It’s been a bad start to the Flames 2016-17 season. Actually, that’s an understatement – it’s been a terrible, nightmarish start to the season. The special teams are still awful, the goaltending is still underwhelming and all the stars have struggled in unison. Calgary is only a few places out of last place because they’ve played more games than most everyone else.
So it’s been rough.
But it hasn’t been all bad. In fact, the terrible record is actually overshadowing some pleasant surprises and enduring bright spots that have managed pop up through the gloom so far.
So without further adieu here’s the five best things about the Flames year so far.
1.) Welcome Matthew Tkachuk
The Flames’ sixth overall pick has looked more than comfortable despite being just 18 years old to start his NHL career. The left winger boasts the best underlying numbers on the team, despite not being actively sheltered by his coach. He already plays a very mature overall game and gets under the opponents’ skin as an added bonus.
There was a lingering question about whether Tkachuk’s junior results were skewed due to playing on a line with Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak, but so far he looks like a steal at six.
2.) The Backlund line
Speaking of which, the addition of Tkachuk to the already effective duo of Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik has created one of the best even strength lines in the entire NHL.
Seriously. That sounds like an exaggeration, but check it out:
Line combo shot rates.
The Oilers line trails just behind the Devils line.
BOS, CGY, DAL, and STL have excellent top trios. pic.twitter.com/AD9H5AA2Nw
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) November 17, 2016
The graphic charts shot attempts for and against at 5on5. If a line is in the top right hand corner of the graph, it’s good at both things. You’ll notice the 3Ms are in really good company. Furthermore:
Hopefully it continues all year and it could rival Iggy/Langkow/Huselius’ line impact
— AOL Keyword: Mike (@mikeFAIL) November 17, 2016
Lots of numbers, but this is simple (and it’s all really good). The Flames have owned nearly 58% of all shot attempts with these guys on the ice, as well as nearly 54% of all shots attempts (minus blocks), 57% of shots on net and 71% of goals (all at 5on5). That’s dominant, which is especially impressive given how much of the team has struggled during the same period.
Did I mention these guys play in really tough circumstances? Because of the struggles of the Monahan line to start the season, Glen Gulutzan has responded by giving them the high ground as much as possible. To do that, he’s buried the Backlund with zone start ratios around 35-40%. Oh yeah, and Frolik happens to be leading in scoring to top it all off.
Huzzah! If you’re thinking “this is the best third line in the league”, you’re wrong. But only because this is the Flames’ top line currently.
3.) The emergence of Ferland
Remember when I said Tkachuk has the best underlying numbers on the team? Well, some crash and bang fourth liner named Michael Ferland is second. We wrote an article called “Don’t give up on Ferland” in the offseason and the young LWer has justified our faith so far.
Ferland already had three goals and seven points this year, nearly half of the 18 points he managed all last season. More importantly, he’s finding a way to be an impact player almost every night despite mostly skating in a supporting role. He’s been physical, tenacious and fundamentally sound, driving play almost every time he touches the ice for whatever line he lands on.
An effective Ferland gives the Flames what they’ve been searching for for years – quality, functional toughness that can play a variety of roles. Here’s hoping he keeps it up.
4.) Remember Matt Stajan?
Stajan arrived in town as part of an ill-advised trade just as the Sutter era was starting to fall apart, so his time in town hasn’t always been rosy. He ended up on a lot of trade and buyout lists for years, but nevertheless persevered as the team shifted gears and his role changed.
Stajan’s days of 50+ point seasons are over, but he remains an effective NHL pivot. His circumstances have been even more thankless than the Backlund line’s: with next to no offensive zone starts, power play time or high-end wingers, Stajan has nevertheless held his own night in and night out.
He’s probably overpaid relative to his role at this point in his career, but Stajan has been a welcome veteran presence for a team that has struggled to find consistency.
5.) Keep it up, Brett Kulak
There was a lot of competition for the sixth and seventh defender role this year when Flames training camp started in September. On top of the seven NHLers already signed, the organization also had Tyler Wotherspoon, Nicklas Grossmann and Brett Kulak vying for a spot.
Wotherspoon went back to the AHL, Grossmann’s contract has already been signed and voided and Kulak is now a regular in the lineup, even when guys like Jyrki Jokipakka and Dennis Wideman aren’t.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Kulak to date, but he looks more and more comfortable each and every game. The pairing with him and Engelland has mostly been steady, dependable and seems to have solidified the club’s bottom pairing, which was a major question mark heading into the year.
The 22-year-old establishing himself as an NHLer this year complicates Brad Treliving’s life somewhat in regards to the expansion draft, but otherwise it’s welcome news for a team that was looking for one of its defensive prospects to poke his head above the crowd.
The organization will likely lose at least two of Wideman, Engelland and Jokipakka in the offseason, so it’s hugely important to have a few bodies who can step into the void. Enter Brett Kulak.
Calgary’s season is still mostly a dark cloud, but there are a few silver linings worth celebrating.
As you can see from this list, the grim comedy of the club’s bad start is that most of their supporting players are playing good-to-great hockey. If the team’s stars had shown up and performed anywhere near their typical ability, the Flames’ record would be much, much better right now.