Calgary Flames

Friday Flames Notebook: If there is a rebuild, who stays and who goes?

This is as low of a point that I can remember in the history of this group.

My colleague at TWC, John MacKinnon, put it well.

Something has gone rotten with this team, and it is going to take more than a players only meeting, a radio appearance by the GM, and a train cart full of cold beers to solve. In fact, the fans deserve the train and the beers after the awful product that we have seen for the last few weeks.

I have been slow to blame the coach for a while, but it is pretty hard to avoid now. This team is poorly coached. The biggest place I see it is in the breakout and through the neutral zone. In fairness, this team has struggled with that for a while. It seems that no matter the coach, the breakout plan inevitably shifts to chipping the puck out of the zone, and batting it around the ice instead of connecting passes.

The other area where Ward deserves significant criticism is the lines. First, he has not let anyone on the team build chemistry, and is constantly shuffling the combinations. And we have to talk about the fourth line. Has Buddy Robinson showed anything meaningful in his time the NHL? Joakim Nordstrom has zero points in more than TWO HOURS of five on five ice time. I feel for Glenn Gawdin, trying to make an impression while saddled with linemates who make it nearly impossible to succeed.

And lastly, this team just looks uninspired. To what extent that falls on Ward’s shoulders is hard to tell when we aren’t in the locker room, but he has at least played a role. A high school coach of mine was known to say, “It’s not about the Xs and the Os, its about the Jimmys and the Joes.” Right now, Ward has neither. It seems fairly obvious that the is not a top notch strategic coach, and his team is all but quitting on him.

Something has to give here, and I think for the first time I am really starting to think this might be the last time we see this group play together. Changes are coming… they have to be.

1. If they blow it up, who stays and who goes?

This is a big question, as truly blowing up the roster is far from inevitable. But every day that goes by makes it seem more and more likely. So let’s break the team out into groups. For the sake of this list lets just discuss the players in the league currently.

Untouchables: Matthew Tkachuk, Dillon Dube, Andrew Mangiapane, Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki

This seems like a pretty tight list that shouldn’t change much. If the goal of this rebuild is to create a team with the better attitude than the current group, then this is a good place to start. Tkachuk will be the next captain, and he plays with his heart on his sleeve. Dube is super young and plays with jam. Mangiapane has been the best Flame this season not named Jacob Markstrom. Andersson and Valimaki have the talent and the gumption to lead a team.

The big decisions: Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin

This is what we are talking about, right? If there is a rebuild, these are the guys who will really move the needle. Lindholm is the youngest, most versatile, and least likely to get traded. Gaudreau is probably the first to go, given that any rebuild that doesn’t involve him doesn’t really feel like a rebuild. Monahan has been a great player for this team, but could fetch a nice return. Although his trade value is as low as it’s ever been right now. Hanifin is another young guy, who is probably more in a middle category than the untouchables or big decisions. He has been a revelation this season.

Veterans with value: Mark Giordano, Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett

Other than maybe Gaudreau, these two are the most attractive trade chips. Giordano has been one of the top ten Flames of all time, but his play has dropped off this year. Not to mention, the club has had an attitude problem, and he is the captain of the group. High end defensemen draw big returns at the trade deadline, and a lot of Flames fans would love to see Giordano get a shot with a contender. The tricky part with Giordano is his contract, but if the Flames are looking to rebuild, they may opt to retain some salary for the remainder of the season and into next to increase their return.

Backlund is the next one. Long heralded as a top two-way centre in the league, I have wondered for a few years where the offensive side of the two-way moniker was. He has five points at 5v5 this season through 248 minutes, and at this point in his career is probably more of a third or supercharged fourth center. His defensive instincts are still top notch, but the scoring isn’t there anymore.

Bennett is such a tough one. His value isn’t nearly the same as some other guys on the list, but you would have to think a team in need of a centre would offer something worth discussing.

Unmoveable: Milan Lucic, Chris Tanev

Nobody is going to take on Lucic’s contract. If Calgary is trying to contend next year, they might have to start talking buyouts, although Lucic has been a lone bright spot for the club this year, and buried another goal last night. Regardless of his success this year, Lucic is unmoveable right now, and his no movement clause is probably not going to be waived mid-season. If the team is going to rebuild, he will be a good leader to have around anyway.

Tanev’s contract and limited no-trade clause make him tough to move. On top of that, a lot of people are expecting his level of play to drop as his contract goes on. Like Lucic, he will be a good guy to have around for his veteran leadership.

Nobody else on the team right now has any real trade value, and most of them have expiring or short contracts anyway. If the rebuild happens, it is going to involve some combination of the big decisions and the vets with value.

2. Settling in the offensive zone

This is the heat map from last nights game.

I have written extensively over the last few months about how the team needs to activate their defensemen and use a five man cycle approach to create more dangerous offence. This map is exactly what you dont want to see, most of the shots coming from the points, and on the boards. Defensemen just wiring it on net from the boundary, expecting to create rebounds.

At the start of the season, this team was so dynamic in zone creating chances and activating the blue line. Those days are gone, and now they settle for low percentage shots. Sure, there were some looks beside the net as shown on the map, but the slot was almost completely empty. That’s where goals are scored, and Calgary isn’t getting there right now.

3. King of the jungle and bread man leading the way

Lets play two truths and a lie on the Flames season after 21 games.

  1. Andrew Mangiapane is leading the team in 5v5 goals.
  2. Milan Lucic is tied for second on the team in 5v5 goals.
  3. The Calgary Flames have a recent history of successful coaches.

Can you guess the lie?

Mangiapane and Lucic have been two success stories in an otherwise bleak year. They are certainly both benefitting from some great puck luck, especially Lucic who is shooting 21% this season after not breaking 6% in any of the previous three years.

But he is scoring, and he is getting to the difficult areas. His shot, which has looked so feeble over the last few years now seems to be getting on goalies a little more quickly than expected, and he has snuck a few in five hole. In the previous 229 games leading into this season, he had 14 goals at 5v5. Through just 21 games this year, he already has five, more than both of his season totals over the last two years. Some regression in the shooting percentage is all but guaranteed, but Lucic has definitely looked better this season.

Mangiapane keeps scoring as well, and now leads the team in 5v5 goals. He, like Lucic, gets most of his goals off in-zone cycles, and flashed a nice release the other night against Toronto, a goal that should have sealed the win for the Flames. Mangiapane is going to be a rich man very soon. If there is a rebuild in Calgary, there will be money to spend, and minutes to play. Mangiapane could be a star on the next version of the Flames.

Perhaps most notably, nobody else is scoring. Gaudreau has played well for most of the season, but Tkachuk and Monahan need to start finding the back of the net. The same is true for anyone in the bottom six not named Milan. After a decent start to the year, everybody is cold now.

4. Possession is good, scoring is not

One of the bizarre aspects of this Flames season is that the club is still in the top ten in the league in both CF% (50.86%) and xG% (51.60%) according to natural stat trick. This team is not terrible, and this recent rough patch aside the club has still been okay for much of the season.

In the last ten games though, things have taken a dive. In those games, Calgary has dropped to 18th in CF% (49.39%) and 22nd in xG% (48.82%).

Most worrying has to be the 5v5 scoring. In the last ten games, Calgary is 26th in goals scored per sixty minutes, managing a terrible 1.76 goals per hour. When combined with the scuffling power play (which I wrote about yesterday), there just aren’t very many goals being scored.

The Flames are 26th in both shooting percentage and high danger shooting percentage, which certainly doesn’t help. Those percentages should logically bounce back, but the clock is ticking and we have been saying that for a few weeks.

If not for outstanding goaltending at times, this recent slump could have been even worse.

5. The only way out is through… or a rebuild

The team has been playing disorganized, sad-to-watch hockey. Nobody other than Lucic and Mangiapane can score. It isn’t worth typing and typing to find new ways of describing the same problems with this group.

Short of a rebuild, it is hard to see what the way out of this mess is. This group of players has had next to no playoff success, but get treated as one of the best core groups in the league. Now they look to have quit on yet another coach. We have seen this story before. Ward may be a problem, but how many coaches is this team going to go through before fingers are pointed at the guys on the ice?

This isn’t the movie Groundhog Day. Calgary can get out of this, but it might take some time to get a winning product back on the ice. If a rebuild is what it takes to make that happen, then no time like the present to get it started.

Image credit: Getty Images.

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