the puck out of their own net, which will determine if they qualify for the post-season. Time to tighten up.
The Art Ross Trophy calibre season of emerging superstar Jarome Iginla is easily the story in this group although Calgary's dependence on his offence was revealed in December when he hit the inevitable wall and the team skidded into the ditch. But it might be Craig Conroy and Dean McAmmond who have been the surprise catches of the off-season. Career checkers, they continue to quietly put up numbers and, in the case of Conroy, with or without Iginla attached to his right arm. The other story through much of the quarter was the non-production of returning centre Marc Savard followed by a surprising demand to be traded. To his credit Savard spent the Christmas holidays doing some soul searching and has been a valuable contributor of late, particularly on the power play. The rest of the team has been disappointing - or should we say, playing to pre-season offensive expectations. If we didn't think they were better than this in September then why would we be surprised by a lack of offence from the third and fourth lines in December?
Special Teams (F)
Call me a spoil sport or just plain logical but a team which can't kill penalties probably shouldn't be hovering near the league lead in total minutes spent in the box. Calgary's penalty killing was atrocious through much of the quarter and may have been the overwhelming favourite as the key reason this team went into a tailspin when combined with an anemic powerplay. The return of Derek Morris a month from now will help one side of the equation but the PK has been terrible under the last three coaches and needs to be addressed as an emergency priority.
General Manager (B)
He's wound them up and turned them loose and not even a six-week nosedive nor the explosion surrounding Savard seems to have rattled GM Craig Button. A heady acquisition of Petr Buzek points to a GM looking into next year while he pats himself on the back for having five players in today's WJC final between Canada/Russia. Should a 5-11-5 quarter mean a GM should panic and throw the kitchen sink at trying to stop the fall? Or should he continue to build for next season and beyond? Bet on the latter. And his team is the best one this city has had at this point in a season since 1994.
Attendance is down but they stepped up to sign Roman Turek to a big deal and soon, the rumour mill says, Jarome Iginla will be hooked up for four years. They also didn't blink when the Alberta government stiffed them on a lottery deal. One of the wealthier ownership groups in the NHL, they're finally staying out of the way of the hockey people and putting their money on the line. And Lanny returned to the fold. Peace reigns in the land.
If you blinked, you might have missed a great first quarter. And you didn't miss much in the second. Ultimately though, the city will have to demonstrate it wants NHL hockey. Again. A great stretch drive should see interest pick up.
What goes up must come down.
What comes around goes around.
The Lord Giveth and ... ah ... you get the idea.
Looking back on the quarterly review it's amusing to note the exuberance and outright shock in the three writers' offerings ... finally being unshackled and allowed to pen something positive.
There really wasn't much to pick on.
The Flames were out to a fantastic start. They won games they deserved to win, and even picked up wins, ties and overtime losses in games they had no business being in. Life was grand.
All that came crashing down to Earth with a three wins in 19 games run that left the Flames stumbling badly prior to Christmas, threatening to capsize a once promising season.
The five games played since Christmas day have provided the club with some hope and optimism as a .500 record of 2-2-1 has been mined, resulting in the ship being righted to some degree.
As the dust settles on game 41 the Flames sit six games over .500 and that can't be taken away from them no matter which method they used to get to this point. A duplicate of this first half would give them 92 points on the season and a sure playoff spot.
Overall the Flames sit in 14th place, one point back of the 10th place squad.
Goaltending - (B)
Roman Turek's play has been a one-player microcosm of the entire team.
He hasn't been bad in the most recent 20 games, but just not as good as he was in the team's first 20 games, and as a result the results just haven't been there.
Roman Turek is a lot more athletic than this writer gave him credit for upon hearing about the deal this past summer. He moves well for a big man and is able to go post to post with more agility than I suspected. However, in terms of style, Turek uses his mass and positioning to let the puck hit him. The "wall" style is very effective when getting bounces, but can come up short when lady luck looks the other way.
On a priority list of issues plaguing the Calgary Flames, Roman Turek will not rank that highly, as he is sure to provide quality goaltending through the last half of the season.
His back up is another matter.
Mike Vernon finally won his first contest of the season in the second quarter, blanking the Wings by a score of 2-0 at the Saddledome. Sadly he was hurt in that contest, nixing any role the veteran goaltender may have had from the performance.
The team doesn't play consistently in front of Vernon, and Vernon on his own merits has been unable to get things done. He won't see a lot of ice in the second half.
Goaltender 1st Half MVP - Guess!
Defence - (B-)
The Flames defence has seen a change since the 20 game mark as Petr Buzek was acquired for Jeff Cowan and unsigned draft pick Kurtis Foster.
In the nick of time too.
With injuries to Denis Gauthier and Derek Morris, Buzek has quickly been thrust into a 20 minutes per night role, and a blatant baptism under fire.
As a squad, the eight defenceman have seen goals against balloon from the league's best to middle of the pack in the last twenty games. That is as much to do with the forwards and back checking as it is the defencemen and coverage however.
This is a young group with only Bob Boughner and Igor Kravchuk in their full prime (or past) so inconsistency and growing pains will likely continue to plague the group.
Offensively the group has stepped up over a half season, at least compared to their woeful record last year. Last season the Flames defence core secured 17 goals and 112 assists over 82 games and 11 defencemen. This season the group has already scored 13 goals through 41 games, but are well down in the assist department with only 52 through a half season. The injury to Derek Morris is key in this statistic falling off.
Defenceman 1st Half MVP - Bob Boughner
Forwards - (C)
The Calgary Flames, shocking as it may sound, are not that deep up front.
A good start on the strength of scoring by committee made good copy, but was bound to spring a leak at some point.
Spring a leak it did.
The Flames have fallen out of the top ten of the league in offence after being a top five club through most of the first two months of the season. The fact that they sit in 11th place to this point is a testament to how amazing their start really was.
The month of December was particularly harsh to the forwards with many a shut out, and a completely collapsed powerplay.
Jarome Iginla, the team's break out story of the season hit the proverbial wall with only two points in a ten game stretch that saw the Flames anemic at best on the attack.
To date the team still hasn't found a viable second line as Rob Niedermayer continues to be ineffective, and Marc Savard unable, until recently, to recover from a 15 game knee injury.
Forward 1st Half MVP - Jarome Iginla
After the first quarter the task at hand was to estimate how much the Flame's great start meant to the season on balance.
In the second quarter we got our answer; everything and nothing.
The start itself has been completely wiped out by an equally woeful second 20 games, however without that start the Flames would already be left for dead.
As is stands the team is actually in pretty good shape, especially if you are an optimist and believe that the most recent skid was an aberration or consistent with the ebb and flow of an NHL season.
At worst the team is still in a playoff spot, something all success starved Flame fans would relish if told in October of this fate.
Two teams that needed to be bumped out of the picture are still out of the picture (L.A. and Vancouver) leaving the Flames with a head to head battle with a Phoenix Coyote team that is just as likely to slump as themselves.
If the Flames are still in the hunt when they get healthy again later in the month the injuries to this point may actually prove to be a blessing as key defenceman logging big ice time will have had some much needed rest.
At the very least the team should be close enough to make it exciting when the calendar turns to April in three short months.
What a difference 20 games can make. In late-November, the Flames were all but assured of a playoff spot and the talk of the NHL.
Injuries, poor depth, and inconsistent play have plagued the team during the 2nd quarter, and now the Flames find themselves clinging to a playoff spot by the skin of their teeth.
Here's how I breakdown the 2nd quarter:
Romen Turek has continued to be very solid in the 2nd quarter. With the exception of a couple games, he has kept the team close in almost every outing and has been the deciding factor in four or five victories. When Turek wasn't in the net, however, things got scary. Mike Vernon has continued to be inconsistent, while 3rd stringer Kay Whitmore showed why he's a career minor leaguer in his only outing of the season.
Overall, the Flames goaltending has been as good this season as any in recent memory. Turek has provided stability and has given his teammates confidence, even when behind early in the game. Alone, 'Large' would receive an 'A-' grade, but he cannot play every game, which is why the team gets a 'B'.
Even without leader Derek Morris, the defence has continued to be solid throughout the 2nd quarter, although their have been some occasional breakdowns. Toni Lydman may be the most improved Flame in the 2nd quarter and has stepped up his play in the absence of Morris. Denis Gauthier is having a breakthrough year at both ends of ice, while Bob Boughner has been a rock-solid stay-at-home guy. This group, plus Igor Kravchuk, deserves an 'A'.
Robyn Regehr and Petr Buzek have been average at best. Neither has performed up to expectations yet, although they haven't hurt the team with their play. Jamie Allison has struggled in his return to Calgary and will likely see the waiver wire once Morris and Gauthier return.
Overall, the group performed very well defensively during the quarter but was disappointing on the special teams, especially the power play. Their efforts have earned them a B+, the highest rating of any group on the team.
Unlike the defense, Calgary's forwards were inconsistent and often unproductive during the month. Iginla, McAmmond, and Conroy all saw their production decline – but despite this, they were still the tops on the team and would all receive an 'A' rating. Grinders Steve Begin and Clarke Wilm were very effective during the quarter and would receive a 'B' grade. Marc Savard and Rob Niedermayer have both continued to perform below expectations, albeit while still contributing – this too will earn them a low 'B' grade. The rest of the forwards have been disappointing: Dave Lowry didn't score during the quarter; Craig Beurbe ate a lot of popcorn; while Chris Clark, Ron Petrovicky and Scott Nichol all failed to step up their play. Spare parts like Jukka Hentunen, Jamie Wright, and Jeff Shantz didn't hurt the team, but weren't able to provide a spark when the team needed it.
The group needs to play better in the 2nd half. Despite having one of the faster squads in the league, special teams were horrid during the quarter. Guys like Begin, Clark, Wilm, and Nichol must be able to kill penalties in order to stay employed in the NHL. The power play forwards must do a better job at keeping the puck down low and finding 'scoring space'. The forwards are the weakest link on the team right now and their production is a key to the Flames 2nd half success.
Overall (C+) (2nd quarter) - (B) (season-to-date)
If the team continues to play as they did in the 2nd quarter, they will not make the playoffs. This is a worst-case scenario, however, as the 2nd quarter saw Morris and Turek miss games with injuries, while Berube and Nichol missed games due to suspension. The team is capable of playing better and I expect that Greg Gilbert will do everything is his power to ensure that they do.
We've seen the best of times in the first 20 games; let's hope that we've seen the worst of times in the last 20 games.