Talk this offseason has shifted to one direction in particular: contention. The moves the Calgary Flames have made this summer seem to indicate that they’re going for it, effective immediately. Just making the playoffs isn’t good enough: it’s time to win, now.
But wait. Just a couple of months ago, the Flames’ season ended at the hands of a first round sweep by the Anaheim Ducks. The Flames had to ride a 10-game winning streak to make the playoffs to begin with, and once they clinched, they seemed to fall off a cliff. Isn’t talk of contending a little premature, all things considered?
Should the Flames really be gunning for a Stanley Cup starting in the 2017-18 season?
Yes – the time is now
- The Flames are still, all things considered, a young team. The majority of their top players are still in their early 20s, Mark Giordano being the lone exception. Most of their secondary players – not necessarily core guys, but incredibly valuable contributors you want to keep – are still under 30.
The contract structuring isn’t perfect, but most everybody of value is locked into their deals, pending an extension here or there. For better or worse, these are the Calgary Flames for years to come.
- There’s no sense in waiting around anymore. The Flames’ decision to start trading away picks signifies a belief that this is the group that can get it done. And besides, that 2018 first rounder may not be ready until five years from now. Five years is a long time; Johnny Gaudreau will be fast approaching 30 by then. Keeping an ever-present stable of quality prospects is important, but there’s a difference between being a quality team and being a contending team.
Windows open and close for when you’re truly contending, and when you see your window opening, you have to take that chance. When might it come again? Is that potential first round pick who may not see any NHL action until Gaudreau is 30 worth more than Travis Hamonic is right now?
- Earlier, Kent detailed some markedly improved steps forward the Flames have made. And this is key: he’s citing corsi, which is more of a predictive stat. Teams with positive corsi tend to make the playoffs more often than not. The 2014-15 Flames aside, teams with negative corsi tend to not make the playoffs at all, and if they do, tend to get thoroughly embarrassed (Calgary running into a similarly weak Vancouver team doesn’t change that; whoever won that 2015 first round series was always going to get annihilated by the Ducks).
Over the past couple of seasons, the Flames have been steadily climbing up in that predictive stat. Corsi suggests the Flames should be improving, and they have been. There’s another step forward to take, and it’s fast approaching, if we’re not at it already.
- Thanks to the divisional playoff format, in order to have success, the Flames will have to perform well against the Pacific Division. In 2016-17, they were 13-17-3 against their division, with a goal differential of -17. They’ll have to be much better next season, but the good news is that the division has lined up so they should be.
Vegas, as an expansion team, probably isn’t going to have a great season, and the Flames get to play them four times. Vancouver is still in the early stages of its rebuild, and even with offseason improvements, Arizona has quite a hill to climb. Los Angeles and San Jose both look to be on the decline, L.A. in particular. That leaves just Anaheim, who has remained a thorn in the Flames’ side for seemingly forever now; and Edmonton who have, you know, Connor McDavid, a player who pretty much singlehandedly made them stop picking first overall, so.
The competition isn’t stacking up to be great – and it’s very easy to see the Flames as one of the top three teams in the Pacific next season.
No – not yet
- There’s a lot of things to like about the Flames, but they’re far from perfect. The 2017-18 season will be the second year in a row the Flames are starting out with two completely different goalies, and they still haven’t really had consistency in net since Miikka Kiprusoff retired four years ago.
Is Mike Smith the answer? Maybe, but if he’s not and Eddie Lack can’t regain his form, the Flames are in for a rough season, despite their other improvements.
- They’re also counting on bounceback years from a couple of defenders. Hamonic and Michael Stone were two of the worst defencemen in the entire NHL this past season. Their stories are similar: previously good results, but in 2016-17, both played for bad teams and both seemed to suffer for it more than their teammates did. Both players also have histories of knee injuries that could be of concern.
The Flames are making a decent bet on the two of them to rebound – their playing histories say they should be better than they were, and they’re still too young to have fallen off a cliff as steep as they did – but if those bets fail, then they’ll be in trouble.
- Unless Micheal Ferland or a prospect can truly solidify himself as a top line right wing pretty much right away, then the deficit in the forward group is still very real. There are a few too many question marks to truly label this team a contender at this time. The Flames have one of the most solid defensive lineups in the NHL – probably – but outside of Gaudreau’s scoring prowess, Mikael Backlund’s two-way play, and the potential of Matthew Tkachuk being the best of both worlds, the Flames don’t really have any truly elite forwards.
Not a lot of teams do, but having a stronger forward lineup could be the difference.
- Playing in a weak division is nice, but also has the potential to make the Flames look better than they are. Playoff seeding is important, but it means nothing if you can’t compete against your opponent. What happens if the Flames play a Central Division wildcard team who’s just better than the Pacific Division is?
Those Pacific Division points will help them make the playoffs, but all bets are off once the postseason actually starts – and that’s to say nothing if they run into a team that gives them fits again.
Honestly, this boils down to one thing: if now isn’t the time, when will it be?
And a followup: what’s to be gained by another year of waiting?