Even the most die-hard Calgary Flames fan has to see the writing on the wall. Since St. Patrick’s Day, the boys in red have gone 2-9-0 and have been the worst team in the NHL, and yes, I’m including the historically bad Buffalo Sabres. With 16 games left in the 2020-21 campaign, the Flames will need to win FIFTEEN of them to reach 65 points, which most hockey pundits say is the minimum required the reach the postseason. And what about their closest rival for fourth place in the Scotia North division, the Montreal Canadiens? The Habs could actually lose 10 of their final 21 games and still get to 65.
If you’re still not convinced this season is over, then simply put… you are delusional.
The Remaining Games Have Gone From Crucial to Meaningless
I know there are still those out there who think the Flames should never give up hope and fight to the bitter end, but that can-do attitude has become counterproductive at this point of the season. It doesn’t matter if you miss the playoffs by three points or 30 points, securing a moral victory by salvaging a winning record down the stretch would only ensure another middle-of-the-pack finish and hurt the organization in the long term. This team needs to tank the rest of the way, and it has to start immediately. Calgary finally has a legitimate shot at securing the number one draft pick.
The Flames are one of only two current NHL teams who have never picked in the top three in the NHL draft. The other franchise on this rather shortlist is the Vegas Golden Knights, but they’re less than four years old. Calgary now has the fifth-worst record in the league based on points percentage but I think they can go even lower – much lower. With a few deals at Monday’s trade deadline and a few shrewd roster moves, this team could have what it takes to reach the depths of 29th or even 30th overall and increase those all-important lottery odds for the number one pick.
Here’s my easy step-by-step guide on how to do it.
Step One: Trade Rittich and Shut Down Markstrom
Although the popular Czech netminder has recently gone on record saying he doesn’t want to be traded, it’s really not his call. David Rittich is on an expiring contract and could be a good option for a playoff team looking to add goaltending depth for a long postseason run. “Big Save Dave” currently has the best goals-against average and save percentage on the team, and over the past four seasons, he has proven that he can play like a number one goalie – at times.
That brings us to Jacob Markstrom, who was signed in the offseason to finally fill the Flames’ longstanding organizational hole between the pipes. While the big Swede was undoubtedly the team’s MVP for the first six weeks of the season, since returning from an undisclosed injury in late February, Markstrom has definitely struggled to find his form. In his last 13 starts, he is 4-8-1 while posting a sub .880 save percentage.
The six-foot-six goaltender has been pulled three times this year after being yanked only once in Vancouver last season and has given up four or more goals eight times during the 2020-21 campaign. Something is wrong. I don’t think we see such a dramatic drop-off in Markstrom’s performance unless he’s playing through a debilitating injury. Because he’s supposed to be the team’s long-term fix, why not shut him down for the remainder of the year? What’s the worst thing that can happen? Do the Flames lose a majority of their games? Remember people – we are now in full tank mode.
Step Two: Promote Domingue and Sparks
The Flames actually have multiple options to start in goal for these last 16 games of the regular season, and trust me; they’re not nearly as bad as you think they are. The team signed veteran backup goalie Louis Domingue to play on the taxi squad, but he has yet to see any action with the big club this year. The 29-year-old has 139 NHL games under his belt, including a career-high 39 in 2015-16 with the Arizona Coyotes and a more recent 26 starts for the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2018-19 campaign. This is a legitimate NHL goaltender. Besides, he’s also known to be the best baker/goalie in the entire league.
Backing up Domingue would likely be journeyman netminder Garret Sparks, who has played 10 games for the Stockton Heat this season. Sparks has played in 157 AHL games and 38 NHL games since 2012-13 and could help hold down the fort as the Flames play out the string. Again, what do they have to lose by running with this makeshift tandem between the pipes? Absolutely nothing.
Step Three: Stop Playing the Old Guys
While seeing Michael Stone score a big goal last week was certainly a nice moment, the responsible 30-year-old blueliner has no business being reinserted into the line-up at this point of the season. Rookie defenceman Juuso Välimäki has proven he can make both incredible plays and boneheaded gaffes on the very same shift, but the youngster has to play more minutes down the stretch. I think Darryl Sutter should give the 22-year-old some time on the PP and the PK, and let’s find out what he’s made of. Being a healthy scratch does nothing for his development, as the pressure to be perfect is now completely gone.
The same goes for the other young D-man often sitting out these days, Oliver Kylington. The 23-year-old Swede has only seen game action six times this season and should be dressed for every single contest down the stretch, bumping the likes of Nikita Nesterov. And while we’re talking about scratching young players, I’m very confused as to why Dillon Dube was relegated to the press box by Sutter last week. The 22-year-old is one of the few young guns I’d like to see stick around for the rebuild/retool, and the more playing time he can get, the better.
Step Four: Be Big Sellers at the Trade Deadline
It’s obvious that the Flames won’t be adding any pieces now that making the playoffs is completely off the table. Brad Treliving didn’t mince words on Monday when he checked in with the Sportsnet 960 morning show. When asked how his club’s season has gone so far, he was forthright in his answer:
“It’s certainly disappointing, where we find ourselves here. It’s not what any of us expected. As far as our play right now, you know, it’s been a challenge for us to score goals… But to summarize the season to this point, it’s certainly been disappointing.”Brad Treliving on the Flames’ 2020-21 season
I’d say describing this catastrophic campaign as simply “disappointing” would be a major understatement, so I think the GM should try and trade away as many expiring contracts as possible. I’ve already made my thoughts known about Rittich, but there are other candidates who might be attractive to those teams looking to add players for a postseason run.
Veteran centerman Derek Ryan is a versatile forward who might garner interest, it’s also no secret Sam Bennett has been looking for a change of scenery, and Josh Leivo may not have had a stellar year, but he could be sold as a solid depth forward. While we’re at it, why not shop all of those one-year, league-minimum signings? Players like Brett Ritchie and Joakim Nordstrom won’t add much value during the final 16 games, so even getting a seventh-rounder for either of them would be palatable.
While it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to try and deal core players like Johnny Gaudreau or Sean Monahan at the trade deadline, we could see captain Mark Giordano on the move – especially if the Flames offer to eat some of his salary. The 37-year-old veteran could really help a playoff-bound club stabilize its back end during a long postseason run. Whether or not the organization opts for a complete rebuild or a major retooling remains to be seen, but mark my words – there will be big changes this coming offseason.
Step Five: Let’s See What the Top AHL Prospects Can Do
If you trade away a bunch of expiring contracts for picks, that leaves several holes in the roster. That’s why the Flames will need to promote multiple Stockton Heat players to the big club. We’ve already seen AHLers Glen Gawdin and Connor Mackey play a handful of games, but now is the time to see if there are any other NHL-ready skaters who can prove they can make the jump to the big leagues. At the top of my list is Matthew Philips, a 23-year-old right-winger who is currently second in team scoring for the Heat.
Phillips has shown great vision, while his rapid footwork keeps opposing players guessing where he’ll go next. The Flames’ sixth-round pick has put in his time in the minors, so let’s find out what he can do in a dozen NHL starts. Other players I’d like to see get a look with the big club include Adam Ruzicka, Martin Pospisil and Emilio Pettersen. Again, there is no downside to auditioning a few farmhands to see how they hold up playing against the best players in the world. There might be one or two pleasant surprises that will make a great case to start the 2021-22 season with the Flames.
What About the Uncertainty of This “COVID” Draft Year?
I know there are naysayers who will say this is definitely not the year to go for that number one pick. With COVID-19 limiting how many prospects can actually play and be evaluated, is the upcoming 2021 draft a complete crapshoot? Well, yes and no. This may not be the deepest class we’ve had in recent years but wouldn’t you want a top three first-rounder rather than pick in the 20 to 32 range? The farther you go down the list, the more uncertain those options get. It is no big secret that many of the current Stanley Cup contenders have built their teams through the draft, and Calgary has a golden opportunity to get the highest pick in the history of the franchise.
This is a no-brainer, people. All the Flames have to do is follow my easy five-step plan and then tank, tank, tank until the cows come home… but they’ve only got 16 games left to get it done.
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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.