For a team that was supposed to be one of the frontrunners in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes when the season began, the Calgary Flames have hit it out of the park so far in 2014-15.
A lot of credit has to go to the defense tandem of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie, the Nos. 1 and 2 blueline scorers in the NHL this season. But it goes way beyond that.
It starts with the coaching staff, led by third-year Flames coach Bob Hartley. Once described as a bench boss who relied heavily on veterans while being tough on rookies, Hartley has evolved since his time with the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
When the season started, the only rookie Hartley had in his lineup was 21-year-old Johnny Gaudreau – and Johnny Hockey was a healthy scratch in Game 6 after he had no points in five games. Since then, Gaudreau is scoring at a point-per-game pace and three others rookies – Josh Jooris, Markus Granlund and Michael Ferland – are making significant contributions. They were forced into the lineup when injuries to Matt Stajan, Joe Colborne, Mason Raymond and Mikael Backlund hit the team in late October.
What’s more impressive about Hartley’s evolution is the way he designed Calgary’s game plan this season. He identified the team’s biggest strength – skill, speed and smarts on the blueline – and focused the attack around a charging defense corps.
Watch the Flames play and it’s clear Giordano, Brodie, and the second pairing of Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman are under the directive to carry the puck for as long as they feel comfortable. While it’s conventional practice for rearguards to headman the puck to forwards in a buttoned-down NHL transition game, Hartley throws caution to the wind. Several times a game you’ll see a Calgary defensemen carrying the puck as deep as the opposition goal-line.
That’s possible because Giordano and Brodie are both supremely talented and play the game with a high IQ. But they wouldn’t be 1-2 in defensemen scoring if they weren’t given a perpetual green light. Giordano is now getting the league-wide attention he deserves and is the leading candidate for the Norris Trophy right now. It’s starting to come for Brodie as well.
And for a second-paring, Russell is playing like Brodie-lite – speedy on the rush with clever passes – and Wideman has always been a smooth, albeit erratic, operator with a hard shot. What’s most amazing about Calgary’s defense-led offensive attacks is how few odd-man rushes the opposition gets on the counterattack. They rarely get stung with a D-man caught deep.
Before the season began, the biggest concern in Calgary was where the offense would come from – especially with leading goal scorer Mike Cammallari leaving for New Jersey. The Flames’ 23 goals from the D-corps easily leads the league. Calgary’s 3.07 goals per game is fifth in the league, about 20 to 25 spots higher than many of us projected.
Another reason for Calgary’s surprising start is above average goaltending from Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo. Goaltending had been a downfall for the Flames the past couple of seasons when Miikka Kiprusoff’s game went south and the likes of Joey MacDonald and Reto Berra struggled.
As well, the aforementioned rookies have been terrific and sophomore Sean Monahan has flourished playing almost 20 minutes a night. And veteran Jiri Hudler is playing the best hockey of his career.
There are still many things the Flames don’t do well. Some people call Calgary lucky so far. Stats analytics show they’re not a puck possession team and that will surely catch up with them. So too will their ability to rebound from third-period deficits to win. That won’t last forever. And if you ask Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke, there aren’t enough black-and-blue players in the lineup.
It should be pointed out, however, the Flames had the seventh-best record in the NHL last season (19 wins in 31 games) after the Jan. 18 line brawl with Vancouver. Combine that with 17 wins in 28 games this season and that’s a 100-point pace over almost 60 games. That’s getting to be a pretty big sample size.
Oh, and that line brawl that sparked the team? That’s another Hartley creation.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN