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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Four things Calgary needs to swing their season

We all have different theories on Calgary’s frustrating start. Flawed construction. Subpar coaching. A checked-out core. Failing leadership. In reality, you probably have to scratch “all of the above” on your Scantron to fairly assess what’s going on here. The season isn’t lost, but it’s teetering, even after Monday’s 3-0 win in Toronto. If the Flames are going to swing it in their favour, the time is now. For that to happen, Calgary needs to alter course in four key areas.

David Rittich wins

Rittich’s last two starts are crucial steps forward in this area and they become even more important knowing Jacob Markstrom is battling an upper body injury. While I don’t get the impression Markstrom will be out an extended period of time, it also sounds like Rittich is going to get a run of a few starts here. Allowing two goals in two starts against Edmonton’s and Toronto’s offence is very encouraging.

Prior to Monday’s shutout win, the Flames had scored five goals combined in Rittich’s prior three starts and had been the second best team for the majority of those nine periods. For a goalie who hadn’t started a game since March 8th, 2020 prior to this season, his team sure didn’t help him out. Even when Markstrom returns, managing his workload will be key; you could argue Calgary had already overused their number one prior to Monday’s injury news.

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More five-on-five scoring

In the North Division, only Ottawa is scoring less than Calgary five-on-five, which is unsettling . More troubling is what we’re seeing from the team’s top offensive players at even strength, because right now they’re not producing. Johnny Gaudreau leads the team with ten even strength points, which ties him for 41st in the league. That’s not so much a knock on Gaudreau, but more a comment on the remaining top forward group.

Sean Monahan has one goal at five-on-five this season, while Matthew Tkachuk has just five points. That’s two of the team’s three highest paid forwards combining for just four even strength goals in 19 games. We’re learning the Flames aren’t as deep at the position as we might have thought, which makes top end struggles that much more troublesome.

Matthew Tkachuk
Season G/60 P/60 S/60 CF/60 HDCF/60 SH%
2018-19 0.94 2.27 7.65 13.57 4.32 12.32
2019-20 0.74 1.97 8.07 13.92 4.25 9.16
2020-21 0.65 1.08 8.19 13.80 4.74 7.89

Taking a look at individual metrics for both players in question (courtesy Natural Stat Trick), you’ll notice it’s hard to pinpoint a main culprit for Tkachuk’s offensive struggles. He’s creating shots, attempts, and high quality chances at around the same rates we’ve seen in recent seasons. It’s a little easier to zero in on what’s dogging Monahan below.

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Sean Monahan
Season G/60 P/60 S/60 CF/60 HDCF/60 SH%
2018-19 1.05 2.58 7.42 13.00 4.00 14.18
2019-20 0.68 1.53 7.67 12.40 3.93 8.80
2020-21 0.27 2.20 7.70 12.10 3.30 3.57

The encouraging sign is Monahan can’t sustain a 3.57% even strength shooting percentage indefinitely when his career average is closer to 12%. Monahan’s two-way play continues to be an issue, but that can be mitigated if he’s scoring. Luckily, the rest of Monahan’s offensive metrics are at career norms or higher, which suggests at some point the goals will start to come. Monahan scored on the powerplay in his return to the lineup Monday, which could be exactly the kickstart he needs.

I’m singling out Monahan and Tkachuk due to their contracts and resumes, but they’re not alone in this conversation. A decent powerplay is great to have, but if Calgary doesn’t fix their even strength scoring issues, it’s going to be hard for them to truly turn things around.

Consistent combinations

I’m probably preaching to the choir on this one, but at some point this coaching staff is going to have to set lines and stick with them for a meaningful period of time. I’m not a coach and I’m not in tune with the team like a coach would be. I do know, however, that the most successful teams go long stretches with the same core forward combinations. By and large, that hasn’t been the case for the Flames through 19 games. Encouragingly, the line blender was in the cupboard for Monday night’s win.

Injuries, inconsistency, and ineffective play have all played their part, but even still, it’s hard to say there has been much continuity at forward this season. I get the Flames made lots of changes and didn’t have a preseason to work them out, but they’re now well past the quarter mark. With the season hanging in the balance, I think it’s time to give things a little bit of a run, even if they don’t click immediately.

Stop playing from behind

Since the comeback kids 2014-15 season, no NHL team has more wins when trailing after two periods than Calgary’s 40. That’s awesome, it makes them exciting, and means they’re never out of a game. This season, however, the Flames have put themselves in that position way too often, regardless of how dangerous they can be when attempting a comeback.

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Calgary has spent 501:11 playing from behind thus far, which is almost half of their season overall. Even worse is the company that puts them with. Only Ottawa (631:30), Vancouver (576:53), Nashville (518:28), and Detroit (518:41) have spent more time trailing so far. By points percentage, those are the four worst teams in the league.

Constantly chasing the game is a taxing way to play. Even if we typically don’t include one-goal deficits into score effect calculations, any player will tell you regularly playing from behind is a mental grind. The Flames have admitted they’re not sure why starting on time has been such an issue this year, but they took a step forward last night vs. the Maple Leafs. Calgary led virtually wire-to-wire, which is something we need to see more of the rest of the way.