The phrase that best describes this Calgary Flames season is topsy-turvy. Off the ice, the Flames have had a very up and down offseason, losing Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau and adding Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, and Nazem Kadri. On the ice, some games the Flames have looked unbeatable while in others they have looked like a team that would prefer to be golfing come April.
This has made it very difficult to try and put your finger on this team. Are they a good team? Are they a bad team? Are they even a playoff team? Depending on the night, perhaps even depending on the period, the answer seems to change.
Without really having a pulse on this team, it makes it especially hard to try and determine whether this team should be buyers, holders, or sellers at the upcoming trade deadline. Time is running out before the deadline hits, and these next two weeks are going to be very telling both on and off the ice, and will help determine what this team looks like going down the stretch and into the summer. Here’s why.
Calgary’s strength of schedule
Including last night’s overtime loss to the New York Rangers, the Flames will have six games this week. Here is who they play and their place in the standings:
|February 6, 2023||New York Rangers||27–14–8||10th|
|February 9, 2023||Detroit Red Wings||21–19–8||24th|
|February 11, 2023||Buffalo Sabres||26–20–4||19th|
|February 13, 2023||Ottawa Senators||24–23–3||22nd|
|February 16, 2023||Detroit Red Wings||21–19–8||24th|
|February 18, 2023||Colorado Avalanche||27–18–3||16th|
The Flames go into this stretch of games 15th in the league and holding down the second wildcard spot in the Pacific Division with a 24–17–10 record. They are just one point up on the Colorado Avalanche, their last opponent in this stretch.
To make things even more interesting, the gap between the Flames and the Seattle Kraken at the top of the Pacific is just five points. Conversely, the four teams fighting for the two wildcard spots, the Flames, Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, and Nashville Predators are separated by just six points.
To say that this stretch of games is vital would be an understatement. The Flames have an enormous opportunity here. If they are able to come away from this stretch going even 3–2–1, depending on how the rest of the competition does, they could see themselves in an actual playoff spot.
Their opponents in this stretch are also relatively weak. The Avalanche and Sabres are the only teams above 20th in the league, and the remaining teams are all looking more like golf teams than playoff teams this season. Both Ottawa and Detroit are in the midst of a rebuild, and are muddling around the 0.500 mark right now.
The Sabres and Avalanche are both going to be tests for the Flames, but both are manageable tests that the Flames should be able to win. They held their own against the Rangers last night, and probably deserved the point that they got. If the Flames are able to show that they can be a playoff team and make a push now, it will help solidify the need to add at the deadline.
Calgary on the ice
However, even with the schedule the way it is, the Flames have a lot of questions to answer on the ice. As we wrote about earlier, the Flames have holes in all three forward positions, and how they fill those internally will help determine the additions they make towards the deadline.
Up front, the biggest question marks are how the team can get Kadri and Huberdeau going. Putting them with Milan Lucic did not work and now having him with Jakob Pelletier seems like a better fit but not clicking quite yet. These next six games, Darryl Sutter will need to do whatever he can to continue to get them to go.
At the bottom of the roster, the Flames still have a lot of playing around going on. Trevor Lewis has been a mainstay, but he has been playing with a rotating cast of Lucic, Adam Ruzicka, Brett Ritchie, and Walker Duehr. On the one hand, it’s a low-impact role on the fourth line, but it also may open up a player who is expendable to be traded for more help up front.
On the back end, the Flames still struggling to finalize the bottom of their blueline. Nikita Zadorov has been very good aside from the game against the Rangers, but playing Michael Stone as a sixth defenceman is not a recipe for success every single night. Barring a miraculous turnaround from Connor Mackey, the Flames will almost certainly need to add to their blueline.
Finally, their whole season hinges on a turnaround from Jacob Markstrom, who has been everything except good this season. The Vezina Trophy finalist is sporting a 0.893 save percentage, good for 58th of the 70 goalies that have played at least 10 games this season. The Flames have gone 13–13–5 with Markstrom in net, which is an enormous problem for a team with playoff ambitions.
This isn’t to say that Dan Vladar hasn’t been good in his time; he absolutely has, but relying on your backup who has a 0.906 save percentage this season to carry you through the playoff is not a recipe for success. The Flames absolutely need to find a way to get Markstrom going or any endeavour to make a deep playoff run is doomed to fail. How the Flames look in net over the next three weeks will be key to seeing exactly what Brad Treliving and Darryl Sutter have in this team.
Calgary off the ice
Off the ice, the Flames should have two big question marks hanging over their heads. Chief among them is the status of Oliver Kylington. While the team has been mum on his situation, they are reaching a point where they need clarity on his situation one way or another. Is he coming back this season? If so when. Is he coming back even next season? There simply are not answers right now, and the team needs that in order to plan for how the rest of the season.
Best case scenario, Kylington not only comes back but is in game shape and can slot right into the lineup. This gives them way more strength on the blueline, able to pair him with either Zadorov or Tanev. This then moves Stone to the seventh defenceman role and sends Dennis Gilbert, Connor Mackey and co. back to the AHL.
If the Flames don’t get Kylington back, this gives them options to put his contract on LTIR and gain additional cap flexibility, but more than that it gives them clarity for how to move forward.
The other issue the Flames have to deal with is injuries. Chris Tanev was back after spending time on the IR for an undisclosed injury, but seemed to pick up a bit of a knock in the game against the Rangers. Kadri got absolutely steamrolled in the same game against the Rangers, and was surprisingly not pulled from the game by concussion spotters. Ritchie has been activated by the team from IR but has yet to feature in a game.
Going down the stretch, the Flames will need to have as many healthy bodies as possible in order to give themselves the greatest chance of making the playoffs. One or two injuries to their top players could see them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture. The good news is that they should have clarity on their players in the coming days, and hopefully there aren’t too many injuries down the road.
What is all means for the Flames
It’s hard to undersell just how important these next two weeks are for the Flames. They have five games left in this stretch, which will take them to the third week of February, leaving them just under two weeks until the NHL Trade Deadline. This is the make-it-or-break-it stretch, where GM Treliving will have his chance to see exactly what he has in this team, identify where the gaps are in the lineup, and work the phones to try and fill them.
With just over $7 million in projected cap space at the deadline according to CapFriendly, the Flames will have lots of money to splash around should they want to add. Treliving has been keen to take a cue from his team before adding, noting last season that the team’s performance necessitated him to add Tyler Toffoli around this time last year. If the Flames can prove that they are a playoff team in this next stretch, expect Treliving to make a splash around the deadline.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire