Maher in the Mornings



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March 20, 2017

During a recent Flame game a fan asked, “do you see any similarities between this year’s team and 2004?”

Upon close reflection, there are some resemblances from the last Flame team to go to the Stanley Cup finals and the current collection.

Obviously much more has to play out to see if this Flame squad can duplicate that highly unexpected conclusion from 13 years ago.

With three weeks left on the regular-schedule let’s look at parallels where, in some cases, it requires a bit of a stretch.

Like this season, 2003-04 began with a coach handling the team for his first full campaign.  The difference then was that Darryl Sutter had been behind the bench for the second half of the previous campaign. Now Glen Gulutzan was completely new in the fall after taking over from Bob Hartley.

The start to both seasons wasn’t very impressive. Both teams were in last place by the middle of November amid some observations a playoff spot was unattainable.  The turnaround both times came from a hot goaltender.

On November 16 of 2003, Miikka Kiprusoff was acquired in a trade with San Jose for a second round draft pick, which turned out to be defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The deal developed after the Flames start-of-season designated #1 goalie, Roman Turek, was injured following some struggling performances.  Kiprusoff beat Montreal 2-1 in his first contest and the Flames collected points in 16 of 18 games getting into the playoff race.

A hot goalie started to turn this season’s fortunes around in mid-November but in not quite the same manner.  Chad Johnson was signed as a free agent last summer to be the team’s backup netminder.  He was designated to be #2 behind Brian Elliott, who was obtained in an off-season trade with St. Louis for a second round draft pick and a conditional third rounder. 

Elliott had difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings and was the goalie the night the team plunged into last place with a mid-November home loss to the New York Rangers. Johnson then took over the net sparking the Flames to points in 12 of 14 games and into the playoff derby by mid-December. Losses in six of the next 10 games followed. That allowed Elliott to re-gain the #1 role playing brilliantly as the team collecting points in 14 of 15 games thrusting the Flames into a scramble for 2nd place in the Pacific Division, which if attained, would provide home ice advantage in the first round of playoffs. That’s something Sutter’s skaters didn’t have in 2004.

Like 13 years ago, goaltending wasn’t the sole reason for the reversal but it provided the impetus.  When the skaters have confidence in the netminder they can play more of their normal game knowing the goalie will likely bail out mistakes.

Both teams made some late-season player acquisitions adding some depth. The ’04 group were bolstered by forwards Chris Simon, Marcus Nilson and Ville Nieminen. This year’s team secured near the trade deadline defencemen Michael Stone and Mark Bartkowski plus forward Curtis Lazar.

The 2004 team entered playoff action with three players possessing Cup rings – Stephane Yelle, Martin Gelinas and Simon.  With the current squad, on the cusp of clinching a post-season berth, also has three Cup winners – Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer and Michael Frolik.

Among areas that aren’t the same is that the current group overall is a younger team with many of the best players in their early 20’s and in Matthew Tkachuk a teenager.  The ’04 crew was sparked by skaters in their late 20’s or early 30’s with no teenager.

Gulutzan’s gang has better scoring balance.  They lead the NHL currently having 12 players with 10 goals or more sparked by Sean Monahan with 23. During the regular-season in ’03-04, Jarome Iginla was by far the big offensive thrust.  He led the NHL with 41 goals which was 23 goals more than the #2 Flame goal getter, Sean Donovan.  That team had six players with 20-or-more tallies.  It also didn’t have a high scoring defenseman, which this year’s group has. Doug Hamilton has 47 points and is tied for third on the team. Jordan Leopold was the top scoring blueliner back then with 33 points.

The ’04 team clinched a playoff spot in the third last game of the season and then went on to upset three division winners before losing the Cup final in seven games against Tampa. 

This time, there’s a good chance they’ll clinch before Game 80 if they continue at the current pace.  It’s also a different playoff format now, so getting to the Cup final Our Guys won’t have to upset three division pennant winners.

But that’s getting away ahead of ourselves.

March 13, 2017

On the very day, last week that Gary Bettman’s threatening letter to Arizona legislators was revealed, I read a story in The Hockey News Future Watch edition stating the Coyotes were at the very beginning of a re-build process that would be a four-to-five-year transformation.

This maybe the team’s first re-build with the National Hockey League’s youngest General Manager, John Chayka, but a major reason the NHL hasn’t caught on in the Phoenix area is that the team is in a constant re-build.

Chayka is 27 years old.  He was six years old living in Ontario, when the Coyotes were born replacing the old Winnipeg Jets.  In the 21 years of playing existence the Coyotes have made one extended playoff run. This season is their fifth in succession without post-season action. In fact, during the 13 seasons in Glendale they’ve been out of it 10 times with the team having a winning record on only 4 occasions.

Those are the major reasons the Coyotes haven’t been darlings in the desert. 

Defenders of the NHL in the Valley of Sun, like Commissioner Bettman cite the lack of suitable arenas as reasons the Coyotes haven’t attracted crowds.  The current arena, in Glendale, is too far from where the hockey fans live, it’s been said.  The team’s first building in downtown Phoenix was built for basketball and has poor sight-lines for hockey.  Perhaps good arguments but would those excuses hold if the on-ice product was better?

There have been complaints that the Coyotes doesn’t market themselves well enough. Not sure about that one, but team marketing and sales personnel can promote the team until the coyotes come home but the very best marketing with any team is winning.  The Coyotes in their 21 seasons simply haven’t had nearly enough of it.

As the Flames fans are seeing now, the best method to produce a winning squad is drafting and developing players.  With the Coyotes, it seems, after they develop young talent, they are traded to another team and the cycle starts again. If you saw and/or heard the irritated reaction from Coyotes long-time captain Shane Doan the day veteran centre Martin Hanzel was dealt near this year’s trade deadline you know the frustration of players and faithful fans in Arizona.

Although it was Chayka that engineered Hanzal’s trade to Minnesota, perhaps he can change the team’s vision. Unfortunately, the Coyotes may not have the four-or-five-year window he suggests in Arizona.

Thus, the three-page letter from Bettman to state legislature leaders threatening to move the team if it doesn’t approve $225 million in public financing for a new arena in downtown Phoenix or the East Valley in a vote coming up later in March.

Stated Bettman, “the Arizona Coyotes must have a new arena location to succeed. The Coyotes cannot and will not remain in Glendale.”

The letter came, after a survey showed that seven of 10 voters oppose public funding for a new hockey arena.

Over the years despite numerous suggestions to transfer the team to a market where it would be embraced, Bettman has been steadfast insisting the Coyotes remain in Arizona.  So much so that any time he’s appeared at Coyote games in Glendale he’s been cheered by the crowd but hears boos in most other NHL arenas.

Off-ice issues have always clouded the Coyotes.  Maybe, if the on-ice product was much better that cloud would lift.

March 6, 2017

On the last day of February, with a game against the Los Angeles Kings hours away, Flame coach Glen Gulutzan met the media as he usually does.

He was asked if the game that evening against the Kings was “the biggest game of the year?”

It was a valid question considering the Flames held down a wild card playoff spot in the Western Conference with the Kings four points behind them but having played two fewer games.

Gulutzan didn’t play down the game’s significance but noted his Flames had loftier goals “we’re more concerned about catching and passing the teams ahead of us in the Pacific Division.”

It was the perfect response from the Flames first year mentor.  While just getting in the playoffs may satisfy some, Gulutzan aims higher perhaps even gaining home ice advantage in the first round of playoffs.

The Flames recent seven-game win streak and nine-game point streak has made finishing second in the Pacific a possibility despite the team’s poor start.

Being seven points in arrears, catching San Jose for the Pacific pennant may not be attainable but besting Edmonton and Anaheim for second or third is within the Flames realm.

In mid-November and even in mid-January just making it to post-season play was considered remote for Gulutzan’s skaters. However, as they became more familiar with the style of play the coach wanted the Flames started getting recognized around the NHL.

Over the final 15 regular-season games it’s possible a first round playoff series between the Flames and Oilers could evolve.  The provincial rivals haven’t clashed in the post-season since 1991.

How could such a confrontation come about after a 26-year absence? 

There are two possibilities.  The way the playoff format works now, the second and third place teams in each division are first round foes.  As of Monday, the Oilers are second in the Pacific, while the Flames are tied with Anaheim for third.

The other scenario, which isn’t as likely this season, would be should one of the Alberta squads finished first in the Pacific Division and the other qualify as the second wild card in the Western Conference.

A Flame-Oiler playoff confrontation would go a long away toward rekindling the rivalry between the teams.  If it comes about this spring, since the Oilers won all four games between the two teams this regular-season, they’d be favored. 

However, when the Flames qualified for the playoffs in 2015 and won a first round series, much of that had to do with the match-up. Of all the West teams in the post-season that year, Vancouver Canucks were the ideal foe for the Flames and they made the most of it.

The Oilers could well be the best match-up this time for the Flames.  Yes, the Oilers did win those four games earlier and likely will have home ice advantage but there are other factors to consider.

Thanks to the 11 post-season games they played in 2015, the Flames would have more players with playoff involvement than the Oilers. Many Edmonton players would be experiencing the pressures of Stanley Cup competition for the first time. That advantage starts in goal with the Flames #1 guy, Brian Elliott, has 37 games of post-season action. The Oilers goalie, Cam Talbot, has 46 minutes of relief action with New York Rangers from three years ago.  Plus, Talbot has had a heavy work load in the Oiler nets this season with almost 60 games to date and figures to finish with around 70 while Elliott will have played in the neighborhood of 45 games by mid-April. Thus, Elliott would the better rested of the netminders.

With a month of scheduled games to unfold, it’s too early to speculate but like coach Gulutzan noted there’s nothing wrong with aiming for the best. 

March 2, 2017 - Trade Deadline

An injury and an illness played big roles in the Flames augmenting their line-up at the National Hockey League trade deadline.

General Manager Brad Treliving struck early and late as the cut-off date approached making moves helping the team now and offering good future potential.

Despite the Flames recent run of success being the NHL’s best team in February, Treliving resisted the temptation to bring in an aging veteran as a rental.  He kept with program of continuing to build toward a contender.

Just over a week before the deadline, the Flames nabbed former Hitmen star defenseman 26-year-old Michael Stone from Arizona.  Then a half-hour before the trading time ended he plucked a just-turned 22-year-old forward Curtis Lazar from Ottawa. Both transactions were executed without the Flames giving up too much.

The price for Stone, who may have been the third best blueliner available, was a third round pick this year and a conditional fifth rounder in 2018.

Lazar, a Senators first round pick (17th overall) in 2013, comes to the Flames along with veteran pro defenceman Mike Kostka in exchange for recently demoted rearguard Jyrki Jokipakka and Calgary’s second round draft pick in 2017.

Both Stone and Lazar are free agents at the end of this season with the possibility both could return. Now they endeavor to help the Flames garner a playoff berth for the second time in three years.

A serious knee injury, which required major surgery, late last season had the Coyotes having second thoughts about re-signing Stone.  The injury kept him out of the Arizona line-up for the first four games of this season and when he returned, perhaps too early, didn’t perform well for one of the NHL’s bottom place teams.

Stone paid immediate dividends for the Flames.  The team won the first five games he played including Monday’s 2-1 overtime triumph over Los Angeles. In the five contests, Stone has collected two assists on the scoresheet while compiling a +4 plus-minus rating.  He’s been teamed with T.J. Brodie on the team’s number two defense pairing and Brodie, who has struggled most of the season, has showed immediate improvement.  Stone is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent this summer but if he continues his solid contributions Flames may be able to re-sign before July 1.

Lazar is a restricted free agent at season’s conclusion but the Flames can maintain his rights by making him a contract offer.  That gives them time to see if  he can get his game going after suffering mononucleosis at training camp, missing time and not being close to the player he was last season while trying to impress his new coach before basically asking to be traded. He admitted on Wednesday that he’d lost confidence in himself.

A key element for the Flames is that the coach Lazar had last season is now Flame assistant coach Dave Cameron. Under Cameron, for most of his first two NHL seasons, Lazar notched 12 goals and 35 points in 143 games. He has just one assist in 33 contests with the Senators this term.  Treliving researched Lazar’s character and “feels confident he has significant upside potential.”

He comes to the Flames immediately and where he plays warrants watching.  He played right wing with the Senators but when he excelled in the Western Hockey League with the Edmonton Oil Kings he was a centreman.  He also played that position with Team Canada in 2015 when the junior squad won the World Junior Championship.

Lazar is definitely the key to the Ottawa deal.  Kostka adds defense depth for the organization.  He’s 31 years old having played 85 games in the NHL with five different teams. He’s been playing with the Senators’ American Hockey League farm team and now joins the Flames’ AHL squad in Stockton.

Flame fans that have been hoping that popular all-time team scoring leader Jarome Iginla gets to end his NHL career with a Stanley Cup may be re-adjusting those sentiments now that he’s a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings, who acquired Iginla on Wednesday at the deadline, are a team the Flames are battling for a playoff spot in the Western Conference and Pacific Division.  The Flames, who have a six-point lead on the Kings in standing, have three games left with the LA skaters with two of them in the Scotiabank Saddledome – March 19 and 29.

February 21, 2017

A visit last weekend to Las Vegas brought back a memory and a look at a future NHL arena.

The memory has to do with a bet made in Vegas 13 years ago that almost paid off big time, which I'll explain after the next seven paragraphs.

Saturday night I stepped into the T-Mobile Arena for the first time and was impressed with the building which next season will be home of the Vegas Golden Thunder as they make their NHL debut.

When Flame fans visit the edifice located right in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip they'll acknowledge immediately why Calgary needs a new building for its NHL squad.  That is, if visiting that new structure in Edmonton wasn't enough convincing.

The building in Vegas has a seating capacity of almost 20,000 people for concerts and about 18,000 for hockey I was told.  It's an easy walking distance from the major hotels on the strip. For those not staying/living away from the hustle and bustle of the Strip public transit takes one to the area and it has great parking facilities.

Inside escalators provide access to the two concourse levels leading to the seating areas.  Concession stands are aplenty and so are wash room facilities.  The seats are comfortable and, although the event I took in was a George Strait concert, the sightlines were very good with a superb sound system. 

Who knows what ice conditions will be like for the players but it can't be any worse than the arenas in San Jose, Brooklyn, etc. which players say are the worst in the NHL.

Very few sightings of people on the Strip wearing Golden Thunder gear like caps or jerseys, but they are on sale in some casino shops and elsewhere so that will change once the team commences play as the NHL's 31st team in the fall.

Whether or not the Thunder will be a successful franchise remains to be seen but having a modern arena is a good start.

Just prior to the start of the Flames 2003-04 season, I spent the Labor Day weekend in Vegas attending a Rod Stewart concert among other events.

While visiting the Sports Book at the MGM, I noticed the Flames were 85-1 underdogs to win the Stanley Cup that upcoming campaign.  After some contemplation, I decided to make a $20 wager on those long-shot odds.

I took the ticket put it in my wallet and didn't tell anyone I'd made the purchase.  Gradually as that season went along I forgot about the gamble although a copy of the ticket came with me everywhere I travelled with the Flames tucked away in my wallet.

When Darryl Sutter's Flames ended a seven-year playoff famine in April of 2004 and I was yelling "Playoffs...Yeah Baby!!!!" the wager wasn't given a thought.

As the post-season upset series wins over Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose unfolded with Martin Gelinas scoring all those series clinching goals again the bet hardly entered my mind.

Then came the trip to Tampa Bay for the Cup final. On that five-hour flight the thought did occur that I had a potential prize possession in my back pocket.  I didn't look at it, still didn't tell anyone and tried to forget about it.  Like all Flame fans I was dismayed that Gelinas' possible Cup final-clinching goal in game six wasn't counted but handled the situation in a professional manner.

Then it was game seven back in Tampa with our guys somewhat worn down but ready to battle.  They fell behind 2-0 then Craig Conroy scored midway in the 3rd period to make it 2-1 before referee Kerry Fraser called a penalty against the Flames taking the momentum away and the Lightning took home hockey's greatest prize.

In the Flame dressing room I saw many Flame players with tears in their eyes as the absorbed the defeat in the last game of the season.  It wasn't until a little later while standing in the arena parking lot waiting for the bus to take us to the airport, that it really hit me -- the ticket I had in my wallet was now nothing more than $20 in lost wages.  I never did calculate how much of a payoff the 85-to-1 odds would have meant to my bank account.

Last weekend I visited the MGM Sports Book and noticed the odds on the Flames winning the Cup this season are now 40-1.  Did I place a wager?  Just like 2004, I'll never tell. At least not until the season ends.

What happens in Vegas...stays in Vegas.   

February 13, 2017

The Flames are back from another schedule break and now it has to be all business for the final 26 games of the regular-season.

...And they should be ready.

Before going to the "Negotiated Concession Break" or "Bye Week", Glen Gulutzan's guys won four of five games with four of those matches on the road.

When a team is that hot, the preference would be to keep playing and not take five days away from games as the Flames did prior to Monday's match with Arizona.  However, having played just four games in the 17 days leading to the clash with the Coyotes, they are well rested.

...And they'll need to be, those last 26 games will be played over 55 days.  Only once in this time frame do the Flames get three days off that's during a home-stand the first full week of March.

The schedule-marker offers other pluses down the stretch.  Only once do they play games on back-to-back nights that's February 23-24 at Tampa and South Florida. Of the 26 games, 14 are at the Scotiabank Saddledome where the Flames will need to be better than they have been in the 'friendly confines' so far this campaign.

Making the playoffs is the aim and attainable.  Despite playing just one game in seven days prior to Monday's tilt, Gulutzan's group didn't lose much ground in the battle for one of the two Western Conference wild card playoff positions.  While resting, they dropped below the playoff line but are just one point behind Los Angeles for the final position and three points behind Nashville for the first wild card.

The schedule also puts the Flames destiny somewhat in their own hands.  The three teams they are currently in the scramble with for the two playoff posts are the Kings, Nashville and St. Louis.  They have four matches left against Darryl Sutter's Kings, two against the Predators and one vs the Blues.

Vancouver, Winnipeg and Dallas also have outside chances to get into the race but all three have fallen back recently and will need big surges to become contenders for post-season berths.

The Flames would like to finish ahead of rival Edmonton but that's a long shot at this stage.  The Oilers look like they'll be one of the top three teams in the Pacific Division along with San Jose and Anaheim.  The Oilers entered this week holding a 7-point edge on the Flames with no regular-season games remaining between the provincial skaters.

The key is to get in the playoffs.  Otherwise, they'll have a real long break starting April 9.

February 7, 2017

St. Louis Blues players likely rejoiced last week when Ken Hitchcock was fired as their coach but I felt for one of the game's most successful bench bosses.

Many of skaters that have played for him may not have enjoyed his methods of preparing them but, in most cases, they couldn't argue with the results.

Hitchcock may have been tough on his players but he was an engaging guy with the media providing insights to the game that few others offered.  I learned something new and benefical just about every time I chatted with the 65-year-old, who departed the Blues needing just one more win to tie Al Arbour as the third winningest coach in National Hockey League history.  Likely as soon as next season he'll get the necessary two victories to pass Arbour and many more.

I got to know Hitch early in his NHL coaching career since he was friends with former Flame mentor Don Hay.  Regardless of where Hitch went as a coach he always knew my name and often confided about things happening in the game with his team and others including the Flames.

He was never head coach for Canada in the Olympics or World Cups but whoever was the main man always wanted Hitch as part of his staff recognizing his knowledge and how he'd be a healthy resource to have near at hand.

Hitch wanted his star offensive players to have a good contribution on the defensive side and when he piloted Dallas Stars to their only Stanley Cup title in 1999 a big reason was getting that message across to all-stars Brett Hull and Mike Modano.  

The hockey-lifer was put in an awkward position by Blues management last summer.  Mike Yeo, former head coach at Minnesota, was hired as Associate Coach and the public told he would be Head Coach starting with the 2017-18 season since Hitchcock would be retiring at least as a coach in St. Louis. That made Hitch a 'lame duck' leader. 

Occasionally teams can have success when the bench boss gets the 'lame duck' tag but not often. Having players knowing Hitch was gone in-time and Yeo was around to take over complicated the situation. It was a situation unprecedented in the NHL.

Some off-season player moves added to the dilemma.

When a team has a coach with Hitchcock's style it needs strong leadership among its players.  Leadership that doesn't allow player's commitment to waiver when upset with the coaches' tactics.  David Backes as Blues captain offered that along with Todd Brouwer, who is now a Flame.  Unfortunately, handicapped by the salary cap, the Blues couldn't afford to keep either this season and lost them to free agency.

They also lost goalie Brian Elliott to the Flames in a trade. Elliott had a strong season in goal in 2015-16 helping the Blues get to the Western Conference final before bowing to San Jose. The feeling in St. Louis was that Jake Allen would be the netminder long-term.

Hitchcock preaching defensive play again this season saw his Blues permit the least number of shots on goal of any team but the goalie's save percentage was among the worst after having the NHL's best a year ago. 

It all collaborated to failure and at the all-star break with the Blues slumping and in danger of not making the playoffs it was inevitable that Hitchcock, a future Hall-of Famer, take the fall.

Still, Hitch should stand tall.

...And, perhaps, if his old team in Dallas doesn't make the playoffs this season, he'll be standing tall in Texas again and doing so behind the bench.

January 30, 2017

"Johnny Hockey was built for three-on-three". That was the comment from more one person watching Sunday's NHL All-Star Game.

If the Flames are to compete in this year's playoffs, Johnny Gaudreau needs to be better five-on-five than he has been lately.

The leftwinger made an impact playing 3-on-3 on Thursday scoring in overtime at Ottawa in a 3-2 win ending the Flames four-game losing streak.

Then he went to Los Angeles and notched two goals and two assists in the All-Star Tournament competing for the second place-finishing Pacific Division squad as the lone Flame member.

Wednesday it’s back to 5-on-5 hockey as the Flames commence the final 30 games on the regular-schedule hosting Minnesota.

Gaudreau enters post-All-Star action standing fourth in Flame scoring 11 goals and 31 points.  He did miss 10 games with a broken finger otherwise he'd be higher on the team's scoring chart but he hasn't been vintage lately. His goal in Ottawa was his first in 12 games.  The Flames need more production from the Gaudreau, who has played in the All-Star Game in all three of his NHL seasons.

Toward that end, now that Johnny is back in Calgary he may want to sit down and have a chat with #2 all-time scorer in Flames history, who in his career played in seven NHL dream games.

Theoren Fleury has been seen around the Scotiabank Saddledome at a number of Flame games this season. He hasn't played in the National Hockey League since 2003 but he knows first-hand how a small player can have great success.

Until this season Gaudreau hasn't needed much advice.  He was a standout rookie in 2014-15 and last season finished fifth in NHL scoring.

Opponents are targetting Johnny Hockey much more now and he's having difficulty adjusting.  He leads league forwards in a couple of negative areas -- giveaways and worst plus-minus. Fleury could help.

While Gaudreau and Fleury are small, skilled players with outstanding scoring touches, they are different in other ways.  That's where Fleury could assist Gaudreau.

When Fleury started scoring goals and collecting assists as a rookie in 1989, opposing teams started to target him but they couldn't break the rightwingers resolve. In fact, he gave back almost as much punishment as he took.  He often initiated it to prove he belonged.

I'll never forget his first training camp in 1987 after the Flames selected Fleury in the 8th round of that year's NHL draft. Most 'experts' said he'd never make it because he was too small to compete in the league which was much tougher physically in those days.  From his very first scrimmage as a Flame, Fleury wacked, hacked and took runs at veteran players who were already established. 

A number of those players came to me during the first couple of weeks remarking, "who does this kid think he is treating veteran players from his own team this way."  My reply, 'you may not like it but he has to play this way if he's to have any chance of making this team."

Fleury didn't cease and then on New Year's Day 1989 he was summoned from the minors and never went back compiling a standout 14-year career, which hopefully will see him gain Hockey Hall-of-Fame recognition at some point.

In a recent interview ESPN interview in the U.S, Wayne Gretzky, who faced Fleury numerous times in the old Battle of Alberta, was asked who he hated to play against the most.  Without hestitation he replied, "Theo Fleury. I hated him so much but I loved him so much I wanted him on my Canadian team at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City."  

Gretzky was retired as a player then but was manager of the Canadian team. Fleury didn't let him down as he was one of his team's top players helping Canada win Olympic hockey gold for the first time in over 40 years.

It's a good guess that Gaudreau isn't the most hated player of any current NHLer.  That's where Fleury could help.  Johnny Hockey doesn't have the same temperament as Fleury and thus this season he's been badgered frequently most times without a penalty being called against the opponent.

If Gaudreau wants to get more room on the ice he has to whack and hack right back or get them before they get him as Fleury did in the 90's when he averaged over a-point-a-game in both regular-season and playoffs.

With just a small portion of Fleury's venom, Gaudreau would soon be getting more room to maneuver.  Then he'd start getting back to being among the top players in categories that matter positively.

Jarome Iginla not being included in the NHL's top 100 players last Friday was a bit of a surprise. The likely reason is that while he had 12-or-so great seasons the fact he played on not many good teams hurt him. The 2004 run to Cup final was really the only year in which the Flame gained great league-wide attention.

The fact the NHL included current all-stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith as part of six current players (the others Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Ovechkin) on the list of 100 clearly hurt Iginla's chances of being included as well as other current players, Joe Thornton and Zdeno Chara.  Kane, Toews and Keith have been outstanding players but it would have been fairer to have them play a few more seasons before giving such lofty stature.

January 23, 2017

Veteran hockey people will tell you that if a team has a really good goalie it's 70% of the team.

A top netminder covers up for blunders committed by players in front of him, wins games a team may otherwise lose plus gives added confidence to defencemen and forwards.

Teams have won championships without a bellwether in the nets but the chances are enhanced if you have one.

As the Flames hit the 50-game mark, they have a number of issues not the least of which once again is the goalkeeping position.

The best sequence Glen Gulutzan's guys have had this season was from mid-November to January 4 when Chad Johnson was providing sparkling netminding. During that span, the Flames went from last place in the Pacific Division to challenging for first place.

Then Johnson's game slipped.  Brian Elliott, who the Flames surrendered a second round draft pick to acquire from St. Louis to be the #1 goalie, got another opportunity to take the reigns.  Just like the beginning of the season, Elliott couldn't find the stellar play he exhibited with the Blues a year ago.

Thus, the Flames commenced this week before games in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa clinging to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Getting consistently strong goaltending over a sustained period is something the Flames haven't had for as much as they'd like. The get some good stretches from the position but nothing really permanent.  Even during the 2014-15 season when they made the playoffs they rode hot stretches with Jonas Hiller, Kari Ramo and Joni Ortio in the nets.

Over the team's 36 years in Calgary, they've essentially had only two great netminders over long periods of time.

Mike Vernon was that stopper from 1986 to 1993.  Over that span, he backstopped the Flames to their first two trips to the Stanley Cup final including the triumph in 1989 when he finished just behind Al MacInnis for playoff most valuable player.

The team had to wait 10 years before Miikka Kiprusoff came along in November of 2003 when Darryl Sutter acquired him in a trade with San Jose.  Kiprusoff took the Flames to game 7 in the 2004 Cup final and excelled until he retired after the 2012-13 campaign including a Vezina Trophy in 2006 as the NHL's top goalie.

Not getting quality goalkeeping isn't the only reason the Flames have floundered since January 6 but it's where it starts.

Johnson and/or Elliott still have time to grab the mantel this season but it has to commence very soon and last at least three more months.

Otherwise, goaltending shoulders 70% of the blame if the Flames fail to annex a post-season berth.

January 16, 2017

With each Flame game I watch I become more-and-more impressed with Matthew Tkachuk.

He’s not likely to win National Hockey League rookie-of-the-year honors this season. He doesn’t have Johnny Gaudreau’s flash-and-dash. Hasn’t been quite as good as the Flames best player so far this season, Mikael Backlund. But the just-turned 19-year-old left winger has the makings to be a very impactful player in the future.

In fact, most night’s now he’s had an extreme effect on Flame games. In many of them a difference-maker as he was last Wednesday (January 11) sparking the Flames to a 3-2 victory over the then top team in the Pacific Division, San Jose Sharks.  Tkachuk on the scores sheet had a goal and an assist and while he didn’t get an assist on the game winner by Doug Hamilton, he set up the screen in front of Sharks goalie Aaron Dill, which paved the way for the goal. He also agitated star defenceman Brett Burns getting him off his game.

The Tkachuk-led triumph over the Sharks vaulted the Flames to within four points of top spot in the division. However, weekend losses to New Jersey and Edmonton saw them start this week eight points away from top spot now held by Anaheim.

The Flames drafted Tkachuk with the sixth overall selection last June.  At the time my sources opinioned he would be a good NHLer but likely was a year away from playing in the league.

He’s gone about his business much quieter than Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine, who were drafted ahead of him, but his consistent overall play is getting recognition around the NHL.

Tkachuk has been a big help in making the “3-M Line” with Mikael Backland and Michael Frolik the Flames top unit and also the team’s shutdown line facing the oppositions best line frequently. They provide solid offense and defence on a nightly basis.

Tkachuk has been a great compliment to his veteran linemates. “Chucky”, as he’s referred to by teammates, standouts on regular statistics and among the advanced stats people as well.

Coach Glen Gulutzan sat Tkachuk out for two games early in the season to give him a look at analyzing the game from the media area overview.  Since he returned from that respite on October 25, Tkachuk has been the Flames top scorer in even strength play with five goals and 19 points. That’s five more points than Gaudreau and six more than Sean Monahan.  The kid, whose father, Keith, played 19 seasons in the NHL, also has been a big contributor on the Flame power play, which has been #1 in the NHL since December 1.

The ‘3-M Line’ have been one of the reasons the Flames forged into the Western Conference playoff race after a dismal start to the season.  On the game-night listing of Flame forward lines they continue to be listed as the #3 unit but performance has dictated they are #1. A 2-1 win on December 8 in Arizona is last time our guys won a game with the ‘3-M Line’ not on the score sheet.

In the tight race to make it to post-season play the Flames need this trio to continue but require top players like Gaudreau, Monahan, Sam Bennett, TJ Brodie and company to elevate their game.

That Tkachuk has been able to raise his game so rapidly is a huge testament to the guy.  Could he have a more productive career than his father?  If he continues to improve and not let his early success engulf him, it’s a possibility.

January 10, 2017

The Flames began this season losing both ends of a very rare home-and-home back-to-back set of games against the Edmonton Oilers and have been chasing their provincial rival ever since.

On the next two Saturday night’s they’ll have a two-game set offering the Flames an opportunity to gain ground on the Oilers if not pass them in Pacific Division standing.

The Flames kind of wrote off those 7-4 and 5-3 losses October 12 and 14 to the Oilers as adjusting to a new coach.

This time the skaters have a good grasp on the Glen Gulutzan system just beyond the halfway point of the season.

One month into the campaign on November 12, the Oilers held an eight-point advantage over the Flames.  Since then the Flames have collected five more points than the Oilers and the gap between the two as of January 10 is three points.

That could change before Saturday when the Alberta squad face-off in the provincial capital.  The following Saturday, January 21, they collide in the Scotiabank Saddledome.

At the beginning of this season, writing in this blog, I opinioned that perhaps as soon as the 2017-18 campaign Alberta’s teams could replace the California teams as the powers in the Pacific Division. Currently, San Jose and Anaheim occupy the top two spots in the division with the Oilers, Flames and Los Angeles Kings vying for the #3 position.

Unfortunately, the January 21 tilt is the last time the Flames and Oilers meet this season unless they happen to be playoff combatants which would be the case for sure in the first round if they happened to finish second and third in the Pacific.  Failing that, it’s just the four matches between the two.

Recently while speaking prior at the Flames’ promotion, Dressing Room Experience, along with Theoren Fleury. The team’s #2 all-time scorer recalled one season when the Alberta teams played 18 times against each other including pre-season, regular-season and playoff games.

It’s unlikely the two squads will ever have that many contests as opponents again in one campaign but more than four in the regular-season would be nice.

As recently as the 2011-12 campaign the Flames-Oilers faced off six times on the regular slate but after that a desire to have each NHL team play at least once in every team’s arena brought the reduction.

While Flame fans likely would relish not having to see teams like New Jersey and Buffalo on an annual basis the trade-off to see the Oilers more often would also mean NOT seeing the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh every year.

So, for now, relish these battles the next two Saturday’s and hope that come April the Battle of Alberta heats up big time with a first playoff series in 26 years.

January 3, 2017

Currently the Flames are going through the easiest portion of their schedule considering where their opponents are in standings.

Later they’ll have their easiest few games segment.  Then they’ll pay for it to close out the schedule.

On December 23 Glen Gulutzan’s crew began a stretch playing eight of 10 games against teams not in playoff positions with seven of those contests in the Scotiabank Saddledome. Plus just one set of back-to-back games.

After a 4-2 win over Arizona on New Year’s Eve, the Flames so far have won three of the first four contests in the current 10-game portion moving back into a playoff spot in the Western Conference after compiling a 9-4 record in December.  An amazing turnaround considering they were last in the National Hockey League on November 15.

Starting with Wednesday’s home assignment against the current NHL last place squad, Colorado, the Flames play a heavy slate of 13 games in 23 days to close out play in January.

Then some respites.

First it’s the All-Star break then a five-day ‘bye’ week. That means the Flames will play only four games in 17 days from January 27 to February 12.  The regular-season concludes with 26 games over the final 55 day. While that is demanding, a number of other teams have a more hectic finishing schedule.

The five-day ‘bye’ week is new this season. Each team gets the five days with no practices or games at various times beginning this week. For the Flames, that break is February 8-12 which comes seven days after they go five days without a game from January 27-31 for the All-Star stoppage but they’ll have practices on a couple of those days.

The second half of the Flame season is still to be played out but a significant difference from a year ago is a much better balanced scoring attack.

That’s underscored by the fact Mikael Backlund is the team’s top goalgetter at this juncture with 11.  In 2015-16 he finished behind Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan in that department.  By season’s end, the slow-starting Gaudreau and Monahan may well be on top but they are no longer relied upon to turn on the red light every night for team success.

Currently 12 players have contributed five-or-more goals.  At a similar juncture last winter only eight players had five-or-more tallies. 

Better goaltending also has been a key, especially since mid-November.  Brian Elliott has posted four-straight wins, including a #1 star performance on New Year’s Eve, after a poor start in his new surroundings after being traded from St. Louis. He and Chad Johnson, in tandem, could be the defensive keys to the Flames returning to post-season play after a one-year absence.

December 19, 2016

Most of the top National Hockey League teams have as their #1 goalie a guy they’ve developed in their system.

Chad Johnson displayed some impressive goaltending from November 15 to December 10 before cooling off last week but the Flames long-term future in the nets may be in the hands of a youngster in the system.

Currently three young men, drafted by the team, plus a free agent signing from the Czech Republic, are doing well at varying levels of development.

The NHL trend in recent years has been to big net minders.  The Flames have 6-foot-6 Jon Gillies off to a solid start this season in AHL Stockton.  The team’s third round draft pick from 2012 is looking to bounce-back after missing almost all of last season after having hip surgery. Gillies, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday in January, has a 9-3-1 record with a 2.71 goals against average. In two games in San Diego last weekend, Gillies faced 96 shots allowing four goals winning both games.

Many feel Gillies is the Flames future #1 man. When that will be is uncertain.  It’s been proven that generally goalkeepers take longer to develop than defencemen and forwards, thus the former Providence College star, could be a couple of years away.

His goalkeeping partner in Stockton may be closer.  David Rittich is a 24-year-old who was never drafted into the NHL.  The Flames signed the 6-foot-3 Rittich last summer after two impressive seasons in the Czech Republic’s top league.  He’s been splitting the nets with Gillies and sports a 6-3 won-lost record with three shutouts and a 1.65 GAA.  It’s not unrealistic to think Rittich could get some work with the big team later this season.

Another 6-foot-6 goalie is Mason McDonald, who after four years in the Quebec Junior League is now the #1 guy with ECHL Adirondack. A second round pick in 2014, McDonald has been impressive sporting an 8-4-1 record with 2.65 GAA.

In the junior ranks, the Flames also have Tyler Parsons manning the nets with London in the Ontario Hockey League after backstopping the Knights to Memorial Cup title last year where he was a teammate of Matthew Tkachuk, who made the jump to the big team this term.

After winning 37 regular-season games and then 16 more in the playoffs last season, Parsons was a Flames second round selection last June.  Parsons has parlayed a strong start this season into a tryout, with two other goalies, for the United States team, which will play in the World Junior Championships starting December 26 in Montreal-Toronto.  The 19-year-old, who stands 6-foot-1, has an 11-2-1 record with a 2.46 GAA this season with the Knights.

Presently, five of the top six teams in NHL standings have as their #1 goalie a player they drafted.  The top guy for the bottom five squads have a goalie that came from elsewhere.

It’s an NHL theory that you can never have enough goaltenders with NHL potential in your system. Accordingly, the Flames future in the nets looks solid should Gillies, Rittich, McDonald and Parsons continue to progress as they have thus far.

December 12, 2016

Colorado at Montreal wasn’t the prime early game last Saturday for Hockey Night in Canada but it was for me.

It was good foresight by HNIC considering the Canadiens won 10-1 over the Avalanche but I watched to the bitter end.

It was the 1500th National Hockey League game for the Flames all-time leader in games played, goals scored and points collected – Jarome Iginla.

It was a monumental milestone for Iginla, now a member of the Avalanche, but a forgettable game. The milestone came nine days shy of the night he became a Flame 21 years ago in what has to be rated as the greatest trade in Flame history.

Playing 1500 regular-season games in the NHL is no small feat.  Only 15 others have played that many and he’s close to passing two of them (Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan) with a shot at two others before the season concludes (Johnny Bucyk and Alex Delvecchio).

Iginla played 1,219 games with the Flames in almost 16-full seasons with the team scoring 525 goals and netting 1,095 points.  Nobody else is close in those categories.  Its likely those records won’t be broken.

Having seen Iginla play in all those games with the Flames plus the 54 more in the playoffs, with 28 goals, I can attest he was truly a super player.  More than that, he’s a better person.

The Flames couldn’t have had a better ambassador from April 21, 1996 when he played his first game to March 27, 2013 when he was traded to Pittsburgh.  He always had time for the people around him -- teammates, media and fans.  He signed countless autographs and also led the team in interviews in both good times and bad.

With Joe Nieuwendyk, Iginla is the only Flame to have two 50-goal seasons.  Ironically, Iginla was traded by Dallas to the Flames for Nieuwendyk at the NHL Christmas Trade Deadline on December 19, 1995 in a monumental transaction engineered by then Flame General Manager Al Coates.

Iginla, who led the Flames in scoring 11 times, isn’t scoring with the same regularity these days.  In fact his string of consecutive 20-plus goal season is in jeopardy of ending at 16 unless he has a strong second half to this campaign.

Through 27 games this season with the Avs he’s turned the red light on only three times. However, he is notorious for being a slow starter and strong finisher so reaching the 20-goal mark isn’t out of the question.

Individual accomplishments are nice but what Iginla would really like is getting his name on the Stanley Cup.  That’s the one team title Iginla hasn’t captured although in 2004 he was a big reason the Flames came within a goal of nabbing that prize in a seven-game Cup Final with Tampa Bay Lightning.

This is Iginla’s 20th NHL season and there’s a chance it could be his last.

He’ll be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the date of his 40th birthday, and the right winger says he’ll wait until the end of this campaign before deciding about continuing.

The Avalanche hasn’t had a great start to this season. If that continues they could well miss the playoffs for a third consecutive term. Should that develop, Iginla may be a player a contending team pursues at the trade deadline in March. The former long-time Flame captain has indicated he’d be willing to waive the no-trade clause in his contract.

With Iginla’s future uncertain, Flame fans may want to circle January 4 on the calendar.  That’s the night the Avs play in Calgary.  There’s a chance that could be the final time Iginla plays in the Saddledome.     

December 5, 2016

Pages 232 and 233 of the Flames 2016-17 media guide got plenty of attention last week during the team’s perfect three-game homestand.

…And it was all about scoring goals.

Fred Hamilton and Kris Versteeg started the run to the records portion of the guide when they tallied 30 seconds apart in the opening minute of the November 30 game against Toronto.

As it turned out, the goals in the 3-0 triumph over the Maple Leafs were seven seconds short of the Flame record for fastest two goals from the start of a game.

The standard was set on March 11, 1987 in Hartford when Doug Risebrough and Colin Patterson scored 23 seconds apart in the first minute of a 6-1 victory.

While the games mentioned above were how quickly the Flames gained 2-0 leads at the start of a game, they fell well short of the fastest two goals in club history.

That record is a mere four seconds and even more remarkable those two quick goals both came when the team was playing shorthanded.
Those goals in the final minute of a game in Quebec City on October 17, 1989 capped an amazing late-game comeback.  The Nordiques led 8-3 with six minutes left in that contest before the Flames scored five-straight goals to earn an 8-8.  Doug Gilmour scored at 19:45 and then set-up Paul Ranheim for his marker at 19:49.

The goals by Gilmour and Ranheim stand as the fastest two shorthanded goals in NHL history and tie the record for fastest two goals ever of any kind.

The Flames also had another game against Quebec where they scored two shorthanded goals in an eight-second span. That was November 19, 1987 in the Saddledome against Quebec. Hakan Loob and Perry Berezan had the honors on that occasion, part of a 9-1 win. 

The fastest two goals ever by a Flame player is a record held by Lanny McDonald. On March 22, 1984 the Hall-of-Fame rightwinger registered a pair of goals six second part in the first period.  The first goal was at 16:23 on a powerplay and then he connected even strength at 16:29.  They were part of a ‘hat trick’ attained by McDonald against Detroit but wasn’t enough to garner a victory as the Red Wings prevailed 6-4.

On Sunday in an 8-3 conquest of Anaheim, the Flames record book attention switched from ‘fastest’ goals to ‘most’ goals.

The eight goals wasn’t a club record but was the most Flames tallies in single game since March 24, 2014 when led by Curtis Glencross’ ‘hat trick’ they won 8-1 in Edmonton.  The last time the Flames scored eight in a game at the Saddledome was almost 17 years ago.  On March 1, 2000, Martin St. Louis and Valeri Bure both had two goals in an 8-2 conquest of Pittsburgh.

The greatest offensive night in Flame history came on February 10, 1993 when they scored 13 times against San Jose as Robert Reichel scored three goals and Theoren Fleury had a goal and five assists with goalie Jeff Reese setting an NHL record with three assists.

The Sunday win over the Ducks also saw the Flames produce five goals in the second period. It was the team’s first five-goal period since March 1, 2011 in a 6-0 victory over St. Louis.  The record is seven, which came in the third period of a game on October 17, 1988, which was an 11-4 triumph over Los Angeles.

The scoring exploits propelled the Flames to their longest win streak of the season – three games.

November 28, 2016

The last time a goaltender developed by Calgary minor hockey started a season not being the Flames #1 goalie, but gained that title by the end of the campaign, it ended with the team in the Stanley Cup final.

Chad Johnson has a great deal more to do before he can be bestowed as the Flames #1 goalie now and even more to do if the team is to play for hockey’s Holy Grail.

But Johnson is off to a good start if he’s to duplicate Mike Vernon’s feats from 31 years ago.

Johnson was a month away from his birthday in 1986 when Vernon, a rookie, backstopped the Flames to the Cup final before losing a five-game series to the Montreal Canadiens.

In some ways, Johnson is ahead of Vernon’s achievement from the 1985-86 season.

Vernon, was a 23-year-old rookie then and after starting the season in the minors didn’t become the Flames #1 guy until just before the playoffs started.

Johnson at the age of 30 is in his fourth full NHL season toiling with his sixth NHL team.  Johnson, who was born in Saskatoon but came to Calgary at a young age, a month ago was the Flames backup net minder to Brian Elliott. He was supposed to be in that role all season. The plan was for Johnson spell off Elliott for a game occasionally.

As Elliott and the Flames slumped in the early going, Coach Glen Gulutzan on November 15 started giving Johnson more consecutive starts.

With Johnson make some big saves, stealing a few games, the Flames started winning climbing from the bottom of the National Hockey League’s Western Conference standings.

Back home after a six-game trip that could have dropped his team deeper into the Conference basement Johnson is giving the Flames an overall confidence heading into December that they didn’t have earlier.

In his last seven starts, Johnson posted five wins while allowing just seven goals against in the first six of those matches. The one game where Johnson permitted a high goals against total was in Philadelphia on Sunday when he was beaten five times while facing 43 Flyer shots.

Johnson got a rest on Monday as Elliott went back in the nets in a 2-1 overtime setback in the trip’s final game.

Collecting seven of a possible 12 points in the six-game journey leaves the Flames two points out of a playoff spot. 

Goaltending will be a key if Gulutzan’s crew is to ultimately be a playoff team. Who emerges as the #1 net minder needs to play out, but Johnson has the upper hand heading into December.

In ’85-86 Vernon didn’t play his first game with the Flames until January 9, 1986, which was Game 40 of the schedule.  He spent the first half of that campaign in Moncton, N.B. with the American Hockey League farm team, the Golden Flames. Prior to that, he had played three games with his hometown team allowed 15 goals against. He now jokes about his double-figures goals against average then.

Vernon’s arrival was monumental as his 32-save performance the second week of January 1986 ended the longest losing streak in Flames history.  After 11-straight defeats the slump concluded with a 5-4 overtime win against Vancouver. Vernon played the next game in Philadelphia losing 3-0 and soon after was back in Moncton. 

However, he’d return to the big team spearheading the run at season’s end taking over as the ‘go-to-goalie’ following wins in the final two regular-season matches.

Reggie Lemelin, who had won the Flames version of the Molson Cup, as basically the team most valuable player each of the two previous seasons, was #1 man through much of that campaign 31 years ago.  Marc D’Amour was back-up and played 16 games before Vernon’s arrival.

How it plays out for Chad Johnson and this year’s Flames will unfold over the next six months.  If it turns out like 1986 nobody will complain.

November 21, 2016

Glen Gulutzan’s family awoke last Tuesday (November 15) with Dad’s picture on the front page of the Calgary Sun with the main headline, “Fire The Coach?”

At least the caption had a question mark with the answer in smaller print “Not So Fast.”  It was all to promote a Sports Section piece from columnist Eric Francis, who gave many reasons why the Flames coach SHOULDN’T be fired 16 games into his tenure as the team’s mentor.

Gulutzan was spared seeing the front page sensationalism in newspaper boxes and newsstands throughout the city since he awoke at a hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the Flames played and won 1-0 that night.

However, his family just settling into our fine city, no doubt weren’t amazed with the unwanted focus.  If dad’s picture was going to be on the front page of a newspaper they’d prefer it be with the Stanley Cup.

Coaches know this all comes with the territory and recognize from the day they sign the coaches’ contract they’ll ultimately be fired.  It’s a joke among the fraternity when asked about being NHL Coach-of-the-Year, they answer “I just want to be coach for a(nother) year.”

The best recent example of not getting to complete a full year after being NHL top coach is Bob Hartley. He was named winner of the Jack Adams Trophy in June of 2015 but by May of 2016 Hartley was gone as Flames bench boss.

That opened the door for Gulutzan to get his second head coaching job in the world’s greatest hockey league.

His four children, aged 15 to nine, didn’t want to be uprooted again since they were happy in Vancouver where Dad was an assistant coach with the Canucks.  But Glen couldn’t resist the chance to get back in the head coaches’ chair as Flames leader and perhaps atone for his two seasons earlier in Dallas where the Stars didn’t make the playoffs in either campaign.

The newspaper headline last week was spurred by fans in social media plus bar and coffee shop whispers that a new coach was needed. 

The average tenure for a Flame coach is three years so suggesting Gulutzan be let go after a month of work is ludicrous.  That was the point Francis made in his column.

Gulutzan would be the first to lead the cry that the Flames start to this season wasn’t good. He and his staff have had a few sleepless nights looking for solutions.

Sometimes a new coach joins a team and gets instant positive results.  Most of the time, it doesn’t happen that quickly.

 Gulutzan is implementing a system he wants his players to employ.  It’s a much different style than the one Hartley preached.  Consequently, it takes time for players to adjust. 

His players seem to be getting it.  In the four games played since his picture was on the front page, Gulutzan’s Flames have won three times after Sunday’s 3-2 triumph in Detroit to start a six-game trip.

Gulutzan is confident it’s a style that can produce a winner.

A championship winner would make a much better front page sensation. 

November 14, 2016

Next week the Flames will be playing games in United States when our southern cousins celebrate Thanksgiving.

To many Americans it’s considered a greater holiday than Christmas.

In the National Hockey League world, US Thanksgiving has a theory that if your team isn’t in a playoff spot by that weekend making the playoffs is very unlikely.

Unless they string together a good win streak over the next two weeks the Flames likely won’t be in a Western Conference playoff position by the U.S holiday.  Most teams and players are aware of  the hypothesis but don’t give it much credence at least publicly.

As Flames forward Troy Brouwer once said, “It is too early to think about playoffs in November.”

It’s a valid point considering that by November 24, date for this year’s U.S. Thanksgiving, the Flames will still have 60 games to play.

Still history says that since the 2004-05 season when the NHL started awarding the loser point to a team losing in overtime or shootout, just 23% of the teams not in playoffs spots at U.S. Thanksgiving recover to gain position in the post-season.

If the Flames are looking for inspiration, they can go back to 10 years ago.  They began that 2006-07 campaign poorly and weren’t in a playoff spot on American turkey day while the Edmonton Oilers were.  In the end, the Flames made the playoffs while the Oilers didn’t. 

The challenge may be to duplicate that this time around.

This week the 14th connection to the Calgary Flames is inducted into the Hockey Hall-of-Fame.

Sergei Makarov made his marks with the Flames but his HHOF credentials came before his arrival in the Stampede City.

The high scoring right-winger from Russia dazzled Flame fans for four seasons from 1989 to 1993 but Makarov’s most impressive play came in his native land.

For 11 seasons he toiled with the powerful Soviet Red Army team at a time when Wayne Gretzky was making his staple as one of the greatest players in NHL history, Makarov cemented his stature as one of the greatest in European hockey history where he was called “the Russian Gretzky.”

In those 11 campaigns, Makarov led the Soviet League in scoring nine times with his team winning the championship all 11 campaigns. He won two Olympic Gold medals and eight World Hockey Tournament titles. During that stretch he played on Russia’s famed KLM line with centre Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov, who both later followed him to the NHL.

Flames General Manager Cliff Fletcher had the foresight to select Makarov late in the 1983 NHL draft although, at that time, no Russian player was permitted to join any team outside the Soviet Union, which was under communist reign then.

However, Fletcher was able to convince the Russians to allow Makarov to join the Flames at age 31.  He missed out by one season being a part of the Stanley Cup-winning squad in 1989.  He joined the Flames three months after for the 1989 training camp.

A portion of that camp was held in Makarov’s native Russia as the Flames were part of an NHL “Friendship Tour”playing four exhibition games against Soviet League teams.  I well remember the adoration Makarov held in Russia. Wherever he went Soviet police would bow in reverence to him.

Flame fan witnessed his majesty right away in the 1989-90 season when he amassed 86 points in 80 games and was named NHL Rookie-of-the-Year.  The next season the league changed the rules stating the Calder Trophy could only be won by a player age 26-or-under. It became known as the ‘Makarov rule’.

It was during that ’89-90 season in which Makarov established a record which still stands – most points in a single game.  He collected seven points (two goals and five assists) on February 25, 1990 against Edmonton.

Makarov’s play-making ability was a reason linemate Gary Roberts was able to score 53 goals during the 1991-92 season. The leftwinger has frequently credited Makarov’s contributions.

Makarov moved on to play for San Jose but during his four seasons in Calgary he left his mark with Flames followers of that era.

When speaking English while in Calgary, Makarov was a man of few words.

He did his talking on the ice and did it masterfully.

November 7, 2016

Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan got really rich this summer. Now their lack of production has contributed to the Flames failures this fall.

Through the first four weeks of autumn, new coach Glen Gulutzan’s team has compiled 11 points in 14 games.  That’s slightly better than departed bench boss, Bob Hartley, who started last season with nine points in as many games but couldn’t get the team into the playoffs and lost his job.

Gaudreau and Monahan led the Flames in goals when last season ended and then both cashed in with new contracts paying them over $6-million a year.

Both top snipers are off to slow scoring starts now combining for six goals.

Believe it or not, that’s better production than Gaudreau and Monahan combined for last season through 14 games.  A year ago, at this stage, they’d turned the red light on just four times jointly – two goals apiece.  The season before, 2014-15, it was the same as now six goals collectively before they helped the team garner a playoff spot.

They overcame the poor starts each of the last two terms and need to do the same now if the Flames are to avoid another campaign without post-season play.

Gaudreau and Monahan combined for 57 goals last season with Johnny Hockey netting 30 of them.

Rarely has the moniker Johnny Hockey been mentioned to reference the 23-year-old left-winger lately. That’s likely due to his lack of early scoring.

Some have suggested that the new long-term contracts Gaudreau and Monahan signed have brought on complacency from the pair.  I’ll go with another theory.

Both these young men love playing hockey and excelling at it as they have in past seasons here and elsewhere.  The new financial security puts much more pressure on them to be the best players in each and every game.

There’s nothing wrong with that mentality. It’s just that it brings an added burden particularly when your team isn’t generating very many wins.  That’s where Gaudreau and Monahan appear to be at with their mindsets.

Both are trying too hard to make things happen, thinking too much instead of reacting and squeezing their sticks too tightly.  These are all elements that are counter-productive.

Gaudreau and Monahan need to take some deep breaths and realize the $6-million-plus they both have been rewarded with for this season is earned gradually and not in a lump sum.  Same with on-ice contributions.

As for the slow starts, the all-time leading goal scorer in Flame history habitually scored few goals at the beginning of a season.

However, Jarome Iginla would end up scoring 30-or-more goals 11 times in his career in Calgary.

October 31, 2016

The most important element to remember about November is the 11th day when we honor our brave hearts that have fought in battle for us as we observe Remembrance Day.

The Flames will have a ceremony for our veterans, the night before when they host Dallas Stars in one of their few November home games.

In a hockey-sense, the Flames will remember this November as the calendar month in which the team plays its most games on the road in 17 years.

Commencing with a four-game trip this week, the Flames will play 11 games in the home of the opponent in this 30-day month.

The last time a Flame team was on the road that much in a calendar-month was March of 1999.  They had 10-game road game months twice since – November 2000 and March 2002.

Flames management no doubt lobbied to reduce the November road work-load when they got the first glimpse of the 2016-17 National Hockey League schedule but rules permit only four-or-five challenges to the 82-game slate.

Fortunately, Glen Gulutzan’s squad got its game back in gear by ending October winning three-straight games before losing 3-1 at home on Sunday to Washington.  The key man, goalie Brian Elliott elevated his game after his initiation three-game rough start. Johnny Gaudreau has shown spurts of his scoring form of last season.  The power play is improving as well.

The November venture has an intriguing make-up.  It starts with four games this week all in cities where the home team made the playoffs last season – Chicago and then all three California locales.

Then it’s a three-day break before two home games in three nights part of four home games out of five interrupted by a one-game journey to Minnesota. Then it’s a venture east for six contests before concluding November with a home assignment against Toronto.

In the end, the schedule for teams generally balances out. For this season’s Flames it’s March when they play 10 of 14 matches in the Saddledome.

The key will be staying in the playoff hunt until March arrives.  If that materializes, the odds of the Flame playing post-season hockey in April increase greatly.

In March of 1999 when the Flames played those 11 games away from home they posted a 5-4-2 record collecting 12 of a possible 22 points.  A similar run now wouldn’t make it a November to Remember but would be acceptable.

October 24, 2016

Is Johnny Gaudreau the imitating Jarome Iginla?

Last season he claimed a plateau Iginla accomplished 11 times – the Flames top goal scorer.

Now after further investigation, Gaudreau is developing a trait Iginla demonstrated through most of his 16-plus seasons with the Flames – starting the season with little production.

Through the Flames first six games of this campaign, Gaudreau has notched one goal while the team stumbled out of the gate with an unimpressive 1-4-1 record before playing games Monday and Tuesday in Chicago and St. Louis.

Slow starts are nothing new for Gaudreau while wearing Flame colors after an outstanding career at Boston College.

True the 23-year-old did register a goal in his first NHL game on April 13, 2014 when he joined the Flames after his third season at BC.  That was the final game of the Flames 2013-14 campaign.

Gaudreau’s first full season in Calgary was 2014-15.  He commenced that term with one goal in 10 games while being a healthy scratch for one contest.  He ended that season with 24 goals and was finalist for National Hockey League Rookie-of-the-Year honors.

Last year Johnny Hockey produced just one goal in the first 12 games but recovered from that beginning to lead the Flames with 31 goals and finish sixth in overall NHL points.

Before joining the Flames this season after a contract dispute that forced him to miss all of training camp, Gaudreau was his usual scoring self while playing for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.

He was top scorer for the age 23-and-under comprised of players from Canada and the United States with two goals and two assists in three games. The four points placed Gaudreau finish fifth in tournament scoring. The four skaters finishing ahead of him all played for Canada, which played twice as many games, six.

With Iginla all his low-scoring starts produced awesome finished products. Now, the Flames need Gaudreau to pick up his game and have better finish around the net.

The sooner he gets going, the better.   

The week after former Flame defenceman Jamie Macoun was voted in for a second year as President of the Flames Alumni, he was voted out by those selecting the 100 best players in Toronto Maple Leaf history.

He deserved better in the Leafs balloting.

Between helping the Flames win the Stanley Cup in 1989 and helping Detroit Red Wings win their 9th of 11 Cups in 1998, Macoun toiled for seven-and-a-half seasons with the Maple Leafs.   He left the Flames in January 2, 1992 in the a 10-player trade with the Leafs, which turned out to be one-sided in Toronto’s favor.

Macoun, like over 1,000 or so other players over the last 50 years, couldn’t help the Leafs to a Cup title but was a solid enough blue liner that he should have  been among the Top 100 all-time Leafs, which was revealed on October 14 to kick off the team’s Centennial Season in the National Hockey League.

It’s a given that picking the best players over a 100-year period isn’t an easy chore. The 29-person panel was put in an unenviable position left open for much debate.

Centreman Dave Keon was voted as the top Leaf and few would argue that selection but when you look at some of the players among the other 99 and don’t see Jamie Macoun’s name it’s puzzling.

In the decade that was the 90’s no player played more games for the Leafs than the stellar defenceman, who suited in 518 games for the blue and white.  Not noted as an offensive defenceman Macoun did collect 114 points in those 518 games.

Macoun was part of the Leaf teams in 1993 and 1994 which went to the Conference finals both years.  The only time in the last 50 years Toronto made it to the Stanley Cup semifinals in back-to-back seasons.

Clearly Macoun, who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Newmarket and now is in Calgary real estate sales, didn’t rank with Leaf Hall-of-Fame blue liners Tim Horton, Borje Salming, King Clancy and the like.  However, overlooking him ahead of some other rearguards like Jim McKenny, Todd Gill, Brian Glennie and perhaps a couple of others as well as some forwards was a major over-sight.

 Macoun isn’t the type to lose any sleep after being slighted in Toronto. He makes his hockey marks now with his Flames alumni leadership helping raise money for various needy Calgary charities.

If you believe all the Toronto hype, the number Macoun wore with the Leafs may one day be retired.  No Leaf player has worn the #34 longer than Macoun, but it now belongs to rookie Auston Matthews, who became the first modern-day player to score four goals in his first NHL game and immediately touched off a Toronto furor with suggestions he’s an automatic Hockey Hall-of-Famer.

It’s much-too-early for such submissions but if Matthews can wear #34 in Toronto for as long as Macoun did then such chatter will have more relevance.     

October 17, 2016

Glen Gulutzan would have preferred his Calgary coaching career start differently but he joins six other Flames mentors coming away winless after three games in their inaugural seasons.

In the Flames’ history since arriving in Alberta in 1980, twelve new coaches have started a season behind the bench and seven of them failed to get wins in their first three games.

Bob Johnson, Pierre Page, Brian Sutter, Don Hay, Mike Keenan and Bob Hartley also were unable to garner a triumph in their initial three tilts leading the Flames. Half of them – Johnson, Page and Keenan – were able to recover and guide the team into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Thus, based on Flame history, the odds are 50-50 Gultuzan will get the team righted and into post-season competition come April.

Coaches taking over a team during a season generally have success at the beginning, but often its different starting from the opening contest of a new season.

Like the Flame bench bosses before him, Gulutzan comes in with a new philosophy, new style of play and new assistant coaches for the most part.  It takes time for players to adjust.

Gulutzan had the added handicap of starting camp without five of his regular players – four of them competing in the World Cup of Hockey and his top centreman, Sean Monahan, sidelined with a back injury.

Eventually three of the World Cuppers returned -- Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Jyrki Jokipaka.  

However, top goal scorer Johnny Gaudreau didn’t join the team until the day before the season opener as he waited for a contract offer he liked, but never got before signing for less money while saying that his plan all along was not to miss a game.

Monahan finally was healthy enough to play in the final pre-season contest.

Gulutzan won’t use the missing players as an excuse, but it definitely was a factor in why the Flames stumbled out of the gate.

The worst start to a Flame season came 21 years ago.  It was Pierre Page’s first campaign as head coach and due to renovations to the Saddledome were forced to play the first seven games on the road.  Consequently, that 1995-96 Flame team went 10 games with seven losses and three ties before finally winning for the first time in game 11. 


That team, led by Theoren Fleury’s 46 goals and 96 points, came back from the poor start to make the playoffs. 


October 11, 2016

The Flames didn’t get totally what they wanted.

Johnny Gaudreau didn’t get all that he desired, but in the end a deal got done locking up the high-scoring leftwinger through his peak years.

Both sides gave up some desires before Johnny Hockey signed his new six-year contract late Monday afternoon at a pay rate of $6.75 million per season.

There some exceptions, but statistics show that the prime years for a National Hockey League forward are between ages 23 to 27. 

The 23-year-old Gaudreau will be 29 when this contract expires. Thus, if he can stay healthy should have some really good seasons to go with what he accomplished in his first two campaigns here.

The maximum number of years the Flames could have signed him for was eight. They settled at six. 

Gaudreau wanted $8-million per season. He settled at $1.25M less. 

The winger would have been eligible to be an Unrestricted Free Agent in the final year of the contract but gave that up in exchange for a modified no trade clause for that season in that he can list five teams he’d go to if the Flames want to trade him during the 2021-22 season.     The player gets almost half his salary guaranteed for the 2020-21 in the event of a work stoppage.  The Flames initially didn’t want made that provision.

Now with all the players intact, the Flames start the regular-season this week with three games against rivals in the Pacific Division – home-and-home vs. Edmonton then a Saturday night in Vancouver.

Games against the Pacific Division powers from California don’t come until the first week of November.

Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks have basically ruled the Pacific Division the three seasons of its existence.

However, that could soon change with the Flames and Oilers having a chance to take over as division powers.

It may not happen this 2016-17 campaign but in another season or so it could.

The top players with the Kings, Ducks and Sharks are getting past peak performance years while the Flames and Oilers both have young nucleus not in prime years yet.

The Alberta squads both need to augment the line-ups they presently have in order to become superior teams in the Pacific but they have the basis at hand.

Should the Flames and Oilers eventually ascend to the top of their division it would definitely help revive the Battle of Alberta which has been dormant for many years.

The 1989-90 campaign is the last time the Flames and Oilers finished 1-2 in their own division.

The Flames have had one division first place finish in that 27-year stretch when they nabbed the Northwest Division pennant in 2005-06. The Oilers last had a division #1 regular-season team in 1987 – almost 30 years ago.

Those are the major reasons why the Flame-Oiler rivalry has lost its piazza. Now, if soon they could engage in battles for first place fans in both cities would experience the excitement generated by the two teams back in the 80’s and early 90’s when fans from that era witnessed the two best squads in the league.

In current times, fans would settle for having the two best teams in the Pacific Division if it were to come to pass.

For now, they’ll get to watch regularly two of the most entertaining players in the NHL – Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau and Oilers’ Connor McDavid.  This season’s assessment from most NHL observers is for the Alberta teams to be in a scramble for the final two or three playoffs spots in the Western Conference.

Strong starts to the season would help the bid for post-season play.

The Flames opening slate of games gives them a shot at getting out of the gate strong under new coach Glen Gulutzan.  Four of the first six matches are in the Saddledome. The first five games are all against teams that finished out of the playoffs last season.

Those matches over the first nine days definitely aren’t pushovers. However, what follows are 11 of 12 games against playoff squads from a year ago including three-straight in the home of the Pacific Division’s three California squads.

October 3, 2016

The Johnny Gaudreau-Flames contract squabble took a turn Sunday when his agent, Lewis Gross, made public comments. 

That is certain to not amuse the Flames’ management but hopefully it leads to resolution in time for the October 12 start of the regular-season.

The Flames don’t like negotiating through the media and make it very clear at the outset of contract discussion.

Despite that, Gaudreau’s agent, Lewis Gross, stated Sunday that the last negotiation with the Flames was on September 9 when he said he was told by the Flames they’d get back to him in two days.

Gross also stated that Gaudreau has no intention of asking for a trade at this time and wants to stay in Calgary.

That’s the good news from the agent now parties must bridge the gap between the $8-million the high scoring leftwinger is allegedly asking for and the almost $6.4-million the Flames earlier this off-season gave to Sean Monahan, who was also a Restricted Free Agent.

Withholding his services is really the only bargaining chip Gaudreau has.  He’s not eligible for an Offer Sheet from another team or Arbitration.  So the Flames appear to have the upper hand.

However, with the regular-season starting next week when two important points are on the line in every game the Flames need Gaudreau playing as they attempt to get back into the playoffs.  Gaudreau isn’t losing any money by sitting out the pre-season but he does when the regular-season starts if he’s unsigned.

The Flames need to be looking at the present and the future in the NHL’s Salary Cap era.  Other than one season, the Flames have always been a team at, or very near, the Salary Cap maximum since the procedure commenced in 2005.  Once Gaudreau signs they’ll be in that position again this season.  So they aren’t shy to put the best team on the ice.

Looking beyond this season is an issue here.  The Flames have amassed a number of good young players and keeping them together long-term is imperative if the team is to become a contender.

For instance, centre Sam Bennett is due a huge pay raise next season when he becomes at RFA.  They will need to pay more for the goaltending position in 2017-18.  Brian Elliott this season is a bargain at $2.5 million; however, he’s an Unrestricted Free Agent next year. He’ll get a good increase, if the Flames want to keep. If not, they’ll need to look elsewhere and pay accordingly.

It’s all a delicate balance.

September 26, 2016

If you missed it, you missed a gem.

It was last Wednesday (September 21) in the afternoon when Team North America played Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey.

While most people worked, the Kids and the Swedes worked overtime before the team with all players under the age of 24 emerged with a 4-3 win.

Incredibly executed goals. Sensational saves by the goaltenders. A penalty shot. An overtime goal by Nathan MacKinnon phenomenally fashioned.

In the end, it didn’t get the Kids like the Flames Johnny Gaudreau, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and company into the tournament playoffs but got them great accolades for producing a most exciting product.

Here in Alberta for those that saw the Kids’ game last week brought back great memories of Flames-Edmonton Oiler matches from the 80’s and early 90’s without the rough stuff, which was a huge part of those Battle of Albertas.

Fans in those days witnessed some of the most entertaining hockey ever as Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Lanny McDonald, Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnis, Doug Gilmour, Hakan Loob, Theoren Fleury put on performances at high speed and skill.

Those clamoring for a return to that action during the NHL season on a regular basis won’t get their wish.

The pressure to win at the NHL level is so great that coaches take away much of the players’ ability to freelance. Instead, the team leaders devise more structure and defensive-minded systems.  They need to in order to seek success.  As well, the 82-game grind is too demanding.

At the World Cup, Todd McLellan, coach of the kids, allowed his highly-skilled players to perform basically throwing caution to the wind. It was a short tournament and no NHL team is blessed with as much skill as these youngsters’ possessed.  Clearly, McLellan with his regular Oiler team couldn’t maintain this style.

In last Wednesday’s contest it also helped that Team NA was able to grab a quick early leads of 2-0 and 3-1.  That forced the Swedes, who generally play with a defensive posture, to open up their game. It made for a fascinating showcase.

In this day and age of hockey, difficult to duplicate.

September 19, 2016

The Flames commencing training camp this week without four players can be considered good and bad.

Good in that with Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Jyrki Jokipakka playing on such a big international stage in the World Cup of Hockey, will benefit from the experience as players.

Bad because with a new Flame coach Glen Gulutzan incorporating a new system (style) he wants the team to play the four miss out on some of the early education.

Basically, the good out-weighs the bad in this case.  The missing four will come back as better players and shouldn’t miss much of the early teaching from Gulutzan and his staff.

Although if Gaudreau remains unsigned for much time after he completes his time with Team North America, that changes the complexion.

The Flames top scorer and the NHL’s number six point-getter from last season isn’t likely to participate in camp or pre-season games without a contract.  The skilled 23-year-old left winger won’t talk contract with the Flames again until after his games at the Toronto tournament.

However, you can be certain Gaudreau’s agent, Lewis Gross, is having conversations with Flames Genereal Manager Brad Treliving, during this time.

Hopefully, the day after Gaudreau’s World Cup commitment is over he’ll sign a new deal with the Flames.  If not, optimistically it won’t linger too long.

This is an important season for the Flames.  They have a good shot at returning to the Western Conference playoffs but can’t afford to stumble at the outset as they did a year ago.

In Flames history contract disputes saw them start seasons without standouts like Joe Nieuwendyk, Theoren Fleury and Jarome Iginla.  Those season’s didn’t start well and had consequences.

Correspondingly, the Flames must sign Gaudreau at a salary number and term they are comfortable with now and in the future.  In a Salary Cap world, keeping all your top players can be a challenge.  The Flames fans are fortunate, team ownership has always committed to pay to the limit.

The Flames could be on the cusp of a run as one of the top teams in their own Pacific Division.  A key is keeping all your leading talents, augmenting them with good support players while staying within the Salary Cap maximum.

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