Coming into the 2015-16 season, expectations for the Calgary Flames were higher than they have been at any point during the past decade. Not since the Flames came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup back in 2004 have their fans expected such a strong showing from the club.
After surprising all with a strong postseason run last year, followed by an offseason of seemingly positive changes, many assumed the Flames would continue to push forward toward contender status.
But that hasn’t been the case just yet. The Flames haven’t been a disaster, but they most definitely haven’t lived up to the hype they received last summer. A lackluster opening month plummeted them to the bottom of the standings, leaving them in roughly the same place they were at this point last season – fighting tooth and nail for a shot at postseason action.
With the 2015-16 campaign reaching its halfway point, let’s take a closer look at where the Flames stand.
It isn’t difficult to find areas in which the Flames could improve. The biggest letdown have surely been the team’s blue line, which was touted as the ‘best in the west’ all summer long. On paper, it seems to be a fantastic group. Captain Mark Giordano and rising star T.J. Brodie lead the pack as the first pairing. The duo reigned as arguably the most dangerous pair in the league last season, before Giordano was sidelined by a torn bicep after 61 games.
Behind them is Dougie Hamilton, the marquee offseason acquisition that Flames GM Brad Treliving managed to snatch up in what seemed like the steal of the 2015 draft. Hamilton has moved around a fair bit on the team’s back end, but has been paired mostly with Kris Russell, who broke out last season and established himself as one of the top shot-blockers in the league.
Then there’s the elder statesman, Dennis Wideman, who amassed an astounding 56 points last season, alongside a few extra veterans in Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid.
Despite this seemingly lethal depth, the Flames’ defense has looked problematic from game one. They’ve steadily improved, but with 41 contests in the books, the Flames rank second-last in the league in goals-against per game, sporting a paltry mark of 3.12. Horrendous goaltending early in the season played a key role in earning that lackluster number as well, as both Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller looked fairly lost early on.
Special teams have been a notable sour note for the Flames this season as well. Despite boasting some talented young scorers up front and a very capable offensive blue line, the team’s power play ranks dead last in the league, converting on only 14.6 percent of their chances. The penalty kill has been similarly disappointing, ranking last as well with a mark of 73.5 percent.The Good
While the above-mentioned stats might make it seem like the sky is falling in Calgary, the club has actually been on the upswing as of late. Their playoff hopes remain alive – partly due to the fortuitous nature of being in the lowly Pacific Division and not the stacked Central, but also due to the club’s phenomenal play over the month of December.
In fact, Calgary didn’t just right the ship over the last calendar month – they ranked as one of the league’s best.
The Flames earned the third-most victories of any NHL club during December, winning nine of 12 games. Much of that success came due to their offense finally hitting its stride. After ranking as one of the league’s worst in November, the Flames flicked the switch once they turned the page and reached the final stretch of 2015, racking up an impressive 39 goals in those 12 games – the fifth-most scored by any team in the league. They also managed to get back on track defensively, resulting in a top-10 finish in terms of goals-allowed as well.
Head coach Bob Hartley and his staff still haven’t managed to fix the power play unit, but the team’s penalty kill improved noticeably in December – finishing with a mark of 84.6 percent in the month, which ranked seventh in the league.
The vastly improved play of netminder Karri Ramo was crucial to this improvement. After looking like a lost cause early in the season, Ramo managed to get back on track over the final month of 2015. Among all goaltenders who started more than 10 games in December, he finished among the top 10 in save-percentage (.923) and goals-against average (2.19) while guiding the Flames to seven of their nine wins.
His redemption effort helped keep the Flames afloat, and has allowed them to avoid turning the season into a bona fide disaster. As it currently stands, Calgary sits only four points out of a playoff spot, as the San Jose Sharks rank third in the Pacific Division with 44 points. Arizona holds second place at the moment, sitting with 48 points.
Calgary could realistically catch up to either of these teams before the season ends, meaning their postseason hopes are far from dead. However, with Arizona, San Jose, Vancouver, Anaheim, Calgary and Edmonton all within 10 points of each other halfway through the season, it seems the race for the last two Pacific Division playoff spots will be a close one right until the end of the campaign – just as was the case last year.
First Half MVP
The Flames’ best player thus far has undeniably been star winger Johnny Gaudreau.
After a phenomenal rookie campaign in which Gaudreau lived up to the hype by way of a 24-goal, 64-point effort, many wondered if the diminutive winger could sustain his elite level of play after giving opposing defenses and coaches a full offseason to study the best ways to neutralize him.
However, it seems Gaudreau has only gotten better, and has risen to become one of the most exciting players league-wide.
As his club reaches the season’s midway benchmark, Gaudreau leads the team in scoring with 42 points (a full 14 points more than second-place Sean Monahan). That total also positions him as the sixth-highest scorer among all NHL skaters, and puts him on pace with superstars like Vladimir Tarasenko and Nicklas Backstrom.
Gaudreau is also on pace to shatter his rookie goalscoring total. He’s already tallied 18 times in 2015-16, just six fewer than the total he posted in 80 games last season. Projected over a full 82-game campaign, Gaudreau’s current totals have him on pace for roughly 44 goals and 84 points.
The quick-footed winger has also reigned as one of the game’s most clutch scorers so far this season. His five game-winning goals are tied for the fifth-most in the league, along with some of the game’s unequivocal best like Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane. The league’s new 3-on-3 overtime format has been especially helpful in allowing Gaudreau to raise his stock, however.
The 22-year-old already tied the all-time record for most overtime points in one season when he hit seven (three goals, four assists) in mid-December, and figures to add to that total, considering how often the Flames have seen their games stretch into extra time.
While Gaudreau has been exceptional overall this season, the last calendar month was an especially dominant stretch for him. Quickly becoming the Flames’ most reliable offensive option, Gaudreau led the league in goals (12) and points (18) through the month of December, while netting three game-winners in that 12-game span as well. Needless to say, Calgary has already gotten much more than they had hoped for when they drafted the gifted forward 104th overall back in 2011.
The Flames still have a fair amount of work to do before they can be expected to suit up for the postseason once again, but there’s no denying the club is trending in the right direction. With Gaudreau in the fold, it’s hard to count them out just yet, and it’s clear we have yet to see just how high the exceptional winger’s ceiling truly is.