Expert NHL Handicapping: Is Calgary Flames Success Sustainable?
My first ever live hockey game was Oct. 8, 1980. I know that because that was the first ever game the Calgary Flames played in their new home after relocating from Atlanta. I was five years old and got to go to quite a few games that year because my dad and grandpa could take me and I didn't need a ticket. I just stood in front of their seats or sat on the nearest knee and tried to figure out what the heck was going on. The Flames were the first team I fell in love with, and 38 years later I still love them.
It hasn't always been an easy love affair, though. They won a Cup in 1989 and were robbed of another in 2004 when the series-winning goal was waved off against Tampa Bay. But since that last magical run there have been some very lean and often very ugly years. Which is why this year has been so sweet so far.
It is almost the middle of December, and the Flames are leading the Western Conference. And they have done it in an uncharacteristic way - only Tampa Bay has scored more goals. Last year the expectations were high for the team and everything went wrong. Things could certainly go south again, but it is no lock that they will. So, let's look at what this team is doing and why people here in Calgary are feeling better about things than they have in almost 15 years. If you don't want to read the article, just read this - the Flames are better than you think they are, and it is past time to climb on the bandwagon as a bettor and as a fan.
Top line: The Flames have enjoyed the luxury of having top two forwards in Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan who can match up with the best of what most teams can offer. Since they arrived, though, the challenge has been finding the right player to play with the two youngsters. The big splash of the offseason was sending star defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who was seemingly a problem off the ice, to Carolina for forward Elias Lindholm and defenseman Noah Hanifin. Hanifin has fit in well, but it is Lindholm who has been the revelation. The natural center plays right wing on the top line. He had a previous career best of 17 goals in 2015. He has 16 so far, through 32 games, and has added 18 assists. His chemistry with the two stars is unlike anything the Flames have ever had, and the impact is huge. The line is third most productive in the league at even strength, and they have 16 power play goals between them as well. Gaudreau and Monahan are both Top 10 in the league in scoring, Monahan is tied for sixth in scoring with 20, and Gaudreau is fifth in assists. Top teams have stellar top lines, and for the first time in a very long time the Flames are achieving their full potential with their top three. It's the biggest reason the team is where it is.
Depth: The team has been top-heavy offensively for a long time - if Gaudreau and Monahan weren't playing well then the team didn't score. That has really changed this year. Part of the credit for that goes to an aggressive offseason. But Matt Tkachuk is having a career year on the second line, with well over a point per game, and defenseman Mark Giordano is sixth in the league in assists with 28 - just nine off the career high for the 35-year-old. They have five guys at better than a point per game so far and a decent supporting cast behind that. The depth here is solid, and the young guys who have been called up from the AHL, while not producing at a high rate offensively, have all contributed nicely as well. It's not all rosy, though. James Neal was supposed to be the marquee addition of the offseason, but the 31-year-old, who has had at least 21 goals in each of his 10 years in the league, has just three goals so far through 32 games. More concerningly, he looks slow and has really struggled to find someone to play with. It's getting ugly, and he is only at the start of an expensive contract.
Defense: Giordano is not only producing offensively like crazy but is also among the best defensive players in the league. He doesn't get nearly the credit he should. His partner, T.J. Brodie, was lousy the last couple of years when Hamilton was playing on the top pairing with Giordano, but not that he has been restored with his former partner he is playing great. The second pairing of Hanifin and Travis Hamonic are really strong as well. And three rookies have cycled through the third pairing and all have been strong - there are some rough spots, of course, but the upside is immense. This hasn't always been a defensively-disciplined team, but they have gotten on track in the 22 games since a 9-1 humiliation at the hands of the Penguins. They move the puck very well, participate in the offense, and the upside is still significant.
Goaltending: I've painted a rosy picture so far, but the goaltending is a real concern. Mike Smith is the No. 1, but he has been really inconsistent. He was horrible for much of the season before recently getting hot. But he lasted only two periods on Wednesday night against Philadelphia and looked pretty lousy. He is far from young and seems to be on the decline. And backup David Rittich has generally been really good this year, but he is still reasonably unproven, and has had some rough spots as well. If anything lets this team down, it will be between the pipes.
Coaching: Bill Peters took over the team this year after leaving Carolina and is the latest in a long string of disappointing underperformers behind the bench since Darryl Sutter quit coaching and took over as GM - a job he was horrible at. So far Peters has done a very good job and is clearly resonating with the players. The biggest difference is that the team is playing with much more freedom and creativity than they did last year - this is not a rigid system. Peter hired his assistants well also. Things can change quickly on the coaching front, but at this point the team is in good hands, and Peters would have to be among the leaders for year-end honors at this point.
Betting performance: This team is performing at the very highest end of expectations for the loyalist of fans and well beyond the expectations of the general betting public. It is no surprise, then, that they are producing profits at a high rate. They are the third-most-profitable team on the moneyline so far behind only dominant Tampa Bay and even more surprising Buffalo. Notably, they are playing dominant hockey at home - 11-3-2 - and have been very profitable there. In recent years, the Saddledome has not been a very tough place to play, so this is a big shift. The place where the team has really done well for bettors, though, is in third period betting. Wednesday against Philadelphia marked the league-leading seventh time that the squad had entered the third trailing and come out with the win. This last one was dramatic, too - they tied it up with two goals in the last 1:08 and then won it early in overtime. Gaudreau, Monahan, Giordano and Tkachuk each had two points in that late flurry, and that is where the third period heroics consistently come from.
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