The Flames appear to be a team on the rise. Will an increased possession game and improved goaltending be enough to get them into the playoffs?
THN is rolling out its 2016-17 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of 2015-16 overall finish, until the start of the season. Today, the Calgary Flames.
THN’s Prediction: 4th in Pacific
Stanley Cup odds: 30-1
Key additions: Troy Brouwer, RW; Brian Elliott, G; Alex Chiasson, RW; Matthew Tkachuk, LW; Linden Vey, RW; Chad Johnson, G
Key departures: Joe Colborne, RW; Jonas Hiller, G; Mason Raymond, LW; Josh Jooris, C; Niklas Backstrom, G
-Can new coach Glen Gulutzan get the Flames to play with possession? Deposed Calgary coach Bob Hartley was a big fan of the stretch pass to create offensive chances and stressed shot blocking to suppress the opposition. Both meant the puck was wayward rather than controlled. That type of old school thinking ran thin with GM Brad Treliving, and the coach of the year in 2014-15 was replaced.
Gulutzan is regarded as more progressive in his coaching style and is sure to find creative ways of keeping the puck on the sticks of his skilled young forwards and mobile defense corps.
-Who’s the next young gun to step in and shine? In each of the past three seasons, Calgary has seen an unproven rookie blossom in an offensive role. From Sean Monahan to Johnny Gaudreau to Sam Bennett, the future is in good hands.
Expect to see two of the following win jobs. Winger Hunter Shinkaruk showed well in an eight-game trial last season, sixth-overall pick Matthew Tkachuk is a mature 18, Daniel Pribyl is big and skilled, and 2013 first-rounder Emile Poirier is quick with nice finish.
-Is Brian Elliott’s stellar save percentage transferrable to Alberta? Was it the team system in St. Louis or just Elliott’s ability to stop shots at an elite level that led to an otherworldly .925 save percentage the past five seasons combined?
Chances are it was a combination of both. Elliott is unheralded, but then again, the defensive schemes of Ken Hitchcock leads to his goalies posting nice SPs. At 31, Elliott is in the final year of his contract at a modest $2.5 million. A good showing and he’ll double that number.
Player projections are based off a three-year version of Game Score (which you can read about here) weighted by recency and repeatability and then translated to its approximate win value (Game Score Value Added or GSVA). Team strength was derived from the combined value of every player’s GSVA on a team. The season was then simulated 10,000 times factoring in team strength, opponent strength and rest.
Once you see the same thing happen a couple times it becomes less surprising. After Toronto in 2013-14 and Colorado in 2014-15, Calgary became the latest team to crash back down to Earth after a miracle season. This season should be different for the Flames and you may see them take some real steps toward being a playoff team.
The biggest change comes in net with the additions of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson who should be much better at keeping pucks out of the net. Last year’s team finished last in save percentage which was a big reason for their undoing. That shouldn’t be an issue this year.
What will likely be an issue is team depth. Top heavy is a word that gets undeservedly thrown around for good teams like the Penguins and Sharks that have great players and depth. The Flames have great players, but the bottom of the roster looks sketchy. They have an okay top six led by Johnny Gaudreau, but the bottom has four replacement level players. Their fourth line is the worst in the league and it’s a big reason why the team’s forward group is in the bottom five.
On defense, the divide is even crazier. The team has arguably three No. 1 D-men followed by three replacement level guys. No other team has a gap that severe, although it’s not as big of an issue here as the strength of the top three pushes the entire unit into the top 10.
Putting the two together, Calgary has one of the league’s biggest discrepancies between their top-end talent (top six forwards and top four defensemen) which ranks 15th and their depth (bottom six forwards and bottom pair d-men) which ranks 28th.
What you’ll notice here is that the best teams have good top end talent with the depth to match, while weaker teams are lacking in one area, although there are exceptions to both rules. Calgary is a team that’s likely on the playoff bubble this year and in order to take the next step they’ll need some bigger steps from top end guys like Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett and they need to solidify their depth because what they’re trotting out on the bottom lines isn’t good enough.
Up next: Winnipeg Jets