In the minds of many it seems a foregone conclusion that the Flames will miss the playoffs again if there is a 2012-2013 season. The reasons range from ‘lack of scoring’ to ‘an aging core’ to ‘the Flames will suck until they rebuild’ and pretty much everything in between.
Not so fast. Until the season begins it is impossible to accurately assess a team’s chances when there have been so many changes. I would like to look at the changes and other factors which may contribute to a result that defies the critics.
The Flames were a middle-of-the-road team in most statistics last year, which translated into a middle-of-the-road season. For the third year in a row the Flames missed out on a playoff spot by just a handful of points. I would like to look at some reasons why the Flames missed the playoffs and some changes which could help the team get the three or four extra wins that would get them into the playoffs for the first time in four years.
The Flames lost the second most man-games in the league to injury last year. It is unlikely they will be in that position again this year.
The Flames put themselves squarely behind the eight-ball the last three seasons, especially the last two, by getting out of the gate so slowly they were out of playoff contention by Christmas. This left them facing an uphill battle in the second half when points are hardest to come by.
Jarome Iginla is traditionally a slow starter, but last year he got off to a particularly slow start as most players who miss training camp do. Barring injury Jarome should get out of the gate a little quicker this year, which could help.
But Jarome is just one player and one of the changes that could contribute more significantly to a quicker start is the change in coaching staff. Usually when the coaches are replaced there is a honeymoon period when the team plays better than before the changes, even if they tail off once the novelty wears off.
In best case scenario though, especially when the coach is a significant upgrade or even just more suited to the team the improvement is sustained. I would submit a more positive approach from the coaching staff would be a welcomed change, and there isn’t much question Bob Hartley has had a lot more success in the NHL than Brent Sutter.
The Flames were the 7th worst team in the league at even strength last year. Obviously their relative strength was in special teams, which was the reason they finished 17th and not much lower. They were 13th in the league on the powerplay and 7th in the league on the penalty kill.
The addition of Jiri Hudler, who was the second best player in the league five-on-five last season, should help.
The Flames were the 7th worst team in the league in goal scoring, and although not terrible were a mediocre 14th in the league for goals against.
Although the Flames lost Olli Jokinen to free agency the Flames have replaced his offense, and then some, with the additions of Hudler and Wideman.
Roman Cervenka could help with offense as well, but as he is unproven I think it would be unreasonable to project him as a given producer. However after an adjustment period and recovery from injury Michael Cammalleri tallied 11 points in his last ten games. His addition to the Flames should not be underestimated. He is a legitimate threat to be a point-per-game player.
It should be no surprise that with such low scoring totals the shot totals would be low as well. The Flames had the 5th fewest shots per game in the league last year @ 27.5 per game.
Shots on goal will increase. That is a given due to the change in systems with the new coaching staff.
The Flames lost a second worst 16 games in overtime last year (six in the shootout). The only team who lost more overtime games was Florida who lost 18. Calgary’s shootout record was second worst in the league as well.
The shootout is where I think it is reasonable to project help from Cervenka. He is a slick puck handler and goal scorer. Jiri Hudler is also a player who adds skill and was a go-to guy for Detroit in the shootout, scoring on nearly 1/3 of his 37 attempts for the Wings.
The Flames had the worst faceoff percentage in the entire league last year by nearly a full percentage point.
This area has not been addressed yet, which is why I speculate Steve Begin is on a tryout. However, even though Olli Jokinen was only about 46% on faceoffs, Brent Sutter insisted on using him in nearly all key situations. He took nearly twice as many faceoffs as the next highest Flame, when the option of using Jarome Iginla or Matt Stajan who both hovered around 50% was available.
This is an area that may be a case of addition though subtraction…both in the case of Brent Sutter and Olli Jokinen.
The Flames played last season with only two top four defensemen. The addition of Dennis Wideman who is a legit top-four defenseman in the league and a legit top-two on a lot of teams including Calgary has to help both on the powerplay and at even strength.
Sven Baertschi lit up the WHL last year and scored 3 times in five games for the Flames. Although that extrapolates to a 50 goal season, predicting he could sustain that over the course of an entire year is not reasonable. However he could be a 25 goal scorer playing with the right linemates. But he could also need a year in the AHL to improve his game. He is another player who could help in the shootout.
Is this enough positive change to get the 3-4 extra wins the Flames will need to get back into the playoffs? On the surface it looks like it, but until we see some games it is difficult to be assertive in one direction or the other.
Factoid: The Calgary Flames made the playoffs five consecutive years until they hired Brent Sutter as coach and missed out by a handful of points every year since.