It’s a question Flames fans have been quietly asking themselves for the last week or so, certainly since the team shot to the top of the Western Conference standings with a big victory over the Nashville Predators last weekend.
Are the Calgary Flames an elite team?
The answer … even after Wednesday night’s incredibly exciting 6-5 overtime comeback win over the Philadelphia Flyers at the Saddledome …
But they’re definitely showing all the signs that the potential is there for them to make it to that level in the not-too-distant future.
A spectacular 15-5-2 run since a 9-1 drubbing on home ice at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins has seen the team post gaudy numbers in essentially every area of the ice. Their offence has been dynamite, putting up massive totals more often than not, potting five or more goals in a remarkable eight of those contests and hitting three or four in another six outings.
Defensively, they’ve turned things around too, with a plus-23 goal differential bolstered by a nice run by the two-headed goalie tandem that saw Mike Smith go from one of the league’s worst to one of the best statistically before Wednesday’s hiccup that ended after two periods — with him pulling himself either because of an injury or illness following a shaky 40 minutes.
For the first six weeks of the season, the Flames had the fourth-worst save percentage in the league (0.891), anchored by Smith’s abysmal personal numbers. Heading into Wednesday’s game, the Flames had the fourth-best save percentage since Nov. 15 (0.921), allowing the second-fewest goals against league-wide.
The powerplay has been effective. Their possession numbers are solid.
Some elite numbers there. So what makes a team elite? The Flames are checking a lot of boxes right now.
The Flames have a few of these.
Johnny Gaudreau is a superstar who would be one of the most marketable in the NHL if he was on an Original Six team, or suiting up regularly in the Eastern Conference. The 25-year-old lightweight has 13 goals and 42 points through 32 games to sit fifth in the league. His linemates, Sean Monahan (20-18-38, T-9) and Elias Lindholm (16-18-34, T-22) are right up there too, along with the third-year Matthew Tkachuk (13-24-37, T-16).
Mark Giordano is as good as they get on defence and an early consideration for the Norris Trophy with four goals and 32 points in 30 games to sit tied for third among blueliners.
They also have a premiere shutdown centre in Mikael Backlund, and lots of young, talented up-and-comers both on the forward ranks and on the blueline to give the team a depth it hasn’t enjoyed in decades.
Their biggest gap is in goal, but you don’t need an elite backstop to win championships — as JS Giguere, Chris Osgood, Antti Niemi and Cam Ward have proven repeatedly in the past.
There is a real lack of malcontents in the locker room at the moment, and a belief in each other they may not have had since the 2004 pre-lockout run to the Cup Final.
When a struggling James Neal — who has a miserable three goals and six points through 32 games with his new club — is still considered a positive presence despite a pace that would easily rank the worst of his career, the signs of a complete buy-in on what head coach Bill Peters is selling are there.
Even when the team was off to a rocky start and Neal was seeing more time on the third line than the top unit he expected to join when signing as a free agent, he was saying all the right things.
We’ll see if all of this commitment to the team and each other changes during the next real rough patch.
A lot of effort was made by GM Brad Treliving in the offseason, adding Neal in free agency, swapping out Micheal Ferland and Dougie Hamilton for Lindholm and Noah Hanifin, and picking up right-handed centres Derek Ryan and Austin Czarnik to improve the bottom half of the forward ranks.
The somewhat surprising effectiveness of younger defencemen Rasmus Andersson and rookie Jusso Valimaki (and now Oliver Kylington) as a bottom pairing have made Michael Stone a seventh defender making $3.5 million a year.
Here’s where things tend to get tricky when labeling a team elite. They need to sustain their play for long periods of time and avoid the major ups and downs in a season, and over a more significant span.
The good news is they’ve avoided losing skids and streaky play for a quarter of a season. They haven’t lost back-to-back games since mid-November and their longest slump was a three-game slide that included that brutal loss to the Penguins.
A few years ago, under Bob Hartley, the Flames were the comeback kids. It’s happening again.
The Flames’ win over the Flyers with two goals in the final 1:08 of regulation was their seventh come-from-behind win in the third period, which leads the league. So do their 49 third-period goals.
They’ve shown a penchant for pulling off unlikely wins like Wednesday’s most dramatic comeback finish. It’s a good sign to say the least.
There are other kinds of adversity, too. As the season progresses and they deal with potential injury problems or player slumps (think Neal’s cursed play spreading to the top trio), they’ll have to show they can shrug off some unfortunate luck and keep winning more often than not.
Fickle fan frustrations
When the biggest gripe from the fanbase is that a fourth liner like Czarnik is sitting out after scoring a goal in his previous outing, things are pretty good.
The bottom line is the team is playing elite hockey, it’s just too early to call it an elite team. Only a serious playoff run and stable, consistent play over a couple of seasons is worthy of the title. But they’ve got the organizational depth, experience and culture to get there.