The Calgary Flames have been the worst team in the NHL since St. Patrick’s Day.
On April 2, the Flames lost a critical rivalry game against the Edmonton Oilers by a 3-2 score. Despite goals from Michael Stone and Matthew Tkachuk in the first two periods, Calgary allowed Connor McDavid to score the go-ahead goal in the third period and had no answer in the final 13 minutes of regulation time.
The Flames have stumbled to a 2-7-0 record since March 17, not good enough to match even the historically dreadful Buffalo Sabres over that span. To put it mildly: At this rate, these Flames would need all the luck in Ireland to make the playoffs.
If the season were to conclude at this instant, the Flames would own the sixth-best odds at earning the first overall pick through the Draft Lottery. With another loss, Calgary will likely fall below New Jersey in the league-wide standings. Detroit, Ottawa, Anaheim, and poor Buffalo sit below the rebuilding Devils.
What separates Calgary from that group of five bottom-feeders? Entering this season, the Flames had no intention of being anywhere near the bottom of the NHL. They signed goaltender Jacob Markstrom to a massive contract and followed that up with another large deal for defenseman Chris Tanev. Both players are over 30 years old.
The five teams currently below Calgary in the standings all selected in the top eight of last year’s NHL Entry Draft. The New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings owned the first and second selections, respectively, and both teams currently own better records than the 16-19-3 Flames.
Ottawa selected third and fifth; Detroit, coming off a nightmarish year, lost the lottery and picked fourth; Anaheim, New Jersey, and Buffalo owned the sixth, seventh, and eighth picks. These five teams were rebuilding then and are rebuilding now.
The Flames earned the 19th overall selection after losing in the first round of last season’s playoffs. They ended up trading down twice to take Connor Zary at the 24th spot. This year, there looks to be a decent chance the Flames might pick nearly 20 spots higher—or more.
Two active NHL teams have never picked in the top three of an NHL Entry Draft. One of these clubs, the Vegas Golden Knights, is less than four years old. The Calgary Flames—having just celebrated their 40th season—are the other. Every one of the NHL’s other 29 teams has earned the right to select a top-ranked player entering the league.
Barring extraordinary circumstances, each NHL team starts off by owning seven picks in every draft—one for each of its seven rounds. Under the watch of current general manager Brad Treliving, the Flames have made at least seven picks in a single draft on just two occasions. For comparison’s sake, the Flames have made exactly five picks four times: in 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019. They did not make picks in the first round of the 2015 or 2018 Entry Drafts.
In 2015, the Flames traded their first-round pick, along with two second-rounders, to acquire 22-year-old defenseman Dougie Hamilton from Boston. It was a sensible move that helped build the core of a rebuilding team. It was more than worth it to trade the picks and acquire such a valuable player, who was eventually flipped in a deal for two more great pieces in Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin.
After the failure of the 2015-16 season, the Flames made nine picks. Following the 2016-17 season, which saw the Flames get blown out in the first round after barely sneaking into the playoffs on the back of an improbable winning streak, they made just five selections (and only one in the top 100).
In 2017, the Flames traded a first-rounder, three seconds, two thirds, and a fifth to acquire Travis Hamonic, Mike Smith, Curtis Lazar, and Michael Stone. They started making these moves less than three years after making Sam Bennett the highest draft choice in club history. Despite failing to win a playoff game in 2017, the Flames effectively deemed their rebuild “over.”
Hamonic, Lazar, and Stone all struggled mightily in 2017-18 and the Flames missed the playoffs, wiping a year off Johnny Gaudreau’s bargain six-year deal and Matthew Tkachuk’s entry-level contract. The following year, the Flames won the Western Conference in spite of an erratic season from Smith. Lazar and an injured Stone combined to play just 14 games for the team; both players were let go in the summer.
The Flames made just 10 draft picks combined between 2018 and 2019. In the two seasons preceding these drafts, the Flames collectively won a single playoff game. After accelerating through their rebuild and spending a lot of high-value assets to acquire marginal upgrades, the Flames entered the 2019 offseason with Tkachuk unsigned and half of Gaudreau’s cheap contract in the rearview mirror.
Worse, still, the Flames had achieved very little with even less hope for future success. By 2019, the Gaudreau core had made the playoffs three times in five years and won just six playoff games. Owing largely in part to their lack of high draft picks, The Athletic ranked the Flames’ prospect pool as the league’s worst. They were a team that had seemingly finished building despite only having erected a six-foot ceiling—barely big enough for them to stand, let alone make a jump.
The Flames have continuously doubled down on their current group in the two years since their loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the 2019 playoffs. They signed Markstrom and Tanev to long-term deals and hired Darryl Sutter as their head coach. When the Flames pulled the trigger on the Sutter move, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson wrote, “Sutter’s arrival […] immediately squashes any talk of a rebuild or tear-down.”
Sutter is a two-time Stanley Cup winner with a long record of success. He’s not a coach who has typically guided his teams through retools or rebuilds, but how can these Flames commit to any other direction? Johnny Gaudreau is mere months away from entering the final year of his contract and, with it, being able to craft a list of just five teams to which he would accept a trade.
The Flames currently own seven picks for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. If they make players like Sam Bennett, David Rittich, Derek Ryan, and Josh Leivo available as trade deadline targets, they might be able to add some more mid-round picks and crack the double-digits for the first time since Treliving was hired.
When it comes to macro-level decisions like potentially trading Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Mark Giordano, your guess is likely as good as any in terms of assessing what the Flames will do. What should they do? This writer says: sell, restock the cupboards, and try again with Matthew Tkachuk as the face of the team—but don’t rush through the pain. Retools should take a bit of time.
Even if the Flames luck into picking first overall this season, they’ll need to have a very good reason if they’re dealing first-rounders in three years’ time. If they fast-track things again, it’s possible things might turn out even worse for them.