The Calgary Flames’ big 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 12 marked their 43rd outing of the season, putting them just past the midway point of the 2022-23 campaign. Suffice to say, things have been anything but smooth sailing for this club so far, though they have still managed to do enough to this point, as their 49 points have them sitting in the top wild-card position in the Western Conference.
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If you’re a glass-half-full type of person, you can look at the remainder of the Flames’ season with great excitement, as they certainly haven’t played consistently at the level they are capable of to this point. If that happens, they should be able to roll into the playoffs with ease. On the other hand, the fact they haven’t been able to find their top gear through 43 games could be a cause for concern in itself. Nevertheless, here are three takeaways from what was a rocky first half, which, if corrected, could result in them propelling up the standings in short time.
Chemistry Takes Time to Form
One concern I noted before the season for the Flames was that they might not get off to as hot a start as some had predicted. After all, this was a team that, despite their success the season prior, was much different on paper entering the 2022-23 campaign. Both of their leading scorers, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, switched homes in the offseason and were replaced by Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri. On paper, it seems like a solid swap, though many forgot to take into account how hard it can be for a player to adjust to a new team.
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That transition has been notably difficult for Huberdeau, who has been a far cry from the 115-point scorer he was just a season ago, having registered 29 points through his first 40 outings as a Flame. After spending the first 10 seasons of his career with the Florida Panthers, he has yet to find much chemistry with his linemates and, to this point, has yet to perform up to the standards of the eight-year, $84 million contract he inked this offseason.
With that said, there is still half a season left to play, and elite talents such as Huberdeau don’t tend to stay in a funk for too long. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody if he is able to take off in the second half of the 2022-23 campaign and look like the top-flight player he was for so many years with the Panthers.
As for Kadri, most believed he would give the Flames some additional ruggedness up front while also providing strong two-way play. That said, many were skeptical he would finish the season anywhere close to the 87 points he had with the Colorado Avalanche in 2021-22, as those numbers were far above his career averages. The general consensus was that a 60-65 point season would be a solid one for the 32-year-old, and to this point, he has played at that pace with 33 points through 43 outings.
Early into Kadri’s tenure, however, he started out blistering hot, beginning the season with a six-game point streak that included four goals and nine points. Things have cooled off a bit since, but he has remained a consistent player that head coach Darryl Sutter can rely on at all times. That said, like Huberdeau, he possesses plenty of skill and is capable of producing even more over the second half.
Another newcomer to this team who, like Huberdeau, has struggled to put numbers on the board is MacKenzie Weegar. Coming over with Huberdeau in part of the Tkachuk package, many were hopeful that the 28-year-old defenseman could match last season’s totals that saw him record 44 points in 80 games. That hasn’t been the case, however, as he’s also struggled to adapt from an offensive perspective in his new roots, registering just 10 points in 42 contests thus far.
The good news for Weegar is that despite his numbers having declined this season, he has managed to play solid defensive hockey for this team, allowing Sutter to give him plenty of minutes on a nightly basis. But it would be nice to see his offensive side pick up in the second half, as he is certainly capable of doing so.
NHL Goaltending Is Often Unpredictable
In the 2021-22 season, Jacob Markstrom put together one of the better seasons we have seen from a Flames netminder in some time. With a heavy workload that saw him appear in 63 games, he recorded a 2.22 goals against average (GAA) paired with a .922 save percentage (SV%), both of which marked career highs.
Given that those were the best numbers the now 32-year-old has posted in his NHL career, it was probably expected that some regression would occur in 2022-23, though no one could have envisioned the season he is having to this point. Through 30 games, he has an ugly 2.84 GAA along with a .893 SV% and, quite frankly, looks like a shell of his former self. He should be able to improve over the course of the second half, but it is a clear reminder that outside of the few truly elite goaltenders, the position is often a hard one to predict.
In regards to those truly elite goaltenders, the names that come to mind are the Andrei Vasilevskiy, Juuse Saros, and Connor Hellebuycks of the world. And while Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin don’t have the same sample sizes, it is probably fair to put them into that category as well.
Unfortunately, despite how many felt about him after his Vezina-caliber season in 2021-22, Markstrom falls outside that category. Instead, he seems to fall more into the second tier, along with names such as Darcy Kuemper, Frederik Andersen, and Tristan Jarry, just to name a few. All in this category are capable of providing fantastic goaltending but aren’t as consistently excellent as the ones in the elite category.
That is certainly the case for Markstrom, who wasn’t all that great in his first season with the Flames back in 2020-21. That said, he’s capable of going on lengthy hot stretches and could certainly do so throughout the second half of the 2022-23 campaign.
Sutter’s Coaching Style May Be Wearing Thin
Just a season ago, it seemed Darryl Sutter could do no wrong. He had the team playing an elite defensive structure while also putting up goals at a rapid rate, making it appear as though everyone was completely bought into the team message. However, everyone was also well aware of the fact that his style of coaching can quickly wear on players, and some have speculated that may be playing a part in this team’s struggles so far.
While there have been no damning reports of a locker room riff, there has been plenty of speculation about the relationship between Sutter and Huberdeau. It’s no secret that the former Panther thrives in an offensive-first system, and he certainly has struggled to this point under his bench boss’ old school approach.
On top of some personal player struggles, what has also begun to frustrate many Flames fans is Sutter’s stubbornness, particularly when it comes to giving younger talent an opportunity. Take the case of Matthew Phillips, who finally appeared to receive an opportunity after getting recalled in early December. Instead of giving the AHL’s leading scorer a real shot, Sutter healthy scratched him frequently and gave him less than 10 minutes of ice time in the two games he did suit up for.
A more recent example is prospect Jakob Pelletier, who, at 21 years old, has combined for 42 goals and 96 points over 97 AHL games the past two seasons. He was recently recalled as well but has yet to suit up, as Sutter has made him a healthy scratch in the Flames’ three most recent games. The favoritism he holds toward veteran players is becoming clearer and clearer by the day and could end up hurting this team in the long run if something doesn’t budge soon. For now, let’s hope he has a change in perspective and looks to insert some youth into his lineup for the second half.
Plenty of Work for the Flames to Do
As previously mentioned, many believed this Flames team could repeat as Pacific Division winners, but their first half has many second guessing. As things stand now, they currently sit five points behind the Seattle Kraken for third, seven behind the L.A. Kings for second, and nine behind the Vegas Golden Knights for the division lead. Is it an insurmountable point differential? No, but if they have any hope of getting back in the race, they will need to be a much more consistent group for the remainder of the 2022-23 campaign.