The Calgary Flames have dug such a hole for themselves that when they play three straight games against the fourth place Montreal Canadiens, they need a win in all of them to find their way back into a playoff fight.
The first of three in four nights was on Friday, with Calgary taking it 4-2. They have renewed life.
The score was extremely flattering to the Canadiens as Jake Allen kept Montreal in a contest they did not belong in. They simply did not bring much even though Joel Armia and Tyler Toffoli scored to create a cosmetically good feel to the scoreboard.
Realistically, you saw Corsi and Expected Goals Percentages that had the look of the Flames playing another team in a lower league. Eric Staal’s Corsi after two periods was seven percent. Jeff Petry’s Corsi was 17 percent before one strong shift late in the contest. Only Tomas Tatar had a Corsi higher than 50 percent.
This was not the Central Red Army. This was the Calgary Flames who have been one of the biggest disappointments this entire season. With the win, though, the Flames are now feeling more alive for the next two games. Part one of their three part mission is complete. Now with a little bit of life, they will work even harder to see how close they can get to this late season miracle.
That wasn’t much of a Wilde Horse section. Did I mention how good Jake Allen was? He was good.
The Canadiens have a difficult time against the Flames for some reason. No one else in the league is too troubled, but the Habs just do not match up well.
It’s likely because the Flames bring physicality a lot and some Montreal players don’t enjoy that much. Then again, one could also make the argument that the recent two games against the Oilers were plenty physical and the Canadiens were right there every step of the way, competing hard.
It’s difficult to know what happens, but something it does, because it’s ugly at times.
In this one, there were so many defensive breakdowns it was stunning. Whether it was on the rush, or on the cycle, the Canadiens defenders could not handle the Flames forwards. But let’s not just pick on the blue liners for once here because the forwards also did not do their part.
On one goal for Calgary, Toffoli had the clear. He had it right on his stick and he was four feet from the blue line. He turned it over and five seconds later it was past Jake Allen.
Another time, Nick Suzuki had the puck just before a clean exit at the blue line, and somehow, he passed it back across the ice to no one. It finally landed on the stick of a Flames forward who was more worried that he was going to be late on the back check; instead, he found himself with a great opportunity to continue the attack.
They just were not sharp, and it’s becoming a bit of a concerning pattern that the club has not put two good games together since they got out of their Covid-19 break. Whenever they win one, the next one is a poor effort. Something just is not clicking with the club.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is right on pace to be a strong NHL centre as he continues his development.
Kotkaniemi is a 10-30-40 player with a good 2-way game at his present season’s pace. However, he is still only 20 years of age which can get lost considering he was brought into the league too early.
Kotkaniemi has shown somewhere in the neighbourhood of a 60-point potential so far, but recently, he is showing that the ceiling might be 10 points higher as he continues his progression. What people forget is that 20 is young to already be achieving success and that some greats did very little at 20 and then went on to tremendous careers.
One of the best historical comparisons for Kotkaniemi is Joe Thornton. Not because there is any expectation that Kotkaniemi will be one of the greatest centres in NHL history, but because Thornton had a dubious start when many gave up on him early, and because he also was brought into the show prematurely.
Thornton went right from draft day to the NHL only three months later where the Boston Bruins thought that he could be the saviour at a tender age. Thornton had three goals in 55 games. In his second full season, Thornton had 40 points and in his third season he had 60 points. It wasn’t until his sixth NHL season that Thornton finally broke out and showed the skill set that he had for the rest of his career.
Another great example is Nathan MacKinnon. Drafted first overall, MacKinnon was rushed into the league to help a failing franchise. MacKinnon had a terrific first season at 63 points, but then regressed for the next three seasons getting fewer points. Many experts hope that their articles and tweets about MacKinnon don’t get rehashed, because it appeared after season four that Nathan was a bust a relative bust at 53 points.
But then the explosion for the Colorado star. He figured it all out in his fifth season. Suddenly 97 points and he has never looked back. He’s one of the best players in the game, but again we see an example of a top ranked player who everyone expected to be a superstar needing five seasons to show better than a 50 point potential.
The final strong example to show that patience is required with these players, especially at the centre position where there is so much to learn, is Mark Scheifele. The Winnipeg Jets centre was taken seventh overall out of the Barrie Colts. The Jets tried him in the NHL that first season where he lasted only seven games. That should have been the path for Kotkaniemi as Scheifele just couldn’t get the puck on his stick enough and was sent to Barrie for a third season of development.
It appeared Scheifele was a bust. Many articles were written that Scheifele was a bad pick and that the scouting staff should be fired for such a huge miss. Scheifele failed in his second try with Winnipeg lasting only four games this time, before everyone could see that he was overmatched. He was 20 at the time and already being written off.
At 21, Scheifele finally landed in the NHL, though he was hardly a lock with 13 goals in 63 games. At least, the Jets could say that they had an NHL player and the pick was not a bust. Keep in mind, this is one year older than Kotkaniemi right now.
It wasn’t until Scheifele was 24 years of age that he finally broke out with an 82 point season. He was drafted in 2011. He found his way in 2017.
Every player is different, but most of the time, even the players who end up shining brightly in the NHL need time to develop at the centre position. For every Sidney Crosby there are 10 Mark Scheifele examples. The centre that bursts on to the scene and has no growing pains as he develops is extremely rare.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is well ahead of schedule. His development may have been arrested by not possessing the puck in his first year to some measure, but there is no way at all that anyone has destroyed the development of this player overall.
He is right on course. What that course is no one can say for certain. Is it 50 points, or 60 points, or can he even become a point-per-game player? All we can say is this: Thornton did not break out until his sixth season, MacKinnon did not break out until is fifth season, Scheifele did not break out until his sixth season.
Kotkaniemi is in his third season, and because of the pandemic, he is not even playing full seasons. When he finishes his sixth season, then we will know much better where he lands on the spectrum. For now, let’s keep remembering that he is 20 and even many greats found the league to be a big and scary place at that age.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.