Perhaps due to the afterglow of their 2014-15 playoff run and their off-season additions of Michael Frolik and Dougie Hamilton, the external expectations on the Calgary Flames were quite high as the 2015-16 season kicked off. Now past the half-way mark of their schedule, the Flames have disappointed many – including likely themselves – by puttering around in the bottom clump of the National Hockey League standings rather than contending for a playoff spot.
The culprit behind Calgary’s woes this season? Well, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one, as a great many things have gone wrong – sometimes on their own, sometimes in concert with other factors – to drag the Flames into draft lottery contention. As often happens in life some of these circumstances were of their own making, while others were just pure bad luck. Murphy’s Law – if it can go wrong, it will go wrong – has been in full force for the Flames in 2015-16.
CARRYING THREE GOALIES
It seemed as if the Flames had hit the mother-load in terms of talented netminders in 2014-15, as at different times Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio each carried the Flames and stole them some much-needed points. Not wanting to really settle on a single goalie for 2015-16, they brought back all three and hoped that (a) one goalie would emerge as a clear number-one and (b) that another team would make them a good offer for one of the other two. After all three goalies had strong training camps, Flames general manager Brad Treliving elected to begin the season with three netminders on the active roster rather than risk losing Ortio on waivers. Unfortunately, the adage “if you have three goalies, you have no goalies” proved true and all three struggled without consistent playing time and the ability to work their way out of funks.
By Halloween, the Flames had basically washed their hands of their previous decision. Ramo was sent down to the AHL, but ended up being recalled when Hiller was injured, eventually becoming the team’s #1 goalie by default. Hiller settled into a back-up role when he came back from the injured reserve. And Ortio lost a great deal of value as an asset and passed through waivers unclaimed (and went to the AHL) when Hiller returned.
BRODIE GETS INJURED
Last season, the hockey world gasped in disappointment when Flames captain Mark Giordano went down with a bicep tear just prior to the trade deadline. The Flames had lost a Norris Trophy contender, their on-ice leader and their best defender. However, the Flames actually did really well without Giordano and ended up making the playoffs and winning a round. (The biggest change was depth defender Deryk Engelland being bumped up to play with Brodie, which actually worked really well.) We heard similar gasps when T.J. Brodie broke his hand in a pre-season game blocking a shot. Rather than the composed, scrappy bunch we saw on the blueline in Giordano’s absence last season, instead the Flames defenders struggled with consistency and just couldn’t figure out good pairings, match-ups and how to execute the club’s systems effectively.
Brodie returned at the end of October, missing nine games. For the Flames, it felt a lot longer than Giordano’s 32-game disappearance last spring.
HAMILTON WITH GIORDANO
With T.J. Brodie on the shelf, the Flames made a logical decision that turned out poorly: they used newcomer Dougie Hamilton as a top-pairing defender.
First things first: Hamilton is a really good defenseman. But he’s 22 years old and coming over from a Boston Bruins team that played a much more passive system compared to Calgary’s active defender, five-man-attack scheme, and he struggled mightily early-on trying to replicate the nuances of Brodie’s game. (Plus, it’s probably intimidating playing top minutes with a Norris contender on a brand-new team.) The experiment flamed out, so to speak, and Flames coach Bob Hartley quickly hit shuffle on his defensive pairings until Brodie came back, returned to his pairing with Giordano, and normalcy returned to the blueline. Hamilton did eventually figure out the system and has been very effective on a pairing with Kris Russell since late November, but he’d probably rather forget about his introduction to the Flames line-up.
NOT GETTING THE BOUNCES
Last season, the Flames developed a reputation as the “Find A Way Flames.” Whether they were down a goal or down three goals, they just kept coming at their opposition and more often than not they got enough late-game bounces to win. They had a PDO (Percentage Driven Outcome; their shooting percentage and save percentage put together) in third periods last season, and they were near the top of the NHL’s rankings in late-game comebacks. In the first 20 contests of this season, that number was 93.0 – meaning 9 per cent more shots either didn’t go in for them or went in for their opponent. That’s a massive swing (and admittedly, a big chunk of that was their shoddy goaltending in October).
As a result? The Flames are 3-18-1 when trailing after the second period this season, compared to 10-20-4 a season ago.
BAD IN THEIR OWN END
The Flames not getting a lot of bounces in the offensive end meant that every chance that they could get was doubly important. Thus, the team’s tendency to break out in a five-man unit from the defensive zone was subject to an awful lot of cheating – with forwards often breaking into the neutral zone early rather than making sure the puck actually got cleanly out of the defensive end. The result? The team ended up hemmed in their own zone a ton – a lot more than last season – and gave up a ton of high-danger chances to their opponents.
THE NHL’S WORST SPECIAL TEAMS
Calgary’s woeful special teams are really just a combination of most of the previous problems.
The Flames’ penalty kill has struggled all season, but really got behind the eight-ball in October due to their rough goaltending and their iffy defensive-zone play. They’ve recently clawed themselves out of last place (up to 29th in the NHL), but they’ve also made much-needed improvements in team discipline that have made a bigger difference overall.
And the team’s power-play has struggled in many, many different ways this season:
- They’ve struggled to gain the zone consistently.
- They’ve struggled to win face-offs consistently.
- They’ve struggled to generate high-danger chances consistently, most often producing some effective puck movement but not getting the power-play personnel moving around enough to open passing or shooting lanes.
The Flames power-play has been ranked 30th for the majority of the season, with a sizable gap between them and the next-best team.
To make a long story short: if it could go wrong for the Flames this season, it probably did go wrong (and it probably went wrong in October). The sheer magnitude of all of these factors going wrong this season has resulted in a hockey club that’ll be much more involved in draft discussions than the playoff race in the spring.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.