Last season, the Calgary Flames captured the imagination of the hockey world. Despite being projected to finish near the bottom of the National Hockey League standings, they managed to ride third period comebacks and some impressive play in clutch moments to a berth in the playoffs and an appearance in the second round. However, their struggles through the first 10 games of the 2015-16 campaign have shown that their rebuild is still far from over.
The Calgary Flames began this season with something they haven’t faced since possibly the 2006-07 season: high expectations. Coming off their first playoff appearance since 2009 and their first playoff round win since 2004, the thought process was thus: the Flames had cemented an identity in 2013-14 and a workable playing style in 2014-15. The off-season additions of Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik would provide the team with more depth and more options, and thus, the Flames would likely take another step forward as an organization. Sunrise, sunset.
Roughly a month into the 2015-16 season, exactly none of that has come to fruition.
The 2013-14 Flames were defined by a hard-fought, workmanlike mentality. Odds are that a good team would beat them, but they would have to take their lumps in order to do so. The Flames would keep coming at teams in waves and basically try to wear them down over the course of a game. These Flames were arguably short on skill, but they were high on effort. These Flames lost games because of a lack of structure and offensive talent, but not because of a lack of compete.
The 2014-15 Flames retained the prior year’s compete level, but were augmented with more structure and more talent. The team adopted more of a “pack” approach to play through all three zones, with the offensive attack built upon (a) odd-man rushes built off of long stretch passes through the neutral zone and (b) defensemen regularly pinching into the offensive zone to create a second wave of attack. As a result, the Flames became a strangely effective counter-punch team, regularly springing players on breakaways and creating chances through multiple layers of attacks, passes and tip-ins.
The 2015-16 Flames, through the first chunk of the season, appear to have regressed in both of their primary growth areas. The compete level of the past two seasons has diminished, potentially in part due to (a) the Flames taking their success last season for granted after a summer of reading unanimous praise from the hockey world and (b) the team’s early struggles undermining their confidence in their own game. Their systems themselves haven’t been nearly as effective as last season, as teams have scouted out their stretch passes and structure their defensive games to block off the Flames multiple layers of defense right at the blue line (or a couple of feet inside). As a result, the Flames who lived by the stretch pass last season are dying by the stretch pass so far this season.
The failure of the team’s main offensive weapon has rippled through their entire system. The team is having challenges escaping their own zone efficiently – a product of too often trying to force a pass up the middle through defensive coverage at their own blue line rather than going for simple transition plays. And their struggles entering the offensive zone have made the team very reliant on dumping and chasing, something that puts an emphasis on their fore-check and puck retrieval. Because of under-performance in those areas, the team is very reactive and becoming reliant on creating turnovers and odd-man offensive rushes rather than creating offense organically. (Aside: Johnny Gaudreau is perhaps the only Flames player able to effective generate offense off the rush – he’s gotten points on 10 of Calgary’s 16 goals so far).
Aside from their on-ice issues, injuries to T.J. Brodie, Lance Bouma and Micheal Ferland early this season have really exposed some continual depth issues. Offensively, as noted, the team remains quite top-heavy – with opposition defenses able to key in on Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to shut down the team’s attack. On the back-end, the team has only recently started to see the fruits of many years of good drafting of defensemen and goaltenders. Their American Hockey League team in Stockton features many recent Flames draft picks, but they’re stuck behind many of the team’s stop-gap measures through trades and free agency, when being a competitive team seemed far away, and the priority was getting NHL bodies on the roster. As a result, the team’s cap structure is askew, with depth players on the back-end such as Kris Russell ($2.6 million), Deryk Engelland ($2.92 million), Ladislav Smid ($3.5 million), Dennis Wideman ($5.25 million) along with goaltenders Karri Ramo ($3.8 million in the AHL, $2.85 million against the NHL cap) and Jonas Hiller ($4.5 million) eating up a ton of cap space on one-way deals.
Calgary’s struggles so far this season probably cannot be boiled down to one or two precise root causes, but they signal that the club’s rebuild is still far from over and that there is still much work to be done to mold the Flames into a playoff contender.