CALGARY — There is an old maxim among hockey scouts that sounds obvious, but is more difficult to deliver on than you’d think. It goes something like this: "Big and good is better than small and good."
I can’t remember which grizzled old dog first passed that nugget along in some press box over the past 25 years, and obviously he wasn’t speaking about the Calgary-Anaheim series. But boy, does this series prove his point.
What that scout was saying is that most nights, Corey Perry beats Johnny Gaudreau or Jiri Hudler. Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler are going to successfully check Mikael Backlund more nights than not, and when the puck is in Backlund’s end, he won’t be able to return the favour.
As much as the Calgary Flames have taught us this spring about their stout character, their never-say-die attitude, and the under-appreciated skill of a player like TJ Brodie or a budding Sam Bennett, watching them play every second night at this level is teaching us a few other things as well.
No. 1: The Flames are too small.
There is some size in the pipeline in players like 6-3 winger Austin Carroll (WHL), 6-2 defenceman Brandon Hickey (AJHL) and 6-2 centre Garnet Hathaway (AHL). Sean Monahan is big enough, and so is Sam Bennett.
But as their rosters stand today, Anaheim has most of the true thoroughbreds, while Calgary is saddling up too many Shetland ponies.
When Bob Hartley says, "We’ve earned this," in reference to these playoffs being a valuable learning experience for a young Flames team, he is absolutely right. Folks in Edmonton, for instance, have no clue how their good young players might stack up in the very different game that is playoff hockey. The organization hasn’t earned the right to find out, while Calgary surely has.
For Calgary, however, this learning process has exposed a few weaknesses. Namely, size and goaltending.
General manager Brad Treliving has watched a first line with tiny book-end wingers Gaudreau and Hudler get absolutely man-handled this spring, despite the fact they were one of the NHL’s top lines in the regular season. In this series, Calgary has been outscored 9-1, and has yet to score a meaningful goal in 120 minutes of hockey.
Calgary’s defence, meanwhile, has been pretty good when it has the puck. But small defenders like TJ Brodie, Kris Russell, and Dennis Wideman have had a hard time stopping the cycle, first against Vancouver’s Sedin line in Round 1, and now against the giant and talented Getzlaf-Perry-Patrick Maroon unit.
Look: It’s not fair to expect anything more from Gaudreau than the Calder Trophy candidate season he has given the Flames. He’s a 21-year-old first-year pro who weighs 150 lbs., and has given the Flames 10 times more than they could have asked for this season.
This fact stands out, however: In a 6-1 game in Game 1, Hartley stopped playing his top-line left-winger because he was getting too much punishment. He benched Gaudreau for the entire third period, a move that basically told the opponent, "Our best guy can’t hack this kind of hockey. We know it. You know it. So, we’re sitting him down."
What this Anaheim series has reminded us is that there will be a Nate Thompson ready to level that same heavy cross-check — and cheerily accept the minor penalty — every spring on the tiny Johnny Hockey. And they’ll pound little Hudler mercilessly as well, because that’s the way playoff hockey works, and his effectiveness has been limited because of it.
If that’s all it takes to eliminate the Flames two top wingers from the score sheet, well, it’s just too easy.
Monahan has the size of a classic power forward at centre, and we’ll chalk up his domination by opposing centres this spring to the fact these are his first playoffs, and only his second season as a pro. He’s simply not ready to beat Henrik Sedin on a nightly basis, or either Getzlaf or Kesler. But that’s no sin. He’s only 20.
In goal, nobody in this organization has ever thought of Jonas Hiller as anything more than a stopgap, so his spotty play is no great revelation. Joni Ortio and freshly signed college grad Jon Gillies are the goaltenders of the future here, and Treliving deserves much credit for providing bridge goaltending that has been good enough to keep his team playing into May.
He certainly knows, too, of the Flames size issues. Treliving is one of the NHL’s bright young GMs. He is well aware of how the game changes come spring time, and that the ability to survive the playoff marathon is directly proportionate to one’s ability to take and mete out physical punishment.
Today, the Flames survive on a mix of quickness, skill, and statistics-defying magic. But when the magic runs out those first two elements can’t survive.
The Flames need to be bigger to be a consistent Cup contender, and the Anaheim Ducks are driving that point home, cross-check by cross-check.
Calgary probably knew that when these playoffs started, but there is something telling about watching it unfold on the playoff ice. They’ve earned the right to find out.