Flames Have Problems to Fix Despite Early Success

With 17 points and a 7-1-3 record, the Calgary Flames now sit second in both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference, just one point back of their archrival, the Edmonton Oilers. That’s catapulted them to number eight in the NHL’s power rankings and gets them mentioned in the same breath as the league-leading Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes.

Related: Flames Forward Lines Could See a Major Shake-up After Ritchie Injury

The NHL is about getting results, and that’s exactly what the Flames are doing so far in this young season. Flames aficionados could be forgiven for breaking out the celebratory champagne glasses with a start like this.

Fans of the Calgary Flames
Not time to celebrate just yet Calgary Flames fans! (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Even so, fans of the boys from the Stampede City shouldn’t sample too much of the cava just yet. There are shortcomings the team needs to surmount if they want to drink bubbly from Lord Stanley’s chalice next spring.

Flames Need More Secondary Scoring

For a team that many said at the start of the season would play a mind-numbing defensive system, the Flames know how to score. They have racked up 40 goals to this point as compared to just 33 for the average NHL team. Scoring an average of 3.85 goals per game and allowing just 22 goals against means they own a +18 goal differential. They clearly know how to play both ways and defy an easy label.

Even so, the Cowtown Boys depend too much on their top line of Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk for goals and overall points. So far, those three combine to account for over four of every 10 goals the team scores and almost 40 percent of the 105 points they have notched. 

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Their other three lines combined account for half the team’s goals and 35 percent of its points. Yet if goals scored by Andrew Mangiapane (seven) and Milan Lucic (four) were taken out of the equation, it’s plain to see the Flames desperately need a more even distribution of points production across their lines.

Slumps are inevitable, and so too are injuries. If one or more of the Flames’ top points-producers falters, the team could quickly see a reversal in fortunes. 

Flames Must Build a Cushion Now While They Are Hot

Not only that, but their current success will not go unnoticed for long, and other teams will figure out how to counter Flames head coach Darryl Sutter’s much-vaunted “system.” What’s more, lesser teams will be energized at the prospect of playing the Flames, and if they come out flat-footed against them, they could lose a few games that on paper should have been in the win column.

Related: Calgary Flames Could Regret Choice of Sutter for Coach

All of this speaks to the need to keep putting some separation between themselves and rivals in the standings. They’re going to need a cushion when they face stretches where wins are in short supply.   

Flames Must Be Consistent and Finish

In their first 11 games, the Flames have taken opponents by storm in the first period to build up a lead. Yet, there have been occasions when they’ve followed that with some anemic play in the second and third frames.

During a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in last month’s Eastern Conference road trip, they checked out and allowed the Pens 45 shots. That irked Sutter and underlined the importance of Jakob Markstrom standing on his head to steal a win his teammates didn’t look like they wanted. 

Related: Flames Won’t Get By on Defense Alone

Not only that, but small errors in their two overtime losses cost them extra points. Mikael Backlund and Chris Tanev lost track of Jamie Benn, who scored the overtime winner on a drop-pass from Joe Pavelski in a 4-3 loss to the Dallas Stars last Friday night. In the overtime loss against the Nashville Predators earlier in the week, they were buried by a turnover.

Mikael Backlund Calgary Flames
Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames – better playing forward than defense in OT (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Flames had a chance to down the Predators in regulation after unleashing a barrage of rubber at Nashville puck-stopper Jusse Saros in the first frame. Yet, they potted only one goal on 27 shots that period, and that was by Matthew Tkachuk on the power play. Their ability to finish consistently can be questionable at times. Still, to be fair, Saros is one of the top-rated netminders in the league.

Flames Goaltending Situation a Question Mark

There is no doubt that Markstrom is the real McCoy between the pipes. With a goals-against average of 1.65 per game and a save percentage of .942, the big Swede is arguably one of the finest crease-keepers in hockey. 

Jacob Markstrom Calgary Flames
Jacob Markstrom, Calgary Flames (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

On the other hand, Sutter can’t ride Markstrom for 82 games. Daniel Vladar will likely see action in at least 20 games this season and possibly more if Markstrom doesn’t stay healthy.

Any way Flames fans look at the situation in their goal, the team is just one injury or perhaps a slump away from a goaltending problem. Vladar may stand tall in that situation, but then the question becomes, who’s behind him?

Can the Flames Continue Their Torrid Pace?

Playing Sutter-style hockey will be tough over an entire season. The challenge for the Flames will be the inevitable first slump that cools their sizzling pace. How the team responds will be the real test of their mettle.


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