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The “New Look” Calgary Flames Have Identity Issues

Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom wearing his #25 alternate "Blasty" jersey.

It’s been a strange week for the Calgary Flames.

Two games into their final extended home stand of the season, a five-game stretch between November 29 to December 7, the organization is receiving visits from some familiar faces.

Former Players Reinforce Calgary Flames Struggles, Identity Concerns

On Tuesday, we saw Matthew Tkachuk return to the Saddledome for the first time since being traded to Florida. Lost among the controversy of Tkachuk’s return was also the presence of Sam Bennett, a player tied for the highest draft selection the Flames have made in their 42 years of being in Calgary. While Bennett struggled to find consistency on the scoresheet, he was never shy in the physicality department. On top of those two visiting their former home arena, another player took a different path to the NHL.

Ryan Lomberg had to grind his way from the University of Maine of the NCAA to the USHL, then to the ECHL, the AHL and the odd cup of coffee with the Flames over eight years before finally earning a more permanent role with the Florida Panthers. The 5’9” spark plug has 52 fights to his credit across his professional career, and it’s probably fair to say that most of his opponents had the advantage of size.

Each forward had their reason for leaving. Tkachuk told the team he wouldn’t sign a contract extension and was promptly traded. Bennett asked for a trade and eventually was granted that request. Lomberg left in unrestricted free agency after never really getting a fair shake.

All three players were undeniably personnel that Flames head coach Darryl Sutter could use to affect, given their heavy style of play.

On Thursday night, Sean Monahan returned to Calgary as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. In his typical style, he showed up nursing an injury — or at least sporting a walking boot. Sean assisted both Montreal goals in a 2-1 win over Calgary.

Monahan ranks third in Flames franchise history for game-winning goals at 47.

Saturday will feature Garnett Hathaway, whose four-year, $6 million contract with the Washington Capitals priced him out of Calgary. The 6’3”, 210lb right winger does most of the dirty work for his team.

Monday has the former 16th overall pick Juuso Välimäki and the Arizona Coyotes visiting. The 24-year-old Finn has found a comfortable spot on Arizona’s second pairing. He and JJ Moser rank 48th in the NHL in expected goals share at 52.8% among pairings with at least 75 minutes together, according to MoneyPuck’s model. Välimäki was claimed off waivers on October 9, 2022 — four days before the beginning of the season.

Capping off the Flames’ memory tour is a game next Friday in Columbus, Ohio, where Johnny Gaudreau and Erik Gudbranson left for during the offseason. Seeing the franchise’s fifth all-time points leader in a Blue Jackets jersey will underline the nature of the following point.

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The Calgary Flames have entered a weird era — and it’s not all that clear what that era will entail.

So, that’s what we will be looking at today.

Examining Calgary Flames Struggles

Let’s examine some consistencies over 23 games this season. First, some of the overlying stats.

The Flames remain at a .500 pace, sitting in the bottom third of the league standings. Their 2.91 goals-for-per-game ranks 22nd in the league, while their goals-against-per-game of 3.09 ranks 18th.

This isn’t ideal for a veteran group. Let’s look at some of the trends going on. First, a positive.

They Are (Still) Great at Scoring Early

The Calgary Flames are tied for seventh place in terms of the number of games they have scored the first goal. They’ve done it 13 times over 23 games. By the 23-game mark last season, the Flames had scored the first 18 times. Good for first place in the NHL in that category.

Scoring first has been a major Sutter-ism throughout his 35-year coaching career, so it should be no surprise that the Flames focused on getting the puck in the net first. The next trend isn’t so Sutter-friendly.

The Calgary Flames Struggles Include Holding Leads

We’re going to look at some chilling statistics here on the number of times the Flames have allowed the opposition to erase a lead. Let’s rip the bandaid off and put it out there.

The team has surrendered a lead nine times after scoring first, out of 14 one-goal leads blown in total. They’ve blown two-goal leads three times. Giving up 17 leads in 23 games isn’t ideal.

Whether it’s starter Jacob Markstrom struggling, a redefined core learning a new system, or simply poor luck, you can’t give up momentum with such consistency and expect your team to make the playoffs.

Another factor that may have Darryl Sutter pulling his hair out is Markstrom’s play, as mentioned. His .889 save percentage is nowhere near where it needs to be, and his high danger save percentage of .802% is near the bottom of the league.

The Group Is Lacking Discipline

The Flames sit at 27th in net penalties with a -8. They’ve drawn 94 and taken 102.

Calgary has taken 93 minor penalties on the year. At the 23-game mark last season? 76. If the group is going to buy into a tight-to-the-belt defensive strategy, they need to tone it down.

Speaking of toning…

The Power Play Needs Work

Simply stating that the power play is ranked 24th in the National Hockey League at 18.9% doesn’t do justice to the chaos. While a simple offensive umbrella formation shouldn’t be too hard to roll out, it’s been a struggle. Across 15 games in November, no one on the Flames put up more than three points at 5-on-4.

One final aspect is why the Calgary Flames are not currently on pace to make the playoffs. One that is certainly less tangible.

Calgary is No Longer a Miserable Team to Play Against

The monstrous third pairing of Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson terrorized the rest of the NHL last season. Every instance of an opposing player getting too close to Jacob Markstrom or Johnny Gaudreau led to one of Gudbranson’s trademark “talks” with said player between whistles. If Gudbranson weren’t on-call, Milan Lucic would pick up the slack. Or Brett Ritchie.

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That kind of impact is difficult to quantify. You could look at the increase in both minor penalties taken and minor penalties drawn as a lack of a calming presence. You could look at the increased disparity in net penalties between seasons as a team committing minors because no one is willing to commit a major. It’s hard to put your thumb on it on paper, but it’s certainly a noticeable difference on the ice.

As for Milan Lucic this year, during an interview with Eric Francis on Fan 960 before the preseason, the 240lb winger seemed reluctant to admit that his shoulder had fully recovered from an injury sustained during the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Josh Archibald laid a thunderous check in Game 2. Lucic is yet to drop the gloves through preseason and 23 regular season games.

With Gudbranson’s departure on a four-year, 16-million-dollar contract with the Blue Jackets, the Flames lost a presence that has yet to be replaced. While there is no impending short-term solution to that issue, it’s worth noting that 6’5”, 210lb Carson Soucy is set to become a UFA in the offseason. Both Carson Soucy and Darryl Sutter hail from Viking, Alberta.

It’s also worth noting that Calgary general manager Brad Treliving has been hunting for an additional winger since August. 

Are the Calgary Flames truly NHL Draft Lottery-bound? Most pundits would say no. Will they surpass the 111-point mark that they set last season? Pretty unlikely as well. What we can take from the first 23 games is that you could call the team a “hot mess” and probably get away with it, which is pretty unique for a perfectly .500 team.

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