‘Close but no cigar’ is the pattern emerging for the Calgary Flames. The team has twice gone on an extensive road trip and returned with almost the same result: a solid win, two close losses and one or two bad outings.
After a surprising strong first five games, the Flames crashed to earth with only three wins in their past 12 games. Only the self-defeating Edmonton Oilers reside beneath them in the West.
Calgary’s three wins came against top teams, including the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, and three of their losses by a one-goal margin were also versus top teams like the Blues and the Ducks. The Flames compete hard and hang in most games but simply do not have the horses to go the distance.
That Calgary has been able to be in most games despite key injuries to Mike Cammalleri early in the season and now captain Mark Giordano and Curtis Glencross is testament to how coach Bob Hartley has kept things competitive. Players such as unheralded defenseman Kris Russell and center Matt Stajan have thrived with increased responsibilities and ice time but the inconsistencies are catching up to the Flames.
It’s been well documented how Sven Baertschi was benched for more than one game already this season. With the exception of rookie Sean Monahan’s early play, all of the younger players have struggled to make much of an impact. Only forward Jiri Hudler, defenseman Dennis Wideman and Cammalleri (since his return form injuries) have been productive night after night.
A weak net has hampered the team; no one has yet taken the top job. Reto Berra had a great first NHL game against Chicago but faltered in his two subsequent matches. Karri Ramo sports a 2-4 record and has been average at best. Both European goaltenders are new to the league this season and still learning on the fly. Only Edmonton has a worse goals against average. Calgary’s defense is simply not good enough on most nights.
After hanging in the middle of the pack, the Flames have fallen toward the cellar, hanging around 25th place as of Nov 11. One wonders what the effect on the team will be if the slide continues this early in the season. How will Hartley deal with the mental state of his athletes, especially the young stars learning the ropes? What can he and his coaching staff do to win those close games?
Next 14 Games
The solution may be a home recipe. Ten of Calgary’s next 14 games will be played in the confines of the Saddledome. The four road games are close by – Edmonton, Winnipeg and two in SoCal. This should provide more time for practice and experimenting while enjoying a supportive home crowd. The return of right winger Lee Stempniak will also help provide for a more balanced attack.
GM Jay Feaster just traded for defenseman Ladislav Smid (from Edmonton, of all teams) which will help to offset Giordano’s long-term injury and reduce the minutes played by Wideman, Russell, T.J. Brodie and Chris Butler. At age 27, Smid is entering the prime of his career and fits in the team’s rebuilding plan. The Flames have been adding players this season in the mid to late 20s age range while waiting for the next wave of prospects to be ready.
The next 14 games will go a long way to determine if the Flames hang in there or continue to lose pace with the rest of the league. Calgary is already 10 points out of the final playoff spot. How it performs now and for the rest of the season will impact the future of this franchise. The improvement of younger players this year could be a big benefit in a year or two as long as the losses don’t mount too much and the atmosphere remains positive.
Mario now covers the Los Angeles Kings and writes other hockey features. He is an experienced journalist who has covered sports and entertainment in daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and online, including thedigitalbits.com/columns/inside-cinema. He is also the co-creator of The Gaffoos, www.gaffoos.com