The Flames ought to look internally and externally for upgrades at forward
Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Mike Gould1 year ago
Make no mistake: the Calgary Flames are a very good hockey team.
Through 28 games in the 2021–22 season, the Flames rank ninth in the National Hockey League with a .643 points percentage. During five-on-five play, they’ve outscored their opponents 55–37 and have controlled 59.78 percent of the expected goals (according to Natural Stat Trick).
While Calgary has lost four consecutive games, such a small sample — during which the team has still comfortably outplayed its opposition for the majority of the time — hardly outweighs the team’s previous success.
That being said, the Flames would be smart to address something that has plagued the team all season: a lack of finishing. The Flames’ 7.32 shooting percentage at five-on-five ranks as the 23rd-best mark in the league. Their ability to capitalize on high-danger chances has been even less evident, with their 15.05 percent conversion rate ranking 27th in the NHL.
331 NHL forwards have played at least 200 minutes at five-on-five this season. 20 of them have failed to score a single goal. Two of those 20 are Calgary Flames: @Trevor Lewis and @Tyler Pitlick.
@Dillon Dube, @Sean Monahan, and @Blake Coleman also rank in the bottom third of the league for five-on-five shooting percentage this season. Of the Flames’ 10 forwards with at least 200 minutes played, half of them rank in the bottom 33 percent in that particular category.
While, sometimes, low shooting percentages increase over time, many of the Flames’ worse finishers this season have been unable to back up their lack of production with strong offensive play-driving. According to Evolving-Hockey’s “Expected Goals Above Replacement” (xGAR) model, the four Flames forwards with the worst even-strength offensive xGAR ratings have been — you guessed it — Lewis, Pitlick, Coleman, and Monahan.
A silver lining, perhaps: Coleman and (to a lesser degree) Monahan have provided the Flames with value elsewhere, particularly on special teams. Coleman has long been renowned as a defensive stalwart and has previously been capable of driving offensive play to a far greater extent. Those two players also have large contracts and (especially in Coleman’s case) are unlikely to be removed from the lineup anytime soon, barring an unexpected trade.
However, Pitlick, Lewis, and @Brad Richardson have far less security in the Flames’ lineup and could very easily be replaced. Calgary boasts one of the league’s strongest farm teams, with multiple young players rapidly climbing up the American Hockey League scoring leaderboard.
Led by the first line of @Jakob Pelletier, @Matthew Phillips, and @Glenn Gawdin, the Stockton Heat currently rank second in the entire AHL with a 15–2–3 record:
- Pelletier, a 20-year-old rookie left wing who the Flames selected in the 2019 first round, sits behind only @Andrew Poturalski on the AHL scoring ladder with 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 20 contests;
- Phillips, a 23-year-old right wing who stands 5’8″ and weighs 165 pounds, missed three games earlier this month in COVID protocol but hasn’t missed a beat since returning. He ranks ninth in the league with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in just 17 games;
- Gawdin, a 24-year-old right-shooting centre, is a pending unrestricted free agent who seems to be making the most of what might be his last go-round in the Flames organization. The second-most productive pivot in the AHL, Gawdin is tied for sixth in the league with 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) in 18 contests.
Of the three, Gawdin has received the longest look (nine games) in the NHL. After tying for the 2020–21 Heat scoring lead, Phillips received a single contest with the Flames at the very end of 2020–21; Pelletier has yet to play against NHL competition in a regular-season game.
Gawdin has never had overwhelming offensive upside and didn’t move the needle much in either direction in his earlier stints with the Flames. Phillips, while very gifted offensively, is on the smaller side and it remains to be seen whether he’d be able to outscore any defensive deficiencies in the NHL.
Pelletier plays a faster, more airtight two-way game than either Phillips or Gawdin and is one of just two 2001-born players among the AHL’s top 10 scorers. Only four of Pelletier’s 25 points this season have come on the power play; Gawdin’s seven power-play points lead the team. Pelletier leads active Heat players with 55 shots on goal and 2.75 shots per game, slightly ahead of Phillips (46, 2.71) and far removed from Gawdin (39, 2.17).
While Gawdin’s boxcar statistics look impressive, his upside is lower than that of his two current linemates and the Flames already have plenty of centres suited for bottom-six roles in the NHL (including @Adam Ruzicka, who has gradually improved in his most recent games with Calgary).
Pelletier and Phillips are both high-scoring wingers who play with pace and take a lot of shots. With respect to Phillips, who is an exciting player in his own right, Pelletier brings fewer question marks, the pedigree of a first-round pick, and a more impressive post-draft trajectory. If the Flames recall one player from Stockton to spark their forward group, it should be Pelletier.
Since the Flames hired current general manager Brad Treliving in 2014, the team has seldom looked outside the organization for significant mid-season personnel changes — especially at the forward position. Under Treliving’s watch, the Flames have acquired these forwards via mid-season trade:
- @Nick Shore
- @Curtis Lazar
- @Brett Pollock
- @Hunter Shinkaruk
- @Freddie Hamilton
- @Drew Shore
Those six players combined for 10 goals and 31 points in 144 regular-season games during their tenures with the Flames. Pollock never made the NHL at all; Lazar, by himself, represents 70 of those games and 15 of the points.
Adding a legitimate scoring threat through a mid-season trade would represent a significant departure from the norm for Treliving, although it’s not as though he’s never tried. Just this season, he was involved in the @Jack Eichel sweepstakes (which ultimately culminated in the Vegas Golden Knights landing the 25-year-old centre).
Treliving has also been involved in fruitless mid-season trade negotiations for @Mark Stone (who also went to Vegas), @Taylor Hall (who went to the Arizona Coyotes), and @Jason Zucker (who, after a delay, became a Pittsburgh Penguin). It’s not as though the desire to add hasn’t been there, but Treliving hasn’t been able to pull the trigger.
Times are changing in Calgary. @Johnny Gaudreau is a pending unrestricted free agent, with @Matthew Tkachuk’s contract status also uncertain beyond this season. @Andrew Mangiapane and @Oliver Kylington are going to need significant raises next summer. The Flames are already very good, yes, but this might be the chance to take advantage of numerous players simultaneously cresting in what might be the final go-round for this unified core.
@Tomas Hertl’s name has been swirling around in trade rumours for much of the season. He recently torched the Flames for three goals in a game where Calgary outplayed the San Jose Sharks by a decent margin but came out on the wrong side. @Kevin Fiala has also been rumoured to be available (just say no to @Ben Chiarot, though).
With respect to the likes of @Jake DeBrusk and @Phil Kessel, the Flames should be looking to bring in a high-end play-driving forward who can finish and (preferably) is on the right side of 30. Even Fiala has been far less consistently impactful than Hertl, who should be atop the Flames’ list.
Bringing up somebody like Pelletier to spark the bottom of the rotation should only be the start for the Flames. This is the year to take a swing. Making a move sooner rather than later would enable the Flames to maximize the post-trade acclimation time for their desired target.
The Western Conference appears to be for the taking. The Flames built themselves a cushion with their hot start. Now, it’s time for them to kick things up a notch.
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