Calgary Flames

Sunday Census: Goalies, rookies, and the Pacific Division

Welcome to The Win Column’s newest weekly feature: Sunday Census. Throughout the week, TWC will be posing topical and intriguing polls on Twitter (@wincolumnblog) to gauge the fan-base’s stance on pressing issues. Want to make sure your opinion is taken into effect? Vote in the polls, start a debate, and propose alternative suggestions on the polls!

The first question focuses on the handful of slow starters the Calgary Flames currently have on their roster. The team started their season strong and the standings show it, but some of their depth pieces haven’t contributed as much as initially thought. Sam Bennett, Dillon Dube, Mark Jankowski, and James Neal have been the main culprits of the quiet starts. Their stats:

GP G A Pts +/- PIM SH%
Sam Bennett 16 2 2 4 1 25 8.70%
Dillon Dube 14 0 2 2 2 0 0
Mark Jankowski 14 1 2 3 -3 4 5.60%
James Neal 16 3 1 4 -3 10 7.50%

A combined six goals and 13 points between the four forwards is concerning to say the least. Dube gets a pass as a rookie; it will take a bit of an adjustment to get used to the NHL. Bennett and Jankowski aren’t meant to be offensive juggernauts, but still should be producing more than 0.25 and 0.21 PPG respectively. Neal has had the most impact of the bunch, but he would probably be the first to criticize his own start.

That being said, the fan-base appears to be high on the potential that both Bennett and Neal will have moving forward. Neal received 89 votes, while Bennett was virtually tied, being behind with 88. It is safe to assume Neal will rebound eventually, as he has scored 20 goals in every single NHL season, so it is welcomed to see that many agree with this sentiment. He also is getting a prime opportunity on the second line with Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund, so these numbers should begin to increase.

Bennett is the interesting case. Last season he was a constant scapegoat among the fans, but a complete change of opinion has occurred since. The support behind Bennett is as high as it was back in the 2014-15 playoff run. Based on his early “impact”, mainly in terms of his effort and physicality, fans are liking what they have seen. Bill Peters appears to have taken a liking to the young forward, and perhaps with more ice time, his breakout season may be upon us?

My vote goes to Neal, as it would be foolish to bet against the proven NHL calibre talent that he brings to the team.

The Flames made waves this season by promoting multiple rookies to mainstays on their NHL roster. Both Dube and Juuso Valimaki made the team right out of training camp, with Rasmus Andersson joining after Travis Hamonic‘s opening night injury. All three players look to be staying in the NHL.

So which one has been the most impressive to the fans? With all due respect to Dube and his glorious eyebrows, it was really just a two-man race. Valimaki and Andersson, who just so happen to make up the third defensive pairing together, have impressed fans the most. Valimaki held the edge in our poll, with 49% of the vote, but do the numbers back that up?

Juuso Valimaki 15 1 1 2 51.50% 51.50% 47.60%
Rasmus Andersson 14 0 1 1 49.20% 45.80% 44.10%

In fact they do. Valimaki has not been given the same opportunities in terms of defense partners, but sports the better numbers at 5v5. Andersson played a handful of shifts with Mark Giordano and Noah Hanifin, while Valimaki started the season with Michael Stone. You can’t necessarily go wrong with either of the two, but I think the fan-base gets it right this time around.

My vote actually goes to Andersson. Valimaki has been phenomenal, but even though Andersson’s numbers don’t reflect his performance, he has been used much more frequently. He took his early season demotion with a chip on his shoulder, as it would be hard to imagine this team without him at this point. His play in key situations, in addition to his flexibility up and down the lineup, gives him our vote.

The elephant in the room. Projected to be the Flames’ biggest weakness entering the season, the goaltending has easily been this team’s biggest opportunity for improvement. In fact, it might be the one thing holding the Flames back.

Mike Smith‘s struggles have been well documented, and David Rittich‘s emergence is more timely than ever. It has clearly reached a breaking point, as the starting goaltender has become the hottest question entering each game. Smith’s numbers have appeared to fall off a cliff, but the team still opts to name him the #1.

Rittich’s numbers are more impressive, but is he full ready for a starting position? Perhaps Rittich’s first career shutout against the Los Angeles Kings will earn him more starts down the road. Many questions exist for the team, but what are the fans thoughts?

We provided three options: weather the storm, make a trade, or promote from within. To the surprise of only a few, a trade appears to be the most popular option at 48%. The only issue with that route is that there are a limited amount of candidates available the Flames could realistically acquire. Sure they could go after Sergei Bobrovsky, but do the assets going back really make sense for a goalie they can’t afford in the long term. Theoretically, based on Smith’s numbers since his injury last season, literally any goaltender would be considered an “upgrade”, but the Flames could just be acquiring another short term option.

Promoting from within is a bit of a risk, as Jon Gillies and Tyler Parson’s appear to need additional AHL experience, but fans appear to prefer this option second best at 27%. At what point does Gillies simply need to make the jump fully to the NHL?

My thoughts? The unpopular opinion, as weathering the storm may be the best option. Of course this means not altering the current tandem, but providing Rittich with the majority of remaining starts. If he continues to perform admirably with the starter role, problem solved. If the Flames continue to go back to Smith, and he continues to disappoint in a limited role, then he becomes a bigger and bigger liability for the team’s playoff chances.

Branching out from the Flames, we take a look at the surprising Pacific Division alignment through the first month of the season.

As it currently stands, the Anaheim Ducks, Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings are all in the bottom half of the division (the Arizona Coyotes have games in hand which if they win will set them a part from this bottom group). This does not come remotely close to matching early season predictions, as most pundits had a combination of those teams near the top. It is still early, but which team do fans find most surprising?

With 36% of the vote, fans are most surprised to see the Knights falter early in the season. Sitting at 7-9-1, the defending Western Conference Champions haven’t been able to find that magic they had last year. The team went through a wealth of roster changes, and have been killed with injuries to key players. Even though they defied the odds last year, a regression was expected. With such a strong top six, it is doubtful they will last near the bottom for much longer.

The Ducks and Kings on the other hand have simply not been very good this season. Ranked last across a wealth of statistical categories, the Californian teams have a lot of work to do if they want to make any sort of run. Anaheim has been lucky to squeak out a handful of wins, even against the Flames, but the majority of them have come in close wins after being shelled by the opponents.

The biggest surprise, in my opinion, would be the Kings. I didn’t think they would be very good, but I also didn’t think they would be as terrible as they have been. Being the first team to 10 losses was not a prediction anyone would have made for Los Angeles. Easily the biggest “worst” surprise of the season.

Want to be a part of the conversation next time around? Follow us on Twitter @wincolumnblog and be sure to keep a look out for our polls throughout the week.

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