Flames 2020 Playoff Preview: the “prove it” playoffs

This week’s edition of the Steve Dangle Podcast saw the show’s namesake put forth a very simple question: “At what point do you stop believing in the Calgary Flames?” While making their qualifying round picks, none of the show’s three hosts chose the Flames to win, and Dangle put his thoughts rather succinctly: “They’ve got some really good pieces, I just don’t believe in them.”

The Flames enter their qualifying round series with the Winnipeg Jets at an interesting juncture in their history. Progress and growth is definitively not linear in any field, but the Flames have been distinctly “one step forward, one step back” for the past several seasons.

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They made the playoffs in 2014-15, but fell on their backsides in 2015-16 (triggering Bob Hartley’s dismissal). They made the playoffs in 2016-17, only to back-slide in 2017-18 (triggering Glen Gulutzan’s dismissal). They were a superb regular season team for the bulk of 2018-19, only to be beaten by Colorado unceremoniously in the playoffs. The 2019-20 regular season was very much on-brand, with the club winning 50 games in the regular season and just one in the playoffs.

One step forward, one step back.

So, yeah, Dangle’s skepticism of the Flames is probably warranted. This is a club that has been, with the possible exception of the first round of the 2015 playoffs and an extremely favourable match-up with the Vancouver Canucks, distinctly less than the sum of its parts since the post-Iginla years began in 2013. Regarding the team’s performance against Colorado last spring, interim coach Geoff Ward diagnosed that their loss wasn’t a matter of skill, it was a matter of will. At what point do you stop believing in the Flames?

For their part, in the run-up to Aug. 1’s start of the post-season all the Flames are saying the right things. Speaking to the media on Thursday, alternate captain Mikael Backlund discussed the changes to the team’s roster as reasons for optimism – notably the additions of Cam Talbot and Milan Lucic – and summed up the locker room’s mindset thusly:

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“We are all frustrated with the way things went last year, and that bitter taste in our mouth is definitely going to help us this year.”

The Flames brought 31 players to the bubble. Of those, just seven were acquired before Brad Treliving became general manager in 2014: goaltender Jon Gillies, defensemen Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie, and forwards Backlund, Mark Jankowski, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. All but Gillies and Jankowski are considered core pieces. Between those five core pieces, they’ve been out of the first round a combined five times – Giordano never has, missing 2015’s playoffs with a bicep injury.

The salary cap is going to be flat for a few seasons to come. Gaudreau has two seasons remaining on his contract, Monahan three. With their term and cost effectiveness, both seem like assets that could fetch a good return on the trade market and shake the Flames core up a bit. With the club on their third coach in four seasons and Treliving entering the first year of his contract extension, a big trade seems the only viable “shake it up” option if the Flames disappoint again.

The two common threads of conversations with Flames players during the past several weeks has been (1) they’re collectively pissed off about last year’s playoffs and (2) they really believe in the group they have. There was legitimate belief within the club that they had the horses last season to make a run at the Stanley Cup, and undoubtedly several maintain that belief now.

The Flames believe in the Flames. If they want anybody else to start buying into that belief, they’re going to have to show something in these playoffs. They’re saying all the right things, now it’s up to them to prove it.

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Otherwise, this could be a distinctly different group when they reconvene for the 2020-21 season.