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Western Conference Update: The Calgary Flames are Actually Good

and Bob Murray really doesn’t want to fire his friend.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames
Jan 9, 2019; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich (33) avoid colliding with Colorado Avalanche center Carl Soderberg (34) during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Flames won 5-3.
Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

As the Colorado Avalanche look to regain some positions in the standings, let’s have a look at a few key storylines around the rest of the Western Conference. Particularly, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The Ugly refering to the Anaheim Ducks who have really begun to fidget and squirm. Everything’s fine down there, right? Well...

Week 15

The Good

Calgary Flames

It’s taken a while for a lot of media and fans to finally understand this, but the Calgary Flames are good.

They are top-10 in the league in every single basic and advanced goal and shot metric for offense and defense, they have a top-10 power play (but a 21st-ranked penalty kill) while carrying the third-best penalty differential in the league, and more simply; they are second in the NHL’s standings.

It’s hard to understand how good the Flames are because they have no bona-fide stars on the roster. No one in their prime. No leadership. No solid goaltending. Well... I think it’s time to kill some narratives here.

Johnny Gaudreau is 25-years-old and has his third 70+ point season in four years, but he’s basically still a child! Sure, he may still look really young in the face and on his skates, but he is a legitimate point-per-game offensive threat. Defensively, Gaudreau is one of the best shot-differential players on the team, his Corsica expected goals ratios are very good, and his penalty differential is insane.

Along with Johnny Hockey, the Flames have Sean Monahan (who is well on his way to another 60, possibly 80- or 90-point season), as well as Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk both on pace for massive offensive seasons. That’s a great top end. No household names (aka players who have done big things in the playoffs), but lots of really productive young players under the age of 26. Combine them with a very strong mix of veteran forwards and kids with room for growth, and basically what I’m saying is that the Flames know how to score.

Now the defense. Mark Giordano has been in the Norris Trophy conversation before, and is back in the conversation again. He may not be the sexy pick like Toronto’s Morgan Rielly, but he’s a point-per-game defenseman playing massive minutes on the power play, penalty kill, and at even strength. Combine him with what has become a really reliable trio to fill out the top-four of T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, and Noah Hanifin (remember him?). All three (and four, including Gio) are positive possession- and goal-metric players, which is a sudden change from previous years. I think the reason why this core has become so underrated is because:

  1. Dougie Hamilton isn’t there, and he’s a big name star (who came with a big trade pricetag).
  2. The third pair back when it had Dennis Wideman helped make it seem like the Flames had the “deepest defense core in the league.” Wideman has since retired and the notion that the Flames are the best defense core is long gone. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that they are darn good.
  3. Brodie had a down year under a messy coaching situation, and the national media somehow still has a feeling that Hamonic and Hanifin are castaways to the myterious land in northern Canada.

Put all that together, and no one is giving this group nearly the credit they’re due. And hey, I didn’t even get to the young kids they have coming up. Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington, anyone?

Oh, and lastly, the goaltending. I have to admit, I was wrong about David Rittich back in the summer. He didn’t look like he was anything more than a career backup, and with Mike Smith as the “starter” the goaltending outlook on this team was extremely bleak. 48 games from that take, and Smith is still bad, but Rittich has a .917 save percentage in 25 starts. Yep, that’s enough to turn some losses into a lot of wins. Congrats to Rittich on his success at age 26, and for furthering the narrative that goaltending is voodoo.

The Bad

Edmonton Oilers

Every time the Oilers show up in the news and the story is about how the team isn’t good enough (they’re not), a handful of mainstream media members always feel the need to bring up their record and the fact that they’re really close to the playoffs. That take is factually correct, but at the same time, we all know this franchise was supposed to be competing for Stanley Cups when Peter Chiarelli found the reins. Now, the standard for this team is a middling playoff team with a farm system bleaker than LA’s. That’s the real disappointment here. This team was supposed to be a force, but they are barely a stiff breeze.

Chiarelli has been given strict orders to make the playoffs or he losses his job. My question here is why does Chiarelli get to mortgage the future of the franchise (ie trading Jesse Puljujarvi and the 2019 first-round pick to name two) in order for personal job security? Seems very reckless to me. Are suite tickets really worth that? Is Connor McDavid’s legacy really worth that? I wouldn’t be running my team this way, that’s for sure.

Oh, what this team could’ve been.

The Ugly

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are fidgeting. Waddling? It’s clear that GM Bob Murray has been given an ultimatum by ownership along the lines of: “hit some team milestone you’re currently failing at, or you and Randy Carlyle are gone.” And since Bob is the kind of person who will put his friendship with Randy ahead of the economical well-being of a hockey franchise, he’s on a downward spiral looking for new drapes while the house burns around him. The Ducks are not a good team. They are flawed in so many ways. They are poorly constructed, poorly coached, and their future cap situation is a mess.

All three of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler are old, broken, and overpaid. The time to get rid of their contracts (or never sign them in the first place) was yesterday, but Murray refuses to fold and is doubling down on that core.

The rest of the forwards have a handful of good pieces, but no real standouts or “new guard” players to take over from the old and confused vets. Rickard Rakell is bring wasted as having to be one of the bigger players on a team when he’s clearly just a hired gun that’s useful on a second line somewhere. I see him in a similar situation as Phil Kessel under...well I’ll be damned...Randy Carlyle.

The defense has a handful of good pieces — I really thought Hampus Lindholm was going to be a Norris candidate players — but whether it’s systems or deployment or personel, the defense core has been trash. As someone who watched the Carlyle Leafs, I can almost guarantee it’s the coaching. Poor John Gibson can’t keep going like this.

There is a group of kids aged 20 and under, and they’re going to be great talents in the future. But if there’s no clear, definitive plan for where the team is going when they arrive, things can go really bad really fast. Look at Philly. Blow it up, Ducks, you owe it to your fans to give this new generation of players the best chance they can get at a championship.

Blow it up.