When the Calgary Flames made it to the playoffs a year ago, it was the first time since the 2008-09 season that they had done so.
When they beat the Vancouver Canucks to advance to the second round, it was the first time they had won a playoff series since they made the Stanley Cup Final in 2004.
That success didn’t carry over to this past season however, as the Flames finished 26th in the league and were never really in the hunt for the playoffs. Why? Well, the easy answer would be goaltending, but it goes beyond that.
Here are five things the Flames can do this offseason to get back into the playoffs.
1. Acquire a starting goalie
If the Flames want any hope of even sniffing the playoffs, they’ll need to revamp their goaltending. Last season they finished dead last in the NHL with an .892 team save percentage. That’s not even close to good enough.
Hiller in net? #Flames don't even want win?
— Jesse Anttila (@Jeffexi) March 30, 2016
The Flames used four different goalies this season; Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio, and Niklas Backstrom. None of them are signed through next year, and all are UFAs except Ortio. That means the Flames can add at least one new goalie into the mix.
There won’t be a shortage of available goalies, and the Flames will need to choose carefully.
Do they go for a free agent option? Frederik Andersen, James Reimer, and Cam Ward are all likely candidates to hit free agency, with up-and-coming starters replacing them on their current teams.
They could also look to acquire a goalie via trade. Usually goalies don’t cost an arm and a leg to acquire, and the Flames have a number of 2nd-round picks they could use as part of a package for say, Marc-Andre Fleury or Jimmy Howard.
It won’t be hard for the Flames to improve on their goaltending from last year. In fact, it’d be hard not to. But they should choose carefully about which goalie will best match their style of play.
2. Hire a coach/improve special teams
Coaching and special teams pretty much go hand-in-hand with one another.
Last season, the Flames ranked 22nd on the power play (17.0%) and dead last in penalty kill (75.0%). That was likely one of the factors in the firing of Bob Hartley.
The Flames need a new head coach, one who can guide this young team to play a structured defence and have effective PP/PK systems.
We know now it won’t be Bruce Boudreau, Guy Boucher, or Marc Crawford, who have already been hired by NHL teams. Too bad, because under Boudreau the Anaheim Ducks were first in both power play and penalty kill this season.
Do they turn to a coach with previous NHL head coaching experience? The Flames have asked to interview Mike Yeo, and Randy Carlyle has previous ties to Brian Burke.
Dreger on people connecting Carlyle to #Flames b/c of Burke: "I would say he's in the mix, but I'm not going to call him a front-runner."
— Chris Nichols (@NicholsOnHockey) May 10, 2016
There’s also the possibility the Flames hire a coach with little-to-no experience at the NHL level. Kevin Dineen, current assistant coach for the Chicago Blackhawks, is one option. The Canucks’ AHL coach Travis Green is another who may be ready for the next level. A recent option mentioned is longtime assistant Geoff Ward, who’s currently coaching with Germany at the World Hockey Championships in Russia.
The Flames have said they’ll take their time with this decision, which makes sense with GM Brad Treliving also in Russia for the tournament.
3. Sign a top-6 forward
The Flames made a smart decision at the deadline when they moved pending-UFA Jiri Hudler to the Florida Panthers for two picks – a 2nd and a 4th – in this year’s draft. At 32-years-old, it was best the Flames got assets for him and bottomed out this season.
But the Flames will need someone to replace him for next season if they want to get back to the postseason. This year’s free agency is expected to yield some big names; Loui Eriksson, Eric Staal, Kyle Okposo, and of course, Steven Stamkos are among the top forwards that could be available.
The Flames could look for a right winger to play with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau on their top line. Eriksson could be a good fit, and he scored 30 goals this season in Boston.
Alternatively, they could look for an improvement at the 2nd-line centre position and make a move for someone like Staal.
Even though the Flames were among the top offensive teams this past season, it would be foolish not to try and snag a top-six forward to take some pressure off of Monahan and Gaudreau.
With an estimated $25-million in cap space for next season, they can afford it.
4. Add size up front
In addition to a top-six scorer, the Flames could use some more size amongst their forward group. The team finished 22nd in total hits last season, averaging 10 less hits per game than the leading LA Kings. Outside of Joe Colborne and Michael Ferland, the Flames don’t really have any gritty, big forwards to play in the bottom six.
Signing someone like Troy Brouwer, Jamie McGinn, or even Jason Chimera could not only help with an increased physical presence, but also boost the team’s league-worst penalty kill.
Ideally, the Flames could kill two birds with one stone and pick up a big power-forward style player to play in the top-six. If Milan Lucic or Andrew Ladd become available in free agency, it’d make sense for the Flames to be among their top pursuers.
5. Play better on the road
There’s no easy solution for this one, but the Flames will need to be better away from the Saddledome. Last season the Flames were the third-worst road team in the NHL at 14-24-3. At home, they were actually above .500 at 21-16-4.
If the Flames do the other things on this list, this issue should fix itself. Having a better goaltender, a more physical group, and a coach with good control of his players will go a long way to improving the Flames’ road record.
It’s a lot to ask, and even if the Flames do all these things, there’s still no guarantee of making playoffs. But take a look at the San Jose Sharks.
After missing the playoffs last season, the Sharks added a starting goalie in Martin Jones and a new coach in Peter DeBoer. They also added a proven playoff performer and penalty-killer in Joel Ward. Now, they’re only two wins away from their first-ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
Of course, before the Flames even think about any of this, they’ll need to focus on signing Gaudreau and Monahan – the faces of the franchise – to new deals.
Good luck this summer, Mr. Treliving.