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Between a rock and a hard place: The harsh truth about the current state of the Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames want to compete for a cup, but aren’t playing to the strengths of their roster - why?

NHL: MAR 24 Flames at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was an offseason filled with lots of optimism. For the first time since 2012-13 the Calgary Flames had a sure-fire starting goalie that management felt could lead them through the first round of the postseason. Some quality depth signings to fill holes and add depth were brought in, as well as a steady veteran presence to replace the departed TJ Brodie in Chris Tanev. On paper this was set to improve upon the previous two years of failure and take a step forward in the 2021 season.

Hindsight is always 20-20. The depth signings haven’t been as impactful as one would have originally thought — Josh Leivo gets scratched consistently and Dominik Simon finds himself living the rest of his season out on the Taxi Squad. Jacob Markstrom started out the season on fire, before he was over-played past the point of comfort and injured himself in the process. Tanev has been an absolute revelation on the back end, but Mark Giordano’s dreaded decline has hit in full force to counter the positive impact on that front. The roster has also seen hardly any consistency in lineup deployment since the puck dropped opening night.

That was just the impact of the new guys, the returning players have failed to find their footing as well. On top of the Giordano situation, the Flames have Johnny Gaudreau doing everything he can to create offense, but he is being handcuffed by how he’s being told to play. Sean Monahan went from a guaranteed 20 goal scorer to bringing a third liner offensive level of impact. Matthew Tkachuk was told (allegedly) by his own teammates to settle down and thus was thrown completely off his game. The young guns in Dillon Dube and Jusso Valimaki have shown flashes of what they could be, but still are adjusting to the league on a game-to-game basis. All-in-all the season of potential optimism quickly devolved into a shroud of tension surrounding the squad which accumulated with a collapse against the last place Senators where the Flames lost two of three games that they HAD to win to keep pace in the North division.

When they returned home from a long tumultuous road trip, the club was able to win a game, but the actions had already been set in motion — the current Flames head coach (Geoff Ward) who was given the job after Bill Peters was released, was also fired, with Darryl Sutter coming in to replace him. It was the last-ditch effort to save the season, the final attempt to shuffle the blame from the core of players and see if they could try and win together. The team went 0-1-1 in two games under Ryan Huska while Sutter was in COVID protocol and have a record of 5-6-0 while he’s behind the bench. As of writing this Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz.com has the Flames down to just 16% chance of making the playoffs. This new (old) coach says he’s only here to win a Stanley Cup, but they are nowhere close to making the second dance – so how do you proceed going forward?

You start by making sure the management team has a clear direction for roster construction and planned style of play going forward. This is something I believe the GM team and ownership aren’t on the same page with. Brad Treliving is not a terrible GM, he constructed a roster that finished first in the west (2018-19) playing a certain style of scoring & rush-based hockey that meshed well with the roster he had assembled. It strikes me as extremely odd that he would completely alter his vision for how a team needs to succeed after one failed playoff push. He didn’t choose to fire the coach he had picked to run the roster, but he had to (and rightfully so) and never got a chance to replace him with another guy of his choosing. Is it really Brad making these coaching calls? I highly doubt it.

So now you’ve got a roster not built in any way/shape/form to play the style of play your new head coach is demanding. The square pegs of the players don’t fit into Sutter’s round holes no matter what he says in his post-game press conferences. If you’re going to move forward with this coach the roster needs to be completely reconstructed to fit what is needed. This team isn’t ever going to bottom out willingly to get high end talent. They need to get lucky and win a lottery — something they’ve never done — if they want a shot at a generational talent in 2022 or 2023. It is more likely that ownership is going to want GMBT to “re-tool” this team into a heavy checking force that can retrieve pucks from defenders with force.

Edmonton Oilers v Calgary Flames Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

Does this mean it’s time to say goodbye to Johnny Gaudreau? Probably yes. Do I want him to go? No not at all. My personal opinions of how to play hockey align more with Treliving’s original vision that we saw play out in 2018-19 than anything I’ve watched the Flames do since the pandemic began, but unfortunately with the choices this franchise is making it is writing the script on the wall for Gaudreau’s future — clear as day. The issue here is the entire roster isn’t built to be big-bruising forecheckers — and trading Gaudreau won’t fix that. Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Dube, and even Tkachuk are not strong forecheckers — they all play better when they’re skating and looking for passing lanes coming into the zone than they do on puck retrievals from dump-ins. Andrew Mangiapane is probably the best forechecker this team has — and he was demoted to the fourth line.

If you want this team to succeed in the current climate that’s being created for them, I’ve got bad news for you, they won’t. Trading one core piece — no matter who it is — won’t fix it either. If this is a team that want’s to truly transition to the crash & bang style of play they have employed since the bubble playoffs, then they are going to need to overhaul almost the entire group of forwards to find strong play-driving centers and wingers that are strong in puck retrievals & forechecks. A true number one center is something that comes to mind as an absolute necessity for this to work, but nobody offering one wants the Flames spare change that they couldn’t buy any milk with. Here comes some honesty as well: The Flames prospect pool isn’t deep enough to buy a number 1C either. This isn’t something you can just do with a re-tool.

NHL: MAR 29 Jets at Flames Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So, what are they doing here? What is the direction? What is the goal? They can give the easy road answer of “to win the Stanley Cup” until the cows come home, but right now it just seems to me that there are too many puppeteers pulling strings in different directions for that to come to fruition. They’ve handcuffed themselves intentionally and they don’t even realize it. If the Sutter hiring had paid immediate dividends, it would have been a home run, but it didn’t and now there’s even more questions than there was before you brought him back.

This is a roster that needs to go back to the old style of play they had success with that has gone too far in the other direction for that to be a feasible request. This is a coaching staff that needs a new roster constructed through a rebuild that doesn’t want to wait for a rebuild. This is a franchise with an ownership group that has inserted itself into daily operations instead of letting the man hired do his job. This is a franchise with players too skilled in quality positions to ever bottom out for a generational talent. This is a franchise that’s going to continue to struggle because they have no consensus idea — at every level of the organization — on what they want to be or how they want to compete.