Northwest Division Preview: Calgary Flames

As a way to introduce myself to the OilersNation, I’ve decided to liberally sprinkle pieces of articles I’ve written elsewhere. Think of it as my own personal “clip show”: a sort of Frankensteinian monster. The italicized portions below is me, self-referencing. The links will take you to the original pieces back at my own humble blog, Five Hole Fanatics, with an even more detailed discussion of the topic in question if that fits your fancy. To wit:

The best way to start off may be to establish that the 07–08 Calgary Flames weren’t a bad team. They contended for the NW title for awhile in mid-season. They scored a couple more goals than they gave up. And they made the play-offs despite playing in a tough division and competitive conference.

The best way to continue may be to be to acknowledge that the 07–08 Calgary Flames weren’t a good team either. They had the second worst GD of any WC play-off squad. They didn’t even have average special teams. And they squeaked into the play-offs by the hairs of their chiny-chin-chin.

Off-Season Changes

In – F – Mike Cammalleri, F – Todd Bertuzzi, F – Rene Bourque, F – Curtis Glencross, F – Andre Roy, D – Mark Giordano

Out – F – Alex Tanguay, F – Kristian Huselius, F – Stephane Yelle, F – Eric Godard, F – Owen Nolan, F – Mark Smith, D – David Hale, G – Curtis Joseph

Front Office

Darryl Sutter was King Midas during his first season as the Flames GM—everything he touched turned to gold, from stealing Miikka Kiprusoff down to trading for guys like Marcus Nilson, Ville Nieminen and Chris Simon. His seemingly prescient moves led to the Flames improbable run to the finals, ending a near decade of play-off drought and futility.

Predictably, a cult of personality sprung up around Sutter in the aftermath. The Flames may not have won the cup, but Darryl won the hearts and minds of fans and the organizations management alike: bringing bread to the starving can have that effect. “In Sutter we trust” has become a common refrain for the Flames faithful in the five years proceeding.

Unfortunately, while the team has certainly remained competitive, the faith is proving to be somewhat misplaced: Calgary has settled into a comfortable sort of mediocrity since the magical run, placing third, eighth and seventh in the conference and never once advancing past the first round. In fact, the Flames have gone from MSM Stanley Cup darlings in 05/06 to heavy first round underdogs in 06/07 and 07/08. The roster has grown progressively more expensive, but there hasn’t been a concurrent rise in returns.

Sutter’s primary post lock-out weakness has been his over-preference for veterans, partially explained, I think, by a relentless assumption that the Flames could ”win it all”:

Ironically, it’s been Sutter’s flavor of “go for it” that has sunk the team into mediocrity since 03/04, and painted the franchise into the cap-strapped corner it’s in now. His tendency to fill roster spots with known commodities – ex-Sutterites and veterans – has bloated the roster’s budget and bled the team of cheap talent. As Darryl has gone about locking up key pieces to long-terms deals and exponentially more expensive contract extensions, he’s also surrounded them with slowing vets (Nilson, Yelle, Primeau, Eriksson, Aucoin, Amonte) and dubious reclamation projects (Zyuzin, Friesen), many of whom for multi-year, multi-million dollar deals. The results, both this season and last, were two-fold:

  1. Cap-efficient roster—pricey vets, fewer rookies
  2. Hostile development environment.

Sutter has done a great job of identifying and locking up the core big boys during his time here. Alternatively, he’s done a fairly terrible job of identifying and installing good-value guys at the roster’s edges. Which is why the results have been so average the last few years.

The hiring of Mike Keenan made big waves around the league last summer. The mercurial former GM has had limited recent success and is known for alienating players and harming franchises with his hard-ass, manipulative coaching style. He became the club’s third coach in as many years, after Sutter himself and the beleaguered Jim Playfair.

Some saw the Keenan addition as a move of desperation. Many predicted doom. While the apocalypse never came, Keenan also failed to coax anything more than a seven-game first round exit out of the team. He employed good bench management throughout the season and the players certainly looked more enthused under him relative to Playfair, but it wasn’t enough. Iron Mike also managed to estrange two of Calgary’s primary offensive players and he unfairly maligned Marcus Nilson, even though the defensive winger was probably a better option than some of the guys Keenan played in his stead (Godard, Nystrom, etc).

Mike’s first year was a mixed bag. It remains to be seen if some of the classic “Keenan saturation” effects will begin to take hold this coming season: the Flames will likely walk a delicate line between success and failure in 08/09 and if the players tune out the coach, the play-offs wont be in the cards come April.


Calgary’s front-end was horribly top-heavy previously, to the degree that the bottom-half of the roster was a black hole of inescapable suck:

During the slow summer months last off-season I put together a player typology post that detailed the four basic kinds of forwards available in the NHL: the Big guns, the soft comp eaters, the quellers and the even-stevens. I neglected to include a fifth, rather prevalent type: the lead weights. It is this latter kind of player that dominated the bottom of the Flames roster this year.

As such, allow me to present the black hole: Wayne Primeau, Marcus Nilson, Eric Godard, Stephane Yelle, Matthew Lombardi, David Moss, Mark Smith, Eric Nystrom and Dustin Boyd all took turns at the end of the rotation. Five of those players were gross liabilities at even-strength (Primeau, Godard, Smith, Nystrom, Boyd) to varying degrees and three of the remaining four players couldn’t score with a two-four of gin at the prom (Nilson, Yelle, Moss). Matthew Lombardi was the only player of the 9 (!) mentioned that managed more than 10 goals or 30 points. He spent a lot of time skating with Primeau, Yelle, Nystrom and Boyd so his underlying numbers took a beating.

The result? Two de facto “4th lines,” each with no chance of out-scoring the opposition and with little chance of playing them to evens.

The lack of an effective third unit was felt at the top of the roster as well, particularly by the Tanguay/Conroy/Nolan combination. The Flames “2nd line” was given the unenviable assignment of shutting down the other team’s big guns WHILE providing some secondary offence behind the Iggy line. Tanguay et al. faced the toughest competition on the team with the obvious effect being a dampening of their offensive stats. And Conroy/Nolan are hardly scoring wizards in the first place.

When your secondary scoring unit is also your shut-down unit because everyone else below them can’t be trusted to do either well, you’re in trouble. That the Flames were slightly above average this year in terms of ES scoring (145 GF, 12th) has everything to do with Jarome Iginla (65 ESP, 3rd, only Flame in the top 30) and Dion Phaneuf (26 ES points, 6th among defencemen) and concurrently suggests how good the team could have been with a few more competent supporting pieces.

Sutter went about correcting the imbalance this off-season by acquiring guys like Bourque and Glencross and letting elder statesmen Yelle and Nolan walk. He also gave minor league shift-disturber Brandon Prust a one-way deal and has talked a lot about younger guys like Lombardi, Boyd and Moss “playing a bigger part” this coming season.

Let’s take a look at the forwards advanced stats, ranked by quality of competition, before going any further (leaving, new), via

Alex Tanguay: 2.21 PTS/60, 3.29 GFON/60, 2.32 GAON/60

Craig Conroy: 1.79 PTS/60, 2.85 GFON/60, 2.23 GAON/60

Jarome Iginla: 2.85 PTS/60, 3.68 GFON/60, 2.21 GAON/60

Rene Bourque: 1.20 PTS/60, 2.40 GFON/60, 2.32 GAON/60

Owen Nolan: 1.57 PTS/60, 2.38 GFON/60, 2.13 GAON/60

Wayne Primeau: 1.35 PTS/60, 1.75 GFON/60, 2.29 GAON/60

Daymond Langkow: 2.08 PTS/60, 3.25 GFON/60, 2.29 GAON/60

Matthew Lombardi: 1.50 PTS/60, 1.56 GFON/60, 2.20 GAON/60

Kristian Huselius: 2.11 PTS/60, 3.00 GFON/60, 2.39 GAON/60

David Moss: 1.55 PTS.60, 1.97 GFON/60, 2.39 GAON/60

Stephane Yelle: 0.87 PTS/60, 1.22 GFON/60, 1.57 GAON/60

Mike Cammalleri: 1.91 PTS/60, 2.60 GFON/60, 3.56 GAON/60

Eric Nystrom: 1.43 PTS/60, 1.57 GFON/60, 2.15 GAON/60

Curtis Glencross: 1.97 PST/60, 2.54 GFON/60, 1.88 GAON/60

Andre Roy: 1.25 PTS/60, 1.96 GFON/60, 1.96 GAON/60

Todd Bertuzzi: 1.98 PTS/60, 2.89 GFON/60, 2.26 GAON/60

Dustin Boyd: 1.76 PTS/60, 2.06 GFON/60, 3.68 GAON/60

Mark Smith: 0.79 PTS/60, 0.99 GFON/60, 2.18 GAON/60

Marcus Nilson: 0.81 PTS/60, 1.46 GFON/60, 1.13 GAON/60

Eric Godard: 0.35 PTS/60, 1.04 GFON/60, 2.60 GAON/60

PTS/60 – average number of points recorded for every 60 minutes of even-strength ice-time
GFON/60 – average number of goals scored for every 60 minutes that the player is on the ice
GAON/60 – average number of goals scored against for every 60 minutes that the player is on the ice

The potential for improvement from the bottom-end will likely be balanced by the degradation of the Flames top six:

Alex Tanguay is a difference maker at ES. He was the second-best forward on the team, after Jarome Iginla, at 5-on-5 during his time here. He outscored whoever he played against, and he did it no matter who his linemates were. He made that 2nd line work last year. Absent Tanguay (or Iginla), Conroy/Nolan probably sink like a stone.

The Flames don’t have a Tanguay to carry their reclamation project this year. The options for Keenan are, therefore:

  1. Play Bertuzzi with Iginla and hope he doesn’t impede him.
  2. Play Bertuzzi with Lombardi against the softest possible competition.

Either way, I think Iginla will be seeing the toughest competition on the team (unless some kind of shut-down line can be soldered together out of Conroy, Moss, Bourque, Glencross, Nystrom). The probable result is a reduction in Iggy’s outscoring since one of the inescapable truths of hockey is as the quality of opponent goes up, you tend to score less and tend to get scored on more (excepting Nik Lidstrom).

The question will be: can the new 2nd line and re-vamped bottom six make up for the loss? Proposition one is, at best, a coin-flip, depending on how manic Iron Mike is with managing the bench. Lombardi, Boyd (?) and Bert/Cammalleri. You’re basically betting on simultaneous growth from a couple of players (Boyd and Lombardi), not to mention the Bertuzzi injury/effectiveness uncertainty if he lands on that unit. Long odds, I’d say, for them to be anything better than even at ES.

The good news is the bottom six is much improved. Gone are total defectives like Godard and Smith. Gone too are offensive zone voids like Yelle and Nilson (probably). With the addition of Bourque and Glencross and the demotion of Conroy, the “lesser” forwards shouldn’t be the black hole they were last year. There’s also the possibility of Eric Nystrom improving (although I personally don’t hold out much hope in that regard). In any case, the bottom of the rotation should be faster, more capable in the good end of the rink and less apt to get scored on this coming year.


While they currently have eight NHL defencemen signed, the Flames only have three proven top four guys. The good news is two of those guys are Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf, each elite at different ends of the ice. Cory Sarich, a slightly less effective version of Regehr, rounds out the top three.

Robyn Regehr: 0.71 PTS/60, 2.75 GFON/60, 2.23 GAON/60

Cory Sarich: 0.25 PTS/60, 2.14 GFON/60, 2.19 GAON/60

Dion Phaneuf: 0.95 PTS/60, 2.86 GFON/60, 2.36 GAON/60

Anders Eriksson: 0.69 PTS/60, 2.78 GFON/60, 3.15 GAON/60

Adrian Aucoin: 0.78 PTS/60, 2.55 GFON/60, 1.61 GAON/60

James Vandermeer: 0.59 PTS/60, 2.25 GFON/60, 2.14 GAON/60

Mark Giordano: 1.21 PTS/60, 2.94 GFON60, 2.05 GAON/60*

David Hale: 0.16 PTS/60, 1.88 GFON/60, 1.88 GAON/60

Rhett Warrener: 0.50 PTS/60, 2.69 GFON/60, 2.86 GAON/60

*(stats from 06/07 rookie campaign)

From my discussion of the back-end earlier this summer:

While pretty much anyone outside of Cory Cross would represent a leap up from Bubba (Eriksson), none of the remaining candidates represent more than a marginal improvement. I say that without knowing the degree to which Mark Giordano developed overseas last year, of course. I’ve heard he was a top pairing defender for his club with Danny Markov and his selection to Team Canada in the World Championships this spring was a good sign. However, without really knowing who he played against or how he played (and the degree to which that will translate to the NHL), it’s difficult to confidently and rationally project him in a top role for next year.

Here’s what we got:

Regehr – Sarich

Phaneuf – Vandermeer (?)

Aucoin – Giordano

Warrener (?), Eriksson (?), Pardy (?)

Here’s what I’d like to see:

Regehr – Phaneuf

Sarich – ? (Vandermeer)

Aucoin – Giordano

Eriksson, Warrener

Assuming Warrener and Eriksson stay off the ice as much as possible, I think the Flames blue line will be slightly better than it was last year. Giordano and Vandermeer can move the puck with greater efficacy and Phaneuf might be able to take the next step, assuming he doesn’t have to drag around a weight like the often terrible Anders Eriksson. Even though Calgary still lacks a legitimate top-four guy outside of Regehr et al, that particular deficiency should be mercifully less pronounced this year.


Begins and ends with Miikka Kiprusoff. Kipper is coming off his worst season as a Calgary Flame—a season in which he failed to reach the median save percentage until half way through the year. His stats have fallen steadily since 03/04 and he’s about to become the fifth highest paid goalie in the league (in terms of cap hit).

Miikka Kiprusoff:

2005–06: 74 GP, 42 wins, 2.07 GAA, 0.923 SV%

2006–07: 74 GP, 40 wins, 2.46 GAA, 0.917 SV%

2007–08: 76 GP, 39 wins, 2.69 GAA, 0.906 SV%

If Kipper continues to decline, the Flames have a major problem on their hands. His shiny new contract extends until 13/14 and features a no trade clause. If the soft-spoken Fin can’t arrest and reverse his descent, the organization will be stuck with a $5.833M liability that will be practically un-movable. Not to mention the “having a bad goalie as a starter” thing. Make no mistake, if Kiprusoff isn’t better this season, he won’t be just average: he’ll be detrimental.

The good news for the optimistic Flames fan is Kippers stats gradually improved as the season progressed, meaning, his poor performance probably wasn’t due to fatigue or coaching effects. The bad news is, his seasonal performance has followed that slope the last three seasons, meaning there was nothing idiosyncratic suggesting a transient or unique cause.

There’s a chance the Flames will have excellent goaltending again in 08/09, because Kipper is only a few years removed from a Vezina trophy. There’s also a chance they’ll have some of the worst in the division, all depending on if that SV% trend line goes up or down. Beyond the other considerations, Calgary’s fate might well lie on that trend line going forward.

Special Teams

One of my standing assumptions heading into the new season is the Flames will take a step back in terms of even-strength play. The prediction primarily springs from the loss the of Alex Tanguay, Calgary’s second best ES player the last few years. Now, a number of things could prove this assumption false come October: a Kiprusoff bounce back, a sizeable step forward by Dion Phaneuf and/or any of the new guys, etc. That said, let’s proceed assuming the Flames will in fact be worse at ES next season. Meaning the team will have to drive results (ie; goal differential) some other way.

Calgary wasn’t even average at special teams in 07/08. Both the PP and PK were in the bottom third of the league, which, for a play-off club that is passable at even-strength, is an obvious under-performance. For a number of reasons, however, I think the Flames are poised to improve both a man up and a man down.

First, with the addition of Giordano, Bertuzzi and Cammalleri, the club will have a few more options on the PP. And although Tanguay is an excellent ES player, he’s paradoxically struggled to be an effective 5-on-4 guy for years. Thanks to that and their dearth of secondary scorers, the Flames had probably the worst 2nd powerplay unit in division (if not the conference), featuring the likes of Nolan, Conroy, Lombardi, Regehr, Eriksson and the aforementioned Tanguay. None of them were even remotely effective, with Nolan and Conroy in particular generating scoring rates that are below a lot of forwards ESP/60 numbers (1.90, 1.64 respectively). Basically, the team didn’t score if the first unit wasn’t on the ice.

With Giordano (who scored seven goals and 15 points in just 42 games as a rookie) likely quarter-backing the 2nd unit and more ice-time for guys like Boyd and Bourque, there’s a chance the PP could improve. Im assuming Phaneuf, Iginla and Langkow will continue to drive results on the first unit, even with the loss of a PP specialist like Huselius.

The PK should also improve due to personnel changes. Gone are Owen Nolan and Stephane Yelle, who were both miserable short-handed. Rene Bourque was excellent on the PK for Chicago last year (5.63 GA/60), not only effectively preventing goals, bust also scoring them as well (five goals, seven SH points). In addition, with a full year of Jim Vandermeer (4.53 GA/60), fans should see less of the Adrian Aucoin when down a man. That’s good news—Aucoin was one of the worst penalty killers on the team, allowing 7.68 GA per hour SH, a full 1.54 more than was yielded while he was on the bench.


Darryl Sutter is placing bets on a lot of question marks this year. From the Bertuzzi reclamation project, to the Kiprusoff rebound to the kids stepping up to make significant contributions. Nothing is assured; not the clubs dominance, nor competitiveness nor outright sucking. It could very easily turn out to be any one of the above, depending on the outcome and interrelation of the various factors. Some issues will be more important than others: Kiprusoff’s performance and Bertuzzi’s health, for example. But all will go towards determining the clubs fate, and, perhaps, the fate of a increasingly questioned front office whose previous errors are forcing them to take some big gambles this season. If things go very wrong—and they might – the shine may be off of Sutter’s halo permanently: afterall, faith and reverence only go so far in the “what have done for lately” world of pro sports.

—Kent Wilson writes about the Flames over at his blog Fiveholefanatics, as well as occasionally misleads fantasy hockey players for He is also an occasional OilersNation contributor.

The OilersNation Research Department™ has been hard at work getting ready for the new season. As 2008-09 draws upon us, we’ve analyzed what the Northwest Division will look like.

The teams we’ve look at so far:

  • Vancouver Canucks (parts one and two)
  • Colorado Avalanche (parts one and two)
  • Minnesota Wild
  • Calgary Flames (you’re reading it)