What We Learned: Flames could do some damage if they stay healthy

Mike Smith has been a nice surprise for the Flames in the early going. (Gerry Thomas/Getty)

On paper, the Calgary Flames should be a lot better than they have been so far this season.

They have high-end forward talent, they have probably the best top-four defense in the league and Mike Smith has been a lot better than anyone had any right to expect going into the season.

So it leads to a pretty natural question: Why are they just kind of middling within both the Pacific Division and the West as a whole?

It probably shouldn’t surprise you to learn that while they have a pretty solid group at the top of the lineup, the bottom of the roster is pretty bad, and can’t get anything at all settled. While Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan plus their winger du jour are typically dominant — both Jaromir Jagr and Micheal Ferland are getting top-notch results with them in relatively limited time so far — and the 3M line (Matt Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik) deserves a lot of praise as one of the best lines in hockey (which it will get in a minute), Glen Gulutzan can’t find anything that works in the bottom six. And when the top guys are playing about two-thirds of the game, that still leaves another one-third in which the Flames get caved in.

And again, part of that is because Gulutzan has no answers for how to put together an effective group when the Gaudreau/Monahan or 3M groups are off the ice. The only lines that are really sticking for any significant amount of time (in part due to injuries, yes) are Matt Stajan, Troy Brouwer and either Tanner Glass or Kris Versteeg, and Curtis Lazar, Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett. A huge chunk of that time goes to the Stajan/Brouwer groups, and they’re getting beat in just about every regard by low-end talent.

Injuries have been an issue, sure, but the fact the Flames haven’t really found a workable solution for the bottom of the roster is what’s keeping them down. They’re a little above water in terms of possession (not including Sunday night’s game) and have been a little unlucky shooting the puck, but that’s below what their talent level “should” be.

Based on the most commonly used groups the Flames have employed this season, this is something resembling the typical Calgary lineup:

Obviously if both Jagr and Ferland are in the lineup, that bumps Lazar out, and you’re gonna keep Glass in the press box if you feel like you don’t need to beat someone to death. But to this point, that’s the most common Flames lineup, and if that’s the case you’re looking at a team with a 55 percent xGF share, and almost 57 percent Corsi. It doesn’t exactly work like that, of course, but this means that if Calgary had been able to ice this group for all its time, it’d be in much better shape. Without one of those four lines (who have played more than 60 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 TOI) on the ice, Calgary is closer to 44 percent possession and less than 43 percent in expected goals.

It’s a real problem. The good news is that you can probably live with the Monahan and Jankowski lines getting extremely sheltered in terms of zone starts, if not in quality of competition, because Gulutzan is deploying Stajan and Backlund’s groups in such heavily defensive roles. Both are out-performing what you might expect given how they’re used, though maybe you’d like to see a little more offense from the Stajan line than the zero goals they’ve scored so far. The problem, too, is that Gulutzan just kinda has to stash these older guys with bad contracts somewhere in the lineup, and this is probably the best way to do it. That’s not ideal.

In practice of late, the Flames have kept Jagr away from the Monahan/Gaudreau pair and instead put him with Bennett and Jankowski. Ferland’s gotten a lot of positive results in more time together with the top line, so while he’s certainly not top-line talent, the continuity there would probably be welcome. Meanwhile, having a possession machine like Jagr on the ice to “create space” for two skilled but not-exactly-tough very young players is a pretty effective use.

When used together, albeit for only about 19 minutes at 5-on-5, Jagr and Bennett were only okay. Great in possession, but a lot of their shot attempts got blocked and a good percentage of them were from the perimeter. They also gave up more scoring chances than you’d like. Unfortunately, Bennett and Ferland have a history of being even worse together, so you kinda have to pick your poison. In theory, if you still have Jankowski (who has been gently used but has overwhelming results in those softer minutes) running the pivot and put Jagr in some easier minutes, things at the bottom of the roster get shored up in a hurry. That still leaves you with a sub-optimal third line but those are the breaks.

Luckily, you can always count on Gaudreau and Monahan to score goals as long as you don’t ask them to do too much defensively. And double-luckily, you can ask the 3M line to do just about anything you need, and they’re going to do it to incredible effect.

Gulutzan found the 3M line some time together early last year and quickly realized what he had. They’ve been together ever since, and it’s the one aspect of the Flames lineup that has retained any sort of consistency over the past two seasons. And if you saw what they did to Pittsburgh last Thursday, you know their true power.

The 3M line was hard-matched against Sidney Crosby all night, along with the Giordano/Hamilton pairing that’s been so good for most of the last two seasons as well. Crosby ended the game at about 38 percent possession and 40 percent expected goals at 5-on-5. Which is to say the 3M line humiliated him, and here’s video of Tkachuk personally roasting Crosby with an incredible head-fake in the neutral zone to set up the OT winner.

Only 15 three-man units have played for at least 500 minutes over the past two seasons combined, and the 3M line is one of just three to play at least 800 together. Of those 15 lines, Calgary’s is third in possession behind the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak and Forsberg-Johansen-Arvidsson lines and seventh in expected-goal share. However, they’re one of just two to take the bulk of their draws in the defensive zone. That’s due in part to the fact Gulutzan knows he can’t trust anyone else on his team to keep the puck out of the net, but the fact that they’re delivering these incredible results despite the usage highlights why this is probably the best line in hockey right now, even if it doesn’t score a ton.

They do play most of their minutes with Giordano and Hamilton, and that certainly helps push their results to elite levels, but this is the only shutdown group the Flames really have. They’re heavily used in the toughest situations, and they run the show. It’s incredible and makes life a lot easier for every other forward on the team.

Getting Jagr back will probably shore up a lot of this team’s lingering issues and question marks. That, in turn, could give the Flames a great pivot point to emerge from the largely up-and-down results so far this year. I think most people thought this was the year the Flames could take a step, but they haven’t yet because the forward group has just been too messy.

If everyone stays healthy for once (Jagr and Travis Hamonic are both out until at least Tuesday), and Gulutzan gets a chance to really nail down his lines, this is a team that has the ability to go on a run. Well, as long as Mike Smith can maintain his high level of play. But hey, one difficult thing at a time.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Andrew Cogliano has been a very useful NHLer for a very long time. Just another first-round pick the Oilers never valued properly.

Arizona Coyotes: I’m not even associated with the Coyotes and I find this stuff emotionally exhausting. Good lord.

Boston Bruins: Here’s the Next Great Bruins Defenseman, folks.


Buffalo Sabres: This team was supposed to be better defensively this year, right?

Calgary Flames: I know the Flames said they think their system will make Smith better, but this can’t last.

Carolina Hurricanes: You really gotta hope this team can figure something out, especially if you picked them to make the playoffs just sayin’.

Chicago Blackhawks: Seems like the only way Chicago can win this season is if Corey Crawford stands on his head. Well, I have some great news for them…

Colorado Avalanche: Mikko Rantanen is finally doing stuff. Cool.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Same as last year, Columbus doesn’t have a lot of regulation results against actual good teams. It’s gotta be a worrying trend.

Dallas Stars: I have a lot of time for the Stars this year, man. Good team, finally well-coached.

Detroit Red Wings: Oh my god.

Edmonton Oilers: “Patrick Maroon” is a funny way to spell “Connor McDavid.” McDavid rules; he’s on pace to clear 100 points with ease again, and everyone’s like, “What’s wrong with this guy?” It’s incredible.

Florida Panthers: This is honestly like Mr. Fuji complaining to the media that someone threw salt in his eye. If Keith Yandle eye-gouged Brandon Dubinsky, Dubinsky probably did something to deserve it.

Los Angeles Kings: Pretty smart by Christian Folin to identify Juuse Saros leaving the net early. Wonder where Folin went to college. Probably where a lot of really smart hockey people did.

Minnesota Wild: Where do you think “arch rival” Chicago has Minnesota on its “just regular rival” ranking? Fourth?

Montreal Canadiens: Pretty weird that the can’t-score Canadiens have 21 goals in their last four games, and 26 in their last six. It’s almost … ALMOST … like they had a great offense the whole time but just weren’t converting. Wild stuff! Unforeseeable!

Nashville Predators: The Preds would be a lot better if Ryan Ellis was healthy but they’re still not bad because they have a really good defense. They should still trade Josi.

New Jersey Devils: Their best chance at the Calder still isn’t a particularly good one.

New York Islanders: Ya don’t say.

New York Rangers: Remember how Ranger fans were mad at Kevin Shattenkirk like a week ago?

Ottawa Senators: This should be deeply embarrassing.

Philadelphia Flyers: Also you really don’t want to lose to the Avs in any circumstances.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Not the best run through Western Canada, hey?

San Jose Sharks: At least they’re not goofing around with a, ahem, “head injury.”

St. Louis Blues: The Canadian media will employ any galaxy-brain thinking to give the Norris to a Canadian instead of Erik Karlsson, yup. Pietrangelo has as many points in 14 games as Karlsson does in nine.


Tampa Bay Lightning: This team is so fun to watch. Damn.

Toronto Maple Leafs: I know we’re all supposed to be mad and incredulous about the Leafs’ defense, but doesn’t it seem like the real problem is the fact that Freddie Andersen is .895 for the season? That includes .886 in his last five appearances. Folks, very bad!

Vancouver Canucks: Brock Boeser played college hockey, just FYI.

Vegas Golden Knights: This just isn’t a good team. How do you almost blow a three-goal lead in the third period against the Senators?

Washington Capitals: Tom Wilson is the best forward on the team!

Winnipeg Jets: Well at least they got the point.

Play of the Weekend

Keep this line together forever!

Gold Star Award

Brock Boeser, hello.

Minus of the Weekend

It’s too bad we were all expecting a lot of schadenfreude with that Duchene trade. Everyone (except maybe Ottawa unless Duchene signs an extension this summer) did alright for themselves.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Mackiaveli” is keeping things simple.

Ottawa:
Gives up: Turris, Ryan (1,500,000 Retained), Thompson, 2018 1st, Chabot, Logan Brown

Receives: Duchene, Kreider, McDonagh

Nashville:
Gives up: 2018 1st, Fabbro, Saros, 2019 2nd, Craig Smith

Receives: Turris, Nate Thompson, Bobby Ryan (1,500,000 retained)

NYR:
Gives up: Kreider, McDonagh, Nash (2,000,000 Retained), 2019 2nd, 2020 2nd

Receives: Logan Brown, Ottawa 2018 1st, Nashville 2018 1st, Fabbro, Saros, Dubois

Colorado:
Gives up: Duchene, Soderberg

Receives: Chabot, NYR 2019 2nd, Nashville 2019 2nd, Craig Smith, Columbus 2018 3rd

Columbus:
Gives up: PLD, 2018 3rd.

Receives: Rick Nash (2,000,000 Retained), Carl Soderberg, NYR 2020 2nd

Signoff

I see you’ve played knifey-spoony before.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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