Calgary Flames

What the Calgary Flames can learn from the Stanley Cup-winning Vegas Golden Knights

Another year has passed, and despite pushing their chips into the middle over the past few years, the Calgary Flames again did not win the Stanley Cup. This was supposed to be a huge year for the Flames, with many in the city believing that the team would at the very least be a playoff team, if not be outright contenders this year. However, this was for naught and the ultimately the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Florida Panthers in five games to win the Cup.

The Golden Knights went into this season with a ton of question marks—particularly in goal. There were highly mixed opinions about how they would finish the year, with some saying they would miss the playoffs completely, and others saying they would likely sneak in but not in a high seed position. They managed to prove the doubters wrong and show that they had more than many expected of them. There is a lot that the Flames can learn from their strategy.

Relentless pursuit of the cup

If there has been one thing that has defined the Vegas Golden Knights since their expansion draft, it has been their relentless pursuit of winning. The team has done anything and everything that they could to win the Stanley Cup, culminating in this season’s success, and this has come at the expense of building a long-term vision around their team.

These moves include trading Marc-Andre Fleury last season to the Chicago Blackhawks, moving fan-favourite Nate Schmidt to clear cap space for Alex Pietrangelo, and basically gifting the Carolina Hurricanes Max Pacioretty.

All of these moves were significant, and involved players with high cap hits being moved around like chattel. These were not small moves for Vegas. Each one made a huge impact on the franchise and on the way the team was able to win the Cup.

Understanding the salary cap structure

Beyond this, the Vegas Golden Knights understood and exploited every last inch of the salary cap rules, finishing the season with a cap hit of $96.5 million dollars. This was nearly $14 million over the upper cap limit of $82.5 million. They were able to do this through using LTIR space on Mark Stone, Robin Lehner, and others to access as much extra room as possible in the pursuit of the Cup.

Look, I understand the fan outcry about not following “the spirit of the rule,” but the fact of the matter is that this is a perfectly legal loophole for teams to utilize. The Tampa Bay Lightning did this in 2020–21, famously having Nikita Kucherov wearing a shirt saying “$18M over the cap.” As much as people love to complain, the league seems to be unwilling to change this rule.

Ironically, it was the Lightning who brought this case to the Board of Governors in 2015 to protest the Blackhawks going $5 million over the cap. However, no team wanted to close the loophole. In fact, since 2015–16, only two teams have won the Cup without using LTIR space to go over the cap: the St. Louis Blues in 2018–19 and the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019–20. Every other team has been over the cap by some degree.

Since 2015–16, the Flames have only been over the cap twice. First in 2016–17 with Ladislav Smid on LTIR then in 2021–22 with Sean Monahan being placed on the shelf. Ironically, they made the playoffs in both of those seasons, but did not do a whole lot with the space that they had accumulated. Last season, the Flames did not shut Monahan down until late in the season, with him playing through injury nearly the whole year. In Smid’s case, he was out nearly the entire season, and the Flames did not add a whole lot to push for a playoff berth, being mired in the dark years of a rebuild.

Tight-knit cultures versus building the best team available

The Flames have a team-culture mentality, which is anathema to the win-at-all-costs mentality of the Golden Knights, and while both are valid, it has been a while since a team with a culture mentality has won the Cup. Vegas, Colorado, Tampa, Washington, Chicago, and more have all made ruthless decisions in the pursuit of winning. This goes even beyond hockey, with the Toronto Raptors electing to move DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard prior to winning the NBA Championship in 2019.

Prior to this season, the Flames ran back the same core year after year, building complementary pieces around Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, and Johnny Gaudreau. While technically the team was ruthless under GM Brad Treliving for grinding players down on their contracts, the Flames kept the band together year after year, hoping to be good enough to win the cup. There has not been much of a hard-nosed mentality around the Flames under Treliving’s manamgement, electing to make Calgary a place people wanted to come to because of the team dynamic.

This may be simply a result of the market itself, with the city being less desirable to some than playing in South Florida, Toronto, New York City, Los Angeles or others. There is little that the Flames can do to give Calgary a better climate, but players move to teams that they feel they can win at, and if the Flames can build a winning organizational culture, there should be no reason that they cannot attract high-end talent like any other city.

Fan experience matters

Las Vegas as a city is known for its nightlife and casinos, but in the hockey world, it is constantly one of the best atmospheres to watch a game. The arena is extremely loud, with the pregame and in-game entertainment being among the best in the league. This drives the fan engagement, who get loud and proud of their team, creating a great place to play. The way that the fans were engaged through the playoffs was a testament to the awesome experience that the staff in Vegas put on to make it an experience worth travelling for, and was one of the big things players pointed to after the Stanley Cup was awarded.

Vegas is an entertainment hub and likely has to do more to compete with the other attractions in the city, but there is a lot more that the Flames can do to build out their in-game entertainment. Comparatively, the Saddledome is a much quieter barn in the regular season, and does not see as many sellout games as others across the league. The Athletic put out a ranking of the best and worst places to see an NHL game, with T-Mobile Arena taking the top spot and the Saddledome finishing a dismal 29th. A key distinguisher was atmosphere, where the ‘Dome finished 24th, something that can be easily improved.

If the Flames want to attact the best talent to play in the city and to build a team that can compete year-in and year-out, it needs to be a place that players want to come and play. And while the new arena will come when it does, the Flames can do more to build an exciting atmosphere through more fan engagement during the game, better and unique cheers and music, driving ticket sales and community engagement both inside the arena and around the area, and developing more partnerships across the city. All of these help entrench the team with the city further and build out a fanbase that wants to go to games and be passionate when they do.

Play style and roster construction

In terms of roster construction, both teams were actually remarkably similar. The Flames and Vegas had nearly the same average size and average weight, as well both had very similar numbers of man-games played.

The difference was very simply the high-end talent. Mark Stone, Jack Eichel, and the aforementioned Pietrangelo were key components of this team, and the Flames just don’t have the calibre of talent to compete with this despite how much we may all love Lindholm, Nazem Kadri, and Jonathan Huberdeau. Even at their best, it’s hard to cpmpete with the Golden Knights’ top talent. The Flames need to continue to attract high-end talent from outside the organization or find it in the draft.

The differences are in play style are also stark. Vegas played a frustrating neutral-zone trap, designed to frustrate the heck out of their opponents, who were forced to dump and chase time and time again. Add in a heavy defensive presence, headmanned by Pietreangelo and the Golden Knights were tough to get sustained offensive zone time.

On offence, the Golden Knights played a swarm style with lots of movement between their five players on the ice. Florida struggled to manage this, seemingly a step behind as Vegas pushed the puck around the ice freely. In transition, the Golden Knights played a strong counterattack game, forcing steals at the line and creating numerous chances on the counterattack.

This is an area of opportunity for the Flames under Ryan Huska. This past season, the Flames played very simple hockey, pushing a dump-and-chase philosophy with lots of shots on net from all over the ice but few sustained high-danger opportunities. Unsurprisingly this style simply did not work.

Goalies are too good in this league and if the chances are not dangerous, they will stop then every single time. Huska’s system will likely not be as run-and-gun as the Golden Knights, but creating more sustained time in the offensive zone and building out more chances in front of the net will be key to the Flames’ success. The Golden Knights also played a disciplined game, forcing Florida to take multiple misconduct and other silly penalties. This gave Vegas plenty of chances on the power play, which was a difference-maker in the series. Staying disciplined will be a key for this team.

Lessons learned and notes for the future

The Flames can absolutely make some of these changes with ease. Enhancing the in-game experience for fans to drive a better playing environment for the Flames’ players is not a hard change to make. They can also easily change their style of play to be quicker in transition and to play looser in the offensive zone, and this will come through the new head coach in the new season.

The harder change to make is developing that ruthless mindset. On 32 Thoughts The Podcast, Elliotte Friedman talked about how this strategy would work really well in established hockey markets but may be tougher in smaller markets, but winning is winning. Players know that their careers are short and the accomplishment that matters most of all is getting their name on the Stanley Cup. If players feel they have a chance of doing that, they’ll sign up to play in any market. The Flames are doing themselves no favours by building a culture that doesn’t prioritize winning.

This is the key lesson that the Flames should takeaway, and while it may be tough to see some of our favorite players moved, adopting a win-first mentality will help the organization immensely.

Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire

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