2011-2012 season preview: Calgary Flames

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2010-2011 record: 41-29-12, 94 points; 2nd in Northwest, 10th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

Calgary is one of the most curious and maddening teams to follow. The Flames have been inconsistent at times, tough and brilliant at others thanks to Jarome Iginla. That said, they’ve been a non-playoff team the last two seasons. Can the Flames forget about the slumps and learn to embrace consistency?

Offense

Scoring was not an issue in Calgary last season. The Flames were seventh in the NHL in goals scored and had seven players earn 40-plus points. Iginla was again Mr. Everything in Calgary leading the team in points with 86 and scoring 43 goals. Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen will try and show that last season wasn’t a flash in the pan offensively while Rene Bourque is emerging as a force on the left wing. Scrappy winger Curtis Glencross will also look to keep his production rolling along as well.

The Flames will need to get more from the center position and the likes of Brendan Morrison (once he’s healthy) as well as Mikael Backlund and Matthew Stajan. Newly acquired Lee Stempniak should help keep things balanced on the right side and give Calgary a steady 20-plus goal effort.

Defense

Calgary’s top four shape up to be rather decent. Adding Scott Hannan helps give them a steady defensive presence while Mark Giordano is one of the best kept secrets in the NHL when it comes to point production on the blue line. Anton Babchuk gives them a booming shot on the power play and Jay Bouwmeester is just quiet and steady as he goes. Cory Sarich, Chris Butler, and Brett Carson round out the pack that will try to keep things quiet for Miikka Kiprusoff in goal. There’s solid play here, but they need to be stronger defensively.

source: APGoalies

Miikka Kiprusoff had a below-average year for himself last season finishing with a goals against average of 2.63. The Flames, however, hope to give Kiprusoff a bit more rest as he gets older. Last season, Kiprusoff was third in the league in minutes played and his backup Henrik Karlsson has to play stronger and earn coach Brent Sutter’s trust more. How Kiprusoff holds up and plays is key to the Flames’ success. A few more nights off would go a long way towards helping him play at his best.

Coaching

Brent Sutter enters his third season as the Flames’ coach and while the Flames have done all right in earning 90-plus points in both previous seasons, the team has yet to make the playoffs with him at the helm. Should Calgary get off to a slow start like how they did last season, the calls for Sutter to be fired will roar quickly. GM Jay Feaster inherited Sutter as his coach, so don’t expect him to sit and wait around for Sutter to fix things if the losses pile up early. In such a questionably talented division Calgary could bully other teams to win. Failure isn’t an option for Sutter.

source: Getty ImagesBreakout candidate

The time is now for Mikael Backlund to prove his worth. At 22 years-old he’s the lone Calgary prospect showing that he can make it in the NHL. After struggling to establish himself as a force last year scoring just 10 goals In 73 games and winding up with just 25 points, if he can break out he’ll provide a huge lift to the Flames offense and make them all the more dangerous there. Earning Sutter’s trust would go a long way to doing that as he averaged just over 12 minutes of ice time per game last season. It’s tough to leave your mark when you’re twiddling your thumbs on the bench.

Best-case scenario

Iginla does the same thing he did last year and dominates play night in and night out and brings all of his linemates along for the ride as well. Getting repeat performances from Jokinen and Tanguay would go a long way to helping that. Seeing continued growth from Bourque and Glencross with another 25-plus goal season would help out too. Giordano and Babchuk make the Flames’ power play one to be feared season-long while Kiprusoff bounces back in a big way to show why he’s one of the better goalies in the league and leads the Flames into the playoffs without much stress.

Reality

Slow starts and poor stretches of play have ruined the last two seasons for the Flames. Avoiding that meddling stretch of play will be key for Calgary as they’ve shown they can keep up with the best in the West, they just haven’t been able to produce that full season of effort to get to the postseason. Iginla’s health (he’s had back spasm issues in training camp) puts the Flames on a dangerous brink. If those issues linger season-long, the Flames are in trouble. Both Iginla and Kiprusoff have to be the All-Stars here to get Calgary back to the playoffs. If their defense can’t hold it together and Kiprusoff has to be beyond brilliant on a nightly basis, the Flames will find their playoff hopes coming down to the final games all over again.

Boeser channels Bure, leads NHL rookie scoring

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Brock Boeser has no intentions of letting Clayton Keller or Mathew Barzal walk away with the Calder Trophy.

Boeser, 20, has been lights out over the past four games for the Vancouver Canucks, scoring six times during his current four-game goal-scoring streak (he also has points in five straight) as Keller’s stock has cooled.

The Arizona Coyotes 19-year-old rookie has failed to score in each of his past eight games after a blistering start that saw him score 11 times in 16 contests.

Keller’s slump has allowed Boeser to grab hold of the rookie scoring lead, which he did on Wednesday, scoring twice — the second time he’s done so in as many games — in a 5-2 rout of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He’s now one point ahead of Keller and Barzal, the latter of which is heating up as well with points in his past four games.

As you can see by the above video, Boeser’s release puts his name on a pedestal with few others in the NHL. The Athletic’s Justin Bourne wrote glowingly of Boeser’s shot ability on Wednesday.

Don’t see the Alex Ovechkin or Patrik Laine in that shot? Here’s more proof:

Boeser’s scoring prowess has him in the conversation with another talented Russian in Pavel Bure.

Bure, who won the Calder Trophy in 1992, scored 34 times for the Canucks that season. Boeser is on pace to hit the 40-goal mark, which would smash that record.

Boeser is the first rookie to score in four consecutive games this season. According to the NHL, only one rookie in Canucks franchise history has scored in more than four consecutive team games – Dennis Ververgaert had a six-game goal streak in 1973-74.

Boeser is scoring on nearly 21 percent of his shots, and while TSN’s Scott Cullen points out that that number isn’t likely to hold, his 2.8 shots per game are still very much conducive to goal scoring.

And winning. Boeser has three game-winning goals for the Canucks, who are 11-8-3 this season, two points out of first place in the Pacific Division in the Western Conference.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck


Free falling: Flyers lose sixth straight as growing pains emerge

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The Philadelphia Flyers feel they are right there, which is an interesting statement from a team that’s lost six straight and eight of their past 10.

Ah, the lies we tell ourselves in times of trouble.

The Flyers did fair better on Wednesday night in a 4-3 shootout loss against the New York Islanders, which prompted goaltender Brian Elliott to make the declaration that his team just needs to turn the corner.

It’s tough to turn when you’re falling backwards, however.

Indeed, finding positives when few appear to be in sight in a skid like the Flyers are in is a tough ask in the City of Brotherly Love. Flyers fans have had to come to terms with a few things this season.

It must pain fans to see Brayden Schenn lighting the lamp over and over again in St. Louis. Schenn was traded to the Blues in the offseason. The return looked half decent for a team looking to rebuild with a youth movement.

The Blues gave up two first-round picks for Schenn along with Jori Lehtera. And while it remains to be seen what the Flyers gain from the trade in future drafts, Lehtera has been an utter disappointment, one magnified many times more by Schenn’s incredible start.

Lehtera was a healthy scratch for Wednesday’s game, the second time in his past four games he’s watched rather than played. He’s sitting on two assists this season in 14 games. Schenn, by comparison, 10 goals and 30 points, including 19 in his past eight games.

It hasn’t been all Lehtera’s fault. Oh, no.

The Flyers penalty kill has been atrocious. They rank 28th in the league at 75 percent and have allowed seven goals in their past 13 kills over the past three games.

Andrew MacDonald can’t return soon enough, especially after one of their better penalty killers tried to behead a man last week.

Scoring could be better as well.

Claude Giroux has gone six games without a goal, this after scoring nine times in his first 16 games. Jordan Weal has just one goal in his past 18 games and was bumped to the fourth line on Wednesday. And ever since he 17 times in 64 games two years ago, Shayne Gostisbehere has only eight goals in his past 95 games and none in his past 13.

Ivan Provorov has been a godsend for the Flyers on defence (and Travis Sanheim is starting to blossom), but Gostisbehere’s offensive prowess from the backend would be a welcomed addition again.

But the real reason for the Flyers struggles this season might just be something they can’t control: youth.

The Flyers iced 11 players under 25 years of age on Wednesday night. Their top defenseman, Provorov, is 20 years old. Their second line centre, Nolan Patrick, is 19.

These are the growing pains of a team getting younger, and it could get worse yet before it gets better.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

While Turris continues to roll, Duchene still stuck in first gear

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Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side, sometimes it isn’t.

The two focal points of the biggest trade this season so far in the National Hockey League find themselves on opposite sides of the old expression.

On the ‘grass isn’t’ side, we find Matt Duchene, now an Ottawa Senators player after getting shipped to Canada’s capital from the Colorado Avalanche in a three-team deal (that also included the Nashville Predators, but more on that in a moment) earlier this month.

Duchene, unhappy in the Colorado Rockies, has now gone six games without a point in his new threads.

On the ‘greener side,’ we find Kyle Turris, now a member of the Nashville Predators, who was shipped out of Canada’s capital after contract negotiations between his former team, the Senators, “did not see the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Unlike Duchene, (his trade partner?) Turris has found new life in Music City. In six games, Turris has two goals and three assists and scored this five-hole goal on Wednesday to help the Predators get past the struggling Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in the shootout.

Turris’ arrival on the Predators’ second line has been of great assistance to 21-year-old forward Kevin Fiala as well.

Fiala has six points, including two multi-point outings, since Turris arrived on Nov. 5 and is well on his way to eclipsing his rookie season point total of 16 last year with two goals and 11 assists in 20 games this season.

It was no secret the Senators wanted Duchene, badly, in the days leading up to the deal that finally got done. Turris and the Sens couldn’t reach an agreement on an extension and thus the 28-year-old became expendable. The results thus far, at least on the scoresheet, haven’t matched the steep price required to get Duchene.

But it’s not all bad. Some consolation for Sens fans:

And it’s not to say results won’t come.

Duchene has 23 shots in those six games. There would be more concern if he wasn’t getting chances.

An immediate winner in any high-profile swap is always hotly debated. Turris has had a strong start in Nashville, but he went to a team that is a few months removed from being in the Stanley Cup Finals and are looking like strong contenders once again.

Duchene is a highly-skilled player who scored 30 goals two years ago. The chemistry with Bobby Ryan just hasn’t blossomed just yet. Give it time.

The thing about trades is this: a clear-cut winner is often never determined a few weeks after the deal is made.

Duchene summed it up rather succinctly on Tuesday in the Ottawa Sun:

“I’ve said it many times, a season is full of peaks and valleys and 10 games from now, we could be having a totally different conversation.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Golden Knights can’t stop, won’t stop

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There may not be a more intriguing story in the NHL this year than what is going on in Sin City.

Defying all the odds, the Vegas Golden Knights — a team comprised of spare parts that general manager George McPhee picked out of a discard bin this past summer — sit on top of the Pacific Division at Thanksgiving after a 4-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday.

The league-wide off day due to the holiday should give you enough time to come to the realization that yes, indeed, your eyes are not deceiving you.

Instead, the NHL has a brand new team that continues to re-write hockey history.

The Golden Knights matched an NHL record for most wins by a team through the first 20 games of its inaugural season on Wednesday, moving to 13-6-1 on the year.

They became the first expansion team to start a season 3-0-0 and first to win their first six of seven back in October. On Nov. 4, they tied a league record for shortest number of games played to achieve nine wins an inaugural season and continue to do things no other expansion team has done.

How a team full of players not good enough to be protected prior to the expansion draft is doing so well is anyone’s guess.

Chip on their collective shoulders? Perhaps. A little Las Vegas magic? Quite possible.

What is certain is that the Golden Knights have little trouble scoring. And scoring helps with winning.

James Neal, a former 40-goal man, leads the way with 11 goals. Only Filip Forsberg on the Nashville Predators, Neal’s former team, has as many. William Karlsson is second with 10. No one on his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, has reached double digits yet.

David Perron, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and Erik Haula aren’t far behind with six goals apiece, and Vegas is eighth in expected goals for percentage.

The math adds up to show the Golden Knights tied for fourth in goals for with 72. They’re also in the top third when it comes to least goals against, a remarkable feat given that they’ve had to dig deep — really deep — into their stable of goaltenders thanks to injury.

Furthermore, If the playoffs were determined by possession metrics and began tomorrow, the Golden Knights would be one of the 16 headed to the promised land.

Maybe Vegas just likes to win. And really, what do they have to lose?


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck