From a fan perspective, a spring without playoffs would be an atrocity. There’s no feeling more empty than watching the postseason without a real rooting interest.
But for the Calgary Flames, missing out might be just what the team needs.
It sounds counter-intuitive, given the fact that failure in the playoffs is so often linked to future success, and once you’ve locked up a berth, anything can happen — as the 2004 Flames entry proved by making the Cup final while largely devoid of top talent. But the truth is this group seems to need a more painful lesson rather than the false sense of accomplishment they would no doubt feel if they make a late run and get the help they need to squeak in.
Last year in a disappointing first round sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks, the Flames learned that bad goaltending can cost you a series… and quickly.
So far this year, with just 11 games remaining the team is still scrambling to figure out what its identity is, and the only real consistency has been the goaltending while Mike Smith has been healthy.
That’s one of the hard lessons that needs to sink in somehow. One way to fail is by taking your star goaltender for granted too often. (Just ask all the Miikka Kiprusoff-backed Flames teams from 2004-09).
Smith’s importance is undeniable, and by itself isn’t at all a bad thing. The season would have already been lost if not for his MVP performance. His mere presence in practice following his lower-body injury seemed to inspire one of the team’s most impressive performances of the year with a 5-1 victory over the Sabres in Buffalo. They rode the wave through a tighter battle in Ottawa a couple of nights later, but his long-awaited return to the crease earlier this week was an unmitigated disaster. In one of their most disappointing early efforts, they were down 2-0 to the New York Islanders just 2:32 into the contest and trailed 4-1 before the first minute of the second period had passed at the Saddledome.
It’s as if the team’s lack of consistency stems from the knowledge they have one of the most reliable backstops in the league to bail them out.
Smith did that again in what was essentially a must-win situation while hosting the Oilers this week, making at least a quartet of spectacular saves to preserve a 1-0 victory and keep the playoff hopes alive.
Having a great goaltender is a good thing, but he should be complementing an equally great team, not just keeping them afloat.
While on the topic, that lack of desperation — which for the sake of argument we’ll define as obvious urgency and determination from the drop of the puck rather than when it’s dictated as a response after falling behind — is extremely troubling in the same vein as the culture of losing was a couple of years ago in Edmonton and currently plaguing Carolina. It’s not as much a culture of losing in Calgary as it is a frustrating air of indifference that suggests some core players are so gifted with talent that they may feel they don’t have to work as hard as possible on every single shift to contribute.
They do. Sidney Crosby is one of the most talented players the league has ever seen. He may also be its most tireless when it comes to work ethic.
The Flames’ starts have been abysmal most of the year, especially at home where their sub-.500 record is almost inconceivable when you consider how good the road record is. But too often they find themselves trailing in games and playing catch-up. Inconsistencies trouble many top-end players not named Johnny Gaudreau, who is in the midst of an incredible statistical season.
When Sean Monahan isn’t scoring, he’s often forgettable in games. The same goes for Micheal Ferland, and the two top liners have been held off the scoresheet on many nights when their playmaking left flanker still manages to earn his points.
Ferland’s fog started long before his injury knocked him out of the lineup. As he has in years past, he stopped doing the simple things that earned him the 20 goals in the first 50 games of the season. History has been repeating itself. In the past, expected the success rather than working for it.
The third line has shown glimpses of greatness but also instances of ineptitude, and the recent scratching of a healthy Mark Jankowski shows he’s still a developing player who needs to be reminded about what got him to the NHL level this early.
The end-of-season exit interviews will take on a much more somber and serious tone if the team has to schedule them for mid-April rather than May or June. And there’s a real possibility some of those conversations will be the last they have as members of the Flames — for coaches and players.
Yes, another benefit to a season without playoffs is a cold, hard look at the personnel.
Whether or not you believe Glen Gulutzan is the right person to lead the Flames going forward, there is sure to be some serious self-reflection if he stays. And some not so-subtle suggestions from above are likely, too. There is a fine line between being a players’ coach and a coach that’s letting his players dictate his decisions.
“Should I have broken up the Brodie/Hamonic pairing before Christmas? Why didn’t I put Dougie Hamilton and Matthew Tkachuk on the top powerplay unit sooner? Maybe I should shorten my bench more often and play my best players in third periods of games we’re behind. Could Jankowski have been better served with a few healthy scratches earlier in the year to learn from above? Perhaps Troy Brouwer doesn’t need to be a regular in all situations just because of his salary.”
The frustration Gulutzan has displayed in recent days has as much to do with his own inabilities to bring out the best in his charges with regularity as it does with their apparent inability to do so.
Regardless of the changes the front office lands on, you can be assured there will be some impactful ones made if the season ends earlier than planned. And that is so much better than the belief that after a season that clearly showed the team is missing something will somehow find it without help next year.