Calgary Flames

A leadership changeup might be exactly what the Calgary Flames need

It’s been a brutal season for the Calgary Flames. Expected to contend for the top spot in the league’s weakest division, the Flames have instead fallen flat on their face. First place has pretty much been out of reach since the first month of the season. Even worse, they’ve spent most of the season out of a playoff spot, sitting in the bottom of the North division with the lowly Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators. 

There’s been a ton of issues plaguing the team this year. The lack of scoring, the leaky defensive play, the dreadful power play, this list goes on and on. However, one issue in particular to me hasn’t been getting as much talk as it should. The clear leadership problem on this team. One that goes much deeper than coaching. Bringing in Darryl Sutter for Geoff Ward certainly fixed one leadership behind the bench, but it hasn’t changed the leadership issues among the players. 

Considering Mark Giordano won the Mark Messier NHL Leadership award just last season, leadership definitely isn’t something you’d think would be an issue with this team. Unfortunately, as the season has gone on, the questioning of the team’s leadership group has picked up steam. 

So where has this talk come from, and if there is in fact deeper leadership issues with this team, how should management fix them? Let’s take a deeper look.

Current leadership group

First of all, let’s take a look at who is currently part of the Flames’ leadership group on the ice. In other words, who wears a letter for the team.

PlayerRoleFirst season in role
Mark GiordanoCaptain2013-14
Sean MonahanAlternate Captain2015-16
Mikael BacklundAlternate Captain (Away games)2018-19
Matthew TkachukAlternate Captain (Home games)2018-19

After cycling through a ton of different alternate captains in the 2000s, this leadership group has stuck together longer than any group since the 80s. They’ve been the main leadership group for this current Flames core, especially Giordano and Sean Monahan.

Giordano is currently the second longest serving captain in Flames history behind only Jarome Iginla, and would tie him at nine seasons if he suits up as captain of the Flames next year. Giordano is also tied as the seventh longest serving captain in the league.

Meanwhile, Monahan’s six seasons as an alternate are tied with Al MacInnis for the second longest tenure in Flames history behind only Robyn Regehr who wore an A for seven seasons in Calgary. Similar to Giordano, Monahan is among long-time alternate captains, currently tied in the sixth spot across the league.

Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk were both named alternates in 2018-19 after Troy Brouwer was bought out and have shared the role ever since. This year, Backlund has primarily wore the A in away games, while Tkachuk has worn it for home games.

Overall, the Flames actually have one of the more long-term leadership groups in the league, and one that has been together for a decent amount of time. So why has there been so many people questioning the team’s leadership? Well there’s one incident from earlier in the season that comes to mind.

The Muzzin incident

The infamous Muzzin incident and supposed team meeting that followed arguably kicked off the entire discussion around the Flames’ leadership and locker room. Since that all happened there have been various whispers and speculation that the Flames locker room may not be as solid as once thought.

The team has had a couple reported locker room issues over the years with this leadership group. There was the Dougie Hamilton situation, where reports came out after he was traded that he was a loner who didn’t fit into the Flames locker room and negatively affected the room.

Then there was James Neal who was apparently just hated by everyone in the locker room and someone who the players asked to be traded. Neither of these issues dealt directly with the leadership core though, and the Hamilton issue was ridiculous and most likely untrue to begin with.

This one however deals with the leaders on this team, and if the reports are true then it doesn’t have them coming out looking very good in my opinion. Elliotte Friedman reported earlier this season on his 31 Thoughts Podcast that the incident with Muzzin led to a team meeting amongst the players and one that caused some issues.

“Those players look really frustrated,” said Friedman on his most recent 31 Thoughts Podcast. “I think Tkachuk was really frustrated by what happened. That whole puck flipping thing led to a meeting that I think just sent them sideways. I think Tkachuk feels that some of the players didn’t want him to create something every game and I think he’s confused by that. I think he understands only how to play the game a certain way and I think he’s questioning it now. “

Elliote Friedman on his 31 Thoughts Podcast

Further, he reported in his 31 Thoughts article shortly after the incident that the team essentially told Tkachuk “it can’t be a riot every night” after he told the team he was upset that no one joined him in the scrum. Now this is all just speculation at this point about what was said in the actual meeting itself, but Friedman is typically a very reliable source.

From what we’ve heard so far this should ring some major alarm bells for Brad Treliving on what’s going on with the leaders on his team in the locker room. From the moment he first stepped on the ice as a Flame, Tkachuk has been the most emotional, fiery, and passionate player on the team. There’s no denying those same qualities have been invisible from his game this year, and it all started with this reported team meeting.

Tkachuk is in the midst of the worst season of his career and one in which he hasn’t looked like himself for most of the year. I’m sure there’s other factors at work, maybe even an injury, but it can’t be a coincidence that his struggles started directly after this incident. His game is typically built around his unbreakable confidence. That confidence has vanished this season and it’s very noticeable every time he steps on the ice.

If the team did in fact tell him to tone it down, it’s no surprise his confidence would take a huge hit. His entire game has always centered around his emotion. For him to bring it to the team that he was upset no one joined in and defended him after a tough loss, only for it to get shot down, something like that wouldn’t exactly be good for anybody.

The key for me is Friedman’s line about Tkachuk questioning the way he plays the game now. That’s a huge sign of a player who has lost his confidence. You can’t fault him for losing it either after his team didn’t step in to defend him, and then essentially told him to cut it out going forward. He’s played that way his whole career in Calgary and has had great success, so it must feel strange to be told to stop playing like that by your own teammates.

To me it just makes no sense to tell a guy like Tkachuk to tone it down and change the way he plays. Night in, night out he has brought max effort and emotion to every game, something that can’t be said about a lot of the players on the team. You should be encouraging more players on this team to play like him, not telling him to change how he’s played the game his entire career.

Should Tkachuk have reacted differently to the puck flip itself? Probably, but that passion and emotion he showed after a disappointing loss… I have no idea how that can be viewed as a negative. This team needs more of that passion and emotion, not less. If Friedman is right and Tkachuk believes the leaders on the team don’t want him creating something every night, that’s a major issue.

It’s fair to assume the lead voice in that meeting was most likely one of Giordano, Backlund, or Monahan, meaning the veteran leaders on this team told their most emotional player to tone it down. Who knows where this story will go especially into the summer as more information about it surely comes out, but one things for sure, something is clearly not right in the Flames locker room.

Where is the emotion?

This is a topic that I feel gets way too much talk sometimes among some people and outlets, but it definitely has its relevance at times. In the case of the Calgary Flames I think it’s very relevant. I think everyone would agree that this team lacks emotion, and even more so lacks emotional leadership.

This heated interview by Glen Guluztan after a big loss all the way back in 2018 still holds up very well when you think about this core.

The story of this team and core for years has been their complete inability to win big games, or show up in big moments. This team and its leaders continue to collapse in the face of adversity. The last big elimination or playoff type game this core won was game six against Vancouver six years ago. Since then it’s been nothing but disappointment, apart from a short qualifying series win against a depleted Jets team last season.

The disastrous series against Colorado including multiple leads blown late, the late collapse in game four against Dallas, and of the course the embarrassing game six collapse against Dallas last year as well. The list goes on. This core cannot win big games, or step up in big moments.

Another trend with this team is their incredibly slow starts to the point that they don’t look ready to play at all some nights. To me all of this points to leadership. The inability to have a team ready to start games, and ready to show up in big moments and win big games, points right at the leaders of the group.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw Mark Giordano or Sean Monahan, or even Mikael Backlund make a huge play in a big game, or create some much needed emotion in a big moment? When was the last time you saw one of them drag their team into a game and will their team forward? It’s what this team is desperately lacking right now, and they simply aren’t getting it from those guys.

Same things goes for off the ice. When was the last time you saw one of them come out after a tough game or in a press conference and say something to spark the team or show some emotion in their answers? It seems like the same old cliché lines night in night out from the leaders on this team after a loss. That sets the tone for the rest of the team and it’s what leads to the same disappointing results over and over again.

I get that some of them are mild mannered, especially Monahan, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. However, maybe he shouldn’t be in a major leadership role with this team then? This team needs leaders who will drag them into games and lead by example. They aren’t getting that from this group right now.

It’s obviously impossible to live up to what Iginla brought to this franchise, but think about all the times we saw him drag his team into a game, and will his team to victory. Whether it was a big hit, a big fight, or a dominating shift, he was able to lead his team by example and create the sparks they needed, when they needed them. The 2003-04 run doesn’t happen without Iginla leading that team on and off the ice.

Now more than ever this team needs some strong leadership, and leaders who can create a spark in their team to turn things around, and show up in big moments. They aren’t getting it at all right now. They simply look like a team that is lost most nights with no direction.

Changes are needed

Personally, I think some major changes are needed to the leadership core of this team. It just isn’t working with this group. This core has had the same group of leaders for the last three years and have nothing to show for it.

For years this core and this team has been called out in the media and by the fans for having a lack of identity and a poor culture. Yet whenever this happens, the fingers have always been pointed at guys like Gaudreau, or Hamilton when he was here. Not the actual veteran leaders and culture setters on the team like Backlund and Giordano.

Brad Treliving himself has said multiple times he wants to build a culture around this team of a team who brings emotion and hard work every night. A culture that “hates to lose.” Who better embodied that entire mantra than Tkachuk? Yet somehow, he’s suppressed and hasn’t shown the same ferocity that earned him his reputation.

This team clearly needs a shakeup and I think that starts with the leadership. They obviously aren’t going to strip Giordano of the C, that will never happen. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look into moving him this offseason and undergoing a complete overhaul of the team’s leadership group.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported earlier this week that the Flames will most likely expose Giordano in the expansion draft. If you’re willing to expose your captain, then you should be open to mixing up your leadership group.

Who could be next in line?

If the team truly wants to go through a retool and overhaul of the core, it needs to implement meaningful changes to the leaders on this team. If you asked any Flames fan before this season they would’ve told you Tkachuk is a lock to be the team’s next captain. I bet if you asked that same question now you’d get a different answer from a lot of people.

I’m still a believer in Tkachuk though and I still think he has a very bright future ahead of him as a leader with this team. He possesses every quality you look for in a strong emotional leader, something the Flames sorely lack right now.

Has he had a down year? Sure, but we can’t discredit the impact that supposed team meeting had on him. He’ll find his confidence again, and what better way to help him find it than giving him the captaincy, or even just a larger voice in the room? More than anything he needs to know this franchise and this team has confidence in him to play the game the way he always has.

Another player who should have a bigger leadership role is Andrew Mangiapane. He’s exactly the type of player who this franchise should be looking to place in a leadership role. This season he’s been without question the Flames’ most consistent forward, and the one who seems to always be in the middle of everything. That’s the type of player you want leading your team. Arguably no one has worked harder than Mangiapane this year and he would set a great example as a leader for his teammates.

It’s time for the team to usher in a new, and younger leadership group going forward because the current one just isn’t working. That starts with Tkachuk and Mangiapane.

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