By David Song, March 7 2017 —
Despite an underwhelming start to the season, the Calgary Flames have battled their way to the fourth spot in the Pacific Division. As of March 7, they hold the top wild card spot in the West. The team has won seven games in a row, including a crucial overtime bout against the division-rival Los Angeles Kings. Coach Glen Gulutzan’s unit finally appears to have hit its stride and are gunning hard for the playoffs.
Good news came in the form of three roster moves leading up to the March 1 trade deadline. In order to bolster their struggling blueline, Calgary signed Matt Bartkowski from Boston and acquired Michael Stone from Arizona in exchange for a pair of draft picks.
Stone is the most important pickup. The ex-Calgary Hitman boasts a great point shot and a physical, well-rounded play style. He slots immediately into the top four, allowing
Gulutzan to keep an aging, ineffective Dennis Wideman in the press box. Bartkowski has mobility and puck-moving skills and could be useful on the third pairing alongside the physical, stay-at-home Deryk Engelland.
On March 1, the Flames sent a second round pick and defenceman Jyrki Jokipakka to Ottawa for forward Curtis Lazar and blueliner Mike Kostka. The 22 year-old Lazar is a 2015 World Juniors gold medallist. Despite posting only one assist in 33 games this year, the former first-round pick has untapped potential. A change of scenery could help him find his way as a versatile two-way forward. Kostka represents additional defensive depth in case of injury to one of the starters.
In addition to acquiring key pieces, Calgary has seen improvements from existing players as the season progresses. Blueliner Dougie Hamilton went from a -9 to a +4 on the year and is on pace for a 50-point season, finally displaying the dynamic two-way acumen that the Flames acquired him for. He should continue to progress nicely playing alongside Stone.
First-line centre Sean Monahan has notched 20 goals and 20 assists in 64 games, a far cry from the slump he began the year in. Rookie first-rounder Matthew Tkachuk is on pace for 53 points and goalie Brian Elliott has clawed up to a .901 save percentage in net. His improved play will take pressure off the overachieving Chad Johnson.
These individual improvements have translated into a better team performance. The Flames power play was ranked 27th in the NHL last November, but they have once improved to 14th with a 19.6 per cent success rate. They are 18th in goals for and 12th in goals against — middling stats, but the team is peaking at the right time. A steady effort down the stretch will help Calgary avenge last year’s disappointment and punch their ticket to the postseason.