Calgary Flames

Friday Flames Notebook: When the going gets tough, the tough get going

This time feels different. This Flames team has struggled many times before, for varying lengths of time, but this stretch feels different. On one hand, it’s sort of bizarre considering the team hasn’t been terrible from a standings perspective. After all, they went 2-2 against the Canucks, not 0-4. But it has been the way the team has looked that has fans so upset. And, they have good reason to be.

Who is to blame? Well, sort of everyone. Systematically, this team has been a mess, so Geoff Ward deserves a significant amount of the blame. They likely cannot fire the coach at this point, but any sports fan knows that competitive desire and work ethic can mask a lot of structural issues. To say that this team has lacked competitive desire for a long time is the understatement of the century. It is just so frustrating to watch them when they are in one of their funks, as they never seem to be able to find their way out.

I am often weary of calling out leadership when times are bad, especially when there are some obvious ways that the team needs to improve (better first line RW play, fourth line depth etc.), but how much longer do you need to watch this team play sad, emotionless hockey to start thinking about a change?

There has been a lot made about the team meeting weeks ago, reported by Elliotte Friedman and others. I have written this before, but I have long believed that players only meetings are a sign that something is very wrong. If there are issues that coaches can’t be around for, it probably means that something is wrong with the coaches, or there are some serious griefs that need to be aired out. Friedman reported that some Flames players told Matthew Tkachuk to tone down the antics in that meeting, and he has looked like a shell of himself recently. It is unwise to speculate over what is said behind closed doors, but whatever it was, it hasn’t worked.

Something is wrong with this team, and has been for a long time. I am not sure it is Geoff Ward’s fault, though he certainly does not seem to be a part of the solution. The race for the North Division crown waits for no-one. The time to get things going is now.

1. Sixteen games in, where does Calgary stand?

Lets check in on some team numbers at the sixteen game mark.

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It hasn’t felt like it, but the numbers have been pretty good (read our primer on what these numbers mean here). The team is in the top half in most of these major possession statistics, and given their HDCF numbers, it could be expected that their shooting percentages will bounce back a little bit (something we have been saying for a couple weeks).

Of course, these numbers also confirm the eye test that Jacob Markstrom has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL this season, and has been far and away the team’s MVP. Calgary’s High Danger Save Percentage is 84.48%, good for seventh in the league. Markstrom is being asked to make a lot of big saves, and he has made a lot of them. Leaving aside the last game against the Canucks, he has been outstanding.

More worrying for the team is the power play, which has been struggling recently. After a hot start, they have fallen to 15th in the NHL, league average. Changing Rasmus Andersson for Juuso Valimaki might help, but there hasn’t been an immediate payoff. Like past years, the powerplay is looking predictable, and struggling without a big time one timer threat. Something to watch going forward.

On the penalty kill, the team is 18th. This is obviously pretty mediocre, and is especially frustrating given some the dead weight they are carrying in their forward group to use guys who are “PK specialists” like Joakim Nordstrom and Byron Froese. Given their lack of juice up front, you would hope those guys could push the kill above the lower half of the league.

2. The power play is stagnant – What are some ideas?

It is easy to criticize the power play, but what are some ideas that actually might help? There were two looks I saw recently from Calgary that worked to differing degrees.

The first one was the pass from the low man (net front man, shifted just to the left of the net), through the defence to the point man. It has worked twice for the team in recent weeks.

The first was on this pass from Tkachuk to Andersson. Rasmus does not shoot it directly, but the pass collapsed the defence and opened up some space.

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The second was the next game, on a pass from Sean Monahan to Mark Giordano.

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The handedness for the Flames works pretty well here. When Monahan has the puck, Lindholm can one-time the pass. Giordano has enough space to step into it, and its a hard cover for the Canucks. Most importantly, it is something different from Johnny Gaudreau fake slap shots on the left flank. It is hard to predict, and that is paramount.

Another interesting look came the other night against Vancouver.

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This looked like a set play, and featured Monahan carrying the puck behind the net. I like the look to Lindholm here, as he can bury that one timer in the slot. If nothing else, it causes the defence to shift and opens up some lanes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go back to this look, and I wouldn’t mind it either.

3. While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about personnel on the PP

In thinking about those tactics, I am wondering if the Flames might be able to change their personnel to optimize it a bit better. Sean Monahan is an elite scorer in front of the net. Scoring in tight has been his calling card since he joined the Flames.

For a guy that is so renowned for scoring, he has such a limited role in this power play set up. We know that Johnny is going to have the puck a lot on that left wing. We also know that for Monahan, as a lefty in the bumper spot, his best chance to score is off the tic tac toe play from the half wall (Gaudreau), to the net front (Tkachuk), back inside to Monahan. This play is the same one the Canucks use all the time to set up Bo Horvat.

However, the Flames have a big difference from the Canucks. Brock Boeser is the net front player in Vancouver. He shoots right handed. The pass into the left handed Horvat is an easy one for him. Matthew Tkachuk shoots left handed, the pass into Monahan is nearly impossible. To do it, he has to get so far away from the net, turn his hips, and set himself up. That is predictable and time consuming. Or he has to do it all on his backhand. Even for a guy with his skill, that’s tough.

So what do you do? Two ideas. One would be to shift the power play alignment to feature Elias Lindholm in the bumper spot. Either Tkachuk or Monahan could play in front of the net. As lefties they would be able to quickly funnel pucks into Lindholm. In this situation, I wouldn’t mind seeing Monahan on the half wall at least once. And before you start telling me about how he scores most of his goals from in tight, so does Tkachuk. But Tkachuk spends lots of time on the wall, whereas Monahan is stuck inside all the time.

The other idea is to put a right handed player in front of the net. Someone like Josh Leivo, who could help Gaudreau get pucks into Monahan more reliably. Conversely, they could put a non-Lindholm right hander in the bumper spot, making that play easier on the other side of the ice.

This situation would require a new approach. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been using a two-unit approach for a few seasons, where they split up their stars among their two powerplay units. Now, they have a different kind of star power up front, but maybe it works in Calgary. What if Leivo or Brett Ritchie (any right hander not named Froese) and Dillon Dube come up to the first unit, replacing Tkachuk and Lindholm. Then the second unit could be built around those two, perhaps with Andrew Mangiapane in the bumper and Milan Lucic in front of the net?

Honestly, I’m not sure how it would work. But the unit right now is average. What is the harm in trying?

4. ritchie impressive in debut

TWC’s Khalid Keshavjee wrote about Ritchie when he was signed, but Wednesday was our first time seeing him in action. It was just one game, but he was very impressive. He started on the fourth line but quickly found himself up with Gaudreau and Monahan. Ritchie posted a 70.83% CF% on the night, in just ten minutes of ice time.

He looked engaged physically, was quick on his feet, and was all over the ice. In 7:55 of ice time on the first line, they posted a 63.16% CF%. I also loved his shoot first mentality. When Calgary gets away from their game, they focus on too many touch passes and fancy plays. I loved Ritchie just ripping the puck when he got the chance.

You would have to think he starts the next contest on that line. Hopefully he can build a little momentum, and keep another right hander in the lineup.

5. Let’s talk about lines

Sam Bennett needs to play centre. I think that much is clear, and even if it is on the fourth line, he is just so much better than when he is on the wing, in my opinion. Like many fans, I am also questioning why Leivo hasn’t been in the lineup recently; it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

I wrote yesterday about Dominik Simon, and I think it is reasonable to expect him to be out of the lineup for the next game. He didn’t play much at all on Wednesday, and has had a miserable start to the season individually.

Here is what I would do for the next game:

Tkachuk – Lindholm – Mangiapane
Gaudreau – Monahan – Ritchie
Lucic – Backlund – Dube
Nordstrom (sigh) – Bennett – Leivo

Is this perfect? No. But the fourth line combinations we have seen recently are downright bizarre, and this would put more guys in spots they are comfortable in. I would be ok with Tkachuk and Gaudreau taking turns double shifting with the fourth unit as well. However, this is not a long term solution, and I would expect Glenn Gawdin to get a look with the fourth line soon.

Defensively, I am not really too worried. I think all of the Flames defensemen have played pretty well so far. Who plays with who does not seem like a pressing issue right now.

6. Sean Monahan – it’s coming

I won’t dwell on this point, because I have mentioned it in past columns. But Monahan is still hampered by a low shooting percentage, accounting for his only two goals on the season. He is getting his looks though, and I think a breakout is coming. Mangiapane has been the beneficiary of some puck luck in the past few weeks, and Monahan has to get some eventually. If he does, he can go on a similar run to Mangiapane.

He isn’t going to miss these forever:

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7. Battle of Alberta – How bad do you want it?

I don’t like using the title of must win, but these two games will be a good measure of what this team has in terms spirit. The best rivalry in hockey, at a time when you really need points. It is now or never for the Flames. Let’s see what they can do.

Have an outstanding weekend!

Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

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