The Edmonton Oilers’ start to 2019-20 has been the most intriguing difference when looking ahead to the Battle of Alberta this season with the first matchup on Dec. 27. Edmonton went 7-1-0 to start the season, and 20 games in, currently sit first in the Pacific Division with 26 points. At one point, they held the top spot in the Western Conference, a position the Calgary Flames held tight when the 2018-19 regular season came to a close. But is this the same Flames team that won the West a season ago? Or is this the team that was buried by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2019 Playoffs? Assessing the Flames group two months into this season, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Gripping the Stick Too Tight
We’ve hit the quarter mark of the 2019-20 NHL season and many Flames fans are still sorting through the various texts and tweets from friends and family north of YYC in Edmonton. It’s been an underwhelming and oftentimes puzzling start to the season for the Flames (10-8-3), which has been made even more mind-melding due to the early resurgence of the Oilers (12-6-2).
If the fans were hearing it in Calgary, you can imagine the Flames were feeling it, too. The Oilers were in first place and had gotten there in commanding fashion. In addition, as if the whole Flames organization was ‘gripping the stick too tight,’ they started to string together stretches of games featuring uncharacteristic play and a lack of collective emotional buy-in, which ultimately led to a dismal start to the 2019-20 campaign. Or at least that is how it has been perceived.
Still, they find themselves sitting in the first wild card spot and are just three points out of the lead in the Pacific Division, despite not playing to their full potential in a consistent fashion this season. The Flames have often had to fight back in games. They’ve had to lean heavily on their goaltender (David Rittich) who has bailed them out time and time again. They’ve relied on their overall skill to generate a lucky bounce or two, even scoring a between-the-legs goal in dazzling fashion to complete an overtime comeback. But that is not the way to play if you want consistently good results.
The word that comes to mind: sustainability. Was it sustainable for the Oilers to average a 0.800 winning percentage
One for One: Neal and Lucic
When the Flames and Oilers swapped James Neal and Milan Lucic, no one really knew what to expect heading into the season. It was a case of two overpaid, underachieving veterans looking for a fresh start, and it was unclear what the expectations should even be on either player. Lucic is a beast, he’s won a Stanley Cup and is a good team guy, but is he quick enough on the ice to not be a liability? That question is ‘slowly’ being answered.
Neal was an offensive machine before getting to Calgary last season, yet he offered up just 7 goals in 63 games with the Flames. It was often whispered about how Neal was not happy in regards to his utilization, or lack thereof, in a legitimate top-six role in Calgary, and maybe in hindsight, he had a point. Now playing with the Oilers, and with Connor McDavid for that matter, which certainly helps, Neal has 12 goals (14 points.) in 20 games to start the season.
Lucic, on the other hand, has brought a sense of much-needed toughness and accountability to the Flames and he wasted no time making his presence known. He was recently handed a two-game suspension for punching Columbus Blue Jackets forward Kole Sherwood, after Sherwood took a couple of whacks at Rittich. Despite the suspension, Lucic still committed to defending his teammates and playing his game.
“You’ve got to defend yourself or defend your teammates or else you get walked all over,” Lucic explained in an interview with Sportsnet. “I’m more than happy to defend ‘Ritter’ on that play and more than happy to defend Czarnik in the first game of the year and will do that moving forward.”
What Lucic’s playing style may lack in overall velocity, it is made up for in ferocity, no question. Many of the Flames faithful are just happy to see any form of pushback from their team, which has been criticized for playing the game ‘too light’.
Carousel in the Crease
Another aspect of the Flames/Oilers dealings this offseason was the acquisition of goaltenders Mike Smith by Edmonton and Cam Talbot by Calgary. ‘Smitty’ had been the favorite talking point in Calgary throughout 2018-19, but mainly because of his consistently inconsistent play. But, he (and Rittich) also backstopped the Flames to a 107-point season in 2018-2019, and he showed heart and an ability to bear down and battle once it truly mattered, in the postseason.
Despite his age (37), and his somewhat eccentric approach to goaltending, Smith has settled in nicely with the Oilers. It seemed like a good fit with fellow Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen early on, and it’s proven to be so up to this point. Smith has started 11 games, posting a 5-5-0 record with a 2.58 goals-against average (GAA) and a .913 save percentage (SV%). Through 10 games, Koskinen is 7-1-0 with a 2.16 GAA and a .928 SV%. The debatable three-year deal he signed last season is starting to look a little more credible.
As for former Oiler, Talbot has assumed a strictly backup role in Calgary through the first 21 games. The 32-year-old has appeared in only six games for the Flames, picking up a win (1-4-0 record) while posting a 2.69 GAA and a fluctuating .907 SV%. He put together a solid start in his loss to the San Jose Sharks and held the Flames in the game with 29 saves on 32 shots in his most recent start against the Dallas Stars, but Talbot just hasn’t had the benefit of consistent playing time as Smith, or a consistent team effort in front of him, either. It’s also hard to crack the lineup when Rittich has been playing as often and as well as he has.
Rittich has been the most consistent member of the Flames this season, as well as their most valuable player so far. His timely saves have kept the Flames in games and his energy and enthusiasm have, no doubt, kept things lighter in the locker room while frustration has abounded. In his first full season as a starter, Rittich has started more games than any other goalie to this point. He currently leads the league in games played (16), time on-
As the clear-cut number one netminder in Calgary, Rittich has a (9-4-0) record with a 2.75 GAA and .914 SV% in over 961 minutes played. Again, is it sustainable for him to carry a workload like he has all season? No, it is not, so Talbot will assuredly get more looks as the season moves along, and preferably by then, the Flames will be playing a better team game in front of him.
Offensive Studs or Duds Up Front
It is no secret that the Oilers’ McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, are really, really good. There is no question that having a player who can score 50-plus goals in Draisaitl, paired with a generational ‘phenom’ in McDavid, is a lethal combination. McDavid is truly unlike any other player, in terms of his overwhelming speed and ability to make plays in tight at full speed. Draisaitl currently leads the NHL in points with 36 (15 goals, 21 assists) in 20 games while McDavid sits tied for second in scoring, with 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in that same span. By adding a defensive-minded coach, with offensive leniency, in Dave Tippet, and the winning pedigree of Ken Holland as general manager, it’s a recipe for success in Edmonton.
Meanwhile, fans in Calgary are wondering what is going on with two of their stars, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Monahan is minus-five on the season, and while currently efficient in the faceoff circle (56.9%), he has been virtually invisible elsewhere for major stretches within games this season. Looking at it as ‘glass half full’, Monahan’s production is maybe not as dire as it seems. Seventeen points (5 goals, 12 assists) in 21 games is a respectable pace for most players. Yet for the 25-year-old, who has scored 30-plus goals three times in his career, it’s a significant drop-off.
Gaudreau has shown frustration this season. Simply put, teams have effectively adapted to his approach and are defending him well. Adjustments need to made. However, he has still registered 5 goals, 13 assists, and 18 points. In 21 games this season, which isn’t far off his points pace from last season, when he finished with 99 points in his first full 82-game season. But it’s because he has been so consistently crafty and electrifying throughout his entire career, that the lackluster veneer on his play early on has left fans clambering for more from the five-time NHL All-Star.
If Monahan and Gaudreau can elevate their game by the time these two teams meet in Edmonton on Dec. 27, 2019, and if they can at least match the impact level of the Oilers’ top line, it may neutralize the effect of McDavid and Draisaitl, if that’s even possible. The first installment of the Battle of Alberta may come down to which team has more depth… and Matthew Tkachuk (10 goals, 10 assists) and Elias Lindholm (10 goals, 7 assists) have yet to be
If the key to the Flames’ success still lies with Gaudreau and Monahan, and if the question is sustainability, then is keeping these two impact players off their game and off the scoresheet, really