Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames set the example of the NHL shifting to a player-driven league

The last calendar year has been a roller coaster for the Calgary Flames organization to say the least. With the departure of Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Brad Treliving, and now Darryl Sutter, the proverbial table is being completely reset.

One of the toughest seasons in recent memory came and went in 2022–23 and left many scratching their heads—and not just fans for that matter. We saw coach-player differences come to light, management and coaching relationships dwindle to the point of resignation, and to make it worse, a roster full of talented players that couldn’t produce.

The wide array of issues plaguing the Calgary Flames this season cannot solely rest on one individual, or one specific level of the organization. The underlying theme across the entire year stemmed from difference in opinion, a common issue among teams, but why was it something this team couldn’t overcome?

We’re going to dive into the bigger picture and analyze how the NHL is becoming more a player-driven league.

Player performance is everything

Teams are measured in success and winning means everything. When a team wins, the organization’s value rises, and the players who performed on said teams see their value rise with it.

In 2021–22, Jonathan Huberdeau had 115 points. With that point total, he was traded to the Flames and signed for $10.5M dollars a year for eight years. Based on his performance in Florida, what would the value on that contract be? Fair I’d say—his NHL record performance as a left wing and the fact he led the Florida Panthers to a Presidents’ Trophy all while setting a franchise high in points earned that contract.

This year, he had 55 points and the biggest negative swing in point production in NHL history on a team that did not have any success. Not worth the $10.5M this year—but at least that contract didn’t kick in yet.

If we compare the past two seasons, what would contract look like if he had signed the contract this off-season? Much less.

This is only one individual but almost across the board it was a down year for player production. Was it tied to coaching? Yes, but not completely.

The coach’s job

Let’s start this simple, what’s a coach’s job? To maximize their players’ skill sets to the fullest with the ultimate goal of winning the game. How they do this is unique to each individual.

Darryl Sutter is a great coach, but did he accomplish his job this season? Few say yes, many say no. I don’t think he did. There’s a multitude of factors that played into it but Sutter’s coaching just did not mesh.

Professional sports is a business

Multiple factors are to blame within the organization’s failure this season, but at the end of the day, the team is a business and their product is entertainment. Players are the entertainment. To get the most out of players, they need their voices heard too. With the shift in professional sports seeing more power for players, organizations are navigating new waters.

From NCAA players deciding their fate like Adam Fox, to unrestricted free agents using the power to choose a suitor like Johnny Gaudreau, to restricted free agents even making demands like Matthew Tkachuk— players are using their leverage more and more.

We see it across other major sports, most notably in the NBA. In recent memory, the Brooklyn Nets come to mind. Two star players—Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant—dictating the organizations movements. Yes eventually they both departed, but that was after they destroyed the team by creating a toxic culture, demanding their coach be fired, requesting trades and dismantling the fan base.

The bottom line is that players have leverage, and as more players start using it, more will follow suit.

Player value in other sports

Across other leagues, we’re beginning to see explosive numbers of revenue being generated by individual players.

In the MLB, generational talent Shohei Ohtani accounted for 28% of All-Star game merchandise sales. Not just player merchandise—all merchandise.

The MLB and the Los Angeles Angels are making massive money off his performance. With his contract expiring this season, it’s expected he will sign a record contract this offseason and every single team in the league will be bidding. Even if they invest $600M, his upside is so high even if they lose like the Angels have, they will make money.

At the end of the day it’s the players that fill seats, sell jerseys and merchandise, and make owners money. Happy players, happy pockets.

The Flames’ situation

From the Flames perspective, their biggest investment is in long-term contracts with star players, a situation not unlike the Brooklyn Nets.

Ownership is invested in those long-term deals and they took a big hit on value this year. Unlike the NBA, getting out of those long-term deals is very difficult with no buyouts.

This makes player influence even higher, and with less cash flow in the NHL and bigger rosters, the true star players need to pay off.

The coaches are an investment too, and an important one at that. So too is the GM. But they are much cheaper investments than these long-term playe contracts.

It hit a breaking point in the offseason, and although it came late, the players got what they wanted. It had to come at the expense of Brad Treliving, but ultimately they had to relieve Darryl Sutter of his duties if they wanted to have any sort of a team in the future.

They arguably would’ve been in a better spot if they had pulled the trigger midseason. But with a team on the cusp of a playoff berth and another two years invested in the coach, I can understand why it took this long.

Calgary is an example of an organization at a breaking point. The organization had to make an immediate change and take a hit on their investments. The investment they could divest from was the coach. With players that are expected to produce having career lows across the board, it should be evident what the overlying issue is.

The bottom line

Players are becoming more influential in organizations decisions across professional sports.

Although the NHL is far behind the NBA, MLB and NFL, they’re striving to become a more player-forward league.

Situations like Calgary over the last year are signs of a shift within the league. Players and their brands mean more now than ever and they can be maximized on successful teams.

The best time to be a player is now, and I think more and more NHL players are going to start advocating for their careers and their individual success.

Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire

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