Mid-season report card: Calgary Flames

NHL insider Eric Francis says Chad Johnson has single-handedly saved the Flames season, and knows but won’t cave in on who the “idiot” GM was that Brian Burke singled out.

Following a horrid start, the Calgary Flames have managed to get themselves into a mid-season playoff spot.

While the route back to respectability was far more circuitous than anticipated, the club is exactly where many figured it would (and should) be this season – in the hunt.

With five teams within four points of stealing the Flames’ wild card spot, the report cards are in, and it’s time for a mid-season breakdown on who is and isn’t making the grade.

Forwards

Mikael Backlund, A-plus: Simply put, he’s done it all. Currently tied for the team lead with 12 goals and 27 points, the former third-line centre has paced the team’s top line all season while going against the opposition’s best offerings. He spearheads the penalty killing unit and has also helped rookie winger Matthew Tkachuk find consistent success. He’s been a surprise contributor on the power play too.

Sam Bennett, C-plus: Once again, the 20-year-old isn’t thrilled with his season to date. While on pace to threaten the 20-goal mark for the first time, he has yet to break out offensively as many expected of the former fourth-overall pick. On the league’s most penalized team, he has been the worst offender in terms of taking undisciplined minors. Debate still rages on as to whether he should play centre or the wing.

Lance Bouma, D: The hard-luck grinder is still struggling to find the form that netted him 16 goals and a three-year, $6.6 million deal two years ago. Back from missing another 16 games due to injury, he plays a simple mucker’s role on the fourth line.

Troy Brouwer, B-: As advertised when signed this summer as a free agent, he’s been a solid top-six forward who adds veteran leadership, size and skill to the group. Brouwer has also been a nice add to the power play, while finding some chemistry with Monahan despite being a surprising minus-11. He should return from a finger injury any day now.

Alex Chiasson, C: A reclamation project that coach Glen Gulutzan figured was worth a shot, the big winger has managed to play a considerable amount alongside Monahan and Gaudreau. Creating a net-front presence is one of his fortes, as he doesn’t have the skill or speed to necessarily keep up with the two young studs.

Micheal Ferland, C-plus: He continues to progress as he learns to be a consistent contributor. The team’s hit leader does well to provide muscle and physical play to a team that needs it. He has been a fourth liner most of the year but has played well enough to earn various promotions to the top two units as an injury replacement.

Michael Frolik, B-plus: His solid, two-way play has been a big part of the success of Backlund’s top line. Like Backlund, he quietly does a bit of everything, making him a popular teammate. Few could have expected he’d be just three points shy of the team’s scoring lead.

Johnny Gaudreau, B-plus: He missed training camp while negotiating a new deal, but many figured he’d start well thanks to a brilliant showing at the World Cup. Wrong. Gaudreau appeared to be trying to do too much in his first 14 games, scoring just twice. However, after missing ten games due to finger surgery, he went on a seven-game point streak to spearhead the Flames to a 10-6 record. He’s tied for the team’s scoring lead and is definitely back to his old tricks now.

Freddie Hamilton, D: Still trying to prove he deserves a regular spot in the lineup, Hamilton has just one point in 18 outings. As a hard worker on a two-year, one-way deal signed last summer, Hamilton has been kept around by the big club.

Garnet Hathaway, C: He has quickly become a young fan favourite, successfully executing his fourth-line role as an energetic dung disturber who is unafraid to mix it up with anyone. However, he is still yet to do enough to prove he can be an every day NHL player.

Sean Monahan, C-plus: Injured throughout training camp, the former 30-goal scorer struggled mightily out of the gate and has yet to find the level he consistently produced at during his first three years, as he and Gaudreau have not clicked this season. A good couple of games could get him back near the team’s scoring lead but his minus-15 is telling and will take a miracle to erase.

Matt Stajan, B: A popular teammate who anchors the fourth line, the hard-working veteran also plays a prominent role amongst penalty killers. Tied for the team lead at plus-eight, Stajan remains a responsible, diligent soldier.

Matthew Tkachuk, A-minus: The only thing he can’t do thus far is keep his mouthpiece in his mouth. Tkachuk just wrapped up the longest point streak of all NHL rookies this year at nine games and is just two points off the team lead. The 19-year-old has been taking too many penalties, but as an agitator like his dad, Keith, he’s also drawn his fair share. Not only did he survive the ten-game tryout, but he fits in seamlessly on the team’s best line with Backlund and Frolik.

Kris Versteeg, B-plus: Signed days before the season started following a tryout with the Oilers, few could have predicted that he’d make such an impact on the club. Second only to Gaudreau in playmaking abilities, his creativity leads to two or three great scoring chances most games. The 30-year-old has developed solid chemistry with Monahan, allowing the coach to split Gaudreau up with his longtime linemate.


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Defencemen

T.J. Brodie, C: So much is expected of the smooth-skating 26-year-old who finished 18th amongst NHL defencemen in scoring last year. He’s been better as of late, but his poor start has him among the league’s worst at minus-16. No longer on the team’s top pairing with Giordano as he was last year, his offensive output is down dramatically, even though he averages almost 24 minutes a game. Brodie can be so much better.

Deryk Engelland, B-plus: Brian Burke said he was arguably the Flames’ best blue liner during their 5-10 start. He protects teammates and knows when to fight, while playing 18 minutes a game on the third pairing, generally with a new partner every second night it seems. Yet, Engelland remains one off the team leaders at plus-7 and is considered an invaluable part of the defence corps.

Mark Giordano, B: His point totals are way off his monstrous 56-point effort from last year, but the captain is still the backbone of this team. More than half of his 18 points have come on the power play, which he anchors from the back end. The 33-year-old leads the team in blocked shots, ice time, hustle and heart.

Dougie Hamilton, B-plus: After being elevated to the top pairing with Giordano, the 23-year-old has thrived offensively, sitting just four points off the team’s scoring lead. The fans’ favourite whipping boy a year earlier, the 6-foot-6 Toronto native has finally settled into his role. Hamilton leads the team in shots, while seeing considerable time on the second power play unit.

Jyrki Jokipakka, C-minus: A healthy scratch roughly half the season, things haven’t worked out as well as anyone had hoped since he was acquired in the Kris Russell deal from the Stars. The coach has often opted for AHL call-ups over the 25-year-old Finn.

Brett Kulak, C-minus: The 23-year-old has been down in the AHL for all but 15 games, but has acquitted himself well. He was recently called up once again, logging roughly 14 minutes a night while playing a simple, third-pairing role.

Dennis Wideman, C-plus: A healthy scratch several times early on, Wideman now quietly logs the third-most minutes on the team, including some power play time.

Goalies

Brian Elliott, C-minus: Although he’s won five of his last six starts, Elliott’s first season in Calgary has been a bit of a disaster from the start. His .889 save percentage is miles off his career average and his goals-against average hovers just under 3.00. This is not what the Flames were hoping for when they traded for him last summer to be their starter. Yes, the team was junk in front of him early, but he allowed far too many bad goals to keep his starting status.

Chad Johnson, A: The Calgary native saved the season for the Flames by stepping in to win 13 of 17 starts following Elliott’s early struggles. He plays a calm, efficient game that has given teammates confidence and a chance to win almost every one of his starts. His .922 save percentage and 2.27 GAA are amongst league leaders.

Head Coach

Glen Gulutzan, B: There were calls for him to be fired when the club opened its first 15 games with just five wins. However, he got the players to preserve under his new system, which has paid off ever since. The well-liked coach never lost the room and has also helped elevate the status of the club’s special teams dramatically.