After the Calgary Flames had the doors blown off them (again) on Wednesday night by the Edmonton Oilers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this movie before. Yes, we’ve all seen the team suffer lopsided losses this season, but I realized that being at the wrong end of a blowout has been a long-term problem.
Three Straight Wins Before Another Embarrassing Loss
It didn’t take me long to jump on the Darryl Sutter bandwagon, and why not? Immediately after the new bench boss took back the reins on March 11, the Flames responded by winning their next three games. They didn’t do it with overwhelming offensive firepower but rather by playing “Sutter-style” hockey, which promotes a team-first mentality that limits the opposition’s chances with tight checking.
It’s not that I thought the Flames would not lose another game this season, but I was hoping a new era of accountability meant we wouldn’t see another humiliating defeat – at least not right away. I was shocked to see a 7-3 drubbing at the hands of the Oilers after such a solid effort the previous three games. But then I remembered something. Getting spanked by the opposition isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s practically a franchise tradition.
Wednesday’s Loss the Sixth Blowout of the Season
Before the latest debacle, the Flames were on the receiving end of five other lopsided defeats. They dropped 5-1 and 6-1 losses to the lowly Ottawa Senators, a 7-1 beatdown at the hands of the Oilers, a 5-1 setback against the Vancouver Canucks and a 4-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. These deflating disasters erode team confidence and their ability to bounce back, and they have been happening for a while.
If the 2020-21 campaign had an 82-game schedule, the Flames would be on pace for 17 bad losses by three or more goals. If you look at last year’s total, the team would have suffered 14 losses by three or more markers over 82 games. This disturbing trend has dragged on for the past six years, the low point late in the 2017-18 season. That’s when this squad limped through an extremely rough 9-2 stretch in March 2018 when they lost all nine games by three or more and were outscored 37-13.
And yet, somehow, the Flames followed up that disastrous effort with a magical 2018-19 regular season when the boys in red finish first in the Western Conference and second overall with their second-best record in franchise history. That begs the question: how did the Flames manage to avoid those blowout losses then, and why can’t they do it again?
5 Players Had Career Years in 2018-19
In 2018-19, the Flames were rarely beaten badly, reversing a trend that ran rampant in the previous three campaigns. There were two major factors in the team’s regular-season success that year; the first had to do with five key skaters playing at the pinnacle of their career. Johnny Gaudreau had 99 points and was flirting with the NHL scoring race lead midway through the season, Sean Monahan rode on Gaudreau’s coattails for an 82-point campaign, Matthew Tkachuk had a breakout year with 77 points, and newcomer Elias Lindholm’s first season as Flame saw him score 78 points.
And, let’s not forget the career year by veteran blueliner Mark Giordano. The team captain potted 17 goals and 57 assists en route to a 74-point campaign that earned him his first Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman. When a team has an elite D-man on the roster and scores an avalanche of goals, it’s not that hard to avoid embarrassing blowouts.
The Flames Also Had a Hard-nosed, No-Nonsense Coach
The other reason the Flames bucked their recent trend of suffering bad losses was Bill Peters, who was hired before the 2018-19 season. Like the team’s current bench boss, Peters was a demanding head coach who didn’t come across as warm and fuzzy. The players must have responded to his style, at least in the short term, as the boys in red were best in the west.
However, it didn’t take long for the Flames to revert to their old ways, as any and all momentum gained from their 107-point season evaporated in 2019-20. Even before the disturbing allegations of racist conduct cost him his job, the players were already tuning Peters out, suffering five bad blowout losses before the head coach was replaced by Geoff Ward just two months into the campaign.
The Flames Need a Fundamental Change in Their Style of Play
While hiring Ward improved the Flames’ record and saved their season, the big losses kept piling up. Yes, every team comes up short from time to time, but it’s how this group loses that has kept them off-balance and constantly searching for that magical fix to recapture their “lighting in a bottle” regular season in 2018-19. While many teams seem to go down swinging and perhaps deserve a better fate after a tough setback, this squad has deserved to lose most of their losses.
So, is Sutter the answer? It depends. If he can bring more than a simple tough-love approach to this group, then I think he has a chance. The Flames tried Peters, and he lost the players. They also grew tired of hard-ass bench boss Bob Hartley, who was fired after a terrible 2015-16 campaign. Tough love isn’t enough. Sutter needs to squeeze as much as he can from this group and show them that stopping goals is more important than scoring them.
Yes, I know a big chunk of this core had career years a couple of seasons ago, but here’s the thing: they call them career years for a reason. They simply don’t happen all the time, and you certainly can’t bank on them to return year after year. After Wednesday’s humbling loss to the Oilers, Sutter was very clear about the direction his team needs to go in. The answer won’t be found by the core group replicating their high-octane offence from two seasons ago. In fact, the head coach told reporters that his team simply doesn’t have the big guns to match their Scotia North Division rivals:
“I think it kind of follows up to what I said at the start when I came here, in this division there’s way too much power in terms of offence and our team has to play a very, very strong checking game…It doesn’t matter who we are playing next. This team has to learn we don’t have the firepower to put ourselves in a position to not be good defenders or check in our own zone.”– Darryl Sutter
If the Flames buy into Sutter’s brand of hockey, I think they have a realistic shot at turning the franchise around and leaving the era of bad losses in the rearview mirror. If they don’t, then we will witness a complete dismantling of Calgary’s core group and see a brand new management team installed by ownership. This was the last bullet in general manager Brad Treliving’s chamber: if this doesn’t fix the Flames, then buckle up. We are in for a seismic shift.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and Facebook.