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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.

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.

The Buzzer: MacKinnon’s Hart push, Lundqvist stops 50

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Players of the Night

Those are nice choices, but Wednesday provided the latest convenient reminder that Nathan MacKinnon shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle, even after missing a handful of games with injury issues.

The speedy Colorado Avalanche star helped his team win a key game in regulation against the Calgary Flames tonight. In doing so, MacKinnon scored one goal and one assist, pushing his already-career-high season points total to 71. He’s nearing his first 30-goal campaign, as this makes for his 29th. N0t bad for a forward whose shooting skill was genuinely – and honestly, fairly – questioned, eh?

MacKinnon’s 71 points come in 55 games, which translates to 1.29 points-per-game. During an 82-game season, that would translate to about 106 points. The one convenient thing about his injury is that it showed that how the Avs would operate without him (spoiler: not nearly as well).

He’s really been asserting his will lately, too. During his previous two-goal, one assist performance, he fired nine shots on goal. Tonight he generated eight. In scoring five goals and five assists for 10 points in his last five games, he’s fired 31 SOG. Dominant stuff.

  • One long-standing Ranger and one newcomer deserve consideration.

The holdover is Henrik Lundqvist, who exhaustingly made 50 saves – most in regulation – to help the Rangers with in overtime. He couldn’t hold off Brock Boeser (two goals), Bo Horvat (one goal, two assists), and the Canucks in every instance, but he was the reason why they won.

That said, Ryan Spooner is off to a tremendous start with the Rangers. After generating two assists in his debut with the Rangers, he generated three helpers on Wednesday, including an assist on the OT-clincher.

  • Solid nights in victory for Jason Pominville and Jonathan Drouin, who both notched a goal and an assist. Pominville’s goal secured an overtime upset for Buffalo over Tampa Bay.

Highlights and lowlights

Speaking of Spooner, here’s that OT-winner he set up for John Gilmour:

Jaden Schwartz to Alex Pietrangelo on what went from an insurance goal to a decisive one for the Blues:

Part of what makes the Islanders so frustrating is that they find ways to lose, even as Mathew Barzal and John Tavares do amazing things:

Johnny Gaudreau probably deserves to get more mentions in MVP talk, as well, but not for nights like Wednesday. On the bright side, he piled up PIM and provided this GIF-friendly reaction.

Then again, it’s a stealth highlight considering the fact that he’d avoided a serious injury from Sam Bennett‘s misplaced skate blade:

Factoids

Perhaps we should call them the Buffalo Spoilers?

If you have issues with Lundqvist allowing five goals but getting recognition, maybe this will help soothe such concerns:

If not, well …

Scores

Canadiens 3, Islanders 1
Sabres 2, Lightning 1 (OT)
Blues 2, Red Wings 1
Avalanche 5, Flames 2
Rangers 6, Canucks 5 (OT)

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: Bergeron’s big night, Sens win again, Avalanche in a playoff spot

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Players of the Night: 

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins: Bergeron came into Saturday three points shy of 700 for his NHL career. He reached that mark in the first period, scoring twice and adding an assist as the Bruins put up five against the Carolina Hurricanes. He then put his stamp on the night, burying his hat trick goal in the second frame for good measure. Not bad, Patrice. Not bad.

Ryan Dzingel (and the rest of the Ottawa Senators, really): Dzingel had two goals in the game, giving him four over the past three games. Matt Duchene scored for the third time in two games and the Senators took down the best team in the NHL, a 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning after coming from behind for a 6-5 win on Friday night. Not too shabby on the back to back. The Sens blew a three-goal lead in this one as well.

Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars: The Dallas Duo each had three points as the Stars eased past the Edmonton Oilers 5-1.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: Not only did he score a but goal, Giroux had three points to help the Flyers to a 6-3 defeat of the St. Louis Blues in Brayden Schenn‘s return to Philly.

Highlights of the Night:

It’s never too late to score a game-winner:

Two-on-one. Seguin and Radulov. Only one way this ends:

No video here, because this one doesn’t need any:

Factoids of the Night:

Henrik Lundqvist moved into eighth on the all-time win list with this save on a point-blank clapper in the shootout.

MISC:

Scores:

Flyers 6, Blues 3

Stars 5, Oilers 1

Bruins 7, Hurricanes 1

Maple Leafs 3, Canucks 2 (SO)

Senators 6, Lightning 3

Rangers 2, Coyotes 1

Avalanche 7, Wild 2

Flames 3, Ducks 2

Predators 4, Kings 3


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

Sam Bennett is a bad man

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Maybe Sam Bennett can’t do a pull-up.

But man, the kid knows how to throw his fists around.

After Mike Smith was upended by Derek Grant behind his own net, somehow Bennett and Josh Manson (quite the physical specimen) came together.

The Vegas line would have heavily favored Manson. Bennett was clearly the underdog.

But then Bennett did this (keep your eye on the fight to the right):

What a scrap, indeed.

Not only can Bennett throw, his ability to evade punches is quite remarkable.

Bennett’s not afraid to chuck ’em. He had this spirited scrap with Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba at the tail end of last season.


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