It has been a season of searching so far in Calgary, as they still look for answers offensively and defensively. The Calgary Flames (10-10-3) have now been outscored 12-1 in their last three games and were shut out on back-to-back nights against the Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights on this past weekend trip.
The lack of goals has certainly been criticized in Calgary, of late, but the lack of emotion in games remains a consistent concern and a much more serious issue than an early-season scoring slump. Playing .500 hockey at this point in the season amounts to a massive underachievement by this group, and it leaves the team on the proverbial ‘hot seat’. But it is possible the bar was set too high heading into the season. Yes, the Flames won the Western Conference last season, but it seems to be that it is their play in the postseason, rather than the regular season, that has carried over to this year.
The Flames were outpaced by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and they’ve yet to hit their stride since. They were considerably outworked in each game of the series and have not put together a solid 60-minute effort this season. They were dominated physically, with little to no pushback, and despite adding Milan Lucic to the fold this offseason, the collective aggressiveness and grit from the Flames this year has been altogether uninspiring. For those viewing from the perimeter, the Flames should be significantly better than they have shown thus far.
Old Highs and New Lows
A big reason why the Flames were so successful last season is due, in part, to the number of players who had career years. To name a few: Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, Mark Giordano, Noah Hanifin and Mark Jankowski all set personal bests in almost every primary offensive category.
Gaudreau set career-highs last season for goals (36), assists (63), points (99), games played (82), plus/minus (plus-18), power-play goals (6), power-play points (27), game-winning-goals (8), shots (245) and shooting percentage (14.7%). Monahan also set personal bests in goals (34), assists (48) and points (82) and scored a career-high 12 power-play goals as well. Is it reasonable to expect that type of production to be maintained?
This season, Monahan has just two goals on the power play, playing on the top unit, and is also minus-11 overall. Lindholm and Hanifin both had their first-ever ‘plus’ seasons in the NHL 2018-19, but have not had the same success this season. In fact, the entire top-six forward group currently features all ‘minus players’, as well as the majority of the Flames’ defensemen, too, with the exception being TJ Brodie, who is currently ‘even’ at 0. Sam Bennett (plus-3), Derek Ryan (plus-5) and Andrew Mangiapane (plus-3) are the only Flames players with a plus average after playing at least 20 games this season. It leaves a lot of room for wide-scale speculation and polarized opinion as to finding the solution.
Searching for Answers in Calgary
It has been suggested by some that the reason for the lack of cohesiveness in Calgary comes down to fallout following the lengthy Tkachuk contract negotiations. The line of thinking believes that making Tkachuk the highest-paid player on the Flames (three years, $21 million) somehow alienated the likes of Gaudreau and Monahan. That doesn’t seem plausible in a professional sense. Contract negotiations are part of the business, with the results aided by an ever-evolving cap situation. Tkachuk’s deal was certainly earned but also influenced by the unique nature of the restricted free agency (RFA) class this offseason. With so many high-end RFAs receiving new deals, it then sets the signing bar higher; a cause-and-effect reaction that is assuredly understood by the players. So, opinions about where certain players rank on the pay scale should really be a non-factor when discussing their overall performance.
A good example would be the Boston Bruins’ contract situation with their ‘Perfection Line’, one of the most formidable lines in hockey over the past few seasons. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak are all signed to, in hindsight, bargain deals in Boston. Marchand ($6.125 million) Pastrnak ($6.66 million) and Bergeron ($6.875 million) are all locked up long-term and have been consistently effective throughout their contracts, despite the salary cap going up, and also regardless of the fact that David Krejci ($7.25 million) is currently the highest-paid Bruin.
While it is notable that Tkachuk is now the highest-paid Flame, it is also worth suggesting that the budding superstar is moving into the territory of being ‘The Guy’ in Calgary. He’s vocal in the media, he scores big goals and is starting to look like a serious candidate for captaincy following Giordano. So possibly, since comparing personal finances is an unlikely contributor to their poor performance, a lack of individual belief in who they are as players and where they fit in on this team could be a contributing factor to the slow starts for both Gaudreau and Monahan.
The pair have been the dynamic duo on the top line in Calgary for years, and they are the ones that the Flames depend on. Gaudreau has been one of the most productive point producers in the NHL over the past five seasons and he has always had success at every level of hockey. This season it’s been a grind, and despite sitting second in team scoring (5G, 13A), it still appears as if he hasn’t found his game…yet.
Show Me the ‘Mony’
It has been an endearing quality of Monahan’s to be able to quietly sneak around the ice and stealthily slip away from coverage and into scoring positions in the high slot or around the net. It’s how he’s made a living so far in the NHL, quietly scoring goals in big moments. He may never be the most flashy forward, but he has a knack for getting into open areas to score goals and he put in the work away from the puck to get those opportunities. That is simply not happening enough this season. Not only is Monahan no longer sneaking into scoring areas, but
Trading a three-time 30-goal scorer, who is coming off a career year, after a poor playoff performance and a slow start just a quarter of the way into the season seems a bit rash. Even when entertaining the notion, it reveals a less-than-enthusiastic picture of the current market for centers in the NHL. A quick peek at the 2021 unrestricted free agent (UFA) class says it all. However, for the sake of conversation, there is a noteworthy option with Washington Capitals center, Nicklas Backstrom. He will be a UFA at the end of this season and is highly regarded for his playmaking ability and pedigree for playing with star players. He might be a decent piece with Gaudreau, but he is at the tail-end of his career.
Pittsburgh Penguins center, Evgeni Malkin, has had his name thrown around in trade rumors at times, so he may be an intriguing talking point around the water cooler, but with Sidney Crosby out long-term, it seems unlikely Pittsburgh would part with ‘Geno’ at this time, or at all. Besides, the Flames are in need of grit and leadership, and someone who provides solid defensive accountability, as well, and Malkin likely wouldn’t address that issue, either. If St. Louis Blues center, Ryan O’Reilly, ever becomes available, then let’s mull it around, but the more realistic option for Calgary is to work with what they have.
Flames Struggling to Juggle Lines
Lindholm has been a solid faceoff man throughout his career, averaging 52.7% at the faceoff dot. While he was used sparingly as a center earlier this season, he has primarily played as a winger on the top line in Calgary. As a center, his two-way game potentially complements Tkachuk and Gaudreau on a new-look top line, but it leaves the question of how to distribute depth throughout the rest of the lineup. Mikael Backlund is looking more like a third-line center this season, so potentially moving Lindholm over to center, dropping Monahan to the second-line center slot and putting Backlund on the third trio could present more favorable matchups for the Flames as a whole.
Depending on how the season progresses, the Flames might consider getting looks at a few players from their stables with the Stockton Heat in the American Hockey League, as well. Alan Quine has seen NHL time this season, while Glenn Gawdin has 14 points in 15 games (4G, 10A) and Byron Froese also has 14 points in 15 games (8G, 6A) with the Heat this season. Not to imply that they are poised to replace Monahan on the top unit, but they could potentially help with depth up-front in the future. However, that still doesn’t address who would slot in on the wing on the second line either, but Mangiapane might deserve another viewing. Still, while line juggling is necessary when looking for answers, how long before it starts feeling like a circus?
The Flames are hovering around a wild card spot in the Western Conference, and while it’s not ideal, they still have time to turn things around. If the 2019 Stanley Cup champion Blues have taught us anything, it’s that you can always fight back, if you get started early enough. With all the talent in the Flames lineup, it comes down to digging deep on an individual level and getting back to playing the game the right way, for the right reasons. Or, maybe Gaudreau should just bring the purple Gatorade back already.
Bryan Wilson is an experienced Play-by-Play Broadcaster and Hockey Journalist with a passion for the game. Since 2012 he has been the Editor of his own hockey blog site, has been a mainstay hockey analyst on local radio and a Play-by-Play voice on HockeyTV.com broadcasting junior hockey. He can also be found behind the scenes in NHL dressing rooms, television production trucks and media scrums at many televised NHL broadcasts. Bryan is thrilled to be covering the team he loves, the Calgary Flames, for The Hockey Writers.