Friday, 7 November 2014

White-Hot Flames

EA Sports predicted that they would be terrible. I thought they would be terrible. Almost everyone in the hockey world predicted the Calgary Flames to struggle this season at best. Instead, all they've done is played solid hockey in hammering some pretty good teams en route to an 8-3-2 record. It's a far cry from where they were expected to finish in the preseason predictions, but that's what happens when a large quantity of unknowns come together in the right chemistry. The Calgary Flames play hockey with a dogged determination to overcome everything, and they've used that quality to establish themselves as one of the better NHL teams early on this season.

I have a ridiculously busy day and evening ahead of me, so I'm turning the reins to this hockey horse-and-buggy to contributor and all-around good hockey guy, Neal. Here is Neal's take on the Calgary Flames thus far this season, and I'll throw my thoughts in at the end. Take it away, Neal!
Before the season, many people expected the Calgary Flames to be close to the pole position of the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. Their roster, while not as bad as Buffalo's, was obviously designed just to play young guys while losing games to get the best pick possible. Well, a month into the season and apparently someone didn't tell one guy: Jonas Hiller.

Hiller was somewhat of an outcast before signing with the Flames. He was viewed by the Ducks as someone who was expendable given the young duo of John Gibson and Fredrik Anderson coming up through the system. That was on top of persistent rumors that the club was actively trying to acquire Ryan Miller as their cornerstone goalie. Of course, this was in spite of a respectable .916 save percentage and 2.50 GAA for his career. Even more, Hiller's numbers improved in the playoffs. Although Gibson would be the star of the playoffs for the Ducks last year, it's worth mentioning that coach Boudreau thought Hiller was pedestrian despite a goals-against-average that was only a shade above two per game.

Of course, if you want to know how Boudreau handles goaltenders, hit Google and search "Washington Capitals goaltenders" from his tenure there. Boudreau uses so many goalies, sometimes I think each one has to wear a nametag. That doesn't even factor in how Boudreau has juggled his goalies this year before both got injured. Somehow, the Flames got Hiller off the clearance rack this summer - an established NHL goalie for a mere $4.5 million a year. It may wind up being the best UFA signing in the NHL by a large margin and the best career move possible for Hiller.

In Calgary, the guy has simply been reinvented for what has become the most surprising team in the NHL. While the past couple games he has given up a few more goals, his GAA is still a sporty sub-two goals per game average. There were many people who thought that he was simply a placeholder for a team that was going through a long overdue rebuilding process. However, those people who expected him just to be a placeholder have been severely disappointed. Hiller has been playing with the desperation of someone who knows could be fighting for his career as an NHL starter. There is no plausible way he doesn't know that a flop in Calgary at age 32 could mean never being a starter in the NHL ever again or even being out of the league altogether. The whole Calgary Flames organization is reaping the benefits of a starter that is showing that he has plenty left in the tank.

In my criticisms of other teams positioning to tank like the Buffalo Sabres, I often point out that breeding a culture of losing can be very dangerous to your young prospects that you are developing. I will often argue that the Oilers haven't won for years because simply guys like Taylor Hall don't know how to win the NHL; that they never have been exposed to a consistent winning environment. All these young players know is how to lose and it can be very difficult to break this cycle. It's why the Flames brass should count all their blessings on guys like Hiller. Winning is simply infectious.

Sure, Calgary is winning at an unsustainable rate now, but guys like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and others are experiencing what it is like to win and how they need to play the game to do it consistently. In addition, some of these young guys are stepping up to the plate. TJ Brodie is tied for the scoring lead for the team with 13 points in 14 games. The young defender should blow away his career high in points set just last year. Monahan already has 4 goals this year and is showing why he is such a highly-regarded player. The bug of winning has also spread to retreads like Dennis Wideman and Mason Raymond who lead the team in goals. A winning environment is forming in the Calgary locker room as their group gains confidence, and it will be a benefit for years to come.

Of course given the context of some of the stats, it probably is unsustainable that they will be there in the end, especially in the ultra-talented Western Conference. The fact that three of their four top scorers are defensemen probably means that they can't keep it up and might struggle to score later on. Of course, if the youngsters like Monahan keep developing, they could pick up the offensive slack. It also seems unlikely that Hiller keeps up his superb pace. Hiller is a good goalie, but nobody is ever confusing him with a Vezina contender. What seems more likely is that the Flames will flame out as we turn over to the new year and fall out of playoff contention. Until then, though, I am marveling at Hiller and what I call the little train that shouldn't, but is. It should be a blueprint to the other bottom-feeder teams in the NHL. What the Flames are doing may never win them a Stanley Cup, but Hiller carrying the team on his back rather than "fading for McDavid" is doing much more benefits to their pieces of the future.
Great piece, Neal, and it is simply remarkable how the Calgary Flames have manhandled some of their opponents this season. When you get great goaltending, though, you're able to turn up the heat on the offence because you're not worried about that "bad goal" getting in and putting you down in the game. Good goaltending does breed confidence in a young team where mistakes are eaten up by the guy in the blue paint regularly.

However, another guy should get some credit in this Flames resurgence, and that guy is head coach Bob Hartley. He was handed a deeper roster this season of cast-offs and retreads, but has found the strengths of a number of players, and has mixed in some dazzling rookies to improve the roster as a whole. As Neal stated above, Mason Raymond and Dennis Wideman have be revitalized, and plays such as Lance Bouma, Brandon Bollig, and Curtis Glencross have jumped in and done more than just added an offensive flair. They block shots, they finish checks, they sacrifice their bodies, and they do the little things that coaches love to see out of guys. Add in the offensive capabilities of guys like Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, and Josh Jooris, and suddenly this team isn't a pushover any longer.

Hartley's up-tempo, all-zones pace is a tough one to adapt to if players aren't ready, but Hartley installed the system last season and started seeing results towards the end of the season. His mandate this summer was for all players to come into camp ready to push the pace, and he has a team that does that very effectively now. Hard work and persistence are trademarks of his teams, but he allows creativity as long as players are responsible defensively. In short, the Flames we're seeing this year are the embodiment of Hartley's system, and the results are showing in the standings.

The Calgary Flames may be the biggest surprise early this season. Injuries have a way of leveling the playing field, so to speak, so if the Flames can stay healthy, they may be in for a playoff spot this season. Looking at them now, there's no reason to believe they can't continue their white-hot start to the season.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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