Alright… it’s time to settle in and have an honest talk about the Calgary Flames.
It’s not a discussion that’s overly pleasant or optimistic, but one that fans and ultimately the franchise as a whole should be having.
Monday night’s 2-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators might look like any other loss throughout the season for the Flames on paper, but it perfectly encapsulated the frustration and failings of the team in recent years.
While it’s true that it was only one game, optimism is fading regarding both the team’s playoff chances in the 2020-21 season and the Stanley Cup prospects of the current core.
Calgary’s struggles through 33 games in the pandemic-shortened season aren’t necessarily new. They are the struggles of a team that has been plagued by drained potential and a lack of cohesiveness dating back close to half a decade.
Throwing around the R-word (rebuild) is something that shouldn’t be the immediate go-to for fans, sometimes it’s more productive for the players to clean up their mess themselves.
But what’s become clear for the Flames is trimming around the edges hasn’t solved anything yet and significant change appears to be on the horizon.
It’s no secret that Calgary has had issues putting the puck in the net this season, ranking ninth-worst in the entire NHL with only 2.64 goals per game.
Monday’s loss to the Senators only seemed to highlight that fact, putting just one puck past Filip Gustavsson in his first-career start and being limited to just two goals in their last seven periods.
The Senators have allowed at least three goals in nine straight games. The last time they allowed fewer was against, well, the Flames. But the last time before that was against, oh look, Calgary again. #SpotThePattern
— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) March 23, 2021
And that’s been the story of the season to this point, as depth scoring proved to be a sizeable issue for Calgary before Darryl Sutter took over the bench earlier this month from Geoff Ward.
Star forward Johnny Gaudreau has seen a bit of a bounce-back in his game this year with 13 goals to his credit, but admitted the Flames are mired in an offensive slump that pre-dates their coaching change.
“We have had trouble scoring a few times throughout the season, even with Geoff [Ward],” said Gaudreau. “I had a two-on-one and decided to pass, didn’t shoot. Sam [Bennett] had another two-on-one and didn’t bury it. I mean, we’re getting our opportunities and we just got to finish, there’s nothing to systems or anything like that.”
It’s a worrying trend, especially for 30-goal scorers Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk, who have just 15 combined goals through those 33 games.
Aside from Gaudreau and Jacob Markstrom between the pipes, Calgary’s best players have not showed much consistency this year when it comes to their counterparts in the North Division.
For Sutter who has been behind the bench for only a few weeks, he’s noticing a correlation between production and an effort level that has been spotty at best.
“This team has trouble scoring goals,” said Sutter. “This is not a two-game thing, I don’t know where that comes from. This team has to check for chances and check well to have a chance to win.”
Call it mounting frustration or a momentary lapse of judgement, but a scene like the end of Monday’s contest highlights the need for change around Calgary.
At the final buzzer, defenceman Rasmus Andersson took the game puck which was likely going to Gustavsson as part of earning his first NHL win. Ottawa took exception and after some choice words and intervention by an official, the Flames defender relinquished the puck to the victors.
Flames make it difficult for the Sens to get the game puck for 22-year-old Filip Gustavsson, who got his first NHL win pic.twitter.com/HtTctLVSlg
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) March 23, 2021
It was a move that many fairly called petty and bush league, though according to Andersson it was an unintentional, heat of the moment move to grab the puck.
Whether that’s true or not only Andersson knows, but it’s yet another sign that things are beginning to unravel when it comes to the Flames and letting their emotions get the better of them.
As they stand right now, this team is nowhere near ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
From a team depth and locker room buy-in perspective, something needs to improve quickly before the Flames repeat history as a mediocrity-plagued team that’s been the norm for the last 15 years.
Shake up the core
A complete tear-down of the club is something that likely isn’t feasible or wanted due to financial implications of the pandemic and some of the young pieces in the Flames stables.
There is a good chance however, that in the coming months Calgary’s core will have to shift to bring some life back into the club.
Both Gaudreau and captain Mark Giordano’s deals are up at the end of the 2021-22 season and certainly losing either to free agency would be an even bigger hit to the Flames.
It’s worth exploring trade routes for both players this off-season, along with possibly Monahan or even Mikael Backlund to bring in a true top weapon in the lineup.
The water is just as murky when it comes to general manager Brad Treliving’s future as well, who is already approaching seven years on the job with just one second round playoff appearance. While Treliving arguably has had more wins than losses when it comes to moves that have built this current iteration of the Flames, that fact can’t be understated.
Most GMs can only survive one or two coaching changes before they receive that fateful call from ownership, however Treliving is already on his fifth coach in six years.
At some point, the carousel has to stop.
Sutter’s three-year contract has made it clear that the Flames are done laying blame at the feet of a coaching staff which has been unable to get the most out of its players.
Calgary’s underperforming both in the regular season and playoffs over the last five years has proven that the problem necessarily hasn’t been strictly in the coach’s office, but down the hall in the locker room.
That’s not to say there aren’t some talented players in Calgary’s core group who have the will and passion to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
But this season is proving it’s time for the Flames to look themselves in the mirror and make some substantial changes to the lineup as a retooling or rebuild.
Or else, we can expect more results like we saw on Monday.