James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Flames management enjoys a rare luxury: a clean slate

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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT …

During the waning days of the Jarome Iginla/Miikka Kiprusoff years, the Calgary Flames ranked as one of the worst things a sports team could be: both expensive and uninspiring.

There were a lot of bloated contracts connected to those days, but when you look at sites like Cap Friendly or General Fanager, the slate looks a lot cleaner heading into 2016-17.

OK, so maybe you could also argue that there are still a few troubling deals to get rid of.

Dennis Wideman‘s $5.25 million salary cap hit, Ladislav Smid‘s $3.5 million mark and Deryk Engelland‘s bewildering $2.917 million cap hit all expire after next season. Chances are, you have an issue with one or maybe all of those deals, so the Flames must be giddy to close in on all that extra breathing room.

And, yes, there are some deals that Flames GM Brad Treliving may regret. Just consider today’s earlier post about Troy Brouwer.

Still, the point is clear: whatever mistakes or strokes of genius that come, at least those moves will be Treliving’s to make.

Consider some of the important calls that await:

  • Such as, how will they sort out Johnny Gaudreau‘s lingering RFA situation this summer?

The easiest path might be to try to convince him to take a deal that is identical to the one Sean Monahan received, but one or both sides likely want something different.

  • Despite bringing in both Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, the goaltending future beyond 2016-17 is murky for a simple enough reason: neither netminder is signed beyond that point.

Elliott is receiving a bargain $2.5 million and is currently 31. Johnson, 30, barely comes in behind him at $1.7 million. It’s highly likely that Calgary will spend more money on its goalies in 2017-18, but who might be back?

And how much will the Flames need to see from Elliott and/or Johnson before trying to hammer out extensions?

The good news for Flames management is that they’re not saddled with a goaltending decision they might not have made. The scary part is that, if it doesn’t work out, it’s on them … and could cost someone a job.

  • The Flames ultimately have the power to determine who’s a marquee player and who is a part of the supporting cast.

Gaudreau is key, but it’s unclear if he’ll sign a long deal like Monahan or opt for a “bridge” deal. In addition to Monahan, the Flames signed these players to fairly long deals: Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, Brouwer and Michael Frolik.

Yes, you can quibble with Brouwer and maybe another name, but plenty of teams would be jealous of that list overall.

***

Many general managers must navigate minefields of someone else’s mistakes. There are a lot of challenges to the job beyond that, but Treliving & Co. get to make their own.

It’s a luxury that is unlikely to last, but the Flames stand as an interesting team for armchair (and real-life) executives to follow.

Yahoo’s fantasy hockey position tweaks signal end of a very specific era

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Few things deepen your hockey geekery quite like playing fantasy hockey.

For sports haters and the sports-oblivious, it’s probably bad enough to see grown adults wearing hockey sweaters out in public. What about when someone is obsessing (and sometimes muttering profanities) about a team that only exists to about 8-15 people?

Still, this is the Internet, where niche obsessions can go really deep. Just fall down a rabbit hole about Star Wars extended universe if you want to get a taste.

Us fantasy hockey nerdy dorks got some understandable but still sad news today: it appears to be an end of an era for Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Burns being considered eligible as both right wings and defensemen.

NHL.com trotted out a list of changes to Yahoo’s popular format on Saturday, and the tweaks generally make total sense.

It’s a bit of a bummer, though, as being eligible for a forward and defensive position provided another example of the unusual natures of both Byfuglien and Burns. Luckily, there are about 1,000 Exhibits for each, especially true oddball Burns.

(The debate regarding where either player should line up has largely died out, though.)

Another thing of interest in NHL.com’s list is the most prominent players who can be placed in all three forward spots. That could be a good thing to keep handy if you’re the last-minute preparation type:

The six tri-eligible players among NHL.com’s top 200, Joe Pavelski of the Sharks, Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators, Ryan O'Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres, Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings, Patrick Sharp of the Dallas Stars and Jussi Jokinen of the Florida Panthers, have had their eligibilities reduced. Forsberg and Jokinen, who are now only eligible at LW, took the biggest hits from that bunch.

Forwards Robby Fabbri (now C/LW), of the St. Louis Blues, and Sam Reinhart, (now C/RW) of the Sabres, are the two players who have gone from single to dual eligibility in Yahoo leagues.

Check out the full article here.

Expect steps in right direction, not leaps, from Flames’ new head coach

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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT …

If you’re looking beyond the shaky history of Jack Adams winners and going for a more objective approach, it’s not especially easy to break down the impact of a head coach.

Still, we’ve seen examples where a guy really can make a difference. Mike Sullivan is merely the latest to transform a wobbly team into a champion thanks to some deft maneuvers.

What, then, can the Calgary Flames expect from Glen Gulutzan?

Let’s break down some of the factors involved.

Better goalies, more experienced players

As Flames Nation’s Pat Steinberg notes, Gulutzan’s most immediate advantage of fired Flames head coach Bob Hartley is that Calgary made massive improvements in net.

Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson both carry promising numbers into this situation. Elliott’s work with the St. Louis Blues, in particular, strikes you as All-Star-level.

Of course, some will attribute a significant portion of Elliott’s success to being in Ken Hitchcock’s system, so it’s up to Gulutzan to provide a more nurturing atmosphere than the one Flames goalies have experienced in recent years.

Modest improvements

Steinberg delved a little deeper than Gulutzan’s two Dallas Stars teams (2011-12 and 2012-13) missing the playoffs and found that they were a middle-of-the-pack squad from a possession standpoint. Nothing spectacular there, but Gulutzan did improve the Stars from its previous station.

Upon being hired, Gulutzan pointed to experience as much as anything else when explaining how he improved.

(Which makes sense since … the Vancouver Canucks didn’t exactly set the world on fire while he was an assistant.)

Solid match for personnel

“Possession has become a popular word,” Gulutzan said after the Flames chose him. “For me, what possession is, it’s not always having the puck, because you don’t have it all the time. What we want to be is a real connected group here. When I say connected, we want to be connected in fives in all three zones. We want to defend fast, we are going to defend fast. We’re going to utilize the assets that we have here. In defending fast, you want to get the puck back fast, you want to get it out of your end.”

That quote could probably be attributed to a number of new hires. It’s plausible that you could swap out Gulutzan’s name with that of Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar.

Even so, the important thing is that Gulutzan is emphasizing key elements of a modern approach. He’s saying the right things about puck possession and wanting to win the transition game.

When you look at the talent assembled in Calgary, particularly on defense, emphasizing speed almost seems obvious.

From Norris-caliber defenseman Mark Giordano to underrated blueliner T.J. Brodie all the way to the talented guys who could use a boost (Dougie Hamilton especially, perhaps Dennis Wideman as well?), the Flames’ defense seems best suited for an attacking style.

The potential drawback is that Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson could be exposed to some extra “high-danger chances” when an attacking style backfires … but the good might outweigh the bad if Gulutzan’s system can stop the possession bleeding.

Tipping point?

The dream scenario for Calgary is that a series of manageable improvements make for a cumulative jump.

Ideally, Gulutzan’s system combines with in-house improvements to young players with a vastly improved set of goalies to transform the Flames into playoff contenders.

In the limited sample size we’ve seen of Calgary’s new head coach, he doesn’t necessarily strike you as a miracle worker. Instead, he’s lauded for the structure he provides and his ability to communicate.

That might be enough for the Flames, especially if they give Gulutzan some time to work through growing pains.

It’s Calgary Flames day at PHT

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If you want to boil the Calgary Flames’ past two seasons down simply, you could do worse than this:

In 2014-15: Bob Hartley won the Jack Adams Award.

In 2015-16: The Flames fired Bob Hartley.

The Flames finished this past season with 77 standings points, missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years.

While Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan survived the sophomore curse, the Flames couldn’t survive in their own end. No team allowed more goals than the 260 Calgary surrendered last season. It cost people some jobs, most notably that of Hartley.

Off-season

Naturally, the first big change in Calgary comes with Glen Gulutzan replacing Hartley behind the bench.

Much like the team he’s coaching, Gulutzan needs to get over some past failures (he failed to make the playoffs during his two seasons coaching the Dallas Stars) but is young enough (45) to argue that the best days are ahead.

To little surprise, the Flames decided that Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio isn’t necessarily the group of goalies to get things done. The Flames brought in two-time All-Star Brian Elliott to try to right the ship.

The Flames didn’t stop there, adding Chad Johnson as Elliott’s backup. With a .917 career save percentage, Johnson could very well keep Elliott on his toes.

Aside from big improvements behind the bench and in the net, the Flames’ most noteworthy work came in extending Sean Monahan,* picking up Troy Brouwer and landing Matthew Tkachuk in the draft.

Calgary is making a lot of strong moves, but did they make enough to climb back into the postseason in 2016-17? PHT will explore these factors on Saturday.

* – Naturally, the biggest move needs to come soon: also handing an extension to Gaudreau.

Avalanche’s new head coach Bednar is at least saying the right things

via Colorado Avalanche
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Look, there are exceptions, but new head coach press conferences feature the same basic terms and buzzwords.

After witnessing the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins skate opponents ragged on their way to the 2016 Stanley Cup, any reasonable coach would throw “speed” into their phrasing.

Still, the Colorado Avalanche have been so deeply buried by even the most basic of modern measurements that you had to wonder: would they learn from Patrick Roy’s struggles? Can someone come in and at least attempt to keep up with the pack?

We won’t know for sure anytime soon, but hey, at least Jared Bednar seems to be saying the right things as he transitions from the AHL to the Avalanche’s head coaching gig.

When discussing his hire with NHL Network, Bednar seemed confident that his style in the AHL – “Up-tempo, aggressive style in all three zones of the rink” – will translate well in Colorado.

That interview hits the beats you’d expect from job interviews beyond hockey. There’s even a “detail-oriented” bit.

(If you space out, you might just assume there’s a mention of thinking outside the box, like every corporate interview in human history.)

Still, it’s OK to settle for baby steps, especially considering the tough situation Patrick Roy created in abruptly skipping town. For many, it might just be comforting to note that Bednar doesn’t outright dismissive “analytics” or “fancy stats.”

Mile High Hockey brings up a great point: if nothing else, the spotlight will shift from the Avalanche’s flamboyant head coach to the talented core of young players.

So, not only is Colorado bringing in a coach who is as savvy with spreadsheets as he is with the wipe-off board, but he’s going to allow the players to crawl out from under Roy and finally earn their own accomplishments. This is every bit as important as fixing the breakout play or eliminating the Collapse-O-Rama™ defensive system.

(Collapse-O-Rama, huh? Can we stash that term for future use regarding another coach or two?)

Bednar isn’t a retread, so we only know so much about what to expect.

There are positive early signs. Roll your eyes all you want, we have seen more than a few successful transitions from AHL glory (Bednar just won the Calder Cup) to the NHL.

He’s not necessarily anti-information and seems at least interested in implementing modern, attacking systems. Attacking systems that, theoretically, would best suit the talents of a gifted-but-flawed group.

It all feels a little vague, but then again, it’s not even September yet. So far, so good.