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Peter Maher’s Hockey Blog
Monday, October 16, 2017
As the Flames embark on the third week of this National Hockey League season it’s still too early to make an assessment on what the team is. Or any other squad for that matter.
I’ve long been an advocate of the theory don’t read too much into the first two weeks of a season. Pay attention after week three and book it after the fourth week.
Of course, there are always exceptions but generally it usually after basically the first month one can get an true read on a team.
Last season was one if those where the first month didn’t provide an accurate assessment. Our Guys won just five games through their first 14 matches in Glen Gulutzan’s initial year as coach. Then were 40-25-3 the rest of the way to quite comfortably make the playoffs.
The first couple of weeks this time around have brought varying performances with emotions going up-and down amid the Jaromir Jagr excitement.
The opening week brought the disappointing start – a 3-0 loss in Edmonton. Then a come-from-behind home opener win over Winnipeg. The second week commenced with back-to-back triumphs in Southern California for the first time in over 23 years including ending a 29-game losing streak in Anaheim. Then they came home and were trounced 6-0 by Ottawa before winning 5-2 at Vancouver on Saturday.
Holding down second place in the Pacific Division with six more points than rival Edmonton after winning four of six games with two-thirds of them played on the road is impressive. Still, remember it’s two weeks into the season so don’t read too much into it.
…And Coach Glen Gulutzan isn’t noting after Saturday’s victory that the team “was out of sync and at times chaotic” thus far. The squad will work on improving those areas with three practice days before hosting Carolina on Thursday and Minnesota on Sunday.
The coach plans to use the practices to work on the areas of concern.
The most alarming development with the Flames first four games was the high numbers of shots they were yielding. New goalie Mike Smith was outstanding while facing an average of 40 shots a game. Gulutzan voiced his displeasure and the shot totals went down to 22 and 27 respectively during the past two weekend contest despite being shorthanded seven times in each match. A tribute to the penalty killers but still a dangerous way to play.
Although the Flames are five points ahead of their season-starting pace of a year ago but it’s good the coach isn’t letting his players rest on their laurels.
Per early season usual, the Pacific Division first place race is off to a different start. Many predictors around the NHL feel the Flames, Oilers and Anaheim will be at the top of the heap when all is said and done. Currently, only the Flames are near the top of the standings. Los Angeles Kings, a non-playoff team last winter, lead with nine points while the first year Vegas Golden Knights are tied with the Flames for second. If the playoffs started today, the Oilers and Ducks wouldn’t be included. Remember, it’s just two weeks into the season.
When Mark Giordano scored the Flames first goal while the team was shorthanded on Saturday, he became just the fourth defenceman in franchise history to notch 100 goals.
It’s a most impressive achievement for the captain. The other three – Al MacInnis, Gary Suter and Paul Reinhart – all played here in the 80’s and early 90’s during the NHL’s high scoring era. Unlike the other three, Giordano was never drafted and since beginning his Flames tenure in 2006 has had to score in a much-more defensive-style of game with goals more difficult to attain.
It took Giordano 679 games to reach the milestone. MacInnis in his time with the Flames notched 213 goals in 803 games. Giordano won’t match MacInnis goal totals but could pass Reinhart’s 109 goals during the current campaign and in a year or two could also pass Suter’s 129 goals for second place.
Giordano’s first two goals came in his hometown, Toronto, on October 14, 2006. They came in a 5-4 loss to the Maple Leafs on night when Mats Sundin would notch a ‘hat trick’.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Will the first National Hockey League team Jaromir Jagr played against be the same team he plays his last NHL game for?
Only time will tell and since the future Hall-of-Fame right winger wants to play in the NHL until he’s 50 it may be quite a long time. There’s also a chance this could be his final campaign.
When the 45-year-old signed with the Flames last Wednesday, the witness was Mike Burke, the only member of the team’s manager group still with the team from 1989.
Burke is now Director of Hockey Administration. When Jagr played against the Flames 28 years ago Burke was the team’s Assistant Public Relations Director.
On September 11, 1989, Jagr was 17 years old and hadn’t been drafted. On that date he lined up with the Czechoslovakian National Team for an exhibition game against the Flames, who four months earlier had captured the Stanley Cup and where on a 6-game “Friendship Tour” playing two games in Prague before four games in Russia.
Jagr on that evening in the Czech capital city was wearing the #68 he’d later make famous in the NHL. He notched an assist in the game helping the Czechs to an upset 4-2 victory. It was the following June (1990) that he’d be drafted by the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, a team he helped win two Cups.
His debut against the Flames wasn’t forgotten by Jagr, he recalls vividly the game reflecting how big and intimidating Flame winger Tim Hunter was and his facial feature “a very big nose”.
As of Tuesday, Jagr still hadn’t made his Flame debut in game action but that likely will occur later this week with his intimidating pedigree as the second greatest scorer in NHL history and sporting his own trademark – his mullet hair style.
This is Jagr’s 25th NHL season and it wasn’t until after all the teams had played their pre-games that he finally got contract offers. The Flames and St. Louis reached out looking to sign the five-time NHL scoring champ. The last being in 2000-01 when he captured his fourth Art Ross Trophy in-a-row. A streak ended the following campaign by former Flame superstar Jarome Iginla, who is still looking to sign with an NHL team this season.
Flame fans, caught up in Jagr Fever, were hoping he’d suit up in the team’s home opener last Saturday but the player who had just two practices with the team at that point felt he wasn’t game ready. He also sat out Monday’s 2-0 win in Anaheim ending a 29-game losing streak in that city. Despite the excitement of the iconic star, the decision to keep him on the sidelines until he’s ready is wise.
The Flames are the ninth NHL team Jagr has signed and the first based in Canada. He’s come a long, long way since that September evening in Prague all those years ago.
Monday, October 2, 2017
Johnny Gaudreau is the best leftwinger in the National Hockey League.
“Says who?” you might logically ask.
It’s the so-called hockey bible, The Hockey News, in its current Season Preview edition in advance of this week’s start of the NHL campaign.
Yes, on page 29 the Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau is listed #1 among the Top 25 projected leftwingers.
Yes, the same Johnny Hockey who received only two votes at the end of the 2016-17 in the voting for NHL All-Stars by position.
The Hockey News panel recognizes that Gaudreau was off the mark in ’16-17 offering the comment “He took a lot of abuse last year, but expect a big-time bounce back season with a deeper Flame team behind him.”
If THN prediction is correct the Flames will be elated. The assessment lists Gaudreau ahead of Brad Marchand and Artemi Panarin, who were voted the top two portsiders last season. He also was rated ahead of perennial all-star Alexander Ovechkin.
In fact, the Flames have two players among the Top 25 left wingers with second year man, Matthew Tkachuk, ranked #13.
The Flames are the only team placing two players in three different positional categories. San Jose Sharks and Carolina Hurricanes each had players in two groupings.
If strength down-the-middle is a requisite for success, the Flames also have two skaters listed in the Top 25 on defence and at centre.
Glen Gulutzan’s two defencemen highly rated blueliners are Doug Hamilton at #10 and captain Mark Giordano at #14.
No Flame centre is in the Top 20 but just below that they have two – Sean Monahan is listed at #21 and Mikael Backlund #24. The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins rate the second and third best pivots in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They are just behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid ranked #1 for the first time.
Where the Flames lag in THN evaluation is at right wing and goal. They don’t have a player in the Top 25 on the right side while goalie Mike Smith is listed as 20th best in the league. That is based on his play last season in Arizona behind a Coyote squad that had one of the worst defence groups in the NHL.
Goaltending is a position the where Flames haven’t had superior netminding since Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013. Since then Flame goalies’ save percentage has been just 25th best among the NHL’s 30 teams.
This may be the reason THN predicts the Flames will finish third in the Pacific Division behind Anaheim and the Oilers. They furtherly forecast a Flames-Oilers first round playoff series with Edmonton winning and ultimately advancing to the Cup final before losing to the Penguins in six games.
THN odds of the Flames capturing Lord Stanley in 2018 are 20-1 which makes them ninth best.
Those are guesses. On Wednesday, the real counting commences.
Monday, September 25, 2017
The day Sam Bennett was drafted fourth overall by the Flames in 2014 he was compared to hall-of-famer Doug Gilmour.
Even though Bennett played Gilmour’s position, centre, and wore Gilmour’s Toronto Maple Leaf famous number 93 on a Kingston Frontenacs junior team that the ex-Flame was General Manager of, it was an unfair comparison.
It put unnecessary added pressure on a then 18-year-old at his first NHL camp. The Flames tried to reduce the burden on Bennett then by assigning him number 63. It was a year later he donned number 93 in Flame colors even though Gilmour wore number 39 when he helped the Flames win the Stanley Cup in 1989.
Many started to believe the contrasting evaluations when Bennett, following an injury, joined the Flames late in the 2014-15 season helping the team win a first round playoff series notching three goals.
He played enough games then, 12, to use up a year of pro hockey eligibility. That’s why after just two full seasons with the Flames – 2015-16 and 2016-17 – he needed to sign a new contract prior to the start of this campaign.
Bennett inked that two-year pact a week before training camp. He’ll be paid $1.9-million each of the next two seasons.
Over the last two seasons Bennett has displayed only flashes of his projected capabilities thus he didn’t get the multi-million deals that teammates Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau received last fall after their entry-level contracts expired.
That could be a good thing. If Bennett is to reach those financial plateaus when he’s up for a new contract after the 2018-19 campaign he needs to be big producer.
If he’s a big producer and steps up as the Flames first or second centreman it could propel the team to heights in the standing they haven’t attained since 1995.
Bennett’s positive progression is essential if the Flames are to be pennant contenders in the Pacific Division where many ‘experts’ predict Edmonton will prevail this campaign.
It’s very early, but Bennett has made an impact in the Flames pre-season. Collecting four assists in the first two games he’s played.
After spending a summer working out at ex-Flame Gary Roberts camp in Toronto, Bennett has added 10 pounds of muscle.
He’s also added a beard. That has drawn humorous comment from teammates and opponents. Flames General Manager Brad Treliving jokingly said he now looks like San Jose Sharks star centre Joe Thornton.
At least this Bennett comparison was made in jest. Seriously, if Bennett can have a career a quarter as good as Gilmour and Thornton the Flames will be delighted.