To celebrate the beginning of the Flames season and the return of hockey, the whole team here at The Win Column gathered on a zoom call to watch the game and talk hockey. Calgary lost that game, but there were more than a few moments when we looked at each other across our computer screens and asked a simple question.
“Wait… are the Flames good?”
In those first few games, there were so many exciting developments. Matthew Tkachuk, Dillon Dube, and Elias Lindholm looked like a legitimate first line. Johnny Gaudreau was dancing again with the puck. The bottom six looked solid, and we all started whispering (I think I was shouting) about the idea of secondary scoring which we have never seen as Flames fans.
Fast forward a few weeks, and everything has seemed to fall apart. A 5-1 setback to Vancouver Canucks felt like a low point, but that was just the start. The 7-1 setback to the Edmonton Oilers was another gut punch. A 6-1 loss to the Senators HAD to be the end of this tumble. A few days later, another 5-1 loss to the worst team in the division hurt a little extra.
This core of Flames has been through a lot of ups and downs, but this seems like the most severe and urgent crisis the team has seen in a long time. It felt like the perfect time to check in with the team here at TWC, to get their thoughts on the season so far, where the Flames go from here, and even some talk about playoffs.
What has been the biggest frustration about the Flames this season?
Simply, it’s been the lack of trying. Sometimes things don’t go your way, but the most frustrating thing about this team is they don’t look like they care. They almost never score the first goal, have played catch-up basically the whole season, and really don’t seem to want to push the bill at any point. There’s no pushback when they get scored on and there’s no emotion half the time.
To me it has to be the coaching decisions. Forcing Sam Bennett to play the top line right wing position, keeping together the Andersson/Giordano pairing even as they get shelled each night, painful neutral zone play and breakouts, the list of issues goes on and on. Its probably not fair to say all the team’s problems stem from coaching, but until the coaching situation is addressed, its just an extremely frustrating guessing game at what the team could be with a different coach.
Geoff Ward. I don’t remember being this frustrated at the moves a coach makes in a very long time. From lineup decisions to player usage and systems I haven’t understood 90% of Ward’s decisions this year. It’s extremely frustrating to see such a talented roster go to waste under a coach who is way over his head. His inability to adapt makes it so frustrating to watch this team as they are constantly shut down because every team knows exactly what is coming. Don’t even get me started on scratching Josh Leivo.
I struggle as to whether it is the coach putting together a poor gameplan, and the players giving up and not executing on what has been drawn up. At the end of the day, the roster that management has put together has not come to play on the ice. I think the biggest frustration has been that this season has been yet another year wasted from a core group that should theoretically be making deep playoff runs. Johnny Gaudreau is an elite playmaker in this league, Jacob Markstrom and David Rittich are an all-star goaltending tandem, and the Flames defensive depth is the best it has been in years. To see them throw their chance at the playoffs away is causing me to pull out what is left of my hair.
The biggest frustration about the season so far is the inconsistency. Each game looks like an entirely new team. This was especially evident when the flames picked up 3/4 possible points against the leafs, then struggled to make anything happen against Ottawa only days later. When they are on, they have the capability to keep up with any team in the North division, however many games they simply look as if they couldn’t care less. We never know which version of the team will step into the ice.
The real question is what hasn’t frustrated me this season. From the lineup decisions, to the system deployments, to the lack of effort from players it’s all just been massively upsetting to watch on a nightly basis. If I had to single out one aspect, it would most likely be the deployment of players with Johnny Gaudreau & Sean Monahan. Ignoring all of the Monahan slander, it’s crazy to think that in four straight games a player who was healthy scratched was promoted to play with him. Sam Bennett, Dominik Simon, Josh Leivo, and Brett Ritchie all got a shot which frankly makes no sense. Gaudreau was having an absolute renaissance season over the first 20 odd games and to not deploy him with a qualified RW is simply ridiculous to see. Also, what type of message does that send to the entire team that you can go from scratched to the first line? Your priority should be to optimize your top six and build out, rather than wanting to make sure you keep your third line together.
The biggest frustration stems entirely from the Flames’ clear failure to execute on the “win now” mode. Signing Markstrom alone was enough of a signal that anything less than a top two finish in the division could be deemed a failure. It’s true that all the Flames need to focus on first is getting into the playoffs, but the roster they had should have made it easy, but instead it’s been anything but.
It is the lack of resilience, and the inability to respond to adversity. This manifests itself in games when the Flames rarely score first, and then show no ability to come together and come back in games. But it also plays itself out in the long run, like the two week nightmare the team finds itself in right now. At what point does the team collectively say “enough is enough?” I have been frustrated by the canned answers after the games to media questions, and appreciated Milan Lucic sharing some legitimate thoughts after the game last night. I choose my words carefully, as he is a top 10 Flame of all time, but I would love to see Mark Giordano challenge his teammates in the media. Someone has to do it.
What is a realistic mid-season change the Flames could/should make?
Sell. For the first time, I want to see this team sell off a ton of pieces at the deadline. Keep your young players and future leaders like Tkachuk/Lindholm/Andersson/Valimaki, but blow this thing up. Let’s see the team commit to something for once, instead of “retooling” or “rebuilding on the fly”. No. Blow it up.
Trade Sam Bennett. He doesn’t want to be here and he’s not playing well, its clearly time to move on. I understand Treliving’s hesitancy because of his playoff performances and because he was a high draft pick, but it’s well past time for a shakeup on the team, and he seems like the obvious candidate. Its an added bonus that Geoff Ward will no longer have the option of crippling the Monahan/Gaudreau line by putting Bennett there.
Fire Geoff Ward ASAP. We outlined why he probably won’t be fired this season, but I can dream right? This roster is just too talented to miss the playoffs, especially in the weakest division in the league. It’s clear at this point that this team is going nowhere with Ward at the helm and it’s time for a change. It’s not too late to bring in a new coach who can put together a decent system and save the season, but the team is running out of time.
I’m going to work off of the assumption that the Flames are not going to change their coaches or make a major change to their core for this season. They are what they are. I would work on small tanglibe changes to the tactics that Geoff Ward and team are employing to generate success. The team needs to be better through the neutral zone. The current plan of dumping and chasing doesn’t work when you have small skilled guys. The team needs to better utilize their d through the neutral zone to help drive offensive chances. Going back on defense, the Flames have basically given away the neutral zone on breakouts across the season, and do not start defending until the other team hits their blue line. This is not good enough. The Flames need to put bodies in the middle of the ice and make it harder to enter their zone.
It is difficult to make decisions on what to change when so many things are going poorly. Without any major roster changes, a focus should be placed on the shifts following goals. Too often this season, the flames will score and allow a goal against within minutes. The team needs to recognize the importance of this phase of the game, and hopefully started leading games rather than trying to comeback from behind.
In all honesty, I don’t see it in the cards for the organization to change the GM or head coach during the season. If things continue, then there will absolutely be widespread changes after the season is over. The only realistic change that I would make would be to inject some Stockton prospects into the lineup and hope for the best. I think this team struggles from players being unable to make lineup changes effectively. I don’t know many teams that continuously fill out their roster with borderline AHL players, but Calgary always does this. Adam Ruzicka, Friend of the Blog Matthew Phillips, and Emilio Pettersen could not only provide a scoring boost to the lineup, but also push a bunch of underperforming players for jobs. If you don’t want to make widespread changes, this would be the best bet.
I don’t foresee any organizational changes happening, so let’s focus on in-game execution. The Flames are struggling with depth scoring right now. Stop trying to fix that and double down on top-heavy lines until the offense comes again. Do whatever it takes to maximize the chances of scoring first instead of playing from behind. Give the best players the most minutes, simplify everything, and hope some goals follow suit. Just anything to shift the cyclical dread of bad first periods and playing while trailing.
I’m with Kurji that I have finally come around to the team selling and triggering a rebuild. Whether the time is right in the middle of a COVID year when trades are tough and cap space is tight remains to be seen, but I think this group has run its course. Aside from that, play Leivo and sit Joakim Nordstrom. Leivo has been unlucky but tries to create offence and is due. I have no idea what Nordstrom does in the lineup. I would love to see Leivo with Glenn Gawdin and anyone not named Nordstrom on the left side for at least a decent run.
Do the Flames make the playoffs?
In 2021?? Ha.
I want to be optimistic but… no.
Nope. I think they’ve dug themselves too big of a hole and I haven’t seen anything to convince me that they can get out of it and back into the playoffs. Perhaps they prove me wrong, but this looks like a team bound for a below .500 finish outside of the playoffs.
I think there is a chance but the window is getting smaller. If the Flames can get back into form and go from swinging good shifts together into swinging good games together, they have a chance. There is enough downward movement from Montreal to give the Flames some hope, but they need to capitalize on it and they need to capitalize on it now. If they can’t do that then it may be time to fold up the tent, call up their young guys from Stockton to play in Calgary and try again next year.
Simple answer, no. With the inconsistency of the team and lack of major changes, this roster is simply not capable of having a successful playoff run. Focus should be placed on what major roster and leadership changes need to be made in order to have playoff hope for the 2021-2022 season. The flames have a lot of talent on the younger side, and decisions need to be made to support those players going forward.
I won’t call time of death until it is mathematically impossible to make the playoffs. They need a lot of help from Montreal, Winnipeg, and even Edmonton to make it possible, but winning those series moving forward would be their only hope. Even after that, they need a complete shift in play immediately to make it happen and while I’m always hopeful, I’ll remain cautious in my expectations.
This season is unique. Every game is a four point game. So while the Flames continue to be on the outside looking in, the teams they are chasing literally can not all win. Unless some freaky magic happens and every team ahead of Calgary ends up playing in overtime and shootout games from now until the end of the season, the Flames still have as good a shot as any to take the poor first half in stride and rebound with a stronger second half. With this team in its current state, that is much easier said than done. Let’s just hope that the Flames stop shooting themselves in the foot and get their act together.
We should not forget that this team has been known over the past couple of years to go on massive winning streaks, and like many have pointed out already, every game is a four point game. So it is unwise to count them out based on the last few years. But the lack of resilience that I mentioned in the first part is what worries me, and makes the playoffs a long shot. I say they don’t make it.
Let us know what you think about any of the above questions. Find us on twitter @thewincolumnblog, and let us know your thoughts!