Tuesday, September 13, 2011

10 Flames Forecasts for 11/12

*Glencross < 20 goals*

Glencross has been a streaky player from the outset in Calgary. His new deal won’t handcuff the team in terms of dollars, but the 4-year deal comes with expectations. The fact that Curtis played his best hockey in a 3 month stretch within a contract year wasn’t a coincidence, and that will be confirmed this season. Glencross will continue to evolve as an effective defensive forward, but he will not hit the 20-goal mark this season.

*Butler: plus player, avg 20 mins of ice*

Any time you give up the best player in a trade, it’s difficult to look positively on the return. In this case, however, the Regehr trade brought a versatile, mobile D man that will take a significant step forward this season. Chris Butler played in a number of roles with the Buffalo Sabres, varying from a healthy scratch to the top-pairing, alongside Tyler Myers. This season, Butler will take a significant step forward in his consistency, and solidify himself in a top-4 role. On top of that, he will average at least 20 minutes of ice time and come out a (+/-) plus player. Of course, Butler won’t replace Regehr’s presence on the back-end, but he will establish himself as a reliable top-4 D man in Calgary.

*Bouwmeester > 40 pts*

You read correctly. To this point, JBo’s highest point total with the Flames is 29. With greater team emphasis on two-way play, and increased ice-time (if possible) due to the loss of Regehr, Bouw will see more opportunities to jump up in the play and make things happen offensively. He’ll continue to get 2nd-rate PP time behind Giordano and Babchuk, which will also help his point totals, but his time in even strength situations will play an even larger factor. Bouwmeester was the go-to guy in Florida, and seemed to thrive in that role. When he arrived in Calgary, he found himself as one of many formidable forces on the back-end. Now that Regehr and Phaneuf have moved on, Bouw will once again be the go-to guy 5on5. His first two seasons have been underwhelming, which makes this an even safer prediction: hitting the 40 point mark, 2011-12 will be Bouwmeester’s best year as a Flame.

*Karlsson > 14 wins*

The “Calgary Tower” improved steadily over the 2010-2011 campaign. Not only do I expect that process to continue this season, but I expect Kiprusoff to take another step back. By and large, he has struggled in recent history, and a soon-to-be 35 year old goaltender isn’t likely to become more consistent overnight. Of course, he will steal the odd game, but his drastic swings in performance will not be tolerated to the same degree, especially with a back-up that the coach has confidence in. Karlsson will appear in 22-30 games, and will earn at least 14 wins this season. Bold prediction, no doubt, but if his game continues to evolve as it has, it’s not all that unrealistic.

*Cory Sarich: healthy scratch for 30+ games*

In recent history, Sarich has shown he isn't a full-time top-4 D man. His struggles with speedy forwards stands out as one major factor. The way I see it, there are three top-4 calibre D men on the team: Giordano, Bouwmeester and Hannan. To fill the last spot, you're left with two hopefuls who have played significant minutes in the past - Butler and Carson. I expect one of these two will take that final spot. Now we sit at the bottom two, and assuming Babchuk is penciled in as the 5th D man, things start to get messy. Outside of Sarich, you have one of Butler/Carson,  Negrin, Brodie, Breen, Wilson, Smith and even Henry. There's a mix of one and two-way deals here, but if one of these guys stands out in training camp, Sarich is out. The Flames illustrated they are willing to put big contracts in the press box, as they sat Sarich and Staios (a combined 6.3 mill) early last season, while scratching Stajan and dropping Kotalik to the minors later on in the year. In a bottom-two role, the contributions of Sarich are easily replaceable. If the Flames are truly running a "meritocracy" this training camp, Sarich will be the odd man out.

*Babchuk <30 pts* 

Anton Babchuk was a nice surprise last season. Acquired in a mid-season trade with the Carolina Hurricanes, Babs was an under-the-radar guy, capitalizing on his first experience in the Western Conference. His offensive instincts and bomb of a shot snuck up on the West, as he put up 35 points in total – including 11 goals. His defensive contributions slowly improved as the season went on. It will be crucial for Babchuk to continue progressing on the defensive side, as he will not reach the 30-point mark this season. He’ll get power play time, which will allow him to reach acceptable point totals, but that booming shot will face greater defensive coverage this year, and he will no longer be sneaking up on Flames’ opponents. Missed shots and poor decision-making will follow, and he will see a set-back in production as a result. Let’s call it “Phaneuf 2.0.”

*Byron fills in, scores 10*

The Flames blogosphere is a buzz about Paul Byron, mostly for the wrong reasons. I’ve read plenty of pieces that bash Byron as a prospect. What needs to be understood is that while he was an average prospect in the Sabres system, he's added to the mix in Calgary and immediately lands top-10 in the Flames' system. Of course, this reflects poorly on the Flames and isn't anything to marvel over, but it also means Byron is much closer to NHL minutes in Calgary. I expect there are still trades to come up front for the Flames prior to game 1 of the regular season. In concert with this will be Morrison's knee injury, which will create an opening for Byron as the Flames' first call-up on forward. He will fill in admirably in a depth role, notching 10+ goals in less than a full season with the big club.

*Brodie, Breen play entire year in Abbotsford*

I know it's fun to rehash Brodie's heroic training camp last season, and envision a stunning pre-season from Breen based on his improved play last season. On second thought: it's really not realistic for either to spend significant time with the big club. Brodie is a top prospect for the Flames, and by virtue of that, has had some unrealistic expectations placed on him for the coming year. Both of these prospects have improved steadily over the past year, but neither is a full-time NHLer as of today. I watched a handful of AHL games last season, and have kept a keen eye on the prospect games in Penticton. My assessment: neither Breen nor Brodie have stood out, which is what NHL calibre players should do in these settings. I expect both will be NHLers in years to come, but this won't be the year.

*Flames sit bottom-10 in goals against*

Over the summer, the Flames got younger and more mobile. You could argue they added skill, or improved depth, but the defensive play remains a huge question mark. In deleting two dependable players such as Langkow and Regehr while the goaltending position gets another year older, it's hard to see this team improving on its league-wide rank of 19th in goals against. This ranking may not get significantly worse, but expect CGY to land in the bottom-10 this season.

*Flames back into 8th place*

The result won't be far off the 2010-2011 campaign, but it will unfold in reverse. The Flames will explode out of the gate, and cool off drastically in the latter half of the season, backing into 8th place in the West. There will be playoffs, but like so many years before, not enough momentum leading into round one for any playoff success.

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