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Game Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Calgary Flames

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Auston Matthews writes another chapter in his storied rivalry with Matt Stajan

Calgary Flames v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images

MAPLE LEAFS @ FLAMES: GAME 23

Time: 8:30 pm Eastern Time
Location: Calgary Saddledome
Broadcast/Streaming: Sportsnet
Opponent SB Nation Site: Matchsticks & Gasoline

The end of the annual Maple Leafs Battle in Alberta happens tonight. The Leafs face-off against the Calgary Flames at 8:30PM. The Flames are sitting tied for second last in the Western Conference, though the standings are very tight. With 22 points, they are only two wins behind the Oilers and Ducks who are in the division playoff slots.

The real story tonight is Auston Matthews facing off against his long time rival Matt Stajan. As we all know, Matthews already has rivals all over the NHL. Pretty much every team is a Matthews rivalry game.

Stajan is the natural Flames rival for Matthews because he is from the GTA, and used to be a young star for the Maple Leafs. There were in fact days when Stajan was touted as a future Maple Leafs captain, but then he was unceremoniously dumped on Calgary in the Dion Phaneuf trade. Now, Matthews looks like he could someday be the Leafs captain, and that’s a good enough narrative to declare it a rivalry based on the standards set by the Canadian hockey media!

While Matthews easily conquered McDavid last night, I suspect Stajan will be much more of a challenge. He is one of those under the radar players you forget is still even in the league. That, combined with the fact he is from Toronto, and used to be a Maple Leaf, gives him a +8 bonus to hat trick skills.

THIS IS THE BIGGEST RIVALRY IN HOCKEY, FOLKS

Toronto Maple Leafs

Forward Lines

James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner
Leo Komarov - Nazem Kadri - Nikita Soshnikov
Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - Connor Brown
Matt Martin - William Nylander - Ben Smith

Defence Pairings

Morgan Rielly - Nikita Zaitsev
Jake Gardiner - Connor Carrick
Matt Hunwick - Roman Polak

Goaltenders

Jhonas Enroth
Frederik Andersen

Calgary Flames (per @AAVickers)

Forward Lines

Kris Versteeg - Sean Monahan - Troy Brouwer
Matthew Tkachuk - Mikael Backlund - Michael Frolik
Sam Bennett - Matt Stajan - Alex Chiasson
Michael Ferlund - Freddie Hamilton - Garnet Hathaway

Defence Pairings

Mark Giordano - Dougie Hamilton
T.J. Brodie - Deryk Engelland
Jyrki Jokipakka - Dennis Wideman

Goaltenders
Chad Johnson
Brian Elliot

The Flames are a team of young stars, much like the Leafs, however they don’t yet seem to be finding the same level of success this season.

22 year-old Sean Monahan is taking a lot of heat for his very low production to date. After scoring 62 and 63 points respectively in the past two seasons, he has put up only 9 in the first 25 games, on pace for his worst ever season. He was even slapped down all the way to the fourth line at one point last week.

Meanwhile, young star Johnny Gaudreau is out for six weeks after having surgery for a fractured finger. Needless to say, offence has been hard to come by for the Flames. No player on their roster has scored more than 6 goals yet. The Leafs have 3 players who have scored 10 each (JvR, Matthews, and Kadri).

The Flames goal-tending situation has also been controversial. They traded the 35th pick in the last draft to St. Louis in exchange for star goaltender Brian Elliott. Elliott has wound up a flop, carrying an all-situations sv% of only 0.885 after 13 games. That’s far off his career average, including last season’s ridiculous 0.930sv%. It looks like the Flames bought high and sold low there.

However, a silver lining has been the surprise performance of intended backup goalie Chad Johnson. Plucked form obscurity, the journeyman has already played for 6 different NHL teams at 30 years old. He has been a solid starter with league average save rates. HE is expected to be in net tonight.

Since we don’t see the Flames that often, I called in an expert for questions about the team and to find out more of what is going on. A big thanks to MattyFranchise from M&G for his insights.

1) Who is the under the radar scoring player we should look out for this season?

After last season where Mikael Backlund established new career highs in both goals and points I am almost tempted to say him especially since the line of Backlund/Frolik/Tkachuk has been the best and most consistent line this team has had since the beginning of the season. That said, the player I would watch out for is Micheal Ferland. Sitting in a 4 way tie for 7th in team scoring with 9 points (4G 5A) in 25 games along with Sean Monahan (6G 3A) Troy Brouwer (5G 4A) and Captain Mark Giordano (1G 8A) he plays a gritty, physical, and most importantly, clean game receiving only 5 penalty minutes from a fight in Dallas on November 10th.

2) Is Tkachuk really this good to play the whole season and not go back to junior?

Early counting stats and analytics show that yes, yes he is. If we look at his counting numbers Tkachuk has played 21 of 25 Flames games (he missed 4 due to a wrist injury) and has scored 10 points (6G 4A) on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. If he plays every game for the rest of the season (78) this means he's on pace for 22 goals and 15 assists for 37 points. For reference, Sean Monahan in his rookie season, also at the tender age of 18 and straight out of Junior, scored 22-12-34 in 78 games.

Here's the important thing, and where analytics come into play: Tkachuk is getting a measly 36.1 zone start percentage compared to Monahan's 54.5%. Don't get me wrong, 54.5% is perfectly fine for a rookie player at 18 years of age. Heck, it's perfectly fine for a rookie player at any age but it shows that Tkachuk has earned the trust of his coach and for those of us around during the Hartley and particularly the Sutter (either of them) years we know just how difficult it is to earn a coach's trust. Tkachuk is being trusted in a defensive role and for the first 21 games of his NHL career he is rewarding the Amateur Scouting department's faith in picking him so high and the coaching staff's trust to put him in those situations that most rookies never see.

With the Flames salary cap/contract situation getting a lot of relief this coming off season I don't think Tkachuk plays a single minute of CHL hockey ever again.

3) Where did Chad Johnson come from and who broke Brian Elliot?

Chad Johnson came from Buffalo as a kind of "throw in" to the huge news that Brian Elliott had signed with the Flames during free agency. The consensus was that Elliott was a near elite or elite but overlooked goaltender in this league just waiting for a chance to be a bonafide starter while Johnson was just the guy that was from Calgary and ended up being the "other guy" that the Sabres had to fall back on because Lehner suffered a high ankle sprain in his first or second game of the regular season.

Looking at last season from just the basic overall NHL.com stats we have first Elliott who played 42 games for a 23-8-6 record with a 2.07 GAA and .930 SV% while facing 1113 shots in St Louis last season. Chad Johnson ended up with 45 games played for a 22-16-4 record with a 2.36 GAA and .920 SV% while facing 1270 shots. Elliott's got to be better than Johnson right?

Elliott played for a good team last season. Johnson did not. The Blues last season posted a 7th best 51.95% unadjusted even strength corsi rating, Buffalo posted 6th worst 47.52%. St Louis posted a 10th best 51.78% scoring chance rating versus Buffalo's 10th worst. Buffalo allowed more dangerous shots more often for a worse team and finished above league average in several areas. This current Flames team is a lot closer to last season's Sabres than it is to last season's Blues.

The question shouldn't be "where did Chad Johnson come from?" It should be "why didn't we see this coming?" As for who broke Brian Elliott? The Flames did. The Flames did that.

Escaping Alberta with two regulation wins will be a major coup for the Leafs, providing crucial points necessary for a chance to make it to the right side of the playoff bubble.