The Calgary Flames were the best story in the National Hockey League last season. A team that looked like it was on a fast track to the draft lottery, the Flames defied the odds by not only making the Stanley Cup playoffs, but by even winning a round when they got there. Some might even argue that merely being in the playoff race would already have been an accomplishment for the franchise.
As incredible as their season was, it was just the start of a dramatic turnaround. They snagged 22-year old Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins in exchange for a handful of picks just hours before the draft, leading all of hockey Twitter to simultaneously bash the Bruins and exalt Calgary’s rebuild.
With the Hamilton deal completed and the ink drying on Michael Frolik’s contract, critics around the hockey world were bowing down to the Flames as a model organization that was primed for long-term success. Can you blame them? With a young nucleus of Hamilton, Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sam Bennett, as well as the defensive prowess of Mark Giordano, the Flames really do look like they’re on to something.
That being said, the NHL off-season is full of overreaction. A good deal is franchise-altering, while a questionable contract ought to cost a general manager his job. In Calgary’s case, the proverbial brakes need to be pumped, and pumped hard.
Calgary’s Fatal Flaw
It’s not some closely-guarded secret that the Flames were downright awful at even strength last year. Only Colorado and Buffalo were worse than Calgary at five-on-five possession, two teams that were out of the playoffs by Christmas. To boot, only Buffalo allowed more shot attempts against per sixty minutes than the Flames did.
Now, don’t give me the “Oh, well shot attempts don’t mean anything since they account for misses and blocked shots”. Nearly 62 pucks were directed at the Calgary net per 60 minutes. That’s not just bad, that’s downright atrocious. The Flames fared a little better when looking at unblocked shot attempts, showing that they were at least working their butts off to get into shooting lanes.
The point still stands though. The Flames were incapable of dictating the pace of the game since the majority of the time they were running around in their own zone. That kind of approach can work in a single season, but it’s been proven to be unsustainable over a longer period of time. Even in a single season, it barely lasted for the Flames, as they were buried by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round.
Calgary made up for their defensive deficiencies by quite literally working their asses off once they got into the offensive zone, scoring off of grimy rebounds from point shots. Most of all, they seemd to truly believe that they could beat any team on any night, something that they got pretty good at doing as the season wore on.
That’s all well and good. The mental side of sports is immensely important, and the Flames seem to have it down. Attitude is great, but if you’re playing a system that’s clearly broken, then it becomes dramatically less impactful. Calgary played a broken system in ’14-15, and managed to make up for it in other ways. History says that can’t last, so then what can we expect from them in ’15-16?
The Flames’ blueline got a huge boost with the addition of Hamilton. His presence alone will take pressure off of Giordano, both offensively and defensively. His puck-moving ability will seem like a gift from above given Calgary’s troubles with getting the puck out of their zone. With the loss of Raphael Diaz though, the Flames really only have three defensemen that can move the puck well. That’s something that will need to change if they want to make a real improvement in their even strength play.
Frolik’s arrival will also help the Flames at five-on-five. Lauded for his responsible approach in the defensive zone and a cerebral passing game, Frolik’s presence will at least somewhat unclog Calgary’s play in its own zone. If Sam Bennett can take a step forward along with Mickael Backlund in a more offensive role, the Flames could realistically make an improvement at even strength.
The problem though is that when you’re as bad as the Flames were possession-wise, an influx of talent alone can’t completely solve the issue. Head coach Bob Hartley will have to dramatically alter the way Calgary breaks the puck out, or else they simply won’t make the playoffs.
That’s not to say the upcoming season should be written off though. A solid core is taking shape, and management is staying true to a patient rebuild. Hamilton is only 22, while Frolik at 27 will remain a solid contributor for a while. Unlike a team like Toronto who immediately went out and spent big money after a first sniff at success (think David Clarkson), the Flames’ front office seems to know exactly where they stand.
That’s almost magical in today’s NHL. Both Toronto and Colorado are paying the price for having jumped the gun. The Leafs are just now emerging from the rubble, while the Avs still seem to be high on 2013-14. Calgary’s patience is the best thing that ever happened to them. If they have success again this year, great. If they don’t, then they won’t have broken the bank doing so.