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When it comes to the 2010-11 Calgary Flames, there is perhaps no team in the NHL that has created such an intense sense of painful failure as the Flames. The Flames entered the season after a tumultuous off season that had many media pundits confused and perplexed. There was no clear consensus exactly how the newest iteration of the Calgary Flames would perform. Some predicted glory, with perhaps the chance of challenging the Vancouver Canucks for the North-West Division title. Many predicted that the Flames would be struggling to reach a playoff spot, and few were even bold enough to utter the dreaded term "lottery team" into the mix. Now that the team is 29 games into the season, its time to take a look to see which seers predicted correctly.
To say that the Flames have been bipolar this season would win you the understatement of the year award. We have witnessed games where the Flames have absolutely dominated, such as the Flames victory over the Chicago Blackhawks 7-2 on November 19th. There have been games that the Flames have capitalized on chances and weak goaltending and have survived through the strength of team defense and exceptional goaltending, such as the 4-0 win over the San Jose Sharks. Then there have been games where the Flames show up for only parts of the game, put in sincere efforts and fail to have anything to show for it, such as the recent 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on December 9th. There truly hasn't been a stretch of longer than three games where the same team has shown up to play.
The question of course becomes just why is the team so terribly inconsistent? Its not like the team is filled with players whose character screams of comparisons to Alexei Kovalev. Perhaps we can blame it on our top paid players in Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester. There can be no denying that both players have had their fair share of struggles this season. The other option that comes to mind is the lack of top end players.
While the Flames seemingly on paper possess great offensive depth, they are truly lacking in the high octane offensive forwards. While the Flames sit much higher in the goals per game category than last season at 18th with 2.62 goals per game, there is still some highly disturbing trends. For example, the Flames have played in 29 games, yet in 10 games they have scored one goal or less. Considering the Flames have won only a single game 1-0 this season, this lack of scoring becomes an obvious problem. Its practically a minor miracle that the Flames have only been shutout twice up until this point (three times if you count the 1-0 OT victory in Nashville on Oct 19th). When you calculate two goals or less per game, it becomes nearly half of their games played.
When you examine the Flames roster, you have to imagine that there would be more goals being scored. Up front, the Flames have been led by a set of five forwards in Brendan Morrison (17), Alex Tanguay(23), Jarome Iginla(25), Matt Stajan(16) and Rene Bourque (22). Only one of those names really screams offensive prowess nowdays, and even then there are those that would argue its more of a whimper. There is no denying that Iginla had a brutal start to the season, though thankfully he seems to have picked up his game.
Alex Tanguay has experienced a revival in Calgary after two forgettable seasons in Montreal and Tampa Bay. Matt Stajan, while putting up points, has at times been forgettable and downright putrid on the top line. Rene Bourque is quickly becoming known as a streaky player whom enjoys racking up multi point nights and then disappearing for games at a time. Brendan Morrison was a late acquisition for the Flames and one that has worked out handsomely so far. Nobody expected Morrison to join the team and put up as many points as he has. The only major issue to be aware of with Morrison is that he did the exact same thing with the Washington Capitals last season, with an extremely strong first half to the season only to end up being a healthy scratch by the time the playoffs rolled around. As long as he can continue to bounce around the lines and contribute defensively at least, there is truly no worry about him, especially at the cap hit he provides.
Defensively, as much like last season, Mark Giordano has been a bright spot offensively. Jay Bouwmeester is having a much better campaign offensively than the season before, already matching his goal totals from last year. He still has not lived up to his salary offensively and his defensive game, while normally stalwart, has definitely seen signs of the occasional brainfart. Anton Babchuk, a relatively new acquisition for the Flames provides something that the team has been lacking on the second powerplay unit since the departure of Adrian Aucoin and that is a booming slapshot. Now if only that shot was put to use more often and more accurately, but we can only pray at this point that Babchuk achieves half the success he had two seasons ago when he had 18 goals.
So who does that leave? The absence of Daymond Langkow due to the lingering injury from last season is definitely a major factor. Say what you will about the fall in his offensive totals, there is no denying that a healthy Langkow could help provide some offense, especially with his in front of the net crash and bang style. Niklas Hagman has lived up to his reputation of an offensive enigma, with 7 goals and 13 points in 29 games. However, for a player who is renown for his streaky goal scoring ways, I'm hesitant to cast much blame on Hagman for the Flames lack of scoring. Curtis Glencross experienced his best start to a season in his career putting up second line numbers for much of the month of October. By the time November rolled around however, his impact has disappeared from the stats sheet and spends much more time in the penalty box than desired. Ales Kotalik has only played in a handful of games for the Flames after suffering an injury early in the season. It is hopeful that his booming shot will add some offense to the team. Rookie Mikael Backlund has struggled offensively for the Flames this season, though his superb defensive play has somewhat made up for the difference. It would be nice if Head Coach Brent Sutter was willing to take more of a chance and let Backlund perhaps get more ice time with Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay, especially in games where Matt Stajan looks as motivated as Don Cherry trying to be nice to Europeans.
Olli Jokinen was the most controversial signing of the summer, prehaps even more so than Russian winger Ilya Kovalchuk. When Flames GM Darryl Sutter re-signed Jokinen less than three months after trading him to the New York Rangers for Ales Kotalik, many believed him to have gone mad, and to many, the feeling has not changed yet. Jokinen was brought back to "bring some size and offense down the middle". Its entirely possible that Sutter was aware of the severity of the injury suffered by Daymond Langkow and realized just how thin the depth at center would become and made a desperation move to solve this problem. Its not like there was much choice in the Free Agency market for centers either.
Regardless, Olli Jokinen has been just as much a disappointment as last season through the first 29 games. Notching only three goals on the season, Olli is on pace for 9 goals and less than 35 points. Jokinen is without a doubt one of the most frustrating players on the Flames, because there truly is no question that he has the drive and effort, just it seems that the talent that made him a 91 point player and three time thirty goal scorer has completely vanished. In my humble opinion, Jokinen's drop in offense directly correlates to the incident involving teammate Richard Zednik, and I believe mentally that Olli has never fully recovered.
When looking at our bottom six, there really isn't much should shock many. Darryl Sutter has successfully found several grinders and muckers in the form of Tim Jackman and Tom Kostopolus that can work well on an energy line. Throw in some players such as David Moss and Craig Conroy, and sometimes they can even chip in offensively.
Defensively, the Flames have been mystifying as well. With defensive defensemen such as Cory Sarich (3.6 million caphit), Steve Staios (2.2 million cap hit) and Robyn Regehr (4 million cap hit), one would be led to believe that the team would preform admirably. However, the truth of the matter is that the Flames 20th in the Goals Against category, a fact that no doubt has defensive minded GM Darryl Sutter grinding his teeth in the press box.
Goaltending, while imperfect at times (see Harju vs Kiprusoff, December 7th), it has remained a relative position of strength, as both Miikka Kiprusoff and Henrik Karlsson have had games where they were one of the few bright spots. Karlsson, acquired in the offseason from San Jose for a 6th round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, has been something of a pleasant surprise, quickly becoming a fan favorite for his emotional style of play.
When it truly comes down to it, the players on the Flames simply have failed to find a sense of consistency and effort. For a team that once prided itself on its blue collar work ethic and hard nosed play, this is a drastic difference. Head Coach Brent Sutter has accused his players of simply taking shifts off, and sometimes even full periods and games. The lack of effort is simply unacceptable on a team that ranks consistently amongst the highest spending teams in the league. On that note, at different points this season, we have seen healthy scratches of Stajan, Staios, Sarich, Moss. If you expect your team to have success in the cap system set down by the NHL, you simply cannot afford to have so much salary simply keeping seats warm in the press box.
Up front, there needs to be a much more responsive top six. Arguably the only top line player the Flames have is Jarome Iginla, and he needs to find his consistency that won him two Richard trophies, an Art Ross and a Pearson. A case could be made for Alex Tanguay being a top line player as well. However, Brent Sutter has yet to find a centerman that can keep up with the duo of Tanguay and Iginla. His centerman of preference seems to be Matt Stajan, though as mentioned before, he is prone to games where it is painful to watch him. Olli Jokinen has seen spot duty on the top line as well, with no great success.
It would be nice to see Brent Sutter take a chance when his team is struggling and letting centers such as Brendan Morrison and Mikael Backlund have a game or two to try and establish some chemistry, since it seems a terrible waste of talent to have such offensive players languishing in the bottom six. Niklas Hagman and Rene Bourque are second line caliber players and need to start acting as such on a more consistent basis, because with the lack of offensive from the top line in certain games, the scoring still has to come from somewhere if the Flames hope to have any form of success. Defensively, the Flames have shown the potential to shut down some of the better offensive teams, yet have yet to display that sort of effort in more than one game at a time or without several lapses in judgment that result in goals against.
It is not to say that all hope is lost for the current edition of the Calgary Flames. Truth be told, while they do currently occupy the 14th spot in the Western Conference, they are only a half a dozen points out of a playoff spot. However, this team cannot afford to continue digging itself into a hole and expect to be able to stay this close to playoff contention. The Flames Faithful whom occupy and create the C of Red need to stay supportive and perhaps with a bit of luck and effort, the fans will get to see the Red Mile again in April.
Note: If the Flames lose again in Anaheim tonight, it is entirely likely you'll see a second blog, discussing the idea of a potential rebuild. If not, a halfway report card is more than likely around the 40 game mark.