Analyzing the early returns of the Flames-Hurricanes blockbuster trade

Calgary Flames' Elias Lindholm, left, celebrates a goal with teammate Matthew Tkachuk. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

The Calgary Flames were supposed to be better than an 84-point team that missed the playoffs last season. So when they hit that low, whiffing on the post-season for the second time in three years, GM Brad Treliving decided something had to be done. The action plan was to pull off the biggest trade of draft weekend.

“We’ve given up some pieces here but as the season ended and the summer progressed we wanted to look at changing the mix here,” Treliving said at the time. “We did some things here that addressed some issues. We love the players coming in – we think they’re young, smart, they’ve got skill. Good players left us, but you have to give to get. Now we continue trying to keep getting better.”

The Flames picked up Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm from the Carolina Hurricanes for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and prospect Adam Fox — a couple of top-liners at their position and a prospect the team felt they couldn’t sign. Hamilton was the most shocking to include since he and Mark Giordano made up one of the more dominant defence pairs in the league last season.

Both Carolina and Calgary are off to good starts and both promise to be better than they were in 2017-18. But how, specifically, have the players from this blockbuster fit in? Here’s our quick and early look:

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CAROLINA’S SIDE OF THE DEAL

Micheal Ferland
He found a home alongside Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau on Calgary’s top line and became a 21-goal, 41-point player last season, but he’s not a player you’d think would drive offence on his own. In Carolina, Ferland is playing a similar role on the top line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen and has four goals and seven points in seven games.

When Andrew Berkshire wrote his breakdown on the trade in June, he pointed out that Ferland’s primary strength was an ability to get to the front of the net on the regular, writing “only 21 players in the NHL (with 800+ minutes played) had more high danger scoring chances than Ferland per 20 minutes at 5-vs-5.” Ferland also stood out as a playmaker in this regard and made a ton of successful passes to the slot.

That’s carried over to Carolina’s ace line. All of Ferland’s goals have come at even strength and three of them have come from the hash marks or closer. He leads the team with five primary points at even strength as well and is 17th league wide in primary points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 time.

Yes, it’s early and these rates could still change, but it’s not as though this is an unheard of relative level of production for Ferland. He was 32nd league-wide in primary points per 60 minutes last season. The Canes are using him in the type of situation he’s proven to thrive so his production with the Flames could be replicated, or even improved on.

Dougie Hamilton
Both Giordano and Hamilton finished with 5-on-5 corsi for percentages above 57 last year and held the top two 5-on-5 shot differentials in the league — by these measures they were the best pair in the NHL. So now that they’re apart we can find out: was that performance due to one of the two carrying the other, or did they just complement each other so well?

Everything this time of year needs to be framed within a “small sample size” context, but both players are still excelling.

Hamilton now plays with quiet star Jaccob Slavin — who would be a heck of a lot more celebrated if he played in a bigger market — and has a 60.41 GF% so far. The Hamilton-Slavin pair has gotten the most defensive zone starts among Canes blue liners and yet have the second- and third-best 5-on-5 shot differentials in the league so far.

The biggest difference for Hamilton is that playing on a team so deep with blueliners means his workload has been lightened some. Where he averaged a little more than 22 minutes per game last season, Hamilton is getting barely over 20 minutes a night so far this season.

Hamilton finished tied for the league lead in goals (17) at the position last season and hasn’t yet converted in Carolina, so you can see how even better days are still ahead.

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CALGARY’S SIDE OF THE DEAL

Elias Lindholm
In Berkshire’s piece he noted that Ferland seemed to be a better offensive player than Lindholm, though in Carolina Lindholm was moved all over the lineup and had the added bonus of being a capable centre as well. Even though James Neal was getting some looks on the top line in pre-season, Lindholm has ended up alongside Monahan and Gaudreau in the regular season so far.

The exact opposite of Ferland, Lindholm has the lowest primary points per 60 rate on the Flames and the worst shot differential at 5-on-5. But it is worth noting that when the Flames needed a goal late last Saturday against Colorado, Lindholm was the one who cut off a clearing attempt and scored the late tying marker en route to the OT win. In fact, none of his four goals have been in garbage time: he’s twice scored Calgary’s first goal in a game, a game-winner, and the clutch one against Colorado.

The big positive on Lindholm is he’s been an early, promising contributor on the power play, which was an area the Flames sorely lacked in last season. Calgary’s man advantage ranked 29th in the league in 2017-18, converting on a measly 16 per cent of its opportunities, and though they currently rank 20th at 17.2 per cent, this is still a sore spot for Calgary.

Lindholm’s team-leading two power play markers are already a third of the way to Ferland’s total last season so while he’s not yet matching what Ferland did at even strength in Calgary, Lindholm is giving an early lift to an area of need.

Playing more than 20 minutes a night, Lindholm’s versatility has been an underrated addition as well. He has already taken 77 draws and has won 49 of them — his 63.6 winning percentage is among the best in the NHL.

Noah Hanifin
How unfair is it that Hanifin’s career in Calgary will always be lined up against what Hamilton is doing in Carolina?

Through his first three NHL seasons, Hanifin had 83 points, which is the exact same point production Hamilton had in his first three years in the league. But although Hanifin has all the expectations that come with being a fifth overall pick, if he hits his ceiling he’ll become — more or less — what Hamilton already is.

The idea with Hanifin was that his arrival would allow Bill Peters to push T.J. Brodie to the top pair with Giordano and break up the underwhelming Hamonic-Brodie pair from last season. So far the new lead duo has worked, but since Hamonic has been week-to-week since suffering a facial fracture in a fight with Vancouver’s Erik Gudbranson in the first game of the season, we haven’t seen a fully healthy second pair yet. Hanifin has already had three different defence partners.

Hanifin’s performance hasn’t been dynamic out of the gate, but there is reason to believe he’s just warming up. He is one of only two Flames blue liners with a CF% below 50 (rookie Rasmus Andersson is the other) and his 5-on-5 shot differential (-5) is better than only Michael Stone on the blue line. But the key note here is that Hanifin starts in the defensive end more than any other Flame, so he’s usually hitting the ice at a disadvantage. He is the team’s shutdown guy right now.

His offensive upside is something to look forward to, though. Hanifin hasn’t yet scored in 2018-19 after he did so 10 times last season, and his nine shots on goal at 5-on-5 is the second most among all Flames blue liners. He may not always pass the eye test, but there is a lot to like in Hanifin’s game. The whole point of his acquisition and subsequent signing was to lock in a young (21-years-old) and on-the-rise blue liner who likely won’t pay off to his full potential for a couple more years, but starts with a pretty high base line.

Once Hamonic gets back and Hanifin settles in with a regular and trustowrthy defence partner, it should all start coming together.

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