In the Calgary Flames locker room – in the back away from the public area where the media congregates – there is a big board. And on that board are the National Hockey League standings, updated daily. Whether or not that was the original intention, the Calgary Flames daily routines have featured that standings board rather prominently through the first 21 games of the 2014-15 season.
A season ago, through a slew of injuries that really tore through their back-end – and took out their best player, captain Mark Giordano – the Calgary Flames began their free-fall last season just before the quarter-mark of the season. By the 20th game of the season, the club was 6-11-3 and well on their way to drafting 4th overall, even with a miraculous late-season push after the Olympics.
This season, the Flames have neatly flipped their record, sitting 12-6-2 after the first 20 games of the regular season. The fact that the club is just in the second season – or a mere 103 games, to be precise – into their rebuild and is seemingly progressing is something that has raised eyebrows throughout the NHL.
So just what’s the secret to Calgary’s early-season success? Here are five keys to the team’s success thus far.
GIORDANO & BRODIE
They’re not really a “secret” anymore, but Calgary’s top defensive pairing of captain Mark Giordano and youngster T.J. Brodie emerged as the team’s top weapon last season and have continued to blossom this season. Giordano has complemented his shut-down game with some strong offensive output, something that’s really been amplified by Flames coach Bob Hartley utilizing his team as an integrated five-man unit on the ice – the forwards back-check and the defenders join the rush regularly. And Brodie? He’s quietly emerging as one of the best young defenders in the NHL.
Through 21 games, Giordano and Brodie are numbers one and two on Calgary’s scoring list: Giordano has 22 points and Brodie has 16 points. All while playing against the best players from the opposition.
DEPTH UP THE MIDDLE
Around Halloween, Calgary had some injury troubles. And the injuries almost entirely occurred up the middle.
- Two-way center Mikael Backlund? Gone with an abdominal injury.
- Veteran pivot Matt Stajan? Out with a knee injury.
- Towering checker Joe Colborne? Out with an injury to his wrist.
Speedy winger Mason Raymond also went out with a shoulder injury.
Most teams would flounder. Somehow, the Flames soldiered on. 2011 second round pick Markus Granlund was recalled and has emerged as a steady offensive contributor. Training camp standout Josh Jooris – so unknown prior to camp that GM Brad Treliving noted that nobody would’ve known his name “even if we gave them the J, both Os and the R” – has continued his strong pre-season play, chipping in key goals and strong defensive plays.
Add in some contributions from Paul Byron and Lance Bouma – typically wingers when everyone’s healthy – and the wheels haven’t fallen off even with the Flames relying entirely upon Sean Monahan as their “tough minutes” center. The strong play of the call-ups will give the team some options when the injured players eventually return to the fold.
Sean Monahan has progressed from being a raw rookie with some promise last season into a bonafide number-one NHL center who can go head-to-head with the top dogs on other teams.
Kris Russell has progressed from a promising depth pairing defender into an anchor for the club’s second pairing with Dennis Wideman. Wideman’s offensive output – his goal total is already double what he had last season – can be charted back to Russell’s passing, back-checking and overall strong play.
Lance Bouma has continued his emergence as a strong bottom-six fixture – killing penalties, blocking shots and chipping in goals every now and then.
Heck, Paul Byron went from a role player in the bottom six to one of the club’s most versatile contributors, and a player that is sprung on more breakaway opportunities due to his explosive speed than anybody else in the league.
Calgary’s schedule is a mixture of good and bad.
The bad news is that they had a pair of long, long road trips – a five-gamer to kick off the season and a six-game trek just afterwards. Heck, the balance of their schedule this season is an alternating road trips and homestands.
The good news is that despite playing in the proverbial Murderer’s Row called the NHL’s Pacific Division, the Flames have played just four of their first 21 games against the Pacific (one each against Anaheim, Edmonton, Vancouver and Arizona). You’ll notice that tally barely has an appearance from the trio of challenging California teams that the Flames need to leap-frog over in order to claim a playoff spot. They have played several of the East’s best, but haven’t really dented the Western side of the ledger yet.
The toughest part of their schedule is yet to come, particularly when clubs stop being shocked and impressed with the Flames and start feeling threatened by them once the calendar winds down and the stakes become raised.
A BIT OF LUCK
In 2013-14, the Flames weren’t an amazing team at even-strength. Their goalies had a dreary 90.89 save percentage and that was enough to sink them. Their shots at the other end went in at a rate just below the NHL’s average – 7.86%.
This season? Their goaltending is a fairly improved 92.36% – league average, now. But the real miracle is their 10.57 shooting percentage, which is an incredibly lucky number nearly three percent above the league average. That’ll come back down to Earth over time, but right now the team is happy to be racking up the goals on the scoreboard and the points in the standings.