January 11 2013 11:43AM
If you click around the sports books you'll find the Flames aren't being favored by the odds makers to win anything this year. The only team in the West consistently given worse odds to win the Stanley Cup is the Columbus Blue Jackets.
So the people who make money off this stuff are giving Calgary a big, wet raspberry. That's what three consecutive years outside of the playoffs and a doddering, expensive core will do I suppose.
Still, the Flames certainly aren't the Islanders or Edmonton over the last half decade bad (yet). Calgary's point total never dipped below 90 in the eight years between the lock-outs and they never finished lower than 10th. The club also has a number of bounce back candidates and they went out and spent some dollars in the off-season in an effort to shore up both the forward and defensive depth.
On the other hand, we all know the obvious question marks: the core is old and getting older, none of the signings from the summer addressed the Flames need for a player who can drive possession and there are significant question marks on the roster, such as Roman Cervenka and the Flames back-up position.
What Can Go Right
Rebound! Backlund, Comeau and Cammalleri
A big portion of the Flames roster suffered through unusally bad dry spells last year. Most obvious was Mikael Backlund, who despite taking a step forward in quality of competition, ice time, difficulty in zone starts and on-ice shot generation couldn't hit the ocean from beach last year. The 23 year old center was one of the few Flames players who consistently outchanced the bad guys, but a personal shooting percentage of just 4.7% (!) really sank his numbers.
Blake Comeau scored scored 24 goals on 182 shots for the Islanders in 2010-11 (13.2%). Then he managed just five goals on 137 shots last year (3.7%). The prodgious dip in SH% allowed the Flames to grab him for nothing and suggests he should be in-line for a very real regression to normal levels this year.
Finally, Mike Cammalleri and the Montreal Canadiens suffered a terrible cold snap on the PP to start the season last year. They were generating a good amount of shots, but pucks just weren't going in. The team stumbled, Mike blurted something something about a losing culture to the press and he was back in Calgary mid-season.
Unlike Backlund and Comeau, Cammalleri's fortunes actually did change after a slow start. As a Flame, he fired 11 goals over 64 shots for a 17.1 SH%.
For what its worth, all three guys are capable of putting up better numbers. In Comeau and Backlund's case especially, all they need is a bit better grip on the stick and a lot more love from the hockey gods.
A Better Blueline
Feaster's Dennis Wideman contract was critically panned when it was announced. For good reason - Wideman is a decent offensive rearguard, but with the dollars, time commitment and NMC added to the fact he isn't a truly premier guy in his own end, it means a lot of risk for the Flames in the long term.
In the short-term, though, there's no question the club's back-end is better on paper this year. Scott Hannan was a cheap, low-risk signing in the previous off-season, but he proved to be on his last legs as an NHL defender. He dragged down the second pairing with Mark Giordano terribly, leaving Brent Sutter with the unenviable option of putting Chris Butler on the top pairing with Jay Boumweester - a duo who saw some of the most difficult minutes in the league last year.
This time around with the addition of Wideman and the progression of Brodie (more on that soon), the Flames have a more legitimate top-four rotation. Bob Hartley has the option to mix and match the four veterans to his preference and whatever combination he comes up with should be superior to JayBo - Butler, Hannan - Giordano.
The Kids are Legit
Newcomers Roman Cervenka and Sven Baertschi are question marks thanks to their limited exposure to the NHL, but with the right usage and a bit of luck, both could prove to be quality supplements to the Flames previously limited attack. Cervenka's NHL equivalency during his previous two years in the KHL worked out to about 50 points over a full NHL schedule, which isn't quite all star quality, but would put him in about the top-35 in scoring amongst centers in the NHL last year.
Baertschi put up about a 45 NHLE in junior and has been, by far, the most dangerous looking forward on the Heat this season when he's been healthy. He will probably be a bit rougher around the edges than Cervenka given his age and limited pro experience, but he has all the tools to be a 40+ point winger right off the bat.
Finally, as mentioned, TJ Brodie is poised to take big step forward this season. A sheltered, third pairing guy last year, Brodie has been dominant as Abbotsford's #1 defenseman in 2012-13 so far. The 22-year old has played in the Heat's top pairing and in all situations, averaging nearly 30 minutes of ice on some nights.
Even if there isn't any room in the top-4 for Brodie yet, his progression means he should be able to carry the third pairing handily, whoever his partner may be. It also means the Flames don't risk a huge step back if one of the incumbents ahead of him gets injured (aside from Bouwmeester).
The Bob Hartley factor
I am agnostic on the effect of most coaches in the NHL. My feeling is that outside a few outliers at either end, most of them reside in a a big, squishy middle area. Meaning, I have low expectations for a Hartley induced turn-around.
That said, the guy has a good resume, has said all the right things in the offseason and there is definitely a few things he could improve upon over Brent Sutter. It's impossible to know if Hartley will be able to squeeze new life out of this roster, but for now we'll assume it's at least possible.
What Can Go Wrong
A Kipper Regression
There is no question the reason the Flames were in the playoff hunt last year was because of Kipper's heroics in January and February. The disconcerting part is he's unlikely to be that good again.
Here is Mikka Kiprusoff's even strength SV% over the last five seasons:
- 2011-12: .928
- 2010-11: .916
- 2009-10: .928
- 2008-09: .907
- 2007-08: .919
Two years above average, two years below average and one right on the line. All of which comes out to exactly .920 even strength save rate. Which is, of course, bang on average in the NHL.
Also, as you can see, Kipper hasn't once put together back-to-back above average seasons over the last five years. Oh and he's 36 years old.
It's certainly not impossible that Kiprusoff stands on his head again, but I think it's safe to say it's improbable.
An average goaltender is a challenge for a team that gave up the 7th most shots against in the league last year. A below average goalie (as he was in 2010-11 and 2008-09) would be a catastrophe for Calgary and a ticket to a lottery draft pick. Particularly because the club has nowhere to turn if variance or time decides Kipper can't be a game stealer this season.
This one is simple and related to the above issue - Calgary spent a lot of time in their own end last year.
Here is a list of regular forwards on the Flames who had positive possession rates in 2011-12:
- Mikael Backlund (+1.97/60)
- Lee Stempniak (+4.62/60)
- David Moss (+6.85/60)
Moss, of couse, signed in Phoenix in the off-season, leaving Backlund and Stempniak. Of the two, only Backlund faced top-6 opposition (when he was in the line-up). Nobody amongst the club's top guns spent more of their time in the offensive zone. In fact, Iginla, Jokinen and Tanguay were pretty much double digit negatives in terms of shot differential at even strength.
Now, here's the number of established, reliable possession players the Flames signed in the offseason:
The Hudler Gamble Craps Out
I've gone over this one in detail before, but it bears repeating: Jiri Hulder is a good bet to fall on his face in Calgary. His linemates will be worse than in Detroit, his circumstances will almost certainly be more difficult and he's coming off a year where he scored 25 goals on just 127 shots for a personal SH% of 19.7. He has never matched that goal rate before in his career. His overall average of 13.7% is a much more accurate reflection of his abilities.
Hudler has spent his entire career in Detroit being more or less and highly sheltered, middle-tier forward. The Flames seem to have higher aspirations for the 28-year old given the contract and press they gave him in the summer, but a step back is more likely than a step forward.
This Thing All Things Devours
This issue was referenced in the Kipper section above, but it goes beyond the goaltender. Jarome Iginla is 35 years old and will turn 36 in July. For most NHLers, this is typically the age at which their performance really starts to falter. Alex Tanguay is 33 and Mike Cammalleri is 30.
All told, the Flames have more than $22M in cap space invested in guys who average 33.5 years old, none of whom have played during the extended lock-out. If one or more of Iginla and company yields to the merciless march of the clock this season, it could cripple the team's chances of doing anything of note.
The Kids struggle
While Cervenka and Baertschi have a lot of arrows pointing in the right direction heading into camp as noted above, the truth is you never know if a guy can hack it in the show until he steps on the ice with the big boys. It's entirely possible one or both of Roman and Sven falter in the glare of the big lights, which wouldn't be unusual for a 20-yer old rookie or European who has never competed on NA ice.
If one or both guys has a tough time acclimating, it will cut down on the Flames options and offensive depth up front.
As usual, the Flames have a lot of entries on both sides of the ledger. If everything falls into place, Calgary will definitely contend for a playoff spot. On the other hand, if the dice consistently land on snake eyes the Flames will amost certainly be making their first top-10 draft pick in June since they took Dion Phaneuf 9th overall in 2003.
Now we can only wait and see which way it goes.