Flames Slide No Cause for Concern

For much of the first quarter of the 2014-15 NHL season, the Calgary Flames had been a pleasant surprise. Considered by many to compete for the bottom of the Western Conference (unlike their provincial brethren, who were seen as ready to take the next step, oh how wrong we were), the Flames instead shot up the Pacific Division standings with a 17-8-2 record through the first week of December.

However, for much of their early season run, the feeling around the hockey world (though likely not in the organization itself) was that the wheels would fall off the cart eventually. Here we are just a scant two weeks later, and the team’s detractors are basking in the glow of Calgary’s six game losing streak.

First up was a tough loss to the San Jose Sharks at home, a game in which they outshot the Sharks, but couldn’t get past San Jose goalie Antti Niemi, who made 33 saves. Then came a tough Eastern Conference road trip – 6 days, 4 games, 4 losses against the streaking Leafs, the suddenly resurgent Sabres (who put up just 19 shots compared to Calgary’s 45, but skated away with a 4-3 victory), the Penguins, and the Blackhawks.

The Flames returned home for a date with the New York Rangers last night looking to get things back on the right track. However, the Blueshirts had something else in mind, as they left Calgary with a 5-2 victory to finish perfect on their annual swing through western Canada. It was yet another game when the Flames outshot (not to mention out-Corsied) their opponents, yet couldn’t find a way to win.

The loss to the Rangers makes it six in a row for Calgary, who now find themselves plummeting down the standings in a tough division/conference, tied with the Kings for the final wildcard spot on the West, though L.A. has a game in hand.

So the question must be asked: for a team that showed so much promise earlier this season, what the heck is going on?

Flames Slide no Cause for Concern

One reason is the sudden and inexplicable drop in team shooting percentage. During the early part of the season, the Flames were riding high at a shooting percentage over 11%, which has taken a massive nosedive during the losing streak. The team has outshot its opponents in five of the last six games; one could even argue that Calgary has played some of its best hockey of the season during the streak. While the team’s shooting percentage was bound to regress, it likewise can’t be nearly as bad as the around 5% they’ve been shooting at lately.

Veteran forwards Jiri Hudler (30 points in 32 games) and Curtis Glencross (21 points in 33 games) have been very good, and youngsters Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and the surprising Josh Jooris have likewise produced about as well as could be expected. However, the offensive depth has been worrisome. A small handful of goals from the likes of Mikael Grandlund, Paul Byron, and David Jones isn’t going to put fear into many opponents.

Consider that the trio of Jones, Mason Raymond, and Matt Stajan are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th highest paid forwards on the team (behind Hudler) but sit 12th, 14th and 15th on the team in scoring, respectively and have combined for just 11 goals. In fairness, all three have missed time with injuries, yet when they have been in the lineup, the results have been mostly underwhelming. When you’re getting results like that from players paid to be offensive leaders, you’re not going to go very far.

The picture isn’t all doom and gloom at forward though, as the top two lines has played well, and the trio of Gaudreau, Monahan and Jooris have done an admirable job of stepping up after the aforementioned injuries to some of the team’s veterans.

Luckily for the Flames, the offensive play by its group of blueliners has also offset many of the shortcomings of the forward corps. The top pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie is without a doubt one of the best in the league on both sides of the puck. Giordano leads all NHL defensemen (and the Flames) in scoring with 31 points, while Brodie is quietly in the top five with 23 points. People across the league have been singing their praises all season, and for good reason.

However, the second pairing featuring Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell has been almost as good. Wideman is first among NHL defensemen with an amazing 10 goals already (just three short of his career high) and while Russell hasn’t found the back of the net yet, there is some symbiosis with Wideman in that he has 13 assists.

What that ultimately means is that four of the team’s top eight scorers are defensemen. It’s an unorthodox way for a team to produce offense, as one typically sees the top six forwards and one or two defensemen that the team can hang its hat on offensively.

While odd, it’s also a testament to coach Bob Hartley‘s system. Knowing full well that he has a thin forward crop but some dynamic defensemen, Hartley pushes an up-tempo style that relies on speed, puck pressure, and an active defense. It’s helped Calgary to sit 4th in league scoring with 94 goals.

So while Calgary’s recent slide is unfortunate, it can easily be argued that the team has been a victim of bad luck more than anything, considering the way they’ve carried the play in most of the games during the streak. If Hartley’s offensive system can continue producing similar results, if some of the veterans can step up, if the kids that are producing can keep pace, and if the defense can continue to at least be league average, there’s no reason to think that the Flames won’t be in the thick of things for a playoff spot all season long.

Thank you for reading. Please take a moment to follow me on Twitter – @LWOSPuckHead.

Support LWOS by following us on Twitter – @LastWordOnSport and @LWOSworld – and “liking” our Facebook page.

Have you tuned into Last Word On Sports Radio? LWOS is pleased to bring you 24/7 sports radio to your PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone. What are you waiting for?

Main Photo: