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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Senators 4, Flames 2: Death by a thousand cuts

The 1997 Disney Renaissance classic Hercules pits its titular hero against all sorts of monsters and gods from Greek mythology, but the film’s central conflict arguably manifests itself as an inner battle within Hercules, himself.

He asks—through song—whether he can “go the distance” and “find where [he] belongs.”

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As a character, Hercules is established as a well-meaning but clumsy reject in his community with a tendency to misjudge his own strength and make costly, destructive mistakes.

He eventually finds where he belongs after going on a quest to prove himself worthy to his father, Zeus. Hercules is offered a chance to reclaim his own stolen god-hood but turns it down to remain on Earth and pursue a new life as a mortal.

It’s a fun movie with great songs. What does it have to do with the 2020-21 Calgary Flames? Glad you asked.

Neither the Flames nor the Montreal Canadiens seem at all intent on locking down the fourth and final playoff spot in the NHL’s North Division. Calgary boasts a 4-6-0 record in its last 10 games; Montreal, 3-7-0.

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That said, at this point in the season, that spot is likely out of the Flames’ reach. Calgary sits six points behind Montreal in the standings and has played two more games than their Québécois rivals. It would take a miracle to supplant them in the playoff picture.

And, really, where do the Flames belong? Even if they somehow have the ability to complete their quest and make the playoffs at Montreal’s expense, would it matter? Would it not be more deleterious for Calgary to go on an improbable run and, ultimately, finish one point out of the playoffs? With the way the Flames’ roster is currently constructed, it seems unlikely picking 15th would give them the help they need.

Perhaps the Flames should embrace their, er, mortal status. Each game, they dress a veteran-laden lineup resembling Darryl Sutter’s Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings of yesteryear.

With low-risk (but low-upside) options like Joakim Nordstrom, Michael Stone, and Brett Ritchie playing every night, the Flames seem intent on cosplaying as a gritty playoff team despite being nowhere near contention. Calgary may have just six fewer points than Montreal, but the Ottawa Senators sit only five points behind Calgary. What does that say about this Flames team?

Ottawa is a rebuilding team with young players in key roles at all positions. Brady Tkachuk would be the youngest player on the 2020-21 Flames, but he’s one of four 1999 birthdays on the Senators and he’s still older than Jacob Bernard-Docker, Shane Pinto, and Tim Stützle.

Calgary’s current goal is to contend but, this season, they’re not doing that particularly well. The Flames have lost six of their eight meetings with the Senators this season, likely surrendering their ticket to the playoffs in the process.

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The Flames boast the eighth-worst points percentage in the NHL and are surrounded by teams stacked with young talent. But, while their playoff-bound provincial rival rewards its most promising AHL prospect with a recall and a commitment to get him into game action, Calgary has kept many of its impressive younger offensive talents in the minors all season.

21-year-old centre Adam Ruzicka was sent back down to the Stockton Heat on Saturday after a brief recall to the Flames which saw him play zero NHL games. Matthew Phillips, Ruzicka’s uber-skilled linemate, has yet to receive the call this season and still awaits his NHL debut. Connor Mackey has already emerged as one of the AHL’s top defensemen but remains with Stockton to make room for Stone and Nikita Nesterov to play with the Flames.

Sutter is a competitive coach who has consistently favoured veterans in the past. It’s worked out for him—just take a look at his trophy case. At this point, though, the writing is on the wall for this Flames team. It’s been there, getting darker with each passing game, for over a month.

Do these Flames belong in the playoffs? No. It’s time for them to embrace their mortality as a non-playoff team and look to the future. The Flames can recall four Heat players after the trade deadline and they should make use of that ability to the fullest extent.

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Until they make that pivot, the Flames will likely be putting themselves at a disadvantage for the future. If, someday, the Flames want to go the distance, they should start training now.