It’s mid-way through this 2022-23 NHL season and the Calgary Flames are struggling to find consistency to their game. The off-season acquisitions have certainly thrown the overall makeup of the team for a loop that they haven’t been able to solve 41 games into the season. I think everyone had a sense there would be an adjustment period, but few have the patience for half a season of adjustment.
But then again, maybe it should be expected? Maybe the Flames are not a contender/”win now” team. Maybe if fans accepted the team will never enter a rebuild, but simultaneously won’t be better than a .500 club, the lack of results would be easier to swallow?
Half-Way Point Thoughts
One wonders if by not naming a captain, Darryl Sutter has made the Flames ‘his team’. It certainly shifts the attention of poor performance to him, which may be a good thing, but ultimately for a veteran team, someone inside needs to take ownership of the room (pure speculation of course, none of us are in the room).
Deployment has been Sutter’s achilles heel. Unwilling to give younger players, and certainly not farm callups, a chance to crack the lineup. Regular use of 4th liners like Ritchie, Lewis, and Lucic, call into question the big “plan” for the club, and Sutter’s ability to adjust. One thing is clear, he’s playing a lineup that’s constantly showing the gaping hole in the top 6 wing. As if Treliving should find a solution. But unless you’re drafting talent, a team like the Flames who play at the cap, finding help won’t come without giving up a sizeable piece in return.
The notable assets on the team were supposed to be on defence. That’s why they gave up Valimaki for absolutely nothing, losing him on waivers. They opted to keep Connor Mackey. The latter not showing growth, and not giving a chance to play much this season. One couldn’t predict the loss of Oliver Kylington for what is likely the entire season. That’s a big piece missing. But even so, the Flames have struggled on D. What was supposed to be a strength has yet to show consistency let alone dominance.
Part of the D relies on your goaltender bailing you out, and apart from a strong December, Jacob Markstrom has had issues finding his game. It seems evident for armchair GMs to note that overplaying the starting goalie doesn’t bode well long-term. Despite Sutter’s pre-season plan to get Dan Vladar one game a week, that hasn’t remotely happened. Instead, it’s back to riding Markstrom for stretches even when he struggles. Having a better rotation would keep Markstrom fresh, because there are flashes of absolute brilliance.
The biggest problems remain on offence. Despite putting up high shot totals, the team can’t score. The system Sutter has devised is to just throw shots on net in hopes something goes in. That makes mediocre goalies and teams look really good vs the Flames. It’s also a terrible strategy. Although the relentless forecheck and speed seems to be coming online over the past six weeks, execution is completely missing. Maybe the holes in the lineup left from the two massive off-season losses of Gaudreau and Tkachuck can’t be filled?
The acquisitions that came the other way still haven’t panned out the way the club would like. Huberdeau is struggling to adapt to a more defensive game. It doesn’t help he doesn’t play with elite wingers. Huberdeau has unquestionably become the biggest disappointment this season. Although adjustment takes time, it doens’t even appear that Sutter is willing to build around the highest paid player’s (next season) strengths. Most recently, shackling the 2nd line with Milan Lucic, who I’m sure brings ‘intangibles’ but can’t be asked to do more than he can night in and night out.
Kadri has been relatively consistent, although only had 3 regular strength goals in 16 games throughout December. You get what you pay for he’s come as advertised. Same as the third line with Backlund leading the charge. Not leading the charge is Mangiapane. Fresh off a new contract, he’s putting in some career low numbers.
Without a star calibre player providing star calibre finish, the Flames struggle every single game to score. Part of that is personnel (Dube is now a 1st line LW? no wonder Lindholm ‘s production has dropped 30%), part of it is system. Just look at special teams. PK is great. PP? Just terrible. No sense of direction. No big shot (try Toffoli here guys). No threat. One of the league’s worst. When you stack your 1st PP with your ‘best’ players, and they can’t get it done, it gives you a sense of the overall problems Calgary has to score.
So often the post-game excuses revolve around ‘so close but so far’ mentality. 1 goal games that the Flames constantly lose. It’s evident the team hasn’t bought into the notion that they have to string together 60 minute performances because they don’t have a game closer who can change the tide on his own.
Although Defence ultimately wins championships, Calgary has yet to find their stride offensively, and coaching staff seems reluctant to make changes to bring up AHL talent that’s tearing things up down there. But when changes do happen, players aren’t taking their opportunities. In other words, nobody is stepping up, and when there is a little bit of success, unless you’re named Lucic, you get a VERY short leash.
Can the Flames turn it around in time to solidify their playoffs? Right now their play is in disarray and inconsistent. One wonders if they should just settle to be deadline sellers and tank for Bedard (but that would never work à la ‘Edmonton Oilers 1st round draft lottery win’ despite wild dreams).