The Calgary Flames were not a very good hockey club to begin the 2016-17 National Hockey League season. That statement is probably pretty obvious, given their atrocious 1-4-1 start and their 4-5-1 October, but it needs to be stated in light of how the reason of their season has unfolded. Simply put, the Flames have made a remarkable turnaround given that their season began with them being in the league’s basement and now they’re flirting with a divisional playoff spot in the Western Conference after solidifying their wildcard aspirations.
Here’s a quick rundown of just how the Flames have pulled off this miracle.
The Season At A Glance
The Flames season can basically be broken down into a few big chunks:
- Early Struggles (October 12 to November 12); the club stumbled out of the starting blocks due to new systems from a new coach, rough goaltending and both Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan struggling after having basically no training camp time. The team went 5-10-1 and were among the worst teams in the NHL during this period.
- Minor Resurgence (November 15 to January 24); beginning with the hand injury to Gaudreau (and his subsequent absence), the Flames really simplified their game at even strength. They didn’t generate a ton of offense, basically playing a style of game that kept their heads above water at five-on-five and relied on their special teams units to win them games. When their power play was hot, they won a lot. When it cooled down and they stopped getting as many bounces, the results swung the other way. They were 19-14-2 during this period, which is just shy of a playoff pace in the West.
- Red Hot (January 26 to present); the Flames’ special teams cool off, but their even strength play really tightens up and the team is able to win consistently without being propped up by their power play. This period, thus far, has seen them go 12-2-1.
The Flames’ major turnaround coincided with a series of small changes and tweaks.
Keeping It Simple
Following the Flames’ trouncing in Montreal on January 24, head coach Glen Gulutzan laid into the team’s performance in his post-game scrum. He termed the team’s performance “pathetic,” coming on the heels of a home loss to Edmonton that he dubbed “embarrassing.” Gulutzan reportedly had a heart-to-heart with the team on the train ride to Ottawa. What resulted from that heart-to-heart and subsequent team meeting was a more simplified game. Gulutzan has frequently mentioned the need for the club to play “direct” hockey towards the opposition net rather than get overly fancy with passing plays or other types of east-west sequences. The Flames tidied up their game in all three zones and while it hasn’t resulted in much of a change in their underlying numbers, it’s smoothed out a lot of the rough spots in their game.
The Flames made three primary tweaks to their line-up in late January and early February. Defensemen Matt Bartkowski and Michael Stone were acquired. Bartkowski replaced Jyrki Jokipakka on the third pairing with Deryk Engelland. Stone replaced Dennis Wideman on the second pairing with T.J. Brodie. Finally, Micheal Ferland was promoted from the fourth line to play with Gaudreau and Monahan, bumping Troy Brouwer to the third line and Alex Chiasson to the fourth line. The tweaks gave Engelland and Brodie more suitable, stable defensive partners and allowed Gulutzan to roll three fairly balanced forward lines that can generate offensive chances.
Elliott Found His Game
Flames netminder Brian Elliott has indicated that he hasn’t changed very much of his game lately, but he’s gotten much, much better results. After struggling early in the season to the point where Chad Johnson got the bulk of the starts through early January, Elliott has found his groove and given the Flames a chance to win every night. It’s not even as if the Flames have gotten shelled with shots in most games, but more that Elliott has been consistently very good. At the time of this writing, Elliott had no shutouts this season.
Offense From Everywhere
Before January 26, the Flames were really reliant on Mikael Backlund and the 3M Line for offense (with occasion offensive outbursts from Gaudreau and Monahan). Since then, they’ve gotten at least one goal from every regular player except for Bartkowski, Stone and fourth-liner Lance Bouma. Eight different players have scored game-winning goals. Ferland, who had 5 goals the rest of the season, has had 8 goals during this span. The players that were producing have kept producing, while players like Ferland have found their stride.
The good news is that the Flames didn’t have to do one big thing to knock everything into place for their club, which is fortunate because they didn’t really have the resources available to make a big external add to their team and there was no real guarantee that it would work. Instead, they made a series of minor additions and line-up tweaks that were followed up by a ton of success. If you’re a new coach trying to keep a surging team focused on the details during the stretch drive, being able to point to this manner of sustained success is likely a great way to get buy-in and keep the team on the right track.
Some of the Flames’ success has been based on getting the bounces, but if they can stay the course and keep playing the same structured style of hockey they could make some noise in the wide-open Western Conference playoff picture.