Monday, November 28, 2011

Calgary Flames Quarterly Report

This has been a painfully predictable start in the eyes of many Flames followers, yet one theme prevails atop the struggles: the Flames are bad, but not THIS bad. We could point to a lack of skill, but that argument no longer carries weight. The likes of Nashville, Phoenix and Minnesota seem to be getting by with solid goaltending and a lack of high-end skill. So why are the Flames in 13th place? Here are a number of explanations for it.

1. A lack of sustained back-pressure from the forwards has allowed opposing players significant time and space with the puck. Without any back-pressure, the opposition isn't forced to make quick (and often poor) decisions with the puck. As a result, the D men are forced to attack, rather than playing a more conservative contain game, which leads to poor pinches and odd man rushes against. Basically, a lack of defensive pressure and support from the forwards makes the D men - and the scoreboard - look atrocious.

2. While it may work in short spurts, heavy dependence on goaltending is unsustainable. Both Kiprusoff and Karlsson have been stellar, but these contributions merely mask shortcomings in team performance. A number of wins (vs. Colorado especially) were the result of timely goaltending, whereas a segment of tight losses could have been blowouts (vs. Buffalo, Detroit, St Louis) if not for steady netminding from the tandem. So, could it be worse for this team? Actually, it could. Not to say you shouldn't expect your goaltender to be good, but when you allow the other team to come at you in waves, you won’t win with any regularity.

3. The Flames' horrendous power play has nothing to do with a lack of skill or an aging team. In fact, it's more the result of a brutal break-out. There is a lack of urgency and flow leaving the zone. The feet are not moving, and the D simply throw the puck into the corner, where the forwards fail to outnumber the opposition in puck battles. Why isn't the *extra* man utilized here? Once they gain the zone (if ever), puck-movement is forced and predictable, as the likes of Iginla, Tanguay and Bourque stand around, waiting for the play to come to them. When the feet aren't moving, the opposition is able to stand still and block shooting lanes with ease. Once the PP quarterbacks (Giordano, Bouwmeester) lose patience with the lack of flow, they casually throw the puck right into some shin pads, and the squad is forced to reset.                                                                                                        
4. Poor offensive AND defensive efforts from the top line is hand-cuffing this team. If the Flames continue to rely on Joker & Glencross to produce offense against the likes of Datsyuk and Toews every game, 13th place will be best-case for the team. Based on matchups, the top-line should be potting one goal per game. At this rate, the #2 “shutdown” line can compliment these heavy hitters with some production at key times. Instead, the players facing the most difficult match-ups (#2) are also most effective in the offensive zone. To me, that comes down to hustle. We can give it a rest with the “Iggy deserves better” and “send him to a contender” until he starts performing again.
Over the last two seasons, it has become very clear that Sutter and Iginla have some philosophical differences. If the captain doesn’t play within the team structure at age 34, who will be held accountable to it? If the message applies to everyone but the face of the franchise, what message is the organization sending? Have a listen.

Brent & Iggy, courtesy Fan960:

5. For hockey fans, the phrase “dump and chase” is looked on unfavorably, and attributed to offensively challenged teams. In reality, some of the league’s elite teams use this strategy to maintain puck possession (Vancouver, Detroit). Through more intelligent D&C execution, they are able to re-gain control of the puck and maintain the offensive flow.
Sample 1 - Flames player: “my feet are not moving. My linemates’ feet are not moving. I will *fire* the puck around the boards (hopefully past the goalie’s stick) so we can battle the D men and *hope* to get the puck back.”
Sample 2 - DET/VAN player: “I have the puck and my teammates are changing OR not moving their feet. I will *hold* onto the puck and generate some speed for an extra 2-3 seconds, until a teammate is heading north with speed. I will then flip the puck *softly* into the opposite corner (where the goaltender cannot retrieve it) as my teammate continues on a straight path for the *bouncing* puck.”
By attacking the (often) flat-footed D men with speed and a direct path to the puck, there will be a greater chance of retrieval AND potential for confusion between the goaltender and the D men. Next time you see Detroit or Vancouver (especially in person), make a point of watching for this.
The Flames D&C actually involves throwing the puck away, with no speed, and hoping to get lucky with some physical play in the corner. Most of the time, it is rimmed around the boards and easily intercepted by the goaltender. From here, opposing D men can sweep around (with speed) and advance the puck. This is especially painful to watch on the power play.

6. This passive, perimeter offense looks like a bottom-feeder. Wrist shots to the crest from the outside (ahem, Bourque) make life pretty easy on the opposition. This is why every goaltender seems to have a bounce-back game when they face the Flames. More speed and physical assertiveness forces double-coverage, which opens up alternatives for outlet passes. A more aggressive forecheck -> opponent mistakes -> increased puck possession in scoring areas -> goals. This high-tempo offense needs to be utilized with more consistency, as illustrated in two 5-2 wins (in Minnesota, and at home vs Chicago).


1. Jokinen/Glencross consistency

2. Subtle youth movement
Horak, Byron, Backlund, Smith (sort of), Brodie: rewarded for solid/consistent play, filling in for veterans (Stajan/Morrison, Sarich and formerly Hagman) in replaceable roles. These youngsters not only bring speed and energy, but have proved to be very dependable. If Brent is able to rely on these players to play solid, significant minutes, the offensive totals will come. It may not involve elite-level talent, but the youth movement has begun in Calgary.

3. Rare prospect success
This will help cushion the blow after the next shutout loss to Minnesota or Nashville at home. While a handful of these prospects are still at least one year away, it’s encouraging to see this type of production out of not only former 1st round picks, but even 5th-7th round picks:

Sven Baertschi (Portland) 45 pts in 19 GP
Michael Ferland (Brandon) 42 pts in 28 GP
Greg Nemisz (AHL Abbotsford) 17 pts in 19 GP
Patrick Holland (Tri-City) 26 pts in 25 G
Max Reinhart (Kootenay) 31 pts in 23 GP
Johnny Gaudreau (Freshman, Boston College) 11 pts in 13 GP
Bill Arnold (Sophomore, Boston College) 14 pts in 13 GP
Markus Granlund (HIFK Helsinki) 11 pts in 19 GP, and a beautiful lacrosse goal:

As of today: Michael Ferland and Max Reinhart were named to Team Canada of the World Junior championships. Sven Baertschi was named to Team Switzerland. Here’s Assistant GM John Weisbrod on the announcements, courtesy Fan960:

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