The year was 2013. Coming out of a lockout, the Calgary Flames were attempting to take one last swing at the proverbial playoff pinata with star forward Jarome Iginla before his contract expired and he walked into unrestricted free agency. Unfortunately, the Flames just didn’t have the horses to pull it off. Iginla was traded in the spring and general manager Jay Feaster was replaced before Christmas as the team began a rebuild
Eight and a half years later, the current vintage of the Flames is in a similarly precarious situation. Welcome to the 2021-22 season, where the Flames will either turn the corner or probably face significant change.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Brad Treliving’s done a lot of positive things for the Flames since arriving as GM in April 2014. Under Feaster, the Flames were simply not good, suffered from a lack of depth and a general lack of direction. Under Treliving, the Flames haven’t been amazing or consistent, but they’ve been very much in the thick of things in the league. (Their drafting, aside from a clunky 2014 draft, has been very, very good, and their organizational depth has taken a big leap forward as a result.)
But with all due respect to Treliving and his staff, the Flames have improved but they haven’t been able to get to the “next level.” They’ve become firmly entrenched in the NHL’s mushy middle, and Treliving’s player and coaching adjustments haven’t been able to move them above that level when the group has seemed poised to do so.
- A superb 2014-15 season – the “Find a Way Flames” campaign that saw the club win their first playoff round in 11 years – was followed by a disappointing 2015-16 season where they missed the playoffs entirely.
- An excellent 2018-19 season where the Flames finished at the top of the Western Conference culminated with the club getting trounced by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, then was followed up by a tremendously uneven 2019-20 season.
After a 2020-21 campaign that saw the Flames miss the playoffs for the third time in seven seasons under Treliving, many were calling for change to the team’s core. Similar calls were made following the 2019-20 season, but a lack of cap space made that impossible – and given the disruption to the season caused by the pandemic stoppage (and restart) and the chaos surrounding the mid-season coaching change from Bill Peters to Geoff Ward, it wasn’t hard to wrap one’s head around the need for stability and consistency.
This off-season, after banking on stability and consistency and not getting much in the way of results, the justification for standing pat with the same core group was much more challenging. The core was changed somewhat, as captain Mark Giordano was claimed by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. Aside from that, the same core group has been brought back for 2021-22, augmented with the addition of Blake Coleman (a key role player on back-to-back Stanley Cup teams with Tampa Bay).
After seven seasons, here’s where the Flames are at: they’ve won seven Stanley Cup playoff games (and one round) in seven seasons and missed the playoffs entirely three times. They’ve put together a core group that seems like it’s good enough to push for a playoff spot, most of the time, but hasn’t been able to make significant hay once they’ve gotten there.
This summer, Treliving made no significant changes to the core. This suggests one of two things: either he really believes in the group that he’s built and didn’t want to make changes, or he wanted to make changes to the group but wasn’t able to pull anything off. And if the Flames group that Treliving has put together can finally break through this season and be everything he believes they can be, it’s no harm and no foul – after stops, starts and sputters, perhaps the Treliving plan is sound and it was just a matter of executing it.
But if there’s another spring in southern Alberta without post-season hockey, or with fewer than four (or even eight) playoff Ws, then it’s probably time to call the blueprint and its architect into question because the Flames will have failed to progress beyond the middle of the NHL pack.
When the 2021-22 season ends, three very significant players – Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane – will be needing new contracts, and the franchise will be two seasons away from a massive economic shift when their new arena opens in 2024. The New York Islanders have become a growing power in the Eastern Conference picture, and it’s coincided nicely with the opening of the shiny new UBS Arena in Belmont Park – the arena the Isles and their fans have dreamt of for decades. The Islanders have become a very good hockey club just as they’re asking their fans to pay premium prices to see them in their new barn, and the onus will be on the Flames to do the same in 2024.
Change is coming for the Flames, friends. Either the Flames will finally become the team that they’ve been struggling to become for the past several seasons, or they could be in for a serious overhaul – on the ice and off.
Welcome to the 2021-22 season.
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