30 Teams, (At Least) 30 Thoughts: Calgary Flames

Here are my thoughts on the Calgary Flames at the quarter-mark of the NHL season.

Jay Bouwmeester still hasn’t recaptured his game from Florida. What is up with this guy? So big, such a good skater, good hands for a defenseman. Is he just disinterested in winning? He always seems so nonchalant, like he either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that he’s wasting about as much potential as any player in the NHL. What is the story here?

• It’s really sad about Bouwmeester, too, because if he could just get it together, this Calgary defense would have so much potential with Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman also on board (of course, Cory Sarich might even still outweigh all the positives there, too, but that’s another story).

Unfortunately Bouwmeester hasn’t come close to fulfilling his promise of being a number-one or even number-two (or even number-three) defenseman, and Mark Giordano seems to be playing his worst hockey maybe since coming back from the KHL in 2008, with only two points and a -6 plus/minus in his first nine games of the season, although he’s played somewhat better in the last three, with an assist and a +3 rating.

Plus Giordano, unlike Bouwmeester, has consistently performed at a very high level as recently as last season, so I have faith in him turning it around.

Unlike Bouwmeester.

Wideman, however, I still maintain is an underrated player. He skates well, makes a good first pass, and has a pretty good wrist shot for a defenseman. He’s pretty versed in running a power-play, and has maybe been Calgary’s best defenseman so far.

The cap-hit and term on his contract may not be great, but if he can stay healthy, the cap-hit isn’t that bad, either. Feaster deserves credit for adding to the talent-level of his team wherever he could, because god knows they needed it.

• Another one of Feaster’s offseason signings, Jiri Hudler, falls into the same group for me. Not a perfect player by any means, but the contract was at least in the fair-ish arena, and this Calgary team really needed to add some talent anywhere they could find. Hudler has played very well so far, although I don’t consider him a true elite player and I don’t expect him to keep up his current pace. But he’s a much-needed upgrade to Calgary’s second line for sure.

As for Roman Cervenka, I haven’t seen enough of him to comment, but his signing seems like another smart attempt to raise the skill level of this Calgary Flames team.

• Back to the defense for a moment, I’m surprised T. J. Brodie hasn’t gotten more games and more opportunity. I know he’s young and there are still areas in his game that need to be ironed out, but when I’ve watched him play I’ve been very impressed.

It especially surprises me because here in San Jose I’m surrounded by fans who really like Justin Braun and hype him up so high, and yet I think Brodie is noticeably better than Braun, but you never hear anything from Flames fans about him. Curious.

Regardless, as a team struggling for offense, the Flames really need to play this kid more. He’s one of the more talented players on their team, actually, with obvious exception to guys like Jarome Iginla.

Two players who stick out this season as being on the decline despite still being in what should be their prime playing years: the two Mike’s, Mike Richards and Mike Cammalleri. (I wrote this “thought” before Cammalleri’s recent hat-trick performance, but I stand by what I’ve written here).

Without having any inside information on either player or how they train, my experience over the years as someone who analyzes NHL teams and players tells me that Cammalleri is unmotivated and out of shape.

I just don’t believe for one second that it’s an accident, natural decline, or shooting percentage or luck that is to blame for Cammalleri’s poor play and poor production. I think it’s as simple as he was motivated during his contract year to work hard and get in great shape, which gave him the extra speed and strength needed to get into positions to use his sweet hands and wrist shot, and that’s what led to him scoring 39 goals and 82 points in a season.

Then he cashed in, and since then he seems to have let himself go in my opinion. Maybe Feaster thought he would re-dedicate himself after being traded back to Calgary, but so far it’s obvious he hasn’t. He looks slow sluggish out there. It’s actually been Rene Bourque, with about one-half Cammalleri’s cap-hit, who has come out this season guns blazing, looking like a completely different player, much stronger, faster, and hungrier.

Unfortunately for Flames fans, it seems Cammalleri hasn’t taken the same approach as Bourque, either in his off-season training or his attitude in games. Some of these undersized players just don’t seem to get it. It’s the same with Mike Richards, although just not to the same extent as Cammalleri. But he also has seen been slipping in the fitness area I believe, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we started to see a decline in the on-ice play of these players around the same time that we started to hear about off-ice issues and distractions surrounding them.

It just makes too much sense to not be true, plus even if you ignored the clues the logic, it’s right there for everyone to see when you watch them on the ice. They’re just not as fast, strong, or explosive as they used to be.

But as I was saying about undersized players, they especially need that elite leg strength, the overall body strength and spring in their legs. They need to be better in those areas than everyone else because everyone else is going to be better than them in the plain old area of size.

For example, you can’t be 5’9″ like Mike Cammalleri and be anything but very fast and expect to be a top goal scorer in the NHL. You certainly can’t settle for above-average speed like Cammalleri has now and expect to still be an impact player.

Just watch Martin St Louis play. I watched him recently on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s local telecast, and the commentators wouldn’t stop talking about how physically strong St Louis was, that people didn’t realize, and how he was always working out, so dedicated, such a fitness buff. And when you pay attention, you hear the same about the older guys who are still dominating like Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney, and Teemu Selanne.

Or when someone has a huge breakout season, you often hear about how that player hit the gym harder than ever the summer before, like Steven Stamkos did the summer before his breakout second season where he trained with Gary Roberts. And then when a player declines, like Alex Ovechkin, you start hearing mumblings from teammates and other sources that he stopped working out as hard.

Or, more specifically to Mike Cammalleri, you can just look at the other successful undersized players in the NHL, like Patrick Kane, Jeff Skinner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, even Tyler Ennis. The people who said you couldn’t be small and be a great NHL player were wrong, but small and slow? How about small and anything about extremely quick?

Pretty much every elite forward in the NHL who is under 5’10” just so happens to be among the top five or ten most quick forwards in the entire NHL. Michael Cammalleri is below 5’10” but he is not among the most quick players like he used to be, and you can see the results in his production (or lack there of) the last couple seasons.

And people don’t realize, those guys like Kane and Skinner also have extremely strong legs, which help them to protect the puck and bounce off checks while maintaining their balance.

Fitness is the key. Small doesn’t have to mean weak or overmatched physically. Small players have a lower center of gravity, and as long as they are in top shape and get their legs very powerful like the aforementioned players they can excel, even along the boards in a grinding league like the NHL.