With tonight's game representing the first matchup between the Nashville Predators & Calgary Flames this season, we checked in with Ari from our SB Nation sister site Matchsticks & Gasoline to get the scoop on how the Flames are doing.
Q: How's the mood among fans in Calgary? From the outside, observers have been saying "they need to go through a rebuild" for years, but now that you're into the nasty part of it, do fans have confidence that better days are ahead?
A: The mood was really great at the start of the season. Even though the team wasn't necessarily winning, they were playing their hearts out and were realistically in every single game. After years of watching lethargic veterans and seeing Iggy waste away on a bad team, the start of this season was like a breath of fresh air, and everyone welcomed the rebuild enthusiastically. Of course, the wheels have fallen off since then. The Flames have been shut out in five of their last eight games (these questions being answered prior to Monday's game against the Hurricanes), and have only scored six goals in that stretch (four of those goals came against the Avs in a regulation win, the first since December 4), so the mood's been a lot darker lately. The fanbase has accepted that this is a rebuilding year, but I don't think anybody was really expecting it to be as bad as it's been lately, and it's been really, really bad.
That said, this stretch probably isn't going to last, and I think we'll be having more fun after the trade deadline when hopefully more prospects are getting an NHL shift. The Abbotsford Heat are one of the top teams in the AHL this year, and the Flames have a lot of really good depth prospects - it's just the top talent we're missing, which will probably be coming these next few years. So I think despite the bad stretch lately, there's a cautious optimism surrounding the team, but we know it's at least a few years away.
Q: Sean Monahan appears to be on his way to potting 20 goals as a teenager, which isn't shabby at all. How has he fit in at the NHL level? Does he belong as a two-way player, or is he getting such an opportunity largely because of the rebuild?
A: Sean Monahan's been up and down this season, as one might expect from a rookie. He started the season on fire, but it should be noted he currently has a shooting percentage of 19.4%, which has actually fallen a bit since the start of the year. Either he's a really accurate shooter, or that stat will continue to fall, and I'd bet on the latter happening. He also suffered a hairline fracture in his foot in late November, and while he was already starting to look a little out of place before the injury, he really dropped off after it. The team probably rushed him back: he only missed seven games, and was still wearing a walking boot the next time he played. He did not look anything close to NHL caliber when he returned, but he's out of the walking boot now and has been looking a lot better and getting more ice time as of late, so that's a good sign. He's been pretty sheltered so far, starting most of his shifts in the offensive zone and against some of the easiest competition for a regular in the lineup, and hasn't fared that well in a more defensive role just yet. That said, the team is starting to shift towards using him in a more two-way role. Bob Hartley has said he's going to start using Monahan on the penalty kill, so that's something you guys might be able to watch for.
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Ultimately, he probably should have been sent back to junior this year, but performed at such a high level in his first nine games that that wasn't going to happen. He's spent most of the year playing in a third line role, and that's mostly due to the rebuild and just how weak the Flames are down the middle. He still shows NHL talent, though, and he has been earning his minutes, so having him in the NHL this year hasn't been all bad.
Q: While the focus is often on the kids during a season like this, which veterans do you see as part of the long-term solution in Calgary? Who do you see as still being part of the core group 3 years down the road?
A: The first guy that comes to mind is Mark Giordano. Before Iginla was traded, people were already starting to point out Gio as the next captain, and for good reason: the guy's a leader. He's a top four defenceman who's only gotten better over the seasons, and is the Flames' current #1. He attracted a bit more attention this year as his play put him in the conversation to be one of Team Canada's defencemen at the Olympics, and was ultimately named as a possible injury replacement. He provides a calm, steady veteran presence on the backend that's really needed with a young team. He's a guy who will do it all: puts up points, blocks shots, hits, will fight; and Calgary's really lucky to have him.
It's a little less obvious who may stick around after Gio, but I'd consider Curtis Glencross and maybe Jiri Hudler possibilities. Glencross is on a relatively cheap deal because he wanted an NMC to stay in Calgary. He's a cowboy in the off-season and has his life firmly embedded in southern Alberta, so there's a good chance he'll stick around a while yet. Glencross is a physical forward who fits just about anywhere in the lineup, and has been trending towards a 30 goal season the past few years (injuries have stopped him short though), so he's a valuable player. As for Hudler, he comes from that all-important winning culture in Detroit, and has already taken on a mentoring role. Before it was confirmed Monahan would be staying in Calgary, Hudler and his wife took him in of their own volition and actually had him live with them for the first part of the season. He's also frequently played on a line with Monahan, and Sven Baertschi as well when he was up with the club, so he's another leader who could be around a few years from now.
Honourable mentions go to Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid, Mikael Backlund, and TJ Brodie. Wideman and Smid may be around for a while simply due to their contract lengths and the fact that the Flames don't have many defensive prospects. Backlund, meanwhile, isn't quite a veteran, but he's in his fourth full NHL season and should be part of the Flames' core going forward. While he hasn't been putting up as many points as people were hoping, he's only 24 and is the Flames' best defensive forward. Brodie is in his third full season and should absolutely be part of the core. He's only 23 and currently playing on the top pairing, getting some of the hardest minutes on the team. His corsi, zone starts, and quality of competition have actually been very similar to Giordano's - he just isn't putting up the points, but he's also seven years younger.
Thanks to Ari for the insight, it's always good to get an informed view from the other side of the battle.
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