The Flames finished the regular season at the top of the Western Conference: something probably very few people expected to happen. At times, they looked like they were worthy of that standing. At other times, they did not. It’s the latter that was easy to forget going into the playoffs, but that also proved the most accurate.
Remember the Flames’ first game of the season? They were throttled by the Canucks, losing 5-2 and looking like their previous season selves: the group that would fall behind in a game and instantly give up. And after they went 5-5 to start the year – that 10th game being the 9-1 loss to the Penguins – very few people were probably thinking, “I bet they’re going to go on a roll now and take the conference by storm.”
The Sharks were supposed to win the Pacific, remember? The Central Division was supposed to have some of the top, toughest teams, remember? And yet the Flames did go on that roll and took the conference by storm. The cracks were there – they waffled between good and bad play around Christmastime, they followed up an impressive January with a post-All Star break slump, they looked completely lost in early March – but still, they always did just enough to outlast their opponents. Sometimes they blew other teams out, and other times they were thrashed so brutally you had to wonder how they were even in the conversation.
They were a relatively young team that completely unexpectedly found themselves at the top of the league.
So let’s take a page from management here, and remember how they did not go all in at the trade deadline. They probably could have gotten Mark Stone if they had been willing to give up Juuso Valimaki. Stone very well may have put the forward group over the top, albeit at an expensive clip, all the while forcing the Flames to give up a young, potential top pairing defenceman.
Valimaki helped some in these playoffs; Stone likely would have helped much, much more. But Brad Treliving didn’t budge – and in doing so, he indicated the Flames had more to look at beyond this year.
That has not changed.
No need to overreact
Will there be moves in the offseason? Almost certainly; the draft is when Treliving has done his main work, like bringing in Dougie Hamilton, Travis Hamonic, or Elias Lindholm. His teams have played full seasons together, and anything major will likely be coming up in another couple of months, another move working towards the future, never resting on any laurels (albeit with no laurels to actually rest on).
Any future moves should not be made based on a five-game sample size, however.
Trading anyone from the Flames’ core would be a mistake unless an equally good or better player is brought back in return. For example, when Hamilton was traded, he brought back Noah Hanifin – not as good, but still able to fill a top four role – and Lindholm, a vast upgrade to the forward ranks over Micheal Ferland.
If, say, Johnny Gaudreau were to be traded… where are you finding another player of his caliber? Who is giving up their shiny 100-point forward for the Flames’?
If Sean Monahan were to be traded, are the Flames getting a number one centre back? Remember the years and years and years of angst of Jarome Iginla never having a centre on his talent level to play with? If the Flames can’t get someone on his level back in a trade – and remember, Monahan’s level is that of a player who is likely to have a 60-point season at worst – then they’ve just subjected themselves to those years all over again. And over what, a lacking stretch to close out the season and five bad games? If the Flames lose Monahan and don’t get another first line centre, then they’ve made themselves immensely worse.
You can be disappointed in players’ performances in the playoffs, absolutely. But you actually have to make the playoffs first. Those players help get you there. Ejecting them over a poor end to the season and not bringing in other players of their talent level, at minimum, is a great way to have the next season end far earlier.
Perhaps the greatest argument for holding onto a disappointing playoff performance is Jordan Eberle. Once upon a time, in 13 playoff games, he had all of two assists. He was traded that offseason. He presently has six points – four goals and two assists – in four games as he helped his new team sweep another in the first round. The team that traded Eberle now has almost no forward depth to speak of, and all they have to show for him is Sam Gagner – after they gave up on Ryan Spooner and Ryan Strome on the way.
You don’t give up a good player for a downgrade. Ever. If there’s no deal to be made, you stick with what you have and figure out how to go forward from there. It’s how you actually give yourself a chance at success again.
Doesn’t always go your way
It’s the playoffs: a different beast entirely. They are dictated by many things, and one of those is randomness. The 2004 Flames weren’t that good; that’s part of what made their run so amazing – the mere possibility that they were capable of such a two-month endeavour. The NHL playoffs allow for that to happen in a way no other sport really does. It’s amazing when it works out for you, and it sucks when it doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean you make franchise-altering moves when things don’t swing in your favour.
Both situations require a realistic assessment of the team. In 2015, the Flames were not as good as their record and second round appearance indicated; Treliving responded by making meaningful additions in Hamilton and Michael Frolik. In 2019, the Flames were probably not as good as their record indicated and probably not as bad as their playoff appearance showed; the response should be to stick to the plan that saw them not add at the trade deadline.
In context, the prolonged playoff disappointment makes sense: in 2015 the Flames weren’t that good a team, and once they finally met a playoff-caliber opponent in the second round, they were exposed. In 2017 they had to fight to get in, and once they did, they were dismantled by an obviously better group. In 2018, their regular season rendered them irrelevant; 2019 is this group’s first playoff year ever with actual, meaningful expectations. They didn’t look like they really belonged, something far less easier to shrug off and accept.
They were also a first seed that wasn’t really supposed to be one, certainly not at the start of the year.
It will have to be something to work on going forward, because this is a team with expectations now. They had expectations in 2017-18 and failed miserably; they had expectations in 2018-19 and overshot them. They’ll have raised expectations in 2019-20 and they’ll have to work to meet those, too. They key word there is “work”, because the talent is already largely assembled – and for all the angst, let’s remember that Gaudreau and Monahan were playoff performers in 2015. It’s not as those there’s zero hope or precedent.
Can’t predict the future
Who’s to say they can live up to expectations for the 2019-20 season? Who’s to say their forward group will have another four players aim for the 80-point marker? Who’s to say Mark Giordano can even come close to pulling off the season he had ever again? Who’s to say they’ll finally find the long-term goaltending solution they need? Who’s to say if Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane can prove themselves? Who’s to say the skating group will be as deep as it looked to be through the bulk of the 2018-19 regular season?
But then, Gaudreau will be 26, Monahan and Lindholm 25, Rasmus Andersson 23, Matthew Tkachuk 22, and Valimaki 21. They’re still building towards something here.
They didn’t throw it all away on a this-is-the-year hunt at the trade deadline. This wasn’t the year. Why throw it all away when next year might be?
The players seemed to wither in the face of adversity on the ice. Now the test is for management to not follow suit off of it. Stick to the game plan – because for the Flames to have set those expectations for themselves to begin with something has been going right, and it’s all too easy to do something to make it go all wrong.