The Calgary Flames season has started off just about as badly as could possibly be imagined. Everything that could’ve gone wrong on the ice seems to have happened, and bad puck – and otherwise – luck has been present on a nightly basis. However, despite having just one regulation win, and three wins overall, on this day the 5th of November, the Calgary Flames season is not lost.
Fact is, the season can still be saved, but there almost certainly needs be a change behind the bench in order for that to take place.
Why the Season Isn’t Lost
Before I delve into the thesis of this piece, allow me to explain why the season isn’t lost.
In short, it’s because the Pacific Division this year looks more like the Sewer Division. No team – outside of maybe Los Angeles – looks particularly terrifying in the early going. Vancouver is technically .500 from a strict win/loss perspective (I understand it doesn’t work that way), San Jose has come down to earth after Martin Jones’ brick wall impression wore out and is a .500 team, Arizona’s PDO is bigger than the gall of Glendale’s City Council, Edmonton just lost Connor McDavid for months and proved last Saturday that deep down, they’re still the Oilers and Anaheim is still somehow tripping over themselves.
Case in point: Three teams in this division will make the playoffs and with 25 inter-division games remaining for the Flames – who are 5 points out – the door is still open. It’s not wide open, but it’s open wide enough that the Flames could squeeze through it with some lifestyle changes.
Bob Hartley has been the head coach in Calgary for over three seasons now. His and Jacques Cloutier’s system appears to be running stale, and is being seriously exploited a year after it baffled 29 other teams en-route the Flames’ playoff appearance.
Brad Treliving’s job this offseason was to improve the Calgary Flames roster, which he appears to have succeeded in doing, but the Flames as a team are somehow worse. How do you explain that?
Many non-MSM types around the Flames have pointed to Bob Hartley’s system as the problem plaguing the Calgary Flames this season, but Bob Hartley is the reigning Jack Adams winner so that can’t be right.
Thing is, it can. It’s a system that encourages waiting out the other team on defence, essentially giving them space to work and then blocking their shots, taking the puck and firing a stretch pass to a streaking forward. It’s all sunshine and roses when it works; problem is it no longer works.
Here’s the thing about blocking shots: it’s a bit of an exercise in randomness. Unless you’re directly in front of the shooter, actually blocking a shot takes some luck. This season, a lot of attempted blocked shots have turned into prime scoring chances for the other team, and most of those scoring chances have gone in. Yes, the goaltending has been woeful, but when you’re allowing Nathan MacKinnon to shoot from the high slot and giving Dale Weise all day to wind up, you’re bound to let in goals.
The Flames have had a .900 or better SV% posted by their starting goaltender just twice this season, and have allowed 26 more goals through 13 games than they did last year, with a better D core (Dougie Hamilton replaces Ladislav Smid, don’t argue that’s a bad swap) and the same goaltending.
You can chalk up a little bit to underperforming players and to struggling goaltending, but fact is, the rest of the NHL has figured out the Calgary Flames and the coaching staff hasn’t adapted.
The Flames are Top 10 in both High Quality Scoring Chances Allowed and Scoring Chances Allowed in the league, and combined with Hartley’s defensive strategy, it’s of little surprise the Flames are also dead last in the league in goals against, with eight more allowed than the woeful Blue Jackets. EIGHT.
Earned Not Given, Right?
Last year, the Calgary Flames were the hardest working team in the NHL, astounding everyone on a nightly basis with their relentless battle. As a professional hockey player, you want to maximize the amount of playing time you have, and if working your butt clean off is the way to do it, you won’t think twice.
That same work ethic seems to be largely absent this season.
The explanation appears to lie in the coaching staff’s departure from their motto. Hartley has shown inexplicable loyalty to guys like Brandon Bollig, Kris Russell and even Sean Monahan, playing them despite their horrendous play, and in Monahan’s case insisting he continue his first line minutes.
As a guy like Mikael Backlund, seeing Sean Monahan back check like an ice dancer and play 23 minutes a night, while one of your mistakes earns you six minutes a night with Brandon Bollig, and all the good defensive plays you make seem to go unnoticed, it’s tough to convince yourself to give it 100%, all the time. I’m sure this is not an isolated example.
To me it’s becoming increasingly clear that Bob Hartley has lost the room, and the Calgary Flames are no longer buying what he’s is selling.
If the Flames’ system has been exposed to the point where it’s rendered ineffective, and the team no longer unconditionally supports a coach whose effectiveness largely comes from motivation, then there needs to be a change, plain and simple.
I’m not here to suggest candidates, because Brad Treliving undoubtedly has his own candidates in mind already – every GM has “his guy” – so speculation would be a useless exercise.
However, I very much believe this team is underachieving, and it’s largely due to the way they play hockey. The power play often looks disjointed despite the weapons on it, and the PK is an absolute fire drill.
This all comes down to coaching, and while pointing to the underachieving of the roster may seem like a valid counterargument, it’s also the coaching staff’s responsibility to snap players out of their slumps. Bob Hartley’s line blender and scratch roulette may have worked last season, but it simply isn’t cutting it this time around.
Do you fire a Jack Adams winner just 12 games into the season without giving him a chance to turn things around?
Frankly, yes you do. And here’s why.
What Will A New Coach Do?
Assuming the Flames don’t choose an assistant coach to replace Hartley, whoever would come in would bring change. Not only a new system, which is desperately needed, but also a fresh slate with all the players. ‘Earned not Given’ will make a return by default, since a new coach has no loyalties to the players, and a return to the blue collar way of hockey that made this team successful will almost surely be seen.
When the offseason rolls around, a thorough evaluation can take place to determine if whomever interim coached the rest of the season is the right fit, or if they move on elsewhere, but just the chance that a new coach could turn around the season is a chance worth taking.
Something is broken in Calgary and it’s become increasingly clear that the problem is behind the bench, Jack Adams be damned. The Calgary Flames have evolved from an efficient, hardworking club to a predictable, inconsistent group over the course of an NHL offseason. The roster has improved on paper and deteriorated on the ice, leaving little question of the reason.
With a league low PDO and SV%, the Flames are clearly not as bad a team as they’ve shown through 12 games. They simply need to be refreshed, and with 70 games remaining in the season – whilst residing in the worst division in hockey – the time to make a change IS now.
The season is not yet lost, and a change at some point is inevitable, so why not make it now, and give it a run? At the very least, if they do end up missing the playoffs, they can at least sit back and say, “We tried”. I sure as hell wouldn’t want be sitting here in April, wondering what would have been if someone else took the reigns in November.
A new coaching staff doesn’t guarantee the 2015-16 Calgary Flames season will be salvaged, but at this point, it’s the best chance – and a rapidly expiring one at that – to do so.