This has not been a great season for the Calgary Flames. Coming off of a season where they won the Pacific Division, and with substantial additions particularly at centre and on the blueline, the hope was that the Flames would at least be comfortably in the playoff picture if not pushing for the top spot in the Pacific Division.
But between poor goaltending, injury issues, and major steps backwards from some of their key guys, the Flames are looking like a shell of their former selves. On top of that, the team is very much in their win-now window, with many of their core closing in on or are just over 30 years old. They simply cannot afford to miss the playoffs.
The problem for this team has been threefold. Up front, the team simply has not had the scoring touch that they have needed to win games. They have also struggled defensively, between injuries and just sloppy defensive coverage allowing their goalies to be hung out to dry on many nights. In net, they have gotten good performances from Dan Vladar, but Jacob Markstrom has really struggled this season. He regularly looks like the Flames’ second best goalie, but is paid like an NHL starter—an awful combination for this team.
If the Flames are going to make the playoffs and have a chance at a deep run, they are going to need improvement at all three positions. Here’s how they can do it.
The Calgary Flames desperately need help on the wing, and this has been an issue since the preseason when they brought in Sonny Milano on a PTO to try and fill that gap. And while that clearly did not work out, the need for scoring from the flanks has been a recurring issue.
It’s a two-part issue for the team right now. On the one hand, they are simply not generating enough high-quality looks on net, sitting 18th in the league in high-danger chances created at 5v5 per NaturalStatTrick.com. On the other hand, when they do get chances on net, they cannot close, leading the league in posts and crossbars hit this season. The latter is a matter of luck, while the former is a skill and systems issue that the Flames will need to correct and correct fast.
In terms of elite shooters, the Flames really lack that in their lineup too. Sure there is Nazem Kadri, who finished last season with 28 goals, and Tyler Toffoli, who has regularly been a 20-goal scorer in the league, but beyond that, their major pieces are historically pass-first guy. Elias Lindholm, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Mikael Backlund are all better known for their ability to distribute the puck than their ability to put it in the back of the net. The Flames instead have had to rely on Blake Coleman and Andrew Mangiapane—and the latter did have a remarkable season last season—to try and put the puck in the net, and neither has been reliably able to do so this season.
At the crux of it, the Flames need one more top-nine winger, and likely need to move on from one depth forward. For now, that player is Jakob Pelletier, and wow has he looked good in that role. However, having him playing top minutes on this team right now is probably not the gamebreaker that this team will need in the playoffs. Adding one more strong piece allows the Flames to utilize four strong lines as opposed to a top line that has been very good, a third line that has been elite, a second line that is a work-in-progress, and a fourth line that has looked very slow all season.
The Flames also need to move on from someone at the bottom of their roster. Right now they have Adam Ruzicka, Walker Duehr, Milan Lucic, Brett Ritchie, and Trevor Lewis fighting for three spots and Kevin Rooney in the AHL. Duehr and Ruzicka have both looked very good for the Flames, while Lucic and Lewis both bring a tough physical presence on the ice and a veteran leadership role. If you drop someone from the top nine down, this makes this picture even more messy. Someone will have to go.
This is where the trade will likely be had. The Flames need to strength up front to compete. The biggest problem for the Flames has been offensive production, and the Flames simply cannot afford not to make a move to add to their wings. While they likely —or hopefully—have Matthew Coronato signing at the end of Harvard’s season, he will need some time to acclimate to the NHL. He has been one of the best players in the NCAA this season, and is a Hobey Baker nominee, but do not expect him to be the Flames’ saviour this season. Expect the addition to come from outside the organization.
Bolstering the defence
It feels weird to talk about the Flames’ defence being an issue for them this season, but when you only have six blueliners in the lineup at any given time, each game without one of them makes a huge difference.
The team has been blessed by a huge step forward from Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin, who together have been one of the best Flames pairings in some time. Both definitely had their bumps getting to this point, but it’s incredible to see how far they have come. However, individually, Andersson has taken a step forward while Hanifin has taken a step back. A win-lose situation. Further, MacKenzie Weegar has also been quite good for the Flames, playing a good two-way game in his time with the team.
From there, the wheels start to come off the bus. The team has been without Oliver Kylington all season, and that is a loss that has been felt. The team needs clarity on the situation one way or another in order to move forward. Add in Chris Tanev being injured sporadically this season, and the team has relied heavily on Michael Stone to be a regular defenceman in the lineup.
That was not part of the plan at all, and while Stone has been fine most nights, he simply is not as good as the Flames’ regular blueliners would have been. Nikita Zadorov has been good in his role, but is far better suited to being a bottom-pair defenceman than anything more.
Then the team has had to rotate between a very poor Connor Mackey, and AHL blueliners Dennis Gilbert and Nick DeSimone. This was clearly not the way this team expected to operate, and it has been a huge issue. Quite simply they have had to dig deep in the barrel to get blueliners who can play for the team, and the results have been exactly as expected.
This situation hinges on the health and well-being of Oliver Kylington and Chris Tanev. If the Flames can have both back, there is no real reason to start shopping picks and prospects for depth blueliners. If the Flames are without one or without both, they will suddenly be facing limited time to add defenders to the lineup.
In 2020, the Flames added Erik Gustafsson for a conditional third-round pick and Derek Forbort for a conditional fourth-round pick. In the grand scheme of things, they were pretty low impact trades, but given the team is without a NHL-ready defensive prospect right now and given how few high-impact the Flames’ prospect pool is overall, moving picks is going to start to really hurt the organization down the road. However, given the team’s contention window and their dire need, this may be where the Flames add a body or two.
Help with goaltending
This is where the Flames need perhaps the most help of all, but where they are unlikely to get any from outside the organization. Jacob Markstrom has simply not been himself this season, struggling to show that he is an NHL-calibre starting goalie for most of the season. Dan Vladar has been excellent in his role as the backup, but the team desperately needs to get their starter going.
Love it or hate it, it is near impossible to see the Flames moving on from Markstrom. The organization has not had a legitimate starting goalie since Miikka Kiprusoff and given Markstrom’s contract and no-movement clause, unless he really wants to uproot his life and family from Calgary, there is little chance he goes anywhere anytime soon. The team is tied to him for better or for worse.
The only way the Flames make a move to add a goalie is if they move Vladar at this point. Perhaps they see this as the peak of his value, and opt to move him for another goalie. This seems like a bad move for the organization to consider when they know the struggles Markstrom is going through. Add in the fact that they just renewed Vladar, it seems incredibly unlikely.
The Flames do have Dustin Wolf in the AHL with the Wranglers, and he has been outstanding, but unless there is an injury to one of their goalies, do not expect him to get any playing time with the team.
This is something the team will need to solve from within. Whatever it takes, be it physical, social, psychological, or otherwise, the Flames need to do something to get Markstrom going, and they need to do it fast.
Where do the moves get made?
The Flames have been very clear about needing to add more strength up front, and that is almost certainly where the move will be. Names like Anthony Duclair, Timo Meier, James Van Riemsdyk, and others are definitely ones to watch for the Flames right now.
The team should also seriously consider adding a depth blueliner or two, especially given the uncertainty around Kylington’s availability. Mackey has looked like an AHL defenceman this season, and running Michael Stone as a regular defenceman in the lineup is not a recipe for success.
The good news is that the Flames are expected to have in the ballpark of $7 million in cap room at the deadline to play with, per CapFriendly. This is a lot of change that the team can use to add some real firepower to their lineup.
The bad news is that the team will have next to no ability to retain that player going into next season without moving money out this summer. The team has just over $80 million committed for next season, and will need to either re-sign or replace Lucic, Lewis, Ritchie, Mackey, and Stone. With a projected cap of $83 million, that really is not much space to play with this summer at all.
The Flames have five draft picks this year, and having made just three selections last year, they will likely be hesitant to give up many for rental players. They do have a lot of prospects in the system, as well as a number of depth players that could be moved, but those likely are lower value than picks in what is expected to be a very deep draft this year.
The Flames need to make a move now if they want to salvage this season. Brad Treliving has done a lot of surgery this summer, but the holes in the lineup are glaring. Now in his last season of his contract, he likely wants to show that he can make his team better both in the off-season as well as at the deadline to earn himself a job beyond this season. Whether that is in Calgary or elsewhere is going to be a question mark.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire