Expectations were high in 2015-16 for the Calgary Flames following their impressive two-round appearance in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. With a young, talented core, the thought process was that the club could potentially take a step backward, but instead, they slid to near the bottom of the NHL standings.
To say that the result was a disappointment to the team’s management team would probably be considered an understatement. Rather than make rash changes following the season, the Flames instead spend some time to ponder internally before making their tweaks. Their flurry of changes began with hiring Glen Gulutzan as their new head coach in mid-June.
The burning question in Calgary, if you’ll forgive the pun, is if all the moves the Flames made over the past month have solved the team’s deficiencies from 2015-16.
What Went Wrong?
First and foremost, the 2015-16 Flames were bad because their goaltending was bad. They were the worst team in terms of save percentage in the entire league by a full percentage point. If they had Carolina’s 29th-ranked goaltending, it would have made a 23-goal difference and likely propelled the Flames from the NHL’s basement to its playoff fringes. The Flames could’ve made due with decent goaltending, or even fairly decent goaltending, rather than the awful netminding they had to make due with.
Second, the Flames had really bad special teams. Their 30th-ranked penalty kill was hampered by their bad goaltending, but also suffered from some structural issues – with the coaching staff content to allow the opposition to enter their zone and focusing their efforts on blocking shots and suppressing quality chances. The results weren’t good. The club also had issues on their 22nd-ranked power-play, primarily with establishing pressure in the offensive zone (or even consistently gaining entry to the zone). Much of blame has to be placed on tactics, as a power-play boasting Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano really shouldn’t have trouble generating quality chances.
Finally, the Flames’ biggest challenge was that they were ultimately a one-line team, dependent on Gaudreau, Monahan and a rotating cast that usually included a slumping Jiri Hudler and the inexperienced Micheal Ferland to generate offense. As a result, on the road they often faced the best and brightest that opposition clubs could muster – and consequently, Gaudreau’s production was heavily skewed towards home ice.
How Did They Address Them?
In terms of goaltending, the Flames were very active. They jettisoned all of the organization’s goaltenders from 2015-16 – save for AHL starter Jon Gillies, who missed much of the season due to injury – and then acquired Brian Elliott from St. Louis and signed free agent back-up Chad Johnson. Both are a big upgrade on their previous goaltenders, entirely avoid the confusion regarding roles faced early last season, and FlamesNation’s Kent Wilson estimated that the new goaltenders would make a 33 even-strength goal difference. That’s huge.
The team’s special teams tweaks are a bit less cut-and-dry. The goaltending upgrades will definitely help on the penalty kill; the Flames were dead-last in shorthanded save percentage by just under 2%, and the difference between their percentage and that of the 29th-place team would mean a six-goal difference on its own. The coaching changes the Flames made this summer could also pay some dividends in terms of special teams, as they added Paul Jerrard and Dave Cameron to Gulutzan’s staff.
Gulutzan says Cameron and Jerrard will join him on the bench. Gelinas will be the “eye in the sky”. #Flames
— Pat Steinberg (@Fan960Steinberg) July 6, 2016
Also, Gulutzan says Cameron will handle the powerplay. Jerrard is in charge of the penalty kill. #Flames
— Pat Steinberg (@Fan960Steinberg) July 6, 2016
In Jerrard’s previous stop, the AHL’s Utica Comets, the penalty kill improved their performance every season he was there. However, the performance of Ottawa’s power-play under Cameron was a bit disappointing given the weapons they had at their disposal. If nothing else, though, some fresh eyes and some structural tweaks to their special team’s systems should result in some improvements (though it’s unclear how much).
Offensively, the Flames are probably hoping that the growth of some of their young forwards combined with their summer additions will make them a more potent club. Adding first-round pick Matthew Tkachuk, trading for Alex Chiasson and signing free agents Troy Brouwer and Linden Vey gives the Flames several potential options to add to the forward mix. However, until Sam Bennett can fully mature into a fully-fledged NHL scorer and essentially create a second scoring group, the Flames will remain fairly dependent on their top line for offense.
Will It Be Enough?
Overall? The Flames will have better goaltending in 2016-17 (but it’s also not like it could possibly be worse than they had in 2015-16). That improvement alone should be enough to move them from the NHL’s basement to the playoff fringes. If the coaching changes can ignite their woeful special teams or if some of their off-season additions click or if their young forwards continue their growth, the Flames could return to the post-season in 2016-17.
It’s possible, but it’s dependent on a lot of things going right this season that went really wrong last season.
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.