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It’s Calgary Flames day at PHT

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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.

2017-18

37-35-10, 84 pts. (5th in Pacific Division, 11th in Western Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Noah Hanifin
Elias Lindholm
James Neal
Derek Ryan
Austin Czarnik
Alan Quine
Tyler Graovac

OUT:

Dougie Hamilton
Micheal Ferland
Adam Fox
Troy Brouwer (waivers, then buyout)
Matt Bartkowski
Cody Goloubef
Tyler Wotherspoon

RE-SIGNED:

Elias Lindholm
Jon Gillies
Dalton Prout
Morgan Klimchuk

Generally speaking, the Calgary Flames have been confusing because despite boasting some elite talent in Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Giordano, they really haven’t been able to put it together for a deep run. They’ve missed the postseason two of the last four years, including in 2017-18, and have only won a single playoff round since 2009-10.

The Flames come into next season as a confounding presence for a different reason: GM Brad Treliving made massive changes.

[Under Pressure | Three Questions | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Now, this franchise isn’t shy about making big alterations. They were bold in landing Travis Hamonic for assets that could ultimately help the Islanders soothe their John Tavares wounds, while Mike Smith was a bold bet that mostly worked out.

Those types of tweaks feel more like small potatoes after this summer.

After years of falling short under Glen Gulutzan, the Flames opted for Bill Peters. The former Hurricanes coach’s path feels a bit like the Flames’ as a whole: there have been signs of promise, yet Carolina never made the playoffs under Peters. Like the team he’s coaching, Peters has a lot to prove.

While the Flames essentially traded away their 2018 NHL Draft, they still made big headlines during that weekend, sending Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Adam Fox to Peters’ former team in Carolina for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. Though the voting was close, PHT readers and many other pundits believe that the Hurricanes bested the Flames in that trade, and strange murmurs about why Hamilton allegedly didn’t fit in with teammates only made the swap seem murkier.

If that wasn’t enough, the Flames signed James Neal to a five-year deal that carries a $5.75 million cap hit. Such a contract doesn’t represent the worst-case scenario for what Neal might have fetched on the open market, but the bottom line is that’s dangerous term for a power forward who’s already 30.

The Flames also still need to sign Hanifin, whose value remains tricky to gauge.

Long story short, the jury’s very much out on this series of dramatic changes.

On the bright side, Neal and Lindholm bolster a Flames offense that already features Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, and Michael Frolik. It feels foolish to hope that Sam Bennett will finally “figure it out,” but maybe a linemate upgrade might enhance a player who’s still just 22?

Hamonic didn’t provide the supporting boost the Flames sought on defense, and now that unit is a bigger question mark after moving a star (albeit a polarizing one?) in Hamilton. There’s a chance Hanifin will develop into a defenseman at Hamilton’s level, but it’s currently a gamble. One would speculate that the Flames organization is betting on Peters’ system improving their defense, rather than any roster tweaks making the difference.

Once again, the Flames enter a season with some big risks in net.

Smith, at times, was able to save a surprisingly leaky Flames team from itself last season. Unfortunately, injuries and other factors kept him from dragging Calgary to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and age is a big concern as the big goalie is already 36. If a lot of starts fall to Jon Gillies and/or David Rittich, will Calgary flame out once more?

You can’t blame the Flames for sitting there idle after flubbing another opportunity to contend. That said, there are real questions about whether this team really improved or if the risks outweigh the rewards.

Prospect Pool

  • Juuso Valimaki, D, 19, Tri-City Americans (WHL) – 2017 first-round pick

You can probably pencil this Finn in as the Flames’ most promising blueline prospect. Valimaki, the 16th pick from 2017, generated 45 points in 43 games in the WHL, and Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy said that he has a shot at making the team in 2018-19.

“You hear what Bill Peters wants on defence and that’s Juuso Valimaki,” Conroy said to Torie Peterson of the Flames website. “It really is.”

“I expect him to come in here and really make a push, soon, to make the big club.”

Whenever he does, Valimaki brings a promising combination of size, smarts, and scoring to the table.

  • Dillon Dube, C, 20, Stockton Heat (AHL) – 2016 second-round pick

Conroy provided similar optimism about Dube making the Flames soon, too.

Dube’s shown potential as an agitating presence and hustle guy, to the point that he might have a leg up on other prospects in making the team sooner in a bottom-six role. Calgary certainly can use more support beyond their high-end talent, so that’s an appealing thought.

The 56th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft collected 84 points in 53 WHL games with the Kelowna Rockets, while Dube also generated four points in six AHL games in 2017-18.

  • Spencer Foo, RW, 24, Stockton Heat (AHL) – college free agent

Ready your bad Dave Grohl-related jokes, because Foo could be a fixture for the Flames … at least if he can fend off the team’s veteran forward options. Foo distinguished himself at Union College before turning pro last season, scoring two goals in four Flames games while also playing well (20 goals, 39 points in 62 AHL games) for the Stockton Heat.

His last name definitely serves as a handy tie-breaker against other prospects.

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.

Flames make fascinating bet with Elias Lindholm contract

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The Calgary Flames’ pivotal decision to trade Dougie Hamilton to the Carolina Hurricanes for a package including Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin was tough to immediately call. Maybe it makes sense, then, that Lindholm’s contract also seems divisive.

At least the terms of the deal are clear: six years, $29.1 million, which calls for a $4.85M cap hit. That’s official from the Flames, while Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Lindholm isn’t receiving any sort of no-trade/no-movement clauses.

Some criticisms

Whether you love or loathe the terms, it’s clear that the Flames are making a big commitment to Lindholm. If the results are middling, one can bet that people will note that Dougie Hamilton’s cap hit ($5.75M, through 2020-21) doesn’t cost a whole lot more than Lindholm’s new mark. Considering that the Flames still need to sign tough-to-gauge Hanifin to a new deal, the bill for this trade could end up being steep.

For what it’s worth, 55-percent of PHT voters believed that the Hurricanes won the trade, at least on the day it was made.

Despite five seasons already in the NHL (although he was limited to 58 games as a rookie in 2013-14), Lindholm hasn’t yet reached the 20-goal plateau. His career-high so far is 17 goals, while his peak for points so far was 45. He’s falling into a price range with some really nice players, such as Nazem Kadri and Sean Couturier. Looking at the simplest stats, Lindholm seems like a gamble.

And, again, people will beat up on the Flames if Hamilton – and to a lesser extent, Micheal Ferland – go on a tear in Carolina.

With another interesting yet even riskier investment in James Neal, the Flames are really rolling the dice this summer. If those gambles end up looking foolish, Calgary could be stuck for a while. That would bring back unpleasant memories of the albatross deals that hampered the Darryl Sutter era.

The good

At 23, some growth is conceivable, although some might remark that Lindholm probably is what he is after logging 374 regular-season games.

Of course, Lindholm could very well put up impressive numbers if he hits the linemate lottery with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. In that scenario, the Flames’ longer commitments would be a blessing rather than a curse, as a shorter deal would have opened up greater risks for Lindholm to excessively inflate his value.

Even a more modest good-cause scenario would be that Lindholm might give the Flames the sort of supporting scoring they’ve desperately needed beyond Gaudreau – Monahan and the possession monster trio of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk.

Speaking of possession stats, Lindholm checks out in that area, for the most part. (The Hurricanes hog the puck so much that sometimes it’s easy to take a guy like Lindholm for granted.)

At $4.85M, Lindholm is a fair enough value. The Flames are probably crossing their fingers that such a contract looks like a steal in hindsight. Such a scenario is far from outrageous.

***

Overall, it seems like a pricey but reasonable decision. If nothing else, we can’t accuse the Flames of being cheap, as Lindholm + Hanifin are poised to be more expensive (possibly a lot more expensive) than Hamilton + Ferland, although Adam Fox clouds that situation.

Again, that trade is something fans of the Flames and Hurricanes will be chewing on for years, so it only seems right that Lindholm’s value may also fuel some fun/nerdy hockey debates.

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.

Why Flames are going out with a whimper

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On March 13, Mike Smith blanked the Edmonton Oilers, giving the Calgary Flames at least some hope in making a playoff push.

The Flames haven’t won a game since, dropping five in a row by a soul-crushing cumulative differential of 25-7. Their closest losses were by three goals. Woof.

Calgary now sits at 80 points with only six games remaining, all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. (The second West wild-card team, as of this writing, is the Ducks at 89 points, and they hold a game in hand on the Flames. Woof again.)

Maybe it was already too late for the Flames when Smith shut out the Oil, but this five-game flop really buried any long-shot hopes. Now, Calgary must close out the season and ponder what to change during a summer that will demand serious soul-searching.

Let’s ponder what went wrong.

Bad luck

Losing Smith for a lengthy, crucial stretch for about a month (13 games) struck a brutal blow to a team that sometimes asked him to clean up some significant mistakes.

That said, overall, the Flames pass the sniff test as far as possession metrics go. This team simply hasn’t been able to finish enough chances despite often hogging the puck, to the point that it’s become an uncomfortable refrain for fans and media alike.

Via Natural Stat Trick’s measures, the Flames’ 6.87 shooting percentage at even-strength ranks among the bottom five in the NHL. That’s not an end-all, be-all stat, yet consider that the bottom eight teams look all but assured to miss the playoffs.

They’ve been struggling on special teams, too, as their 16.6 percent success rate ranks fifth-worst in the NHL. Allowing seven shorthanded goals only pours more salt in their wounds. The power play’s been especially miserable lately, only converting one time since Feb. 27 (1-for-37).

Not enough support

On paper, the Flames seem like they should at least be a playoff team, if not a legitimate contender.

Mark Giordano seems like a hot streak and a good squad away from getting more Norris Trophy buzz, while Dougie Hamilton is the type of producer you want in a modern system. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan make for a dynamic duo, while the “3M” line of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, and Michael Frolik hold the puck hostage like few other trios. Smith’s also frequently given the Flames the goaltending they’ve craved for some time.

The problem is that, in the modern NHL, you need your supporting cast to buttress those top players, and that hasn’t worked out often enough for Calgary.

Travis Hamonic‘s had his struggles, making it that much more painful that the Flames gave up such a massive package of picks for the defenseman, including their 2019 first-rounder. T.J. Brodie‘s seen his ups and downs, too.

Such struggles would be easier to stomach if certain forwards panned out. It’s difficult not to pick on Sam Bennett, the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, who is stuck at 26 points in 76 games after failing to score a goal or an assist for the last seven games.

Whether you pin it on Father Time, untimely injuries, or other factors, the Jaromir Jagr experiment was also a bust.

***

The Flames have done a lot right in building this team.

Aside from Tkachuk (whose rookie deal expires after 2018-19), the Flames have their core members locked up long-term. In the case of someone like Gaudreau, they’re getting a star player at a bargain rate of $6.75M through 2021-22.

Still, Smith is 36, and maybe more alarmingly, Giordano is already 34.

With aging-but-important players like those, you never know when the bottom might fall out and the window really closes. It’s easy to picture Calgary figuring a few things out – do they make trades, a key signing, maybe a coaching change? – and become as deadly on the ice as they are in some of our imaginations.

None of this erases the bitter taste of failure for the team and its fans, though.

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.

Flames extend analytics darling Mikael Backlund

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Micheal Ferland (Ferland for now?) probably ranks as the Calgary Flames’ most important forward trio. If you spend a little time on Hockey Twitter, you’ll probably come across someone gushing about “The 3M Line,” maybe more than the bigger guns.

(Aside: I really tried to get a Campbell’s Soup-inspired nickname for that line, but it never took off. Probably for the greater good?)

With the trade deadline looming, the Flames took a big step toward keeping that line intact, signing underrated center Mikael Backlund to a six-year, $32.1 million contract extension. He’ll go from carrying a $3.575M cap hit in the final year of his current deal to $5.35M from 2018-19 through 2023-24.

This keeps “The 3M Line” together through 2018-19, assuming the team doesn’t want to split them up at some point.

The most infamous member of the trio is the least tenured of the three: Matthew Tkachuk will see his rookie contract expire after 2018-19. Michael Frolik, meanwhile, receives $4.3M per season through 2019-20. Tkachuk isn’t likely to go anywhere, mind you, but his inevitable raise could make it tough to keep all three of those puck-hogging forwards on the same roster that also boasts Gaudreau, Monahan, and pricey blueliners like Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton.

Backlund, 28 (soon to be 29 as of March 17), is a solid piece even if you look at his scoring stats alone. The 24th pick of the 2007 NHL Draft is trying to make this his third consecutive 20-goal season, although he’s been limited to 10 in 58 games. (He’s made up the difference with 24 assists.)

If you look at his possession metrics, you’ll see that Backlund consistently tilts the ice in his team’s favor, even with heavy-to-drastic defensive usage.

Ultimately, he brings a nice mix of the subtle stuff that might slip under the radar:

With enough scoring punch that he jumps off the charts even when you’re not, well, looking at charts.

Naturally, this is an expensive contract, so there’s some risk involved. Even so, most seem happy with the deal from the Flames’ end:

If you take a look at their salary structure, there’s really a lot to like in Calgary. Now the Flames need to start putting it all together on the ice.

Once that really starts to build momentum, Backlund could be the sort of player who really makes the difference in a tough playoff series. That’s what the Flames are paying him for, really.

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.

The Buzzer: Korpisalo helps Jackets bounce back; Giroux stays on fire

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Player Of The Night: Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets

It hasn’t been a great week for the Columbus Blue Jackets. They lost three of their previous four games, two of them in blowout fashion including an ugly 7-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Monday night. They were able to bounce back on Wednesday night with a 4-2 win agains the Toronto Blue Jackets and it was a huge performance from backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo that helped get them there.

Korpisalo stopped 39 of the 41 shots he faced in the win.

He has now won each of his past three decisions but Wednesday’s game was by far his best performance of the season.

It was the fourth time in his young career that he has made at least 38 saves in a single game.

Claude Giroux Is Still Dominating

With his three assist performance in the Flyers’ 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night Claude Giroux continued his hot streak for the. He is now up to 18 points in his past 14 games. That stretch includes six multi-point games, including four in his past seven games.

Two big Points For Flames

The Calgary Flames had been in a bit of a slump lately with wins in just three of their past nine games. But thanks to their 2-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night they have now won two games in a row and are back into a top-three spot in the NHL’s Pacific Division.

Michael Frolik and Dougie Hamilton provided the offense for the Flames on Wednesday night with Hamilton getting the game-winner midway through the third period.

Highlight Of The Night

It came in a losing effort but check out the wheels on Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner as he goes coast-to-coast for the goal. After going through a pretty lengthy goal drought Marner is starting to put up numbers again. After a four-point day on Tuesday, including his first goal in 15 games, he followed that up on Wednesday with perhaps the goal of the night.

Factoid Of The Night

Sean Couturier scored the game-winning goal for the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night to give them their seventh win in their past eight games. It was his 16th goal of the season. That is now a new career high. It is only December 20. He is having an absolutely remarkable season for the Flyers.

Scores

Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Detroit Red Wings 3

Calgary Flames 2, St. Louis Blues 1

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.