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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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Segment Review #3: Games 11-15

To best introduce the theme, let’s start off with some numbers from Segment 3:

Games Played: 5
Record: 1-4
Home wins: 0
Goals For: 12           
GPG: 2.4
Goals Against: 18
GAA: 3.6
Players arrested: 1
Players arrested with bloodlines to the Coach and GM: 1
Players traded since this segment: 2
Goals for Iginla: 1
Goals for Jokinen: 1
Goals for Tanguay: 1
Games Played for Henrik Karlsson: 0
Games Played for Steve Staios: Too many
Current Western Conference Seeding: 14th

So um... UH OH

Despite being 14th in the Conference, this team is actually playing like a 13th place team – phew, that’s reassuring. An endorsement you say? Not at all, as the Western Conference is more competitive than ever this November; So... strictly bad news. Of course, it’s more fun to blame the rest of the division anyway: Hello Minnesota and Columbus? You’re not making The Sutters feel better by comparison this year... why all the winning?

No timely scoring + untimely miscues leading to goals against = a poor use of time

The storyline for this segment has returned to what we’re more used to seeing: prolonged losing streaks, and a lack of timely scoring:

4 losses this segment; 3 losses by one goal

There has been no flow to the offensive game for this team, and the “go-to” guys have been gone to, and we’ve come back with nothing. Here’s a look of the best performers in a bad stretch of games:

Rene Bourque: Rene, like many players on this team, has been very inconsistent. However, his ability to contribute offensively shouldn’t be overlooked. Much has been made about a “passing of the torch” from Iginla to Bourque, but I’m not sure we’re at that stage just yet. If anything, the line of Jokinen alongside Hagman and Bourque has reduced some of the top match-ups against Iginla’s line, which is a win-win for the team. Bourque needs to upgrade his level of consistency before he’s handed that figurative torch.

Mark Giordano: I haven’t been particularly fair to Giordano in my player recognition to this point, mostly because we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing this guy play a solid game in all areas. Alongside Kiprusoff, Giordano has become the most consistent player on this team. He keeps his game simple, uses his feet, and finds ways to contribute offensively. He’s effective on the power play, shuts it down on the penalty kill, and ties it all together by playing downright mean. He’s shown no signs of slowing down since signing a long term deal with the Flames, and should be a valuable leader for this team moving forward.

If there’s anything that can distinguish this segment from last, it’s the urgency for results. Many of us, myself especially, spent most of the 2009-2010 justifying a lack of results with “The team lost, but...” The Flames don’t have the luxury of getting by on the ‘little victories’ of a game. This team needs results, and fast, or the season could slip away – fragility and inconsistency intact. The Flames have chosen a win-now approach, and have for several years now. This means that “we’re getting better” and “it’s coming along” will no longer do the trick. Two straight seasons with no playoff appearance, and that approach could take a 180 degree dive. Here’s hoping we’re able to recognize the players on this team next November. 

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Segment Review #2: Games 6-10

What a difference five games can make.

In a review of games 1-5, we assessed the lack of offensive production and the magnificent play of Miikka Kiprusoff – neither of which will be discussed in this segment. The game against the Washington Capitals will not be discussed in depth either, as that would exceed the 5-game protocol for review. Breaking promises on the blogosphere is no way to make cyber friends.

Games  6-10 brought a ton of storylines, with wild swings in momentum and an onset irregular heart beat. The Calgary Flames averaged 4.4 goals for and 3.2 goals against within this five game segment, neither of which we are accustomed to seeing from this team in recent history. The goal scoring has come in waves, while it seems every shot against ends up in the Flames’ net. The issues that plagued this team through the first five games have been temporarily resolved, entirely at the expense of the original strengths of the club. In summary, games 6-10 brought a dismal loss to the Colorado Avalanche, accompanied with the most complete game in a year:  a 4-0 drubbing of the San Jose Sharks. As such, the 2010-2011 Calgary Flames remain a study of consistent inconsistency.


Suddenly, the team is scoring goals. Lines 1-4 are finding a way to contribute on the score sheet, and we are seeing dirty goals, tic-tac-toe plays and everything in between. The Power play has become slightly less painful to watch, and we are finally seeing some creativity in the offensive zone. Here are some honourable mentions in this category:

Rene Bourque: We are seeing the evolution of a valuable power forward in the making. Rene has been a late bloomer, but is beginning to show signs of a solid two-way performer for this team. It seems we are mid-transition between go-to guys. Gradually, Iggy is removing himself from this role, and Bourque is emerging into a strong candidate for the responsibility moving forward. Is this Rene’s team? Not yet, but I think you’re beginning to see a transition take place. The likes of Regehr and Iginla are fading into the sunset, while Bourque, Giordano and Stajan take on more prominent roles - and long term deals - with the Flames.

Brendan Morrison: While this mention does not represent anything for the future, Morrison is currently leading the team in points. His speed is impressive at age 35, and he has demonstrated an ability to play effectively in any role within the top 3 offensive lines. Solid PK guy, good PP production and alongside Glencross, we are seeing some impressive two-way consistency from Morrison.

Alex Tanguay: Simply put, Tanguay has shown flashes of playmaking brilliance and creativity. At times, his risky decision making can cost the team defensively, but he’s shown some offensive flare that’s been non-existent for the last year. Between set-up plays on the half boards, tape-to-tape feeds to the front of the net and beautiful backhand goals, Alex has a natural skill-set that the Flames have been desperate for in recent history. So who am I to complain about the odd defensive risk?

Olli Jokinen: The Joker has been a more competent second line centre through games 6-10. He hasn’t been good, but he’s been better. Let’s call it a step up from rock bottom, and at this point we’ll take it.


Hmm, I guess I’ll just give you a list of negatives: bonehead turnovers in the defensive zone, average goaltending, untimely miscues and above all: an uncanny ability to cough up big leads. In fairness, these are not common characteristics of the team in recent memory. So what’s most concerning? One area of weakness is addressed, and the other facets of team performance completely falter. Let’s celebrate with this segment’s Cyber Wall of Shame:

Robyn Regehr:  This solid shutdown defenseman has looked slow and awkward to this point, while making some poor decisions in the defensive zone. Very uncharacteristic of #28, and something that needs to be reversed quickly. One big hit a game is not enough to make up for those minus ratings on the scoresheet. He’s looked more like Dion Phaneuf than Robyn Regehr as of late, and that’s something I don’t wish on any team. Oh yeah, except one.

Henrik Karlsson: His adopted nickname “The Calgary Tower” has suited him perfectly to this point: He’s humongous, and doesn’t move. He showed some shaky moments in a 6-2 victory over the Blue Jackets, and in my view, let the team down in a 6-5 loss to Colorado. You can’t expect your back-up goaltender to steal you games, but you hope that he’s able to make a timely save when needed. His rebound control was especially poor against the Avs, even on wrist shots from the blueline, and the goals he allowed seemed to kill any momentum that had been generated. From what I saw, he played deep in his crease through most of the game. I’m not a goaltender by any means, but don’t you want your 6-6’ 215 pound goalie to challenge the shooter and take advantage of his size? Typically, I try to stear clear of goaltending criticism, but I think Henrik is capable of more than he’s shown to this point.

If there was a ‘Very Average’ section of this segment, that’s where I would place Jarome Iginla. He seems to be leaving the zone early, and his emotional investment in the game seems uncharacteristically low. He’s still a great hockey player, and this “old and slow” argument seems to get lost in the “tops in conditioning every year” factor. We just haven’t seen much passion from the captain to this point, and to me, that’s more concerning. A disinterested Jarome is sure to be a bad sign. Having said all of this, I’m not on that “Trade Jarome” train that seems to pick up new passengers after every loss.

Let’s hope next segment summary posts a balance of what we’ve seen through the first two. Ten games in, this team is playing fragile. Yet fragility seems to be the only consistent factor amongst all of the inconsistency.

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