With the Yule approaching and the Calgary Flames in COVID-19 lockdown since Dec.13th, now is the time to take stock and ask whether the Boys in Red are as good as many fans and much of the media claim. There’s plenty to say they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Just before the Flames’ schedule was postponed last Monday, the team was atop the Pacific Division a point ahead of the Anaheim Ducks, starting to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. In the Western Conference, they were sitting just a point behind the Minnesota Wild for the top spot.
Still, their loss to the Boston Bruins on Dec. 11th extended their losing streak to four. As the Flames’ Mikael Backlund put it before a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs last month when the team was on a two-game losing streak, “good teams don’t lose three in a row.” Fans must wonder what he’d say teams that lose four in a row.
Calgary Flames Missing Secondary Scoring
The Flames don’t have secondary scoring and you don’t need to take my word for that. Head coach Darryl Sutter himself said exactly that after his team’s loss to the Bruins explaining that, “if you’re a team that doesn’t have secondary scoring and you get average goaltending, then you’re up against it. So that’s adversity we’re facing.”
The statistics back Sutter up. His Cowtown Boys depend too much on their top line of Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk for goals and overall points. So far, it accounts for four of every 10 goals the team scores (38.8%). Add in Andrew Mangiapane’s goals and it’s just four players who score six of every 10 the team notches (58.6%). Of the 223 points that Calgary skaters racked up before the Omicron variant put a pause on their season, over a third (35.8%) came from the top line.
Outside of the top four goal-scorers, the rest of the forward corps combined accounts for just a third of the Flames’ total goal production (32%) and not quite 40% of the team’s total points production. Take out Milan Lucic’s seven goals and 11 points and it’s plain to see the Flames’ depth scoring is a wasteland.
Taking into account games played to this point in the season, the Flames are just an average NHL team at 85 goals to their credit. That number on a per-game basis puts the boys from the Stampede City at just 3.04 goals per game – trending down sharply from the almost four they were scoring in early November. Alongside other teams in the Western Conference, their goal production is middling at best.
Slumps are inevitable, and so too are injuries. If one or more of the Flames’ top points-producers falters, the team could be in a world of trouble when they return to play. Not only that, as the season wears on and the stakes get higher, other teams will figure out how to counter the Flames premier players, including their top line.
Calgary Flames Blue Line and Goal Showing Some Cracks
What has propped up the Flames in the standings to this point has been their goaltending and defensive play. They have allowed other teams to score on them just 62 times, so far and that puts them beside the Carolina Hurricanes for the leagues’ best record. In the Western Conference, they have no equal when it comes to keeping the puck out of the back of their net.
As the Flames’ top puck-stopper, there is no doubt that Jacob Markstrom is the real McCoy between the pipes. With a goals-against average of 1.94 per game and a save percentage (SV%) of .933, the big Swede is arguably one of the finest crease-keepers in hockey. Even so, these numbers have started to slip when compared to what they were last month.
To be sure, the team’s current four-game losing streak has not helped Markstrom’s numbers, or those of his understudy, Daniel Vladar. Sutter called out Vladar after he gave up four goals in the Flames 5-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks saying, “the goaltender had trouble in traffic and trouble with rebounds. Our goaltender has to be better than theirs. Simple.”
Over their last four games, the team has allowed 14 goals and scored eight. That’s why Sutter called out Markstrom’s performance after their 4-2 losing effort against the Bruins calling it just “average”. The four markers Markstrom gave up in that game along with three goals on 28 shots that the Vegas Golden Knights registered in their 3-2 victory over the Flames on Dec. 5th puts his (SV%) in those games below .900. A stat like that won’t backstop many wins when he’s playing in front of a team that at best manages just three goals a game.
The point of all of this is that the Flames will not be able to count on hot goaltending all year long when much of that depends on a defence corps that in the current four-game losing streak has shown some cracks. Sutter blasted his blue line after his team blew a 3-1 lead against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 7th saying, “our defence had a really rough night. The six defencemen played like an exhibition game. Disappointing. Missing nets, missing assignments, turning pucks over. They have to be better than that.”
He wasn’t much happier about his blueliners the following night after his team’s loss to the Canes saying, “our defence has to be a more active group. I said this in training camp – it’s not changing. We’re almost at game 30 and it’s still a work in progress back there for sure . . . moving pucks, shooting.”
The Flames Aren’t Winning in Overtime
The Flames have lost six of seven games that have gone to overtime this season. That’s a concern because if they had earned the extra point in those games there would be much more distance between them and the rest of the pack in the Pacific Division. That could turn out to be important in the spring with top teams playing weaker teams when playoff matchups are set.
It could be bad puck luck that explains the overtime losses. Even so, losing as many as they do in overtime can’t be explained by chance alone. Calgary notched 13 shots on goal in overtime to this point in the season but gave up 21. That’s one of the worst differentials in the league. If that’s not bad enough, the Flames had two high-danger scoring chances in three-on-three situations this season but gave up nine. That too is one of the worst records in the NHL.
Will Flames’ Flaws Worsen on Return to Play?
Once the Flames are cleared to return to play, they will face headwinds. They haven’t skated since the Boston game and that puts them out of commission for over two weeks – and counting.
It will take time for them to find their way back to 100%. True, the entire league is now taking a pause until Dec. 27th and other teams have been affected by COVID-19, yet none have been hit as hard by the virus as the boys from the Stampede City. That’s sure to have an impact on their play. Just ask the Ottawa Senators who lost six straight games after they returned from their COVID-19 break.
Even without COVID-19, the Flames were going to face a harder test since their schedule in the last half of the season pits them more often against Western Conference foes fighting for playoff spots.
All of this may be why Sutter tried to lower the expectations of the media after the team’s loss to the Bruins saying, “You know what? You guys got way ahead of yourselves. I’ve told you lots about the process for this team. They still have lots to learn about the whole deal.”
Calgary fans may want to take heed.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
Follow him on Twitter at @pquinney