63

2016-17 Calgary Flames embers: A season of growth

Remember how the season started?

Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau – two of the most prominent faces of the rebuild – needed new contracts. Their entry-level deals were over, and aside from one luck-filled, unsustainable year – Gaudreau’s rookie year, as a matter of fact – their team had little to show for it.

And there they were: the first player drafted under the rebuild, and the most exciting prospect for years, up for well-earned raises. They were certain to become two of the highest-paid Flames, but until the exact numbers were known, the Flames’ cap structure – one that would be dictated for seasons to come – remained a mystery.

They took their sweet time, so the Flames got down to business in other ways. Matthew Tkachuk was selected with the sixth overall pick. There was a culling of restricted free agents, with only four making the cut, including the two aforementioned big names. Two brand new goalies were acquired, as was a high-priced forward, all by July 1. And then it was just a matter of sitting back and waiting: waiting for the season to start, waiting for those four RFAs to get their new deals, waiting to see how things would play out with a new coach.

Monahan got his contract done with time to spare in August. Gaudreau waited until two days before the season started, taking a contract that matched his captain’s to a tee.

And then, one day before the season started, they added their final piece: Kris Versteeg, Europe and then Edmonton-bound, who had completely inexplicably not been signed until the 11th hour.

Growing pains

One minute into the season, Nicklas Grossmann gave the puck away.

A little over half a minute later, Alex Chiasson scored the Flames’ first goal.

And then they lost. They returned home to host another Battle of Alberta, and lost. They went to Vancouver, and picked up their first point of the season without even scoring a goal themselves.

Tkachuk, still vying to prove he was a full-time NHLer in his first season after being drafted, scored his first NHL goal. The Flames won. Then they lost two more times, Brian Elliott made what at the time was called a “season-saving” save to prevent a dramatic last-second loss, and finally, eight games into the season, Calgary had its first decisive victory. This was, perhaps not coincidentally, the first time Tkachuk found himself playing on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik.

But for a team looking to turn the corner on its rebuild, filled with new hope in the form of a new coach, new goaltending, and a growing core, a 4-6 start in the first month was disappointing. Just two regulation wins, four losses to teams that had been at the bottom of the barrel the previous season, and straight up unwatchable hockey. Nothing was going right, and worse yet, everybody seemed to have taken several steps backwards – including the supposed core of the franchise. Two players – Backlund and Frolik – were worth a damn; everything else was a disaster.

How early is too early to fire a coach? What if the coach seems to have completely broken all of the young offensive talent? What if the coach is forcing the few good defencemen he has to play with the three worst possible options at his disposal? The special teams are among the worst in the NHL and they’re taking more penalties than everybody else. Ten games in and we know it’s over, this is a lost year – but worse than that, because the Flames would have to go completely back to the drawing board for 2017-18, and starting from square one two years in a row was going to hurt, a lot. Two members of the core were already on their next contracts; it’s not as though you have all the time in the world here.

Tkachuk officially made the NHL and celebrated with two goals in a 3-2 win. The Flames were then outscored 17-4 over their next four games.

And then Minnesota went and broke Gaudreau’s finger, and the season was officially over.

Eastern road trip click

Without their top offensive player, and near the bottom of the standings and in just about every stat, the Flames headed east for a six-game road trip. And then things kind of started to come together.

Not all at once. Their special teams were still horrific, after all. But they stopped getting blown out, they started winning close games, and they had a tidy little 3-2-1 record to show for it. Not the best thing in the world – certainly not enough to make them relevant again, not with how far behind they’d put themselves – but significantly better. Monahan ended up on the fourth line for a couple of periods, and Chad Johnson had completely taken the starter’s reins by this point, but they were actually watchable again.

Baby steps.

Followed by a six-game win streak, featuring an unexpectedly early Gaudreau return, in which it looked like he hadn’t missed a beat. And the Flames pushed themselves up from a lottery team back into bubble position, and the world had stopped ending.

The win streak was snapped, but for the most part, December was good, winning nine games and losing four. They didn’t have it together yet – they were negating their own blowouts by getting sloppy and scored on for no reason at the end of games – but maybe it was safe to scoreboard watch again.

By this point, the idea that Tkachuk might have been sent back to junior was laughable; he wasn’t just playing alongside two exceptional two-way players, but he was elevating their games, too. The Flames found a new top defence pairing as well; Glen Gulutzan, married to the idea of the left-shot T.J. Brodie playing the left side, relegated him to whatever scrap that was possible (Dennis Wideman, namely, who was still being blamed, almost a full year later, for the Flames’ awful penalty differential). This allowed Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton to play together: and the Flames’ prized acquisition from the 2015 draft started looking like what he was supposed to.

The calendar year didn’t end on the highest of notes, but it did end on an optimistic one.

Giving up

There was a game in which the Canucks broke the Flames.

Vancouver had been expected to be one of the worst teams in the NHL from the very start of the season. Calgary should have been able to beat them easy, right? And yet they couldn’t – even though time and time again, they deserved better fates – because Ryan Miller seemingly was able to stop every single thing that came his way. No matter how much better the Flames played – and they played much, much better – they couldn’t score. They couldn’t beat the Canucks. They, in their once-again-realistic quest to make the playoffs, couldn’t pick up two much-needed points.

The downfall was not linear, but approaching the All-Star Break, it happened. Gaudreau was their representative only because he’s Gaudreau; it was difficult to name anybody else worthy. (Backlund, the clear-cut Flames MVP to that point, would have been an option, but he’s not a name the way Gaudreau is.)

Halfway through the season, and it was back to the garbage they’d played under Gulutzan at first, only now without any early season or new coach excuses.

The thing, though, was that they weren’t playing particularly badly. Well, they were a couple of times, but then they’d put together a good period on the road, get scored on once, and completely unravel from there. And then it happened again.

And then there was a train, some beer, an overtime win, and two breaks. Elliott took over for Johnson, seemingly for good. By that point, they were treading water – but still, just barely on the cusp of a playoff spot.

10 games

They still were not perfect, but they were doing better. Their roster was starting to take proper shape and make a little more sense. The defence was about as good as it was going to get, Elliott looked like the goalie everyone had initially thought he was, but the forward lines still needed some blatantly obvious shuffling.

Two weeks prior, while playing on the fourth line, Micheal Ferland stripped Sidney Crosby of the puck and scored. Two weeks later, he was moved up to the first line, and he scored twice in a game in which the Flames blew a 4-1 lead – and then came back to win it, 6-5, in overtime.

Over the course of their next 10 games, the Flames faced three teams who would ultimately actually make the playoffs. But they beat them all. And it didn’t matter who the wins came against: points were points, and the Flames had just collected 23 in a row and were suddenly all but a lock to make the playoffs. They even had a positive goal differential, waiting until early March to finally get there after an entire season in the red.

All that from a dicey contract situation, a new coach, and a complete revamping of the Flames’ net. There were still obvious faults: the bottom pairing was a disaster zone, that big free agent signing had turned out to be a massive swing and a miss after all, Sam Bennett was reduced to making opposing players bloody rather than scoring goals. But they weren’t unwatchable any longer, not on the ice as they finally started getting rewarded for their play, nor off it as Hamilton became a serial photobomber and interview harasser.

And finally, in the last game in March, the Flames roared out to a 5-2 win and clinched a playoff spot, becoming one of the few teams that could have that terrible a start and still turn it into a playoff-caliber season.

Warning signs

This was still, however, a young team.

Tkachuk was suspended for an errant elbow to Drew Doughty’s face, and the Flames gave into the Kings’ antics the next time they met a week and a half later, and were thoroughly embarrassed. They faced what would be their playoff opponents twice before they knew the final standings of the season, and though the games were close, they were once again embarrassed, either by horrible errors as their bad depth’s luck finally ran out, or by more inane antics.

The regular season ended as it began: with a whimper. Sure, there was promise of at least another four games, but they were limping towards them, their worst players at their worst and their best players mostly struggling to keep their heads above water.

The culmination of the entire season ended with them drawing the worst possible playoff matchup. The Flames were victims of the loser point – four was the fewest anybody had in the NHL over the course of the season, between them and Colorado – but they also brought it on themselves. Their horrible start to the season hurt them. Their January of surrender hurt them. Every time they fell asleep against a clearly inferior opponent hurt them. Every time they messed around with inadequate players on their top lines, or two goalies who couldn’t decide if they wanted to be good or not, hurt them. They had a chance at home ice in the playoffs and every single mistake came back to bite them and prevent it from happening.

And though they put up a good fight against the Ducks, it wasn’t enough. But there was still growth. Goaltending was inconsistent, but special teams kept them in it. Their weak depth destroyed them, and it was a mixed bag as to which of their best players actually showed up.

They were what we thought they were: a young team slowly, but surely, finding their footing, with clear holes in the roster, but ones that could be fixed. They would just have to be eliminated before that process could resume.

What’s next?

There are going to be worries, founded and not. They are going to be guys that seem like they’re sure things, and some will be, and some won’t.

But here’s what they have.

They have a young core, most still under the age of 25, but most of whom are already getting paid. They have a handful of savvy veteran leaders: ones who have earned that reputation through years of sweat and toil for this club and this club alone (Giordano, Backlund), and ones who have complemented the team well and shown up when needed. They have a solid foundation and a young coach who has spent an entire year working with them to improve their play as a whole, to ensure that they could look like a team that could make the playoffs on the regular, and not just by fluke.

They also have the opportunity to walk away from many of their bad contracts. Their present worst one – Troy Brouwer – will remain but for something incredibly fortuitous happening, and that will be their biggest problem, providing they don’t create another for themselves. (The ink hasn’t even been dry for a year yet; it’s not out of the question.) They have the opportunity to have yet another fresh slate in net; whether they’ll take it remains to be seen, but it’s there.

They have obvious holes to fill. Get a real top four defenceman. Get an actual top flight winger. Get a starting goalie.

They have opportunities to do that. The expansion draft will make for an unusual offseason. Make another smart trade. Be cautious on the free agent market. Maybe actually leave a spot open for a prospect or two who will undoubtedly be better than a default veteran you already know will be bad.

The Stockton Heat had a season just as bumpy as the Flames’; they, too, will be playing in the playoffs, and maybe it’ll be a time for someone to get a head start in setting a good impression for September and hopefully October.

So what was this?

This was a season for growth.

They grew.

Tkachuk’s progress was more obvious than most, going from question mark to a pest who could be trusted in difficult situations. Hamilton was right up there with him, while Ferland showed so much more potential than he had before. Gaudreau and Monahan looked worth their new contracts even with a disastrous start, Backlund finally got his dues, Frolik had a near career season, and Giordano and Versteeg were invigorated as the year went on.

Brodie and Bennett stumbled, but improved personnel could take care of that on its own.

This season was a necessary stepping stone. It was a frustrating one almost every step of the way, but it brought with it a ton of promise for the future. Everyone’s another year older, another year wiser; it’s easier to construct potential lineups now and find the promise of success in them than it was this time a year ago, when thumbs were twiddling and all that could be done was to blindly guess as to who could fill the much more pronounced holes this team had.

This is a team with a lot of good pieces in place that just needs a couple more.

A first round sweep means nothing in the long run, so don’t fuck this up.

  • The GREAT WW

    I’ll be taking a couple of months break from hockey.
    When we chat next I hope we have a new coach, a new #1 goalie, no Brouwer and most of all; I hope the Nations have fixed the comment section…..

    WW

  • Southboy

    Plain and simple we were not good enough. That being said we have some good parts moving forward, but if anything this series has done is show us where we are weak. Defense, goaltending, depth, team toughness, And can anyone say J Hockey is the ‘game changer’ we all thought he would be?? Nope. Great einger with skill, but not a top tier gamer.

  • Hunterthecat

    Great write up Ari. Hard not to feel the sting of losing again to Ducks who have become the Flames very own dragon they will need to slay next season in the Honda centre to really excise these demons. You are right though it has been a season of growth and it has been so much fun watching Chucky emerge as our very own player that teams hate but would love to have. There is lots to build on for next season but also a lot potential pitfalls. As you said hey Flames don’t F this up

    • Alberta Ice

      Totally agree. Excellent summary of the year Ari. This year began bad; got very good; and then ended on a very discouraging sour note. 6 straight losses to the Ducks (2 at end of regular season and 4 in playoffs) tends to do that. The greatest positive is that this is still a pretty young team. Learn from it; get over it; press on- and be wise, not reactive, in dealing with all the ongoing questions from it.

      • 19289

        Very good synopsis / opinion there Ice. I couldn’t have said it better. But next year they will get a tighter leash from fans. And then the right additions and subtractions will be huge.

  • Pyroflatulence

    I’m curious to see who Vegas takes and hope the team can slide at least 2 prospects into the lineup next season. Also, hope that players are slotted into the lineup based on merit and not the size of their contract.

  • Greg

    Off season game plan:
    – Brouwer for Fleury
    – sign Franson as #4D
    – trade 1st for a pre-apex top 6 winger that shakes loose in the expansion draft
    – fill in the holes with quiet signings and internal prospects

    • Greg

      Fleury has a few good games and everyone thinks this is crazy now? A couple months ago, everyone would have said they’d never touch Fleury’s contract.

      Fact is, Pittsburgh is going to be on the clock the second their playoffs are over. Either Fleury waives his NMC, or they trade him (and he waives), or they lose Murray for nothing (or pay Vegas a kings ransom to not take him). There aren’t a whole lot of teams lining up to offer them anything but an anvil, and the flames were one of the few teams rumoured to be having any discussions.

      So look at it contract wise… who else could/would the flames send back that makes this work? Both Fleury and Brouwer might be willing to waive NTC for this, and Pittsburgh has to get out of jail somehow…

  • Scary Gary

    Plain and simple, you’re not typically going to win a playoff series with your starter posting an 0.880 save % and a 3.89 GAA.

    Also Gaudreau disappeared for large stretches and Tkachuk wasn’t himself.

    • WSO

      Im positive tkachuk got word that guys throughout the league talk and a few of the tougher gents kindly let him know that he was setting himself up to have to answer the bell over and over again. He wised up and withheld his slob antics

      • Legend of Weevil

        Chucky can hold his own, I’m pretty sure he couldn’t care less if players were targeting him, he probably prefers it.

        Its pretty obvious that the coaching staff told Tkachuck to tone it down for this series because we couldn’t afford any penalties

  • Bilman

    I am quite optimistic for this team moving forward. There is a ton of cap space coming off this year (as much as $ 25 million if you include either Stajan or Brower being claimed in the expansion Draft). Bennett shouldn’t be too expensive to re-sign (a positive for having a less than stellar year), and I believe there are three from the farm that are ready to make the jump (Jankowski, one of the goalies as a backup, and one of the D-men). The needs are a #1 goalie, #4 D-man (perhaps keep Stone as a #5 or#6) and another RW. The one issue is that Treliving has not been stellar on free agent signings (except perhaps Frolik). I’m hoping he stays away from July 1 signings, and waits until July 2 on (or make a trade). Day 1 signings rarely seem to be great deals.

    • Dr

      I am not optimistic. I thought they were a mirage.
      Before the ten game win streak, they were 29-24-4. After the streak, they limped into the playoffs with a 6-7 record.
      Since December 5, they beat only 4 playoff teams in regulation time. During the win streak, they beat 7 teams outside of a playoff spot. They can’t beat good teams.
      The only time they got on hot streaks is when the goalies would post unsustainable save percentages and the powerplay would get hot.
      If they had gone 5-5 during the streak, they would’ve had 10 fewer points, and missed the playoffs.
      They have some good talent, but they are a bubble team. Gio is getting old, Brodie had a bad year. Hamilton was a standout, but they couldn’t overcome the mediocrity of the other d-men.

      • Bilman

        I agree with most of what you say, but that’s where I’m optimistic. There were too many D-man positions taken up by overpaid vets. Now there is room to bring up prospects to fill the 6/7 roles. Brodie had a bad year, but his career has shown that he is a good D-man. Getting him a competent partner will be huge in getting him back to form. They did go on hot streaks because of the goalie and PP, but they also started the year 5-10 because of the goalies and the PP, so I think it evens out.

        • WSO

          Hockey fans outside of calgary have always said brodie is barrie 2.0. Decent player, but goes away when games actually have meaning. Edmonton had that guy in petry and tom poti

    • Danoilerfanincalgary

      You should be more informed about your own team Bilman both Stajan and Brouwer have a NTC and have to be protected by the Flames. They would have to be bought out and that probably won’t happen just saying.

      • ThisBigMouthIsRight

        Sorry Dan, but you need to be more informed! Stajan= 10 teams no trade agreement, Brouwer= 15 teams no trade agreement. They can still be moved~!

  • This team is very close to being a contender. I hope they all have a miserable off-season, full of anger and bitterness, and come into 2017-18 a little more motivated to make a significant statement.

    They should also re-sign Elliott. He’d be a great mentor to one of the young tenders who should make the show.

    And if you have any friends in the Golden Knights organization, remind them how awesome Troy Brouwer is in the dressing room.

  • snotss

    how good this team will be next year depends on management…..they know the holes that need to be filled…..but will they???????????????.it’s time continue the rebuild…..big off season for the flames brass…we are watching and waiting…don’t uck it up again

  • redwhiteblack

    I am not as optimistic after seeing them lose 4 straight and having no push back. Monahan is great finisher but needs to be a bit more hardnosed. He has no Iggy in him. Gaudreau gave away the puck a ton. His performance has me concerned. If this is as well as he can do in the post season we will not go very far. He was not the game changer we need. At even strength outscored 2 -10. You need to capitalize at even strength. Part of that was bad goaltending and defense. Both of those areas need to be shored up. Ferland is awesome but he is not a top 3 forward. Need a winger closer to Monahan and Gaudreau’s skill levels to really have a solid first line.

    • ThisBigMouthIsRight

      The thing that keeps me wondering is that the Quacks won’t be able to protect Silfverberg(25) at the LV expansion draft… How good would he be as a RW in Calgary? But at what cost and then who would you risk exposing at the draft with his addition? Meh, will never happen.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    Why is everyone afraid to face the elephant in the room. What happened to Johnny’s shot? Did he come back from his injury too soon? He did everything in his power to not use his shot, the Ducks picked up on this and played him to pass. All you have to do is look at previous years to see the difference. It is not a coincidence that the Flames season mirrored Johhny’s….started poorly with Johnny underachieving, turned around after the Allstar game, disappeared in the playoffs. I Hope we did not spend 6 million per year for a Clii Ronning type PP specialist. Time to hit the gym.

    • ThisBigMouthIsRight

      Totally agree… but is it Johnny? or what the coaching staff are asking him to do that isn’t working? More questions than answers it seems right now.

      • WSO

        See jordan eberle up here. JG is literally Eberle with a quicker first couple steps. Exact same player. Those guys typically create a lot of 14 year old fans, but really are just complimentary first line player. Flames cant build around JG and monahan as singular players. They NEED a legit superstar prospect

        • Jumping Jack Flash

          I don’t see the comparison to Eberle. Eberle has a better shot and Johnny is better at everything else. Eberle has plateaued while Johnny has just scratched the surface. Johnny needs to look at. A thicker version of himself like Atkinson so see where he needs to take his game.

    • Pyroflatulence

      The team has some valuable assets that can be here for the long term or flipped for other pieces in the puzzle. My gut feeling is that there may be a major change or two before the next season. It’s going to be interesting and I still believe the future is bright and the Flames will continue trending in the right direction

  • Sammy p

    I like this team going forward ,they don’t need too much other than a starting goalie,some size in the bottom six and drop off some deadwood on defence.
    IMO they are headed in the right direction and will be back stronger than ever 2017-18.

  • Justthateasy

    While we are at trade table let’s add a couple of other non-performers/weak links. Since Brody won’t shoot get him out of here. Point shot =rebound. Johnny is an obvious liability. He won’t shoot either. He would rather pass to a guy that is covered. Or he will dance and lose the puck. AND he is soft. $6mil, my butt!
    Goodbye Elliott​. Who knows about Johnson. Goaltending is a crapshoot anyway.
    Work on drafting/trading for some important pieces.
    See you at the draft.

    • Legend of Weevil

      Im so glad you are not the GM. Brodie is a fantastic player who had an off year. He is still a very very good top 4 defensemen.

      Johnny had 61 points after being injured and a terrible start to the season. 6mil is still a steal for him

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      Brodie is a fantastic skater who can’t hit the net. As a top 4 defender this is a big liability. You could really see the players that could not keep up with the pace of play, Tkachuk, Brouwer, and Stone really stood out to me.

  • Parallex

    Here’s what I think the Flames should do… hire someone, this someones job will be to just do the following: during any contract negotation his/her job will be to say “Are you sure?” if the answer is “Yes” then it will be to say “Are you REALLY sure?… think about it for a bit” then after a bit ask “Did you decide you were sure?”.

    Free Agency is not a clear strength of this front office.

  • Hi guys,

    I’m an Oilers fan so I don’t watch all the Flames games, but do you all think the Brouwer deal is bad enough to warrant some serious heat on the GM? I didn’t realize he was that bad this year. Flames have some great pieces but now it’s coming down to those complimentary pieces and things like Brouwer and even Elliot do not inspire confidence.

  • Lucky 13

    Thanks Ari….Well that was short and bitter-sweet postseason. Nonetheless we got to postseason and I don’t think any of us really expected it after our first month, or our dismal January when GG called our team pathetic after losing in Montreal 5-0 .
    Holes in our lineup? Yup and we all know what they are. They can be addressed and no doubt it’s going to be an exciting off -season to see what unfolds for next years roster. Please keep Treliving! He’s done good things and is well aware of his misgivings on the Brouwer signing. Expect that to be corrected.
    We all have said our piece about GG, we question his players usage, we question his L-R affinity but I believe he’s made some real progress with this young team and I want to see his approach next season when we have some new shiny pieces added to this roster. It’s hard to watch our team fail and I get frustrated too however I believe he’s still should follow through with what he has started here.
    I respect that some will challenge this and I totally get that..
    I really appreciate all the comments and writers who have made this blog informative and interesting over the year.
    Looking forward to more next season.
    Thanks for a great season FN and posters!

  • Fan the Flames

    When the night ended the feeling was grim. The sun came up this morning and I had the overwhelming relief that Dennis Wideman is no longer a Flame . Englands contract is gone either Brouwer or Stajen are going to Vegas. The biggest question for Tre is what are we going to do for goaltending . Fleury might fall into our lap and there are a couple of studs in Stockton chomping at the bit with Parsons looking like a winner all the way.

  • Mr. McDavid

    Hey at laest you still have
    Someone representing Alberta
    To cheer for. 10 -15% of you guys
    Gonna join the Orange Crush?
    We dont need you , but we would
    Be happy to have ya.
    Because cheering for wins
    For Canadian teams in the
    Playoffs is what being Canadian
    Is all about. Im expecting 85%
    Of you to trash. Thats ok
    And on the bright side ,you
    Won the draft ,out of the playoff
    Teams . You draft 16 th
    Maybe there is a “Klefbom”
    Waiting for you. OILERS
    Will bring the cup back.
    If we get by the Ducks.
    When we get by.
    Cheer up . Thats why I’m posting
    To make you feel better.