Charlton's NHL: It's Early

Rick Charlton

October 10th, 2001

It's early. 

A year ago, after a fumbling 0-3 start, including a loss to the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets on home ice, heads around the Flames dressing room were hanging lower than a snake belly in a wagon rut. 

Tomatoes were flying down from the thick-armed chaps in the bleachers. 

The ink from caustic pens of the frenetic media had never been so thick with venom. 

Even though it was still early. 

The contrast between then and now is striking. 

Off to their fastest start in eight years, Calgary is oozing confidence even though we are forced by a sense of fairness to offer up the same admonition we did in this space one-year ago. 

"It's early," I said, so don't get your knickers in a knot. 

As it turned out, however, the lamentable beginning only one October ago was pretty much emblematic of an entire season gone bad.  

In fact, the difference between good goaltending and bad goaltending, and the confidence or lack thereof that trickles through the rest of the lineup as a result, is also the difference between a terrible season defined early and one that has a promising beginning. 

And so, maybe its not so early after all.

"Every guy in this room is playing with a higher confidence than before the first game when we didn't know what was going to happen," goaltender Roman Turek said after shutting out Chicago. "We could see it (that) night. We scored four goals because the guys were confident when they had the chance to shoot the puck."

We have said ad nauseum in this space that goaltending is like pitching in baseball. Without it, anything else that might be going your way will disintegrate in short order. Most successful teams start from the goal on out.

In spite of the high fives from players, coaches, GM's, owners and fans alike, however, all is not as well as it might seem, for goaltending is not only a saviour but can also hide ongoing problems.

Calgary is living up to pre-season predictions of having an anemic offence, only six goals in three games or a pace for a disastrous 164 over a full campaign. 

And that is why we say, "it's still early," just as we did last year under different circumstances. 

Game one - Derek Morris in the defensive zone fires a beautiful up the gut unintended pass right onto the stick of Ryan Smith, who promptly walks in on Turek for a terrific scoring chance. 

Game two - Morris gets turned inside-out by Tony Amonte, caught playing the puck instead of the man, leaving Amonte to rocket in on Turek unopposed. Not to be outdone, Toni Lydman is turned into a pretzel with the same move by the diminutive Steve Sullivan, setting up the Hawks best chance of the game.

Game three - Trevor Letowski, a healthy Phoenix scratch the first two games of the season, bears down on Lydman and, with the crowd collectively holding its breath waiting for the inevitable, then deftly trays the puck through the Flame defenceman's legs and scoots in alone on Turek yet again. 

And these two guys are the best defencemen the Flames have. 

Yes, the fine play of Turek is perhaps hiding the fact the local boys are still fully capable of the occasional Gary Suter-like brain cramp in their own zone, the kind of shoot yourself in the foot mistakes that drive coaches bananas. In the course of any game, the other side is bound to create their own offensive chances. Handing them out unearned, on a veritable silver platter, is what has killed this team for five seasons. 

It was blamed - legitimately - on rookie potty training in the past but most of these young guys are between three and five years in the NHL already. 

The training wheels should be stored in the garage by now.

But, we need to remind ourselves that it's still early. Those kinds of foibles are actually far fewer than they have been in the past number of seasons. Turek has been great, but to say he's been unbelievable and the sole reason for a fast start would be stretching the truth. 

We've liked much of what we've seen to date. And it all starts in goal which is where it didn't start last year. 

Both Freddie Brathwaite and Mike Vernon suffered a terrible start through to the middle of November, a hole teams like Detroit or Dallas could eventually claw themselves out of. But the Flames, a .500 team at best, merely sat in their hole by playing .500 and less the rest of the way. 

And so, we acknowledge in the midsts of a 2-0-0-1 start all the positives we can muster, but still must concede the obvious. 

It's early.

MAYBE ITS NOT TOO EARLY FOR BRIAN BURKE TO BE GOGGLE-EYED in bewilderment over the fact his goaltending in the first three games has been almost non-existent. Warned by friend and foe alike throughout the summer that he was taking his life in his hands by trusting Dan Cloutier with the number one netminding job, Burke ignored all objections and pressed ahead anyway. The Canucks have a great group of young forwards, a pretty good blueline but, as we noted above, it will matter naught if Canuck goaltenders continue their inability to stop the proverbial beach ball. If that happens, then this is one time where a GM has basically put the gun to his own head.

"THEY (STUNK) IN THREE GAMES AND WE (STUNK) IN FOUR."- Martin Brodeur, describing the seven game Stanley Cup final that was less than a riveting classic.

THE BOSTON GLOBE'S KEVIN PAUL DUPONT reports that Chuck Kobasew turned down a signing bonus of $1.2 million U.S. That was backed up by $500,000 in year one of the contract, $600,000 in year two and $700,000 in year three. It should be pointed out that the annual salaries would only have been collected if he were with the Flames and would be scaled down to something considerably less if he were in the minors or back with his junior team as most pundits generally conceded would eventually be the case. Still, turning down the signing bonus took either a lot of guts or not a lot of brains. The Flames will undoubtedly have to ratchet up their offer a bit between now and next summer but that's still $1.2 million they can use elsewhere this season and they gain another year of exemption from salary arbitration when Kobasew actually signs. The kid, meanwhile, is risking a career threatening injury. The only reason we can think of that he would turn this down is that he didn't trust the Flames to send him back to junior if he had trouble with an 82 game schedule, therefore imperiling his development and his future earning power. That's a bad reason.

THE FACT THE BOSTON BRUINS WERE ACTIVE IN THE FREE AGENT MARKET this summer, let alone sticking their necks out on the Martin Lapointe contract, is remarkable after their experience with Paul Coffey. The Bruins bought out Coffey for $5 million after he played 18 games for them. Coffey had this to say: "When the Bruins told me it was over, it was a bit of relief, actually. I tried to play there but mentally my head wasn't in it. It was somewhere else. Prior to the season, I'd been working out and it used to be so much fun. But it started to feel like a job. I phoned my wife and had her come and pick me up. My kids still treated me the same. The sun came up the next day. It's not so bad." Very sentimental you must admit. But $5 million for 18 games is what I'll remember.

HARLEY HOTCHKISS SAYS THE FLAMES WILL LOSE BETWEEN $7 MILLION AND $10 MILLION THIS SEASON. "Maybe more, depending on how ticket sales go," Hotchkiss told the Calgary SUN. Crowds for the first three games of the season were 16,242 against Edmonton, 14,038 against Chicago and 13,078 against Phoenix. Oh, oh. A lot can happen to change those projected losses, however. A lottery deal with the province for one thing, which might be worth some $3 million to the team. Glen Sather suggested earlier in the spring, after the Oilers had blamed him for their projected loss, that all teams were throwing some $3 million U.S. or $5 million CDN each into a strike fund every year and that was part of the Edmonton loss. Ditto Calgary. Much of the anticipated deficit could be projected into those two items. It's always possible the Flames could actually win some games and attract some fans, always the surest route to selling tickets. I would also be surprised if Mike Vernon ($2.5 million U.S.) survives the year in Calgary. Still, it seems probable this team will stick around through to 2004. The Flames ownership group seems committed to that goal. "We're just trying to get losses down to something we can live with" added Hotchkiss. "We're looking at a real challenge and we'll need to work hard at getting back to the season-ticket base we had last year."

STRANGEST STATISTIC OF THIS EARLY SEASON - Toronto has 12 goals so far but the only statistical contribution to date from a Leaf defenceman is the lone assist earned by Aki Berg. The offensively challenged Flames, meanwhile, with only six goals this year, have six points from their defencemen. For a team that received little from their blueline under the Don Hay regime - he deliberately asked his defencemen to hold back their advances - the early numbers are in line with Craig Button's prediction that Calgary defencemen would contribute far more to the Flames offence this year.

MARK MESSIER, ONE OF THE GREAT MONEY PLAYERS IN NHL HISTORY, hasn't played a post-season game since 1996-97, missing the playoffs four straight season with his Rangers a borderline qualifier in the coming year. Another incongruity is seeing Claude Lemieux, another tremendous post-season performer, toiling with the Coyotes, a team, which has little chance of qualifying for the playoffs.