No matter who you ask, this has not been a great season for the Calgary Flames so far. Between issues scoring goals, stopping pucks, and simple bad puck luck, the Flames have taken a huge step backwards from last year. However, what has increasingly been a story in Calgary has been their unwillingness to play their prospects.
The team has one of the best goalies in the AHL in Dustin Wolf, one of the best point-producers in the league in Matthew Phillips, and two point-per-game first-round picks in Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier, and yet have been unwilling to give any of the four more than two games of NHL ice time this season.
Instead of playing their prospects, coach Darryl Sutter has been more keen on icing a large, veteran-laden lineup, which has included Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, Brett Ritchie, Michael Stone, and Kevin Rooney (prior to being sent to the AHL). When the Flames have needed reinforcements, Sutter has chosen Radim Zohorna and Walker Duehr instead of their more prolific young scorers.
There is a clear philosophical difference between how GM Brad Treliving and Coach Sutter want to run this organization, and this difference is hurting the organization as a whole.
Drafting and acquiring players
This starts with the players inside the organization. It is the GM’s job to try and acquire the players that the team will need to win, and the coach’s job to take those players and design systems to help them win games. Treliving broadly brought in players that would play in a Sutter-esque system this summer. He acquired Nazem Kadri as a free agent, known for his physical two-way game, and brought back Nikita Zadorov, Stone, Ritchie, and Lewis.
Aside from acquiring Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, who were the best deal offered for Matthew Tkachuk, it’s hard to see how Treliving can be blamed for not building the team that would work for Darryl Sutter.
It is clear however, that this is not the way that Treliving would like to run his team. His first-round picks have consistently been reliable two-way players who tend to be smaller but speedier. Aside from the 6’0″ Zary, his other two first-round picks are 5’9″ Pelletier and 5’10” Matt Coronato. Throw in Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane who are both sub-six-feet, and it starts to paint a pretty telling picture of the type of team that the GM wants to see.
For Sutter, his ideal player is not that. Big, heavy, hard hitting are just some of the words that Sutter has constantly talked about as important to him. Speed has constantly been second to playing a heavy checking style that physically wears down the opposition. And he has consistently played players who can do this.
From Milan Lucic on the second line to the full-time elevation of Adam Ruzicka to the Flames, it is clear what he prioritizes. Heck, Duehr went from being a half-point-per-game player in the AHL to playing more NHL games this season than Phillips. The stylistic difference could not be clearer.
The Flames organization is the real loser
There is no right way or wrong way to build a team or to win a Stanley Cup. Teams have won it both ways over the years, but the organization needs to be moving the same direction. But the best teams build an organizational culture that runs up and down their franchise. The Tampa Bay Lightning is a prime example of a team that drafts and develops their players through Syracuse, and have been among the most successful franchises this century. They continue to pull in the same direction.
At the end of the day, the longer that the Flames organization is pulling in two different directions, the deeper the organizational hurt will be.
Treliving was broadly good about bringing in players that would suit Sutter’s system this summer, but if both remain past this summer, and that is a big if, it may not always be that way. Treliving’s job is to bring in players that he thinks will allow this team to win games and succeed in the playoffs, and there are definitely players in the league that suit his style and not Sutter’s. This then makes it complicated for the Flames to win hockey games.
It also makes it hard for the team to attract top college free agents if teams starts to become known as a team built on veterans. A number of NHLers have come into the league this way including Tyler Bozak, Chris Tanev, and Derek Ryan.
The Flames are starting to waste some of their best prospects’ prime years. Phillips is languishing in the AHL with no real shot to play in the NHL this season. It wouldn’t be shocking if he left the organization at the end of this year and went to a team that gave him a shot in the NHL. He has absolutely earned that look.
You can make the case that Pelletier, Zary, and Wolf probably could use more time in the AHL before earning a look at the next level, but getting them a game or two at the next level simply because they could help this team win is not an unreasonable request. The problem then becomes what does the team do with Matt Coronato, who is one of the best players in the entire NCAA right now. Do they try to sign him now, knowing that they probably play him in the AHL, and if they do that, is that even something Coronato wants to do? Could the Flames fall victim to another Adam Fox situation?
The Flames not using their prospects is starting to create a glut in the AHL. They have their older prospects with the Wranglers, but between the prospects that Treliving likes and the prospects and signees that Sutter likes, it’s making the team very crowded, pushing really good prospects like Rory Kerins and Ilya Nikolayev into the ECHL. It also forces young players to remain in the AHL longer than they probably should, hurting their development.
How does this end for Calgary
At the end of the day, the Flames’ ownership is going to be forced to make a decision around the direction of their franchise. Do they want to run a team guided by Treliving’s philosophy, like they have for the last nine years, or would they rather go with the crash and bang style of Sutter?
In the former case, it would mean at some point choosing to move on from the Stanley Cup-winning bench boss, who has made questionable lineup decisions all season long. If the choice is the latter, it means moving on from Treliving and finding a new GM who can work with Sutter to make personnel choices.
Both are losing options. The Flames have signed Sutter for the next two seasons, so trying to dismiss him at this point would be a costly decision that would leave the organization paying wages for a coach that won’t be working for the organization. Treliving has had four chances to find a head coach for this organization that can guide them reliably, and with the nostalgia around Sutter and his long tenure with the organization, he feels far safer than Treliving.
However, moving on from Treliving is also fraught with challenge for the organization. The organization is built on Treliving’s philosophy, and would mean a major overhaul to the team’s prospect pool, scouting staff, and general organizational culture. On top of that, it would be a difficult job to find a GM who knew that his role was to acquiesce to Sutter’s demands. Keeping Sutter and dismissing Treliving would send a message to the market that the job of GM in Calgary would be to be a front for Sutter, and to do as he wants, lest he go the way of Treliving. It’s hard to see an experienced GM taking on that role willingly.
It also means that if the organization then moves on from Sutter, they are left with a puppet GM and a leadership vacuum that will hurt the organization in the long-run.
The best case scenario would be for the Flames organization to reconcile their visions for how they want the team to operate. Start to play some prospects some of the time, maybe make more deliberate decisions of players and draft picks that suit the team’s vision, and operate this team around winning hockey games beyond sticking to a hard and fast way of playing the game, because whatever the team is trying to do simply is not working. If they cannot do that, it’s only going to hurt this organization even more in the future.