The Calgary Flames have quietly become one of the hottest clubs in the entire National Hockey League. While the team’s resurgence and leap up the standings has come as the product of a series of tweaks, changes and adjustments throughout the line-up, it’s possible to narrow down the biggest impacts to just five players.
Here are the five players who are primarily fueling the team’s surge up the standings.
Gaudreau’s season neatly follows the three main sections of the Flames season: their awful first month (October 12-November 13), their improved middle section (November 15-January 24) and their excellent last stretch (January 26-present). Having missed the entirety of training camp due to a contract impasse with the Flames, Gaudreau began the season with rough underlying numbers (48.5% Corsi For) and shooting just 9.5%. He wasn’t playing well, nor was he getting the bounces.
The Flames turnaround began with his 10-game absence from the lineup with a hand injury. When he returned, he had much better underlyings (52.3% Corsi For) but continued to struggle to bury the puck. However, his strong play (51.6% Corsi For) continued and beginning in January he began to see the puck go in much more often. He’s scoring on 12% of all shots since late January and, consequently, has emerged as the team’s leading scorer.
Backlund has been great all season, with a Corsi For varying between 53.1-55.7%. He was scoring on just 3.1% of his shots in the first 16 games. He and Michael Frolik were joined by Matthew Tkachuk on October 28 and, suddenly, the puck started going in for him. After a brief adjustment period, the 3M Line has become the Flames’ shutdown line and their most consistent offensive producer, and Backlund has been the straw that stirs the drink for the Flames in all three zones of the ice since that line was put together.
Hamilton began the season playing primarily with Jyrki Jokipakka, who spent much of this season either as a healthy scratch, a third pairing guy, or traded to Ottawa (depending on what time of year you have in mind). Hamilton struggled with Jokipakka, but really emerged as a strong puck-mover when placed with Mark Giordano in mid-November. His underlying numbers have been consistently strong all season, but his confidence on the ice has only grown as the season has wore on.
Brodie has had an interesting year. Originally, Glen Gulutzan seemed to prefer putting together three balanced defensive pairings rather than putting all the talent on one or two of them: Hamilton with Jokipakka, Dennis Wideman with Giordano and Brodie with Deryk Engelland. For much of this season, Brodie’s seemingly gotten the short end of the stick and been forced to drag around players that aren’t nearly as good at contributing offense as he is, which has arguably neutralized his strengths. First it was Engelland, then it was Wideman for much of the season. While Brodie’s underlying numbers haven’t really moved very much all season, his level of play has seemingly raised with the arrival of new defensive partner Michael Stone. Stone’s low-risk, stay-at-home style is seemingly the perfect complement to Brodie’s puck-moving prowess. In the November-to-January time period, Brodie had 14 points in 35 games. Since late January, he has 13 points in 22 games. Stone’s steadying presence has really helped Brodie adjust to jumping into the rush again and taking chances, as the newcomer is a safety net for his partner. Suddenly, the Flames have two defensive pairings that can contribute offense.
When the Flames traded for Elliott at the 2016 NHL Draft, the hope was that he would stabilize their goaltending. After an early stretch that saw him win just 3 of 11 starts, the Flames largely gave the net over to backup Chad Johnson. However, Elliott slowly but surely worked the kinks out of his game and regained his confidence. Since January 26, he’s 15-2-1 with a .941 even strength save percentage – a giant jump from the .897 mark he posted in his first 11 appearances with the Flames. Elliott now looks like the goaltender the Flames thought they were getting and has given them a chance to win every night that he’s started over the past several months. When a team has confidence in their netminder, it ripples throughout their lineup.
It took several months, but things appear to have snapped into place for the Flames – to the point where general manager Brad Treliving noted after the trade deadline that this was the team they thought they were getting. Their early stretch of the season saw the Flames struggle with bad special teams and bad even strength play, posting a -20 goal differential fueled equally by special teams and five-on-five situations. Their middle section saw their special teams stabilize, with their performance almost enough to cover up for the goals given up at even strength (their goal differential was +4 over at 35-game period). Over the last 22 games, since January 26, the Flames have posted a +22 goal differential fueled entirely by their improved even strength play. Their special teams improvement bought them time to get their house in order five-on-five, but their torrid play over the past two months has been almost entirely on the back of that even strength performance.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.