What We Learned: Waiting for the Calgary Flames crash

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Dec 6, 2014; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano (5) (second from left) celebrates his first period goal against the San Jose Sharks at Scotiabank Saddledome. (Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports)
Dec 6, 2014; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano (5) (second from left) celebrates his first period goal against the San Jose Sharks at Scotiabank Saddledome. (Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

So the Calgary Flames are good, and no one saw that coming.

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How could they? This is a team with maybe four players that other teams would really and truly step over their grandmothers to acquire; a team that spent most of the summer pegged as being a lock to spend the year in the league's basement.

But a check of the standings here in early December shows Calgary as being very comfortably in a Western Conference playoff spot, and sitting with losses in the single digits through 28 games. It seems impossible, and yet here we are.

The thing is that the Flames have done this in much the same way the Colorado did in 2009-10 and Dallas did in 2010-11 and Minnesota did in 2011-12 and Toronto did in 2013 and Colorado (again) did in 2013-14. They are very comfortably one of the worst possession teams in the league, something that typically does not portend a comfortable playoff position through October, let alone the first two-plus months of the season. They've gotten very good goaltending first from Jonas Hiller then Karri Ramo, who seem to revel in swapping the ability to stop 92 percent of shots and then 89 percent every fortnight or so, but never overlap. They've also gotten just about every bounce to go in at their own end, and have the second-most goals in the league despite taking fewer shots per game than everyone but New Jersey and Tampa.

Put another way: The Flames are winning, with regularity, but they shouldn't be.

And as with those aforementioned “winning-but-shouldn't-be” teams that preceded them, the fans have generally taken up the idea that whatever it is the Flames do systemically, it is contributing to a long run of sustainably high shooting percentages for and low shooting percentages against. That is, they've figured out the alchemical formula to turn a leaden team into pure gold. If so, they'd be the first team to ever do this long-term, and indeed they're already pressing their luck.

Already this season, the Flames have entered the third period trailing 13 times, and they've somehow come back to win six of those games. By comparison, the Oilers are in the same ballpark, and have even been able to extend any such game to overtime just once (they, of course, lost).

So what, according to Calgary fans and media types, do the Flames do that their forebears do not, which would drive shooting percentage to such significant-outlier levels?

Two things, actually:

1) Have two of the four or five best defensemen in hockey this year, and 2) Work hard.

The second of these points is of course ludicrous, because low-talent teams obviously have to work harder to keep games close, but it's not as though high-talent teams do not work hard. There's a comparison to be drawn, I think, between what the Flames have done to this point and what a jockey with a crap horse might do right out of the gate if he were trying to impress people: Whip the hell out of that old nag, get it out to an early lead, and even if (when) you fade down the stretch, well, at least you led for a while. As with the Avs and Stars and Wild and Leafs and Avs again, these are all clubs that pretty much collapsed as the season wore on, and it wouldn't be too shocking to see a late run in which the Flames win four out of 20. At least they started out hot, though.

As to the thing about the defensemen, I've said over and over again the Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie should be top-3 Norris vote-getters this year. No one else is in their ballpark in terms of generating offense (because the Flames have no one else to do it) and playing top competition on a nightly basis and significantly outperforming their garbage teammates, of which they have many.

The argument that none of the aforementioned hot starters certainly did not have even one elite defenseman, let alone two, and thus you might be able to make a cogent enough argument that they'd be able to suppress shot quality at the other end (albeit for the roughly one-third of the game they play). But those teams have often had elite forwards, which Calgary plainly does not, to drive shooting percentage at the other end; Josh Jooris is not, say, Phil Kessel or Matt Duchene. Those with neither tended to collapse in the ugliest fashion imaginable.

But the thing you have to say to the Flames' credit is that even if they're awful — and they are, make no mistake — they're at least piling up enough points that the playoffs are getting to be a roughly 50-50 proposition even if the bottom completely drops out of their season, starting tomorrow. Which is more than could reasonably have been guessed at the start of the year.

And it leads one to wonder exactly what management does here. The two roads diverging in this particular wood are of significant importance. On the one side, the Flames could stick with what they have, and maybe even sell a couple assets at their peak value to maximize a return on futures (picks or prospects) that would allow them to continue their rebuild. On the other, they could buy the same BS being peddled from the fanboys, and believe that this is a team which has arrived at the end of its rebuild one or two years ahead of their already-optimistic schedule.

If Brad Treliving believes enough in this team that he's willing to add veteran help, then he's almost certainly going to set the club back significantly as a consequence. Anyone who thinks this team is truly capable of anything beyond a first-round flameout is deluding themselves; a best-of-seven series against a top team in the West would end in a bloodbath.

The longer Treliving waits to double down on this success, if that is indeed his plan, the more likely it will be to completely blow up in his face, because this team is doomed like all the others. His best option, though, is to wait things out, maybe make the playoffs if they're really lucky, and collect a few million more in gate revenues. That should keep the bosses off his back for a year if nothing else.

Well, actually, Treliving's best option was to never sign a decent goaltender this season, and tank as hard as possible just like some other teams in this league I could mention but won't. But that ship has long since sailed, and Flames fans think they have the secret recipe for sustainable-unsustainable success. As long as the GM doesn't feel the same way, they might as well enjoy the run.

What We Learned



Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are one of several NHL teams that could see their AHL affiliate relocate across the country to better facilitate call-ups. Could happen as early as next season.That would feel very weird.

Arizona Coyotes: Who could have foreseen this Mike Smith contract not working out? Everyone, you say? Hmm. When Devan Dubnyk becomes a reasonable replacement, that's a flat-out disaster.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins actually scored on the power play for once. They've still only had 66 chances, which is a number that shouldn't be possible.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres are mad that the Panthers played a video making fun of the lake effect snow that killed some people in the Buffalo area last month. Seems justified, in my view.

Calgary Flames: Yes, take everything in Calgary at face value. This team is great!!!

Carolina Hurricanes: Yesterday, Canes coach Bill Peters got his first game against the Red Wings since moving to the new organization.

Chicago Blackhawks: Isn't it so weird that after months of underperforming their shot totals, the Blackhawks are scoring goals by the barrel all of a sudden? Isn't it so weird that they were always still one of the best teams in the league? It's so weird.

Colorado Avalanche: Avs find out being bad isn't fun. Now they have to have meetings with Gabriel Landeskog about it.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Oilers tried to acquire Ryan Johansen. Shockingly, Columbus didn't go for it.

Dallas Stars: Apparently Tyler Seguin is like the drummer from “That Thing You Do.” Bet that dude never scored 21 in 27 before, though.

Detroit Red Wings: Mike Babcock is up to 500 wins. He'll probably get to 525 before he heads to Toronto.

Edmonton Oilers: This says, “Too,” as though there's anything other than the Oilers' drafting over the last decade that's to blame for their struggles.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers are currently two points out of a playoff spot with three games in hand on Boston. What world is this?

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings outshot Philly 38-16, and lost 2-1. The Kings players blamed not being ready for a 1 p.m. start, but, like, what goes different if they had been? The Flyers don't get two bounces? They outshoot them by 30? Quirk loss, don't sweat it.

Minnesota Wild: The Wild are now up to five cases of the mumps. Vaccinate your dumb kids.

Montreal Canadiens: It's a little old at this point but the Michael Farber profile of PK Subban is wonderful in all the ways you'd expect.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: Chicago's win in Nashville on Saturday was just the second time the Preds lost at home in regulation this year. That's crazy.

New Jersey Devils: The Devils waived Damien Brunner but kept Jordin Tootoo? Lou Lamoriello is doing an awful job.

New York Islanders: The Islanders might soon make the Battle of New York interesting again? (They've been ahead of the Rangers pretty much all season.)

New York Rangers: The Rangers might loan Anthony Duclair to Canada for World Juniors. Don't need to tell you that Slats is from Alberta.

Ottawa Senators: The Sens haven't beaten Pittsburgh in five tries. That sounds about right.

Philadelphia Flyers: Ed, please, stop.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Olli Maatta is so, so good. What a player.

San Jose Sharks: Antti Niemi stopped 33 of 35 as the Sharks edged Calgary, but yeah it was Logan Couture who led the way.

St. Louis Blues: No, Marty is actually good! He won his first game! So he's good!

Tampa Bay Lightning: Much like Nashville, the loss the Lightning suffered at home on Saturday was also just their second in regulation this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Phil Kessel rules forever.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks might loan Bo Horvat to the Canadian World Junior team too. Hey remember during the lockout and all the Canadians' best players were on the team and they lost anyway? Haha, yeah. Who'd they lose to again?

Washington Capitals: The Caps are 7-9-2 when Alex Ovechkin doesn't score this season. He's lazy and selfish to not score every night.

Winnipeg Jets: The Jets realize they aren't good enough to act like they should be guaranteed a playoff spot. Stark change from years past.

Play of the Weekend

Sven Andrighetto: First NHL game, first NHL shot, first NHL goal. Doesn't get much better than that.

Gold Star Award

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier makes a save against the Vancouver Canucks during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Nathan Denette)
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier makes a save against the Vancouver Canucks during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Nathan Denette)

Jonathan Bernier thought Nelson Mandela was a professional athlete who he watched growing up. I guess “Invictus” was mostly a sports movie? (The fact that MLSE deleted the video in question is literally outrageous.)

Minus of the Weekend

SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 04: Aaron Ekblad #5 of the Florida Panthers looks on during a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at BB&T Center on December 4, 2014 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 04: Aaron Ekblad #5 of the Florida Panthers looks on during a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at BB&T Center on December 4, 2014 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Does it strike anyone else as worrisome that an 18-year-old defenseman leads his NHL team in scoring? Because that's what Aaron Ekblad is doing in Florida.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “willyjones” clearly didn't see a certain press conference on Friday.

to Toronto

Taylor Hall. Scrivens/ Fasth

to Edmonton

Jvr, Gardnier, Reimer





Signoff

I said ... stick... team, you know stick team? Stickball! Go away leave me alone!

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

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