It’s no secret the Calgary Flames are struggling right now. The team currently sits with a 7–6–2 record and is currently eighth in the Western Conference. We all expected some growing pains with the amount of turnover this past offseason, but it’s gotten to a point where things could get out of hand fast. Thankfully the team put up two close-call wins at home to cull their losing streak but even in their wins there were struggles to hold down a lead.
Last week we took a look at the Flames’ underlying numbers during their losing streak, and everything suggested things should get better sooner than later. Despite hovering at the .500 mark, the Flames are still posting borderline elite underlying numbers as a team. Goaltending, finishing, and injuries have been the three main culprits of the Flames struggles. That said, when things go this bad the blame starts to move up the ranks of the organization as many have now targeted the reigning Jack Adams Award winner Darryl Sutter.
Sutter’s player deployment and usage has been suspect at best this season, with some absolutely baffling decisions at times. It’s gotten to a point where some of his decisions are seriously hurting the Flames chances of winning. As much as we all love Sutter and what he’s done for the organization, it’s certainly fair to start questioning some of his stranger decisions thus far. Let’s take a further look at Sutter player usage this season.
Calgary’s even strength ice time per game
One of the main points of contention recently has been Sutter’s deployment at even strength in terms of overall ice time at even strength per game. There’s been some puzzling decisions over the past couple weeks. Let’s take a look at each Flames forward average ice time at even strength this season. All numbers are courtesy of nhl.com and include the Flames’ first 14 games.
|Player||Average EV TOI|
The overall ranking of players seems fine, as the Flames top guns are the leaders in ice time and hold down the top spots on the team. What stands out a bit more is the tiny fractions of difference between the top forwards and the rest of the lineup. 11 of 13 forwards are averaging double digits for even strength ice time, with the difference between first and 11th barely over three minutes.
The difference between the top ice time leader in Nazem Kadri and the ninth spot in Trevor Lewis is tiny when you really think about it. Kadri is averaging less than two minutes a night more at even strength than Lewis. That just doesn’t seem right. Jonathan Huberdeau is also averaging less than two minutes more a game than Lewis at even strength. A 42-goal scorer last season and Selke runner up in Elias Lindholm is under 1.5 minutes more than Lewis a night at even strength. It doesn’t make sense and isn’t the norm in the NHL.
I hate to make Lewis the whipping boy as he does bring some legitimate value to the team, but his usage is the perfect example of what is wrong with Sutter’s deployment.
As Costello mentions, Lewis is 36 years old and yet he’s on pace right now to match a career-high for games over 15 minutes of ice time. Lewis has nine goals over his last 94 regular season games. The Flames are weak in terms of depth on the wing, but certainly not weak enough to be playing Lewis this much every night. The spread between the Flames’ top players and the bottom of their lineup is way too small right now.
The Flames’ tendency to not play their stars so far
Sutter seems dead-set on just rolling through four lines every night, which is no longer a viable strategy in today’s NHL. Maybe it worked back in 2012, but it doesn’t lead to much success in 2022. Playing your stars as much as possible and line matching when possible is a crucial part of today’s game and Sutter for whatever reason doesn’t seem to value it. Too many times this season the Flames have thrown out players who had no business being on the ice at that stage of the game.
Late in the game Sutter is simply rolling his lines, with Lewis out there down a goal. It just doesn’t make sense. Just take a look at the Flames’ disastrous series versus the Edmonton Oilers last playoffs. The Flames refused to line match against Conner McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and just rolled their lines and got caved in all series because of it. In order to be successful in today’s NHL you need to utilize line matching and the Flames and Sutter rarely do. Rolling all four lines for most of the night regardless of who the other team has one the ice or the situation in the game is a recipe for disaster.
The minutes are mismanaged
The Flames average ice time at even strength is not the norm in today’s NHL, at all. For example, the Edmonton Oilers are giving five forwards over 14 minutes a game at even strength. The Flames are giving zero forwards over 14 minutes a game at even strength. The Oilers have five forwards averaging more time on ice at even strength a game than the Flames top two leaders in ice time in Kadri and Huberdeau.
The reason for that? The Oilers play their stars and top forwards as much as they can, while the Flames more or less just roll their four lines for most of the night. It’s not just the Oilers either. As mentioned, the Flames don’t have a single player averaging over 14 minutes at even strength. For context, 30 of the other 31 teams in the NHL have at least one forward averaging over 14 minutes a game at even strength.
The Flames’ current leader in even strength ice time in Kadri ranks 112th in the NHL among forwards. They don’t have a single player inside the entire top 100 for even strength ice time per game. It’s mind boggling. While other teams play their top guys, the Flames roll four lines.
There’s no better example of that than Huberdeau’s usage so far this season. Sure he’s had a slow start, but if you aren’t playing him it’s hard for him to work his way out of his slump. He’s averaging the second most time at even strength among Flames forwards, but his total is still way down from the norm for him and other star players in the league.
His 13:36 at even strength currently ranks 125th in the NHL among forwards with at least five games played. I get you’re trying to ease him into his new team and system, but that number is embarrassingly low for a team that lacks talent on the wing. He’s averaging less than the likes of Frederick Gaudreau, Scott Laughton, and Phillip Kurashev among others. Again, he had 115 points last season in case you forgot. His current average ice time at even strength would be the lowest of his entire career.
The Milan Lucic conundrum
Perhaps Sutter’s most bizarre usage this season has been that of Milan Lucic. Lucic continues to find himself playing in situations he never should be. Despite how much he struggles, he ends up with a spot higher in the lineup. He’s a usable player when playing in a depth roll with limited ice time there’s no questioning that. It’s when he’s played well above where he should be that you get into trouble.
It all started when he was boosted to a spot on the second line prior to the game against the Seattle Kraken back on November 1. As anyone could have predicted, it was a disaster to say the least. Mistakes that would seemingly cost a young player multiple games in the press-box have no effect on Lucic. Remember his brutal game deciding turnover against Seattle?
Despite this ugly turnover, Lucic once again lined up on the second line in the Flames’ next game against the Predators which they also lost. That game he finished with the fifth most minutes at even strength among Flames forwards, and the third most among Flames wingers. It’s wasn’t just a one off either. Even when he’s not listed in the team’s top six, he’s still playing an absurd amount of minutes at even strength at times.
In the Flames’ win over Pittsburgh back on October 25, Lucic played the fourth most even strength minutes among Flames forwards, and the second most among wingers. The only player ahead of him? Lewis. In their November 8 loss against the New Jersey Devils, Lucic played the fifth most minutes at even strength among Flames wingers, beating out Andrew Mangiapane. In their recent win against the Winnipeg Jets, Lucic played the fourth most minutes among Flames wingers at even strength, ahead of Tyler Toffoli, and Dillon Dube.
Here’s where Lucic ranks for some major metrics among the 13 forwards who have played for the Flames so far this season. Numbers are 5v5, score- and venue- courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
|Stat||Milan Lucic Team Rank|
He’s not just not helping the Flames when he’s on the ice, he’s actively hurting them. He ranks bottom two in four of the six metrics listed above, and no better than 10th in any. The only player below him for xGF% and HDCF% is Kevin Rooney who was a healthy scratch last night. Continuing to give Lucic ample ice time at even strength makes little to no sense as it’s hurting the Flames’ chances of winning games.
Further, Lucic has not scored a goal since March 16, 2022. That was eight months ago. In total he hasn’t scored a goal in his last 49 games. He’s scored one single goal across his last 72 games for the Flames. That’s nearly an entire season’s worth of games with one single goal to show for it.
Despite this, he’s since been promoted and is now working on the team’s second line, and second power play unit.
Thankfully last night with Huberdeau back in the lineup, Lucic played a team low 10:46 at even strength among forwards. Let’s hope that trend continues.
When you have young skilled players like Matthew Phillips lighting up the AHL every night and you choose to play a veteran with one goal in his last 72 games you deserve some questioning and criticism.
Questionable calls by Calgary
It’ still very early into the season and the perfect time for experimenting to see what works, but there’s no doubt that some of Sutter’s decisions thus far have been debatable at best. His even strength deployment and lack of adjustments in certain game situations has continually hurt the Flames over the past couple weeks.
His need to roll four lines instead of riding his star players is a strategy that simply doesn’t work in the modern NHL. The game is too quick to be playing the likes of Lucic and Lewis as much as he has been. It’s time to let the Flames stars settle in and get a big chunk of the ice time every game. They will end up losing more than they win otherwise.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire