Through the first month of the 2016-17 National Hockey League season, it’s probably safe to say that nothing is going according to plan for the Calgary Flames. Through the first 16 games, the Flames have only won five games and consistency has eluded them on most nights.
The New Era
While the inconsistency and scoreboard challenges faced by the Flames weren’t necessarily part of the plan, it is likely a byproduct of a larger organizational shift – growing pains as the hockey club transitions into a new era. In June, the Flames hired Glen Gulutzan as their head coach. Undoubtedly, other coaches were interviewed and strongly considered, but what the Flames reportedly valued about Gulutzan was his ability to communicate with young players and help them understand the ins and outs of the NHL game. Young players that worked with him in Dallas and Vancouver speak of him highly. Together with the head coach of Calgary’s American Hockey League affiliate in Stockton, Ryan Huska, Gulutzan is considered a teacher that can prepare the Flames youngsters for battle.
The emphasis on youth and teaching in the organization is no accident. While the previous regime under Jay Feaster loaded up on veterans such as Dennis Wideman and Jiri Hudler in an effort to make a last-ditch run at playoff glory, the current general manager Brad Treliving seems to have taken a long-term approach. He’s stockpiled draft picks, even frequently trading assets at the trade deadline to accumulate more picks.
He’s made strategic trades, including one that landed his club talented defender Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins. Treliving’s modus operandi has seemingly been two-pronged: get the prospects that are ready to the NHL to learn from the team’s veterans, and then get some “for now” players for the club to give the remaining prospects time to ripen on the farm.
The Young Core
Prospects added by the current regime like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk were added to young holdovers from the prior regime such as Mikael Backlund, T.J. Brodie and Lance Bouma who have matured into part of the core. In previous seasons, Flames management has endeavoured to provide primary scoring and rely more on the youngsters as secondary depth, but the recent emergence of those youngsters as scoring threats has changed the focus to surrounding the youth with strategic additions.
(Gaudreau was drafted by the old regime but signed but the current one.)
In addition to making that shift over the past few seasons, the summer of 2016 marked a change for the Flames in terms of avoiding the acquisition of depth veterans. In other words: the Flames went young this summer where they had the contractual flexibility to do so, attempting to open up spots for the team’s prospects. The team elected not to re-sign defender Jakub Nakladal, bought out winger Mason Raymond and sent forward Brandon Bollig to the AHL, which gave them the flexibility to try out Brett Kulak (who had a cup of coffee with the team last season) as a full-time NHLer, as well as keep Matthew Tkachuk around all season and bring up various young depth options from the AHL.
Focus on the Farm
The shift in development focus towards youth can also be found on the farm team, as a slew of reliable AHL veterans were strategically cut loose with the aim of giving the reins to the organization’s higher-end prospects. Players like Drew Shore, Bryce van Brabant, Bill Arnold, Kenny Agostino and Turner Elson were not retained so that the Flames could see what players like Hunter Shinkaruk, Mark Jankowski, Morgan Klimchuk and Andrew Mangiapane could do both in terms of scoring as well as leading the locker room. The Flames have also elected to leave the prospects with the least pro experience in the AHL when making recalls, as only Shinkaruk (who has previous NHL experience) has been summoned to the NHL thus far.
Through the first chunk of the NHL and AHL schedule, the organizational shift has had some divergent results. The Flames have faced challenges, as the team’s young core adjusts to raised expectations that go along with brand new contracts on top of the added stakes of having to drive the bus and determine the team’s fortune on a nightly basis.
The farm team is thriving – they’ve already doubled their win total from early last season – but time will tell if their youthful exuberance can withstand the grind of a full year’s schedule.
In many ways, 2016-17 has been the year the Flames organization has fully embraced their youth, for better or for worse.