Expert NHL Handicapping: Calgary Flames True Contender?
The Calgary Flames are an odd story this year. A tough team that is tough to get a sense of. Heading into this season they were seen as a contender in the Western Conference - but they were contending to make the playoffs, if they were lucky, and probably not much more.
Yet they have consistently been excellent this year, and after leading the West for a long while they are now just a single point behind San Jose as I write this. And they aren't just taking advantage of a weak conference, either - they sit second in the West and third overall in the league. Despite the success, the team doesn't get a whole ton of respect - at BetOnline they are just the eighth pick to win the Stanley Cup at +1400. That has them behind four other Western Conference teams.
I, like many others, can't really be certain what to expect of this team when things matter. But I like them more than those odds suggest and see real value - and not just because this is the first team I fell in love with as a kid decades ago. This is a very interesting team as a bettor right now. We're going to take a bit of a different look at them here than we normally do with teams. Often we look at squads with detachment - from a distance. But I live in Calgary; this city is obsessed with the team and coverage is endless. So, we'll look at things in a bit closer detail than we otherwise might. Unless you are a hardcore hockey fan, you probably don't know what to watch on a team outside the major markets like this one. Here's a cheat sheet:
Goaltending: We'll start with the biggest concern. They came into the season hoping that Michael Smith, an elder statesman in the league, would have a last hurrah. He really hasn't. There have been some great moments, but he has had long, rough stretches, has consistently allowed some really bad goals, and just isn't playing like the world-class goalie they were hoping for him to be. Backup David Rittich, a late-blooming European in his second year, has stepped up at times and has saved things - though he oddly can't seem to play well at home. Rittich is probably the No. 1 right now, but I can't say that with any certainty. In the city this is a divisive issue - you are either a Smith guy (though few are anymore), or you want to see him glued to the bench. There isn't much middle ground. Teams need a guy to get hot when the playoff starts, and this team is going to need it for sure. The good news for them, though, is that outside of Vegas there isn't a team in the Pacific that has a dramatically more comfortable situation.
Defense: Mark Giordano is the leader to win the Norris Trophy as top defenseman in the league, and it's a crime he hasn't won one yet as a 35-year-old. If you don't watch the guy, you can't realize just how good he is. He saves partners unlike any guy I have ever seen. And behind him they have a ton of depth - they have 10 NHL-caliber defenseman on the roster right now. But how that will come together is still quite uncertain. T.J. Brodie is typically Giordano's partner, but he has often been a liability and probably doesn't deserve the spot. Rasmus Andersson would be a better fit on the top pair, but he is a rookie, and that makes the coaching staff nervous. The second pairing is very stable, but the third pair is very uncertain right now - more from an increase in options than an absence of them. This is not the best defensive unit in the league behind Giordano, but it is solid enough for what the team needs as long as they can get things together.
Top six: Calgary has offense to spare - they have been outscored by only Tampa Bay, and, by a narrow margin, San Jose. And so much of it has come from the top two lines - Sean Monahan centering Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, and Mikael Backlund between Matthew Tkachuk and a rotating cast on the other wing. But since the team's extended all-star break, those two lines had both really struggled. Gaudreau, who was in serious Hart Trophy consideration the first half of the year, scored just once in 19 games, and his ineffectiveness seemed contagious. Tkachuk, in line for a massive contract after this year, was playing with the weight of that crushing him. Backlund and Lindholm were the only ones who were doing anything, and even they weren't at their best. But in the last two games the team has played, both lines have had a breakout. Against Las Vegas, the second line combined for 11 points, led by Tkachuk's first hat trick. And the next game against New Jersey featured a 14-point explosion by the top line, with six points and another hat trick from Gaudreau and four points from each of his linemates. Both lines played with confidence offensively that had been missing, and the team benefited from it. It looked like they were skating lighter all of a sudden.
It remains to be seen if they can maintain it, but in both cases it sure felt like we had witnessed a turning point. If the team doesn't get those two lines rolling, then they aren't going anywhere, so above all else you will want to watch what happens with these six guys down the stretch. It's not quite as dire as it was early when the bottom six forwards were terrible, but those bottom two lines have been really strong lately and saved the team somewhat when they were struggling as a whole. But they still need the top guys, and especially Gaudreau, to lead the way.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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