One of the greatest sports television shows out there is Ted Lasso—the story of an amateur football coach who gets hired to coach professional soccer in England. In it, Ted Lasso preaches to his team to believe, even going so far as to put the word believe on an orange sheet of construction paper above his door. Sports are all about belief, but the fact of the matter is that the math has to work too.
There are 32 teams in the NHL and only 16 spots in the playoffs, and the Calgary Flames are looking to be on the outside looking in. With 15 games left in the season, the team sits six points outside of a playoff spot, chasing the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers for a wildcard spot. They are currently tied with the Nashville Predators at 73 points, but the Predatorss have three games in hand. In short, not great.
But even if the Flames do not make the playoffs this year, they shouldn’t change too much before next season. Here’s why.
The Flames have had an incredibly unlucky year
2021–22 was a Cindella-esque regular season for the Calgary Flames. They suffered very few injuries to their top players during the regular season, everyone performed exceptionally well, multiple players were in the conversation for awards—including Jacob Markstrom who was a Vezina Trophy finalist—and the team had nearly all their players have career years. It was as close to a perfect season as the Flames have had in some time.
And in fairness, there was always going to be some regression this season. Lightning doesn’t strike the same spot twice. But few could have predicted the season going this poorly. The team’s new players are still finding their groove this season, with MacKenzie Weegar probably being the only one to be really settling into this team at this point—and even then, he’s not putting up the same offensive results. Nazem Kadri has scored just seven goals since the calendar switched to 2023, with his last one coming on February 18.
Then there’s Jonathan Huberdeau, who has gone from 115 points last season down to just 44 so far. He has just four points this month, with two of which coming in the team’s last game against the Ottawa Senators. He hasn’t looked good, and has been publicly called out by his coach for his play. It doesn’t feel like a happy situation.
And as good as Tyler Toffoli, Dillon Dube, and Jakob Pelletier have been this season, the team has not been nearly as good as was expected at the start of the season.
But if last season was a Cinderella season and this season has been a glorified dumpster fire, this team’s true potential likely falls somewhere between the two. On paper, this team has a number of incredible assets. Huberdeau has consistently been one of the best playmakers in the league, and Kadri has shown that with the right linemates, he can be a prolific goalscorer. Add in Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, and Blake Coleman, and the team has the two-way skill that can shutdown the best players in the game as well.
The Flames also have (on paper) five really good defencemen in Weegar, Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, Nikita Zadorov, and Chris Tanev, not to mention Oliver Kylington who should hopefully be back next season. Then they have Markstrom in net and Dustin Wolf in the minors, who is probably the best goalie not in the NHL right now. This team is absolutely stacked.
Wherever you place the blame, the team is clearly better than what they’ve shown on the ice this year. Missed chances, pucks off the iron, bizarre coaching decisions and simple bad luck aside, this team is clearly better than they’ve shown.
Calgary’s core is set
GM Brad Treliving and this team’s ownership group made a decision last summer to push all of their chips into the middle and make a run for the playoffs. In moving from one Johnny era (Johnny Gaudreau) to the new Johnny era (Jonathan Huberdeau), the Flames have opted to give out long-term deals to an older, more veteran-laden group.
Huberdeau, Weegar, and Lindholm, are all closing in on 30 years of age, while Markstrom, Backlund, Kadri, and Toffoli are all at or over the mark. This team has prioritized playoff experience and years in the league over up-and-coming talents who are still establishing themselves as premier NHLers.
The Flames have also given out contracts that are tough or impossible to move. Six of their forwards, four of their defencemen, and Markstrom have at least a modified no-trade clause somewhere in their contract, which impedes the team from moving them freely. They also already have $82.2 million already allocated towards the cap for next season, with just depth players like Milan Lucic and Trevor Lewis coming off the books at the end of the season.
While they can make moves to trade away players with term, and this is almost certainly something that they will have to explore this offseason, it’s hard to see them making major moves at the end of this season. The Flames have gone through major turmoil this past summer and will be looking to have their team gel going into next season. Major surgery is only going to hinder this team’s ability to perform on the ice.
The Flames are more than the sum of their parts
If I were Brad Treliving and this team’s ownership looking at this season, I’d treat it as a sunk cost. Last year was a summer to have to try and make lemonade out of, but hey it’s done now. This is our team, and before they get too much older, it’s time to try and win something. This team is substantially better than they’ve shown, and if it means some minor tweaks or a new coach, there is a lot more juice that can be gotten out of this team.
The rest of this season and the summer are about trying to figure out what this team needs to thrive. Adding Pelletier was a huge step in the right direction, both from a performance sense but also from a dollars perspective, having him still on his entry-level deal.
What more can this team add, either internally or externally to make it really click. Is it Matt Coronato, who is finishing his second year at Harvard and is looking too good for the NCAA? Is it moving a defenceman out for more scoring up front? Is it looking for a new coach?
Whatever it is, the team needs to make those moves and make them quickly. The window for this team is likely the next two seasons before they really start to struggle to compete with the group that they have. Assuming Treliving is re-signed this summer and assuming the philosophy of this team stays the same, which is should, the team should run it back next year.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire