Calgary Flames Review -
Three Quarter Mark
Sometimes the best gauge for the future can be found by gazing into the past.
The Flames reached the three-quarter mark of their season with a convincing 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday night, and with that win they managed to move a game over .500 through 61 games, and sit five points out of a playoff spot.
Where do they go from here?
Last season at this point the team was already well into a slide that saw them only win only seven of their last 26 games, this season they've actually gone the other way finding points in five of their last six.
But with a daunting road trip ahead of them the time to put up or shut up is now, and it won't be easy.
The Flames managed 32 points in their first quarter, 14 in their second quarter, and 16 points in their third quarter to put things in perspective. They'll need to find at least 25 points in their final quarter in order to at least be a factor in the race for the final playoff birth.
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A couple of feel good wins at the end of this quarter shouldn't alter the observation that the Flames were only two points better than they were the previous 20 game segment.
Calgary was winners of only seven of its last 20 games, two of those this week in finishing the quarter at 7-11-1-1, up marginally from the 5-11-5 mark earlier and well off the 13-2-3-2 pace at the start of the season.
In order to make the playoffs, they will have to resemble the earlier world-beaters of the start of the year instead of the deadbeats they've been recently.
If there is some hope, it has been the recent return of some key players from injuries (Derek Morris, Dean McAmmond) as well as the improved performance of centre Marc Savard - a vital factor if this team is to make the heady surge it will need to qualify for post-season play.
The Olympic break also seemed to give the troops a chance to reflect, regroup and come back stronger mentally as well as physically, their 2-0-1 start post-Olympics reflecting their improved two-way play.
Goaltending - B
Take out the three worst starts for this team - all of which had more to do with lousy defensive play than goaltending - and Calgary's goals against average through the last 20 games falls from 2.85 to a respectable 2.35. Goaltending has not been the problem. Surrendering point blank opportunities via missed assignments is.
Defence - C
A mixed bag with the strong play of Bob Boughner balanced off by some uncharacteristic poor starts from Denis Gauther as well as the generally sub-par efforts of youngster Robyn Regehr. Derek Morris struggled defensively in the first weeks back from a serious wrist injury but has looked better in the last three games. Defence has to be the strength of this team if it is to have any chance to succeed. But we'll cut this group a break since defence is also about forwards back checking - something missing for much of the quarter.
Forwards - D
Through a stretch of eight games where Jarome Iginla collected only two points, the Flames were 1-7, which is a sad commentary on how thin this team is in the forward ranks. Flames were also hurt by the absence of McAmmond, Rob Niedermayer, Chris Clark and other forwards through the last segment, an already thin group reduced to skeleton status. Not helping either was the continued poor two-way play of key man Savard. The forwards were also guilty of weak defensive zone coverage, which, if you want to know the truth, probably hurt this team more than a lack of scoring. If there is any good news here it would be the return to health of many of the injured in recent games, resulting in a 2-0-1 start from the Olympic break.
Coach Greg Gilbert - B
Others will surely toast the coach after an eventful quarter where he stripped a respected veteran of his captaincy and used both the whip and group hugs in an effort to keep his charges from sinking into oblivion. Frankly, I agreed with the move to change captains, allowing Gilbert to bring accountability to bear on the poor play of Dave Lowry. Players returning from injury have also allowed Gilbert to sit out offenders like Regehr as well. Gilbert seemed to grow weary of the challenge after a loss in Anaheim prior to the Olympics, lashing his team from top to bottom. But as much as his players needed a break so too did Gilbert, who seems refreshed a focussed in the last week and a half. He's still in the hunt for a playoff spot although it's a long shot now - but that's still more than his predecessors could claim at this time the last six seasons.
General Manager Craig Button - D
He promised last summer that he wouldn't repeat the mistakes of the previous year but once again kept a forward stirring the pot in his dressing room while a lack of trades to upgrade the forward ranks may have been a key reason for a piddling away of a terrific start. Tempering those remarks is the fact that trading activity around the league remains low for the second consecutive year and Savard put Button in an impossible situation that likely would have yielded only a draft pick in return. Look for moves prior to the trade deadline, however.
special teams -
Flames penalty killing actually improved significantly in the last 20 games. Take out a Vancouver start where they surrendered three goals in six opportunities and Calgary turned in an 85.3% kill ratio the rest of the way which would rank them 10th overall instead of their current 26th spot through the entire season. Flames were blowing themselves up earlier in the year when they routinely surrendered seven power plays or more with inevitable dire consequences. In the last segment, Calgary allowed only 3.7 power plays per game. The Flames power play, anemic through much of the quarter, was supposed to get a boost from the return of Derek Morris, but lingering effects from his injury all but skewered that hope.
They have reiterated various times through their new mouthpiece, Ken King, that they intend to see this thing in Calgary through to 2004. Operating losses in the last seven years have totaled $26 million with another $6 million loss projected for the current year. Currently engaged in an aggressive - albeit largely invisible - season ticket renewal campaign. But ticket prices are slated to rise 11% next year. The big test will be the Jarome Iginla contract.
A mid-season sell-out against Nashville the other night has to qualify as some kind of miracle considering the performance of the team the last three months.
Well ... they're getting better.
The Flames followed up a torrid start with a brutal second quarter - a slump that dragged into the third quarter, crippling the team's playoff chances.
As the fourth quarter begins, things are looking up somewhat, but a lot more improvement will be needed to catch the three teams that stand between them and a return to meaningful April hockey.
Goaltending - (B+)
Roman Turek continues to carry the mail.
Has he been as hot as he was in October and most of November? No ... but then that would be expecting a lot.
Game in game out Turek continues to be one of the Flames best players, and provide the team with the type of goaltending necessary to stay in games, and have a chance to win.
His numbers have slipped out of the top ten, with a goals against average of 2.46 and a save percentage of .909, but he still sits 8th in the league in wins, which for most goaltenders, represents the bottom line.
If Turek can rediscover that "wall" mentality that he enjoyed to start the season the Flames will get a serious shot in the arm towards their playoff aspirations.
Defence - (B-)
Injuries and lack of offensive production have plagued the Flames blueline core since the 20 game mark of the season.
Two of the clubs top blueliners; Derek Morris and Denis Gauthier missed fair chunks of time on the back end hurting the clubs' defensive record, and in the case of Morris paralyzing the attack from the point in the Flames offensive scheme.
The group tightened up defensively compared to the second quarter, but needs to take another step in battening down the hatches considering the team's inability to score goals.
Lately the whole squad is playing better team defence as the gap between the forwards and the defencemen has finally closed giving the maligned blueliners support in thwarting offensive attacks.
Forwards - (C)
The majority of the blame for the Flames woes in the last 40 games sit firmly on the shoulders of the forward group - although somewhat unfairly.
The group hasn't managed to score enough to win, and have added fuel to the fire by not playing the solid pressure defence that saw the team win often to start the season.
The defensive aspect of a forward's game often comes down to hard work, coaching and confidence, something each forward has to take accountability for. Quite simply too many assignments have been blown, leaving Turek and the defencemen to pick up the pieces.
In terms of offence the group should be given a break ... you can't squeeze blood from a stone.
Jarome Iginla continues to lead the league in scoring, and Craig Conroy continues to pad the totals of his career season - both players have been there all season long.
Lately Marc Savard has found his game; giving the team a third option, and providing the club with the boost needed to pick up points. Dean McAmmond has been injured, but now that he's back he'll likely continue to chip in.
With the exception of Rob Niedermayer, who has been a disappointment even to the most forgiving of fans, the rest of the group just doesn't have the talent or experience to be counted on to contribute offensively.
Shut down a handful of forwards and you stop the Flames, it's that simple.
Off Ice Personnel - (C-)
While both Craig Button and Greg Gilbert were the toast of the town when the Flames came blistering out of the gate, they now deserve some criticism for their work in the last 40 games.
Greg Gilbert has been unable to get his players to adhere to a system that he looked to have had perfected earlier in the season. The Flames aren't the most talented bunch in the league so losses can be expected against deeper teams that match the Flames work ethic, but on too many occasions the team has been it's worst enemy. A lack of talent can mean a great deal to a team's powerplay, but the squad's penalty killing has continued to be their albatross as they hover at the bottom of the league.
Craig Button made a series of moves over the summer that appeared to have put the franchise on the right road. When camp broke many felt the team would be better defensively but struggle offensively, which has at least been the case for the latter. He has the goaltending solidified in the signing of Roman Turek, and has added to a solid defence core with the additions of Bob Boughner and Petr Buzek. Up front there is still a lot of work to do however. A move earlier in the season to add some scoring pop may have been all that was needed to keep the Flames in the west's top six. No moves were made however, leaving the Flames with an uphill climb in a season where the playoffs were considered a must.
Finally ... the team's management deserves some blame for the handling of the Dave Lowry captaincy fiasco. Changing directions in the light of poor play by a captain is certainly understandable but from the outside I'd have to think a less controversial method must have been available to make the move. How an organization treats it's players factors greatly in the desire for other players to come to Calgary during the free agent sweepstakes - that image must have taken a hit with Lowry-gate.
The nine game road trip that begins tonight appears to ready made to end the team's season.
Two time zones away, some top opponents, a condensed schedule - all nails in a coffin that the Flames may find themselves in within two weeks.
Or ... they could salvage a season.
Should the Flames manage nine to 12 points on this nine game trip they will have a very favourable schedule to conclude the season.
Some of the teams ahead of them are starting to struggle so a .500 trip may be enough to keep them in striking distance when they return home in late March.
At the very least it's imperative that the Flames stay close enough to give the city of Calgary a race to the wire, because that alone may be viewed as an improvement this season.
Where did things go wrong? The Flames started out surprisingly strong with 31 points in the 1st quarter, but have since notched an identical amount in the last two quarters combined.
And yet, despite a three-and-half month slump, the Flames still have a chance to make the playoffs if they can overcome a 5-point deficit in their final 21 games.
It won't happen, however, if the team continues to play like they did in the 3rd quarter, which saw them clamber to a 7-11-1-1 record.
Here's how I breakdown the last 20 games:
While Roman Turek has allowed 3 goals or more in 9 of his last 19 outings, you'd be hard pressed to point out many games in which he has cost the team points. Turek's effort has been solid in the past quarter, and while he hasn't stolen many games, he's kept the team in contention in nearly every game. Mike Vernon has essentially been a non-factor, though his only outing in the quarter was quite impressive. One has to wonder how good Turek would be if the Flames had a back-up capable of playing every fifth or sixth game.
On paper, the Flames have one of the best groups of young defencemen in the league. However, you wouldn't know it from their play in the last 20 games. Derek Morris has but 6 points and is 6 since his return on January 15th, Robyn Regehr has spent time as a healthy scratch, and Petr Buzek has struggled to find his role on the team. Even veterans Bob Boughner and Igor Kravhcuk are both minus players during the quarter. As a group, their play in the defensive zone has been average, with some notable (and costly) breakdowns. The biggest eyesore has been the puck handling; the group has a combined 75 assists, which is below last year's pace. Injuries haven't helped, but the defencemen just haven't lived up to their expectations this season.
1st line: 68 goals. All other forwards: 58 goals. If we leave Iginla, Conroy, and Dean McAmmond out of the discussion, this group gets an "F". Virtually every forward has been a disappointment or has performed below expectations this quarter: Marc Savard (3 strong games), Dave Lowry (3 points), Ron Petrovicky (2 points), Jeff Shantz (2 points). The star of the group has been Chris Clark with 4 goals in the quarter (and he was hurt for half of the games). It's been that bad
Jarome Iginla and Craig Conroy have continued to carry the group, and you can't say enough about their performance. But two guys don't make a hockey team, and the Flames' record is evidence of that.
special teams D-
The McGrath Index confirms the suspicions: special teams have hurt the Flames in the last quarter. The Flames have been a 'failure' in 9 of 20 games, and a 'success' in just five games (all wins, by the way). Their power play is ranked 22nd, which may be understandable (although not acceptable) given the lack of talent on the team. Their penalty-kill is ranked 26th, which is completely inexcusable on a team built with players suited for a checking-line role.
The Flames managed just 16 points this quarter, 1 point more than the previous quarter. Those 41 games put them in the "Bouwmeester-range", alongside Atlanta, Florida, and Columbus. You can blame this on Greg Gilbert ("can't control the players"), you can blame this on Craig Button ("won't make any trades"), you can blame this on injuries ("it's the seamless glass"), or you can blame this on the IOC (easy target). But the fact remains that this is virtually the same group that recorded 32 points in their first 20 games. While it's not entirely their fault, the players just haven't got the job done since mid-November, and they deserve to shoulder a major portion of the blame.
The Calgary Flames have been in freefall mode for quite some time now.
At the first quarter point in the season, the team was 13-2-4-2. After a dismal second quarter, the club was 18-13-8-2 at the midway point of the season. Now, through 61 games the Flames are 25-24-9-3 and fighting for their playoff lives.
The third quarter has been a tumultuous one due to injuries and unrest in the dressing room. Rob Niedermayer missed most of the past month with an ankle and knee injury, Dean McAmmond found himself on the sidelines with a back ailment and Craig Conroy played with a hand injury through January that limited his effectiveness in the face-off circle.
And, of course, the Marc Savard situation...
Over the past several months he has gone from being a major liability to being a key factor in the success of the team. If he continues to play the way he has the past three games; he will become a big reason why the Flames make the playoffs.
What lies ahead for the Calgary Flames? Coming off the Olympic break they showed signs of promise for the fourth and final quarter of the season. The quarter will be characterized by a nine-game road trip, which starts tonight as well as a stretch in early April against a number of teams they are contending with for a playoff spot.
Roman Turek has continued to play very well in goal. While he hasn't been as exceptional as he was through the first two months of the season, during that time he was by far the best goalie in the league. Lately he's been solid and has kept the team in many games. Mike Vernon has also played well when called upon. He has given the team chances to win but has had very little offensive support whenever he's played. The biggest question mark surrounding Vernon is whether or not he'll be around by season's end.
Calgary's blueline has been full of disappointments and unexpected surprises this season. Toni Lydman has stepped up offensively with Phil Housley's departure and is tied for the team lead in points for defencemen with 23. Derek Morris has spent a good portion of the season on the sidelines and is now playing hurt. He will require surgery at the end of the season. However, he has still logged a lot of icetime and has still been effective. Petr Buzek has been a pleasant surprise and is starting to establish himself as a top-four blueliner. Co-captain Bob Boughner is third on the team in plus/minus and has played well all season long.
Igor Kravchuk has been inconsistent and Robyn Regehr has struggled throughout much of the last 40 games. His -16 among defencemen is the worst on the team by far. Look for Regehr's ice time to hover around the 10-minutes-per-game mark for the rest of the season.
The Achilles heel of the Flames over most of the season has been their lack of depth. Jarome Iginla has surprised everyone by still leading the league in scoring with 20 games to go. Craig Conroy has also kept up his stellar play, and is now only four points away from topping the career mark of Cory Stillman - the offensive player who was traded for him. Dean McAmmond's production tailed off in the third quarter, partially due to injury and partially due to slump. Savard's numbers are still far below what was expected of him but his play is starting to improve. Scott Nichol has been a pleasant surprise this season, Chris Clark has consistently gotten better as the season progressed and Clarke Wilm has been strong defensively.
But other than that, the forwards have disappointed. Jeff Shantz has played uninspired hockey for most of the season, Dave Lowry has fizzled out after a solid start, Rob Niedermayer has been a horrendous disappointment and Jukka Hentunen has not provided the offense many predicted he would.
If you asked a Flames fan before the season began if they would be satisfied with the team being above .500 and within reach of the playoffs with 20 games left in the season, I'm sure most of them would say yes. A big reason for the disenchantment of Flames fans is because of the incredible start this team put together. The playoffs are still possible for 2002. The key is to avoid the late season collapse of years past and create enough of a winning streak so they can finish five or six games above the .500 mark by season's end.