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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.

PHT on Fantasy: Power play points, ponderings

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Earlier this week, I pondered Patrick Marleau‘s scoring slump, which a) really struck a nerve with Toronto Maple Leafs fans and b) spotlighted some debatable lineup choices by Mike Babcock.

One thing that sticks out with Toronto is how they handle power-play minutes, and it got me to thinking: what are some other power play tidbits that might be interesting, particularly to fantasy hockey obsessives?

Let’s dive in.

The Maple Leafs are pretty much locked into the third spot in the Atlantic, so Babcock should use the next two months to experiment with different alignments. The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow makes a fascinating argument for why Auston Matthews isn’t used on the top power-play unit, but why not use this as a chance to test a variety of scenarios?

  • Another power-play time decision that makes me scratch my head a bit: Dougie Hamilton only ranking third among Flames defensemen (and eighth overall) with an average of 2:10 per night. Mark Giordano‘s great and T.J. Brodie is quite effective, but I’d probably want Hamilton to be either tops or 1a/1b with one of those two. If that changes, it could make Hamilton that much more effective. He’s fine with 27 points in 53 games, but more reps would open the door for greater fantasy glory.
  • Now, moving onto a sensible factoid: Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL with 4:20 PPTOI, and he’s making great use of that time.

Ovechkin’s fired a league-leading 83 SOG on the PP, and he’s also missed 33 additional shots. Really, his nine PPG and 20 PPP are almost modest, at least compared to other upper echelon producers. For example: Patrik Laine (52 PP SOG) and Evgeni Malkin (56 PP SOG) lead the league with 13 PPG apiece.

  • The only power play trigger in Ovechkin’s range is Tyler Seguin, who’s fired 72 SOG on the PP, along with 22 misses. Fittingly, he only has nine PPG and 16 PPP. Even if some of Ovechkin’s and Seguin’s shots might be relatively lower-quality than others, you’d think that both forwards could be even more dangerous toward the last two months of the season (if you’re looking into high-level trades).
  • Kudos to Jeff Petry for being one of the most productive defensemen on the PP. He’s likely to cool off a bit (five PPG on 26 PP SOG is a bit much for a blueliner), so just be careful. Nice to see an underrated player get some bounces, though.
  • As long as John Carlson is healthy, he should be a strong bet to be a great fantasy find, and the power play explains some of his value. He’s been a useful volume guy before, and with a lot of money on the line in a contract year, this could be really something. Carlson already has eight goals and 41 points, his second-best output (55 is his peak) with two months remaining.

***

As the fantasy season goes along, sometimes you need to look for granular advantages, and sometimes it’s helpful to note players on cold streaks who have a better chance to turn things around. Power-play time should be one of those things you monitor, especially if you notice a player who’s caught his coach’s eye and is getting better and better chances.

We might revisit this later in the season, possibly taking the monthly (or at least couple month) approach.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Here come the Flames

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Expectations were high for the Calgary Flames entering this season.

They have a promising young core of talent centered around Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Dougie Hamilton, then spent a bunch of money to bring in Travis Hamonic and Mike Smith over the summer. Hamonic, along with Hamilton, Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie seemed to give them one of the better defensive units in the NHL (at least as far as the top-four is concerned) and Smith was expected to solidify a goaltending position that had been a pretty big sore spot the past couple of years.

When we last checked in with our power rankings two weeks ago the Flames were looking like one of the bigger disappointments in the league. They were on the outside of the playoff picture and looking like they were running out of time to make a big move in the standings.

But a six-game winning streak can change a lot.

Entering the week the Flames find themselves in the No. 2 spot in the Pacific Division and have built a four-point cushion over the first non-playoff teams in the West. One of those teams (San Jose) still has four games in hand on them, but the Flames are finally starting to resemble the team they were expected to be over the summer. They are 9-2-1 in their past 11 games.

Gaudreau is blossoming into a superstar while Smith has been on a roll in net over the past few weeks.

They made one of the biggest jumps in this week’s rankings.

Here is a look at where everyone else falls this week.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Losing Victor Hedman for 3-6 weeks is going to hurt in the short-term, but the Lightning have their bye week for the first week of that timetable and have given themselves a huge cushion in the standings. They have the offense and goaltender to withstand that loss for a couple of weeks.

2. Vegas Golden Knights — Yes. Somehow Vegas gets included in the elites now, too. I only saw somehow because this story is still insane. An expansion team. A legitimate Stanley Cup contender more than halfway through the season. Madness. Entering Monday the Golden Knights are 14-1-2 in their previous 17 games, a stretch that includes games against Anaheim, Nashville (twice), Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, St. Louis and Washington. They are going to get a big test here with a four-game road trip including games against Nashville and Tampa Bay.

The Rest Of The Best

3. Washington Capitals — After losing a lot this offseason it was supposed to be a step back this season. That step back still has them on pace for 109 points and another Metropolitan Division title. As the NHL standings sit today, their reward for that would be a first-round matchup against … the Pittsburgh Penguins.

4. Boston Bruins — Given the offseason seasons for Mathew Barzal and Brock Boeser it is going to be tough for him to get a lot of attention in the Calder Trophy race, but Charlie McAvoy has been just as impactful as both. If not more impactful.

5. Nashville Predators — P.K. Subban should be one of the leaders in the clubhouse for the Norris Trophy at this point. His defensive play right now is laughably underrated.

6. Winnipeg Jets — It is really impressive how much offensive talent the Jets have, and how much of it is still young. Kyle Connor is scoring at a 30-goal pace over 82 games as a 20-year-old rookie and nobody even really mentions him much. If the goaltending can hold it together they will be a fascinating team to watch.

7. Los Angeles Kings — Jonathan Quick has at times been a little overrated in his career, but his performance this season has matched the reputation he has built. It’s almost as if he’s been a little underrated this year.

Just A Step Below

8. St. Louis Blues — The Blues need more from Jake Allen. A lot more. Carter Hutton has been really strong in a backup role this season and it’s probably time to give him a few more starts and ride the hot hand.

9. Calgary Flames — What a difference a couple of weeks can make in a team’s outlook for the season.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Jack Johnson wants a trade, but it is hard to see him bringing much of a return. Not only because every team knows he wants out, but because he is probably best suited as a third-pairing defenseman. There doesn’t seem to be a lot for Columbus to gain here and it’s hard to see Johnson getting more playing time on a team that will give him a better chance to win than Columbus will.

11. New Jersey Devils — They enter the week on a six-game losing streak. Time to panic, or just a small speed bump during  a long season full of peaks and valleys? They are still scoring goals so that is a good sign they can turn things around again.

12. Toronto Maple Leafs — They still have flaws, but it is amazing they are a top-five team in goals scored while getting only 14 goals from William Nylander and Mitch Marnrer and with Auston Matthews missing 10 games. Crazy depth up front.

13. Colorado Avalanche — One of the hottest teams in the NHL at the moment. Six game winning streak and 11-3-1 in their past 15 games. They are currently on the outside of the playoff picture, but they are only two points back and have two games in hand on the team they are chasing.

The Middle Ground

14. Pittsburgh Penguins — The Penguins are really on to something with this Sidney Crosby, Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon line. It has also added a lot more balance to their forward lines. With Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all rolling now the Penguins look like the Penguins again.

15. Dallas Stars — Alexander Radulov isn’t getting enough attention this season. He is on track for a career year offensively, is driving possession, and has generally been pretty outstanding for the Stars.

16. San Jose Sharks — Still having a hard time getting a feel for the Sharks. They are not bad, they are not really anything special, they are currently on the outside of the playoff picture … but they also have only played in 41 games and have multiple games in hand on everyone. They are not out of it by any stretch.

17. Minnesota Wild — Eric Staal‘s resurgence in Minnesota the past two years has been a pretty stunning development. He looked like he was done toward the end of his time in Carolina.

18. Philadelphia Flyers — Sean Couturier is on pace for 47 goals while playing dominant, shutdown defense. The goal scoring might end up being a bit of an outlier in his career (he is not a 19 percent shooter every year) but it is still a remarkable season for him.

19. New York Rangers — They have always been dependent on Henrik Lundqvist but right now they are taking that to an entirely new level. The defensive strategy just seems to be “pray that Lundqvist stops everything.”

20. Chicago Blackhawks — Like the trade for Anthony Duclair. Fresh start on a talented team might be good for him, and the Blackhawks could certainly use another young forward to fly around and create offense. But is the defense good enough to get them in the playoffs, especially with Corey Crawford‘s status still in question?

21. Anaheim Ducks — If they get healthy — and stay healthy — they could still be a team to watch out for in the second half. As of Monday they are two points back of a playoff spot. The challenge will be overcoming the five teams ahead of them at the moment.

22. Carolina Hurricanes — Just when it looked like they were ready to make a big move in the East they dropped six out of eight. Still a lot of intriguing talent and the new owner seems like he is fired up and can bring plenty of excitement. There is a core here you can win with.

23. New York Islanders — They might not make the playoffs, they still have to re-sign John Tavares and Josh Bailey, but Mathew Barzal looks dynamite. They fall so low because they are really cold right now and have lost a lot of ground in a short period of time. Still very much in the playoff race, but trending in the wrong direction.

Better Luck Next Season

24. Detroit Red Wings — They enter the week 5-2-0 over their past seven games, trying to show some signs of live. That is good news. The bad news: Even with that nice little run they are still probably out of the playoff race.

25. Florida Panthers — Aleksander Barkov got a much deserved spot on the Atlantic Division All-Star team. A true bright spot for the Panthers and a foundational player to build around for a long, long time.

26. Edmonton Oilers — They won two in a row heading into the bye week but the mountain standing in front of them for a playoff spot is still a massive one.

27. Montreal Canadiens — Don’t look now but Max Pacioretty is starting to turn it around. He has points in four consecutive games, including three straight with a goal.

28. Vancouver Canucks — It’s still the Brock Boeser show in Vancouver.

29. Ottawa Senators — After scoring at least 15 goals in each of the past four seasons Erik Karlsson has only three goals in 37 games this season. That is by far the worst goal-scoring pace of his NHL career. The only other time it was that low was his rookie season when he only played in 60 games as a 19-year-old.

30. Buffalo Sabres — The big thing worth watching now is where does Evander Kane end up before the trade deadline?

31. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes are on track to be one of the worst teams in recent memory. Only 27 points through 45 games and a minus-55 goal differential.

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.

McDavid dazzles again, Oilers break slump with OT win vs. Blackhawks

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Update: The Edmonton Oilers ended up needing every bit of Connor McDavid‘s brilliance, as goals weren’t coming easily against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night.

(Even though, as you can see with that highlight-reel assist, McDavid often makes it look easy.)

McDavid also managed a secondary assist on Mark Letestu‘s overtime-winner, ending the Edmonton Oilers’ losing streak at four games. The Blackhawks continue to be resourceful in getting standings points, in this case falling 2-1 in OT.

Anton Forsberg made 40 of 42 saves, but it wasn’t enough against a driven group led by number 97.

Here’s the OT goal.

If you haven’t seen the more amazing of McDavid’s two helpers, do yourself a favor and check it out. You won’t regret it.

***

Connor McDavid’s speed and skill are glorious, but the thing that makes him extra-sensational is just how unstoppable he seems. Even against some of the NHL’s best.

To start the season, McDavid made very-solid Calgary Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie look downright permeable during the most impressive goal in his opening-night hat trick.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, the superstar tore through the Chicago Blackhawks – including certain future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith – and then sent absolutely obscene pass to Patrick Maroon for an easy goal.

You know how people used to say that a fire hydrant could score 50 goals with Mario Lemieux? We might need to bump that down to 30 for modern hockey, but either way, Maroon might laugh uncomfortably at such jokes.

If you prefer your jaw-droppers in GIF form, drop away:

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.

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Connor McDavid has the skills to create a lot of new hockey fans

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The NHL’s had some wonderful superstars over the years, and it’s not necessarily time for Sidney Crosby to totally pass the torch to Connor McDavid just yet. It could be some time until there is a consensus in that “best in the world” debate.

McDavid’s sensational performance in the Edmonton Oilers’ season-opener (replete with a historic hat trick) brought a different thought to mind: McDavid’s combination of speed and skill open the door for him to be a truly mainstream star.

When people rave about Crosby, there’s talk of his deceptive shot and brilliant passing.

Still, much of the delight in watching number 87 is in the subtle ways he dominates: the way he dominates puck possession and imposes his will on opponents. His edgework stands out. Crosby is a purveyor of the lost art of the backhander.

Remember this borderline abusive footage of Crosby vs. Brad Marchand?

That’s all part of a package that makes Crosby arguably the best in the world, even after McDavid ran away with the Hart Trophy and Art Ross in 2016-17.

Still, if appreciating the finer points of Crosby’s game can parallel critiquing high-brow art, McDavid’s otherworldly skills feel like a video game cheat code or Michael Bay movie come to hockey life.

There’s little need for explanation in showing off McDavid’s ridiculous speed (and resounding ability to finish, considering that speed) in his second goal from last night. You can just send your vaguely hockey-curious friends this highlight and watch a few jaws drop.

That goal feels a bit like Tracy McGrady dunking on a helpless Shawn Bradley, except in came against a very capable Calgary Flames defenseman in T.J. Brodie.

Coaches are experts in killing offense – and fun – in the NHL, clogging up space for star players. Simply put, in 2017, Connor McDavid should not be able to do this. And the beauty is that a typical hockey fan can see in the highlights, and most likely, would quickly pick up on those moments where McDavid might get off to the races again.

It’s the sort of dominant play that has reasonable, gifted writers predicting 130-point seasons. Again, you are not supposed to be able to do these things. Not in 2017.

(Really, not in this decade. Just take a look at the scoring title winners’ totals.)

In the long run, is McDavid really better at 20 than Crosby is right now, with his fully seasoned, well-rounded game? That’s a debate that comes down to taste and preferences as much as trophies and fancy stats.

The point is: McDavid has a unique ability to dominate in simple ways that just about any even remotely hockey-curious person can appreciate. Every opportunity feels like a mini-event, arguably even more than vintage Alex Ovechkin.

Now, yes, there are some barriers here. McDavid might not be featured in the most ideal market for everyone to see him; beyond the larger ice surface, people were lamenting number 97 missing a chance to take over the 2018 Winter Olympics in part because it could have served as a coronation.

Still, this can be remedied.

McDavid and the Oilers could draw the kind of opponent that would bring his superhero skills to more eyeballs. Imagine the Chicago Blackhawks huffing and puffing trying to keep up with McDavid, as just one prime example.

Is McDavid the best player in the NHL already?

Who knows; let’s just make sure we watch him as much as possible to try to find out.