Flames Thoughts: Flames return home to prepare for trade deadline

Mike Smith made 34 saves and the Calgary Flames snapped a four-game losing skid with a win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Calgary Flames wrapped up four-game road trip with a 5-4 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday.

Now the club returns home for three games at the Scotiabank Saddledome before what could be a busy trade deadline.

Here are some thoughts on where things stand for the Flames with the deadline only one week away.

FLAMES STOP THE BLEEDING

The Flames went into the all-star break and their bye week red-hot but cooled off considerably during their nine-day hiatus.

During the month of January, the Flames took advantage of a soft schedule by finding ways to win games against inferior teams even when they were far from being at their best. By finishing the first month of 2019 with a 9-1-1 record, the Flames opened a six-point lead on the San Jose Sharks for first place in both the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

But, by going 1-3-2 in their first six games of February following their break, the Flames’ lead in the standings disappeared. As a matter of fact, they briefly fell out of top spot in the conference for the first time since Jan. 1 and the division for the first time since Nov. 28.

And their recent four game road trip didn’t start off any better.

The Flames played poorly in a 6-3 loss to the league-leading Lightning in Tampa on Feb. 12, and weren’t much better in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Panthers in Sunrise two nights later.

By going winless (0-1-2) to start a four-game road trip, the meeting against the Penguins was an important one for the Flames. A loss would have stretched their season-long losing streak to five games and would have added to the team’s frustrations. A win would not only avenge an embarrassing 9-1 loss to the Penguins in Calgary on Oct. 25 but would stop the bleeding and give the Flames something to build on going into their three-game home stand.

While it wasn’t easy, the Flames found a way to hold on for a 5-4 win in Pittsburgh, matching or exceeding the desperation of a Penguins team that is surprisingly fighting for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference — they currently hold a one point lead in the wild card race.

The Flames’ embarrassing eight-goal loss to the Penguins in October was important in turning their season around. Saturday’s one-goal win may prove to be equally as important.

SMITH’S RESURGENCE

Despite being four games above .500, Mike Smith has been the whipping boy for many Flames fans and even some members of the media this season. 

To Smith’s credit, he’s somehow managed to keep his chin up, at least publicly, through some on-ice struggles and an increasing amount of off-ice criticism.

In the first half of the season, Smith gave up some goals that he shouldn’t have. On two or three occasions, he gave up bad goals at bad times and cost the Flames games.

While the 36-year-old has had a few hiccups since, I think he slowly started to turn things around in late-November. Most didn’t seem to see it that way and for some fans and members of the media, Smith could do no right and his partner, David Rittich, who until recently, was statistically one of the top-10 goaltenders in the league this season, could do no wrong.

Prior to the last two games, which I’ll get to in a moment, for most observers there was a Grand Canyon-sized gap between the Flames’ two goaltenders. But statistically, there hasn’t been since late-November. As a matter of fact, here are the numbers for Rittich and Smith between Nov. 25 and Feb. 13.

In Rittich’s defence, he played more games against good teams than Smith did during that stretch, so these statistics don’t tell the whole story — but they do tell a story.

Much like some of his teammates, Rittich is in a bit of a funk right now and I’m confident that he’ll fight through what has been the first adversity that he’s faced this season and be a better player because of it.  I truly believe Rittich is the Flames’ goaltender of the future.  The question is, is he the team’s goaltender of the present? Right now, the answer is no — but that could change as soon as Monday, when the Flames face the Arizona Coyotes.

On the other hand Smith was outstanding in his last two outings, stopping 30 of 32 shots against the Panthers and 34 of 38 in the victory over the Penguins. As a reward for that strong play, Smith will be between the pipes to face his former team on Monday, marking the first time since late October that he’ll get three-straight starts.

If you listen to Flames games or to my morning and afternoon hits on Sportsnet 960 The FAN, you’ll know that I’ve been saying that Smith has been slowly trending in the right direction for quite some time. With that said, in the last two games, he’s looked like the guy who stole a bunch of games and played like an elite goaltender for the Flames for most of the first-half of last season.

Technically, Smith has done a fantastic job tracking the puck and putting himself in position to be square to shooters which has minimized rebounds and secondary scoring chances for Flames’ opponents.

Smith has also done a great job playing the puck, and if you don’t think that matters, you’re wrong. When you play the puck as much as Smith does, you are going to make mistakes, but trust me when I tell you that the positives of him playing the puck (minimizing hits of his defenceman, making it more difficult for opponents to forecheck and fueling the Flames’ already deadly transition game) far outweigh the negatives (occasional giveaways resulting in scoring chances against).

Those are the tangible things that have helped Smith turn his season around. The intangible things are the increasing confidence and swagger that he’s been feeling.

Since early-December, Rittich has been the Flames’ No. 1 goaltender, and deservedly so. But as I’ve been preaching all season, the team is going to need both of their goaltenders to play well to get to where they want to go this season — deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Smith’s play, especially of late, has created an internal competition between him and Rittich for starts. Internal competition is good and I believe it will bring the best out of two incredibly competitive players.

Last season, the Capitals wouldn’t have won the Metropolitan Division without Philipp Grubauer, who took over as the team’s No. 1 netminder when Braden Holtby struggled during the regular season. With that said, they certainly wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup without Holtby, who replaced Grubauer as the starter two games into the playoffs and led them to their first championship.

For teams and for players, it’s not about how you start a season, it’s about how you finish. While it’s way too early to suggest that Smith will be this season’s Holtby, don’t be surprised if he plays a significant role for the Flames down the stretch or if he’s in net for the first game of the playoffs. I’m fascinated to see how what’s become a bit of a soap opera plays out.

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SURGING BOTTOM SIX

In the first-half of the season, offensively, the Flames relied heavily on five players – Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Mark Giordano. Since returning from their mid-season break, four of those five guys have struggled to produce, with Lindholm being the exception. Below are the points-per-game splits for the Flames’ top-five scorers before and after the break:

Before Break After Break
Johnny Gaudreau 1.43 0.71
Sean Monahan 1.20 0.71
Elias Lindholm 1.14 1.14
Matthew Tkachuk 1.12 0.14
Mark Giordano 1.06 0.43

While it’s only a matter of time until Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk and Giordano start producing more points (they’re too good not to), luckily for the Flames, their bottom six forwards have stepped-up since the break. Below are their point-per-game splits from before and after the all-star break and bye week:

Before Break After Break
Austin Czarnik 0.21 1.00
Derek Ryan 0.32 1.00
James Neal 0.24 0.50
Sam Bennett 0.39 0.43
Mark Jankowski 0.42 0.43
Andrew Mangiapane 0.08 0.43
Garnet Hathaway 0.16 0.29

While the splits for Bennett and Jankowski aren’t night and day, overall, the bottom-six has been a lot more productive of late. Assuming that continues and the top-starts scoring again, the Flames depth is going to difficult to deal with.

BIG WEEK

In addition to hosting three winnable games at Scotiabank Saddledome this week versus the 26-27-5 Coyotes on Monday, the surprisingly-good Metropolitan Division-leading 35-17-6 Islanders on Wednesday and the surprisingly-bad 22-27-9 Ducks on Friday, the Flames, for the first time in years, will be buyers at the trade deadline, which is Feb. 25 at 1 p.m. MT.

Here are the top three players on my wish list for the Flames:

1. Mark Stone, Senators

One of the leading candidates for the Selke Trophy, Stone, in his prime at 26, is one of the best two-way wingers in the NHL, which rarely become rarely become available at this stage of their careers. 

Gaudreau, Monahan and Lindholm have been one of the best first lines in the NHL this season and Tkachuk, Backlund and Stone would give the team one of the best second lines in the league. While the acquisition cost would be high, likely the team’s first-round pick in 2019, either Dillon Dube or Oliver Kylington (I don’t think the Flames would part with Rasmus Andersson or Juuso Valimaki for a player who could be a rental), and maybe more, Stone is a player that could put them over the top in a wide-open Western Conference. As an added bonus, Stone’s younger brother Michael plays for the Flames.

2. Mats Zuccarello, Rangers

Depending on the severity of James Neal’s lower-body injury, the Flames may be forced to add a winger before next Monday’s trade deadline.

While Zuccarello hasn’t had a great regular season, historically, he’s been a player who’s been at his best in the playoffs. The Rangers, clearly in a rebuild, are looking to sell. While Zuccarello isn’t as sexy as some of the other players rumoured to be available at the deadline, he’s a winger who could play up and down the line-up, would be an immediate upgrade to the Flames’ bottom-nine forwards and could be acquired for significantly less than Stone and other high-profile pending free agents.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

With the Wild currently in a playoffs spot, few look at them as a seller approaching the trade deadline, but ownership has reportedly given general manager Paul Fenton the autonomy to do what he wants to do on or before Feb. 25.

Ideally, the Flames will add a versatile forward with size, the ability to score and some playoff experience before the deadline. Staal checks all three boxes. The 34-year-old member of the Triple Gold Club with gold medals with Canada at the World Championships in 2007, Olympics in 2010 and a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006, is a pending UFA with a cap hit of only $3.4 million dollars. He would be a great under-the-radar add for most contenders, including the Flames, at the deadline.

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