The season’s finally a quarter of the way through for the Calgary Flames. They are the last team in the North Division to hit the 14 games played mark. By now, we have a much better sense of what this year’s Flames will look like. Undoubtedly, top level goaltending from Jacob Markstrom plus a superb start to the season from Johnny Gaudreau will take the spotlight.
But what about the players that haven’t quite met expectations? Who are they and how do they fit into the picture? We turned to the Sunday Census to see what fans had to say about this.
On Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we posed the following:
Pick one Flames player not meeting expectations that you’re most disappointed with so far.
Tabulating the results, here’s how it all went down.
All eyes on Tkachuk
Among the answers, Matthew Tkachuk was listed the most often. Clearly, his on-ice products leave much to be desired from fans, but what would have to change? After 13 games played, Tkachuk’s sitting with five goals and five assists, good for fourth in team scoring behind Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan. Let’s dive deeper and look at his underlying numbers.
At 5v5 with score-and-venue adjusted stats, Tkachuk has the following stats:
He’s been playing good hockey all things considered, but for some reason he’s looked really, really ineffective. Tkachuk’s not playing with the same tenacity as he usually does, and it’s unfortunate to see it. Whether he’s injured or if it’s something else plaguing him, he’s definitely someone that stands to benefit the most (and so too will the Flames) if he’s able to find his form again.
Leivo with lots to be desired
Josh Leivo was another oft mentioned name. As someone who’s never played more than 49 games in a season and has never scored more than 19 points, there was still excitement with his addition to the roster. His role was meant to be a reliable depth player that can find the back of the net every now and then.
Maybe the disappointment comes from his total lack of production, or even his inability to find a scoring touch when playing on the same line as Gaudreau and Monahan too. However, he hasn’t been that bad at all. Seemingly skewered by no puck luck whatsoever, he’s actually been quite reliable in all aspects other than scoring.
Leivo’s numbers aren’t bad at all, but he could use a lot more luck. When he’s on the ice, the Flames’ shooting percentage is its lowest at 4.4%. It can’t stay that low forever, so here’s to hoping Leivo’s play is rewarded sooner rather than later.
Bennett needs to be better
With whatever is going on with Sam Bennett, the fact of the matter is he is currently still with the Flames, and he needs to produce. Annual disappointment in Bennett is often warranted, as he almost always ends a season strong and elevates his game come playoffs. If the Flames get form of Playoffs Sam Bennett at a more consistent level, they’re sitting happy.
But Regular Season Sam Bennett is as perplexing as he’s always been, and this season has been no different. He’s one of the Flames’ worst forwards, and that’s still with a good chunk of play alongside Gaudreau and Monahan. He’s finally getting some goals at the very least.
His 5v5 xGF% is bleak, plain and simple. It’s not good for either Gaudreau or Monahan, as they both fare much better with other linemates. We’ll see how long this Bennett on the top line experiment lasts, but expect a short leash to get shorter. Bennett will need a few more goals or actually good offensive plays before he deserves any leeway.
As a group, their 5v5 play has not been stellar aside from Valimaki’s. In all honesty, it seems as though Valimaki’s first real transition to the NHL has been a fairly respectable one. He holds himself to a pretty high standard, and the rookie still has a lot of upside.
As for Giordano, his on-ice play has suffered greatly. Father Time doesn’t forget about anyone and Giordano was finally found hiding out in the gym. If the Flames want to get more effectiveness out of Giordano, the time to reduce his minutes so he can play his best game every shift is now.
At this point, Ryan and Nordstrom are fourth liners, and they’re both useful on the penalty kill. That’s about all they have going for them right now. With Ryan’s injury, Nordstrom consequently slots in for more games probably for the penalty kill alone. Ryan’s play dropped off a cliff looking at last year compared to the early games of this season, and Nordstrom is well… Nordstrom. If anything, disappointment in Ryan is more warranted, as he was quite reliable in years past, but this season has not been good for the forward.
Lastly, we arrive at Rittich. He has been played minimally so far this year. With two games under his belt, he has yet to win this season, and hasn’t looked particularly good in his outings.
Looking at his numbers at all situations compared to 5v5 SVA might give more detail into where he’s been underperforming. In the table, GSAx stands for Goals Saved Above Expected, which is the difference between xGA and GA.
At 5v5, Rittich hasn’t been too bad at all. In just under 94 minutes of play at 5v5, Rittich has an SVA save percentage of 93.3 SV. What’s sinking him early on is his play when special teams are involved. He has two power play goals against but also has two shorthanded goals against too.
As the definitive backup, Rittich doesn’t have the same set of expectations on him as he did in the past two seasons. However, it’d be nice to see Rittich suit up and stabilise his game sooner rather than later, both from a fan perspective but more importantly for him too.
Plenty of season left
There’s still over 40 games left in the season. A lot of time for guys to turn things around, but also with the nature of the single division format with extended series against teams, player contributions are a lot more noticeable with the eye test as well as advanced stats.
The Flames are expected to be a playoff team, so when they’re playing against teams that are not, there comes a subconscious feeling that the Flames can get their offence going with ease. It’s when that fails to happen that these disappointments start magnifying themselves, and the players that can’t elevate their game are the ones that will be most on the hook.
Calgary still has kinks to work out, especially when it comes to playing a full 60 minutes. However, they find themselves in a position where as long as they’re responsible for their own on-ice product, they might not have to watch the scoreboard too often.
The Flames’ games in hand are highly valuable right now. Especially during this four-game series with the Canucks. Currently with 1-1-0 in this series, Calgary will still have four games in hand over Vancouver after it. Using this series to create more separation now is ideal. There are still two more games against Vancouver in this mini-series, and there’s a big opportunity for many Flames to finally start meeting expectations.
Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images