There have been few things to complain about so far in 2021-22 if you are a Calgary Flames fan. Heading into the season, expectations were rather low for this team after an ugly 2020-21 campaign in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs. However, bounce-back years from several players has led to plenty more success.
While the improvement is a great sign, last week proved that despite their early success, they still have a ways to go before being considered a true Stanley Cup contender. If you were to look at the schedule for the Flames to begin last week, you would have noticed they had their work cut out for them with games upcoming with three of the best teams in the league in the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes. If anyone was using it as a measuring stick to see where this team is at, it has been pretty evident that they are a step below the truly elite teams.
They were beaten rather handily in all three contests. First was the Panthers, who defeated them 6-2. Next up was the Lightning who walked away with a 4-1 victory, followed by the Hurricanes who won 6-3. The Lightning game, in particular, could have been a lot worse, as the Flames were on their heels all night and gave up far too many scoring chances. If it wasn’t for some big saves by Dan Vladar, the score could have been much uglier than it was.
Flames Areas to Improve
One thing that many fans noticed was how out of sync the Flames’ bottom-six forward group looked compared to the teams they were playing. The great teams always seem to have terrific depth, and that is very much the case on all three teams they played this week. Perhaps the best example of this is the Panthers, who have several players in their bottom six that are capable of producing secondary offence, something the Flames sorely lack.
Frank Vatrano, for example, who is currently playing on the Panthers’ third line on the left side, is on pace for 20 goals this season and scored 18 in just 56 games a season prior. They also have Patric Hornqvist playing on the right side of the fourth line, and despite the limited minutes, he is still on pace for 17 goals and 41 points.
For comparison’s sake, four bottom six players on the Flames, Treliving either brought in or re-signed this season in Brad Richardson, Trevor Lewis, Tyler Pitlick and Brett Ritchie, have combined for just 13 points on the year. This goes to show that this team is winning in spite of the changes Treliving made to his forward group, not because of them. It begs the question that many asked in the preseason; why do they not give their youth a shot?
Talent Available in Stockton
If the Flames want to try and match the talent on other teams’ bottom lines, they have young talent in the waiting in Stockton. One that comes to mind right away is Matthew Phillips, who has been nearly a point per game player in the American Hockey League (AHL) for a number of seasons now but has gotten in just one NHL game to this point in his career. Another is Jakob Pelletier, who despite being only 20-years-old looks ready for the big stage with 31 points in 29 games this season.
There is also Glenn Gawdin, who made the team out of camp but was reassigned to Stockton shortly after. In 27 games with the Heat this season, he has an impressive 10 goals and 26 points. The final option is Adam Ruzicka, who was able to suit up in the Flames’ most recent game against the Canes but has since been reassigned to the taxi squad. He brings a great combination of size and skill and may be deserving of a bigger look than he has gotten so far in 2021-22.
Though Sutter clearly likes his veteran players in guys like Richardson, Lewis, Pitlick and Ritchie, it is clear that they lack skill when compared to the elite team’s bottom-six forwards. Perhaps Treliving chooses to make a trade to help in this regard, but it may be beneficial to first see if there is a solution within their organization first.
In defence of both Vladar and Jacob Markstrom these past three games, they didn’t have a whole lot of help. However, it was worrisome to see Vladar forced into back-to-back starts against the Lightning and the Hurricanes due to Markstrom being banged up. It forces the question of whether or not the Flames should consider adding more goaltending depth ahead of the trade deadline in case Markstrom may be required to miss time now or in the future, as Vladar, despite his solid play this season, is very inexperienced.
There are several goaltenders available for cheap if the Flames do want to go this route, with the most notable being Joonas Korpisalo from the Columbus Blue Jackets. With Elvis Merzlikins being their clear-cut number one, they are looking to move Korpisalo ahead of the deadline. Given the fact he is a pending unrestricted free agent, paired with him having a rough start to the season, he wouldn’t cost much to acquire and may be worth considering.
Time to Go All In
Regardless of what Treliving decides to do to try and improve his team ahead of the trade deadline, he needs to make changes and give this roster every opportunity to go on a deep playoff run. Far too many times, we have seen him stay too conservative, and that needs to change this season. With his top forward in Johnny Gaudreau not having a contract in place for next season, this needs to be the year the Flames finally go all in and try to make a run at it.
Colton Pankiw is a former Jr. A hockey player who now provides his knowledge of the game through writing. He’s been a very active and reliable source for nearly two years at The Hockey Writers. He is a credentialed writer for the Calgary Flames but also does features on other teams throughout the league. Other writing contributions include: Oil On Whyte, NHLtradetalk.com, and Markerzone.com. Colton is also a co-host of both Oilers Overtime and Flames Faceoff podcasts. Any interview requests or content info can be made through him on Twitter. Take a look at his work here.