In Less Than 1 ½ Years Organization is Totally Different
There was a time when Calgarians could make fun of the Edmonton Oilers organization as a whole. Haha, your city is using hundreds of millions of tax payer money to fund a private billionaire’s arena build. Haha, your rebuild sucks and it’s taken you over 15 years to build an incomplete team. Haha, you only have two good players who won’t stay when their contracts are up. Haha, you needed 1st Round pick after 1st Round pick to moderately become competitive, and only are because you lucked out on a generational talent (and you won so many times the League changed the draft rules.)
Well the hahas are done.
In Alberta, and heck maybe the league, Calgary spent the 2022-23 season as the laughing stock. Poor decision making and leadership over the course of years finally came to a head. Last season, from top to bottom, underperformance. Unprecedented pre-season problems that handcuffed the team’s success. And let’s not forget a head coach that was caught in the Dinosaur ages literally driving players out of the organization. So has anything changed? To figure out where the Flames are going, let’s go on a whirlwind summary over the past not quite 18 months to remember (or forget) the highlights that have made the team what it is today.
- Before the 2022-23 season began the Flames had an unprecedented problem. One could say that the problems happened even earlier, much earlier in fact. Stemming from COVID even. As the dust settled from a disappointing exit against the Edmonton Oilers (haha), TWO superstars voiced they wanted out. Sure. Gaudreau left in a lurch giving signs he was going to re-sign a lucrative 10.5 million 8-year deal, but at the last second (so we’re led to believe), he opted for, of all places, Columbus. He sure wanted to be close to home/family, and sure didn’t want to play in Canada. Then there’s Matt Tkachuk. One year left on his deal. Didn’t want to play in Canada (COVID didn’t help). He gave the GM time to absorb that re-signing wasn’t going to be in the cards. Brad Treliving wound up losing Gaudreau for absolutely nothing. A huge blunder that should’ve cost him his job. Then he lost Tkachuk but this time managed to get a sizeable return that in theory looked good on paper. 2 star players in Huberdeau and Weegar, 1 so-so prospect, and one 1st round draft pick. But to lose not one, but TWO, bonafide superstars, was an indicator that everything was not alright in Flamesville.
- Losing one superstar for nothing should’ve been the end for the GM. Losing two? That’s a loss was unprecedented in the modern NHL. Yet owners offered the GM a contract extension AFTER the debacle of losing two franchise players. He turned it down (so we learned in the following off-season). Why? The coach. A lot of questions swirled about why Gaudreau took $16 million LESS to play in Columbus??? Why Tkachuk immediately decided he’d sign a long-term contract elsewhere? What was going on in the locker room that made these two American stars want to up and leave?
- Fast forward a full year. This past off-season saw Tyler Toffoli traded to New Jersey. Toffoli was the typical guy who said all the right things. He spoke well of the coach during the season and ultimately was angling for a long-term contract (Anywhere really). Once he was traded from the Flames, however, the truth started trickling out. On a podcast with Spittin’ Chicklets, he shared a story about how during a game where they were outplaying the opponents badly in the 1st period, but the score remained 0-0, Sutter was pacing the bench muttering how the team would have to go to Winsport (on the edge of the city) for practice when they got home. So the guy who was one of the only Sutter apologists was really taken aback by the coach’s style/antics. That’s what you need to know.
- The knock on Darry Sutter is his personality. Straight forward gunslinger who won’t take no for an answer, and no input on how he coach’s. Maybe that’s harsh. Sutter knows the game, just player management is utterly poor. You had a clear sense as last season progressed that the players were not buying into the boring defensive style hockey that never produced results. The Flames broke records on how many OT losses they accumulated (17). That’s how close it was. The team needed 2-3 wins in OT, someone to step up, and they would’ve coasted into the post-season instead of golfing early. Can you put the blame at the coaches feet? Absolutely. Do we pay attention to the coach and his senseless antics more when the team loses? Yup. Was it all Sutter’s fault? Heck no.
- Sutter and Treliving had problems that came to the surface in the 22-23 season. That especially became evident when Sutter utterly refused to play younger players. His mantra is the NHL is a hard game and you need to spend your time in the AHL before getting ice in the NHL. Sure. Makes sense. But with the big team sorrily lacking scoring for long stretches during the season, fresh legs was a potential antidote. Matthew Phillips, tearing up the AHL in scoring; Jacob Pelletier also having a strong year; Walker Duehr eventually pulled up for his speed; all of these players (except the 4th line grinder), couldn’t crack the lineup and displace the aged vets. Sutter refused to give them time. That, to the coach, is the key piece the coach has–the lineup. What the coach can’t do is score goals. What the coach can’t do is make saves.
- Jacob Markstrom. The worst season ever as a starter. 2.92 GA is not NHL calibre. .892 SV % is not NHL calibre. Markstrom makes 10 more saves and the Flames make the playoffs and maybe we don’t talk about how terrible the PP or OT or scoring was. The Flames make the playoffs. It doesn’t change the absolute toxicity in the room caused by the coach, but it does take the focus off. Markstrom needs to bounce back because there’s 3 years left in his deal. The Flames have no chance if he doesn’t find his game. But maybe it’s a good thing–that Markstrom had (what we hope is) an off-season that exposed a rotten room.
- When the dust settled on last year’s season the player exit interview said all that needed to be said. Everyone that could stated how they were now re-thinking signing in Calgary. Even lifetime Flames Mikael Backlund said he was going to think about it. Hanafin, Lindholm, Toffoli, all opining how they were looking to be traded. What was happening in Calgary? GM Treliving announced his resignation early in the off-season. Then came “the reviews”. President of hockey operations Don Maloney set out to do damage control. The ship was sinking and top players were unhappy. That was going to spillover into other players and potential FA. At this time the coach was still employed, ready to start a new 2-year contract. But the writing was on the wall.
- A week later the announcement came: Darryl was out. Fans rejoiced. Astute fans mumbled how that wouldn’t change Markstrom’s terrible season and Huberdeau’s cataclysmic point drop. But new blood was coming, maybe. The Flames as an organization, under the billionaire ownership of Murray Edwards, are a perennial mid-tier organization. They don’t win much, but they don’t lose much either. About .500, or just enough to keep fans happy. That’s not to say Edwards is ‘cheap’, which he is (see arena deal), since the Flames’ do ice a team that’s been at the max cap since there was a cap pretty much. But this off-season was an opportunity. Rare one at that. New blood at GM and the GM would then find new coaches. What did the Flames do? They hired in-house.
- Although Craig Conroy has been learning the ropes as GM for nearly a decade, and although he’s going to bring a new perspective, it was the safest hire to make. Don’t hear me wrong, it wasn’t necessarily the wrong hire. It was just safe to sign the guy who knows everyone at the office. That’s probably wise given the relationship Conroy has with the players, and how many fences he was going to have to mend. So off Conroy went, first order of business, chat with players and hire a coach. And he did. What did the Flames do? They hired in-house.
- Yes, the search committee went far and wide (which isn’t far nor wide in the NHL where the same names get recycled over and over again). But at least this wasn’t Columbus where they tried to bring in the old guard yet again. Having run its course here, the old-guard type wasn’t going to cut it. It was a toss up between two internal candidates: Ryan Huska, who came through every level of the organization; or AHL coach Mitch Love. Huska won, Love went to Washington and eventually courted Phillips who understandably wanted out of the Flames’ organization after never getting a shot. (By the way, PP ‘genius’ Kirk Muller is in Washington now too. LOL.) The question for this year’s 23-24 Flames–will the players adjust to Huska’s system? Will we see more scoring (please yes). Will we see more creativity and speed? Or will we see boring defensive hockey and one-goal losses?
- There wasn’t really a way to gauge the temperature of the players until training camp this year started. Yes, the GM said younger players were going to get their shot. Yes, he was going to roll out the carpet for returning vets. The players themselves had to get a feeling for the new atmosphere as well. In just over one season the entire culture changed because apart from coaches and the GM, which are all completely new, the Flames are different too. Huberdeau is here and looking for a bounce back season. Kadri is second in the superstar category. It’s not Gaudreau and Tkachuck, it’s prove it time for Huberdeau and Kadri. Lindhom is quietly looking to cash in on a major contract extension. He’s going to be expensive and may handcuff Calgary’s future investing a sizeable portion of their cap in aging forwards. A rock and a hard place and Conroy’s first major test.
- Conroy has managed to right the listing ship. Almost on day-one he called buddy Jarome Iginla to come back into the organization officially. Fans rejoiced. “We have unfinished business,” said Iginla, referring to the heartbreaking 2004 Stanley Cup loss (it was in). Then came news the Flames were finally going to retire the jersey of Miikka Kiprusoff. Not sure what the wait was other than the org needed an easy win.
- Conroy then managed to shore-up the leadership vacancy. Throughout last season it was clear that the players (and fans to a lesser degree) saw Mikael Backlund as the bonafide Captain. But Sutter didn’t. Sutter wanted to be captain. Sutter said Canadian markets are hard for captains and he didn’t see one. Everyone else did. It didn’t help that Backlund was wishy washy on whether he wanted to re-sign with the only organization he has known during the off-season. But a week or so after camp started, Conroy announced the signing. 2 more years (so 3 including this year) for Backlund, at a team-friendly 4.5 million, and he would get the coveted ‘C’. I’m already seeing a difference in Backlund and how he handles himself. It’s the right choice.
- And what about the promise to get younger and give the prospects a chance to make the team? Conroy seems to have made good on that promise, not singing a plethora of veteran PTOs for training camp. The young guns from the A got their chance, and outside of Pelletier who will be out for 3-4 months with a shoulder injury suffered in pre-season, the lineup will have Matt Cornato and his wicked shot from the right-wing, Walker Duehr, and hopefully Ruzcika a mainstay on the 4th line. The players have a LOT to prove this year, starting with the stars, but so-far, the new look Flames will be a breath of fresh air. But only time will tell how they fair.
- Although some players mentioned it, the problem with the organization isn’t the aging rink. Throw that stupidity out the window. Ya, the Saddledome is old, but no player gives up 16 million or a contract because the rink is old. Yes, many players don’t want to play in Canada for a variety of reasons, but no player opts out of Canada because the rink is old. Professional hockey is professional hockey, and ya, facilities are added perks, but millions of dollars don’t sway that decision. You heard it through the media because most of the Calgary media is pro-Flames and pro tax dollars going to help billionaires build privately controlled event centres. As you may have guessed, tax dollars for sports arenas are a terrible use of tax payer dollars. In conservative Alberta it’s wild how much corporate socialism is tolerated. I digress. The new arena is now finalized, complete with 3/4 billion from municipal and provincial tax dollars.
Keys to 2023-24 success?
Will the Flames make the playoffs? Are they a better team this year than last? Can they beat out Edmonton or Vegas for a playoff spot? The answers are something like: Maybe, Yes, No. If they get the goaltending they should’ve last year, and if the new system increases team scoring, on paper (just like last mind you) the Calgary Flames are built to succeed. Mind you, so should any team who has a max payroll, but after the debacle over the past 18 months, that no organization has really seen…ever, the Flames are do for some 2004 variety of success.
Go Flames Go?