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Flames GM Treliving analyzes progress at the halfway point

Rewind back seven or eight months.

In the aftermath of the 2017-18 National Hockey League campaign, Brad Treliving was evaluating the type of change needed to make his team better.

A new coaching staff. A potential top line winger. A potential top-four defender. Continuing growth from their stars. Depth in their farm system and prospects ready to make the jump. Free agent signings.

As a general manager, the best case scenario is that all of the adjustments, decision-making, time spent on the phone, wondering, and worrying is all worth it; that the team is competitive and could contend in the NHL post-season.

37 games into the 2018-19 campaign and approaching the halfway mark of the season, the Calgary Flames (22-12-3) are sitting No. 2 in the Western Conference coming out of their holiday break. The best team in the Pacific Division.

Is this the best case scenario?

“There’s no such thing,” scoffed Treliving. “We’re all very greedy (as GMs). Whatever your scenario is, you think you can be better,

“Are we happy and proud of what the team has accomplished so far? Yes. Are we sitting in a good position? Yes,” Treliving explained. “But you just look how tight our division is,”

Two points separate his club and the San Jose Sharks (19-12-7). Not far behind are the Vegas Golden Knights with 44 points (20-15-4). They’re also a two-game winning/losing streak away from the Anaheim Ducks (19-14-5).

Up next, the Flames visit the Western Conference leading Winnipeg Jets on Thursday (6 p.m., TSN3, Sportsnet West, Sportsnet 960 The Fan). Heading into the break, they won two straight games and are 8-2-0 in the last 10 games.

Prior to their recent slide — a 2-0 loss at Dallas on Dec. 18, a 5-4 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at home on Dec. 20 and a 3-1 loss to visiting St. Louis on Dec. 22 — the Flames had also gained ground, going 12-2-1 in the previous 15 contests.

“As much as we’ve been on a good run lately, so has everybody else,” pointed out Treliving. His club, it should be noted, were poised to tailspin after losing 9-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins back on Oct. 25. “It’s not like we’ve built this big (separation between other teams). Most times when you go on a run, you build a significant cushion. We are just trying to keep our heads above everybody right now. There’s lots of runway left in the season, lots of good hockey teams that we’re playing. But with everything we’ve gone through with changes, new staff, lots of new players, lots of injuries.

“Yeah, we’ll take the record right now, knowing we’ve got more to give.”

There have been pleasant surprises.

Elias Lindholm, who joined the Flames in the Dougie Hamilton/Micheal Ferland trade with the Carolina Hurricanes in the off-season, has fit on the first line and is on pace for a career season through 37 games with 17 goals and 22 assists.

Their young blueliners have also stepped into the mix. The rookie pairing of Rasmus Andersson and 19-year-old Juuso Valimaki  has been outstanding and, when Valimaki injured his ankle, Oliver Kylington was recalled and has filled in admirably the last nine games.

“It’s hard to win in this league with young defencemen and we have three of them playing at times,” pointed out Treliving who also grouped newcomer Noah Hanifin in the mix. Hanifin, however, is the most experienced of the 20-something blueliners. “That’s pretty significant.”

Goaltending has been an interesting subject with the Flames this season as David Rittich, who was originally pencilled in as Mike Smith’s backup at the beginning of the season, has proved to be a stable option despite his current NHL experience (42 games, 20 of which have come this season). The 26-year-old Czech has an 11-4-2 record, 2.29 goals against average and .923 save percentage. Smith, 36, has had ups and downs with an 11-8-1 record, 2.99 goals against average and .888 save percentage.  He’s shown some flashes of brilliance though and the Flames believe he can still produce.

Free agent signing James Neal has struggled offensively and hasn’t found the net since Nov. 1 against Colorado. A perennial 20-goal scorer for the past 10 seasons, he only has there goals and four assists in 36 games.

“He wants to perform better, we want him to perform better,” Treliving said. “Now, it’s how do you do it? You keep grinding and and pushing and working and block out all the other stuff. It’s no different than any other player that goes through slumps. Don’t worry about what the media is saying, just keep working. That’s all you can do, is work through it and block everything else out.

“We have every confidence in the world that he’s going to pop off at some point. A productive James Neal makes us that much better.”

The injuries have been a potential distractor but by and large the team has worked through it. The Flames lost their second-line centre and top shut-down pivot Mikael Backlund for four games with a concussion and were without his linemate Michael Frolik for 15 games with a high ankle sprain before he returned in Saturday’s matinee and the Flames went their separate ways for the holidays.

They’re still without Valimaki (ankle) and veteran blueliner Michael Stone (blood clot). And, right off the hop, they missed Travis Hamonic for eight games from Oct. 6 to Oct. 23 with a broken jaw.

Getting healthy is a focus. But it’s also allowed Treliving to examine his team’s depth by tapping the Stockton Heat for defenders Oliver Kylington, Dalton Prout, and Rinat Valiev along with forwards Andrew Mangiapane, Alan Quine, Anthony Peluso, Ryan Lomberg, Kerby Rychel and Buddy Robinson in that span.

“Now, we’d like to see us get back to health so we can get a real proper evaluation where we are positionally and things that maybe we can improve on,” Treliving said. “I’ve got a pretty good idea where we can get better at but I’m going to selfishly keep that opinion to myself . . . ”

The Flames are fourth in the NHL with goals-for (127), tied for sixth in goals against (101) with a fourth-overall 2.73 goals against per games played. Their powerplay is top-10 in the league (22.5 per cent) and their penalty killing is 15th (80 per cent). They also allow the second-least shots against per game on average (28.2) and average the 11th-most (32.2) Their face-offs (52.1 per cent) are tied with Anaheim for the fourth-best in the NHL.

At this point of the season, they are much-improved. Treliving applauded his group’s resiliency, competitiveness, and consistency.

But they’re not done yet.

“If you look back through the last eight weeks, there’s been hiccups and burps along the way, but our game that we put out there on most nights is pretty consistent,” he said. “We look organized. We look detailed. And, in a lot of weeks, we look the same when we have the puck and when we don’t have the puck . . . we’re obviously happy with the position we’re in . . .

“But, certainly, there is lots of hockey left to go. We’re not at maximum capacity yet.”

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