With the parting of ways between Brad Treliving and the Calgary Flames, fans are left with more answers than questions. Interim GM Don Maloney was clear in his media availability about a few things, but there is still a lot to unpack. From the tone of the address, what he said, and the subsequent reports about the way things ended between Treliving and the team, there was a divide between Treliving and Head Coach Darryl Sutter which predicated the former’s departure.
That on its own is cause for concern, just like interpersonal conflicts are in any organization, but the fact that Treliving felt that it was so unworkable that the best option was to move to a new organization is concerning. The Flames clearly have gotten into a situation which is untenable long-term between the roles of the coach, GM, and ownership, as well as all the players in between. Getting clarity on this is going to be key going forward before they hire anyone new.
What we know about Calgary’s circumstances
The situation in Calgary has been no secret. The divide between Sutter and Treliving was clear even during the season, and this growing rift was only going to culminate at hurting the team as a whole. That is very much exactly what happened. Treliving spent the summer bringing in players that suited Sutter’s system, re-signing Trevor Lewis, Michael Stone, and Brett Ritchie, as well as drafting three bigger body forwards this summer. He also signed Nazem Kadri to a long-term deal out of free agency, which has looked like a huge misstep so far.
This season was clearly not a workable one for the Flames. Game after game, the team struggled to get the most out of their players, with Kadri, Jonathan Huberdeau, and most of the rest of the team really having awful seasons. The only bright spot in the regular lineup was Tyler Toffoli, who was excellent in his second season with the Flames, but the big club really could not pull it together this year under Sutter.
Treliving very much tried to make the most of what he had, calling up Jakob Pelletier, Walker Duehr, Matthew Phillips, and continuing with Adam Ruzicka, but all struggled to earn big minutes, particularly in key stretches. Phillips finished as the fifth-leading scorer in the AHL, and was rewarded with two NHL games under Sutter. For a team struggling for points, this simply is tough to fathom.
Now coming out of the season it is clear that the Flames are in a far worse spot than they were 12 months ago. The end-of-season locker clean out yielded many questions, with Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund both unwilling to definitively say they wanted to stay in Calgary, among other comments from players that made things look like the roster was ending on an all-time low.
The reports swirling around the team point to an even worse picture. With Sutter reportedly hired by the Flames’ ownership, going over Treliving’s head, he was handed the reins to the organization, and put in a position where he could dictate terms to the GM. Frank Seravalli reported this week that Treliving tried to fire Sutter this season due to complaints from players and the team’s performance, but he was told no by the team’s owners. This played a role in the decision Treliving made.
Furthermore, Elliotte Friedman reported that the Flames are expecting some personnel changes will occur as Trelivng moves on from the team, with some players and members of the organization leaving along with him to new opportunities. This is going to change the flavour of the team for next season substantially.
The next steps for the Flames are uncertain
The core of the problem around the Flames is that they allowed the owner to hire the coach, and put him in a position to dictate his own terms around the team. The GM was then responsible for pleasing the coach, and built a team that was tailored to the style of play that he preferred, not the type that the GM necessarily thought could win hockey games. Then when this strategy did not work, the GM was unable to remove the coach as the ownership decided that he was the more valuable piece.
Treliving is gone. Even if the Flames decided in their review of the team that Sutter needs to go, there is no going back on this move. It is what is is, but the Flames need to reshuffle their roles on the team. Teams hire managers for a reason, to run all aspects of the organization, dictate the vision for the organization, and make on-ice and off-ice decisions. The coach is there to get the most out of the players and execute on that vision. Good organizations work because everyone understands their role, and the Flames are in a position where people cannot do their jobs effectively.
Whoever the new GM is of this team is in a lose-lose position. They won’t be able to do their job because they know that the coach holds leverage with the owners. This means that they will have to kowtow to the coach, regardless of how they actually feel about those decisions, and does not allow the GM to effectively do their job. If and when Sutter makes an error or his plans do not work, like they did this season, the GM knows it is their job on the line as the team won’t fire Sutter, regardless of whether the problem was their fault or not.
That’s a huge problem. No GM worth their salt would take on a job in which they aren’t able to effectively operate with some degree of autonomy. The Flames will end up with a caretaker GM who will make decisions based on Sutter’s philosophy, which at best is inefficient and at worse completely outdated. Not only will this hurt the progress the team has made to develop from the ground up, it also will hurt the team’s ability to develop a comprehensive organizational vision that can propel this team to greater things over the tenure of Sutter.
Calgary is at a crossroads
The team is at a crossroads right now. While Maloney and John Bean were unwilling to use the word rebuild in during the media availability, at some point in the next few years, the team will need to clearly disassemble the current core in favour of a younger group built around their prospects, and will need to use the draft to restock for the next generation. In short, the team will need to rebuild. That starts right now with selecting well in the 2023 NHL Draft and each subsequent year from there.
The organization took major steps backwards in the last decade, selecting Sven Baertschi, Mark Jankowski, Morgan Klimchuk, and Emile Poirier with four first-round picks prior to Treliving, but have an opportunity to make better decisions going forward. This starts with hiring a GM who understands the value of drafting for skill not just for size.
It then means crafting a team that can compete in both the regular season as well as in the playoffs, making the tough decisions this summer as to who to retain and who to trade prior to the puck dropping on the 2023–24 season. This is going to mean hard conversations about both Backlund and Lindholm, but also about the long-term value of Toffoli, Andrew Mangiapane, Dillon Dube, Noah Hanifin, and more. How these conversations go will set the tone for the organization going forward.
Finally, the team needs to have a hard look inwards about what they are building and why. For too long, this team has been a solid contender for the eighth overall spot in the Western Conference, barely making it into the playoffs when they do and getting bounced in the first round. Every dominant season they play ends up leading to an outright awful followup year.
That’s simply not good enough for a team spending to the cap. Mediocre is the best word to describe the Flames, and both professionally and financially, this is a bad decision.
It is time for this organization to look itself in the mirror and make the hard decisions about what it needs to succeed, and it starts with setting up its management team and coaching staff to do their respective jobs in tandem with one another, not in place of it.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire