By Derrick Newman
40 games into the 2011-12 season the Calgary Flames are hovering in 12th place in the Western Conference two points back of the Dallas Stars and nine points back of the Vancouver Canucks for first place in the Northwest division.
Now, the idea of winning the division at the beginning of the season was a pipe dream with the likes of defending Western Conference champion Vancouver being in the mix, and truth be told it’s about as likely to happen as Mission Impossible winning Best Picture at the Oscars.
But, the idea of the Flames making the playoffs has always been a point of contention. Will they or won’t they?
Well, if the playoffs started today, they would be on the outside looking in for the third straight season.
The good news is that the playoffs do not start today and the Flames have just over half a season to make the ascent up the standings into the top eight in the soon to be transformed Western Conference.
The bad news, as of right now, the Flames have played more games than every team they are chasing, including six more than 9th place San Jose and three more than 8th place Dallas – meaning that the Flames most likely sit a little further back than the current standings suggest.
But isn’t this sort of what everyone expected?
The team is sitting a game above five hundred, in the mix for a playoff spot, struggling with consistency, and struggling to score goals at crucial times.
Goaltending has been the team’s bread and butter with Kipper consistently keeping the team in games. Despite allowing eight goals in his past two games, he holds a 2.45 GAA and .916 SV% and is on pace for 35 wins for the seventh straight season.
Besides Kiprusoff there has been a very exciting revelation in between the pipes – that of course is 2006 first round draft pick Leland Irving.
The 23-year-old Swan Hills, Alberta native has been nothing short of outstanding in his first three NHL starts posting a 1-0-2 record, a 2.23 GAA and .942 SV%. The only sour note would be that he surrendered two leads in those two extra time losses, including a one goal third period lead in Florida and a 3-0 first period lead in Ottawa.
Despite that, Irving is showing everyone that he is ready to part ways with the minor leagues for good and that the NHL is where he belongs. I have continuously said that the Flames made a mistake in signing Henrik Karlsson to a two year contract this past summer. Irving showed last season that he was ready to make the jump to the NHL as a back-up to Kipper, yet the Flames went out and signed Karlsson anyways.
Now the Flames find themselves in an interesting position when Karlsson inevitably returns from injury. Likely they will send Irving back down to minors instead of risking losing Karlsson for nothing by putting him on waivers. Or do they look to possibly move Karlsson to a team in need of goaltending depth? However, it might be tough to trade a guy who has yet to register a win this season, holds a 3.48 GAA and a sub .900 SV%.
Most likely, Irving will be sent down to play out the rest of the season in the AHL, leaving Karlsson to back-up Kipper the rest of the season as it makes the most sense with salaries, but keeping Irving in the NHL gives the Flames a better chance at winning on Kipper’s off nights.
And with the Flames being in the tightest of tight races for a playoff spot in the west winning on those nights when the MVP isn’t between the pipes could be the difference between playing golf and playing hockey a little longer.
But Irving’s rise and led to another interesting debate and that’s when does he take the reins from Kipper? It’s in the works and I will discuss this in further blogs.
Another issue plaguing the Flames right now is the loss of their top line winger Alex Tanguay. He was put on the IR last week with what some people suspect as a concussion but with what the team is calling an “upper body injury.” There is no timetable for his return and the team’s offence will be missing him until he returns to the ice.
Stepping up in his absence and for that matter all season has been Olli Jokinen who leads the team in assists and points (WHAAA?). He is on pace for his highest point total since leaving Florida in 2008. In the past year or so, Jokinen has transformed his game to fit the Flames system and it has paid off for him. Despite his incessant need to shoot from every obscene angle on the ice, I have nothing really bad to say about a guy I couldn’t believe the team re-signed in the first place. He’s been great. He’s even meshing with Iggy. Who would’ve thought?
As for Jarome Iginla, he is one goal away from joining the elite 500 goal club and will most likely hit that mark this week. Iggy started off slowly, as per usual, but since the end of November has reverted back to being the Iggy of old racking up goals and points and shutting up all his critics that insist he is washed up. He is the leader of the Flames and will be exactly that until he decides it’s time for him to go, either via trade or retirement. He will control his own fate. He has that much power on the Flames. Despite trade rumours abound, Iginla won’t leave this city unless it’s of his own accord.
One last note about the Flames at the midpoint of the season is the insurgence of young blood into the line-up.
Rookie Roman Horak leads the team with a +5 rating, and speaks to why he has spent the majority of the season in the show. Playing sound defensively is not only imperative in the NHL, but insanely vital in a Brent Sutter system, and Horak understands that. But Horak isn’t the only young blood impressing this season in Flames threads. TJ Brodie, Paul Byron, Derek Smith, and previously mentioned Irving have all impressed during their time with the Flames and GM Jay Feaster is staying true to his word that the youthful players will play if they earn their spot.
So halfway through the season, the Flames are meandering in the lower level of the western conference standings searching for that consistency that has plagued this team for the past couple years.
They have 42 games to change their fate and break a two year playoff-less drought in the Stampede City.
A look at how the Flames have fared against each division this season
10-3-0 vs Northwest
0-2-1 vs Atlantic
6-9-1 vs Central
1-3-1 vs Northeast1-0-2 vs Southeast
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