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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Reset your expectations: Five games does not a season make

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.

  • _vntony

    Ari,
    I agree with you that you don’t trade your core after an abysmal five game series.
    But no one in their right mind is saying get rid of Johnny or Mony for a downgrade as you have written. I don’t think anyone here is that insane. When you make a trade you go out and get someone of equal or better talent, that’s the premise for a trade isn’t it?

      • SgtRoadBlock

        Janko only on his 2nd NHL season and you ready to dump him ?? but give Sam 4 year pass to see how turns out and on year 5 Sam look like a good player now to resign …crazy kool aid

        • Trevy

          You’re holding Janko’s value a little too high based on where he was drafted. Remember, Feaster went off the board to draft him when realistically, he’d would of been a 2nd round pick at best. I know he’s been a long term project and made a lot of strides in the last 5 yrs, but I believe he’s going to be nothing more than a third line center. At this point, I’d be listening to offers or including him in any deal. Bennett at least brings some grit that without him in this series, we’d have the physical push back of a peewee team. Add Frolik, Neal ( if possible), Stone and Brodie (sorry Ari) to the list that I would be offering IMO

          • fretsey

            Even Regher had his time as a cream puff and it took someone (can’t remember who) to confront him in the locker room and get him to “Man Up” and Reg did and never looked back. If Janko can’t get to that next level of “grit” he’ll spend the rest of his career bouncing from team to team.

    • Stockton's Finest

      With 1 year at $1.6M left, you hold onto Janko next year. He improved his point total (25 to 32) while playing with a slug most of the year. Have him start the year with his old Stockton linemates in Mangiapane and Hathaway and see how he reacts. If he regresses, he becomes a trade deadline mover.

      • HOCKEY83

        Mangi needs to be moved up the line up. For his size he creates more open ice for his line by hitting people than any other player on the team. He’s skilled he plays tall and heavy for a short guy and he plays with more heart than anyone on that team. He’s a red warrior. There are only a handfull of them on the team.

  • Hockey4life

    Who cares if they help you get there. If they disappear when it matters you’ll only ever be a good regular season team. No one should be ok with that. This team needs big gamers and aside from Smith and Bennett they don’t have any. They absolutely need to make a gutsy trade of either Gaudreau or Monahan or both. And of course you would want similar if not better players in return.

    • snotss

      these flames have only won two first round play off series in “14”play off appearances……add this choke to all the other choke jobs ….what a embarrassment …but it seems choking is in their “DNA”

  • Dougiefred

    When Johnny headed out with the puck it looked like someone had shot the arrow backwards, the feather ahead of the heavy point. When Johnny came up to 4 defenders across the blue his best odds were to stick handle through because his line mates always were so far behind if he dumped the puck in Colorado would be on their way back before his line mates got there.Johnny knows he can’t win board battles. None of this is on Gaudreau.

    • TheRock

      What about when he flubbed two breakaways?
      Or when he cherry picked at the red line and didn’t back check?
      Or what about when he cried at the bench and spent time pouting rather then rallying the troops.
      I’d say Gaudreau is the problem. I’d say his attitude and lack of heart personified what is wrong with the team.

      • Trevy

        Just because he “flubbed” two breakaways doesn’t mean he lacked heart. His trouble is he tries to carry the team and spark any kind of offense himself, with little help. Johnny is on a great contract right now so I wouldn’t think of trading him, he just needs to be surrounded by better and more engaged players other than someone like Monahan. Speaking of which, I would definitely be fielding offers for him!

          • TheRock

            The truth hurts doesn’t it?
            Johnny is a great scorer but terrible leader.
            The flames will never win with him in a leadership role. Book it.
            Tkachuk like guys win championships. Guys like Gaudreau will ever lead their team through the playoffs

      • Sir ryosus

        Johnny gave it his all last night. You blast him for missing his looks!!? Him “crying” at the bench shows how much he cares. He even got physical (relative). (See mony half-assedly grab av player with one hand). JG is not the problem. He just isn’t a troop rally leader type.

        • Forrest Grump

          I liked his play last game, he got no support from Monohan. However, whining about Refs constantly is not good. You have to find a way to battle and contribute otherways I.e. Marner. The worst though was during Media scrums askng about his play in previous games, he deflected saying all needed to be better. This might be right, but a true leader of the team would own his own play and lack of success.

          • The Iggy complex

            Entitled punks crying on the bench. So like every Oilers player. Not one leader in that team. Whenever the games matter precious McDavid disappears. Then once the Oilers are out of the race he returns to pad his stats

    • HOCKEY83

      Of course it’s all on Gaudreau, Monny, Lindholm, tkachuk and gio. The 5 guys that got them there that completely dissapeared in the playoffs. Benny had as many points as the entire top line. Hell I think smith had as many points as Johnny. Monny is not the first line center required for the playoffs. He’s too soft. I like him a lot but unless he changes his game and becomes a Getzlaf type hardnosed talented center that line will never have success in the playoffs.

  • buts

    If TJ had hit Nieto in game 2 instead of playing a bouncing puck. If Backlund didn’t have a brain fart in game 4 would we be reading this article from Ari? It’s a game that can go either way with mental toughness. We are close but can this group win a cup? We got that answer last night. More change is needed. Would you trade Monahan for Patrick in philly? Maybe throw in Brodie.

    • HOCKEY83

      If you want to win a series you dont trade for what you already have. Patrick is a downgrade from Monahan at this moment. if you want to start over…ya go with Patrick i guess but if you want to win a series you trade Monny for a getzlaf type. Someone who is know for taking series over all by himself. Someone who can’t stand losing.

    • fretsey

      Gio,JG and Brodie…..Gio will go at the TDL as it will probably be his last shot at a cup. Returns for JG and Brody will drastically change this team for the better. Buckle up for Draft Day

    • deantheraven

      Brodie, Neal and Stone.
      Brodie can be replaced by Vali or Kyllington so he could be a part of a package to get the top six unicorn everybody’s clammering about.
      Moving Neal will require retaining salary but that’s a far better option than a buyout.
      Stone can retire, for real or in Vegas (for a 3rd or 4th).
      Those three are easy choices to move on from. So too is Frolik but he would have to be replaced. But I think there are a few more that could be packaged to acquire a top six forward.
      I’m not sure if Mang or Dube will be more than bottom sixers but Tre would only have to replace one or both of Czar and Janks to ensure they get a look next season.
      I’m worried that if the Flames re-sign Fanta, there will be no room for Kyllington, who has more room to grow.

  • PhoenixofPrometheus

    I absolutely agree Ari! I’m getting a little drained by the all-consuming pessimism of some of our fans. Although this season is disappointing, there are a lot of positives.

    First, like you mentioned, the Flames didn’t sell important long-term assets for short term solutions. I’d honestly be a lot more disappointed if I was a Sharks fan, as they have sacrificed numerous assets all to likely lose in the first round.

    Second, the Flames core is young. The playoff window is wide open for the Flames for the upcoming years. The experience of losing and underestimating their opponent should provide excellent lessons for the Flames next year.

    Third, the proper development of several prospects is cause for optimism for the future. In fact, the emergence of Andersson and Valimaki likely makes Brodie trade bait which could earn the Flames some valuable assets.

    Being bitter and disappointed in the Flames is not going to change the result. It is far better to look at the positives and to get excited for the upcoming draft and the following season.

    • Kevin R

      Hence why you need to keep him. You still need his 30+ goals each year to get there. Problem is I dont think Lindholm, Backlund & Monahan are top line centres. They are all 2nd line centres. Problem is top line centres that are superstars require that you get the 1st overall pick to even have a chance at getting. I’m resolved that that wont happen in my lifetime, so we just need to get er done by committee. Just didnt happen this playoff but these 3 had a heck of a year.

  • SgtRoadBlock

    wow some you have dip back into the Kool Aid this fast….THIS team is soft like ice cream Seam pillowpants is holding up center spots and ice time to better players, his return from a trade will get us a fast skater for Jonny to play with….

    FYI we not going to resign him so hold on till 2022 and wait for a bad seasons or him to even get more hurt so the return will be less.. lol

  • Alberta Ice

    The verdict is in. Much better to be winning and competing for a wildcard at the end of the year than wrapping up the regular season on the top and resting players. Tampa Bay and Flames of this year are the evidence for this verdict. The Blue Jackets and Avalanche hit playoff survival mode in the last couple of weeks of the season and have been storming into these playoffs by hitting another level of team play. (So it was in 2004 when the Flames last hit another gear while fighting their way into those playoffs. Hey, wasn’t it the 2012 LA Kings that seeded 8th (like Colorado) and went all the way to take the Cup?) Honestly, this is why making the playoffs is so important for a team. They are the underdogs and probably have more motivation to prove they are for real. Making the wildcard gives any team a chance to make a run and it makes the post-season NHL exciting to watch. It should be an intriguing, wild ride to the Cup Final, although we are sad the Flames will not be a part of that ride now).

    • TheRealPepman

      I’m suddenly reminded of the Flames from 2016-17. I remembered them sneaking into the playoffs when they shouldn’t because of the 10-game winning streak. I thought they would be like the 2012 Kings and go all the way with Elliott in net. Wrong. Didn’t even win a game vs. the Ducks.

      That said, I don’t think the Flames should compete for a wildcard. Been there, done that. I thought Colorado was like us from 2017. Wrong. MacKinnon woke up and beasted on us. Ugh. I say they should keep doing what they’re doing in the regular season, only to make sure players are playing all 82 games when possible. And of course turn it up by the playoff season.

      • First Name Unidentified

        I think it came down to Bednar clearly outcoaching Billy. Billy needs to revisit his playbook in the summer and figure out the difference between regular season and playoffs. It seems to me that the Canes are way better off with ‘Chuk behind their bench.

        Billy should have called a time out before the penalty shot. Johnny was gassed before taking it. And it showed in his execution.

        The power play got worse as the season progressed and I thought we had brought in a PP specialist from Jersey. All I’m saying is there’s plenty of blame to go around, not just on the players.

        • Willi P

          ^this

          Peters said after the game 3 blow out, “Benny needs more ice time”. Doesn’t happen in game 4 and it is his choice (and his choice only)

          For a coach that mixed things up during the season when things were not working (for the most part), BP froze in the playoffs. Game 4 should have been wholesale changes including Dube and Czarnick. Move Bennett and Lindholm. Neal and Jankowski were not getting anything done. Hopefully, like the rest of the players that stay, BP will learn what it takes to adapt to win/motivate in the playoffs.

      • deantheraven

        Wrong. Check the goals against stats. I’d say check the corsi and chances against, but i have my issues with how those numbers are recorded.
        You could argue that they played more in the offensive zone and thus didn’t have to defend as much. Good argument, good strategy.

  • Clayton

    To me there are some important moves the Flames need to make to continue moving forward.
    1. Buy out James Neal. Showed NOTHING to indicate he isn’t a total bust.
    2. Strip the ‘A’ off Monahan’s jersey. Guy is not a leader, was INVISIBLE since the All-star Break.
    3. Re-sign Mike Smith to a 1 year value deal.
    4. Trade TJ Brodie and just be happy for anything you get. Perhaps an 8th round pick in a 7 round draft?
    5. Stich an ‘A’ permanently on the jerseys of Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk. They played with passion and grit, and leadership.

    Simple 5 steps and the Flames are on the way to improvement for next season.

  • Ben.

    if no suitable trades are available then at least:
    – send Monahan and Tkachuk to Nathan MacKinnon Summer Hockey Camp for skating tutorials
    – commence off season testosterone injections for Monahan
    – send Brodie to a Sports Psychologist
    – enlist Jankowski in boxing lessons
    – trade Neal anyway to remove his elite attitude from the dressing room

  • sRo

    Monahan will never be a #1 centre. No speed, can’t defend. Take him off Gaudreau’s line, he’d have a season like Neal just had. I know he’s older, but how about trying to get Malkin? True #1 centre with 3-4 good years left. Monahan, Brodie/Kylington for Malkin? Gaudreau needs a powerful player to play with, otherwise he’ll get destroyed like we saw when a team plays them tough. On the back end, Brodie and Stone gotta go. Not only for cap relief, but the kids have surpassed them. Please, don’t resign Smith. I know he was lights out in the playoffs, but a 37 year old declining goalie will be an anchor. Finally, does anyone else think Tkachuk hurt his chances of getting an $8M + contract after these playoffs? Back to Smith, don’t give an aging player a contract based on a good playoffs (see Troy Brouwer).

    Offseason
    In: new goalie, Malkin, sandpaper/ toughness
    Out: Monahan, Frolik, Brodie, Kylington, Smith

  • vbc

    Good article Ari, way too much overreaction here…. trade trade trade. Tre will do the right thing he will sit back and figure things out and not make a knee jerk reaction like so many here on Flames nation. I understand the disappointment but we have lots of time to figure it out.

    • SgtRoadBlock

      well some of us on FN where telling people this info after the All Star Break… but a lot people where kool aid deep with hype, i don’t blame them, but this is like the Dougie Hamilton all over again someone on the top core is being move before Seattle enter the NHL ..

      GFG Draft the best person at each round we have no matter what spot they play in.. we have 5 of the 9 picks left to help the Farm, maybe more with Trades/ over Sea ufa signings

  • Budgie

    Basically the Flames assured themselves of a poor first round pick. Trade for Brady Tkachuk and give the Fans something to get behind. Not sure if Brady is available, but I’d trade a top talent for him. Calgary has some youthful talent, how to keep it all together? Andersson is a gem, Valamaki looks awesome, Rittich is good, they will need contracts and Mathew Tkachuk will cost 6-7 million long term-move a couple big contracts for Brady Tkachuk, or ???
    Mathew Tkachuk, Lindholm, Ryan and Sam Bennett are my keepers on the forward lines-Bennett is a playoff player! The defense is fine, actually over-stocked-I wouldn’t gut the team, but the salaries make it necessary to move one of the current top money makers if you want to keep a core group together

  • Hard Dump in the Corner

    A hard lesson for players and fans but winning the cup is hard work and a little bit of luck (as well as a lot if talent of course). Flames weaknesses were exposed by Colorado. They were bigger, stronger and faster.
    If the Flames are carrying small and talented players like Gaudreau, Mangiapane and Dube, you had better compliment them with players of some size, toughness and speed – qualities every team is looking for. I would target someone like UFA Kevin Hayes to bolster team toughness.
    Keep tweaking and building BT. It’s a work in progress.

  • Alberta Ice

    Johnny’s game really went South the game before the All Star break. He was trying to hard to get points by himself. Then came the goal to reach 100 and just like the very last regular season game, it made his game less fun to watch. Then throw in the playoffs where he got no respect by the opponents or refs. He just didn’t have that pizzazz that he had back in his first playoff run when they took out the Canucks. I trust he can get some good rest over the summer and get back to the pre-All-Star wizard of hockey that we know he can be.

  • ALowry

    On the bright side, we still have our first round pick…..so that should be somewhere in the 17-24 range correct? Is this year’s draft pretty deep? I’m fairly confident in our team’s ability to develop prospects.

    • Forrest Grump

      I think because they won their division during the season they move back back to 24-27. Tampa should be 27th if I’m correct. I’m not 100% certain though.

  • Alberta Ice

    So surprise- will the Avalanche play the Blue Jackets for the Cup? Will the Maple Leafs be the only Canadian team going to Round 2? Will Hamilton and the Hurricanes huff their harassing play to the Final? Will Eberle and the Isles make a run? Will the Blues make the Jets Blue tonight? (And I thought our OT loss in game 4 sucked. Yikes.)

  • flames2015

    One of the biggest annoyances in this series is the play of Sean Monahan. In an elimination game when all is on the line, he mustered one single shot on net and had two hits. How many times last night, did Johnny have to carry the play himself while the entire Avs swarmed him because his linemates were so far behind him, or not even yet in the zone. Everyone is waiting for the news to drop on how many or how significant Monahan’s injury maybe. Cause of course his play is due to that and not that he simply has no compete, no heart, and can’t rise to the occasion. Bergeron played one year in the playoffs with a separated shoulder and a broke rib, and he was an absolute beast still. In the last 10 minutes of the game, Johnny got manhandled along the boards and was getting mauled by an Avs player, Benett quickly jumped into the scrum, while Monahan gingerly skated over, and with one hand, gently tugged on the guy’s jersey that was on Johnny. How is this guy considered a leader on this team?

    • Dougiefred

      That may well be my remaining memory of the 2019 playoffs besides the fact we lost. Probably will also remember an opportunity Monahan to give a hit, came in like a leaf falling off a tree on a calm day.

    • Speed Kills

      Its Not… Both SM & MJ Need to put the pizza & Video game controllers down and learn how to be adults. Time to move out of your parents basement and Stand up for Yourself, your Teammates, Fans/City and the Organization who pays you Millions of dollars to live a dream life. Its not to much to ask~!

    • Budgie

      I noticed Monahan’s slight tug too-look at Mangiapanne go at their big players-he’s a keeper, Bennett and Tkachuk are the playoff players to build around, and it won’t be a total rebuild. a two line rebuild-add two forwards-trade two forwards with high salaries that don’t show up for the playoffs