One quarter of the way through the hockey season and the Calgary Flames sit second in their division and third in the conference.
It’s a respectable perch for a team that spent the first five weeks of the season surrounded by questions about its work ethic, consistency and confidence.
Yet, there they are amongst the league’s best (albeit with a few games in hand) despite showing mere glimpses of what got the Flames to the top of the West last regular season.
With a goal differential of just plus-one, the Flames sit 10-7-3, much like they did a year ago when the team used the second-quarter to distance themselves from the pack.
Significant line shuffling at both ends of the rink by frustrated coach Bill Peters now has the Flames on a run that has seen them claim nine of 12 points since Halloween, which includes three improbable, third-period comebacks.
Is it a sign of what’s to come? Or is this a team that will continue to complicate their situation by showing up late for games, leading the league in penalties and regularly playing catch-up?
Perhaps a look back at the first 20 games can help better-predict how the next 20 will go.
MOST IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT
The emergence of David Rittich.
The Flames’ goaltending represented the biggest question mark heading into the season, as Rittich had never been a No. 1 netminder in the NHL, and Cam Talbot was a significant reclamation project.
Rittich has been so solid for the Flames the team has abandoned its plans to employ a 50-50 split of the workload…for now.
No one could have foreseen the un-drafted 27-year-old would lead the league in minutes played, starts, shots and wins, ahead of staples like Marc-Andre Fleury, Frederik Andersen and Carey Price.
His .914 save percentage and 2.75 goals against average have given the Flames a chance to win in almost every one of his 16 starts to date, which is all you can ask of a goalie.
Unlike the rest of his team, consistency has been his key.
MOST WORRISOME DEVELOPMENT
Gaudreau sits 31st in league scoring with 17 points, but has been a shadow of the player he was last year that finished with 99 points.
He recently stopped a 12-game scoreless string. Monahan went 13 without a snipe.
The duo make up two-thirds of the Flames’ top line with Elias Lindholm, which has hasn’t carried the club as it did three-quarters of last season.
The flash and dash Gaudreau exhibited so often last year to become a Hart Trophy candidate has been muted.
Monahan is focusing more on his defensive play and faceoffs — with solid results — but has gone long stretches offensively where he is silent offensively.
The coach keeps pressing Monahan to find a balance of the two sides of his game, as the team needs him and Gaudreau to be better offensively moving forward.
More to the point, the team needs them to contribute when it matters most – the playoffs – as they were the two biggest disappointments last spring.
TOP SIX FORWARDS GRADE: B
Gaudreau and Monahan have been sub-par, but Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk have been outstanding.
Lindholm has become the team’s most complete forward, killing penalties, manning the powerplay, taking key faceoffs and scoring 10 goals on the top unit.
Tkachuk is considered to be the heartbeat of the team, dragging the lads into the fight on many nights, sparking and finishing emotional comebacks, and leading all scorers with 10 goals and 19 points (13th in the league).
Mikael Backlund’s second unit is a work in progress as Michael Frolik’s spot has been an open audition that currently has Andrew Mangiapane playing alongside Backlund and Tkachuk.
It’s not the feared shutdown line of a year ago, nor is the top trio considered one of the league’s best right now.
Then again, it’s early.
BOTTOM SIX FORWARDS GRADE: C
Depth was supposed to be the Flames biggest weapon this year, which hasn’t been the case thus far.
Third-line centre Derek Ryan is only starting to find the form that made him the Flames best forward the last quarter of last season. Fourth line centre Mark Jankowski has zero points and just nine shots in 18 outings, and was a recent healthy scratch.
Sam Bennett leads all bottom six wingers with three goals and five points, while Milan Lucic and Michael Frolik have yet to find their footing. Tobias Rieder’s speed and penalty killing have been noticeable, but he has just one goal to show for it, as does Frolik.
Overall, the bottom-sixers have had very little impact on a team that could really use their help.
DEFENCE GRADE: B-
No one expected Mark Giordano to continue the torrid scoring pace he set as last year’s Norris Trophy winner.
Still a brilliant leader of one of the league’s better blue lines, his start has mirrored that of his team’s – okay.
Coach Bill Peters’ recent frustration with the club promoted him to put the blue liners in a blender, landing Giordano with Travis Hamonic, with good results.
Future leaders Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson are a new duo that has impressed, with Hanifin having his best game as a Flame last Thursday, with three points. His poise and confidence continue to improve.
TJ Brodie is now logging third-pairing minutes, as his play this year has warranted. He’s struggled with a continuum of egregious giveaways, making it tough to tell if the team will have any options at the trade deadline with the pending unrestricted free agent.
Michael Stone has been a steady fill-in when called upon and Oliver Kylington’s recent demotion to the AHL was punctuated by a hat trick and five points in his first outing with Stockton.
GOALIE GRADE: B+
No one in the NHL has shouldered a larger workload than Rittich, which says all you need to know about how well he has played for the team.
It’s not necessarily a reflection on the 1-3 record Talbot has posted as the backup, as he’s had horrific assignments on the back-end of back-to-backs against red-hot teams.
His .899 save percentage needs to be better though.
The duo sits 12th in terms of goals against per game, which is respectable.
There hasn’t been a single game in which the Flames goaltending could be blamed for the loss.
Most Improved player: Noah Hanifin
Best defensive player: Mark Giordano
Most physical player: Milan Lucic