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Three questions facing Calgary Flames

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Calgary Flames.

Want to chew on more than three questions? Check these posts, too.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

1. Is Bill Peters a better coach than Glen Gulutzan?

Your mileage will vary on Bill Peters, a coach who served as one of Mike Babcock’s assistants in Detroit before getting his first head gig with the Hurricanes.

On one hand, the Hurricanes were analytics darlings and seemed perpetually on the cusp of greater things. While talent on hand naturally helps to push the puck in the right direction, a coach’s systems also can make a big difference when it comes to dominating possession.

Still, there’s also a chicken-and-the-egg discussion regarding Peters’ work and the Hurricanes horrendous run of goaltending. How much of it is on the talent in net – let’s not forget that Scott Darling carried fantastic numbers into Carolina – versus possibly being a matter of his system putting goalies in a tough spot? Goalie nerds undoubtedly love chewing on those questions, whether there are concrete answers or not.

The bottom line is that the Hurricanes never made the playoffs under Peters’ watch, while the Flames frequently underwhelmed under Glen Gulutzan’s tutelage. Peters stands as Flames GM Brad Treliving’s second hire, so there’s a lot on the line.

2. Did the Flames improve this off-season?

As mentioned in this post, the Flames saw significant changes to their roster this summer – not just their coaching staff – with Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Adam Fox traded away, Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin coming back, and James Neal signed to a hefty contract. Naturally, there were also some tweaks in depth positions, while the Flames decided to stick with Mike Smith as their likely workhorse (more on that in a moment).

The question Brad Treliving’s job may ride on is: did the Flames get better? Is it possible they’re merely in the same position or even got worse? You’re likely to hear plenty of differing opinions across the hockey world.

To venture some guesses, the Flames should probably improve on offense. Barring Neal hitting age 30 hard, he’s pretty much a rich man’s version of Micheal Ferland, at least right now. Elias Lindholm is a 50-point-or-so guy, and that outlook could change dramatically if he lands with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

On paper, the Flames offense is more capable, and could possibly boast the depth they’ve sorely been lacking in their bottom-six. Of course, some of that depends upon how Peters deploys forwards, and how restricted they are in being creative versus playing it safe.

Calgary’s defense is another interesting riddle, as the analysis hinges on how you feel about Hanifin and Hamilton. If nothing else, Hanifin is much younger than Hamilton, and should be hungry to seek his first postseason berth.

And then there’s the goaltending …

3. What kind of goaltending will they get in 2018-19?

Considering his health challenges last season, it might be tempting to assume that the Flames would otherwise be in a great place with Mike Smith if you could merely turn injuries off like in “NHL 19.”

Let’s not forget that the towering 36-year-old has been through a lot during his career, and not just happy moments.

Smith began his career as a promising Stars backup before flubbing his first opportunity as No. 1 guy with the Lightning. After that, Smith’s lengthy stay with the Coyotes included a big contract, a Cinderella run to the 2012 Western Conference Final, and plenty of nights facing a barrage of shots on an aimless Arizona squad. Smith’s career and confidence was on the line at least once; as you may remember, he discussed his work with a sports psychologist in October 2015.

(Side note: it would actually be refreshing if more athletes, not just struggling ones, decided to address their mental health in similar ways. That might take some time, judging by the fact that Smith said he was initially “offended” by the Coyotes’ suggestion.)

It’s quite possible that Smith will carry over the best moments from 2017-18 (before the All-Star break, Smith generated a dazzling .926 save percentage in 41 games), and defy age by being a strong workhorse for Calgary.

The scary thing is that it sure seems like the Flames are essentially depending upon that to work out.

Granted, the Flames aren’t short on interesting goalie prospects, as Jon Gillies, David Rittich, and Tyler Parsons are all on the organizational radar. Gillies and Rittich received some NHL reps last season, for better and worse.

Are any of those goalies really ready if the bottom falls out for Smith? If not, would Treliving manage to pull off a trade that wouldn’t just pull the Flames deeper into the quicksand?

The good news is that the Flames boast a lot of talent. There’s an ideal scenario, one that’s not too far-fetched, where it all comes together for Calgary and they go from missing the playoffs to a deep run. That’s especially true if Treliving ends up being correct about Peters.

The Flames are swinging with power rather than accuracy here, though, as there are some considerable gambles taking place. We’ll find out next season if this team laughs its way to the bank or opens the door for even more instability.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: Kings’ bizarre handling of Kovalchuk situation

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

•  Ilya Kovalchuk is one year into a three-year, $18 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings and things are not going well between him and the organization at the moment. Right now the Kings’ handling of the situation just seems bizarre. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Ottawa Senators are looking to add a director of hockey operations for what owner Eugene Melnyk calls, “another voice.” (Ottawa Citizen)

•  The NHL’s current playoff format is definitely controversial because of some of the early round matchups it creates that eliminate some of the best teams in the league earlier than they otherwise would be. (TSN)

• Like Connor McDavid a year ago, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane is having an MVP caliber season, but one with an asterisk. Mainly because his team is not very good and will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (The Hockey News)

• This year’s Philadelphia Flyers team has been an analytics nightmare. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

Patrik Laine had a chance to snap out of his goal-scoring drought but decided to set up a teammate instead, an unselfish act that was a smooth move. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• There are some signs of health for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ injured defense. (Sportsnet)

•  The Boston Bruins have been crushed by injuries for most of the 2018-19 season but they are starting to get some reinforcements back. (Bruins Daily)

• ACHA looks to lose “club hockey” label at Texas tournament. (NHL.com)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Campbell steals Tkachuk – Doughty show; Four for Tavares

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Three Stars

1. John Tavares

For the first time in his NHL career, Tavares scored four goals in one game. His four tallies were a mix of luck and skill, with all of them coming from very close in on net.

You can rank Tavares with the likes of Sidney Crosby as a star who tends to score a lot of his goals like grinders: in the dirty areas of the ice, cashing in on rebounds and quick reactions. None of this is to say that Tavares lacks skill, just that he sometimes applies those skills in subtler, more grinding ways.

This post goes into great detail on his great night in specific, and his fantastic first season with Toronto in general.

2. Jack Campbell

There were plenty of bitter moments involving Drew Doughty and Matthew Tkachuk, sometimes sniping and swiping each other, sometimes with just one of those players involved. But this was the closest they got to a fight, which is kind of a bummer:

Instead, Campbell basically stole the show, pitching a 42-save shutout to help the Kings upset the Flames.

This is the second shutout of Campbell’s career, and it’s increasingly looking like the former (mostly disappointing) first-rounder might just find his niche as a backup goalie. Nice story developing here, even if it’s in relative anonymity considering the low quality of this Kings team.

3. Steven Stamkos

Tavares was the free agent who left for Toronto after Steven Stamkos didn’t, so there’s a fun symmetry to the two high-scoring number 91’s generating four points during the same night.

In the case of Stamkos, he got to those four points with two goals and two assists. Stamkos is now tied for fourth in the NHL with Patrick Kane with 41 goals on the season, leaving him four behind Tavares. Stamkos has the edge in total points, however, as his 93 ranks seventh overall.

Highlights of the Night

Mark Scheifele is known for being a “student of the game,” so maybe he’s studied the best ways to sweep would-be goals out of his own net? Does he moonlight as a goalie?

Starting with a great save by Andrei Vasilevskiy, this is a fun watch (unless you’re a Bruins fan), as Nikita Kucherov tied things up for the Lightning. They eventually stunned the B’s in regulation, reminding the hockey world that they’re way, way ahead of everyone else.

Factoids

  • Four players have scored at least 30+ goals in three seasons before reaching age 21: Wayne Gretzky, Jimmy Carson, Dale Hawerchuk, and now Patrik Laine.
  • As tough as this season has been, and as embarrassing as that center-ice goal was, Cory Schneider had a fantastic overall game on Monday. You can make an argument that stopping 45 out of 46 saves ranks as three stars material. Schneider became the second goalie in Devils franchise history to earn multiple wins of at least 45 saves. Glenn “Chico” Resch was the other goalie to do it.
  • This post details the Predators clinching a playoff spot for the fifth season in a row, and perhaps most importantly, Devan Dubnyk, 32, having the same throat guard since he was 17.
  • The Flames hadn’t been shut out at home since March 21, 2018.
  • The Sharks lost in regulation to the Red Wings, which marks San Jose’s sixth consecutive loss. Cause for concern? Cause to gently nudge Erik Karlsson to get back in the lineup?

Scores

TOR 7 – FLA 5
NJD 3 – BUF 1
PIT 5 – NYR 2
TBL 5 – BOS 4
STL 3 – VGK 1
NSH 1 – MIN 0
DAL 5 – WPG 2
LAK 3 – CGY 0
DET 3 – SJS 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Predators clinch spot, deal major blow to Wild’s playoff hopes

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The Minnesota Wild’s offense is starting to stink almost as much as Devan Dubnyk‘s teenaged throat guard.

The Nashville Predators only needed Ryan Johansen‘s shorthanded goal to beat the Wild 1-0 on Monday, as Juuse Saros collected a 29-save shutout. With that, the Predators clinched a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Wild’s postseason hopes look that much grimmer.

With Zach Parise and others out of the lineup of a team that’s already lacking in firepower, it’s easy to understand Bruce Boudreau going for a “clog everything up” strategy. It almost worked, too, as the Wild generated a 29-19 shots on goal advantage, giving the Predators very little room to work with. This wasn’t an easy win for the Predators.

Minnesota simply wasn’t able to generate any margin for error, however, so that Johansen shorthanded goal just 4:32 into the game ended up being the decisive tally.

With the game turning into a grind that felt like a more skilled version of a slugfest from “The Dead Puck Era,” there was time to focus on other things … such as Devan Dubnyk’s throat guard, which might qualify as a biological weapon at this point:

Yes, gross.

The Wild struggled so badly to create offense, Dubnyk seemed to go over his teammates’ heads by trying to earn the equivalent to a delayed penalty advantage … that resulted in Minnesota taking a late penalty.

The Predators failed to score on the ensuing power play, yet the Wild had to kill that penalty fairly late in the game, rather than continuing to push to the same level of aggression for that tying goal.

While the Predators gave themselves a better chance to earn home-ice advantage for the first round (and maybe a shot at the division title), the Wild are at a disadvantage in the West’s bubble races. Take a quick look at how things look as of this writing:

WC 2: Avalanche: 81 points in 76 games, 33 regulation/OT wins

9: Coyotes: 79 points in 76 games, 32 ROW
10: Wild: 79 points in 77 games, 34 ROW
11: Blackhawks: 76 points in 75 games, 31 ROW

Not good.

If Monday’s efforts serve as any indication, the Wild seem likely to keep putting forth a dogged effort to try to earn a playoff berth. They just have to hope they don’t fall painfully short in these races like they did during this 1-0 loss to the Predators.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hats off to Tavares’ fantastic first season in Toronto

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However you feel about John Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t deny how great he’s been during his first season with the team he rooted for as a child.

It’s possible that Monday represented his best game yet with the Maple Leafs.

For the 10th time in his already fantastic NHL career – and already the second time since joining the Maple Leafs – Tavares generated a hat trick. He did so through two periods of Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, and actually added a fourth goal during the final frame as Toronto outgunned the Panthers 7-5. With that, Tavares enjoyed his first-ever four-goal game.

As you can see from the highlights of his hat trick above and the fourth goal below, the goals were very much of Tavares’ trademark: “greasy” goals in the dirty areas in front of the net. If you combined the distance of all four goals, they might only match that single center-ice goal by Sam Reinhart.

Tavares has already crossed the 40-goal barrier for the first time in his career, and the milestones are piling up from there, as this performance pushes him to 45 goals and 86 points in 76 games. Consider the following:

via Getty Images

Impressive stuff.

There’s a lot of angst in the air in Toronto right now, and a win might only do so much to soothe concerns, as a 7-5 win isn’t exactly “pretty.” At least if you’re wanting to tighten things up, as Mike Babcock surely hopes to do heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But imagine if Tavares was a flop, instead of a slam-dunk success, during his first season with the Maple Leafs? Instead, he’s playing at such a level that he might just help Toronto to simply “outscore its mistakes.”

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem like signing Tavares was a mistake.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.