Calgary Flames’ Offense Searching for Sparks

To be quite frank, the Calgary Flames are not quite living up to their post-summer blockbuster expectations. They currently occupy the ninth spot in the NHL’s Western Conference with the surging Vancouver Canucks, among other teams, hot on their tail. The Flames have seemingly got over their goaltending issues from earlier in the season, as Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar have performed much more admirably in the last five games or so. However, now the team faces a new and arguably more complicated challenge: scoring goals.

Head coach Darryl Sutter has shuffled his forward lines multiple times this season in an effort to create more offense. Even when a line clicks momentarily, the consistency of doing so over a stretch of games is lacking. One can point to the obvious offseason additions of stars Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri coupled with the subtractions of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. Changes as big as these always require team adjustments. But after more than 30 games, adaptations should have been made and ideally, some new chemistry formed. This is seemingly not the case, as evidenced by the aforementioned line juggling. Let’s dive into what is going on with the Flames’ offense, and hopefully, find some ways to fix it.

Lacking Offensive Stats

As of this writing, the Calgary Flames are 21st in the NHL in goals for, with 91 through 31 games played. That equates to an average of 2.94 goals scored per game, a figure that ranks 23rd in the league. This figure is simply not good enough to be competitive in the NHL nowadays and is especially disappointing for a forward corps that makes almost a combined $50 million this season. The power play moves the puck around well and the deployed personnel look quite good on paper, but it is only succeeding at a 19.8% clip or one for every five opportunities, once again positioning the team in the bottom of the league at 25th overall.

Jonathan Huberdeau Calgary Flames
Jonathan Huberdeau, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

No Flames forward has more than 11 goals, and their leading point scorer Elias Lindholm has just 25, which is 83rd of all players in the NHL. Huberdeau can shoulder some of the blame here, as the superstar has just 18 points in 28 games, which pales in comparison to his 115 in 80 games with the Florida Panthers last season. In addition, the Flames’ 35-goal man from last season, Andrew Mangiapane, has cooled off with just seven goals in 30 games, putting him on pace for 19 this season.

Adam Ruzicka and Brett Ritchie are the only Flames with individual shooting percentages higher than 12%, which is roughly the league average. The Flames’ defense corps is helping as best as they can: Rasmus Andersson leads them in scoring with 20 points, and as a whole, they contribute quite well. Flames ‘D’ has scored or assisted on 67% of the team’s 91 goals scored and 71% of the team’s 21 power-play goals.

One problem the Flames do not face is shooting the puck. They sit fifth in the league in shots on goal per game, registering a whopping 34.3 each contest. So, after some rough calculations, they are scoring on about 8.6% of their shots. Therefore, the problem is finishing and shot quality. They are at the lower end of the standings when it comes to shot quality. This means that while they are generating a ton of shots, they are not coming from high-danger scoring areas closer to the net. This season, they are shooting more from the point than in front of the net or middle-ice areas of the offensive zone. Their total expected goals for per 60 minutes is only 2.7, down significantly from the 3.0 of last year’s Pacific Division-winning squad.

Just putting the puck on net isn’t doing it in today’s NHL anymore despite being hammered into the brains of hockey players and fans of past generations. The coaching staff needs to determine how best to get the puck into high-danger scoring areas more often, even if this means sacrificing the total shots generated per game. Outshooting opponents means nothing in the standings, and while getting the puck on net to bang in rebounds or get deflections used to work on a more consistent basis, the goalies nowadays are simply too talented and take up more net than ever before.

What to Try Next

Now, we would never tell Darryl Sutter how to do his job. However, the top six needs to be re-ordered. In fact, his recent line shuffle put Huberdeau, Kadri, and Mangiapane together while slotting Lindholm with Tyler Toffoli and Dillon Dube. This didn’t equate to much in a 5-2 loss at the hands of the lowly St. Louis Blues. The man who was just referenced, Ruzicka, needs a better chance. He leads the team in points per game and shooting percentage and dominates puck possession with a 56.8% Corsi For percentage.

Related: Calgary Flames’ Top Trade Targets – 2022-23

According to one of the most successful line combinations that was abruptly broken up this season was Ruzicka with Toffoli and Lindholm, which scored six goals and was on the ice for three against. Largely, it seems whatever line Ruzicka is on does well, as when he is paired with Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman, they also outscore the opposition.

A reunion of the first mentioned Ruzicka line might help, and using the same counting stats, it seems Huberdeau works best alongside Mikael Backlund and Toffoli. Maybe allowing speedy American Hockey League standout Matthew Phillips to play higher up in the lineup could also bring about some goals, as he led the AHL in scoring before he was called up to the big club. Maybe another AHL Calgary player, such as Jakob Pelletier or Connor Zary, could be brought up and tested out. If the problem cannot be sorted out from within, it might need to come from outside. The other option could be via trade with many notable goal-scorers available for acquisition if the right price is presented.

In essence, the team needs more shaking up and experimentation if they want results. Goals get wins, wins get teams into the playoffs. The shot numbers are solid, but the offense needs to emphasize quality over quantity. If the floodgates can be opened, this team has all the offensive tools to succeed in the NHL. Things just need to fall into place and some individual players need to get kickstarted. A fire needs to be lit underneath this team, pun intended.

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