As the 2021 NHL regular season rapidly approaches its trade deadline, the Calgary Flames can look back and see the numerous times they put themselves in positions of frequent disappointment. They’re at the outside of the playoffs looking in, and with each passing day their playoff odds decrease more and more. Chances are their season will end with no postseason play, and the Flames will have to look and fix the things that went wrong.
With everything that’s gone awry for the team, one can’t help but wonder how much their circumstances were due to themselves being unable to put forth their best on-ice product, and how much was due to their opposition and resulting travel schedule. The Flames, along with the rest of the NHL’s Canadian teams were slotted to play out the entire regular season against each other.
Early odds and models were either highly bullish on the Flames, with some sportsbooks expecting a top-two finish in the North, while others were a lot more wary of the parity between Canadian teams, suggesting that any Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Vancouver could easily finish in essentially random order between second and sixth, sandwiched by the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators.
As it so happened, the Flames went through the worst path possible, and found themselves in a state of total freefall when their season was on the line. So as they play out the rest of the season, we can look back at the North Division and how it affected the Flames.
Things went south in the North Division
For Calgary, their 2021 season has been largely forgettable. The team seemingly embraced defeat far too easily and rarely put up a fight in most of their games so far. In fact, it’s been one of Calgary’s worst seasons when it comes to playing in big blow out losses.
While the North was supposed to house several weak teams that the Flames could have taken advantage of, it turns out the Flames were in fact a team that’s been on the wrong side of the embarrassing defeats and played themselves right out of playoff contention.
As of now with 38 of 56 games in the books, the Flames have just two winning records in their six season series: they’re up 4-2-0 on the Vancouver Canucks, and are up 3-1-0 against the Montreal Canadiens. All other series sees the Flames holding a losing record, and that includes being 2-5-0 versus Edmonton (boo) and 2-4-1 versus Ottawa (yikes).
So it’s safe the say the North Division has not been kind to Calgary. For the Flames, any pros about the all-Canadian division are easily masked by the long list of cons labeled as “loss, after loss, after loss”. While the NHL’s plans for the next season is not yet known, it’s worth asking: Would another season of the North Division be welcomed or not?
No more North
Well, after turning to the Twitter polls, it’s obvious that this season and its format should be a one-and-done for the NHL. The Flames were on the wrong end of high expectations and disappointing results, and that alone might be enough to say the NHL should never do this again, for Calgary and their fans’ sake.
However, there’s also the obvious fact that the League becomes much more imbalanced when not every team faces off against one another. The overall spectacle of seeing the league’s best players trapped inside single divisions doesn’t bode well for anyone, and the sooner the league can return to its regular format, the better it’d be for everyone.
Unfortunately, the pandemic still continues and it’s not even remotely safe for this idea to be entertained yet. As we’ve seen most recently from the Vancouver Canucks, COVID-19 is still very much a huge risk, even with all precautions in place. However the pandemic pans out over the rest of 2021 with the increased availability of vaccines will definitely be a huge factor in what the NHL is or isn’t able to do when it comes to their 2021-22 season.
Back to the Flames, it’s almost too bad that the team played themselves out of the belief that they could be contenders for the Stanley Cup. As a team, it seemed as though the mantra heading into the season was that they were just a couple pieces away, and the addition of Jacob Markstrom was supposed to be a huge solidifer for the Flames’ playoff chances.
However, the team has been unable to find a footing in the North Division as a playoff team, let alone a contender. It seems as though their opponents have completely solved the Flames’ offence and defence, and exploiting Calgary for its weaknesses has never been easier. It has not boded well for Calgary for their opponents to become so acutely familiar with their system. And conversely, the Flames have yet to solve any of their opponents either.
Trying it again
While over 50% of the votes suggested that this divisional format should never see light of day again, some of the voters rather loved the format. Whether it’s people that love to see the Flames lose, or just generally enjoying the all-Canadian rivalries and each story line.
Of course, having the many iterations of the Battle of Alberta is still typically a treat, despite the unfavourable outcomes so far this year. Likewise with other matchups against any opponent. When you’re scheduled to play the same teams as many times as this season, the storylines in every matchup becomes far more prevalent compared to other seasons.
Every team becomes a rival, every series becomes pivotal, and every game means a little bit more in the standings at the end of the day. When all games played come with higher stakes, the entertainment level alone could still be enough to justify seeing it again.
Who knows, maybe with more fans in the stands when vaccinations are at an acceptable level would make each of these all-Canadian matchups as loud and rambunctious as any playoff game.
The Flames’ current standings
Here are how the Flames sit after 38 games. All the data is courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com and is sorted in order of points percentage.
|Toronto Maple Leafs||6||2||3||1||5||0.417||13||14||2.17||2.33|
We all know that no matter how you look at the standings, it does not paint a pretty picture of Calgary, but what’s even more telling is just how they’ve had their offence completely stifled by each and every opponent, with their highest offensive output sitting at 2.86 goals per game. By some twisted combination, Calgary was successful at finding its “best” offence against the Senators, yet they’ve posted a 35.7% points percentage across seven games played.
On the other hand, Calgary’s allowed three teams to post an average of more than three goals against per game, most painfully with Edmonton’s 4.14 average, similarly after seven games.
The Canadian division has not been kind to the Flames. Simply put, the Flames should hit the reset button and forget about this disappointing season, nothing else really matters anymore. They can look forward to the draft and what’s to come in the future.
Geography should not hold such weight
For the Flames, no matter how future seasons are formatted, they need to first and foremost figure out themselves. This team might not look the same come the arrival and passing of the trade deadline, and it might look even more different throughout the offseason.
They are a team that will have a lot of prove next season. Whether they do so while continuing to play just with Canadian counterparts, or if the NHL and the federal governments deem it safe for intercountry travel for professional sports, the Flames will be facing as crucial season as any. It’ll be a defining year for the Flames, as they’ve mightily struggled this season to find their identity this year and as a result they’ll have their playoff hopes cut short.
Over the next two years, Darryl Sutter will be the Flames head coach—that much is known. But beyond that, anything else can happen with their roster, and how the Flames move forward over the next few weeks heading into the deadline and the next few months with free agent frenzy will be telling. It doesn’t matter where or who they play if they can’t put forth their best efforts anyway.
Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images