This has been a disappointing season for the Calgary Flames. Going into the season, the expectations were not just to make the playoffs, but to challenge for the North Division Crown. Today, the Flames have just a 2.2% chance of making the playoffs according to HockeyViz.com, and would need to win all of the rest of their games in order to qualify for the postseason. That isn’t happening. However, there are a number of things that the team can do to make the most of what is left of the season. Here are our recommendations.
Call up the young guys, and play them
Every team can use up to four recalls to add a player to their active rosters. The Flames have used two of their four so far on Byron Froese and Oliver Kylington. However, the team’s young players, and particularly their young defencemen have been a scapegoat for the problems this season. Between scratching Kylington for almost the entire season to Head Coach Darryl Sutter constantly complaining about Juuso Valimaki‘s performance, the Flames’ young guys have struggled for playing time under the new system.
With Valimaki, the criticism may have been just to build him up, but at this point in the season, giving him minutes to improve his game seems like a no brainer. The Flames have nothing to lose, and even if he makes a mistake that leads to a goal, there is no real concern. With the flat cap and aging players in Mark Giordano and Chris Tanev, the team will need to rely on their younger players more going forward. Giving Valimaki a chance to improve can only be positive.
In the case of Kylington, he is likely one of the players on the Kraken’s shortlist at the expansion draft. It is understandable that the Flames will not want him to be taken, as he has a lot of the tools necessary to be an NHL defenceman down the road. However, the Flames have already used one of their four recalls on him, and not playing him feels like a waste. It may be time to get him in some game action, just to make the most of this recall.
On top of that, the Flames have called up Connor Mackey, and he has slotted into the third pairing at practice this week. Getting him some more NHL reps will only help him improve going into next season. Given he is practicing with the active roster, he will likely be the Flames’ third recall. Unlike Kylington, Mackey is exempt from the Seattle Expansion Draft, so the Flames do not have to worry about him at this point.
This leaves the team one more call-up for the remainder of the season. The player that makes most sense to use it on is the Stockton Heat’s leading scorer Matthew Phillips. He has yet to feature in an NHL game, and the Flames will likely want to know what they have in their former sixth-round pick. He has been impressive in the AHL over the last two seasons, and is due for a shot with the big club. The downside with using him is that he is eligible for the expansion draft, but the Kraken have likely been watching him for the last while with the Heat, and will have some idea whether he is what they want anyway. The downside to getting him into an NHL game seem minimal at this point.
Rest players playing through injuries
The biggest reason to get some of the younger players going is to give some of the team’s veteran guys a chance to mend heading into the summer. The NHL is an incredibly tough league, and players’ bodies go through a lot of wear over the season. Now is a time to let some of the more banged-up guys take a seat and start to heal. With the season all but finished, now is a good time to let them start to mend while giving some of the younger guys more minutes.
Among players with nagging injuries, the chances of them wanting to sit out are slim. However, at some point when the logic is presented, shutting players down for the games that don’t matter and allowing them to focus on their health can’t be shied from.
More news about who’s been injured and the nature of their injuries will come when the Flames’ season is over as always, but they don’t have to hide their cards right now. It’s better to take advantage of any additional time gained from resting and prepare for the upcoming season instead.
Improve their NHL Draft Lottery odds
The other reason to get some of the veteran players out of the lineup is to try to improve the Flames’ draft position. The Flames have only had a handful of very high draft picks in the organization’s history, and they often have not worked out the way that the team would have hoped. If the Flames can get their young players good minutes, give them a chance to show their worth, but come away with hard fought losses that might just improve their draft position, this feels like the best case scenario.
If the season ended today, the Flames would be sitting in 22nd place in the league, and would have the tenth best odds for the draft lottery. If the Flames lost all of their last six games, they would finish with a points percentage of 0.419, placing them around 26th in the league (depending on how everyone else does), and moving them up to the 6th best odds to win the lottery. For reference, the last time the Flames picked sixth in the draft, they selected Sean Monahan, who has 439 career NHL points. The tenth pick in the draft that year was Valeri Nichushkin, who has 101 career NHL points.
This year’s draft is especially interesting, with no consensus number one pick and the impact that the pandemic has had on leagues around the world. For the Flames, Dylan Guenther of the Edmonton Oil Kings is expected to go somewhere between six and ten, and he would be a player that the Flames try to target. A big right shot right winger, Guenther put up 24 points in 12 games this year, and has five points in four games at the U-18 tournament that is on right now.
The Flames have a number of bodies heading from junior to the AHL next season including Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary, but neither are right shot wingers, a position that the Flames desperately need. Guenther may need some time to develop, but he projects to be a top-six winger in the NHL, and that is something that has proven elusive for GM Brad Treliving of late.
Nobody likes to lose hockey games, but all the teams that are succeeding in the NHL currently have undergone a rebuild that included picking up a very high draft pick. This may be what the Flames need to retool into next season.
Build towards next season
Like it or not, it seems unlikely that the Flames will tear it all down this summer. Not only will it be incredibly hard to move any of their big contracts in a flat cap, but they have also just hired a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Darryl Sutter who has unfinished business with the team. On top of that, with the amount of revenue that the organization lost from not having fans in the stands, they simply cannot afford not to push for the playoffs next year to improve their financial position. They need to win.
This starts now. The last six games are an opportunity to try out some new combinations and evaluate the future of the team. So far the Flames have seen positive results from splitting up Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan—is this the right move going forward? Are both of them going to back again next year? And if not, what do the Flames need to fill those holes?
While they do have most of their top players under contract for next season, there are a number of question marks at the bottom of the forward group with Dillon Dube (RFA), Derek Ryan, Joakim Nordstrom, Dominik Simon (RFA), Brett Ritchie, Buddy Robinson, and Josh Leivo all looking for new deals. The Flames will need to decide which, if any, of their UFAs are worth re-signing, and what they think that their RFA players are worth.
This final six games gives the Flames a foundation on which to build going into next season. With a flat cap and a very poor UFA class, the Flames are going to have to be creative in order to build a more competitive roster for next season. The chase to have a competitive run in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs starts now for the Flames, let’s see if they can make the most of it.