Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Segment #4: A Quarterly Review of the Calgary Flames

20 games in the books. Or blogosphere. 
In this post, we will take a brief look at segment 4, before addressing some notable aspects of the first quarter of 2010-2011.     

Hindsight being what it is, our analysis of the 3rd segment foreshadowed much of what Games 16-20 would bring us. One honourable mention goes to Jarome Iginla, who has been on a tear (pronounced tare, not like the crying tear) as of late: 6 goals in 3 games, including a hat trick against the defending cup champions. Unfortunately, the team has looked like the Flames of the early millennium: Lots of Iggy, not much of anything else... including wins.
So how can we assess Iginla’s sudden resurgence? Has he suddenly decided he wants to score? Did he duplicate Rene Bourque’s curve for his own stick? Has he finally practiced what Coach Brent has preached? I would say not. Courtesy Eric Francis of the Calgary Sun on HNIC, Jarome was recently approached by team management and was assured he would not be traded this season. It was confirmed that this took place by Iginla himself, and I see no reason to call that man a liar.
While such news is not particularly ground-breaking for many fans, or perhaps even the man himself, the endless speculation surrounding the captain must have had some impact on his psyche. So, is it merely coincidence that Jarome has looked more relaxed (and less awkward) over the last several games? I would say not. The first 15 games, he lacked an element of confidence on the ice, and made everything look extremely difficult. His play has improved dramatically as of late, and not just in the box scores; he’s shooting from everywhere, playing physical, making the simple plays, and even contributing in his own zone (once in a while). Jarome seems to be playing with confidence, something that had recently been suffocated by scoring slumps, and the endless negativity that followed. Methinks this sudden resurgence of the captain correlates with the vote of confidence from management. One thing is for certain: This version of Iginla cannot be an aberration. This team is not good enough to get by without contributions from its best player.
If we can do anything to help Iggy along with his consistency, we can purchase this t-shirt, because it’s hilarious and would make our pal Jarome smile:
Courtesy Red Mile Blog:
Come on! Iginla, in his teens, with an afro? That’s hilarious! Plus it’s for a good cause, something Jarome also appreciates. We now return to regular programming:

If we’ve learned anything from the first quarter of 2010-2011, it’s exactly what we didn’t want to learn: This team is not near skilled enough to play a run-and-gun brand of hockey. This lesson has been brought to you by Brent Sutter for the last 14 months. We’ve now seen what can happen when the Flames try to out-skill the opposition. They can’t compete with any of the powerhouse teams of the NHL when they play that way. So how can you compete with these teams? Let’s take a look at Dave Tippett’s Phoenix Coyotes as a case study:
The Coyotes, amongst ongoing ownership issues, went 50-25-7 in 2009-2010. The team seemed to lack the skills necessary on paper, with an aging blue line and low offensive potential – sound familiar? To put it bluntly, the Phoenix Coyotes were composed of the NHL’s garbage: waiver wire pick-ups, along with inexpensive free agent additions, formulated with players that seemed to be on “last chance” contracts. *The team wasn’t young, it wasn’t a contender, and it wasn’t rebuilding.* Shockingly, player personnel for the team hadn’t been completely re-structured, even after numerous underachieving seasons in recent memory. It looked to be yet another season of 13th-15th place.
Enter Dave Tippett, former coach of the Dallas Stars.
The only thing the Phoenix Coyotes could rely on was a new regime, a new system. Tippett brought a plan. Universally, the team signed up for this plan. Of course, there was one exception: Peter Mueller, who was scratched, and subsequently shipped out of town in exchange for Wojtek Wolski. The team took a “Tippett’s way or the highway” approach, and it worked.
The system was simple: back-pressure, play solid in the neutral zone, block shots, and wait. Wait for an opportunity to score – on an odd man rush, or a PP opportunity. The leaders of the team were not expected to score the most goals, but to best exemplify the benefits of the new system. What’s even more impressive about this regime? While it didn’t work 100% of the time, the opposition had difficulty exploiting it. Every system has a weakness. Fortunately for the Phoenix Coyotes, the weaknesses were few and far between. You couldn’t shut down one player, because every player played the same way. You couldn’t dump and chase, because beyond that clogged neutral zone, one defenseman would stand behind the net and aptly flip the puck back out of the zone. You couldn’t throw 50 shots at Bryzgalov, because 30 of them were blocked before they got to the net. You couldn’t completely limit the offense, because the offense broke you down when you were weakest: odd man rushes, and sitting in the penalty box. The Phoenix Coyotes broke teams down, and did it the same way every night.
So what’s changed for the team this year? That’s right - nothing. After a rough start, The Coyotes sit 11-5-5, 2nd in the Western Conference. They recently swept Western Canada, going 3-0 against Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. None of these wins were pretty. Each win was by one goal (empty-netters notwithstanding), and the performances didn’t wow anyone.
So what is it about Tippett’s system that differs from Brent Sutter? Almost nothing! We saw a very similar regime from the Avalanche under Joe Sacco. Brent hasn’t reinvented the wheel. Yet the Coyotes have gone 61-30-12 all-time under Dave Tippett, while the Flames sit 48-43-11 under Brent Sutter. The difference between the two teams: commitment.

The Flames lack commitment to the details of the game, which leads to mistakes. No, they don’t need to score more – tried that, failed that. Two and three goal leads have evaporated, as the team takes at least one period off each game. Simply put: The Flames have not been a difficult team to play against through the first quarter. Opposing teams have had the ability to score at will, and have stolen a number of points from the Flames early on this season. Even when 4+ goals are scored by the team, they “find a way to lose.”

6-5 loss to Colorado: You were up 3-1
5-4 loss to Phoenix: You were up 1-0, and gave up 2 goals in less than a minute
7-2 loss to Washington: You were up 2-0 after the first.
5-4 loss to Detroit: You were up 3-1, and then 4-2.

More goals are not the answer.
Smart, opportunistic play is the answer. So how can the Flames be more opportunistic?
***The powerplay!
The team sits at 15.7% effectiveness on the PP. Improvement on where it has been, but by no means effective. Above all, when the Flames have needed a goal, the PP has usually failed them. Allowing players to play to their strengths on the PP will allow for a more *opportunistic* powerplay:

PP1 set up:
Bouwmeester (LW)             
Moss (net presence)              
Bourque (off-wing)

Iginla (off-wing point man)
Tanguay (off-wing point man, PP QB)

Bouwmeester is quick, and has decent hands around the net. He’s never had a booming shot from the point, so allow him to make plays in tight.  
Moss gets all of his goals from within 5 feet of the net. He’s a big body that can muck it up in front of the net, something this team desperately needs on a consistent basis.
Bourque has become more of a trigger man on the PP as of late. Serving as a threat along the wall could clear up space for Iginla and Tanguay as well.
Iginla has always been the go-to guy on the PP. So don’t put him along the half wall, let him take those one-timed shots from the point. If he’s covered, there’s likely room to dish it off to Bourque.
Tanguay’s playmaking ability can be very useful from the point. If nothing is available, he’s also demonstrated an ability to get shots to the net through traffic. Seems like a win-win to me!
*To Brent’s credit, he has tried all of these possibilities intermittently throughout the first quarter. Putting it all together and leaving it alone would be the key!

PP2 set up:
Hagman (LW)                     
Glencross (net presence)                  
Jokinen (off-wing)

Babchuk (off-wing point man)
Giordano (off-wing point man, PP QB)
Hagman has shown flashes on the powerplay, and has the quickness and tenacity to dig pucks out of the corner and create something out of nothing.
Glencross is what he is: a gritty player that has shown flashes of offensive ability.
Say what you will about Jokinen, he has always had a pretty lethal shot. So let him serve as a trigger option, and potentially open up space for the point men as well.
All I’ve heard about Babchuk is that he is a powerplay specialist, with a bomb of a shot. Jay Feaster said that he was brought in because the Flames had “missed that big shot from the point.” Well, let’s see it.
Giordano is the perfect PP quarterback: he’s effective at bringing the puck into the zone, he sees the ice very well, and he can get shots through to the net when appropriate.  

Through one quarter, the team is 8-11-1
17 points, 14th in the Western Conference
The ongoing assertion is that 96 points gets you into the playoffs. So let’s break down the next 3 quarters, in order to see what’s needed from the team through December to April:
Q2, 26 pts in 20 GP: 13-7-0
Q3, 26 pts in 20 GP: 13-7-0
Q4 , 27 pts in 22 GP: 13-8-1
Okay, so I really just divided the point totals by 3, but I think it gives us smaller segments with which to address. Basically, the team will have to maintain a 65% win percentage for the balance of the season. Good teams usually accumulate a 60% win percentage, so this represents a significant challenge for the team. What can they do to drastically improve on an 8-11-1 record?
Play Brent Sutter Hockey. From the same guy that brought the New Jersey Devils 51 wins in 2008-2009, mostly without star goaltender Martin Brodeur. Brent Sutter CAN be part of the solution in Calgary. Play a simple, intelligent game, and capitalize on your opponent’s mistakes. You’ve learned that you can’t survive in skills-competition games against the likes of Detroit, Washington, or Colorado. Good news! Neither can the Phoenix Coyotes. They play their own, simplistic style to break down the opposition – and accumulate 50 wins in the process.
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