Ari, from SBNation's Flames blog Matchsticks and Gasoline, sent me five questions about the Flyers yesterday in anticipation of this afternoon's hockey outing. You can read my answers to them here. Similarly, I asked her five questions about the Flames. You can read her answers to them below. Hooray teamwork!
1. So the Flames have not exactly had the best of seasons. Towards the bottom of the Pacific and the Western Conference. Have things in Calgary gone about as you expected this season? A little worse? A little better?
I think things have gotten better than expected. When the season started there was such a massive shift in tone. The team went from lethargic veterans to a group not as talented, but much more willing to battle, and that's translated to better, more entertaining hockey. The Flames did have a horrific stretch of shutouts, but that aside, it's been a pretty fun year overall. This is a team that (usually) won't quit, and that in and of itself is a victory.
That said, a lot of people were picking the Flames to be at the bottom of the league, but they've never seen 30th this season. They're still in position for a pretty good draft pick, but in the mean time, the wins and the team's style of play have been good for both the team and the fans.
The ultimate kicker is a lot of younger players have been contributing to the Flames' success, which is exactly what you want to see in a rebuild.
2. As a follow-up to that, is there anyone who's been a pleasant surprise for the Flames this year? Anyone who's played well and, as a result, figures to be a piece of the long-term equation that may not have been before, or anyone who's taken a big step forward?
Kris Russell is the first guy who comes to mind. He was picked up as an offseason acquisition for a fifth round pick, and joined a group of Flames defencemen that would be battling it out for the final top four spot (the top three originally being Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Dennis Wideman). Russell started the season in the fourth spot and hasn't relinquished it; in fact, he's passed Wideman on the depth chart. He's currently three points back of a career high so he'll probably set a new one this year. He's an upcoming UFA but the Flames are in extension talks with him, and they'd better re-sign him. He's only 26 and has become a key part of the Flames' blueline, so he has a lot more years he can contribute to this team. He even grew up a Flames fan, so that's a nice story.
And while I wouldn't use the word "surprise" here, I need to talk about Mikael Backlund. The Flames blogging community has been advocating for him for years, and finally, we're being proven right. Backlund has been mostly undervalued during his time in Calgary, although he's consistently put up some of the best possession numbers on the team the last few seasons. After being kicked around and put on the fourth line this season, the 23-year-old has become the Flames' number one centre and he's been running with it. For a guy who looked like he might have been traded earlier in the year, Backlund has likely established himself as someone who's going to be a Flame for a while yet, and for good reason. His recent stretch includes two points a game in five of his last six games, so watch out for him this afternoon.
3. Sean Monahan was kept in the NHL by the Flames this year. I know he missed some time with an injury, but what are your thoughts on how his first season has gone? Did you like the decision to keep him up when it was made? Do you like it now, with the benefit of hindsight?
Monahan's had an up and down season. At this point, I don't think there's a truly right or wrong answer when it comes to whether he should have stayed up or not. He has his good nights against NHL competition and his bad nights (his absolute worst nights came right after he came back from injury, and they were pretty dreadful, but he seems to have recovered since then).
With six goals in his first nine games, there was no way he was going to be sent down. His goals to assists ratio is 2:1 right now, and most of his goals have come from being parked out in front of the net at exactly the right time. So while his lack of assists may point to a lack of readiness, his goals have all indicated he knows exactly where to be and what to do. He's also currently leading the team in goals, so it's hard to argue against that.
Ultimately, Monahan can play in the NHL right now. He gets the easiest minutes out of all regular Flames forwards, but for the most part, he can handle them. The main benefit to sending him back to junior would be to save a year on his ELC, but for a team in Calgary's situation - deep pockets, and a whole lot of cap space - that really isn't an issue at this point in time. In the end, having him start his NHL career right away probably hasn't hurt him, and it certainly hasn't hurt the team, so it looks like a positive right now.
4. The Flames have spent the year mostly switching off between Finnish netminder Karri Ramo and Swiss goalie Reto Berra. Do either of them look like they could be long-term answers in goal? Or does it look like Miikka Kiprusoff's heir apparent still is yet to be located?
Karri Ramo is the better of the two goaltenders. He has his bad nights, but for the most part, he looks like a capable enough NHLer. He's not a clearcut surefire number one by any stretch, but when the Flames start him, they usually fare a bit better. He's signed for another year after this, and I could see the team retaining him a bit beyond that.
Reto Berra has had his moments, but he's an adventure in net. He just picked up his first win in regulation last game, but he's also been perfect in overtime and the shootout, so he's been a really bizarre case. He probably isn't a longterm solution at all, but he's doing well enough for his current role on this team. Berra's contract ends after this season, and Brian Burke has said he wants all UFAs either signed or traded, so it will be interesting to see where he is in a month.
But the goalie Flames fans are most excited about is Jon Gillies, who is currently in his sophomore year at Province College. His freshman year really kicked off the excitement, with a .931 save percentage on a team that wasn't quite as good until he came along. He appears to have taken a slight step back this year, but he still looks like he might be the guy, as the Flames traded away Laurent Brossoit, another goalie prospect drafted one year before Gillies who had some pretty good junior years.
Joni Ortio could end up being the guy as well. Ortio grew up idolizing Kipper, and they're both from the same hometown and have worked out together in the off-season before, so it might just be fitting if he ends up replacing him. He has a .930 save percentage in his first full year in North American hockey, and is the starter for one of the best teams in the AHL - the Abbotsford Heat are currently first in their conference - so that bodes well for him. He's also the Flames' current backup, since Ramo is out with a lower body injury, so there's a chance he could see his first NHL action against the Flyers.
5. What's the hope for the rest of the Flames' season? What's the best possible outcome for the Flames over their final 25 games? Good progress from some of the team's younger skaters? As many losses (and lottery ping-pong balls) as possible? Some signs of hope from the goaltenders? A full-time general manager?
The best possible outcome would be for the season to keep going as it has been: close, hard fought games; win some, lose some. The desire to see the team pick up as few points as possible is understandable, but when Sean Monahan assists on a TJ Brodie and then a Mikael Backlund overtime winner, as has recently happened, can you really argue with that? Besides, the Flames will likely have a good chance at the lottery no matter what, so the draft position shouldn't be too worrisome.
The most important thing now is for the Flames to capitalize on their upcoming UFAs and get some good picks and prospects for them. It's going to be Burke at the helm for that, with a new GM likely not being named until sometime closer to the draft; but Burke isn't a bad guy to have in that position (certainly better than Jay Feaster!).
Thanks again to Ari for answering our questions. Our preview will be up around 10:30.